My 2nd First Step is a blog by LaRue Cook, a former senior editor for ESPN The Magazine. His posts chronicle his new life as a driver for Uber and lyft.

Jack and Me and the Prostitute

Jack and Me and the Prostitute

It took a little over fifteen-hundred trips, but I finally gave a ride to a prostitute. Of course, I didn’t know it right away, nor did I know she had a hookah in the small black trash bag she was carrying, tied up in a knot. I thought I was arriving to a high-rise apartment complex downtown to pick up “Jack,” although that wasn’t the man’s real name. I wouldn’t have used it anyway, but that was actually what he had registered in the Uber app. I might not have ever learned the man’s real name, had the confusion not ensued. 

When I pulled up, it was dark, around nine o’clock, but the lights of bars and businesses and the street lamps lit up a petite red-headed woman, who was standing in the middle of the road. She was holding a black purse and the black trash bag and talking to a black man who was standing half in and half out of his black car. The black man motioned to my black car, and the red-headed woman glanced at me and then back at him, halfway between us. She chose me, and I rolled down the window.

“Uber for Jack?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said and climbed in. “I thought that guy over there was you. He said he’s an Uber too, but didn’t get no call.”

Her twang was thick, some sass to it. I inched the car forward.

“This for John Williams, right?” she asked.

“I thought you said it was for Jack.”

“Well, we’re on Jackson street, ain’t we?

“Wait, so you’re waiting for an Uber who’s picking up John?”

“I live on John Williams. What the hell you talking about?”

I looked at the address on my phone. John Williams Road. “Oh,” I said. “I got ya. But who's Jack?”

“I don't know who the hell Jack is.”

“He’s the one who called an Uber.”

She made the pssh sound and tapped the side of my arm. “He give you a fake name.”

“As long as we’re on the right track,” I said.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said.

I heard glass clang in the bag when she set it in the floor board. I’d been in a Coltrane mood, and a saxophone chirped in the background. 

“I'll stop all the jazz,” I said. 

“Don’t bother me none,” she said.

So I let it play, turned the dial up a notch. Before we could settle into the song, she tapped my arm again. “I'm gonna call Jack,” she said, using his real name. “He don't want to hear from me, cause it’s about business. Well, it ain’t bad.”

I turned the music down to a faint drum beat, and she dialed the number.

“Hey, Jack, so if I want to smoke the weed with the coals, you say it’s gonna break the glass?” she asked. “I mean, if you smoke tobacco, then you got to be able to smoke weed.” She was silent, so Jack must’ve been explaining his reasoning. “OK, OK. We’ll see. But so you just put it in same as the tobacco? Then I can empty out the water the way you showed me how? Yeah, Yeah. OK. Next time.” She hung up. 

“You smoke weed?” she asked.

“I haven't in a while,” I said, “but it’s funny you mention it, cause a family member...” 

“I smoke a lot,” she said, not interested once I’d labeled myself a non-smoker. “Jack has like a hookah fetish. You know what hookah is, right?” I nodded. “So he’s spending like two hundred, three hundred dollars a month on these crazy-ass hookahs. So he gives me the old ones, and I smoke weed out of them.”

“Better that way?” I asked. 

“You know what a bong is, right?” I nodded. “So you know it has the water?” I nodded. “Well, this hookah does too, but it has coals in it too, see, that bubble up the water, like when you light a bong. And Jack’s tellin me it’s gonna break with weed, but it’s just like a bong, ain’t it? It ain’t gonna break.” I shrugged.

“Why do you want to empty out the water, though?”

“Cause we smoke it with liquor. Gives the weed this taste, cause it like flavors the smoke. So good.”

“How’d you come up with that trick?”

“I’m a kind of connoisseur, like, you might say.” I had one hand on the wheel and the other hand resting on the gear shift. My car’s an automatic, just a habit. She put a hand on my forearm. “Try everything twice,” she said. “Not once. Twice. Cause when you try it the first time you’re like already nervous, and doing something you haven’t done. So you’re gonna be all nervous and not really, just, go at it.” She took her hand off my forearm and clenched both fists and made a thrusting motion. “Everything. Twice.”

“Jack’s an awfully nice guy,” I said, “expensive hookah, Uber rides.”

“You know what Backpage is?” she asked.

I nodded. “I’m from around here,” I said, “but I moved away for a while and just came back. Buddy of mine uses it.”

“So, yeah—hundred fifty for an hour, fifty for half,” she said. “You want my number?”

“Appreciate the offer,” I said, “but I'll have to pass.”

“You married?”

“No,” I said. “No offense, just been trying to stay out of trouble these days.”

“I see,” she said. “Doesn’t want it.”

I hadn’t been looking at her when she solicited, but I did now, and she was looking out her window, the longest she’d been silent since she got in my car. Winter had officially arrived here, the high thirties, and the glass was foggy, blurring the lights of the fast-food chains and gas stations and grocery stores we were passing on a four-lane highway, headed to the rural neighborhoods on the south side of Knoxville. She made a “T” with her finger in the condensation, and I cranked up the defrost.

“That ain’t always what it costs,” she said, wiping away the “T.” “Jack and me’s been friends a long time—seventeen years. Sometimes I don’t even charge him. He pays me to watch his cats when he’s away on vacation, stuff like that.”

“I see,” I said. “Good to have friends.”

“I don’t care what anybody thinks,” she said. “Even my friends. I don’t have many of them. You can’t really trust people, I’ve learned that. That’s why I don’t have a lot friends. And even the ones who are your friends, all of them are always talking about you behind your back.”

