Where the Girls Are
Tracy's pink plastic mirror is one of those trinkets you buy at Woolworth's; one swiveling face reflects normally, the other magnifies. Mounted atop a Deco-ish base of swirly, translucent plastic, the mirror is utterly flimsy and fragile, an extreme of femininity. Late afternoons, when Tracy takes it out to get ready for work, it looks stunningly virginal in this drab, dirty northeast Miami park.
Seated on a low concrete wall next to a broken-down dresser, she slicks back her coarse black hair and pins on a strip of fake brown curls for bangs and another curly length to make a ponytail. With black pencil, she outlines the eyes, brows, and lips that already dominate her gaunt face, then sponges on a thick layer of make-up. The razor bumps on her jaw, upper lip, and chin are unmistakable in the magnifying side of the mirror, but the dimming light and the smoke of burning cocaine airbrush out imperfections and render Tracy all-woman, all-beautiful, riding a fine high and ready to do what she does: charge money for sex so she can buy crack.
Her dates, the regular clients who know where to find her, might drive past this park tonight, or Tracy might wind up standing out on 79th Street in her tight black jeans, one bony hip jutting out, flagging down passersby while her boyfriend Al waits back at the park, drinking beer and smoking, sometimes letting himself slip under the weight of an overarching despair.
Commerce Park is the City of Miami's unintentionally ironic name for this spot of shaded concrete on the corner of NE Second Avenue and 80th Terrace in Little River, on the edge of Little Haiti. Across the street is a large Southern Bell office complete with guardhouse and fenced-in employee parking lot. A thrift shop just around the corner faces a Seventh-day Adventist church, and just north of the church is Luther Campbell's Pac Jam, a teen club frequented by young toughs. The park is shielded a bit from the street by a line of bushes, and its residents have hung two ragged blankets on one side of a central outdoor pavilion to make a sort of wall for added privacy. Most days drying clothes hang on lines strung high between tree limbs, which makes the place easy to spot.
Some neighborhood people call this TV Park, though not all its habitues are transvestites. What really defines this little world is crack. The only people who enter are addicts, cops looking to bust them, or preachers looking to save their souls. Many who live here are already damned by HIV.
This is where a resident was set afire by another man in September. No one here seems sure whether he survived or died. In July a transvestite was found murdered several blocks away, but the people who live here say they aren't sure who she was. Why should they dwell on death as if it's shocking? They're well aware that they live far closer to it than most Miamians. These aren't the glamour queens who party on South Beach until morning. They're lost amid the vast demographic landscape of young urban black males dying in terrifying numbers from drug addiction, murder, and AIDS.
The park was a much more violent place until about a year and a half ago, when the transvestites began moving in. "When I first came out here, this place was jumping," says a muscled man who calls himself Heavy D. His very fit appearance suggests he's fresh from prison, where everyone bulks up until they're back out on the soul- and body-wasting street. And sure enough, Heavy, dressed in jeans and sleeveless white T-shirt, says he got out three days ago, having served eighteen months for armed robbery. "There was so much happening. I mean, hey A plenty of money, groceries, cooling out here was like the Fourth of July." Fireworks included. "We could be sitting out here minding our own business enjoying our high, when people would just barge up with guns. Rob you, rough you up, shoot you if they feel like it."
Heavy's opaque black eyes gaze steadily out from under a jutting brow. They look weary, even gentle, despite his threatening demeanor. Fourteen years ago, when he went to prison for the first of several times (always for drugs or stealing), he was mean and unrestrained, a true Aries ram. Now he's 37, subdued by incarceration and age. "Most of 'em who came around here is either locked up or dead by now," he says. "Of course, back then people of his nature" -- he gestures toward Tracy -- "weren't here." Heavy is the one who gave Tracy her pink mirror.
Like Tracy, a lot of the queens relocated from Bicentennial Park downtown, a populous homeless encampment. Once known as a transvestite mecca, Bicentennial more recently has seen a high level of violence and general illegal activities (and the police presence that accompanies them), forcing many to move north to the open-air crack house that is Commerce Park. Many queens used to join the "fish" (real women prostitutes) working on Biscayne Boulevard, but they didn't much care for the competition and scrutiny from cops. Now their turf is 79th Street. Owing to the centralization of church and charitable groups' attention, food was easier to come by downtown, but the relative privacy here is a prize.
