The situation was not of my making, it’s true, but I am responsible for how I chose to handle it. I just wanted to let you know that she was there when I arrived on shift. I did the best I could, and I don’t know what I could have done differently. Not even now.
This incident occurred maybe twenty years ago, but I still wish there had been another option, and that there would be a better option now. If that was the best I could do, was it, and is it still , really good enough? What would you do in the same situation?
The industry was a little more condensed back then; there were the parlours as we called brothels, a few escort services and some private workers. I was the night shift manager, in what was considered one of the more up-market parlours. There were around half a dozen parlours that fitted into that category, and it was common for the working girls to have worked at several of them. They were scattered around the periphery of the city, all operating in a similar way. They charged around the same, they had receptionists on the door, security lights and emergency buzzers in the rooms, rostered shifts and regular hours. If they sent out escorts they employed a driver. There was certain professionalism and a set of standards around the way they operated.
Then there was Fort St. Downtown, down market and we looked down on the girls. That was when Fort Street had around a dozen parlours and half a dozen strip clubs, a cinema, peep shows and bars. It was a proper little red light district. The Fort Street parlours were perceived as less professional all around. Occasionally a Fort Street working girl would trade up, but not often. Occasionally you would hear of one of our girls “ending up” down on Fort Street. But that usually only happened if they had got fired from all the ‘good’ brothels, or had a problem. The Fort Street parlours were rumoured to charge less, you could come and go as you pleased. There was no receptionist and either the girls themselves, or even worse, a male manager slash bouncer would do the desk and answer the phone. It was rumoured they sent escorts out in taxis! Even to private homes. Working Fort Street was viewed as a step down. A big step down.
The parlour I worked in didn’t really have any contact with Fort St; we were further uptown and a world away. But when it came to the managers and the owners, we all either knew each other, or knew of each other. The only time we all came together was if there was a police raid, vice was checking the police book, or immigration was doing the rounds. Then phone calls would be made, giving the others the heads up.
Then there was Karangahape Road. A couple of really dodgy parlours a strip club and the street workers. Parlours where you could rent rooms for an hour and they didn’t even have showers. I didn’t know anyone who worked on the street; I would never have mentioned it, if she hadn’t.
There was also a great divide between the sex workers and the strippers, and there still is. A strange almost political polarity, where the dancers looked down on the sex workers and the sex workers looked down on the dancers. I had often heard sex workers talk about the strippers, and how they could never do that. They considered it degrading, being on stage, being ogled by anyone who walked in, for a measly shift allowance and tips. At least in the parlour there was a camera on the stairs and they could view the clients on a monitor and hide if necessary. It was one on one, and the sex workers on the whole considered stripping exploitation.
It was before the industry was decriminalised, but I don’t know if that would have had made any difference to this situation, or prevented it from arising again. People say that the bosses are far more professional now, but still, if faced with her, would they really react differently? Could they? Have things really changed?
It was a Saturday night, which is the second busiest night of the week. 6.30pm was change over, the day girls were leaving, the night shift was arriving, and everyone was busy changing from work clothes to casual clothes, or casual clothes to work clothes. Hair was being done, makeup being applied, or removed, all cramped around a tiny mirror. All chatting about the day that had been, or the events of the night prior. Dresses and shoes were being tried on, swapped and borrowed, and the atmosphere was similar to that of a group of woman anywhere getting ready for a big night out.
The day receptionist had already cashed up her till and was waiting to handover the shift, quickly filling me in with the day’s gossip.
“It’s been flat out all day, the phone didn’t stop so tonight should be good, and you have fifteen girls roster-ed on”.
As she spoke she put on her coat, picked up her handbag and headed for the security door that separated the parlour from the reception area. Just as she went through the door she turned and said,
“Oh, and there’s a new girl. She’s worked the day shift but is keen to do a double. The boss hired her. I haven’t done her paper work; he said you could sort it. No ID but I told her she would have to bring it before her next shift.”
I sighed, and asked “Has she worked before?”
The day receptionist nodded yes.
I exhaled, somewhat relieved. New girls that had worked before were a far easier proposition than those who were totally new to the game.
“What’s her name?” I asked. But the day receptionist was already out the front door.
