Brenda Myers-Powell is the cofounder and executive director of the Dreamcatcher Foundation, a nonprofit created in 2008 to help current and former prostitutes and other victims of sexual exploitation in and around Chicago. Raised by a grandmother with alcoholism (her mother died when she was 6 months old), Myers-Powell started to suffer sexual abuse at around age 4, usually at the hands of men her grandmother brought home from bars. By the time she was 14, she had two daughters and had begun working as a prostitute near Clark and Division. In 1997, after she’d spent 25 years on the streets, a doctor at Cook County Hospital helped Myers-Powell secure a bed at Genesis House, a women’s refuge where she would spend two years healing and, as she told a forum a few years ago, “getting Brenda back.”
The following excerpt from Leaving Breezy Street, Myers-Powell’s new memoir, chronicles her harrowing first experiences working as a prostitute — and does so in explicit detail and strong language that may make some readers uncomfortable. As Myers-Powell puts it in her author’s note: “I’m not trying to tell you a story about my past using the careful words of right now. I call myself a prostitute and a ho in this book because those words are my truth. If you want to really know my story and how it went down, you should know what I was hearing and what I was telling myself. Because it’s the truth. It might turn your stomach or make you mad, but that might be a good thing. Look around, we need a little truth-telling.”
Good Friday, 1973. I was 14, and I was going to change for good. My daughter Prune, whose real name is Ernestine, was a year old. Peaches, who I named Ruth after my grandmother, had been born four weeks before. I was going out with older men, doing a hustle here and there. Just being real cute and getting a couple of things. That year it changed. I went down to the street to turn my official first trick.
That day. That day we had no food and the Aid to Dependent Children check didn’t come in the mail. We used to get a check, and we got a little food-stamp book to go and buy groceries. Soon it was going to be Easter Sunday. We didn’t have nothing to eat, and usually when we were like that, we called Aunt Josie to give a few dollars to hold us over, but you know, we had two kids in the house and we got Ma’Dea — that’s what we called my grandmother — and we got me, so how much could she stretch us? Aunt Josie could throw us a bone every now and again, but she couldn’t float us all the way. Ma’Dea was talking a lotta shit about me and how I had brought us to a point to where we couldn’t make it. She told me, “I ain’t never had to depend on handouts. I ain’t the one who need the welfare, you the one who need the welfare.” But she was the one who needed welfare. I didn’t need the welfare because I got a friendly coochie.
I was 14 and jumping from this bed to that one, but Ma’Dea was the grownup; she’s really looking at cupboards that were bare. I didn’t want my babies’ Easter to be not right. I wanted Peaches to have the prettiest dress, and Prune to have the prettiest dress, the biggest bunny rabbit. I wanted them to have little slippers to run around in. I thought to myself, You got to shit or get off the stool. The pressure was on.
After Ma’Dea told me all about how the babies got to eat and we didn’t even have a cup of rice in the cabinet, I went and asked a girl in the neighborhood who I knew was a prostitute how to set up my situation. At first, she told me she would show me, but I would have to see her man. I didn’t want to choose her man. Her man’s brother and I used to go together. I didn’t want to get that messy. She understood, and she told me where to go. She didn’t tell what to charge, but I had read enough books and magazines. Donald Goines. Iceberg Slim. Hustler. Xaviera Hollander, the lady who wrote The Happy Hooker, she was giving lessons on how to be a grand ho. After reading her, I thought all hos got $100. That’s the kind of money I was looking for. So I took the train and transferred over there at Grand, to Clark and Division, and started my little prostitution thing right there.
It was night. I hadn’t learned yet when to come down and when not to. I was playing a dangerous game because I was new at it. And because I was fresh, nobody had caught me. If I had been a regular girl, who knows? There was a lot of police presence and there were a
lotta guys out there. I found out the first night, getting that $100 was not what happens in real life. The first car I got in, I asked for $100, and he said, “Honey, I’m not trying to buy you; I’m just renting you for a minute.”
I looked at him like he had lost his mind. “Well, how much you gone give me?”
“I’ll give you forty dollars for a BJ.” I had no idea what a BJ — a blowjob — was. I was still a baby in some ways. And even though I had read about a woman sucking on a man’s penis, that hadn’t come up a lot with me in my community. We didn’t really do all that in the hood. You need to know all of this to understand what I did next. I started to blow on his penis. And he said, “What the fuck are you doing?” I looked up at him.
“Are you that new?” he said.
“Yeah.” And I started crying.
“Stop crying, stop crying. How old are you?” I told him, and he said, “Ah! I’ll show you how to do this shit.” Funny how he didn’t tell me to go home. He liked the fact that I was 14 and gave me another $20. I learned then that guys picked me up because I was fresh.
Afterward, when I got out the car, I felt a little sick to my stomach. I stood there with the taste of him in my mouth and tried to spit it out the best I could. It was too late for me to turn around. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how to. I only had $60 and that wasn’t enough. So I took a deep breath and started looking around for the next car.
