Friday, September 9, 2011

The Third Floor


Blinders and daggers was a 19th century expression used to describe the effects of criminal behavior on the community and the family. Those who broke the law were viewed by society at large through the prism of their bad acts; hence they were viewed through the “blinders,” of those acts, they defined them; sometimes in perpetuity. Daggers were the effects of those bad acts on the family, the prejudice they inspired in the community, the shame they inflicted. They were “daggers” to the heart.


Part I- The Clock

She had come to the midtown apartment building to visit a friend. From his apartment four floors up, he released the door below, letting her inside. On her way down the hallway, past the elevator marked Out of Service and to the stairwell that would take her to the fourth floor, she noticed a man. He seemed to manifest from nowhere. Not there, blink, there.

“I know you are,” he said quickly as she passed him, in garbled, broken speech, the result of which she assumed was inebriation coupled with English as a second language. He was Asian and somewhere between a hard road forty and a holding up well enough sixty-five.

“You disgusting. Dirty. Dirty. Third floor whore!” he berated in her direction, filling the space between them with what to her could only be described as extemporaneous disdain.

His words were heavy with real emotion, angry; yet entirely free of causation as she was sure she’d never seen him before in her life, at least with awareness. It was hard to figure out what to do next as she still had four flights of stairs to traverse. This was New York City, the Grande Dame Capital of bizarre yet benign outburst, of empty, sport provocation. She pulled out her cell phone to call her friend as she made her way up the first flight but couldn’t get any reception inside the building.

“Hooker!” the man called after her and she was disheartened to see him stagger into the stairwell. She had not responded to his jeers but whatever he was feeling, it was heating up, gaining steam. She was a brawny girl, into punk rock music and all its outward trappings, this mentioned only because her appearance was usually enough to discourage encounters of this sort. She decided to move faster, taking the stairs two at a time, but he had unnerved her and in her haste she lost her balance and in a scene straight out of a tragically cliché film, on the third floor landing she tripped over one of her John Fluevog platform heels and the man was on top of her.

“No more you in this building! Dirty! Third floor whore!” the man said as he tried to pick her up by fuzzy, Tripp- brand sweater with a swinging motion, his arms pendulums. He was trying to toss her down the stairs. “Whore! Third floor whore!” His voice was so loud his words seemed to ricochet between the walls. She figured someone in the building would hear.

When he wasn’t able to pull off the tossing maneuver, she saw something happen in his eyes, an idea take shape. Then she saw him decide. She had never been raped before, but she knew that this was his decision. She had heard people say a hundred times over that rape was about power. Later, she would try to find out whom- doctor, survivor, expert- was behind this constant refrain. Yes, of course rape was about power, that was its bare bones foundation, but to equate one with just the other was reductive, like saying eating was about mouth. Rape was about opportunity. The things people do when no one is looking. The things people do once they can.

“Third floor whore!” he said and quickly, so quickly, as her feet kicked and her arms percussed, she recalled her friend saying that there had been a bust at this building the week before. The cops had come in with shields and a battering ram and cleared out a massage parlor on the third floor. That was why the elevator was out of service, the police had discovered its inspection license expired.

Her friend had spoken of seeing a line of crying, half naked women standing in the hallway, all bound at their wrists with plastic handcuffs that looked like ties for garbage bags. He’d said the scent of their mixed perfumes had wafted down the hall and into the stairwell, lingering there for days. It had pleased her that her friend had not referred to the women as whores. She had quietly wondered if she knew any of them, if she had worked with any of them before.

It dawned on her then, in a lurid, lightening flash epiphany, that whatever happened to her there on the landing, whatever the man did to her and to her body, it wouldn’t matter that she was wasn’t working now, that she off the clock now, a civilian visiting a friend, if this man didn’t kill her and especially if he did, her line of work would be noted. From there, everything would be question.

Because if you’ve ever been on that clock, you always are.

She started screaming her friend’s name and the man started ripping at her stockings, which were ripped to begin with, ripped and runneth-ed all over, on purpose, on punk, probably first worn in such a way by Siouxsie Sioux twenty year previous or some working class woman who got a snag and couldn’t afford a new pair.

She thought about this too, in the moments between pounding clock tower heartbeats and clumsy ballet moves of self defense, the storyline of events, of intents, rewritten that her everyday clothing preferences would neatly dovetail. How easy it was for the man to backtrack her skirt to the tops of her thighs with one vicious tug; it was just a swath of fabric with minimal terrain to negotiate.

One of her John Fluevog platforms was at her side. It was a rock, a cast-iron paper weight and she bashed the man in the head with it.

