I think I was about eight years old when I found out what a prostitute was. That’s pretty young. I didn’t even know what a banh mi sandwich was until I was in my thirties.
Of course, there are not a lot of similarities between a hooker and the great Vietnamese sandwich. Perhaps the only thing the two things share in common is that a variety of meats come inside both.
That being said, I have come to notice that often, wherever banh mi are sold, prostitutes are not far away. Probably because the best banh mi are generally found in the seedier of neighborhoods—the seedier the neighborhood, the more flavorful the Vietnamese sammy.
Earlier this week, as my man "G" and I were enjoying a long-anticipated lunch date, we stopped into Banh Mi Ba Le in Oakland for a #10 and a #16 and an order of fresh spring rolls. The ladies were really out in force that day—literally two on every corner. Just as we were about to cross International Boulevard in the middle of the block, we noticed an OPD patrol car about to make a turn from the side-street onto the main thoroughfare.
“I think he’s waiting to give us a ticket for jaywalking,” I said. “Let’s use to the crosswalk.”
G looked at the girls.
“Yeah, um, I don’t think he’s waiting on us.”
Sure enough, we heard a boop-boop siren sound as we stepped into the crosswalk, and the cop swerved around us, followed by a second patrol car. The cars then swooped in on two of the young ladies on the other side of the street, making a sort of V and cornering them. The officers jumped out, while on the other three corners of the intersection, the remaining prostitutes scattered like a handful of tossed marbles.
The cops had the other two girls cuffed and in the car, escorted away before you could say “veggie-ham banh mi”.
I’m not entirely aware how this works—that is, arresting an individuals for prostitution when they’ve clearly solicited nobody, individuals who, for all intents and purposes at that time were guilty of nothing other than waiting on a corner in “festive” attire. G swears the cops don’t need to catch them in the act if they’ve already got a record for tricking; evidently just seeing them loitering on the corner is basis enough to have them arrested. No, I have not asked him how he knows so much about hookers and the law. Stop looking at me like that.
That afternoon, as I ate my delicious sandwich, I thought about the women I'd seen get arrested. Had they had their lunch, yet? What had they eaten? What would they eat later in jail? Who was missing them, if anyone? What were their names? Did they like banh mi, too? Melancholy began to set in, and I started to feel pangs of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I-with-my-tasty-little-sandwich. I almost lost my appetite. Almost. Sort of. Okay, not at all, but have you had a sandwich from Banh Mi Ba Le? They're really fucking good and wasting one is not going to get a hooker out of jail.
Still, I can’t look at a prostitute without thinking of Deisha, my old neighbor from years ago. Deisha started out as an underage Vegas stripper before becoming an escort and moving to Oakland with her "husband" Craig. She was the mother of two very small children, one year apart in age, whom she would sometimes ask me to watch at my apartment while she went to work. Deisha frequently needed someone to babysit her kids so that Craig could drive her to her “dates”--usually in motel rooms (often working bachelor parties and fraternity gigs), or at local hot tub places (this knowledge prompted me to subsequently rethink my enthusiastic patronage of public hot tub facilities)--where he would then wait in the car while she took care of her business.
To be honest, I felt a little funny about the situation. Was it wrong for me to facilitate Deisha's dubious career by providing her with free childcare? Was I becoming the dreaded E-word? I heard Dr. Phil's voice in my head saying, "You're an enabler, enabler," (but because I am mildly touched in the head, he was singing it to the tune of the Greg Kihn Band's Jeopardy).
But when all was said and done, I really loved those kids. And to be honest, Deisha was a pretty nice girl and a kind neighbor. She was in a Welfare-to-Work program and had recently begun school to become a nursing assistant, and I knew that the four of them were just barely scraping by (Craig was fresh out the pen and nobody was jumping to hire his convict ass). Besides, it really just seemed the neighborly thing to do--I mean, I'm sure that if Lucy were turning tricks down at the Tropicana, Ethel and Fred would have gladly watched Little Ricky once in a while.
They were never really gone for that long--two or three hours at the most, usually. If it wasn’t too late, they’d always bring back Happy Meals for the kids, calling me ahead of time to see if I wanted anything. I never did.
I always felt kind of funny when they came back, me knowing what Deisha had been doing, them knowing that I knew, me trying not to discern the smell of freshly paid-for sex on her, yet inhaling more and more deeply the harder I tried to suppress the urge. Awkward.
But in a matter of moments the weirdness would pass, all of it morphing into something so seemingly normal, something palpably wholesome and vital: money in the pocket, food in the belly, a list of groceries to be bought in the morning. For the next few minutes, my living room would turn quiet, all but for the occasional crinkle of a paper bag, as they all paused to take the edge off their hunger. I will always remember the look of her three-year-old’s face as she ate her French fries and chicken nuggets so intently, dipping one in ketchup, the other in sweet and sour, carefully, methodically, as if she were to be graded on the task later that evening. To this day, I am haunted by look of her son’s tiny hands gripping his cheeseburger life-preserver, and the placid stare of her 200-pound husband sucking on a pink strawberry shake like a calf on a teat. Everyone quiet as snowfall—slowly, silently, simply seeking satiation.
Anyhow, that's what I think about when I see hookers. That and banh mi. Mm...banh mi.
I hope those girls get out in time for Christmas.