Company at Any Price

| September 16, 2002

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She kept looking over my shoulder to the street, scanning for police. She answered my questions in one or two words, sometimes a clipped sentence. After all, clients were waiting.

Those clients, sitting in a half-dozen idling trucks parked next to ours, were just down the road from a Birmingham, Ala., truck stop. They were willing to risk paying the price of a sexually transmitted disease for those brief moments of euphoria that would transcend the drudgery of the road, the pitiful prospect of another night alone in a strange town. They were, in a sense, as desperate as this woman — Janice, as she identified herself – wearing a T-shirt brightly emblazoned with a Baptist church message.

Janice’s desperation: “I got a drug habit.” To pay for her crack and help support her grown children, Janice was getting $25 a trick. She would give $5 to the man who had approached us at the filling station across the street, asking if we needed a “nice female.”

Yes, we did, though not for the usual reason.

I was spending a long weekend with one of Overdrive‘s equipment editors, Tim Barton, driving across the Southeast. We parked in the evenings at truck stops where we had heard prostitution and drugs were a problem, gathering research for Overdrive‘s “Lot Lizards” project.

As we did, I thought about the drivers committed to much more than a weekend. How for them, trucking has a way of clarifying basic human needs. You drive all day, you think about where you’re going to eat, and it’s a fine thing when you finally chow down. You get tired, you pull off and sleep, and the world looks a lot better when you return to the wheel. You spend hours and hours bouncing around in a cab, alone, listening to the same old music on the radio and the same yapping airheads on the CB, and when you finally climb out you’re ready for some human interaction.

For some drivers, that means conversation with fellow drivers in the truck stop restaurant. For some drivers at a truck stop in south Atlanta, it meant paying $5 to park their rigs a few blocks away and look for a chatty waitress or friendly locals at Southern Comfort or the other honky-tonks around the corner. For some drivers, it means sex with a stranger. “Commercial company,” as it’s often called.

A 29-year-old woman in West Memphis, Ark., said she had worked Atlanta truck stops the prior year as a prostitute following an abusive marriage. Now she had a married “sugar daddy” putting her up in a small town apartment in Arkansas.

When I found her, she was wandering the lot, looking for someone to buy her a sandwich. Her hand kept nervously returning to her stomach. I agreed to buy her one, and we talked.

She said she had come to town that weekend to party with old friends. Got drunk the night before. Claimed she had quit drugs, quit prostitution.

“It is nasty, and it is degrading,” she said. “A lot of men don’t take baths for a long time. Me, too. Sometimes I didn’t take one.”

Some truckers were mean, she recalled. Some were just lonely. “Sometimes they’d pay me just to sit and talk with them. Talk, watch TV or give them a massage or a back rub,” she said.

In Andy Duncan’s report on how Nevada’s legal brothels cater to truckers, prostitute “Phoenix” had a similar observation: “Some truckers don’t even necessarily book parties,” she says. “They just stop and take a break to talk to the girls and visit before moving on. It’s like a home away from home.”

As I say, trucking has a way of highlighting basic needs. It’s both pathetic and heartwarming to think of a driver, used to whipping out his wallet for things he takes for granted at home, such as a meal or a shower, forking over cash yet again for something as basic as the fellowship of another human being. And if I know truckers, I’d bet some of those rare ones who pay the girls for companionship other than sex are giving at least as much as they’re taking. Giving something more than cash to someone who, like them, could use a little company at any price.

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