He rolled backwards. She had no memory of getting up. There was the sound and feel of feet on linoleum followed by the feel of feet on rug and then she was outside her friend’s apartment, banging on his door, throwing her body up against it sideways, trying to knock it down like the police had the massage parlor door days before with their battering ram.


Part II- Blinders and daggers

She sat, where her body had come to rest, in the middle of her friend’s living room carpet with her hands awkwardly shielding the torn gusset of her shredded stockings. Her friend reached for the phone but she told him she wanted a moment to think. She had to plead for it. He ran out to the stairwell to look for the man but said that he was gone. No Asians lived in the building that he knew of, he said. It was a small building, four floors with three apartments on each floor.

She thought of an article she had read in a magazine about a gay man who had been forced out of the closet to his friends and family after a beating he had suffered was prosecuted as a hate crime. “If I was foolish enough to think getting attacked would be a spoon full of sugar to help the gay go down, I would have paid someone to beat me up long ago,” he had said.

She could see the police officers in her mind, questioning her, a cup of coffee provided to help calm her nerves, her stockings and clothing offered into evidence, a careful catalog of which rips were purposeful, which rips not fashionable, done by the medical examiner:

Q. DID YOU KNOW YOUR ATTACKER? DID YOUR ATTACKER SAY ANYTHING TO YOU?

A. I DID NOT KNOW MY ATTACKER. HE CALLED ME A WHORE AND KEPT MENTIONING THE THIRD FLOOR.

The side of her skirt was ripped almost to her hip and she had become aware of just how exposed she was in front of her friend. She asked if she could put on a pair of his pants. He was a tall skinny postcard punk boy, the type who bought his clothes at Trash and Vaudeville on St. Marks Place, who spent hundreds of dollars to look haphazard. He was her male equivalent. He brought her a tight purple spandex pair. He left her alone to put them on then quickly returned.

"Now?" he asked.

There had been a time, on her birthday, a year before, when her family had almost found out she was a sex worker. Her birthday had fallen on a Saturday, and early that same morning, 3 am according to the loitering summons she had buried deep in a dresser drawer, she had been threatened with arrest at a hotel in Queens. She had pleaded with the police officer My family is coming up from Massachusetts this afternoon. It’s Saturday, if you arrest me, I won’t get out till Monday. They’ll call every hospital and police station in the Tri-State area if I’m not there…

He had laughed at her.

“Don’t meet too many working girls afraid to get arrested because of their families,” he had said, as if to imply she was either lying or some kind of amateur. “Usually it’s pimps or missed fixes.”

It was the lack of evidence that had forced him to let her go with just the summons, she hadn't even deserved that. Both she and the client had stuck to their stories; she was only there to give him a legal, hourly massage. She was sure some of the girls on the third floor had been emphatic about the same thing.

“I don’t get it,” her friend asked. “What are we waiting for? Are you in shock?”

“So, tell me, in your own words, how would your family feel if they found out what their little girl was doing?” the police officer had asked her, sitting behind a sort of makeshift desk in a bright room off the hotel’s third floor hallway, her driver’s license in front of him as he prepared the summons on a triplicate pad.

It was then that she realized she’d shown him her Achilles heel.

“They’d be mortified,” she’d answered, carefully admitting to nothing yet everything at the same time.

“Mortified,” he’d repeated, “Why?”

Unable to come up with the right elusive answer fast enough, he answered for her.

“You’d be bringing them shame.”

From the way he was looking at her, she could tell he expected her to say something in return, so she repeated his words back to him.

"I'd be bringing them shame."

"By being a whore," he said, flinging her ID and the summons in the direction of where she stood.

Somewhere her friend was speaking. “You’re bleeding!”

She looked down but couldn’t find it.

She recalled a precise, encapsulating phrase. She'd written it down after the encounter at the hotel. It was from a book about the history of immigration to the Lower East Side of New York that a friend had given her as a birthday present.

 Blinders and daggars.

“Your ear, your neck!” Her friend was yelling now. “Come on! This is fucking ridiculous! What’s the matter with you? We have to call the police!”

Q: MAM YOU SAID YOUR ATTACKER KEPT REPEATING THE PHRASE THIRD FLOOR WHORE. UNTIL THIS PAST WEEK THERE WAS A MASSAGE PARLOR RUN OUT OF AN APARTMENT THERE. WAS THAT BUSINESS OR ITS SERVICES IN ANY WAY RELEVANT TO YOUR LIFE?

Just as she opened her mouth to speak, to say there would be no call, that the devil was in the details, not the blood and bruise, there was a loud bang on the apartment door, and the skin on the back of her neck reached out to touch her hair, and she thought he’s found me, he’s found me, how did he know what I was right away? and on the other side of the door a man's voice boomed:

NEW YORK CITY POLICE! OPEN THE DOOR!


© Fiona Helmsley

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