The Story Of A Child Prostitute…
The April issue’s feature interview is with “John Smith,” whose real name was changed to protect his privacy and identity, now that he is an adult, far removed from the world in which he grew up. While this interview will certainly make some readers uncomfortable, it is, nonetheless, part of the historical evolution of New York City’s Times Square, and “John Smith’s” part in that history, before its transformation into a place that does not currently resemble at all what it once was in the late 1970’s and 1980’s.
JRK: Your childhood was unlike that of most kids since you were introduced at a very young age to what most consider a “taboo” world – child prostitution. First off, I want to thank you for your willingness to discuss this period of your life with Diversity Rules readers. Second, can you briefly describe how you first became introduced to this hidden world that most people just know about from the news and at what age you started in it?
JS: I would think everyone would consider that a taboo world. This was in the mid-1970s in New York City. My introduction kind of depends on what you think counts. My older brother was involved in it for a year or so before anything went on with me. I remember having an overwhelming mix of curiosity and anxiety about what I think I understood as my brother’s participation in adulthood. He had adult “friends” who gave him cash, clothes, toys, etc. and who had visits with him that lasted anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes in a home, car, hotel, etc., up to overnight or all weekend when they would take him away with them. After these visits, he would either be on a very manic high that ended with him having an emotional outburst and then with him exhausted and passed out or to very depressed lows during which he retreated into himself and wouldn’t speak for a day or more. At some point during that year, I began to think more and more about what was going on and what it meant. I had seen and heard bits and pieces here and there but hadn’t put it all together – and couldn’t have put it all together because even a city kid who was regularly exposed to porn in sex shop windows didn’t necessarily, as a still pretty young kid, think of it as much more than something grown-ups did with their clothes off and somehow babies happen. When I was taken along once and saw him posing partly and completely naked for photographs and subsequently was allowed to briefly see him naked on a bed with a naked man, I began to associate what little I understood about what sex was to what my brother was doing. Then, after he’d been doing it for a year or so, I went along to do a series of gradually more involved photo sessions with the same men I’d seen my brother with. That is where it started. Each step made the next one easier. If you take your shirt off for the camera, why not your jeans? For a few more bucks and a gift of some sort how about taking your underwear off, too? Then posing with another boy. Then a man. Then time alone with that or another man in the shower, in bed. Playful touching and kissing lead, with promises of rewards, to more and more. It was less than six months between the time I first took off my shirt to be photographed and the time the first man paid me to suck him off.
JRK: In your case, it seems that your involvement in this world was directly related to the socio-economic condition of your family at the time, which generally can be the case with street hustlers, who help support their families through prostitution. Can you tell us a bit about your family background and did it directly influence your becoming involved in such a taboo “profession?”
JS: My parents had my brother not long after my dad came back from Vietnam. My dad and mom traveled around Europe for a while, apparently, dirt poor, and making their first connections with recreational drugs and with sex for pay. Back in New York, my brother came along and then dad spent a short time in prison and my mom was – as she would be her whole life – struggling with her own combination of addiction and mental illness. My dad got his act together for a while, working at a loading dock and that was the first job I remember him having and one of the last legit ones. They got into harder drugs – I didn’t really understand that until I was much older and the family history was explained to me – and from the time I was 4 to 6 we had fairly frequent short periods of homelessness broken by occasional stays on the floors and couches of people my parents knew. It was in a situation like that where a pair of guys introduced themselves to me and my brother. Dan and Rob. They would be part of my life, on and off, for some years to come. They paid for access to my brother for themselves and for other men and were responsible for those initial photo sessions. We often slept at their place; sometimes for a night or weekend, sometimes longer. Just being able to rely on having the same comfortable place to sleep every night was a luxury. When my parents would spend a weekend or whatever shooting up, Dan and Rob would often put me and my brother up at their place where there were usually other boys in and out from similar circumstances. And, while there, we would “entertain” Dan and Rob’s many guests. From those other kids, we learned of the other places around town where a kid could do the same sort of thing, pocketing cash and sometimes getting other bonuses out of the deal. This included street hustling in certain places in Times Square, the Meatpacking District, and the West Village. In Times Square and the Village, there were ratty little establishments for hookers, male and female, where you could do business in return for giving them a cut or a payment at the door – which your adult friend would be expected to pay as you entered. Also, there were bathhouses and sex shops where we could hang out, just outside a back entrance and be brought into a back room for patrons inside who said just the right thing to the guy behind the counter and slipped him the right amount of money.