For Tracy, the lifestyle represents a big change from a few years ago, when she was Darrell and Darrell sang with a gospel choir at a church not far away. The Rev. Avery Jones of nearby Holy Spirit Ministries directed a different choir at the time, but he used to see Darrell regularly at church. Jones still visits the park every now and then to ask Darrell when he's coming back.
"I just tell him I don't know," Tracy says softly, as if she long ago passed the point where she could. Like many transvestites who live here, she is infected with the AIDS virus; unlike most of the others, she looks emaciated.
Jones says he isn't deterred. "I think a lot of people have given up on him. I'm still praying for him. The fact of the matter is the people here already know they're in sin, so it doesn't do any good for me to tell them, 'You're drowning.' When that kid was in church, he was a really nice kid, dedicated to the church. Sure, he was a little strange. But I believe it's a lack of love that causes 'em to go like that. They think nobody loves them."
Tracy says she always liked to dress in women's clothes. She was living a fairly normal life and working as a (male) clerk until a few years ago, when the house where she lived in Overtown burned down. On the streets she became the feminine creature she felt she always wanted to be and the crackhead she never dreamed of; her mother, who lives in Allapattah, either wouldn't take her in or she didn't want to live there. For Tracy the past is hazy, either by design or memory loss, or both.
The present, though, is rendered more clearly, if only because of its immediacy. The police, who make regular sweeps, also visit Commerce Park every now and then just to keep an eye on the crackheads. Tracy has a couple of outstanding warrants for prostitution, so when a few patrolmen come by one afternoon, they haul her away with them. Her boyfriend Al has been looking for the pink plastic mirror ever since. He came across the dainty, Deco-ish base, but the glass part is still missing.
In the late afternoon, heat sticks like sweat to the resting bodies beneath the shelter, reluctant to give way to evening breezes. On a concrete bench in one corner, a white man with orange hair lies on his back, sleeping soundly. He spent the night here. Pinned incongruously to the man's filthy brown T-shirt, a tiny troll doll stares with a vacuous, pixieish expression, its flaming orange hair a perfect match for his own.
Tokyo, Sam, and Chris, in various stages of dress, have been awake for a couple hours, and Sam is talking about going home on Saturday, back to live with her family. Twice recently, relatives have stopped by and asked her to leave with them. She hasn't been able to do it. The youngest of five siblings, she says her family knows she's gay and a prostitute. They don't know about the crack, her master for the past four years. She has the feeling, she says, that she can't keep going like this for much longer. "I'm seeing all the negative signs," she reflects, crossing her legs and smoothing her black shorts. "I feel like God is showing me something." There was a bad scare a few nights ago, when a trick pulled a nine-millimeter on her and took his money back. "I must stop," she concludes. Her hands are large, the fingers long and muscular, with badly chipped red polish on the nails. High cheekbones accent her almond eyes and the light stubble on her angular jaw. Later, before walking to work on 79th Street, she'll wrap a turban over her short hair.
Sam figures she'll tell her mother about her crack addiction and ask for her help in entering an inpatient treatment program. Once she's off the drug, she thinks she'll find a job as a cook (before crack, she reveals, she was a chef) in a hospital or a nursing home. "The crack feel like it have control of me, like a monster," she says.
"They call it the Devil's dick," Chris offers.
"Crack is the hardest to kick," puts in Tokyo, who should know, having been "in treatment" a half-dozen times. Her real name is Fred, but her pagodalike bun of hair and exotic winged eye make-up seem to call for an Asian street name. At 25, she's HIV-positive, but she doesn't look sick. She prances and poses in a purple body suit that reveals a perfect round ass, resisting with all her might the intense gravity behind her eyes, which weighs down her countenance despite an upturned nose and perky pout.
Tokyo has been a crack-induced prostitute for some five years now. Not too long ago she began packing a .22. She still gets robbed, threatened, and hit by clients and street thugs, but a lot less than before, and a lot less than many of the other queens. Still, she wakes up most afternoons on a dirty quilt, her wrinkled skirt halfway down her hips, her face sticky with make-up and sweat, bruises on her thighs and arms from an occasional fight with a date or another queen, and very tired. Several hours later, bolstered by the soothing energy of the rock, she'll go out again. Maybe this night her clients will be like that sweet Haitian man who thought for the longest time that she was a real woman and who wanted to take her to meet his family. He cried when she finally had to let him in on the game.
The queens of TV Park are marginalized even by others in the already marginalized transvestite community. Many snub them for being crackheads. Others will have nothing to do with them because they haven't gone to the trouble or expense of surgically enhancing their breasts, buttocks, lips, cheeks, and other body parts. On top of everything else, they're homeless. (This, however, isn't strictly true. Nearly all have relatives in Miami with whom they could live, and at times they do. But most say their families can't accept their womanly ways, which are their best means of earning enough money for crack.)
