Smabs Sputzer (1956-2017) CC
Under the Viaduct
She doesn’t belong here. Not here underneath this bridge. Not here in this cave-like space tucked between the rail yard and the viaduct abutment. Not here, loitering on a battered concrete barricade beside this grimy industrial street. She’s only a couple hundred yards from the well-lighted bustle of the downtown market area, newly gentrified, where only a decade ago the street workers would walk, before the area was “revitalized” and they were driven off to the dark corners like this one. I see those women down here all the time now, as I’m circling back around on the one-way streets to head back from the coffee shops and the bars, back to the neighborhood where sex work and the drug market are just part of the local economy, back to my mother’s old house, where I’m living once again, in the process of becoming a twenty-something divorcee.
But she’s not one of those regulars, hardened, street-tough, dressed in tube tops and tube skirts and knives that can appear from nowhere and shoes absolutely not made for walking on this crumbling sidewalk and the rail yard’s litter of industrial gravel. She’s not one of those women, who I pass so frequently that a few of them have come to recognize my rickety old pickup with its rusted fenders and its missing grill and the blotches of spray paint over the old construction company logos.
This woman looks like someone I would have seen on campus, before I went broke and dropped out, maybe one of the sorority girls in the houses between campus and my basement apartment, at the university that made Playboy’s Top Ten Party Schools list that year. But she’s dressed more like those girls would look when they were going to class, not going out partying. T-shirt, sneakers, maybe shorts, maybe a skirt, I really don’t remember.
She’s here alone, none of the four or five regulars who usually work here, and that part should probably catch my attention, but mostly I’m thinking about how out of place she looks here, how much like a target. How vulnerable, in this dark secluded spot. Seeing her here, looking like that, reminds me of the network of girls I’d heard about at that party school, independent girls, working the dorms, and the apartments with the maid service, making good money in a relatively safe environment—relatively safe for criminalized sex work, anyway. She looks like she should be one of those girls, working dorm rooms and frat parties, Tuesday morning outcalls, not under this viaduct with the trains thundering past and the cars clunking overhead and the diesel fumes and the coal dust and the century’s worth of industrial pollution from the rail yard.
I do what I never do. I stop.
She steps away from her perch on the concrete barrier and leans down toward my open passenger window.
“What do you want?” she says.
I realize I don’t know how to express what I’m thinking, my fear for someone like her working the turf of those tough street girls, my hunch that if this is what she’s going to do she could probably do a whole lot better somewhere else.
“I…uh,” I say. “Well I guess, I mean, I’m not so sure this is the safest place to be?”
She stiffens, hardens. “Are you threatening me?”
“No—hell no. I’m the last one to worry about. It’s just…this spot…?”
“I’m fine,” she says. Her expression tells me to fuck off.
“Alright,” I say, shifting back into gear, heading home to another lonely night.
A couple weeks later I’ll read about the sting in the paper, how it caught a city councilman who was elected on a family-values platform, how it caught one of the city’s wealthiest businessmen, and a big patron of the arts. Pillars of the community. Men who had been photographed from the van hidden among the railroad’s vehicles, whose indecent propositions had been recorded by the wire she was wearing, who had hard evidence backing the embarrassing solicitation charges they faced.
She’ll be gone by then, of course, maybe back in a uniform somewhere, or busting street dealers, or whatever it is cops do. Some of the regulars will be back here under the viaduct, doing their hustle, recognizing my ugly old truck, exchanging a casual wave as I drive by in the night.
Jay Parr (he/they) lives with his partner and child in North Carolina, where he's a lecturer in UNCG's online humanities program. He's grateful to have recent or upcoming work in Roi Fainéant, Identity Theory, Five Minutes, Bullshit Lit, and other venues. AHC is starting to feel like home to him.
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