Gone for Good Page 18

We didn’t speak until we were safely ensconced in the van.

Squares said, “She told you.”

It was a statement, not a question, so I didn’t bother confirming or denying.

He put the key in the ignition. “We’re not talking about it,” he said.

Another statement that required no response.

The Covenant House van heads straight into the bowels. Many of our kids come to our doors. Many others are rescued in this van. The job of outreach is to connect with the community’s seedy underbelly—meet the runaway kids, the street urchins, the ones too often referred to as the “throwaways.” A kid living on the street is a bit like—and please pardon the analogy here—a weed. The longer he’s on the street, the harder it is to pull him out by the root.

We lose a lot of these kids. More than we save. And forget the weed analogy. It’s stupid because it implies that we’re getting rid of something bad and preserving something good. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Try this instead: The street is more like a cancer. Early screening and preventive treatment is the key to long-term survival.

Not much better, but you get the gist.

“The feds exaggerated,” Squares said.

“How so?”

“Sheila’s record.”

“Go on.”

“The arrests. They were all a long time ago. You want to hear this?”


We started driving deep into the gloom. The city’s hooker hangouts are fluid. Often you’ll find them near the Lincoln Tunnel or Javits Center, but lately the cops have been cracking down. More cleanup. So the hookers flowed south to the meat-packing district on 18th Street and the far west side. Tonight the hookers were out in force.

Squares gestured with his head. “Sheila could have been any one of them.”

“She worked the street?”

“A runaway from the Midwest. Got off the bus and straight into the life.”

I’d seen it too many times to shock me. But this wasn’t a stranger or street kid at the end of her rope. This was the most amazing woman I had ever known.

“A long time ago,” Squares said as though reading my thoughts. “Her first arrest was age sixteen.”


He nodded. “Three more like that in the next eighteen months, working, according to her file, for a pimp named Louis Castman. Last time she was carrying two ounces and a knife. They tried to bust her for both dealing and armed robbery, but it got kicked.”

I looked out the window. The night had turned gray, washed out. You see so much bad on these streets. We work hard to stop some of it. I know we succeed. I know we turn lives around. But I know that what happens here, in the vibrant cesspool of night, never leaves them. The damage is done. You may work around it. You may go on. But the damage is permanent.

“What are you afraid of ?” I asked him.

“We’re not talking about it.”

“You love her. She loves you.”

“And she’s black.”

I turned to him and waited. I know that he didn’t mean the obvious by this. He was not being racist. But it’s like I told you. The damage is permanent. I had seen the tension between them. It wasn’t nearly as powerful as the love, but it was there.

“You love her,” I repeated.

He kept driving.

“Maybe that was part of the initial attraction,” I said. “But she’s not your redemption anymore. You’re in love with her.”




Squares suddenly veered the van to the right. Headlights splashed over the children of the night. They didn’t scatter like rats under the onslaught. They, in fact, stared mutely, barely blinking. Squares narrowed his eyes, spotted his prey, and pulled to a stop.

We got out in silence. The children looked at us with dead eyes. I remembered a line of Fantine’s in Les Misérables—the musical version, I don’t know if it’s in the book: “Don’t they know they’re making love to what’s already dead?”

There were girls and boys and cross-dressers and transsexuals. I have seen every known perversion out here, though—and I’m sure I’ll get accused of sexism here—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a female customer. I’m not saying that women never buy sex. I’m sure they do. But they don’t seem to cruise the streets to do it. The street customers, the johns, are always men. They may want a buxom woman or a skinny one, young, old, straight, kinky to unfathomable levels, big men, little boys, animals, whatever. Some may even have a woman with them, dragging a girlfriend or wife into the fray. But the customers trolling these byways are men.

Despite all the talk about unfathomable kink, these men for the most part come here to purchase a certain . . . act, if you will. Something performed on them, one that can easily take place in a parked car. It makes sense for both, when you think about it. Convenience, for one thing. You don’t need the expense and time of finding a room. Your concern about sexually transmitted diseases, while still there, is lessened. Pregnancy is not an issue. You don’t need to fully undress. . . .

I’ll spare you further details.

The street veterans—by veterans, I mean anyone over the age of eighteen—greeted Squares warmly. They knew him. They liked him. They were a bit wary of my presence. It had been a while since I’d been in the trenches. Still, some of the old-timers recognized me and in a bizarre way, I was glad to see them.

Squares approached a hooker named Candi, though I deduced that Candi was probably not her real name. No flies on me. She pointed with her chin at two shivering girls huddled in a doorway. I looked at them, no more than sixteen years old, their faces painted like two little girls who’d found Mommy’s makeup case, and my heart sank. They were dressed in shorter-than-short shorts, high boots with stiletto heels, fake fur. I often wondered where they find these outfits, if the pimps had special hooker stores or what.

“Fresh meat,” Candi said.

Squares frowned, nodded. Many of our best leads come from the veterans. There are two reasons for this. One—the cynical reasoning—is that taking the newbies out of circulation eliminates competition. If you live out in the streets, you get ugly in a hurry. Candi was, quite frankly, hideous. This life ages you faster than any black hole. The new girls, though forced to stay huddled in doorways until they earn turf, are going to get noticed.

But that view is, I think, uncharitable. Reason two, the bigger reason, was that—and please don’t think me naïve here—they want to help. They see themselves. They see the fork in the road and while they might not readily admit they took the wrong prong, they know that it’s too late for them. They can’t go back. I used to argue with the Candis of the world. I used to insist that it was never too late, that there was still time. I was wrong. Here again is why we need to reach them quickly. There is a certain point that once passed, you cannot save them. The destruction is irreversible. The street consumes them. They fade away. They become part of the night, one single dark entity. They are lost to us. They will probably die here or end up in jail or insane.

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