We called her Miss Memphis because we hadn’t yet learned her real name. She had shown up at the motel a couple of nights earlier, parking her car in the handicap spot right in front of our door. It wasn’t every day that we had young ladies all but land on our door step, so my roommate and I stepped outside to survey. She looked to be about our age, brown skin, straightened black hair; quite pretty, but in a rough sort of way, and covered in tattoos, from the side of her face down to the tops of her feet. She finished selecting a few articles of clothing from the one small suitcase in the trunk of the car, and started to walk past us. We couldn’t just silently watch like a couple of creeps and I knew I had to say something before my tipsy roommate said anything foolish, so I asked her where she was coming from. She said Tennessee. She had the same distinct accent as some of the other guys on the crew, and I guessed right away that she was from Memphis. I was right. What brought her to New Orleans?
“Work,” she said. “I’m a dancer.”
They always referred to themselves as ‘dancers’. Almost all of the women at this motel seemed to be in the same occupation. Of course, they were not in town for a New Orleans Ballet Convention. Every night, usually around 11, they would hop into a car or a taxi and head for one of the many “Gentleman’s Clubs”. Often times, the destination is somewhere on Bourbon St., but there are plenty others littered across the rest of the city.
Over the next few days, I traded a few “Good Morning’s” and other cursory phrases with Miss Memphis, usually because she often came back just after sunrise, when the rest of the crew and I were getting ready to leave for the day, and she always parked in that same spot right in front of the door. One evening, as my roommate and I were holding court outside our door, she pulled into her usual spot and climbed out toting an armful of groceries. Partially to be polite, and probably also just to one-up my roommate, I offered to carry some of the bags. On the way up to her perch above us, on the third floor, I learned a little more about Miss Memphis.
She had started ‘dancing’ six years ago, at age 18. She worked primarily for just one line of clubs, and traveled all over the country for them; New Orleans, California, even Hawaii. From what I could tell, she made good money, and considered herself one of the fortunate ones in her trade. She wanted to know if I had brothers and sisters, and noted that she and my younger sister were the same age. I cringed inwardly at the thought of my own sister being caught up in that line of work.
As the stairs opened out into the balcony outside her door, she handed me a bag of Cheetos and a small bag of ramen noodles. I was supposed to crush them up properly to help prepare her ‘supper’ while she lit up a cigarette. The conversation continued. She had lost a brother to murder a while back. She also had a child of her own, and was surprised, even taken aback, that I didn’t have any children of my own. She was also surprised that despite my partial Jamaican heritage and poofy long hair, I had never touched weed or any other illegal drugs. Stereotypes die hard. But what got her attention the most, was finding out that my roommate and I had toured Bourbon St. the night before without ever stepping into any of the “Gentleman’s Clubs”. I guess we weren’t quite gentlemanly enough for those places. Miss Memphis was probably starting to catch on.
“You ever dated a dancer before?” she asked. “Does what I do bother you?”
I was relieved of having to give a truly thoughtful response when she saw the time, realized we had been chitchatting for a good 30 minutes already and it was time for her to start getting ready for her night’s work. She thanked me for carrying the groceries and gave me a goodbye squeeze. She seemed genuinely happy to have had a bit of company. That was the last I saw of Miss Memphis. When our crew came back from work the next day, she was gone, headed for her next destination somewhere on the west coast.
I’m no psychology expert, nor am I a counselor of any form. I do know, though, that exotic dancing, as it’s officially called, takes a serious toll on the women involved in the business, particularly on their ability to form normalized relationships. Other female coworkers may support each other on some level, but ultimately, they are competition for a client’s attention, admiration, and money. Men are simply sources of income, protection, or in many cases, abuse. Sometimes, they are all three at the same time. As a protective instinct, these workers form very thick walls. The seductive smile and the engaging personality is all a show, while their real personalities remain buried deep below the surface, making any sort of real relationship almost impossible.
I also know that for someone like me to come along and get caught up a friendship with someone in that lifestyle would be a foolish mistake, even if there were only good intentions. Most likely, it would simply be unproductive, or worse, damaging to both parties. Sadly, a real relationship with these women, friendship or otherwise, is beyond the reach of most people. The good news is that we have a Heavenly Father for whom no one is out of reach. There are no walls he cannot breach, no heart he cannot heal, and no life he cannot transform. This is not just a Christian gloss to an otherwise sordid story; it is the reality of an all-powerful and awesome God. Miss Memphis and the hundreds of thousands of others like her don’t need a prince charming; they need a personal relationship with the King of kings.
I’m not the best at consistently praying for specific people, although I’d like to think I’m getting better. My prayer warrior skills could probably use some further training. A lot of people came and went during my 4 months crisscrossing the country, but meeting Miss Memphis left an impression. I don’t know what it’s like to have a sibling get gunned down. I don’t know what it’s like to strip down, night after night, and have men, and plenty of women too, throw money at me based on my performance. God does. These trips exposed me to evil up close and in more detail than can go into a church newsletter, but I trust that God will use these experiences for his own purposes. What I am sure of is that Jesus loves Miss Memphis. And the drug dealer a few doors down. And the scrawny stung out addict knocking on that door. And the poofy haired pastor’s son, whose own sins cost his Savior just as much blood as anybody else. I hope that I will be faithful in praying for Miss Memphis, that she will come to know God as her heavenly father, the God who “loved the world so much, that he gave his one and only son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
by Ian Bridgman