“He’s crazy!” The streetwalker at the sign was referring to the young boy dressed in girl’s clothes. I answered, “No, he’s just acting out. It’s not who he really is.” We had been reaching out to this boy for about 3 years already but that’s a whole other story. The streetwalkers had gotten my attention. I turned to them and began to chat. I asked if they had finished school and one of them volunteered that she had finished 11.5 years of school. “That much?” I asked. “Why didn’t you finish school?” She laughed and said, “Stubborn. Shame isn’t it?” I asked her if she planned on going back but she said no it wouldn’t work to go to school and do this job. A man got her attention and the girl turned away from me and faced the man as a woman.
“I’m tired of this.” The other streetwalker volunteered. My eyes were heavy, but “Ginger” wanted to talk so I leaned up against the wall and listened intently. She was older but I would not have guessed 34. Ginger admitted she had only finished 2nd grade. She told me she had sacrificed everything for her family. As she talked, men paused in front of us to examine the merchandise. Unlike the others, Ginger seemed oblivious to their attempts. Getting no response, they moved on and her story didn’t miss a beat.
Ginger was 17 years old when she started dancing in the bars. It wasn’t long before a German man began to keep her as his girlfriend. He was just the first in a long string of disappointments. Ginger said when she reached 25 she was too old to dance in the bars and she moved to the streets. My mind did the math. Ginger has been doing this for 17 years already. Ginger has seen all kinds. Many took her to their rooms, used her sexually and then refused to pay anything. Ginger has learned that she has to demand money up front and she now refuses to engage otherwise.
“I am so tired of this work,” Ginger blurted out. “I am going to work 2 more years and then that’s it. I’m quitting!” When I asked her why she said she wants to save money so she can go home and build a house. She takes care of her parents and they have to pay 50,000 baht ($1665 US) a year on government loans. It’s a heavy burden that she carries dutifully. I asked Ginger how much money she makes a month. “Not much,” she said. “There aren’t many customers.” “Have you saved any money?” I asked her. She said she only makes about 6000 baht ($200) a month and by the time she pays for her transportation, food, and room there isn’t much left. “I used to ride the bus for 3 baht (10 cents) but now it’s 8 baht (26 cents)! Sometimes I just walk. Food has gotten so expensive. I have to pay 50 baht ($1.65) around here for a dish. I skip dinner now to save money.”
My tired mind was trying to wrap itself around the information but it wasn’t making sense. 17 years? The young ladyboy was acting out behind me, the men were parading themselves in front of us, and the music of the bars was calling for attention. I looked at the bar scene and then at the girls next to us pretending they were enamored with the unattractive older men who were trying to get as close as they could without actually buying any time. How could anyone cope with this for 17 years and still be standing? “Aren’t you afraid of getting AIDS?” I asked. She replied, “Oh I get checked every month!” Hearing the words, “Negative,” when tested month after month, year after year, seemed to have washed away all apprehension or awareness of high risk.
6000 baht is a low salary for Bangkok these days. I told Ginger about NightLight’s work. “We pay more than you make on the street. Come check us out,” I encouraged her. You would make more money, work days, be in a great environment and can even go back to school if you want!” She paused in her story long enough to look interested and ask a couple questions but then she said, “I’ll just do this 2 more years. Then I’ll quit!”
“You’ve been doing this for 17 year already and you haven’t saved any money. What makes you think you are going to do better in the next two years?” I couldn’t help asking. It just didn’t make sense. A 17 year journey to nowhere and still she wasn’t changing direction. “I know what I have to do. If I really try hard, I think I can do it!” Ginger admitted she really wants her parents to be proud of her. “Are they proud of you?” I asked her gently. “When I bring them lots of stuff they are proud of me! Then my step mom makes me food and I feel full.” For a brief moment her eyes lit up and she looked happy.
My heart ached for Ginger. 17 years of sacrifice, gambling time after time with hopes of hitting the lucky jackpot only to end up with a consolation prize; a lifetime of dashed hopes for a few moments of approval from her parents. Life has been hard and disappointing but as long as there was any chance of a lucky break, Ginger didn’t want to move from her spot. And that’s all it really is, a chance in a million.
I looked this sweet woman in the eyes. Tired eyes. Still beautiful at 34, but tired -so tired. I held her arm gently and said, “I want you to know that you have a choice now. I am offering you a way out. If you decide you just can’t take it anymore come see us.” I assured her that we would be around regularly and the offer is open to her whenever she decides she is ready. Ginger lifter her hands in a wai and thanked me. There is a lot of story and a lot of pain in17 years of prostitution, and she probably could have talked all night. It was late for me, though and I was ready for a safe clean bed. Ginger probably didn’t get to sleep that night and unless things picked up, she probably didn’t even see a bed until morning. There’s nothing glamorous about prostitution. It’s a cruel slave master that seduces the desperate with an empty promise of opportunity. The woman’s dreams get buried deep and hope is but a fragile thread. I handed Ginger a rope of hope but only time will tell what she will do with it. I pray time will be on her side and not be another exploitive master.