And the uncertainty, too, is an addiction. "We enjoy living on the edge," explains Chris, who at age 36 seems not to struggle as much as the others. "You meet some of the freakiest people in our line of work."
Agrees Tokyo, lifting her chin and wagging it from side to side: "I love that thrill and excitement!"
Even in this perilous world, something of a natural order has evolved to protect and nurture its own. Because of the ever-present threat of arrest, and because crack makes you do practically anything and go almost anywhere to prove your fidelity, the population tends to drift in and out. But Al stays. Shambling and unassuming, his large round eyes efficiently surveying everything around him, he has lived here for more than a year now. That's ever since he got out of prison for the fourth -- and, he vows, the last -- time. In many ways Al is the camp's sole cohesive force, aside from crack. He can usually be relied on to find food and to cook up rice, pole beans, chicken, potatoes, and the like over small, crude barbecue grills fashioned from restaurant-supply food cans or scrap metal. He is quietly and firmly protective of the queens, most of whom are bigger than he is.
Al earns his money legally, from minimum-wage jobs -- general labor, or restaurant work. He used to support his crack habit by stealing, but he always got caught and he grew sick of prison. Born in Georgia and raised in Overtown, he says he has been in reform school since the age of twelve, locked up on and off since seventeen. That's half his life. "I'm going to stay here in this park for the rest of my life before I'll go back to prison," he says with a quick nod of his goateed chin. "I pray and ask God not to let me steal. I might be on the street now, I might skip taking a bath sometimes, but I won't be ashamed."
Al isn't the most reliable employee, and his bosses usually end up firing him even though they like him. He has four children, eleven grandchildren, and a semblance of a monogamous relationship with Tracy. He will tell you that, but he won't say outright that he's homosexual. He may not know. Al seems to be observing his life from a distance, watching and wondering exactly what to consider himself: hopeless drug addict? Man who refuses to be ashamed? Good cook? Bad father? "Crack done broke down the mentality of everything," he laments, repeating the statement again and again, as if in itself it might explain his confusion. He wonders if his whole existence is defined by what he does in the park, knowing that for most of the outside world, it is.
Al's children and ex-wife live only blocks away from here, but they don't visit. When he speaks about them, he tends to mumble. "They know I'm here in this park," he says. "They know I got a relationship with a gay person. They have their own life." His eldest son is nineteen and has a good job with UPS. Al saw him about four months ago; he spotted his ex-wife not long ago at a gas station in the neighborhood, but she didn't notice him, and he didn't speak to her.
Mark is tormented by thoughts of his family in Tampa, a nice middle-class family that's worried sick about him. He likes to joke about the transvestites in an effort to make it clear he doesn't go in for homosexual shenanigans. Yet like Al, he sticks around this symbiotic system, playing the role of male protector who benefits from the queens' earning power. At age 30, after several convictions for burglary and a couple of long stays in prison, Mark is feeling stymied. (He looks much younger, until you study his face and see the lines and the stress, from which his lighthearted manner distracts.)
He's entered a few drug-rehab programs without success; the centers are into getting government money instead of helping the addicts, he says ruefully. But even if he did get off the crack, his prison record would make it difficult to find a decent, steady job. So he smokes and steals and sleeps in the park. "You know it, but you can't do nothing about it," he says. "They ask me why I'm doing this. I just have a real bad drug problem." He takes a folded envelope from a pocket and gently pulls out a letter from his little sister, begging his forgiveness for intruding on his life but imploring him to help himself. One line reads, "It seems you're trapped in a very vicious cycle."
To break the cycle requires extraordinary heroism, not to mention help from the right people at the right time, which is why Dade's few overwhelmed and underfunded programs for homeless addicts manage to help only the smallest portion of those who need it. Next year, of course, as one stage in the multimillion-dollar comprehensive plan to address the massive, unwieldy homeless problem, the county will build one or two big shelters. Services for those with so-called special needs, such as drug and alcohol problems, mental illness, and AIDS, are also slated to be expanded. Some people now living in Commerce Park might move to one of the shelters, for the simple reason that they may not be allowed to remain on city property.
