One of my favorite things about New York has always been the endless opportunity. It’s a place where a seed of an idea can be easily cultivated into a start-up, a food shop or a topless book club.
For me, New Yorkers epitomize American ingenuity and when I relocated to the city in 2007 for college, I found the mindset contagious. My move became a catalyst for a fundamental change in the way I thought. Suddenly, anything was possible. I didn’t just bend rules the way I had in high school-- I disregarded them completely. If there was something I needed or wanted, I’d find a way to get it and more often than not, that "something" was money.
I was a typical college student, after all: liked to shop and had a bad Starbucks habit. I’d also waded knee-deep into the club scene and my booze, cigarettes and cabs were getting pricey. Despite the money I made waiting tables, my accounts were overdrawn and my refrigerator was often empty save a few packs of Splenda or a friend-donated sandwich. All of this on top of my NYU tuition and I was broke. A girl in search of a gig, I turned to the Internet.
I won’t pretend I was looking for legit jobs or had plans to do things like "pay taxes" and/or "show up on time." I was already working under the table. And at the time, my social circle consisted of alt porn stars, nightlife photographers, drug dealers and "DJ’s." Having gone to high school in a tiny rural town in Maryland, I was excited by their grit and the relentless hedonism. None of them had 9 to 5’s and I didn’t want one either. I wanted my job, like my new lifestyle, to be unconventional.
Enter the now defunct Craigslist "adult gigs" section. You know, like regular gigs, but naked.
My first gig was with a painter looking for nude models. I sat for a few minutes, topless, while an overweight elderly man asked about my interests and whether or not I had a boyfriend. I vaguely recall him being in front of a canvas, maybe holding a pen or pencil. But mostly I remember him awkwardly clawing at my still-clothed crotch and then profusely apologizing as I stuffed the money in my purse and left.
After that experience, I was a few hundred dollars richer, but I didn’t like the power dynamic. I wanted to be the one giving the money, not taking it. An employer, but who the hell would work for me? I took a step back: I needed to acquire a skill set.
Back to Craigslist. I made myself a stiff drink and plopped down in front of my computer, reminding myself that things like "dignity" and "integrity" were social constructs and I could totally do whatever I wanted. This time I wasn’t searching for a job -- I was looking for an internship.
The erotic gigs section on Craigslist was also where pimps went to hire prostitutes. The ads were short and simple: established escort agency looking for young, attractive girls to work as escorts. They promised thousands of dollars a night and asked that you reply with a photo. I answered each one.
The conversation always began normally, I’d send a headless photo, ask about their business. But at some point, I’d go off script and ask a question most of them had probably never heard: “How would you feel about taking on an unpaid intern?” Ninety percent of the time that ended the conversation, a few times it got me some violent threats, but one reply asked “How do you mean?”
And just like that, I was a pimp’s intern. Madame, actually; she went by Jessica. After asking a few times whether or not I was joking, she said she’d have a car come get me.
A necessary aside: I have a habit of getting myself into these very wild situations and somehow making it out alive, but I’d like to acknowledge that yes, it was pretty dangerous to get into a car with three people I’d met in the erotic section of Craigslist and no, you should probably not try it or anything similar.
Back to my pimping apprenticeship: I ended up more of a personal assistant than an intern. The agency was "out-call" meaning the johns called and Jessica’s driver took the girl (or girls) to the specified address. They started at 300 an hour and Jessica took half off top. She even threw me some money if we were out particularly late (until sunrise.)
My duties were mostly limited to talking to guys on the phone. I would pretend to be whatever girl they’d picked from the photos Jessica sent and then we’d work something out concerning specifics. I learned a lot of slang. Greek was anal. Oral was French. The clients weren’t johns, they were "hobbyists." Many of them called regularly. There were a lot of attempts to negotiate prices and even more to turn me into a free phone-sex operator.
I passed the time by chatting with the escorts or the drivers. I remember one conversation in particular on a long ride, out to Staten Island. I was stuffed into the back seat with a woman who said she’d gotten into the work because she wanted to buy a house. She was pretty, nice skin and a smile that looked real even when it couldn’t have been. At almost a thousand dollars a night, surely she’d be signing a mortgage in no time. But then I asked how long she’d been at it.
Thirteen years. Over half of my lifetime.
She wasn’t a drug addict and she didn’t owe anyone money. I asked where it had it all gone. She laughed, dropped her face against the car window and mumbled something about paying dues. Later she told me I seemed too nice to be spending so much time with them.
Nice or not, I’d been interning for a few months and was growing tired of the long car rides. So a few days later, and without consulting anyone, I decided I was ready to give it a whirl myself. I was about to be one of the coolest young lady-pimps in the history of young lady-pimps.
My first order of business was hiring prostitutes. I was at a clear advantage over the other ads in that I could string a sentence together. I specified 18-25 years of age and asked for pictures, measurements and the last book they’d read. The entire set-up was pretentious. I wanted girls like me, essentially.
College girls with an adventurous streak who were curious and needed the cash. No girls who were already working and no drug addicts. Looking back, it was almost hilariously offensive for me to be hiring prostitutes but specifying that they couldn’t be prostitutes.
Regardless, the applications poured in. The inbox I’d set up was teeming with nudes. Box-shaped blondes who noted they were 36-24-36. Women with tired eyes, crow’s feet and C-section scars who had supposedly just celebrated their 21st birthday. People who had definitely lived in my dorm freshman year.
