Mama Says
by Laura Fratus

(Plain Press, December 2005) Let me make this clear, for anyone who might be confused: I am a pedestrian, not a prostitute.

Most mornings, after waving goodbye to my kids at the school bus stop, I walk the mile and a quarter along Lorain Avenue to St. Colman’s.

It is, I must strenuously emphasize, a wholly virtuous act. It’s environmentally friendly. It’s good for my constitution. Nothing could be more innocent and upright than my motivation for taking a morning walk along Lorain Avenue.

Of course, I was vaguely aware that this street is one of Cleveland’s most notorious Hooker Highways. But like the mysteries of drug dealing, I have lived to the age of 40 without really knowing how the prostitution industry works.

I was led to believe that one identified prostitutes by their fishnet stockings, stiletto heels, and pink hotpants. At least, that’s what my mother implied when denouncing certain questionable wardrobe choices.  As I understood it, they plied their wares under cover of darkness, in back alleys near neon-lit speakeasies populated by sailors on shore leave.

But alas, it turns out that there have been certain changes to the uniform.  In fact, it turns out that your average west side hooker and your average PTA mom are shopping from the same rack at the thrift store. My old jeans, tennies, and baggy men’s jacket — which I assumed marked me as merely rushed and careless — actually scream out “available” to passing johns.

It took me quite a while to figure this out. Sure, I had seen the cars slow down as they passed me. I had observed these men observing me. I had come to understand that the customers weren’t so much rowdy sailors as they were leering retirees in late-model Lincolns, clean-cut middle-aged guys on their way to work at the hardware store, construction workers, nervous-looking scout leader types.

But until this morning, they have always slowed down without stopping. I have felt reassured that no one who got a good look at me would mistake my purpose for anything it was not.

Today’s customer was different. Maybe less experienced, or determined.

Today’s customer pulled ahead of me into a parking lot and whipped his car around to face me. Glancing up, I saw that he was waving his wallet like he’d just found the winning ticket, and flashing me a cheery grin.

Giving him my most disgusted look, I pushed my hands deeper into my jacket pockets and quickened my pace.

But he was a go-getter, this person, this kid. He wanted to give me another chance.  So he pulled out of the parking lot and slid his little red hatchback up snug to the curb, smiling pleasantly and beckoning.

This time I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and leaned toward his closed window, to carefully mouth his seven-character license plate number. He popped back into gear and zipped away.

The truth was, the cell phone was an idle threat on my part. I didn’t really know who, if anyone, I would call. As luck would have it, I ran into a transit police officer a few blocks up the street, and asked him what I should have done.

He could offer little except sympathy. Noting the license plate number, he said, was okay. Maybe that same guy would be spotted again, and police would know to watch him.  Maybe not. Small comfort.

Now that I’ve had a chance to pass through the stages of fear and indignation, I realize that comfort is actually what I need. And that’s because of what I guessed that customer to be: a suburban school boy, driving into my neighborhood to take advantage of its resources — educational and otherwise.

Obviously, I’ve learned first-hand the dangers of judging a book by its cover. But while I’m still learning to spot a hooker or a john, I’ve had far more experience identifying suburban school boys. In their button-down collars and their striped ties, they roam my neighborhood by the dozens and hundreds, often doing truly good deeds. I have pointed out the crowds of laughing kids on their way to lunch at Wendy’s, telling my own son that maybe someday he’ll be one of them.

I’m sure when this boy’s mother waved goodbye to him this morning, she wasn’t expecting that he’d be importuning a middle-aged woman before his first-period class.  Poor mother, to be so ignorant.  Poor son, to have so missed the point of his education. Poor prostitutes, to be so desperate, and so vulnerable. And poor me, to spend the rest of this day imagining what my own kids might be up to right now.


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