“Enemies closer,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s right, ain’t it? Enemies closer. I figure if they’re talking about me, then I’m doing something right. They’re either bragging on me, or hatin on me, and if they’re hatin, then they probably wish they were doin what I was, or jealous or something.”

“Haters gone hate,” I said.

She’d rested her head back against the seat and rolled it toward me. She laughed and tapped my arm. “I got trust issues, I guess. That’s what it really is. My brother raped me when I was thirteen. Same momma, same daddy, same house. I lived with him thirteen years, and he’d never said or did nothin to make me think he’d do something like that.”

There isn’t anything to say to that, not an “I’m sorry,” not anything, if we’re honest. To pry is to risk knowing more than you’d care to, and to question is to pick apart a memory that might very well have taken on a life far beyond its own. So I winced and shook my head and pushed out a sigh.

“It’s OK,” she said. “So I got trust issues. Probably why I do what I do, huh?” She tapped my arm again. “Listen at me. Why am I opening up to you, goin on this a way? I don’t even know your first name.”

I didn’t offer it, and she didn’t come right out and ask for it. We both ran the risk of me becoming more than “Jack,” more than just another fake name, another man who isn’t anything more than that to her.

“Can you stop at this gas station up here?”

I told her that I could and pulled in. She opened the door and the dome light shined on her, but she swiveled around before I could see her face.

“Don't leave me,” she said. “I’ve been left before, but not by no Uber.” 

I said that I wouldn’t, that her hookah was safe with me. She shut the door, and I was in the dark again. She walked through the fluorescent beams billowing from the gas station. She was wearing black yoga pants and a denim jacket that cut off at the waist. Her shirt wasn’t any longer than the jacket, her figure as long and slender as a Virginia Slim. She had on white high-top tennis shoes, loosely tied, wide ones that accentuated her skinny calves and thighs. When she walked back around the corner in just a few minutes, there was a stack of cash in one hand, a pack of Marlboros in the other, the kind with a red top.

“So how old did you say you were?” she asked as I was in reverse.

“I didn’t—bet you can’t guess,” I said, assuming she’d peg me in my mid-twenties, like most folks.

“Thirty-two,” she said. 

I jerked my head around. “Almost nailed it,” I said. “Thirty-one.” The gas station wasn’t far from John Williams Road, so I was idling in the turning lane in a quarter mile, my left blinker appearing and disappearing in the dash. “How’d you know?”

“I'm always good with that kind of stuff,” she said, “like maybe I ought to go to the fair, guess people’s weights and stuff, like they do. So how old do you think I am?”

It was a question I never welcome, from anyone, but especially not a woman, and not a woman in the South. But for some reason, I wanted to indulge her. So I punched on one of the dome lights, and I stared into her eyes, searching them and her face. She’d been a pretty woman, no Julia Roberts, but I’m no Richard Gere, either. Her eyes had youth in them, blue-and-green speckled. Her hair was below her shoulders, and she had bangs. It was like she’d mixed and matched certain styles of certain times, like she was her own era. The cigarette wrinkles gave her away, and the crow’s feet. Probably mid-forties, but I didn’t offer a guess, not yet. She shifted her eyes downward, and her cheeks flushed a bit, which embarrassed me, embarrassing a prostitute.

I punched off the dome light. I made the “thirrrr” sound. “OK,” I said, “I really don’t...”

“Forty-four,” she said. “Couldn’t have guessed, right?”

“You look good,” I said. 

We were in a neighborhood now, winding through farmland, no street lights. I clicked on my high beams. 

“So all you do is drive Uber?” she asked. 

“For now,” I said. “Life got out ahead of me. Had to catch up to it.”

“Life, tell me about it,” she said. “I’m there right now, you don’t even know.”

“Weed must help,” I said.

“Oh, you better believe I’m ready to get in this house and light this hookah up.”

Gravel crunched beneath my tires, and I turned into her driveway, which stretched a few hundred yards into a field, the farm house set against a backdrop of pastures that would be a dried out green against the blue sky come morning. The car bounced over pot holes. There was a garage that didn’t appear to be in use, a beat-up purple Ford Ranger parked in front of it. She had me pull around back, where a porch light was on.

“Sure you don’t want my number?” she asked. “Must be lonely, catching up to life.”

I was lonely, I have been, and I am still. No denying that. Probably in my eyes. I nearly said yes. I nearly asked her if she’d take fifty an hour just to stop by and talk, have a beer, listen to some Coltrane. Maybe she’d like jazz. I’ve always been more comfortable around folks who lack pretense, who haven’t swallowed their id, that human instinct to do what perhaps we’ve all wondered about, what we’ve all imagined. Folks like that can often be as genuine as a child, if they can sense you’re human too, like them, if they can see in your eyes that the straightjacket of society is probably the only thing keeping you on the right track. 

Sitting here now, drinking a beer under the harsh yellow of the light above my dining room table, I wish I would’ve put her number in my phone. I would’ve paid fifty an hour to talk, to hear why it went one way instead of the other, even if she couldn’t make complete sense of it. There are folks out there who would tell her that it’s never too late, but I’d just listen, ask her if she had a favorite book, what liquor made her weed taste the best. We’d have a beer or three, and then I’d drive her back to John Williams Road. 

But you and I both know that isn’t the way this is set up, that the bubble will inevitably burst, that when she climbed out of my car there in that pasture, she was the prostitute again, and I was me, not Jack, and Jack would see her before too long.

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