Chris Arnade Photography

The Walking Dead

(Jennifer, 21)

“If I had the courage I would put a gun to my head and blow it off. Instead I am slowly killing myself out here one day at a time.”  — Bernice, prostitute and addict. Hunts Point, Bronx

The prostitutes of Hunts Point trade their body to strangers for money. They do this so they can buy drugs, pay for a room rather than sleep in the streets, and get food

Sexual abuse, physical abuse, and poverty haunt their pasts. Complicated and painful pasts have led their search for solace in drugs: Heroin, crack cocaine, angel dust, meth, and more.

They come to Hunts Point young, running from their family, because it has “the best drugs on the east coast,” and they can openly sell their bodies.

They can go to “Hero City,”* a busy corner surrounded by apartment buildings, and get pimped by young skinny men with names like Payroll, Mosquito, and Escrow, men who cluster around bodega doors, always moving yet going nowhere. The pimps are local kids playing thug, with low slung jeans, bright sneakers, and baseball caps tilted to half cover their eyes. The pimps will feed the women drugs, say they love them, and then put them to work, to stroll down Spofford Avenue, past the school, past the church, past the many bodegas. “He’s my daddy, my shorty.” The pimp is often the first man in their lives to give them gifts and sweet talk them. The pimps also physically abuse the women, but sadly they are not the first men to beat them, so it is not unexpected.

(Pam, 42)

Some addicts become “renegades” and work the more desolate streets amongst the shuttered warehouses, alone except for other prostitutes. They walk up and down the dim streets, where the only traffic consists of johns, police, and semi trucks headed toward the market.

They can buy a ten-dollar bag of heroin or crack from dealers on Garrison or Seneca Avenue whenever their body demands it and they have the money. The dealers are easy to find, angled against a buildings doorway, or slinging drugs from the front of the many auto body shops.

These women live mostly on the streets: Sleeping in the cabs of parked trucks, under parked trucks, under bridges, on the rooftops of apartment buildings, in abandoned buildings, in empty lots. They wash up in either the McDonald’s or the 24-hour laundromat bathroom. The few possession they own are stored in bags stashed in hidden spaces.

(Elizabeth, 26 and Courtney, 22)

They dress in revealing but practical clothes, sometimes wearing thick makeup and brightly colored wigs. They wear sneakers or flats so they can run from the police or johns if they need to.  If they are desperate and need ten bucks to ease the dope sick, they will come out in jeans and a t-shirt, stripping down to their underwear if times are really tough. “I ain’t catch a date in over an hour. I need money real bad.”

Their dance alternates between parading down the street for the johns and hiding in the shadows from the police. They are experts at disappearing. “I have hid many times in dumpsters. Saw a patrol car, so I dove in. Sat there like an hour out-waiting him.”

The police stop them regularly. The veteran officers will cut them slack. Tell them to go home, maybe even ask if they need anything. The younger cops are less forgiving, throwing tickets at them: Disorderly conduct, open container, public urination, littering. Rarely do they get actual prostitution tickets.

(Joette, 56)

The johns are crude men, in the market for sex. They circle slowly through Hunts Point, tinted windows half rolled down. They have the stare of hunters, eyes scanning the length of the prostitutes’ bodies. When they spot someone they circle a few more times before pulling up to discuss price.  They take their frustrations out on the prostitutes, sexually and physically. ‘Look at me, I am a man.’

The women take the johns to the “dumpsters,” an empty lot where construction dumpsters are stored. They take them to the back of parked semis. They take them to an empty parking lot near the old Coke distribution center. They take them there and they “suck their dicks.”

After each john, the prostitutes run up the hill to busy parts of Hunts Point to cop some drugs.

They need to catch five to ten dates a day, to clear over a hundred dollars. They sometimes resort to robbing johns or boosting from local stores.

They find themselves in a loop of sex to pay for drugs, and then more drugs to forget the sex. “I have to be high out here. To forget the danger, to forget what I am doing.”

(Diana, 21, smoking crack)

They ramp up the dosage as they try to outrun the dope sick that comes quicker. They soon need more and different drugs, as their bodies slowly acclimate to the endless injections. 

Addiction overtakes them, eventually robbing them of everything. “What have I lost to addiction? My house, my children, and most of all my dignity.”

They end up with nothing but the willingness to sell their flesh for drugs, molded by a life riddled with abuse, from beginning to end.

“We are zombies. The walking dead.” – Jennifer.

(Tiffany, 43)

The full series can be found here: Faces of Addiction

*Hero City is the name of the deli at the corner. It has also become the general name to describe the area. Has a homonym ever been more ironic than this?

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