The pimps got on the bus at the stop just before the end of the line. The end of the line was Rikers Island and the stop before was just at the foot of a very long bridge. I’d read somewhere that the Rikers Island bridge was over five thousand feet long and before it was built the only way to reach the island was by ferryboat. Now the bridge connected the island with the City, but the largest penal colony in the United States was still remote. But not so remote, I wrote in my notebook, that pimps couldn’t manage to slouch out past the great glittering skyline, hats on their heads, to haul in their booty. I added an exclamation point, then glanced out the window. Here the East River swirled up into a curse from the days of the Dutch: Helegat, bright passage, anglicized to Hell Gate—sinister waters. Hell Gate: where killer currents swirled out from under the Triboro Bridge (I was scribbling again now) and swept around Rikers Island where it lay, between La Guardia Airport and the Hunt’s Point sewage treatment plant, between sludge pumps and the rolling sky. Between shit and heaven.
We were all riding the Hazen Street bus, which stopped daily
in front of Bloomingdale’s, in Manhattan, where I got on—then crossed the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge and trundled out through Queens, all the way to the foot of that mile-long span. Cars were not allowed on the Island, only Corrections vans, work vehicles, and prison shuttles, which looked like golf carts—and the daily bus. As we crossed the bridge, planes skidded through the clouds above us, above the flat-topped cellblock buildings—nine jails for men, one for women.
I stashed my pen in my pocket, then pulled it out again. I’d noticed that, as always, the pimps had left their Cadillacs and loaded Lincolns gleaming in the lot on the Queens side, or near side, of the bridge, parked next to the Hondas and Pintos of the corrections officers, below the twenty-foot-high posted sign: you are now entering rikers island prison complex and thank you: new york city department of correctional services. They lounged in the front of the crowded bus, in the entry well near the hunched-over driver. I watched them tapping the floorboards with their metal-tipped walking sticks. Their faces were grave under their plumed hats. This gravity was shaken as we crossed under the flight paths of the jets taking off and landing at La Guardia, just a few hundred yards across the water. The bridge rose up high enough for ships to pass under, and it stood directly in front of Runway 13. Landing approach lights were hung beneath the bridge roadway. I’d read somewhere about the bridge and its history, though I couldn’t remember where—and I doubted that the pimps or my fellow passengers would be very interested in any case to know what I knew about it.
The pimps tried to maintain their solemn, sinister expressions, though their faces began to vibrate slightly, then steadily, as the roar of a descending plane shook the bus. They looked as if they were going to fly apart. I envisioned jagged pieces of pimp-face: stud- ringed noses and shrewd, cash-quick eyes swirling out the grimy bus windows into the breath-colored suck of a jet contrail. I wrote all this down, struggling to keep my handwriting steady. The bus, which had been noisy, smoky, and rocking to ghetto-blaster favorites all through Queens, fell silent. I glanced out at the expanse of oily water as the prison buildings came into view. So close to the airport, I wrote, that a prisoner peeking through a mail-slot casement could see the heat waves shuddering above the tarmac; a prisoner could sniff the breeze and smell jet fuel.
I closed my notebook as the bus parked outside the Reception Center and the pimps eased out through the hissing doors, their walking sticks hooked over their shoulders. The rest of the passengers got off hurriedly, pushing a little, obeying the overhead speaker’s commands to form individual visitor lines for the Adolescent Remand Shelter, C-76 (the Men’s House), or finally the House of D, the Women’s House of Detention.
The pimps didn’t form lines—they remained outside the Reception Center in a cluster, smoking joints and talking. Whenever an unescorted woman passed them, they would sing out: “Hey mama, hey mama? Whatjoo do for, bitch! Come here, girl, you hear? You hear me?”
They shouted at me and I ignored them. I knew why they were there: they had business interests on the Island, vested and new. The hooker who’d served her short sentence or been bounced out of court would be coming out through the Reception Center doors, ready to go back to work. But the New Interest was the releasee who’d never been in The Life, never whored before, never known that a woman fast on her back could make seven hundred dollars a night. I knew that the New Interest would be dropped by a Corrections vehicle on the prison side of the bridge where the bus rolled in. I knew that the New Interest would be wearing ill-fitting rumpled clothes and shoes too large for her feet. The New Interest would be carrying five dollars of good- luck money from the City of New York in her jacket pocket. Nestled in that same pocket would be a hot tip scribbled on a folded bit of paper —a possible position at the phone company, one hundred dollars a week. That job tip might have come from me, after all—I knew everything I knew because I had been working for the summer in a spectacularly ineffective rehabilitation program called AfterCare. As a writer-spy, I told myself, a writer-spy.