Perhaps that will be their salvation. Yet in many ways, additional public services probably will be irrelevant to these people and the many others who have lived so far out of the mainstream for so long. Donna MacDonald, executive director of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, puts it bluntly: "The bottom line is we have a criminal justice system incapable of rehabilitating criminals and we have a social services system which cannot deal with the addiction problem in this country. If America locally and nationally can't get a handle on drugs, crime, and inner-city decay, homelessness is just another symptom."
Anthony, a compact, thirtyish man whose stage of muscular development places him at about a month out of prison, is sure he will be sleeping in the park only until his Social Security money begins to come in. Insistent that he needs treatment for "high anxiety," he prowls tensely around the park with a handful of papers, some apparently from a residential treatment program, diagnosing him as manic-depressive and reminding him of appointments with doctors. He doesn't know why he's not in a program any more, but he does know he's a slave to crack, and that those Social Security checks will supply the boost he needs. "Things definitely are going to get better," he declares, looking into the distance, or, more accurately, at the heavily barred video store across the way.
In less than a month, he'll be in jail again, for theft.
The languid pace of afternoon gives way to mounting activity as nighttime approaches. Out of nowhere, people appear, silently mounting the shallow steps to the pavilion. Someone fishes a pipe from a pocket and wanders off to smoke in a corner. Another jumps up and runs to the curb, slips into a car that's just pulled up, and doesn't reappear until an hour later.
If a prostitute spots a regular customer cruising past, she'll suddenly snap to attention, then nonchalantly wander out to the sidewalk. The client may be a lawyer or a laborer or a banker or a schoolteacher. He may drive a black Saab, a gold Mercedes, a red Toyota, or a green Pontiac. Many are excited simply by the idea of a man in make-up and women's clothes. Then there are the ones who want passionately to be deceived. Or the fetishists. The rule is, you don't quote prices to a date. You ask how much he's spending, and you can negotiate from there. The money is usually good. You might make $100 for a blowjob or you might, if you were feeling very generous or very desperate, accept $30. Whatever you do, you carry a bandolier of rubbers tucked away in your little pocketbook, the strap slung across your flat man's chest.
Sam has gone home to her family, and no one at the park has heard from her since. Tokyo is living with her old man but still comes out to 79th Street. Things have been quiet lately. Chris and Luscious were picked up in a sweep; a week later they're fresh out of jail and ready to go back out on the street. It's a moonless night, and though the air is heavy and humid, its cool breath occasionally reaches into the park.
Anthony hasn't been awake long, but already he has assumed the edgy, vigilant look that's typical in the park after sundown. "I ain't going to be in the mix like that," he asserts. "I ain't gonna let no one come up here and beat on me. I sleep all day and be up all night."
Most feared by the park people are the children, especially the simmering groups who pass beneath the dim streetlights on their way to the Pac Jam. When the kids get a little riled, say the park residents, they're liable to throw bottles. Worse, they don't mind pumping bullets into strangers. "The dangerous ones are young," advises Heavy. "The '74, '75 baby -- those are the most notorious. They don't care about nothing."
Tonight Chris is distracted. Her boyfriend Mike, who got out of jail not long ago, too, will be stopping by later. (Terry, the man she refers to as her husband, has been in prison at Avon Park Correctional Institute for the past few years. Chris says she speaks to him by phone regularly.) Tonight she'd like to be able to rent a hotel room for herself and Mike. To do that, though, she has to go out and work, something Mike doesn't like. He's macho, she says.
Chris pulls on black leggings with big horizontal gashes in the fabric that reveal more or less her whole leg, hip, and ass. She is tall, with muscular legs and a slightly paunchy torso. She tops the outfit with a white T-shirt that looks like a too-small tunic. Her hair, which she often keeps under a scrap of pantyhose by day, is brushed out; a pair of long, glittery earrings dangles down to her shoulders. Her face, highlighted by remarkable, black-lined hazel eyes, has become a bit jowly, but make-up gives her a sultry sheen.
Lala appears as Chris dresses, prattling on in a rapid-fire patois about how late the bus was and how worrisome her black net skirt is because it's too long. Lala works on 79th Street and stays at the park when she's not at her sister's house on 51st Street. Three months after a date shot her in the left calf, she still gets around with the aid of aluminum crutches.
"That was a cute night for me," she recalls. "He wanted to date me; he thought I was real. I think that's what really made him mad. He jumps out of the car in the middle of the street and says, 'Give me your money or your purse.' He'd just gave me $20. He pulls out this little gun. I said, 'Boy, you better not shoot me!' But he was shooting low. I told them to take me to the veterans' hospital -- I'm a veteran, honey -- but they took me to Jackson. It was very painful."
