When I first moved to Philadelphia for graduate school I was working as a promotional model. Some of my more notable accomplishments in this undervalued profession include my short stint demonstrating highlighters at Staples, modeling hair straightener but not disclosing that I was wearing a wig, and walking around as a Gap jeans girl during “special store events.” Gap eventually fired me because I dropped a pencil, which resulted in the showing of butt crack in an attempt to pick it up, and thus did not promote the great fit of their curvy collection.
One such promotional gig was located in North Philadelphia. My dilemma was that I was carless and living in a subleased apartment in West Philadelphia, nowhere near my destination.
My coworker volunteered to give me a ride only if I met him half way. He suggested we meet at Broad and Girard, a stop off of the Broad Street Subway.
As a native Illinois suburbanite, I was not aware that Broad and Girard was an undesirable neighborhood. I was still under the impression that people wouldn’t ask you to meet them in places that you ought to not be.
As I exited the subway car and was met with the awful stench of urine and failure, I began to think that this was quite possibly the worst place to meet anyone, let alone someone that you plan to make legitimate money with. As I walked up the subway steps, I was first greeted with glaring sunshine, which made me feel more and more like I had just exited Gotham City’s crime ridden underground and entered a delightful suburb.
However, once my eyes adjusted to the deceptive sun, I noticed the image of a combination McDonald’s/British Petroleum gas station. This was confirmation that I had actually landed in a ghetto far darker than the Broad street subway, because in the ghetto, stores are combined.
I looked at the bright side; since it was 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning there was still time for me to order my favorite meal of the day at McDonald’s, so I did. After purchasing my Egg McMuffin and a cup of coffee, I proceeded to sit on a ledge on the corner of the establishment combo while eating my sandwich, sipping my coffee and waiting for my coworker.
While at my post, a relatively clean black guy in standard hood attire; white-t, air force ones, but no platinum bling, approached me. His lack of jewelry implied that his thug life had probably not turned out enough of the anticipated profit needed to complete his hood uniform.
“Where have you been my whole life?” he asked.
I’ve heard a lot of corny lines, but I find the best retort is to reply with something equally as corny. When a man asks me if I’ve been running through his mind all day, I usually ask him what I was wearing.
I replied, “I was born and raised right here on this piece of cement, and I’ve been waiting my whole life for you to come and rescue me from my circumstances.” In a standard pimpish dialogue, he begins to explain to me that he could take care of me and asks me if I “work” on this corner, presumably the one I’m sitting on.
Since promotional gigs provide a shirt, I was wearing a wife beater with a dragon painted on the front and some khaki colored Capri pants that had become tighter because of my impoverished steady diet of honey buns and edible items from whomever would accept food stamps. My hair was so short it was nearly shaved, and I’ve always had a refugee like thinness on the top half of my body so I suppose I may have “appeared” to be suffering from a bit of a drug problem, possibly a victim of the crack epidemic.
It occurred to me that he might have thought I was a “working” girl, but I was far too engulfed in the joy of my Egg McMuffin to give it any further thought. And thus, I told him to leave me be so that I could eat my breakfast peacefully in the kitchen section of my piece of cement.
On this same corner less than a minute later, a well dressed Donald Trumpish, grey haired, white character approached me on foot wearing a navy blue suit jacket, which bore some sort of emblem that made him look as if he would have fit in perfectly at Will and Kate’s wedding. Upon seeing the employed looking white man, I figured despite the suspected pimp and the gas station restaurant combo, I may not be in a bad neighborhood after all. I figured white people with family crests don’t go to bad neighborhoods, so maybe the pimp is the one that’s out of place.
As I sat there feeling as though I had finally met a member of my social class, the educated suburbanites, the white man proceeded to ask me “What can I get for five dollars?”
Still unaware that the kitchen part of my piece of cement had recently become an area of the city notorious for prostitution, possibly from me sitting there with my crackish collarbone and no clear goal in sight, I replied, “For three dollars, you can get an egg mc muffin and a coffee, so if you have five, you might be able to get yourself a hash brown and an orange juice as well.”
As I put the pieces together and realized he didn’t come to my Broad and Girard corner estate for a hash brown, but more than likely for my brand of coffee. The pimpish character that I had dismissed earlier defended my honor by saying,
“She’s worth more than that.”
For once in a life filled with shame and embarrassment at the actions of my ghetto counterparts. I felt slightly redeemed by the words of a pimp who walked the streets of Philadelphia possibly teaching women like me how to earn some real cash and make that street dollar. For a second, I almost renewed my faith in rap music and the oldest profession in the world. However, I came crashing down from my cloud of redemption when the pimp announced that I was actually worth at least 40 bucks.
I stood up, at this point, because I figured with my exotic shaved head, clear skin and wide birthing hips, compared to the actual crack heads that walked the corner of Broad and Girard, I was worth well into the thousand dollar range. Of course, I could have been worth a far greater sum, but with my dependence on public assistance and my not so annual check up, a seasoned consumer of my assumed services could definitely make a credible argument for a price reduction.
I stared intently as the two of them argued over the cost of my vagina and wondered where I had gone wrong in life making this situation my current circumstance.
In midst of the vaginal negotiation and my self-reflection about my decreasing market value, a dark red four door pick up truck pulled up with brand logos for a new energy drink splattered about the side doors.
In a less than feminist moment and deviation from my original goal, which did not include a life on the corner, I figured if I was indeed going to sell my body, whoever was in the truck might offer more than my recently hired pimp could negotiate. After all, as a native Midwesterner, four door trucks are like Mercedes. As the tinted window rolled down, I recognized my coworker/ would be client.
I turned away from my pimp and cheap client and ho-strolled like a “working girl” to the car, as if I was wearing stilettos instead of the standard promotional all white Reeboks that are known to be an industry classic. Upon approaching the truck, I poked my head into the window and tossed it flirtatiously as if I had hair and a more intimate knowledge of the art of seduction.
I’m sure, at this point my pimp believed that not only had his latest product gone astray, but also she was negotiating prices with someone who was not on foot and possibly had deeper pockets than the white man. The man that I had previously believed was a respectable sign of gentrification was very cheap, and this truck was my cue to leave my corner and possibly move on to a bigger better corner.
In the midst of the pimp’s disappointment in losing his newest business venture due to an inability to recognize money on wheels, my coworker asked me what in the hell I was doing with respect to holding on a full on conversation with the Broad and Girard locals. I told him to be quiet as I giggled loudly, tossed my shaven head a few more times, and hopped in the car.
The moral of the story is that the men of Broad and Girard were correct in thinking that I was a working girl. However, they were wrong about the type of work I did. Since my street value had increased marginally in the negotiation from five to seven bucks, it was clear to me that going to my real job was much more profitable than my short lived window into prostitution. Even today, I look back on my life on the corner and remember, how my inflated self-value led to an occupational failure. There I was, judging everyone else’s value, but no one named my worth, not even me.