When I was a summer camp counselor in Boston in 2000, I arranged for a field trip for the young kids to go to a zoo in Western Mass for the day. I forget which zoo it was. But there were polar bears there and almost as soon as we got to the zoo, we stood watching them with fascination. They swam back and forth across their pool, under the water’s surface, coming up once in a while for air. At one end of the pool was a gigantic window that we could stare into and see how the bears swam underwater. Their giant legs moved slowly through the blue and became larger as they swam toward us to turn. When the bears approached the window, they turned directly in front of us, placing their wide white paws with black pads against the window to push off from and swim away. Some of us placed our hands against the window where the bears’ paws touched, as if we were trying to touch them ourselves. That was the closest we could get.
I’ve been meaning to write about this since Friday: There are a lot of prostitutes here. I saw them Friday night on the ride through Centro to drop off my friend’s father at his house. It was one in the morning. That’s when I saw all the prostitutes.
Right now, I’m thinking of my Women’s Studies class from my first year at the University of Rhode Island and of my amazing professor Donna Bickford. I’m remembering how sensitive she was to the students in her class, about what a good teacher she was. About how, even now, I try to channel her through time and space into my shoes to become how good of a teacher she was. I’m thinking of how to write this post with the kind of sensitivity and intelligence she would approve of, while still maintaining an honest voice. I’m not sure I can. What you’re going to read will probably be, at best, writing that at times struggles to sound “smart” or “rational” amidst the tone of pure and unintelligent fascination and wonder, because that’s exactly how I was.
The naked truth is this: as we drove slowly through the streets of Centro, all I wanted to do was stop the car and stare.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a prostitute. I’ve never lived in a place where it was legal, I suppose. Here, it’s legal. And it’s so…all…over the place. At night. I am so rarely in Centro, to begin with, and when I am, it’s never in the interior of the district, only just on the outskirts, within walking distance from my apartment. I go with my friends.
I wanted to take a photograph of these women, some of whom were not women at all, and stare at them. I wanted to watch them as they stood in clusters on the corners, laughing, talking with each other. I wanted to keep the windows rolled up and look at them, watch how they interracted with each other.
Did you know that while prostitution is allowed here, pimping is not? It’s that there is a law banning the interference of these women (or men) making and keeping their money. I guess the difficult fact to face is that women need to do what they need to do to survive, and some of them probably need to do this for their families’ sakes. If a pimp takes money off the top, he’s interfering with the money the woman can make for her family.
I didn’t notice them at first, the women. But as conversation droned on in Portuguese in the car, and my eyes and mind began to wander outside of it, I saw women, dressed as if to go clubbing, at bus stops. As we kept driving, I suddenly realized just how many bus stops there appeared to be and then knew clearly that these weren’t at bus stops at all. Like a child I slowly pieced together all of the evidence (women, dressed up and going no where, on corners, leaning on walls, dark eyebrows, high high heels, standing with legs apart or legs together, or walking back and forth over their little square of sidewalk concrete) to come up with the conclusion that shocked even me as it escaped my mouth: “These are prostitutes!”
It was not a proud moment. As much as I want to be the kind of person who can fairly evaluate all sides in a moment as sensitive as this one, I couldn’t contain my reaction. It wasn’t shock, since I’d known that prostitution was a fairly popular practice here. It was, simply, the gawking, innocent, curiosity that I might also have felt had I been at the zoo, looking at the polar bears up close through the thick glass windows into their arctic lives. And that is the shameful part of it. That I was staring at these women like they were polar bears.
When I first got to Brazil, I went to an UNICAMP performance about a transvestite who was also a prostitute. It was such a heartwrenching play, that gave such humanity, such tenderness to the person who had to turn to prostitution to survive. It was hilarious at times, scary, too. Really alive with the truth that many of these people face each night they cluster together at their bus stops: verbal assault, physical assault, rape. The play was done by a single female actor and it was so riveting and uncomfortable that I couldn’t help but cry and cry and cry. And then, six months later, here I was, in Centro, face to window-blocked face, and staring google eyed at the real women who really live those lives. I could cry for an actor. But.
I don’t know why I wanted to stare so much. Maybe it was because I wanted to find something in common with these women whose lives are so completely different from mine. I don’t think so. Maybe, it was just this: because I couldn’t quite figure out how they did it, these women, in the same way I could never figure out how it is possible for a polar bear to keep swimming back and forth and back and forth and back and forth without stopping across its cold pool back and forth and back and forth in its cold pool in the zoo. The bear clearly wasn’t raised to be living in a zoo. But it couldn’t escape it either.
I’m sorry, Professor Bickford. I’m sorry for comparing these women to polar bears. I know you would say it is barbaric to make that kind of comparison, and so lacking sensitivity. Not a single fiber of my body wants me to believe that I actually had the reaction I did to those women on Friday night. But what you taught me was to be honest with myself about things that happen in my life. And as far as honesty is concerned, this is about as close as I can get.