Lala and Chris both went through basic training at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, though not at the same time. Lala remained in the army four years, until 1979, and spent her last year in Germany. "I was the only known queen in my unit," she says proudly. "They used to tell me, 'Stop all that twisting,' and I'd say, 'I can't help it.' I enjoyed it. I get along with straight people." After her hitch was up, Lala -- Larry to the army and her family -- came back to Miami and settled happily into an office job and took up working at night on Biscayne Boulevard. She never dressed up while she was with her mother, seven sisters, and four brothers. "Out of respect," she explains. "Then I looked at myself. I said, 'I want to make myself happy. I will be a full-time prostitute.'"
So here she is, bony and elegant in a black lace top, bead necklace, new white sandals, and the net skirt, which she rolls up several times over to make a miniskirt. Her hair, orange at the ends, flares out from her head like a corona. She lights a cigarette and continues talking. She might be a guest at a cocktail party, except for the entry and exit bullet holes in her slightly shrunken right leg, deep purple under the streetlights. Lala says she won't be living this life forever; she's just waiting to find a man who can afford to pay for a sex-change operation. "As soon as I get titties, I'm gonna start doing clubs." At this she smiles a movie-star smile, lips crimson, teeth almost perfectly straight and white. "One day I am gonna get myself really situated."
Luscious, her high fading as she waits impatiently for the older queens to get ready for the street, catches sight of her insurance adjuster. He's been coming every Friday. He must have parked elsewhere, because he approaches on foot, venturing just close enough to be seen. Then he reconnoiters the area, pacing up this alley and down that street and across that vacant lot, making sure there's no one near the place where he'll take Luscious, a well-hidden spot alongside a bank building. She walks to the sidewalk to meet him, and they disappear.
"When I was her age," Chris says, nodding sagely in Luscious's direction, "I had no boundaries." Chris has decided that when Terry gets out of prison on December 29, she will stop hooking. "He told me it's time," she explains. "All I really want is to be a housewife."
At one time Chris was a husband herself, a man named Saul who was married to a woman. She was, however, "always a sissy," as she puts it, and one day about ten years ago she left her wife. She's been on the streets ever since.
Chris and Terry have been "together" six years, though they've spent much of that time apart, thanks to Terry's various incarcerations. He's doing time now, in fact, because Chris turned him in. She felt it was the only way to save him from crack. "I had him calmed down, but he went out one night and he get on that dope, and you can't do nothing to stop him," she says, explaining that they used to have violent fights that left them both seriously injured. "I've almost killed him. One time he hit me with a chair, so I stabbed him." But they're both older now, Chris muses, and she is convinced their tumultuous days are behind them. "I put him out of my life before, but I don't want to get older and always be alone."
A few feet away, Al is poised, bent forward, watching the street. His eyes catch the sparse light in a way that makes them glow like milky moons. There seems to be nothing to look at besides the passing teens. A sound that might be distant gunshots punctuates the quiet.
Then Mike glides up, dressed all in black. He and Chris don't say much to each other. For a while they just sit together on one of the pavilion's concrete steps. Declaring that time is money, Lala decides it's time to get out on the street. "It's gonna be cute tonight," she remarks and takes off on her crutches, shortcutting her slow way south through the alley where she and a date were robbed at gunpoint a week earlier. Once on 79th Street, she finds another transvestite, fancily dressed in a sheer, lacy camisole and denim shorts. They stand together on the corner, across the street from an abandoned cinema. Business is slow, and they are taunted by a large group of kids who appear to be headed for Biscayne. They exchange news. "Miss Pookie died three days ago," the other queen tells Lala. "Miss Edison died a week ago. Miss Rex done died."
A car with a few men inside pulls up, and both groups look each other over. The men drive off without transacting business. "Guess who I picked up on Biscayne? Miss Cookie," Lala resumes her patter, exhaling through her nose. "It's too goddamn hot out there. Oh, hi!" she waves at an approaching black-windowed Lincoln, which slows, then stops. A back door opens, and Lala climbs inside, drawing in the crutches behind her. The Lincoln drives off. The other queen stands alone on the corner.
Chris and Mike remain on the steps; he knows she wants to work, and she knows he doesn't want her to. Perhaps they've achieved that level of intimacy that will allow them to resolve the conflict wordlessly. "I knew there was something here you wanted," Chris says finally, her voice husky. "When I put on these pants, I knew you wasn't going anywhere."
When Luscious returns from her tryst with the insurance adjuster, Chris and Mike are nowhere to be found.
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