Wandering through the chilly streets of South Philly in search of a good story, I approach a small group of elderly gentleman talking on a street corner. After I finish my pitch, they look at each other silently, communicating through raised eyebrows and subtle shrugs. Finally, one speaks: "You should talk to his daughter. She got laid off. Now she's--how should I put this--a provider of erotic services."
"She's a ho," the father exclaims, taking off his cap to slap his friend. "Might well call it what it is. Ain't no shame in bein a ho. Can't none of you say you never hired a ho."
The three other men look at me sheepishly then exaggeratedly roll their eyes away in all directions. One starts whistling a random tune. I laugh.
"No, what my daughter is doing is using her natural born talents. Her beauty. She's using the tools god gave her. Some at my church might call it immoral. I think it good business sense. Especially these days."
Princess, as her father calls her, seems annoyed when he arrives back at their shared apartment tailed by a girl with a notebook. She seems on edge, preparing herself for the kind of judgment or condescension that would never come from me.
She'd just finished with a client, which was why her father had been hanging out on the corner with his friends. "Don't tell daddy this, but he's really the reason I'm doing this," she tells me after he goes back outside. "We could almost squeek by on my unemployment and his Social Security, but Medicare don't pay all his medications anymore. I can't let him die because I couldn't afford his pills."
Princess looks somewhere in her forties--youthful in spirit, but weathered in appearance. She has two school-age sons, who both know what kind of work their mother has been doing while they're in school. ("It's a small neighborhood. They'd a heard anyway.") When I inquire about their father, she responds abruptly: "He's dead." I get the feeling it's more of a "He's dead to me" than really dead, but I don't push it.
Most of her career, Princess has worked in one office or another--the past five years as office manager for a now-defunct design firm. The slowdown in business over 2008 made her aware that things weren't going well for the company, so she'd already been cutting back on expenses and saving every extra penny in preparation for that day last winter when her boss called everyone together to announce the company would be closing. "It was sad, but it wasn't a surprise," she recalls.
What did surprise her was how difficult it was to find a new job. "There's nothin out there. Nothing. I put in applications and resumes for every kind of job. Hundreds. But, nothin," she says. "I tell you, though, now I've been doing this a couple months, I'm not sure I'd ever go back to working in an office."
"Like daddy says, there ain't no shame in bein' a ho," Princess explains. "Society may look down on us, but that don't mean society's right. Catholic priests tell us how to live while they's diddling little boys in their free time. Reverends tell us how to live while they's hiring male hos and doing meth. Nu-uh. Don't no one tell me how to live. I have a mind and I can decide what's right and what's wrong for myself."
Princess starts ticking off sins on her impeccably manicured fingers: "Hurting people's wrong. Causing pain's wrong. Lying's wrong. Judging people's wrong. Stealing and murder, obviously, wrong. And hypocrisy, that's sometimes the worst wrong."
The way Princess does business seems somewhat unconventional for the sex industry. She charges standard rates for Philly: $100 for a half or $150 for a full hour. ("I hadda research that on Craigslist.") But she doesn't work for an escort service, advertise on Craigslist, hang out in high end hotel bars, or walk the streets. She's totally independent. Her clients come through referrals from friends. Most of them live in her neighborhood; some she has known for years. "I have a couple of regulars, they been wanting me for years. When I told them I's opening my pussy for business, it was like Christmas had come early." No one comes near her without a condom.
"I cause pleasure. I provide a service that brings people pleasure. I won't service married men or women, men of the cloth. See even hos got rules of morality," she laughs. "But seriously, I can understand why people who been brought up one way think it's immoral. I don't understand why it's illegal. With our government needing money, I wish I could pay taxes."
(Photo: Samantha Jade Royds/Flickr)