It was a Friday night that we first put the plan into action. We'd been talking about it for some time, making sure that we had people willing to do it, people who were willing to listen to the things we had to hear even before we started. We'd discussed how the church would react if one of the prostitutes we witnessed to decided to show up at our services, and what we would do if one wanted to get off the street right then.
And now it was time to go out and witness. I'd been part of witnessing efforts before, but nothing like this. We were meeting at the church at 7 in the evening, and would pray, and then we'd all go down to Central Avenue and deliberately seek out prostitutes.
The man who'd led most of our training gave us one final speech before we set out. "Remember that these women ain't like nothin' you've dealt with before." He'd only been in the church a year or so, and I was still getting used to the way he used English. At times he sounded totally uneducated, but I'd heard him preach a couple of times and knew he that he could speak English just as well as he wanted to. "They're cynical, and hard, and they look at you as nothing more than objects. Their job is to give you the experience, quickly if possible, get your money, and get back on the street. They are not looking for what we're offering. They're going to react according to what they are and how they think. An' like I've told y'all before, their language is going to make mine in our training sessions sound like a pink tea party."
He smoothed down his heavy mustache, looking out over the dozen or so of us who were gathered in the fellowship hall downstairs. "I've been rough with y'all 'cause I want you to have some idea what you're gettin' into. These women are gonna be rough. You can't be. Don't take any guff. But you can't be harsh or domineering. To them that's just more of the same. We have just one thing to offer – the Gospel of Christ. And we must offer it both in our words, and in our actions. The minute you act like a john, or a pimp, that minute you've wrecked what you're doin'."
He looked around again, and must have seen the most frightened bunch of men – none of the women had wished to join us, and I didn't blame them – that he'd ever seen. At least I was scared. I was glad that a number of the church's women had committed themselves to praying for us while we were out on Central – they were in fact meeting upstairs while we were downstairs. I knew I was going to need all the help I could get.
The plan was to have us work in pairs. None of us were gamblers, but drawing lots seemed as good a way as any to pair us up, so that's what we did. I wound up with our trainer as my partner. His name was Darvin Carpenter, and he'd come to Albuquerque from Dallas, though he was originally a Californian. "They's just about 100 of us in the world," he'd said once about native Californians, "an' most of us ain't even in the state."
We decided to take his truck, a battered and dirty old Chevy pickup, because already people down on Central were learning to recognize it. He worked as a private investigator, and as such had to work where the crime was, as he'd put it once. Before we pulled out of the lot we prayed again, and then we went south on Juan Tabo, and then turned west on Central to get to our assigned spot.
"I asked for the one furthest from the church building," he said, "'cause I can best afford to spend gas runnin' all over the place."
"That's fine with me. I'm in that place where I want to get it over with, but I dread getting started."
He laughed. "I know just what you mean. I imagine someone who's about to get hung is in that boat too ... though maybe he's not quite as eager to get it over with."
I laughed too. "Probably not."
He found us a parking place off of Central, and then led me to the main drag. Central Avenue had once been US 66, the old "Mother Road" of the United States. These days it's just one of Albuquerque's main east-west streets, almost the southernmost one, with only Gibson further south. Our city has geographical constraints that limit where it can grow. Kirtland Air Force Base and Isleta Pueblo are to the south, the Sandia Mountains are to the east, and Sandia Pueblo is to north. West is about the only way the city can really grow, and I expected that one of these days we'd see the West Mesa covered with houses.
It didn't take us long to find prostitutes. The first one, in fact, found us.
I heard a voice, rough with cigarettes, saying, "Hey, Cowboy, who's your friend?"
I turned, and there was a woman in a red dress that barely covered the essentials. I felt myself blushing. That wasn't fit clothing to wear around the house, much less on the street. Yet it was having its effect too – I knew without a doubt that she was a woman.
Darvin smiled and put his hand on her shoulder. "How's it goin', Sal?" he asked.
"Makin' a livin', Cowboy. Your friend want some?"
I hoped I didn't know what she meant, and was afraid that I did. Darvin answered for me. "Nope, not now and not ever. He's safe, okay, Sal?" He asked the question with an intent look into her face.
"Sure, Cowboy. Probably got nothin' anyway."
It was obvious why Sal was calling Darvin Carpenter "Cowboy." He always dressed in boots and jeans and a cowboy shirt, and his belt buckle had an Indian motif. And he wore one of those big hats, like Charlie Daniels – the one with a brim that curves from front to back like a banana. What she meant by that last remark, though, wasn't clear, and I wasn't about to ask. I decided then and there that some things I didn't need to know.
"Sal, he's safe," was what Darvin said.
"Okay, okay." Sal reached into her purse – red like her dress – and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. She shook out a cigarette, lit it, and put the pack and lighter back into her purse. She took a long drag and said, "You payin' the usual rate, Cowboy?"
"Yep." He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out some bills. "Here you go. Where you want – here or someplace we can set?"
She took the money and tucked it into her bosom. "I always want to sit down."
"All right." He looked around, and so did I. I saw a low concrete retaining wall just up the street and pointed to it.
"How about there?" I asked, the first words I'd spoken in the encounter.
"Yeah, that'll do," said Sal.
We walked the 20 yards or so, and sat down. Sal made it a point to sit between me and Darvin. She'd agreed that I was "safe," and I thought I knew what that meant, but I wasn't comfortable being so close to her, and scooted away. She laughed at me, and blew smoke in my face.
"What's your name?" she asked me, and I saw her eyes look me up and down.
"Well, I'm Sal. What do you do?"
"For a living, you mean?"
She laughed in my face. "No, Alan, what do you do when you pull the curtains closed? Silly, of course I mean what do you do for a living?"
I was completely off balance. I'd known women all my life – my mother, my two sisters, assorted aunts and cousins, friends and the occasional date. But I'd never known one so bold and brassy. "I work for a building contractor."
"You know what Cowboy here does?"
"Bet you don't." She leaned toward me, as though we were involved in a conspiracy. "He digs in the dirt."
I didn't know what to say, but Darvin rescued me. "Sal, if they's anyone here who knows about dirt, it's you. An' that's what we're here for tonight. You know I'm a Christian."
She turned back to Darvin, which didn't bother me. I needed the breather. "Yeah, sure. An' if all the Christians were like you, I might be one."
"Alan's one too. And he's like me."
"You know, there are a lot of Christians who come down here. I had one just last night. You know what he wanted?"
"I don't know, Sal, and I don't care. You know that."
"Okay, Cowboy, just settle down, okay."
"You know the rules, Sal. I don't want to know what exactly you do with who. That ain't my business, and it ought not be your business. So just leave that alone."
Sal nodded. "Yeah, sure." The words were defiant, but the voice sounded chastened.
"Now, then. Maybe that guy you had last night told you he was a Christian. And maybe he was. But I'll believe it when I see it."
"He said he was. You think he was lyin'?"
"Maybe he was lyin', and maybe he was just mistaken. An' maybe he was tellin' the truth, though why any real Christian would make it a point to tell a hooker that while they were doin' business I can't feature. But here's a point: Christians ain't no more perfect than you are."
"And I know I'm not perfect," Sal said. She smiled at Darvin and blew smoke – but not in his face. I was coming to realize that she had a certain amount of respect for him which she didn't have for me. Nor, for that matter, did it seem she had any respect for her customers – "johns" was the word, or "tricks."
"No, you're not. So what's the difference between us?"
"You don't turn tricks, Cowboy."
"Minor details, Sal."
"Then what is the difference?" she asked, using a very vulgar word. Darvin was right – the language down here wasn't what I heard at church.
"One word – Jesus."
"Oh, yeah, I've heard of Him." And she used Jesus' name as an oath. "You think I don't know about Him?"
"Oh, I'm sure you know about Jesus. But I'm equally sure you don't know Him."
"Yeah, whatever." She dropped her cigarette on the sidewalk and ground it out with her shoe. I saw that her shoes were as red as her dress, and had ridiculously high spike heels. "You gonna bust me for litterin'?"
"Then I gotta get back to work. I gotta make some money and there's a lotta men out there." Except that what she actually said was obscene.
Darvin put his hand briefly on Sal's shoulder again. I noticed that while from the shoulders down she still looked young, her face was beginning to show signs of aging. I might have guessed she was 24 or 44, depending on when you asked me. Darvin's hand, tanned and callused from work, looked younger than her face. "All right, Sal," he said, giving her shoulder a brief squeeze, like a brother might. "We'll leave you be. Catch y'all later."
He jerked his head at me, and I stood up and we walked off. We hadn't gone very far when I heard Sal's voice. "Hey mister, what you want?"