I looked at the roster seeing how the staff line-up was looking for the night ahead. Receptionists’ or Managers as we were called were paid an hourly rate, but what made the job worth while was the cash incentive. Managing a parlour involves a multitude of talents, not in the least the ability to heard cats, but at the end of the day, really you were working in sales. Tele sales on the several different phone lines, help writing print advertisements and hard copy for the girls, and talking the clients through the door when they came up stairs. There was even the option to up-sell: Book an extra girl, have two, or another hour, take her back to your hotel, keep her for the night. There were set sales targets, and once achieved bonuses were paid. To achieve the sales, you really need the stock. Who was roster-ed on, directly affected how efficiently you could sell. I studied the roster intently, idly wandering what the new girl looked like as I noticed I had only two blondes. Charlotte popped her head around the door looking into the office and asked if I had a minute.
Charlotte had worked at the parlour for years, and was a popular and professional worker. I always had time for Charlotte. Some of the girls thought she was stuck-up, but in realty she was just a private person, and normally, kept herself to herself. I beckoned her into the little back office, off the reception area. She seemed a little hesitant when she asked if I had met the new girl yet.
“No, why?” and looking at Charlottes face, framed with concern, I knew there was a problem.
“She’s young.” she said.
“Oh shit. How young?” I asked.
“Way too young” she replied.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. The boss had brought her in this morning. She had already done four clients. I asked Charlotte what she knew. Charlotte said she was beautiful. She wasn’t out of it and seemed happy. In fact when Charlotte looked at me and talked about her, you could see that there was no malice or jealousy, but some affection. Charlotte had come in early to see a regular, and then got to chatting with her in the kitchen.
“She said eighteen but she’s lying” Charlotte told me, “By a lot”.
The law was clear then, as it is now. Eighteen, with ID. One thing sure to bring the police down on you was hiring underager’s. But it wasn’t just the law that kept the underage workers away from the clubs. It was the working girls themselves. This wasn’t a job for children. This might not suit the tastes of the clients, but let’s face it; women have been known to lie about their age.
Charlotte was sitting in the office behind the reception desk filling me in, when we heard movement coming up the hall. Murmurs, laughing and a client walked out through the door and past the reception desk on his way out. He glanced up at me and said goodnight with a cheery wave as he departed.
She had her back to me and was skipping down the hall. I called her name, but she didn’t respond, so I repeated it, louder. She stopped, turned and walked back towards me. She was beautiful. Just so beautiful. With her thick, long golden blonde hair, tiny heart shaped face, and widely spaced blue eyes. A smattering of faint freckles across a tiny nose and flawless creamy skin. She was small and slender, and she walked in the way young girls do. That easy carefree gait, unaffected and without style. The way they walk before they reach the age when they walk as though as everyone is staring at them, because everyone is.
I will just say it then. She walked like a child.
She had the body of a child.
She, was Lola.
Charlotte brought in a glass of juice and a slice of pizza for her, and asked me if she should look after the phone. I nodded gratefully, and turned my attention to Lola. It was surprisingly easy to get her chatting. Charlotte had gone some way to convincing her that she should trust me, and it was probably best just to tell me the truth. She looked a little nervous initially then she gradually became more confident. No, not confident, more comfortable and chatty.
Last night she had been working on one of the back streets off Karangahape Road. The boss had pulled up and asked her what she was doing. He then said if she wanted to work inside to come and see him this morning, and he had handed her a card. He said she was far too pretty for the street. She smiled and blushed when she told me this. As if she couldn’t believe the compliment. I smiled encouragingly, but internally, I was seething. Angry he had brought her here, even angrier he had left her on the street last night.
What did I expect him to do, he would ask me later?
It wasn’t her first night on the street. She had done it a couple of times before when she had run away. She needed the money. She had nowhere to stay. Then she asked if she could sleep in one of the rooms here when we closed. I avoided answering, smiling back at her, trying to show no shock. I was shocked. The street. This beautiful girl, working on the street. I glanced at Charlotte, who looked back at me, shaking her head, sadly.
I asked her how old she was, and she replied “eighteen”. I laughed softly, and shook my head.
“How old are you Lola?” and then I remained silent until the pause became too long and she had to respond. She spoke so quietly I had to lean forward to catch what she had said.
“Thirteen”, she whispered, “are you going to call the police?”
