"Welcome to my world. For your sake, don't stay too long."
It is not uncommon for the world of the cabbie to brush up against the world of the pimp, the prostitute and the stripper. In fact, one could argue we're all just different kinds of fish, swimming in the same seedy ocean. I've spoken of this before, more than once. So get your swimsuits on kids, because we're going to take a dip in that well again.
It was about a year ago. I'd been working without a break all night. I was ready to pack it in, when dispatch offered me a fare from Millers Luck to Mountain Lake. This suited me perfectly, because the guy who drives the car during the day lived in Mountain Lake. So that was at least 350 sek, then I could dump the car and crawl back into the hole I tentatively call home. So I accepted.
The name on the screen was "Tarzan", and immediately an image of a certain kind of man at a certain kind of age leaped into my head.
I arrived at an apartment building at the edge of Miller's Luck. And out came this guy. He was dressed in shorts, flip flops and a ragged wife beater. He was in his mid forties, and was probably quite handsome and well built during the 80's. Now he was potbellied, had his thinning hair pulled back in a ponytail. In essence, he looked like a male porn star past his prime, oozing with slightly rancid machismo. The kind of dude that would call himself "Tarzan".
Kinda like this, but somehow less tastefully dressed.
There was a woman at his side, who was significantly younger than him and small, dark and pretty. Way out of his league. Where he was dressed in laundry day clothes, she was dressed as someone who has somewhere to go. Jeans, shirt, jacket, white pumps.
1. She was going to Mountain Lake, and he was staying here.
2. She was not his girlfriend- not only did they look deeply incompatible, but if she were, she'd likely be staying at his place.
3. His entire vibe suggested that he was not a respectful-long-term-relationship kinda guy.
From this, I drew the following conclusion: He had paid her well for her time with him, and now it was time to send her away.
Like the old sexist joke says: "What do you call a woman in the morning? A cab!"
She got into the cab, and he leaned in through the window.
"Hey Mr Cabman. I want to make a deal with you."
"A fixed rate to Mountain Lake."
"No can do, sir. Meter or nothing."
"See the thing is, I'm not the one going on the trip. She's going to Mountain Lake. So I want to pay in advance."
Hypothesis 1 confirmed.
"All right..." I made a quick mental calculation. "400 all right with you?"
"Perfect!" he paid and then turned to her. "Thanks so much for tonight. Same time next week?"
Hypothesis 3 confirmed.
She nodded and blew him a kiss. I shifted the car into drive and away we went.
Customers don't always like it when a cabbie talks to them. Some just want to get through the trip, pay and be done with it. I usually probe them with this line: "So, how are we doing tonight?"
Depending on what they say, and how they say it, I can usually gauge whether or not they want me to keep my mouth shut.
"Oh, I'm tired," she said in accented English. "I've been working all night. How are you?"
"Oh the same... Been working all night. Sucks, don't it?"
"Yeah. But you gotta make that money."
"Amen, sister. What do you work with?"
"You sure you want to know?" she said with a somewhat skeptical smile.
"I work in Rose Grove."
Well. Imagine that. It's not often every single one of my prejudices turn out to be completely correct. So we started chatting.
Her name was Miriam and she was Roma, from Romania. She talked about her work and about the girls down at Rose Grove and how she had become, to use her own words "an old girl". She was basically running things down there. "Maybe you recognize me?"
"Perhaps," I said. "I remember a man who had a heart attack down there, and a bunch of the girls helping him while the ambulance was on its way.
"Yes, yes, I remember you," she smiled. "You stepped out of the cab and asked if everything was all right."
We chatted a bit and she started talking about how a couple of years ago there had been a big bust down there, and the police had arrested six men down there, for pimping. Apparently, she was the one who had blown the whistle on that one (in Sweden, it is perfectly legal to be a prostitute, but it is illegal to buy sex or to the purveyor of prostitutes. The idea is to de-stigmatize the sex-workers and shift responsibility to the johns and pimps - the result has been to drive prostitution further underground).
Anyway, she had blown the whistle on them after they had come to her and told her that she couldn't work there unless she gave her money to them.
"I said, 'Of course I can, it's a free country. of course I can work here'. They said 'No you can't'. But I know the police, and I know everyone around. So I called them, and the police had come and that was that."
Before she had come to Sweden, she had worked in various places in Europe. In particularly Spain. She spoke of Spain with a certain wistfulness, talking about how pretty the men were there. I asked her which country she preferred working in; Spain or Sweden.
"Because it's legal. You don't have to work on the street. You just go into a night club, or a brothel, and approach customers. It's a lot more relaxed, a lot safer. The people are more beautiful, it's warmer. Lovely."
"Why are you in Sweden?"
"Because the economic crisis. People in Spain don't have money to spend on sex. So I came here, where the money is. I have a life here now. I have an apartment, I have friends and neighbours in Mountain Lake. My son is going to start school next year."
I asked her if she thought sex-work should be completely legalized in Sweden, to which she shook her head emphatically. She preferred Sweden's laws to stay as they were, because if it were completely decriminalized, every single prostitute in Europe would make their way here, saturating the market. The competition would be too high. I couldn't help but smile at that. Whatever her life choices, I found myself enjoying her business sense.
She told me she refused to service Arabs. Apparently, of all her customers, Arabic men tended to treat her like shit because of her Roma heritage. I decided against preaching a message of tolerance and moral gray areas. After all, I wasn't the one who had to get into bed with them.
I asked her if she worked for someone, and she snorted.
"Of course I don't," she said. "I'm not that stupid. That's my money. I put in the time, I do the work, I should have the money. I don't share that money with anyone, I use that money to live my life. If you were my boyfriend, if you lived with me, I'm not gonna give you any money. I'd give you food, I'd feed you. I'll pay for your food, but beyond that, no. It's my money."
So she was an independent contractor. I do not presume to know anything about her life, or any of her struggles. I'm saying that she was a bona fide "happy hooker", and a true hero of the free market. As I said, I didn't know anything about her beyond what she chose to say. That being said, she seemed to be in charge. She seemed to have taken this, let's be honest, pretty shitty opportunity and made it her own. She owned it. There's something admirable about that.
It could have been a brave face, it could have been swagger. But what I sensed in her was this intense pride. She did her thing and she would not anyone else tell her how to live her life. She had a good relationship with the various social and charitable services that were available to help the sex workers in the city. Some of you may remember the saint of Rose Grove - Miriam knew her. Apparently, because of the prostitutes' legal status, she was fairly happy that the Police didn't crack down too hard on the Johns, since that would be bad for business.
I asked her: "Well, if you don't want to work on the street, why not do it online? Like, put out an ad or set up a page."
She said no, because the only people who'd contact her would be the aforementioned Arabs. She wouldn't be able to screen any potential customers.
Sometimes I drive customers that I take a liking to. People who treat me with respect and are interesting. I usually give my calling card to them, since I'd rather be driving people I've screened and deemed worthy than getting random ones assigned to me (not unlike Miriam herself). However, I decided against it for the simple reason that I didn't want to impose on her. I didn't want her to feel like I'd gotten a direct link to her. Her business is a high-risk one, and her privacy, such as it is, also serves as protection.
I do hope to drive her again though. It's rare to meet someone with that level of self-respect.