The Hawk is out tonight. That's what the wind is called in Chicago, a sharp, vicious blast that roars in off the lakefront and shrieks down the streets, slicing through those in its path. The long stretch of west Madison Street is nearly deserted tonight but for the shivering figures that huddle in doorways, scanning the deserted road. Madison Street is famous for a number of distinctions. The United Center, home of the Blackhawks and Chicago Bulls, is on Madison Street, as are many famous theaters and world-class architectural wonders. But here on the near-west side, Madison is one of the most notorious whores' strolls in the city.

Rain or shine, the prostitutes are out, waiting to service any trick who's willing to pay for play. These women, men, and a variety of gender-uncertain types parade along the gritty streets dressed in everything from sequined bras to leather collars, advertising their wares. Any hooker working this stroll will tell you Madison Street is the place to make some beaucoup cash. Crowds of executive types drive over from the restaurants of nearby Greek Town, where they've just finished a business dinner and are ready for a little 'dessert.' The nearby expressway means that truck drivers can take a quick detour without losing too much time on their long distance runs. But nights like tonight are best. Although the streets are empty now, and it's bitter cold, the regulars know there'll be big business later. The Bulls are playing at the United Center, and nothing is better for business than a sports crowd. The fans sit through four quarters of beer-swilling and male bonding, cranking up those testosterone levels to critical mass as they whoop and cheer and groan.

After the game, they spill into the streets, excited and hyped and looking for something to take the edge off. The young fans travel in packs, while the older (or married) gentlemen are a bit more discreet, but the outcome is the same: The Bulls won? Why not celebrate with a hooker? In the event of a home team defeat, what better consolation than--you guessed it!--a hooker! And so the girls are out tonight, waiting in the cold.

Tonight, my undercover assignment means I'm whore for a night, shivering right alongside the pros. I'm working "Operation Angel"--the prostitution sting that uses cops as decoy hookers. Every few months, our unit lieutenant decides his arrest stats need a boost, and orders us to do a sweep. This time, it's the customers instead of the whores we'll be locking up. That means that one of the tactical team gets decked out in some flash 'n trash apparel, goes out on the whores' stroll, and grabs whatever prospective trick takes the bait. While the whole operation fairly screams of entrapment, our bosses justify it by pointing out the 'criteria' to be met before an arrest is made: A customer has to name a specific sexual act, and the price he's willing to pay for it. The catch here is that it doesn't even have to be a specifically sexual act. As long as it provides sexual gratification, it's still considered a crime.

It's freezing out here, probably because this is December, and I'm dressed (or undressed) for Miami Beach. The purple satin shorts look like they've been sprayed on, and my sequined tube top is as tight as a pressure-wrapped bandage, which will be just the thing if some irate john decides to shoot me in the chest. A pair of stiletto heels complete the outfit--red, to match the acres of exposed skin. My back-up is slumped behind the wheel of a parked car down the block. Because my outfit is too skimpy to conceal a gun or a wire--it barely conceals what God gave me--I have to signal when an arrest should be made. Once the prospective john's named an act, and a price, I'll brush back my hair--an obvious gesture that will be visible from 50 yards--and wait for my back-up to arrive. Or at least, that's the plan. In theory, it sounds foolproof. While I stand on the corner, I check out some of the whores working this drag. Since I've arrested most of them at various times in the past, I know their names, am fairly familiar with their M.O's. And although I've booked most of them in Women's Central Detention, not one of them makes me for a cop tonight. Amazing how a platinum wig and a lot of exposed skin can change a cop's appearance.

Tonight 'Destiny'--a/k/a Gladys Luckett--is out. Always stylish, she's going for the eclectic look in ancient go-go boots, an orange g-string and a tight black blouse. Her nappy dreadlocks are whipped by the wind, flapping over eyes glazed by fatigue and amphetamines. Farther down the street, 'Chantell,' (Lester Morehouse in his other life) poses under the street light. The skintight spandex dress, an eye-catcher in shocking pink, molds to every curve. Fake leopard-skin spike heels teeter under the weight of Chantell's 300-plus pounds. Although he's substantial enough to moonlight as a large appliance, Chantell still dresses to impress.

