I was walking the dogs yesterday morning. The sun was shining as it does, here in LA. I passed the post office, said a silent hello to the homeless man that sleeps on the steps there, rubbed Molly’s pitty-mix head for finally not growling at him and approached the corner. That’s when I saw what lead to the rest of my day:
A smaller older man was crouched along a chain-link fence next to a younger black woman. He was thin and rat-faced, and seemed to resemble a shifty character “Arthur” in my book, and why I actually noticed him. She seemed scared or annoyed and wasn’t looking at him. My stomach dropped, I felt sick. Because I knew this was a situation.
This past year, I’ve been working with Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble with the development of their Cycle of Violence commissioned play series. The current topic is on sex trafficking. I’ve been honored to attend rehearsals for various developmental script readings of what’s become Tira Palmquist’s play, SAFE HARBOR that will be presented for a run in November. In sessions, we’ve all learned way more about sex and human trafficking than one would ever want to know. It is a terrible, scary business and is happening all the time. Everywhere. By people you wouldn’t suspect and those you would. So, as a result of this education, I’ve been educated to stop, look and listen.
I’m already a very aware person, I don’t always see dead people, but I seem to see all the other shit. I’ll catch arguments, I’ll catch someone crying, I’ll catch joy. I always see people in story, while others may not see them at all, possibly wrapped up in their own.
So, when I saw this young black woman sitting on the ground with an older white man hovering near, I became concerned. Immediately. And this isn’t about ethnicity, except that with me being a black woman, I see myself in her.
I didn’t know what to do, so I kept walking towards and passed them with the dogs. I made eye contact with her and mouthed, “Do you need help?” … Nothing. I heard the man say to her, “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.” That’s what made me nervous. He hopped up, jogged to his car parked in a red zone, and sped off. I got his license plate number. I had no pen and paper, no phone with me and used mnemonic device to remember it. I then quickly circled back to her and while pretending to talk to the dogs, asked again if she needed any help. She was on the phone now, standing, and in a different sense of power but still looked and seemed agitated or possibly scared. She was about my height. Thin. Teenager or more. I heard her say, “I’m f*cking right here on the corner by all the people.” I got scared again, was a car going to whiz by and she was going to have to jump into it? (I saw that once – a waiting, vulnerable-looking teenage boy with a backpack hopped in a car with another man, oy. And years ago on Chicago’s north side, a girl dressed in red, shiny pleather head-to-toe literally jumped out of a moving car as it sped toward the highway on-ramp. I watched her roll and run.)
As this girl hung up, again I asked, do you need help? “A coffee and a muffin. I’m hungry.” I said, “Okay, let’s go.” (There was a coffee shop across the street). I had no wallet with me. I was going to have to work through that when the time came. She then said, “I’ll meet you there. You’re all up in my business right now.”
A man was coming behind us. Walking. I got it. I had to comply. I crossed the street with big pit Molly and little terrier Vivi and sort of waited? I looked around. Pretended to be very interested in the huge film shoot that was setting up behind us. (Yes, a film shoot.) I didn’t want to take my eyes off her at this point. I wanted her to know she wasn’t alone.
The man left, I don’t know why. She and I crossed the street separately toward the coffee shop. And once on that side of the street, she spoke to yet another man, whom she knew. I realized he was, what? A look out? The real mastermind?
I was in over my head.
She told me politely, “Miss, I’ll meet you in there. Thank you.”
I go in the coffee shop; I frequent the joint myself. I had no wallet, no money. And I’m shaking now, because I’m scared and confused. While corralling my jumpy dogs, I blurt out to the millennial baristas, “Um, I think a girl is being trafficked, I need to buy her a coffee, I don’t have any money. I need your help. I’ll pay later”. Something like that. They were like, “I get it, we got you.”
The barista came out with me because she saw I was rattled, and she helped me. We gave the girl the coffee, while the man waited behind her on a bench. I smiled as big as I could to assure her she was fine. I was going to leave, because what could I do now? She said, “Can I have some cream and sugar, please?”
We went inside and now away from the man, I pleaded, “Can I please help you with something, do you need some help?”
She said, “I could use some clothes.”
Not what I expected, but okay. Of course. “What do you need?” She told me she was a simple girl, anything small would work.
She was tiny compared to me. I was like, in my head, “Uh, nothing I have is going to fit you because I’m not small anymore like I used to be.”
I ran home, rushed into our apartment, blurted to Matt’s bewildered face what happened and proceeded to grab some clothes from my “too small” pile in the closet. I grabbed the True Religion jeans my Prague roommate Jacqui gave me three years ago, that I was really hoping I could squeeze back into one day. They were blingy and good for the butt. I hoped the girl would feel good in them as I had, or that if anything, she could sell them. I pulled a turtleneck I got at Goodwill that was a little big and bulky, but I figured would be good for comfyness, then found a t-shirt and a button-down blue-stripped shirt that could you know, be dressed up or dressed down. I was thinking I’d put the Sex Trafficking Hotline in the clothes somehow — I learned about the number from sex-trafficking prevention organization Journey Out, whom I’d interviewed for Lower Depth. I figured I’d write it on a clothes label, stick a note in the jeans pocket. But then I had a better idea. I wrote the number on a piece of paper, grabbed some tampons for her and put it inside the wrapper (Tampax has a …)
As I left, Matt, prepped for morning yoga, said, “You know she probably won’t be there.”
