Where you work in Manhattan depends on how you look. The fast-track girls—the ones on Ninth Avenue or the West Side Highway, waiting for guys to pull over—are usually the hardluck cases, strung out and ragged. The girls who run around Times Square are average, like Melissa and Kritzia. Prettier ones—tall, skinny ones—have better luck on the East Side. Within each of those worlds, there’s a pecking order: The girls with pimps hate the girls who work for escort services; the girls who work for escort services can’t stand the girls who work solo on Craigslist. If you have a pimp, your money isn’t your own, but you have protection. If you’re with a service, you’re often working harder than a lot of hos who have pimps. Strippers are at the bottom, mere geishas, catering to men who aren’t permitted to touch them. The streetwalkers like Melissa and Kritzia play such games for only the briefest of moments, as long as it takes to get a client to say yes. They have sex as soon as they can and as fast as they can, and then they move on. It annoys them that the strippers have the more dishonest job—they’re the biggest teases—and yet are the ones on the right side of the law.
From Kritzia and some of the others, Melissa had learned the parameters of the stroll. You can’t look at other pimps. You can’t talk to other pimps. When there’s a pimp on the sidewalk, you have to walk in the street; if you stay on the sidewalk, they can touch you. If they touch you, that means you’re out of pocket, and if you’re out of pocket, the code dictates that they can take your money.
You aren’t supposed to talk with other pimps’ girls, which is obviously a rule they broke every day. It was insubordination, pure and simple, but Melissa had nerve. The big entertainment of the evening sometimes was waiting to see what nasty things came out of that little white girl’s mouth. She would make fun of strippers: Dance, dance, dance, dance all night long, for next to no money; who would waste their time like that? She would even make fun of her pimp. Like the time she said, “I don’t give Blaze all my money, I keep my money,” and pulled out her credit card to show them all. Blaze thought he controlled Melissa, but for as long as she could remember, Melissa answered to no one but herself.
When Melissa would come home to Buffalo for a visit—not often, but never less than once a year—she and her mother and Lynn’s boyfriend Jeff and her aunt Dawn would all go out to a club or a corner bar where they could talk and drink. When the bar closed, they’d come back to Jeff’s parents’ house, where Melissa would sit up on the kitchen counter and keep talking. There was none of the old friction. Melissa was a grown woman, making her own decisions.
They would laugh about old times, and whenever her current situation came up, Melissa would be guarded about how things were in the city. Jeff thought that she wasn’t making as much money as she wanted to cutting hair at her boyfriend Johnny’s salon—not enough to afford to start the business she was planning for, not nearly. That didn’t stop her from coming back with gifts: She sent her little sister Amanda $500 to shop for new clothes for school when all she needed was $100.
Amanda visited Melissa for the first time in the summer of 2007. She saw where Melissa was living. The basement apartment in the Bronx wasn’t exactly legal; there was no real division between Melissa’s room and the upstairs level, where a quiet family lived. Amanda couldn’t believe how many cats Melissa had, too many to keep them straight. Melissa, it appeared, had grown a formidable soft spot for strays.
Amanda also met Melissa’s boyfriend Johnny, though she quickly learned that no one called him that. Everyone called him Blaze.
Kritzia thought Melissa was lucky, in a way, to have fallen in with Blaze. Though he wasn’t enough of a fighter to protect her, everyone knew Blaze was close to Mel, Kritzia’s pimp, and no one would ever make Mel angry.
Mel and Blaze called each other brothers and operated like business partners. Mel was the muscle, solidly built, with a reputation throughout Times Square as not just a pimp but a drug dealer. After going through a few bad pimps, Kritzia had chosen Mel. She was as infatuated with Mel as any girl could be with a pimp, but it wasn’t quite like that with Melissa and Blaze. Blaze was flashier and funnier, as well as less menacing. His whole persona—the flyboy, the pretty boy, the player—made him come off as a phony, trying too hard. There were rules for pimps, too, and Blaze ignored a lot of them. Pimps can’t have sex for pleasure. The only girls you can sleep with are the girls who are paying you. But Blaze would go to a club and pick up girls—square girls, not working girls. Blaze might have thought he could do that because he never considered himself a real pimp—he was, he thought, above that kind of work.
Blaze and Mel shared a house on Watson Avenue in the Bronx. Kritzia and Mel had the master bedroom. Blaze had a smaller bedroom that he kept to himself. Melissa begged Blaze to let her live with him, but he said they didn’t have space. The real reason was clear, at least to Kritzia: Another girl, Em, was Blaze’s bottom bitch—the girl with the most seniority. At times the situation got the better of Melissa. She’d lose her temper and scream at Blaze: “I’m tired of you using me up to take care of your wife.” Em knew how to protect her position. She would sob and wail and accuse Blaze of not loving her. The situation never changed.
Melissa had more than enough reasons to leave Blaze. She lived on her own and, most of the time, paid her own rent. Toward the end, Melissa wasn’t giving Blaze anything close to all her money. Why should she, she thought, when she didn’t have a reliable pimp like Mel to protect her? Thanks to Blaze, Melissa had slammed right into the system’s great fallacy: Why should she sacrifice herself to a pimp who spent all her money when he didn’t even look after her?
One day in Times Square, Melissa said to Kritzia, “Mariah, why don’t you come with me?”
Kritzia squinted. “Go with you? Go with you where?”
“Go with me—we’re just gonna go.”
“Let’s go to Buffalo.”
Melissa seemed so sad. Kritzia knew she had been fighting with Blaze. And she had mentioned that her mom was putting pressure on her to come home. The street was getting harder for them both. Melissa didn’t like walking all night. She told Kritzia, “This is not for me. I just can’t be here.” To Kritzia, that was the worst paradox of the life. You had to be strong enough to work hard and long in order to convince so many men to part with their money, but weak enough to be there in the first place.
Kritzia started to see Melissa doing calls without Blaze around.
“Bitch, what are you doing?”
Melissa waved her off. “Oh, Mariah, nobody can do nothing to me.”