I also had several dozen of what I called Young Men With Masculinity Issues. YMMI’s sent unsolicited dick pics and an attached “Hey, I know you said women only, but do you think any ladies out there would pay for this?” I learned not to answer those because any response only encouraged them and inevitably they’d end up flirting with me -- a faceless, nameless entity on the other side of the screen.
I found my girls after a couple of weeks. Only a handful, each filling a specific niche. There was my Asian girl, finance major at Columbia who went by Candy. She’d ordered “vodka, straight” during our interview at a bar. There was the 4’11, 95lb "petite" that drew an inordinate amount of pervs. My white girl was a redhead, a southern belle who liked Hemingway. The black girl who worked for me had short, natural hair and was kind enough to offer Greek lessons.
They picked their names, not me. But we had a lot of discussions about whether we wanted to feed into stereotypes or subvert the status quo. In the end we all agreed that when it comes to selling sex, subverting may make a statement, but it won’t make much money.
Personas crafted, I had each girl photographed by a friend and then spent a few nights putting together the agency name and advertisements I’d used. Like Jessica, I advertised my girls on the also now-defunct Craigslist Erotic Services section. Each ad cost me five dollars and there was no phone number, just an email address. After a few emails, I’d get on the phone, again pretending to be the escort, and we’d negotiate the when, where and how. I took 40 percent. My driver, also hired through Craigslist, got 20 dollars per stop (more if they were going far) and money for gas.
Every other night, I’d set up shop anywhere with internet service -- a bar, a sandwich shop, even a party -- and then spend hours coordinating drop-offs and talking to men about sending dirty panties in the mail, the legality of incestuous gang bangs and the price for 30 minutes of open-mouthed kissing.
Craigslist was great when the girls were new and the hobbyists wanted to go around. But after a month or so, I had to branch out. If you ever saw a “cute, ambitious college girl needs money for rent” ad, that was probably us. I even put them up on sugar daddy sites likes Seeking Arrangement and took my percentage until they broke it off as we’d previously agreed.
I got a lot of freebies: gigantic, five-star hotel rooms and bottles of expensive liquor. I did a lot of shopping, bought a lot of drugs. I made more money than I’d ever made -- or even seen -- in my entire life, and all of it cash.
It wasn’t long before word got around to my friends. It’s not as if I was making an effort to hide it. At social gatherings there would always come a point in the night where everyone was drunk and one of my friends would say, to someone we’d just met, “Ask her what she does for a living.” No one ever believed me. I hardly believed me.
I had fun peddling flesh and even more fun talking about it. Time flew. I don’t remember how I filled my days. School was too boring and too expensive. I’d been a steadfast academic in high school and I was so over it. I didn’t need a degree, right? I was freaking pimp.
Or at least that’s what I thought. Never mind I was also the daughter of a single mother who had recently lost her job in a recession. I was a 20-something that had been diagnosed as bipolar a year earlier. I was a waitress, a roommate, a girlfriend and a millennial with student loans. I was completely and totally irresponsible. I was too many people, living too many lives, and each pulling in a different direction.
My French boyfriend’s visa had run out and he was tired of working under the table in a restaurant. I’d gone off of my meds and was in the throes of mania: a college-aged pimp thinking in fast, bright, blinding flashes.
I was still technically enrolled at school, but on "mental health leave." My friends had begun to work toward actual careers and were dealing with things I hardly remembered like finals and research papers. Even the friends who had introduced me to all the glamour in the grit had suddenly left the city -- rehab, moving back in with their wealthy parents, backpacking through Europe.
And what did I have? A client in love with a prostitute and constantly sending her poems and obsessive emails. A girl who had begun seeing clients on the side, for which I obviously wasn’t getting paid. And, although I didn’t know it at the time, a serial killer murdering sex workers right along the area where I’d set the most appointments.
By fall my boyfriend and I were married and hoping for some luck in the green card lottery. When it didn’t come, he left for Paris, each of us promising the other we’d find a way to be together again.
My girls called less, answered less when called. I was alone in my tiny apartment with the incessant scratching of mice and roaches the size of a loose fist. Summer turned to fall and I woke each morning to a cold room, a dark sky and frost-covered windows.
And then came the inevitable crash. I’d been expecting, I had learned to expect it, but that didn’t make it any easier. I called my boyfriend -- husband -- blubbering. He asked whether I wanted to come to Paris with him. I said no; I could barely leave the house, let alone the country. And besides, I loved New York, it was all I had left.
After the call, I began to talk to the few friends I had left about my options. Almost all of them, over lunch or drinks or a shared cigarette, replied the same way: Are you out of your mind? The love of your life just invited you to run away with him to Paris. Why are you still here?
So I did it. I dropped everything. Sold all of my stuff, threw out anything that wouldn’t fit into my suitcase and I left for Paris. I had no friends there, didn’t speak the language and still managed to navigate the social scene. I did some nightlife photography, some event promoting. During the day I taught English and babysat. I wrote a book. Then I wrote another.
Five years later I’m still here. I miss New York like crazy and I’ll always have a weakness for decadence and debauchery, but I’d like to think I’m less reckless. More level-headed. I sleep, eat, I go to work. I’m on my way to being published and love writing more than I’ve ever enjoyed anything. Things are good. Not insane, or unbelievable but not boring or unremarkable either. Just good.