The coupon came in the mail from the International Correspondence School, home office. Female, age 39, the space for her occupation left blank. From our list of forty-some courses she had checked “Interior Decorating.”
I thought my fellow gamblers at the S&S Cigar Store were members of Walla Walla’s lowest social class, like me, but they spoke with contempt of an even lower class, the women in brothels on West Rose Street.
It was 1957, 62 years ago. After scratching out a living as a poker player for several years, I’d become a correspondence school salesman, an expert at pretending my job was to find out if an applicant qualified for a course.
I was a con man.
The building was the only one still standing on the block. No back door or side door. After glancing up and down the street, hoping no one I knew was watching, I entered the front door, carrying my briefcase. A middle-aged woman stood behind a counter.
“I’m with International Correspondence School, and (name) wrote to us, wanting to take a course.”
She told me to go up the stairs, first door on the right. I knocked. The woman who opened the door was dressed in ordinary clothes. The room had a made-up bed, a bureau and two chairs, no sink or toilet. Paintings and knickknacks decorated the walls, creating a pleasing effect. The only window, its curtains pulled back and knotted, faced the corridor, I suppose so managers could monitor her activities. I assume her freedom to leave the establishment was tightly controlled.
I asked her questions aimed at eliciting her need for a course. She knew she had to find another occupation at her age, and she’d been thinking about interior decorating.
I played my role to the hilt, the authoritative male, dressed in a suit and tie. Yes, the field was wide open and an ICS course would help her land a job (I had no idea if that was true).
When I asked if she was married, a required question on our enrollment application, she answered, “Of course not!” I’d insulted her. Her moral compass was intact. If she were married, she wouldn’t be in this occupation.
The course cost $95, and she paid me in $5 bills. The poker players had mentioned that the price for sex was $10.
She told me the woman in the adjoining room was interested in a course. The second woman was also 39 and had the same motive for taking a course. Her room also had paintings and trinkets arranged attractively on the walls.
She enrolled in interior decorating and paid with $5 bills.
Both women were open and courteous, just like other nice women I’d known throughout my life. I could picture them sitting alongside my mother on a church pew, or picking up small children at school.
The second woman said someone else was interested. I opened a door and walked into a situation I wasn’t expecting.
The woman was nineteen years old, a dishwater blond, and she was beautiful.
She had dropped out of high school, so she took a GED course. My wallet bulged with $5 bills.
What I remember most vividly is the women’s dignity. They had made a home for themselves as best they could, under atrocious circumstances.
I wish I could ask them some intrusive questions.
Were they sexually abused as a child? (65 percent-90 percent of women in the sex industry were.)
How old were they when they were coerced into prostitution? (The most common ages are 13 or 14.) “In The Body Keeps the Score,” therapist and researcher Bessel van der Kolk shows how childhood abuse can change a person’s brain, leaving her more vulnerable to sex traffickers.
Did they miss out on what most of us took for granted —parents who loved and protected them?
Or did they lie trembling in bed, night after night, as footsteps creaked on the stairs?
Did the ICS courses help them? Or was I just another man exploiting women?
There’s a song that goes “All I know is I’m not home yet.” I hope you all found better homes, my friends.