Friday, 19 April 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Amber Dawn's "How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler's Memoir"

   Known yet unknown, prostitution was a shimmeringly exotic occupation as well as a fatally poisonous one in my young mind.
   While girls at school were routinely called whores, sluts, and scrags (that last term a late 1970s' Fraser Valley regional idiom reserved for a trashy, disreputable young woman), and a few of them in high school were plagued by reputations as willing targets for entire sports teams on a Friday night, to my knowledge no actual prostitutes worked in the small BC towns where I grew up. If there were, they stayed in the shadows and out of harm's way.

   American TV, then, with its cop shows set in L.A. and New York and warehouse district strolls where tough, brazen streetwalkers with over-the-top fashion sense fought and joked and sauntered and bantered and eventually got into cars with single men with ready cash, provided my first impressions of a life that from many angles (and discounting the real dangers of pimps, psychos, and police brutality) looked way more fun than being a secretary or a nurse. 

   Still, an enthralled viewing of Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, set in the same colourful Los Angeles (a fiction that basically collapsed the entirety of that enormous, complex city into the vibrant but tatty corner of Hollywood and Vine), led me to believe in the wisdom of conventional careers: waitresses and dental hygienists might suffer from boredom, I learned, but at least they won't get their faces cut up by a mean pimp who expects productivity in exchange for his investment.

  Books—in particular, The Happy Hustler: My Own Story—gave me other tantalizing glimpses. I can't remember how I obtained my copy, but I know I kept it hidden, stuck in a cubbyhole at bottom of my closet that led to rafters. I pored over it multiple times and savoured whole scenes. And while I no longer recall plot details, I remember feeling entranced by this fantasy of the life, and imagined how exciting it would be to live in an American metropolis and get paid (with money, drugs, cars, jewelry, vacations) to be admired—the centre of attention every time—and for a few weeks I vowed that one day a happy hustler I would be. (Such vows were always fleeting; before and after The Happy Hustler, I planned to be an assassin, a pimp, a fashion designer, a spy, and a cat burglar.)
   Elsewhere in the house, my father possessed a copy of The Happy Hooker, which I read and liked a lot less (for obvious reasons, in retrospect). 

   My father, eager to set his only son on a heterosexual trajectory, also educated me, offering (unsolicited) practical advice based on his own experiences in Calgary brothels back in the day. The advice was medical in nature and instructed me about how to respond if I suspected the "hooer" (his word) I'd just finished with was "dirty." (This patently idiotic advice relied on the antibiotic properties of my own urine, famous sworn enemy to syphilis and gonorrhea as any medical expect will confirm.)

  These early formulations of the figure of the prostitute and the landscape of prostitution rushed to my consciousness as I was reading How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler's Memoir, not least because early in her book Amber Dawn, referring to prostitutes, asks, “Why do we so seldom hear the voices of those whose experience is so widespread?”
   From Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway and network television to kids at school and my father, I realized I'd been raised being told about prostitutes from ostensibly reliable sources who were for the most part not prostitutes. 
   And while these experiences occurred years ago, my guess is they're not all that out of date; I'd bet that circa now, the young routinely learn about societal outsiders and marginalized jobs from people who are invested in telling the stories in a particular way (with familiar, easily digested tropes such as the prostitute as dirty, sinful, fallen, contagious, Other, etc). 
   Dawn understands how damaging that kind of 'knowledge' can be, especially because it grants a kind of cultural permission, one that, for example, might tell a guy it's okay to beat up a prostitute because she doesn't matter, not really, or for others to view prostitutes as lesser beings whose 'immorality' and marginal status means their pain or suffering or even disappearance counts for little (cue "the wages of sin..." etc). 
   A report from the street and a "voice" worth hearing, How Poetry Saved My Life tells compelling stories while encouraging you to examine the truths of your own education.

(Oh, right, my review of Dawn's memoir appears in The Vancouver Sun.)


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