There are others. Tiffany with her fuschia wig and oozing lesions, Pandora of the gold teeth and glass eye. Whores minus teeth, whores with habits, whores scarred and maimed by strutting pimps. Some wait for the next trick, others for the next fix that brings white heat and cold oblivion. They shiver and prance, waiting for whatever's next. A silver Ford eases up to the curb. Before rolling down his window, the man inside eyes me, considering. He's middle-aged and balding, with a plaid wool jacket and black-framed glasses. Portrait of Average Joe Citizen With An Itch. Finally, the window inches down.

"Nice," he says solemnly. "How much?"

I offer my most inviting whore's smile.

"Depends on what you want."

Encouraged, Joe lowers the window even more and shows me what he's brought to the party. Apparently, he's a man skilled at driving one-handed.

"How 'bout you swallow some of this? Twenty bucks sound good to you?"

I nod and brush back my hair.

"Follow me right around the corner here into the alley, and we'll party."

A few minutes later, Joe is on the way to jail, and I'm back on the corner. Dominique, a stunning transvestite in a thigh-high rabbit fur skirt, waves at me from across the street. Gesturing to a tiny radio, he smiles.

"The Bulls are up by eight," he calls. "Four minutes left in the third quarter." And fluffs his fur in anticipation before heading toward a red Toyota. I get more customers. One of them, a Catholic priest, offers me eternal life for a shot at my holy grail. To seal the deal, he tosses a $10 bill on the sidewalk. A group of teens in a low-rider Chevy pull up to inquire about my group rate. After many lewd proposals, they offer seventy-four cents and a half-eaten candy bar.

In between arrests, I notice the girl shivering in a nearby doorway. She's young, not more than 14, with a starveling body and wide, curious eyes. Her hands, trembling from cold or drugs, clutch at a shabby silk vest. The sweater beneath it is ragged enough to display the tracks on her skinny arms.

"I ain't seen you around here before," she tells me. "Who's your pimp?"

Her teeth--what's left of them--are chipped and blackened, indicating a long and intimate relationship with heroin.

"No pimp," I reply. "I'm a free agent." This is enough to stop her cold. The girl's eyes, heavily shadowed with sparkly blue, widen in disbelief.

"You out here, on Madison and you ain't got no pimp? Can't be messin' around here, thinkin' you gonna make some money, and nobody to protect you. The pimps who run this street gonna kick your ass!" Nodding, she pulls her vest closer against the biting wind.
"Maybe you new around here and don't know. See, you can't be on some other pimp's turf 'less he says so. Like pimp is 'C-Note.' He the one take care of me, and I give him my money."

"If he takes care of you, why does he take your money?"
The girl looks at me like I've lost my mind.
"Cuz I work for him, that's why. I'm like his employee. And C-Note, he takes that money and gives me anything I need."
"Like some food? Looks like you could use a few meals."
"I'm all right." The girl shrugs and turns to scan the street. Her practiced eye tells her no customers are imminent, and she turns back to me.
"Why you be trippin'--like you my mother or somethin'! Like you worried about what I'm doin'."
She turns away again, but not before I catch the smile that tugs at her shivering lips. It's a child's smile, sweet and somehow poignant. Obviously, it's been a long time since she's had any sweetness in her young life.

"Maybe that's what you need," I tell her. "Maybe someone better than C-Note should be taking care of you. How old are you, anyway? A kid like you has no business on the street."

Now her smile broadens, as old and tired as Time.
"Looks like you and me, we be in the same kind of business." Before I can answer, the girl is sliding into the front seat of a black Mercury. Less than 10 minutes later, she's back and grinning.
"Twenty dollars that time. Few more like that, I can call it a night." She stuffs the bill into her wig, a mangy, matted affair that's standard uniform for any streetwalker. Instead of pockets, or other body parts, it's the best place to stash their money.

"My name's Peaches," she tells me. "You wanna look out for me, I'll watch your back, too. If you new around here, maybe you wanna work for C-Note. That way, you won't get messed up by no trick, or no other pimp. C-Note, he real nice."