JRK: How did those in “the business” recruit kids to hustle?
JS: Kids of drug addicts. Homeless kids. Kids of prostitutes. Kids of prisoners. The people like Dan and Rob knew how to approach and feel out those kids, and like I said, it tended to start with something that seemed foolish to say no to. 50 bucks to let you take pictures of me in the shower? Sure. Then the next time, a little more was offered and a little more was expected. You eventually knew the circuit for such work.
When you could go crash, with very organized guys like Dan and Rob, that was safer, cleaner, warmer, more of a sure thing but more demanding in terms of time and activity. With guys like that, they would say sure, come on in. But you got to stay all weekend. If you leave early, you don’t get paid. And the activities that took place and what you were paid for them were decided by Dan and Rob. Whether it was a quick blowjob or it was fuck or it was someone who just wanted to smack you around while they jerked off, the activity and the payment were decided for you.
You could avoid that, the more you knew where and how to find the “regulars” you were comfortable with or other “clients” on your own, but that was less of a sure thing and you were more exposed. You would hang around in specific locations, watching men walk by sizing you and others up, approaching to suggest an arrangement and negotiate a price. If you were very lucky, it could be as much as someone in Dan and Rob’s world of well-off, discreet perverts might have paid and if not, it could be five bucks for a quickie in a van or a handjob in a toilet stall at the bus station in return for a hamburger. And then you went back out and waited for another one because you either didn’t want to go home empty handed or else you were avoiding going home at all for as long as you could. If your two choices were to be at home with steel wool plugging up holes in the wall so the rats can’t get in and with your parents and seeking “friends” of theirs shooting up and puking themselves to sleep on the floor OR in a motel room with a TV and a sweaty old man telling you how much he loved you while sticking a finger in your butt, you went with the motel.
As you got savvier about it, and better known in those circles, you also knew which hotel employees would direct you to the room of some tourist who had tipped them well to locate a hustler for them, probably sweating through their clothes as they tried to hint that younger was better. It was the same thing with bartenders and bouncers. Certain of them were known to be discreet contacts for men looking for such things and boys looking for the work. There was a very old bar in the West Village that, even as recently as the 1990s had a reputation for being a hustler bar, where the right tip and the right euphemism could lead to a call being made to a payphone near which some of us would congregate and then a trip to a room above the bar for short bit. One bartender at that bar was known to keep a pocketful of Polaroids of the regularly available boys with a first name and a number where to find them.
JRK: What was the process for “breaking you in” and getting you accustomed to what would become a very common occurrence in your very young life?
JS: Again, it started with being allowed to know more about my brother’s activities. I realize now that some of what I saw and heard I was SUPPOSED to see and hear so that I’d get used to the idea. This went from seeing him posing for pictures to seeing him engage in actual sex with paying men. My own progress started on camera where I was nudged along to do more and more, first with other boys, then older, teenage boys, then with adults. I’d be shown pictures from pornographic magazines and encouraged to do what was depicted. One time, my brother and I were posing for photos that involved us wrestling then fooling around together and two men I’d not met before sat behind the photographer watching. After the shoot, I went to the bathroom and took a shit. I heard my brother make a loud, long groaning noise. When I went back into the room, one of the two men was having sex with my brother. The other man walked up to me with his pants open and said he just wanted me to suck it. The photographer was packing up his gear and just told me “They’re paying you. Just do it.” After that, Dan and Rob began to be more sexually active with me, kind of coaching me to learn and tolerate new things. Each big new step came with something like a special gift or a trip to the zoo or a Yankees game – and the expectation that I’d do that new thing with one of their “friends.”
JRK: What were some of the code words used at the time for people to seek out children?
JS: This was kind of like the old codes that gay men had for cruising. The hankie code, or the way you’d wear certain things or certain words you’d use. And it was mostly a part of the less organized street hustling aspect of the work. Various code words came in and out of use. “Cowboy” and “puppy” were common ones. Some of it seems almost comical now. You might be hanging outside at a known location for cruising boys and a man might ask you if you like cowboy movies and if you’ve ever been on a horse. Conversely, if you knew a man was cruising you, working up the nerve to approach, you could say something like “you looking for a cowboy to ride your horse?” This was not carved in stone, but some variation on such phrases was often part of the ritual and would then lead to a little back and forth about money, limits, and location. “Puppy” and related phrases was another one. Places that had boys available were sometimes referred to as “puppy kennels” or “dog pounds.” A man who told he was looking for a lost puppy was breaking the ice and such men might use the same phrase with the bartenders, pimps and sex shop workers who they thought could help them find a boy. There were other such code words but these stuck in my mind and came up later in conversations I had as an adult with people who helped me piece together events.