“You cannot bring her home. You cannot.”
“Be careful. I’m proud of you for being brave.”
I rushed out again with my safety dogs and hoped for the best.
When I arrived near the coffee shop, I saw her, but it seemed like she was surrounded by a bunch of people. I stopped. Really scared. I’ll admit, I have an active imagination, but I’m also smart. I thought, “Oh God, There’s a gang of them waiting for me. Now what? Turn around? Retreat? Abort mission?”
I kept walking, holding Molly’s leash tighter for courage and repositioned the plastic bag of the girl’s clothes in my hand. I took a deep breath and continued.
As I neared, turned out there was just one new man near her. One too many for me. And now she was flanked. The men were both black, young looking. Like 20s. And not overly menacing or hard. They could have been three friends hanging out. But they weren’t. As I walked past them, I deliberately made eye contact with the men and smiled quite big. “I see you, you motherfuckers.” And I kept walking into the coffee shop. The problem was that she didn’t see me. She didn’t look up! Fudge.
I sat outside on the back patio of the shop hoping she’d come back there somehow. I waited a long while. I watched people mill about, teapots in hand, having meetings. Men with trimmed grey beards and black t-shirts. Women in messy buns and sundresses. Living their lives. As they should.
I had the dogs and I’d brought my laptop to hopefully get some work done, post hand-off. So I was sort of tethered to the dogs and my stuff, yet torn to her. What if she was stalling the guys and waiting for me? I didn’t want to let her down. She’d trusted me. I didn’t know if I should go back up there, like on my cell phone or something and pretend I was looking for someone so that she could see me…or what. At one point, I saw her walk toward a garbage can and toss something, so I ran closer, flailing my arms hoping she’d see me, but she didn’t.
From where I was sitting, I could see most directions, including the corner where this all began. I watched for them, for her. Nothing.
Eventually, I left and of course, they were gone.
Something like this had happened before and I’d not gone to the police about it. This time, I promised myself I would. So I did.
I went to the station, and said, “I want to talk to someone about sex trafficking in my neighborhood.” It felt weird to say it, but I did. The desk officer was polite, but sent me to another neighborhood precinct that handles these things, told me to talk to OVB, 2nd floor. “What’s that stand for?” I asked. He thought a minute and said, “I can’t remember exactly.”
I went to the next precinct. Sketchier part of town. I knew this place because it was in one of those municipal hubs where you go for parking tickets, registering businesses, and getting marriage licenses and getting in and out of jail. Ugh. No parking. Shitty vibe. I wanted to give up. Truly. What if I’d made all this up? What if it was drugs, not trafficking? What if she was using me to get clothes to sell? What if?? And now I’d spent three hours on this. I’m a freelance writer, if I’m not at my computer, I’m not making any money. I trudged on. Walked up the steps the the 60s-style building (which you know I secretly loved and inspected the vintage design), opened the precinct door to mild chaos and waited.
Apparently Trump was in town yesterday, so the police force was short staffed. I waited and waited while people made their reports to a desk officer – out in the open – for ALL of us to hear. Not cool. Not cool at all. I was already riled up and I didn’t need to hear about a bunch of random serious crimes of which people had been victims. Plus, the entrance to the jail was right there off to left and a woman went in and came out crying. (So many stories). Too much!
Finally, I get my turn. “I want to speak to someone about sex trafficking.” More confident this time.
The desk officer, also kind, also efficient, asked me a few questions about where and when the incident occurred, which I answered. He then said, “I don’t want you to feel like I’m giving you the run-around, I’m not. But we don’t have detectives here. Especially today since we’ve got Trump here. You need to call Vice.”
Ugh. Ugh. UGH!
He gave me the number and I left.
I called on my way out and a woman’s voice on the voicemail said something like, “Hello this is XYZ, I’m out of the office until May 28th”. May? It was September. If people are too backlogged to change a voicemail recording, how will they help me with this?
I left, feeling dejected and overwhelmed, wondering what my next steps would be.
Matt walked the dogs this morning. I told him to watch for the girl. I described her, “Tall, my height, thin, black. Let me know if you see her.”
If you see something, do something.
From Journey Out:
You can always call the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888373788) or CAST’s local hotline (888-539-2373)/Text BeFree (233-733).
Ms. Peppur, I loved the story you told. Very scary situation, but also very brave that you tried to help the girl and she was receptive until a certain point. Maybe she was trying to keep you out of danger when she was surrounded by all those guys. I know you know a lot from your work, about sex trafficking, but it can be very dangerous. Glad you are okay through the ordeal. I think you gave it your best shot and tried to help under the circumstances.
Thank you, C. Jaye! I hadn’t thought about her protecting me. You just don’t know…! Cheers to you.
Pingback: When gratitude comes wagging – Pen and Peppur