Seeing the Innocent Girl in a "Prostitute"

By John W. Fountain

CHICAGO--She was just some poor prostitute, "a $10 whore," they said. Until I found out who she was: "the girl next door."

The turn of conversation was over beer on a summer's night with the fellas in my old West Side neighborhood some years ago. They insisted I knew her, explaining that the girl I once knew had grown up to become a "hype," as in one of the drug-addicted young women who roam inner-city streets looking for the next high in exchange for use of their bodies in whatever pleasures men conjure.

Their services run as cheap as $10, the price of a rock. Hypes were a new breed -- born by the advent of crack. Unlike the ladies of the night whose shadowy figures we saw while growing up in the seventies and eighties, strolling Cicero Avenue or along West Madison Street, hypes were slaves to drugs more than to some rooster-looking, Cadillac-driving pimp.

I cannot afford to be all that judgmental. For am I not as complicit
whether I use these terms or choose simply to hold my peace when others do?

Whoever she was, the fellas insisted I knew her, though I could not for the life in me recall.

''Tia,'' they said. (Not her real name.) "You know her, John... Tia," from around the way, they said, trying to jar my memory. Finally, someone shouted her nickname.

Suddenly, I remembered. And she was no longer just a hype, but flesh, blood and soul.

I knew her mother and father, her family. I remembered how pretty she was, one of those smooth-skinned sisters with a radiant smile, shy eyes, long hair. The kind who could turn heads. Who would grow up someday to be somebody. Quiet. Nice. Innocent. Pure.

Growing up, her mother was protective, her children never allowed to venture far from their front gate. Never disrespectful, Tia was always clean and neatly dressed. She went to Sunday School.

But standing there with the fellas, I realized the little girl I had known only existed in my memory and bore no resemblance to the broken young woman she apparently had become. It still haunts me, not just Tia, but the faces of all the little girls I knew growing up whose lives I saw transformed by unforgiving streets and by crack and heroin that over time sapped the life out of them, made them look old.

I can still envision their scarred faces, frail bodies, the sunken, sad lonely eyes. I see them, beckoning motorists after dark, beneath the yellowish glow of streetlights.

And even now, years later, I can still hear the fellas' voices ringing hollow: She was "just a hype..."

I cannot help but wonder if this "hype thing'' doesn't run so much deeper, whether hype isn't just another word for bitch or "ho," "chicken head," "trick," "hood rat," or "THOT" -- names often used by some black men and even by some black women to refer to black women.

I also wonder why more brothers can't see that using these terms is just another way to justify the inhumane treatment of our sisters, daughters, mothers, girlfriends, wives.

I cannot afford to be all that judgmental. For am I not as complicit whether I use these terms or choose simply to hold my peace when others do?

I also wonder whether the reason my editors, most of them white men, at a newspaper where I worked years ago chose not to run a piece I wrote about prostitution was because they were as much complicit in seeing these women as being less than human, less like their sisters, less like their own daughters.

As I drove not long ago down a strip of Madison Street, it was clear business was still bustling, that somebody's drug-addicted little girls were working the streets. Perhaps it will always be this way. Maybe it doesn't have to be.

Last I heard, Tia had gotten some help, was off drugs, had moved away and was no longer a hype. Except the truth is, she never was.