With the working girls in the darkest days of AIDS

By Patricia Fieldsteel

During the 1980s, I worked the prostitute strolls in all five boroughs of New York. Three nights a week and occasionally during the day, I dispensed nonoxynol-9 condoms, safe-sex information and gave H.I.V. counseling, blood tests and results to female street prostitutes and transgendered “working girls.” I was part of a team going out in a medically equipped van funded by a condom manufacturer. We were one component of a research project whose initial purpose had been to determine if women could get AIDS. Monday afternoons I taught Torah to 8-year-olds in a Greenwich Village synagogue. The work with the prostitutes was easier and more rewarding.

The mother of one of my students was a internist specializing in AIDS at a time when most doctors refused H.I.V.-infected patients. This was before AZT, when AIDS was a death sentence. I lived on Jane St. in the Village and had witnessed the first whispered rumors of a fatal pneumonia, then a bizarre cancer that killed only homosexuals. The sight of emaciated young men with black facial lesions being pushed in wheelchairs for a while outnumbered babies in strollers. In those early days, we didn’t know we were witnessing the birth of a worldwide plague. 

I had known of Dr. X’s work with prostitutes. When her son became my student, I asked for a job and underwent training as a New York State AIDS counselor, a new job category. In addition to the standard medical information we’d need to master, we had intensive instruction in anatomical, drug and sexual slang in English, Spanish and that unique lingo reserved only for New York.

Women who sell themselves on the street, some for as little as 50 cents, come from all backgrounds, educational and economic levels, including Ph.D.’s and MD’s. Many had experienced childhood sexual abuse, violence and neglect; the majority suffered substance-abuse addictions, primarily crack, a concurrent epidemic that hit New York’s streets in the 1980s.

I admit to being excited the first time I went out on the van to East Harlem late one Saturday night. We paid the women top price for the time equivalent of a blow job so the pimps wouldn’t beat them up. Rumor on the street had been when we drew blood to test it, we were actually injecting the H.I.V. virus. When word got out we were paying cash, we were mobbed by junkies and had to make a hasty escape. We later switched to fast-food coupons.

To maintain a sense of continuity and trust, team members generally worked the same strolls. Mine became Coney Island/Brighton Beach, Williamsburg, Sunset Park, the 14th St. Meat Market (transvestites), Upper West and Lower East Sides. I liked the work because I liked the women.

Wythe Street, Williamsburg, was desolate and empty; the women mainly black; their johns truck drivers and Hasidim. Tami, a blonde “18-year-old” (they were always over 18) said she practiced safe sex and that she did it without a condom, only “back there,” because that way you couldn’t get “it.” “No,” I explained, “you can’t get pregnant ‘back there.’ ” Much of our work involved education. She came by for several months to talk, get condoms and something to eat, then she, like so many others, vanished.

Melanie worked Sunset Park. Her real name was Anthony; she lived with her parents, who accepted her gender and lifestyle choice. She came for condoms until she was murdered, left dead in the street until her breast implants burst from the heat, a sight the local cops found hysterically funny.

Then there was Coney. Despite a lifetime in New York, I’d never been there. The girls worked Surf Ave. outside the projects, hopping high on crack, across from the dunes and ocean, just beyond Nathan’s, the Wonder Wheel and Cyclone. Getting out of the van, the salty breeze and tawdry Astroland lights gave the stroll an otherworldly, dissolute air, highly charged as the cars slowed to inspect the merchandise, the waves hitting the sand in the background, slapping, receding, crashing again. More than one girl told me, in all her life, she’d never crossed the street, never seen the ocean. 

We’d finish around 2 a.m. and stop at Nathan’s for hot dogs and fries. I’d never tasted anything so delicious. When we’d drive back to Manhattan, the glittering skyline, viewed from Brooklyn, a sight I’d never seen, was magical, enough to take one’s breath away and give distance to the night: telling too many women they were positive; talking to too many beaten, lost souls who knew how to work the street but not how to cross it.

Most of the girls (a term they preferred to “women”) worked the Lower East Side around Allen and Delancey. Many were well educated; they were also among the dirtiest and most degraded of the working girls. Diana had been an upper-class British vet, specializing in horses. Another had been a dentist. Julie, a petite redhead, had as identification a New York Public Library card. She got tested but refused to learn her results. Chiara came from a wealthy Milanese family and had battled severe anorexia and bulimia for more than 10 years. She’d sought treatment in a New York City eating disorders hospital where another patient had told her heroin stopped bulimia. Nothing, she said, was worse than the hell of bulimia, not even ending up homeless, hooking to pay for her next fix. In early 1990, Julie disappeared. Then others. Not unusual. Sometime in 1991, the girls on the Lower East Side started whispering about a pervert who killed. Street prostitutes are murdered all the time.

During the winter of 1989, a working girl entered the van on Broadway in the 90s. Trembling, she showed me her savagely bruised neck and pointed to a collegiate-looking guy in aviator glasses: “He tried to strangle me during sex. He’s tried on other girls, too.” I told Dr X. She wasn’t interested — goes with the work.

We continued going out on the van, with Dr. X treating many girls in her office, getting them on Medicaid and into detox and rehab when they asked. Days off, I continued my explorations of “new” neighborhoods I’d seen only at night. After four years, I became badly depressed. Despite her good work, Dr. X had a vile and abusive temper. Working in an environment of pervasive despair had tainted my view of life. I didn’t have the commitment required, as did others on the team, many of whom were recovered addicts and prostitutes. I did some grant writing and left.

Then at 3:15 a.m. on June 28, 1993, a traffic violation arrest was made for a van on Long Island; a dismembered body was found in the back and Joel Rifkin subsequently confessed to murdering 17 prostitutes (in all, probably more), including Julie, whose body has never been found. Detectives began arriving at my door with photo-album scrapbooks: Did I recognize this arm, this leg, this torso or tattoo? With each visit, the scrapbook grew thicker. The dedication shown by the detectives was nothing short of awesome. 

It had been Rifkin I’d glimpsed on Broadway just before he began his killing rampage and it had been his malodorous white van I’d seen parked on Jane St. with the sticker “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Whips and Chains Excite Me” a year before his arrest. He is now serving 203 years for his acts. After Rifkin, other detectives arrived with snuff videos, torture films, cadaver and body-part photos. Eventually, I was no longer of use, having been away from “the life” too long. 

I went on to work as a cater waiter and personal assistant to a prominent dance critic. For five years, I cat-sat every winter in a feudal château in France. Sometimes, I’d meet one of the girls on the street; we’d embrace, chat and catch up. September 11 happened. I stood on the sidewalk with my neighbors and watched those stately Titanics of the sky slide into oblivion. The ocean began to beckon. In July 2002, I moved to Provence. Today, even amongst the fields of lavender, the hectares of olive trees, the vineyards and mountains, scarcely a day goes by when I don’t think of New York’s girls on the street and their inability to cross to the other side.