I had been employed for a few months now at the Women’s House as an AfterCare worker, and now that I knew a little bit about how the system worked—I had a photo I.D. pass in my wallet and I’d survived Civilian Orientation—I’d asked a favor of the warden. I asked her if I could teach an evening poetry workshop at the Women’s House. I stood in front of her desk, revealing myself, my passion for words, my desire to share this passion. I hastened to add that I’d been to graduate school in creative writing and that my first book of poems was about to be published. I felt I was qualified to teach. I had a lot more to say, but she raised her hand and nodded at me, glancing up over her glasses.
“Yes. Fine, Miss Mattox. Talk to the Dep.”
“Great,” I said. “No other questions, then?”
I was a polite young woman, but my one-note politeness hid a mob of angry contradictions. For one thing, I was angry because I was polite. I wanted to be an unconventional woman, I wanted to be tough, taken seriously, worth the trouble I’d cause. It happened that I was pretty and didn’t want to be. Yet did. I longed to erase my looks even as I glanced sideways at their effect. I wished to be invisible but seen. I announced myself a Free Woman, identified myself as a radical feminist, but flashed a smile I’d hidden behind since I was a toddler; I wore lipstick called Moon Sugar and let my light hair grow long and streaked like Gloria Steinem’s when she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny.
I was here at the Women’s House, I told myself, because I wanted to know what it felt like to be a woman living outside the law. That was it: Jesse James as a streetwalker, Annie Oakley gone bad, shooting up the church picnic. I wanted to know what it was like to be a poet whose words could break open the bars—I wanted to know firsthand how adversity could make a woman utterly fearless.
Tonight was my first workshop meeting at the Women’s House. As I got off the bus, I thought about what I would say to the women, my students. Usually I walked fast, usually I hurried—but tonight I was moving a little slowly, preoccupied.
The pimp stood right smack in front of me. I hadn’t noticed that I’d veered slightly out of my usual beeline path to the Reception Center and he had, of course, like a shark sensing flailing in the water, picked up on my momentary hesitation.
“Hey bitch—look here in my eyes.”
I tried to move around him but he glided ahead of me, blocking my path. He was tall, hatted and plumed like all the rest, with a cigarette half smoked hanging from his lips. I tried again to step around him in the other direction—but he blocked me again. As he moved in front of me, I took in a quick series of impressions: lavender-tinted aviator glasses, bell-bottoms, a velvet frock coat, and high-heeled snakeskin boots. He smiled. A diamond glinted in his front tooth. For all his attempt at badass drag, for all his attempt to loook fly, he looked prissy to me. Beneath his wide cruel mouth, his chin receded, turtlelike; his features appeared undeveloped, like a child’s. He took the cigarette from his mouth and held it delicately between his fingers. Then he put it back between his lips, inhaled, removed it again, and blew smoke in my face. I was aware suddenly of the planes stacked overhead in their holding patterns—I wondered how many people sat up in the clouds above us, holding cigarettes and drinks in their hands, smoke in their eyes.
“Blondie, I’m talkin’ to you. You hear me, Blondie? You see me, Green Eyes? You speak, girl?”
We stared at each other through the blue drifting exhalation. The river breeze picked up his cologne—a greeny bog-waft of Paco Rabanne. I said nothing.
“You a social worker?”
The eyes behind the tinted lenses were meant to be menacing, mesmerizing: slap-you-around-then-fuck-you eyes. Jesus, what an incredible moron, I thought.
I smiled at him.
“I’m a poet. I’m here to teach a poetry workshop at the Women’s House.”
He blinked: a crack in his veneer. He looked confused. Was I making fun of him? Then he threw back his head and laughed so loudly that it attracted the attention of a couple of his lounging comrades, who cocked their heads and began to sidle over.
“I got a poem,” the first pimp announced, never breaking eye contact with me, still blocking my passage. He was speaking very loudly now, almost shouting—so that his community could hear.