JRK: Your life as a child prostitute/hustler was essentially a job right? How did you balance what you were doing with your more “normal” childhood, growing up with other kids who were not involved? How did you keep your world a secret from your friends and more importantly, the authorities? I would imagine it would be very similar to someone in the closet who would make excuses for places they went, etc.
JS: I guess it was exactly like being closeted. We were always told that we were not to let anyone else know anything. Consequently, my closest friends ended up being other boys in the business because I didn’t have to hide anything. But I would have friends from school and the neighborhood who I had to keep it from. You had to keep a list of plausible excuses in your head for why you had to suddenly leave, or why a friend had to suddenly leave or why you couldn’t hang out that weekend and you had to be careful about friends seeing things they shouldn’t. All kids have gym bags and backpacks they keep their shit in when going to the city rec center or wherever. I had a gym bag with my swim trunks, gym clothes, a toothbrush, and, often, a jar of Vaseline and few small pieces of leather gear. I had one friend who saw some the stuff when it was loose in a box in my room once. I made some excuse about it not being mine. I don’t even know if my friend had any idea what any of it was for but because I knew what it was for, I was nervous. I was otherwise generally careful and wary of kids who were overly curious about anything. I imagine plenty of people suspected but said nothing.
Keeping it from authorities wasn’t TOO hard if you were the least bit careful. New York was a major shithole at the time and hustlers were usually ignored if they didn’t make a scene in any way or involve themselves in crimes that couldn’t be overlooked. The cops knew why we were standing on the corner and if they felt they had to, they might tell us to beat it, but usually, if you were discreet and did your actual business behind closed doors and if no one looked like they were being physically forced or assaulted in public, no one did anything.
I was arrested a couple times in my early – mid teens and one time spent a few months in juvenile detention. “Prostitution” was on the list but the things that got me, was even though I tossed the weed that had been in my jacket, I still had a knife in my jeans. That was not as big of a deal then as it is now, but on top of being in a location where boys were hustling and where drugs were found, and because there had been a couple violent incidents between hustlers and customers in the recent past, it gave them a reason to charge me. In fact, I had started to carry the knife because of a couple bad incidents with violent men.
There were a couple other close calls but I was usually pretty careful.
JRK: I have read a number of articles on this subject since you agreed to do the interview, and it appears that the authorities at the time knew all this was happening but did nothing to stop it. Is that a fair assessment and why do you think they looked the other way?
JS: Well, if you know New York in this period, you know it was not what it is today. There were neighborhoods that are filled with tourist families and rich people today that were, in the 1970s, full of muggers and prostitutes and pimps and all kinds of crime. There were landlords who let buildings literally fall down or burn down because it was better business to collect insurance than to maintain them. There are almost no photographs of the neighborhood I grew up in which you can’t see a collapsed or burned out building or burned out cars on the street. Boys pumping jizz and fifty bucks out of quiet creeps who otherwise didn’t cause any trouble were not a priority matter.
And even cops who had bothered to harass you at times in the past would usually just give you a look like “you watch yourself.” That being said, one of my favorite – if that’s the right word – clients – if THAT’S the right word – was a youngish cop in his 30’s and handsome. We met up fairly regularly for a while. At least a couple times every month. He kind of almost became a friend of the family, in a sense. I knew him from about 12 to about 15 at which point he just disappeared from my life. I actually really liked him and I think about him a lot to this day.
JRK: Were you primarily “rented out” in a secluded setting, such as a client’s house, or did you work the streets, primarily, or both? Were there formal organizations that facilitated the matching? Were there bathhouses, sex clubs or other establishments that catered to this clandestine business?
JS: All of these were parts of it. If you were a kid who just did this once or twice or on occasion, then you might have had experience with just one of those venues. But if you did this as a way to regularly earn income, then you usually did some of all of it. Working the streets you had more freedom but also it was less safe and money was less reliable. Working with a client who had friends who would pay or through a more organized “network” like with Dan and Rob and the people they knew, you had to accept much more control over you in exchange for relative safety and reliability of income.