I study her stalkish limbs and purple scars.

"How long you been doing this, Peaches?"

"Couple years. C-Note, he say I'm fine. Said a fine thing like me could make a lot of money."

"And have you? Made a lot of money, I mean?"

"Don't need no money. C-Note give me whatever I need. Like this." Pointing to her ragged vest, she preens and swivels so I can admire it. Her sweater droops at the back of her neck, low enough to show the bruises. Bruises dark enough to be seen even in the dim street light.

When a red Pontiac pulls up--my next customer--Peaches steps away discreetly. Even at her tender age, she knows it's bad form as well as a health hazard to horn in on another girl's john. This time, the Pontiac's driver announces, in a charming Austrian accent, that he's a dentist looking to party. He admires my incisors and informs me that, for twenty-five dollars, he'll be happy to fill all my cavities. When I return from the alley, Peaches is back.

"You sure did take care of him quick. That's good." She nods wisely with the experience of her years.

"In this business, it's best to do 'em fast. Time is money."

On cue, Dominique calls from across the street.
"Forty seconds left in the fourth quarter. Bulls up by seventeen. Lawd, they gonna be some partyin' fools 'round here tonight!"

A white Camaro rumbles up to the curb. Dual carburetors ensure a purring growl, with custom flames painted on the rear quarter panels. It's a gang-banger's car, complete with windows tinted dark enough to obscure the occupants. The car vibrates with the throbbing bass of music loud enough to cause arrhythmias. When the window rolls down I see them--two beefy thugs with do-rags and gang tattoos.

"Yo, baby, gimme some a that!" One drawls to Peaches. "C'mon get in this ride and let's get busy!"

Between them, these guys look like they could share honors as poster boys for the criminally insane. The sweet stench of cheap wine and marijuana smoke gusts out of the car along with the music. I can just imagine the arsenal of guns under the front seat, the stash of drugs that's fueling the madness in their eyes. The one on the passenger side opens the door.

"Girl, what you waitin' on? Get in here. We'll give you half a yard ($50) and all the weed you can smoke."

"Forget it, Peaches," I whisper. "These guys are trouble."

Adjusting her wig, she smiles at me.

"Don't worry. I told you C-Note take care of me. He watch to make sure nothin' happens. No way I'm gonna pass up $50!" She climbs into the back seat and the Camaro peels off, swerving around the corner.

Suddenly, the street comes alive. The Bulls' game is over, and a squadron of honking cars comes out of the west. Jubilant fans troll the avenue, and the whores prance to the curb, ready to strike up a bargain. The hours of waiting, the frozen fingers and tired feet are forgotten. It's a Bulls' market now, with plenty of money to be made. With all the honking and cheering, I can barely hear it--think, at first that I'm imagining the thin scream. I walk closer to the corner, hear the shriek-- a muffled sob, and car doors slamming. But it's the squeal of tires and roar of dual carbs that starts me running. I find her in the alley, slumped against a building like a broken doll. The shabby little vest is already drenched with red, like the tattered flag of a defeated nation. Her child's eyes are wide and blank in a head that hangs at an odd angle. Peaches' neck was broken--please, God, I hope before they did the rest. Even before I find the knife, I see what it did to her, how she's spilled out all over the ground. They used her, gutted her, left her seeping life in this filthy alley. There's no one around now, not my back-up, nor a passing citizen, but I can handle this. I'm the police, and I've seen death a hundred times before. So I gather her in my arms, this child-woman with the vacant eyes, and feel her fluids run hot and sticky over my shivering flesh. I know that later, some supervisor will reprimand me for disturbing a crime scene, interfering with critical evidence. But they won't be too concerned about it.

Peaches was a whore, they'll say. Nothing much to investigate. Just another victim of 'the Life.' If the johns didn't get here, the drugs would have. And there will be only the most cursory of investigations, the minimum of paperwork done before the books are closed on Peaches, aka 'Black Female Jane Doe--age unknown.' But for now, I can hold this child's cooling body and try not to wonder about the life she had, her future denied. Or the people who were supposed to take care of her, like C-Note. Like me.

Copyright 2002 by Gina Gallo









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