Calling the police hadn’t entered my mind. When working in an illicit industry, the instinct is never to call in the authorities that want to bust you. Especially not about an underage worker who has just worked a shift in your brothel. An underage worker who has just fucked four clients. There were other reasons for not calling the police as well. At that time every licensed massage parlour had to have a register or what we called a police book. There we recorded the details of every woman working at the establishment. The book had columns for the working name, real name, what form of ID they had provided and the details of the ID, and the signature of the woman. It was in the way of a declaration stating that they were of age and had no convictions. It was illegal to employ anyone in a parlour who had a criminal conviction for either drugs or soliciting.
Self preservation was also a consideration. If I called the cops, and on the off chance the police ignored the fact we had employed an underage girl with no ID, my boss wouldn’t. If I called the police I would get the sack. If I called the police, at least half the women on the shift would run out the back door because they had minor convictions or used false ID. Even if you had no convictions, a lot of the woman used false ID, just so their real name wasn’t on some police record somewhere. Then there was the code, that unspoken code amongst those that live just a little beyond the law. Never nark.
Finally, the reason not to call the police was simply this. Her story. I had no way of knowing if what she told me was true, but even if it wasn’t, she was running from something. The police were obligated to call Child Youth and Family (CYFS), and CYFS were obligated to call her family. I assure her I wouldn’t call anyone, and gradually pieced together her story.
Home was intolerable, her mother and she were constantly fighting, and Lola had accused the stepfather of sexual abuse. She had not been believed, due to her history of unreliable behaviour, and false claims of previous transgressions. There had been counsellors and health professionals. There was a CYFS case worker and a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. She kept leaving. They kept returning her to her home, which was in a leafy suburb where she attended a school zoned posh.
Her parents were professionals.
As she told her story, she started to cry. By the time she finished, she was unable to continue speaking. Charlotte was holding her while she convulsed with loud hiccupping sobs. Tears and snot streaming down her face, she cried loudly, unable to exercise any restraint until, stopping to gulp in air, she cried herself out of breath. She is probably even younger, I remember thinking, she is probably only twelve. She cried and she cried. She bawled like a child.
A cup of tea was fetched, word had spread, and some of the other women had gently offered assistance, in tissues, hugs, and offering me support in the form of concerned glances. As Lola pulled herself together, bouncing back to the happy girl of half an hour ago, the door bell went. I told Lola to stay where she was in the office behind the reception area.
The client standing at reception was a regular; he offered payment for an hour. He asked if there were any new girls working and I realised his gaze had travelled over my shoulder to the office beyond. He was staring transfixed, his mouth slack. I looked behind me.
Lola, had wheeled her chair forward, and positioned herself in the doorway. Her posture was slumped, and untidy. One hand was raised to her mouth, as though biting her nails, her head was slightly tilted forward and she was looking up at him from beneath her lowered lashes, with a look both knowing and wanton. Her legs had fallen open. With her other hand she was touching herself.
I dispatched the client to the care of the women in the lounge and Lola to the kitchen, and then acted decisively. I had no choice. I had to get her out of here. I called Bert, who owned a strip club on Fort St. It wasn’t one of the big better strip clubs where the dances were choreographed and the girls were lithe athletes with the club supplying costumes, tailor made for pole dancing. Like the massage parlours they ran tighter rules and wouldn’t risk an underage runaway. No, this was the type of the club where girls gyrated to taped music, and dancing skill was secondary to full exposure. This was strip, without the tease. He also ran a peep show. He had a reputation for being fiercely protective of his girls, to the point of controlling. His girls didn’t have sex for money, he liked to point out. They weren’t whores, nor would he ever call them strippers. His girls were dancers. True he had been known to sleep with some of them, and so had some of his selected friends; he had also been known to marry them. I filled him in with only the essential detail. A pretty young girl, who couldn’t stay here, who needed I.D, and a safe place to stay. He was eager to help.
I asked Charlotte to drive her down and I told Lola to gather her things. She wanted to stay here, she told me. She wanted to talk to the boss; she became loud and started to shout. I remained calm and told her she couldn’t. She started to plead, she would work hard, the clients liked her, no-one had complained, had they? Where was I sending her she wanted to know? Where could she go? I remained silent and resolute, until finally she lapsed into a sulking silence. I looked at her for the last time, marvelling again at how beautiful she was. Though perhaps not quite as beautiful as she had been an hour ago, when I first saw her. I smiled at her and asked, “Lola, do you like to dance?”
She smiled back, nodding enthusiastically. Of course she did.
Didn’t all girls her age?
Published in Massive ISSN 2253-5918