“I got a poem,” he repeated, smirking at me. Then he struck a pose, gesturing with his right hand as if declaiming, and recited, half singing: “Got me a slash called Dime a Time / Slap her ass and she do the grind—”
He pumped the air with his pelvis. “Like this.”
Then, “You like that poem, Blondie?”
“Not really,” I said. “It lacks metrical assurance and doesn’t take risks, diction-wise.”
He stared at me, then shook his head, truly rattled.
“Bitch!” he cried, “what the fuck you talkin’ about?”
He gestured toward me, calling the pimp-collective closer to witness.
“This bitch crazy out her head!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two male corrections officers coming toward us. They were walking slowly, I noticed. There were a lot of pimps gathered around us by now: a veritable panderers’ convention.
What sense did it make to alienate a flock of pimps? Even at a distance, I could read the C.O.s’ expressions. They were irritated that some fool girl had gotten herself mixed up with the jackals, maybe caught in cross fire.
But I was driven, by a lifelong near-diabolical desire to make all things right. I’d believed, growing up, that my mother was the living human embodiment of Justice, and her passion for completely subjective fairmindedness had flowed into me, her daughter. I’d overcome my politeness now—and I desired to show my tormentors a better way. They would see it somehow: there were other worlds for women—intellectual, imaginative, spiritual. A plane screeched through the air above us on its descent to Runway 13, flaps up and landing gear extended.
“There’s also”—I raised my voice over the engine noise—“the matter of credibility. If the poem’s subject only makes ten cents each time— then what do you, her . . . the speaker of the poem, make?”
I noticed suddenly that he was sweating—looking at me with the same irritation I’d seen on the faces of the C.O.s, and other men before this. Stronger than his desire to humiliate me now was a pure high- register annoyance that had settled like a migraine behind his eyes. We could hear the plane decelerating as it cleared the bridge and zeroed in on Runway 13. Then the jet roar softened to a whine and evaporated into the breeze.
The pimp pushed his great hat back on his head, mumbling to himself. Then he lunged at me suddenly, his face in mine, nose to nose. I took a step back.
“I get it all, slit. I get the whole all.”
“Come on, girlie, this way,” a C.O. called from a few yards away.
“The whole all,” he repeated, recycling his single insight. His eyes were cranked wide, staring into mine.
“Nothin’ go to a ho but what her man give. You see that back?”
I glanced at one of the C.O.s, a tall, worried-looking man with a shock of white hair, who shook his head at me. Don’t answer, his eyes said. He held his hand out tentatively, politely, as if he were asking me to dance.
I reached out to take the hand and felt a grip on my arm, spinning me back around so fast that I lost a breath—we were eye to eye again. The pimp spoke very softly now—leaning in to me, a gaze depthless as tin.
“I’m talkin’. To you. Bitch. I’m sayin’ to you: You see that back?”
He drew out each syllable. I flinched out of his grasp and grabbed the C.O.’s hand.
“I see it,” I said, as convincingly as I could. “I got it.”
Under my breath I added “asshole,” and the C.O. shot me another powerful warning look.
As I walked away with my escorts, the crowd parted and there was a grumbling chorus of jeers and threats—and above all that, one shout: “Hey Blondie! Stick with the po-tree! You ain’t shit good at anything else!”
“Great,” the C.O. on my left growled. “Way to go. They sit out here day and night, calm for them. Then you come along and get them all riled up. Let me tell you, the last thing you want out here is an alert pimp.”
The other C.O. turned to me, raising his voice as another plane roared in over us.
“You work here, right? What were you thinking there, Miss? Talking to that sleaze? They’re carrying—a lot of these guys.”
I looked at him.
“They’re packing guns and other weapons. The one talking to you? Did you see the firearm?”
“He had a gun?”
“Miss. We can’t do anything as long as they keep their distance from the entrance and keep order. As long as they don’t bring their piece inside. But they’re just lookin’ for opportunities, you know what I mean? When you see them? From now on? You need to just keep on walkin’.”
“Right,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
But I wasn’t sorry. For some reason, I felt ready now to teach
poetry at the Women’s House.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Channeling Mark Twain by Carol Muske-Dukes. Copyright © 2007 by Carol Muske-Dukes. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.