This was kind of the golden age of bathhouses and backrooms and coin-operated porn booths, particularly in Times Square, but plenty of those establishments had some criminal connection anyway. Run by the mob or sold drugs under the counter, etc. And some – not all, but some – would play a part in the business I was in either by choosing to look the other way in return for bringing in paying customers or by actively making space for us at least on certain nights and usually tucked away in an area away from the main action.
JRK: What did you like the least about your childhood “profession?
JS: This is a hard question to answer. Occasional violence? The occasional expectation that you’ll take drugs to either relax for someone or just because they want you to? Sex that was too rough or too gross? Sleeping in bus stations now and then to avoid going home? It’s kind of a hierarchy of “leasts” with an occasional oasis of good pay, nice place, nice guy, escape from it all. I didn’t like the control and manipulation of the more organized situations, but on the other hand, when I avoided those, I didn’t like the unease and all-weather scraping by of street hustling. I didn’t like guys who made me feel like I was just a thing, but at the same time, I didn’t like guys who seemed to think that a few bucks bought their way into my whole life. You think that the guys who want a quick fuck and then for you to take the money and go away and not ever come near them in public would be the most depressing ones but, in my experience, they were preferable to the ones who had a whole pathetic story about how they only really connect with kids or how they feel like a kid themselves, anyway. THOSE were the worst. A guy who treated me like an adult even though I wasn’t one, and who negotiated sex with me like a man, was far, far less creepy than a man who pretended to bond with me by acting like he was a kid, too.
JRK: How has your life as a child street hustler/prostitute impacted you in your now adult life? Do you harbor resentment or have you come to terms with it all in a way that you can accept?
JS: I have developed a certain detachment. I’m not PROUD of it, but neither am I ashamed of it. People do far worse and then find some way to wear it as a badge of honor. I don’t think what I experienced is a badge of honor but I accept it as part of my history. As an adult, I did work on and off in sex work, but I stopped doing that entirely some years ago. Today, I have a normal, very boring job and a normal, very boring life. I don’t want to minimize anything – there were kids who it much worse than I did and had a much harder time rebuilding their lives than I did – but it’s true when they say “someday we will look back on this and laugh.” I mean, there are parts that can’t be made fun of without being indecent, but when I think about a guy who liked to role-play over and over again that he was a repairman and I came home early from school and caught him jerking it with “my mom’s underwear” (which were really his) and, according his “script,” I would tell him “you have to let me spank you or I’ll tell my mom;” or about a guy who would sit in a bathtub while I pissed on him and then, while showering, tell me about how he felt he shouldn’t have gotten married and that he needed to better job as a husband; or about the guy who would bring me expensive clothes and then have really clumsy, brief sex followed by him bursting into tears about how his father never understood him, it’s hard to not laugh a little bit.
Resentment is something I try not to do but, sure, there is some. The world is set up not just so that some people have more than others but so that some people have and hang onto everything while others have nothing, to the extent that those others are shaped by decisions made by other people. It’s one thing to hold people accountable for the decisions they make but reality is that some people are subject to the whims of others. If you don’t resent that, you are immoral.
When I was in my teens I made friends with an old man. He knew my life and never took advantage of it. Nothing that I got from him came with any strings attached. Ever. One time, we were walking through the Times Square area after he had taken me to see a play and a homeless guy was asking for money and the old man subtracted what he and I needed for a quick stop at a donut shop and gave the rest to the homeless man. As we walked away, he just said to me “if someone asks you for money, give it to them. If someone asks you to feed them, feed them. If someone is weaker than you are, protect them.” I know that sounds trite but it had echoed in my head ever since then.
I guess I’m not very sexual these days and to the extent I ever am, I kind of still have a daddy fixation. But who doesn’t?
JRK: Do you still keep in contact with some of the other boys that were part of your world at the time?
JS: Into my twenties, I still knew maybe ten of them and the number dwindled quickly. The ones who grew up straight, or who had an escape route to another life open up to them, disappeared. And some of them died. A couple of the other ones who grew up to be gay, I sort of stayed friends with for a bit. I briefly dated one until he moved off to a pretty decent life with a sugar daddy while he was still young enough to make that happen. He was positive and worried about his future so he left with my blessing. This was in about 1992 or ‘93. I lost touch with him totally. I hope he is healthy and happy
JRK: Are there any other thoughts or comments that you want to leave Diversity Rules readers that weren’t covered in the questions above?
JS: “If someone asks you for money, give it to them. If someone asks you to feed them, feed them. If someone is weaker than you are, protect them.”