Allison* was my second interview, and I didn’t expect her to be a working girl, but Andy was told by a friend that she was and had been for some time. I was a little bit more nervous about approaching her, it didn’t feel quite as natural as meeting Susan. I said hi, asked how it was going, then thought to myself, “fuck it,” and said, “Hey, I’m just gonna be straight with you; we’re doing interviews for a documentary about women who live and work here in the DTES, would you be interested in talking with us? 20-30 minutes, we’ll pay you twenty bucks.”
Honesty and respect is truly the best way. People can spot a phony, and people who live and work on the streets are better at spotting who’s out of place. They’d immediately know if I were faking it out there, and that in itself would feel disrespectful. But she agreed to talk with us.
Allison was so friendly and bubbly; she was easygoing and had a quick laugh. I couldn’t help it at one point and said, “you’re so bubbly!” and she slapped her knee and laughed more. I liked her right away and hoped she was as open as she seemed. She was concerned about her anonymity, saying she didn’t want her mom to find out it was her. She has close family, including two other sisters whom she later disclosed also come downtown to “work” as well.
Allison also used the phrase “working girl;” I’ll have to remember to ask my next interview which term they prefer. Researchers tend to say “sex workers” but I wonder if we’re imposing our “presumed” objectivity onto people who prefer another term. It’s fair to use the words they choose to identify as. We ask people how they define their sexuality, their ethnicity, ability or challenges… why do we then decide how to describe the way someone makes their living if it isn’t our own? Again, I need to respect the people in the community by using their words.
Allison also talked about how some girls will rob a client or take the money without doing their date, and said that wasn’t right; that “you don’t do that to people.” Cathy had said the same thing, but that some girls are so desperate that they get to another place where this is an option. It reminded me also that some people out here in the “straight” community only view the people living and working in the DTES as criminals, when the residents have a very “straight” view of moral and/or ethical behaviour. Allison told me that people share what they have with others because it’s just how you live. I said, “so you pay it forward?” and she said, “No; you just give things to others when they need them. I don’t need anyone to pay it back, sometimes when they have it they’ll give me five bucks. That’s just what you do.” Funny that those of us in the “fortunate” communities haven’t learned this.
We talked about safety and feeling safe, and Allison said people have to “trust your instincts” and be street smart to be safe on the streets. She said that she knows other girls who work in the area and they often work in pairs, taking turns writing down license plates and keeping track of time. She said people look out for each other down there, and said her spot was where she always works, and friends & family can always find her there. I said, “so it’s where you go to work; it’s like your office,” and she laughed; “Exactly! That’s my office!” She said she doesn’t often go with anyone she doesn’t already know, and that she has mostly regular clients.
We asked her about the first time she ever did a date, and I couldn’t believe she’d share that; it seemed so much to ask. But she did; she said it was hard, and felt so bad after he paid her, thinking, “this is my life now,” that she broke down crying. For a brief glimpse I saw that feeling come to her, and I worried about bringing up those feelings again. While I want to listen to whatever someone is willing to tell me, I don’t want to hurt anyone by asking them to reopen their old wounds.
The second part of our interview with her was in an alley between a church and a recovery house in the Strathcona neighbourhood, and we could hear the church choir singing. Such a diverse place, with so many different communities sharing one geographical place. I remarked at the juxtaposition of meeting Allison at her “office” just kitty-corner from a recovery home, and I asked her, “so what’s keeping you from going in that door?”
“I don’t know; I gotta think about some things, see if I’m ready to get straight.”
Change is difficult; even a bad routine is comfortable because it’s still a routine.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.