This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.
Beauty, present day: Hunts Point, Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
Beauty’s with Heavy now. They sit on the wall, smoke K2 together. They sit all day on the waist-high concrete barrier separating the sidewalk from the park. Leave the shelter in the morning, return for curfew at night. In between, Beauty works the track and thinks about the clothes she’ll buy with Heavy’s disability check. It’s due any day now. $500, all theirs.
The 22-year-old has had nine men in the last year or so, mostly pimps and mostly ones that order her around and get her thrown in jail on petty robbery assists. Heavy treats her right — a smartphone, autonomy, and, most importantly, he doesn’t piss her off.
This feels different, real, perhaps permanent. Even if she does scream and holler at him from her seat up the block at the top of the hill, he’s unfazed. He watches her upset without expression.
Her rage starts in the chest then moves up. Sternum jab, jab. Flat palm through the air. High volume.
At Rikers, they gave Beauty anger management techniques, anti-depressants and coloring worksheets. Now that she’s out, her self treatment is deep breaths and long loops around the renegade (pimp-free) part of the neighborhood, the likes of which often end in picking up a date.
No more kicking out police van windows, or earning solitary in jail for throwing jelly against the wall.
She tries to have patience with people, but she knows she’s still going to explode.
They just get to her.
Like when she treats herself to the $7 rice, meat and beans plate from the bodega and people on the wall pick like vultures, unprompted. She has to get irritated.
I sell my ass in this heat for five hours, make no money, and you take from me without asking? Oh no-o.
Or when street gang antics infringe on her sitting place.
You gonna steal my man’s beads and think you’re in a gang? Where I’m from, you shoot somebody to get in a gang, dead ass.
She protects her people and keeps them from doing anything stupid.
If it’s your first time with K2, I want to be with you. Just us. Inside, someplace safe. I need to see how you’re going to react. I don’t want you freaking out on the street or getting in trouble.
And so she smokes the faux-marijuana herself most days, to handle all the drama, to calm down, and to deal with men’s bullshit.
That’s what women do: juggle men’s needs. And it’s a hard job when a woman’s dealing with a boyfriend and men in business. Needs can clash and run in opposition. But since men are dominant, it’s up to women to work their minds around handling them. Men are boss.
Even when frustrated, Beauty’s willing to take care of Heavy. He has diabetes and needs her. She loves him, and he’s got disability benefits, so she knows, financially, that she’ll be OK. Plus, as couple, they can get housing together. The city will find them an apartment, and they can get out of the shelter.
She envisions having a comfortable place, spending days helping to inject insulin, working on her own, staying out of fights on the street, starting a family.
Gone are the days of last summer, the ones with bright tights and color coordination, when she was a new girl on the block. Now she’s in work boots and the same pair of sweats for days.
Beauty, a year ago: Hunts Point, Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
But she’s happier.
When she walks the strip in the afternoons, she sucks on her first and middle finger and thinks of a civil union somewhere nice, like a park in downtown Manhattan, where she and Heavy could invite a few people. After, they’ll have a couple of kids.
After all, it’s about time. She quells her anxiety by saying she won’t do anything crazy like her sister back in Oklahoma who’s pregnant with her fourth. Beauty figures two will be enough. And she’ll be normal, what she wants to be.
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX