When the Meat Market was a walk on the wild side


By Patricia Fieldsteel

The first rule I learned when I moved to the Village 35 years ago was never ever go into the Meat Market. It was downright dangerous. Of course, there were male sex clubs such as the Anvil and Mineshaft, but there were also serious criminals, drug dealers, pimps, hookers, murderers, thieves. My apartment was on the corner of Horatio and Washington Sts., at that time really part of the Market, which officially began one block north on Gansevoort St. The Manhattan Meat and Refrigeration Plant (now the West Coast Apartments) was directly across the street; the High Line still passed through its middle, terminating at the Bell Telephone Laboratories Building, soon to open as Westbeth, the first artists’ housing project.

One night in January 1972, a fire broke out in my building when one of the transgendered tenants had a fight with her “girlfriend” and in a fit of pique set fire to the elevator shaft and their apartment at 3 a.m. The building was evacuated. I grabbed my coat and bedroom slippers and ran out to the street. It was too cold to stand still, so a neighbor and I wandered over to Greenwich St. Looking uptown to the beginning of Ninth Ave., an almost magical world appeared before us. On the corner of Little W. 12th St. and Ninth Ave., the building that is now Pastis was alive with crates and bushels of brilliantly colored vegetables and fruit. There was a low overhanging wooden roof over the outside, under which empty oil drums were alight with fire. Groups of men huddled around to keep warm, taking turns with others unloading and sorting produce headed for shops and restaurants a few hours on. The light was strange, luminous, otherworldly. We approached a small, thin man with close-cropped white hair sitting on a crate by the fire. Before him was a wooden plank set upon a box and thickly blanketed with fresh chives and a ball of string. The old man’s fingers were long, frail, beautifully manicured. With great delicacy he selected each individual chive, placed it against another until he had a bundle, which he expertly tied with the string, placing it next to the other bundles while his other hand returned to the loose chives without missing a beat and he began to assemble another bunch. He looked at us, his pale eyes rimmed in pink, eyelids almost translucent, said a few words in Italian dialect, then returned to his work. Nearby another old man was placing raspberries one by one in a tiny white box. He offered us each one perfectly formed plump delicacy, in those days unheard of in New York in winter.

A month later I moved southeast to Jane St. between Eighth Ave. and Hudson and for many years I forgot the Market and its forbidden fruits. In the mid-1980s, I worked for a doctor who’d been conducting a study of New York City street prostitutes to determine if women could get AIDS. By the time I joined the project, it had been discovered AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease open to all, and at that time it was always fatal. Our work involved going out nights (prostitutes’ hours) to strolls in all five boroughs, eventually in a medical van provided by a condom manufacturer. Our goal was to educate working women about AIDS, safe sex and the necessity of using condoms — at the time an alien concept — which we distributed in great quantities. We also tested the women for the H.I.V. virus, gave out results and did counseling and referral work. The doctor’s grant stipulated we work only with women — biological females, males dressed as females, as well as transgendered persons, called transsexuals in those days. Suddenly I was back in the Meat Market. My friends were horrified at the work I was doing; they were also afraid for my safety, if not my life.

Working the Meat Market was easy compared to the strolls in East New York, Bushwick, Queens Plaza, East Harlem, Hunts Point Market and the Lower East Side. A lot of the “girls” or “ladies,” as they liked to be called, once they’d decided to trust us and come inside the van, were interested in performing, in being ultra-femmes. They wanted to show off their low-cut minidresses, their Joan Crawford-Bette Davis-style 1940s suits, their makeup, tits, opulently flowing hair; they wanted to flirt, be coquettish and discuss girlie things. They were everything we who’d been involved in the women’s liberation movement had struggled to get away from, if not try to wipe out. The ladies loved to gossip about the “straight” male celebrities they’d “done.” Most of them were hysterically funny, intelligent, verbally gifted, sensitive and beneath it all tragically sad. Some could be violent, most were addicted to drugs and many were H.I.V. positive and homeless. Almost all had been victims of extreme violence. Some lived with their mothers or with each other or with lovers in apartments. One or two had regular-type daytime jobs. A lot were still in their teens and had been beaten and banished by their families because they liked to wear women’s clothes and/or wanted to be women; some had always known to their deepest cores they were women, women living a nightmare inside a man’s body. Sometimes they’d ask, did I have a brother who was gay? No. Was I a lesbian? No. Had I been a hooker? No again. Then why do you care about us, they’d want to know. Why wouldn’t I?…. That was a concept they couldn’t comprehend.

There were a few older transgendered women who’d had sex-change operations performed all at once in a hospital in the Bronx in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Now they were middle-aged. Their dreams of blissful lives as real women had not gone according to plan. In the beginning, as one told me, it was “fabulous;” once she’d healed from the surgery she’d even had orgasms — the first was on the dance floor in a “very swanky” nightclub; she was gorgeous, happy. Then the pain, physical and psychic crept in. As she aged, she looked increasingly “bizarre;” the plastic surgery began to unravel. She lost her job as a receptionist/file clerk. No one would hire her; she started turning tricks. So far she’d stayed away from drugs, except ecstasy. She wanted to work in a nursing home, to help old people. She had “such a strong feeling for their isolation and pain.” Could I find her a job?

Then there was Angel — with street prostitutes, there’s always an “Angel,” just as there’s always a Venus and a Desirée. Angel had the body and face of a tiny, ethereal 12-year-old girl. The first time I met “her” was a weeknight in February on the northwest corner of W. 14th St. just outside Western Beef and across from Dizzy Izzy’s 24-hour bagel store. The scene was wild; the johns’ cars — many with New Jersey and Connecticut plates, baby seats in back and Ivy League window stickers — madly trolling the block, stalking their prey. The “ladies” were hooting, shrieking, their sassy red lip-glossed mouths spraying obscenities and sexual come-ons into the night. They sashayed up to cars, slapping raw upturned butts, offering B.J.’s (blow jobs) and “trips around the world” for $20-plus. A heavy-lidded 6-foot-10-inch ebony-colored “girl” wearing lavender lipstick and size 16 red stiletto heels, twirled her dick with one hand, cupping and squeezing a bare siliconed breast with the other. A fat Hispanic “girl” in a white lace transparent minidress beckoned, dancing an obscene tango with her tongue. In another hour the enormous refrigerated trucks would roll in. The Belgian-stone-blocked streets would be thick with bloodied white-coated butchers hauling whole carcasses of raw meat. Many would pay for a turn with the girls before the dawn broke. A typical night in an area whose only business at that time was meat.

Angel was one of the few white “girls;” most of the others were Hispanic or black. At first she was hesitant to get into the van, so I hopped out and we chatted by the curb. Then she came in. She dreamed of leaving the life, of living somewhere out in the country. She collected plush stuffed animals, as did many of the girls. Sometimes I wouldn’t see her for months. I’d hear she had a rich boyfriend who was treating her “real nice.” After a while, she’d always be back on the street, often high, talking of her dreams and better times ahead. Then she was gone, gone far longer than a few months. Later I learned she’d been savagely

murdered in a hotel room by a john weeks before she’d planned to finally leave New York.

The women who worked the northeast side of Ninth Ave. between W. 14th and W. 15th Sts. were different. Their beat was outside The Old Homestead Steakhouse. Compared to the girls inside the Market, they were elegant and sedate. The wore long fur coats and were impeccably coifed and made up. One woman who was out every night was so gorgeous, we were almost convinced she’d been born a woman. Whenever we approached, she waved us away. Then one night she decided to enter the van. “She” spoke only a few words of English. I spoke no Spanish. Somehow we communicated, through sign language, diagrams and drawings, a few words in French. She was from Ecuador. She’d been a successful chemical engineer; she’d also been close to suicide. She was imprisoned inside a body that wasn’t hers. Her family were devout Roman Catholics. Sex-change operations didn’t exist in Ecuador. She’d fled two years before with enough money to pay for the first half of “the operation.” Her testicles had been removed, she’d had breast implants, permanent electrolysis and was on hormones. All that mattered was getting enough money for the second half. She was almost there.

Another “girl” worried terribly about her breasts and the effect they might have on her young nieces and nephew, who knew her as Uncle Jimmy. She was visiting her sister in Baltimore in two months and had decided to stop taking female hormones until after the trip, even if it cut down on her earnings. The children were still very young; she adored them. She was terrified when they got older, she might have to stop seeing them; they might figure things out; they might be traumatized. She needed help on what to do. Her sister was supportive, unlike the rest of her family who had cut her off. In fact, many of the “women” worried about the effect they had on children, family members as well as strangers.

One of the most memorable ladies was a nearly 7-foot-tall black “woman” who’d been around for years, far longer than any of the others. I remembered seeing her as far back as the early 1970s, washing in the fountain in Abingdon Square, drying her clothes and wigs on the park benches and fence. She was fierce, dangerous, violent and more than a little crazy. She was also the only girl in the Market without a pimp, or “manager,” as they liked to call themselves; no one messed with her. The first time she came into the van I’m sure she came only for the money. (In the beginning we paid the women for their time — usually 15 minutes — as an incentive for them to get tested, answer our questionnaire and receive counseling. We also needed to ensure their pimps wouldn’t beat them up for lost working time. We paid cash for the equivalent of a blow job. When the crack epidemic became full blown, we switched to the equivalent sum in fast-food restaurant coupons.) She was so huge, she had to bend nearly in half to get in the door. She sat down and shot out her vital information — name, numerical D.O.B. — as if in an arrest lineup. She did not smell delightful. She watched as I wrote her name and then started stabbing the questionnaire with her purple-chipped nail-polished forefinger. I’d written “Portia.” “Whatcha madduh witch you, girl?” she shrieked, “caynt you spayll!? P-O-R-S-C-H-E! Porsche!” I didn’t do much better with her “girlfriend,” who had the most enormous breasts I’d ever seen. For her name I’d written “Taboo,” and she similarly shrieked about my spelling. “T-A-B-U, you know, the perfume!!”

I would often encounter Porsche in my private life: when I was walking my dog; late one Thanksgiving night returning home on the subway from Forest Hills; on my way to the dentist on E. 42nd St.; entering my building after an evening at the ballet. Usually she was stoned, strung out on what appeared to be heroin at a time when the other girls were all hyper-hopping from crack. I was never really sure if she recognized me or not. Late one sweltering summer night, Camille, a colleague, and I were out alone in the van, despite the insurance stipulation that no fewer than two outreach workers and one driver were to go out alone; it wasn’t safe. The doctor had insisted we go anyway; she had testing numbers to meet for her study. We’d started around 11 p.m. on the Upper West Side along Broadway and West End Avenue in the 90s, but it was so oppressively hot, not even the johns were out. We tested one or two girls, then headed downtown to 11th Ave., then 10th, then Ninth, where we had equally poor luck. As a last resort we hit the Market. We cruised down a deserted, dark Washington St. and caught a girl in the van’s headlights, staggering and swaying, falling out of her heels, near the corner of Little W. 12th. It was Porsche. She was wearing a simple — and dirty — white sleeveless shift and black bouffant wig with brushed bangs; she was in her Jackie Kennedy mode, sort of. The second she got in the van, I sensed violence. It was palpable; suffocating. Just as I knew she carried a switchblade, I also knew she was about to use it. I spotted a cheap charm bracelet on her wrist. “Oh, that’s really pretty,” I said; “I had one when I was a child. My grandfather gave it to me for Christmas when I was 7. Where did you get it?” We made eye contact; she smiled; I felt the air clear. Camille and I would be all right.

In the spring of 2002, not long before I left New York for Provence, where I now live, I met one of the “girls” from the old days as I was coming out of Pastis late one night. She’d been 14 when I’d first met “her,” a terrified runaway from an abusive family. She’d been working the streets only a few weeks then; it was only temporary till she saved enough money to rent a room and get a job. We embraced. She said she was good; she’d managed to stay H.I.V. negative. Business for the girls in the Market wasn’t what it used to be with the new clubs and restaurants, but she was leaving soon, when she’d saved enough money. I asked about some of the girls I’d known. Some were dead, some had disappeared, some were still working, others she hadn’t known. I mentioned I hadn’t seen Porsche in a few years. “Oh, she’s living with her mother in Brooklyn. She left the life and got off drugs. She has a job at Burger King.”

One evening, a few years after I’d stopped working with street prostitutes, I was approached, almost accosted, as I was walking my dog on Jane St. A strange potbellied man in ill-fitting Bermuda shorts and one of those khaki faux-safari vests with dozens of outer pockets bulging with binoculars, walkie-talkies, a police scanner, notebooks, pens, a camera and loose rolls of film introduced himself as being the commander general (or something to that effect) of a neighborhood watch group dedicated to permanently “eradicating” prostitutes and taking back “our streets.” Was I interested in joining and signing their petition? “I don’t think so,” I said mildly, instinctively stepping back. He erupted, screaming at me about “urination,” “defecation” and “things even worse!” I refrained from asking if he was going to “eradicate” them as well. “Do you have any idea how many acts of oral sex I personally have witnessed on this street???” he shrieked at me; “One thousand two-hundred and twenty-seven!!” Oh.

Clearly, each person’s perception of a neighborhood menace is different. At the time I was more concerned about zoning of the Far West Village and along the waterfront, as well as landmarking the Meat Market. Which is not to say I exactly enjoyed listening to sex acts and expletive-shrieking flipped-out hookers outside my parlor floor window at 4 a.m. More nights than I can remember, I reluctantly dragged myself from my bed and opened the window to politely ask the “girls” to please be quiet. By this time, there was a new set of “ladies,” not anyone I knew. I’d explain I realized they were trying to earn a living, but the rest of us who worked during the day were trying to sleep. There are a lot of young children on this street now, even a few infants, I’d explain, pointing at the house across the street and vaguely in the direction of a few others. In my experience, that worked.

People tell me I would no longer recognize the Meat Market, it has changed so in the three years since I left. They also say almost nothing is left of the sex trade that was always so closely identified with the Market. I must confess to a small pleasure I felt in stumbling across a certain bijou item in the police blotter of The Villager a number of months ago. Apparently a prostitution ring was found to be operating out of one of the multimillion-dollar glitzy-glam hotels recently erected in the old Market of Meat.