The next guy was Italian, and he did give me $100 when I asked. And the only reason I got the $100 was because I told him I was 14. I wasn’t the only girl my age out there either. I knew this pimp whose whole stable was minors. I mean, 17 was old for him. His name was Larrod. Forty years old and a short little dude. He used to wear the pimp suits. Everybody used to talk about him. Thirteen, 14, 15 was the average age for his girls. He called them his hos and bitches. Somebody killed him and all his girls. Nobody was left in the house alive except a 3-year-old baby. Some cold-blooded shit — they killed everybody. Shot them all in the head.
In the beginning, I stayed away from situations like that. I just went out there to prostitute. And the tricks taught me how they wanted to have sex with me. All I had to worry about was my wardrobe. I bought this new lime-green skirt and top, which had puffy sleeves. It was from this store called Three Sisters, and you could get an outfit for $3.99. I wore my hair in Afro puffs, but I got a wig, the kind we used to call a “gypsy wig.” It was a long, wild, curly wig that hung in three layers — cost seven bucks — and I put that on. And these horrible shoes, these cheap shoes. They looked like patent leather, but they were rubber or vinyl or something like that, and they made your feet sweat and stink. Even the heel was made of that same material; they didn’t even have the respect to put a real heel on the shoe. When you walked, they scrunched. But I was out there, ready to take that direction.
I wonder sometimes if my mother was looking down on me saying, “Baby, my baby.” I wonder if she was watching me and cringing. I had made like four or five tricks that night, and I made almost $400. I cried through the first two. I had been with other guys and had slept with them, but it was more like a date before. You know, old men sniffing up my ass and liking me. But this was impersonal, grimy, in the car. I didn’t know how to talk them into going to a hotel. I didn’t think about all that. I made that money and went home, gave it to Ma’Dea, and she never asked me where it came from. One time I gave her $500. All $100 bills. She didn’t ask one question.
I went out there on the weekends. I didn’t go out during the week, because I would go up to Madison Street and work in a furniture store, where I did odd jobs. I was a part-time prostitute. I took some money to Sears, and I got the cutest dresses for Prune and Peaches. I got Peaches a bunny, and I put it in her crib. Oh, she was so beautiful. She was a little bitty thing, and her diaper used to just slide on down and hang on by her hips.
I had been out there for a month. Then I ran into the pimps. Big gorilla pimps. I thought I knew the streets. I thought I knew how to be hard. But when the gorilla pimps wanted me, I got caught up. They told me I needed to have representation: “Your man need to be out here.” See, if you can produce a man, they weren’t gone go up against some brother, but if these fools out there thought you were an outlaw — that’s what they called it — you would be under pimp arrest.
I didn’t know anything about working massage parlors or anything like that. I knew just what I knew: Girls worked that area. I saw it, and if them hos could get some money, I could get some money. I figured out how to be a prostitute from seeing what was going on outside and from blaxploitation movies. That’s no bullshit. I was really influenced by Super Fly and The Mack and Get Christie Love! and Cleopatra Jones. Pimp pictures turned on all that. Willie Dynamite. All that was impressive to me. Sick clothes, sick life. Hos getting money, being a bottom bitch.
The first time I ever heard of a bottom bitch was in the movie Truck Turner. Turner was played by Isaac Hayes. It was about this pimp getting murdered. His bottom bitch was played by the woman who was on Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols — Uhura. And what I learned from that movie was that the bottom bitch actually ran shit. Because when the pimp got murdered, all the hos turned to Dorinda, and she told them, “Y’all gone do this, y’all gone do that.” And I liked a statement that she said in the movie: “I haven’t had to sell my pussy since I was 15 and found out I could sell other bitches’ instead.” That laid me back. I thought that was so profound. That was gangster.
So I wanted to be the bottom bitch, the one who didn’t have to do the work. The one who just did the handling. She’s in control. And the only person she takes orders from is the pimp.
I didn’t know about the loneliness. I didn’t know about the responsibilities that you take on as the bottom bitch. Not only do you take on the control of the stable; anything that goes wrong, you’re the one who goes down for it. You are responsible for everything, but you don’t get a dime of his money. You are doing it all for him. And before you know it, you become a little him. I thought like him; I acted like him. You did things that he would do when he wasn’t around. And it becomes hard, because some of those things you don’t want to do. A bottom bitch was the best that I could see and reach for at that time. I didn’t realize that I was reaching for the lowest part of my life.
What came with being a bottom bitch was losing your identity, becoming an awful person for the love of money. Even when I finally made it as a bottom bitch, it never made me happy. Because I knew when I left, everything he had would fall apart, and that’s a lot to put on somebody. Pimps would come looking for blood if you left. You weren’t a bitch who could just run off. Leaving interrupted his lifestyle. Not only would your pimp be looking for you, other brothers would be looking for you, too. You worth $50, $100 if some guy found you and brought you back.
I know all this now, but back then, when I first got started, the movies made it all look really glamorous. It looked powerful. And when you are in pain, you are looking for some power and control. How can I be on top? How can I be the boss?
But before I got to all that, the gorilla pimps got me first. A gorilla is a pimp who uses force and abuse to control his women. These aren’t men who are smooth and play the boyfriend part in the relationship. It’s all about fear. Gorilla pimps are brutal. And they can get creative with their violence. These pimps, they weren’t handsome; they didn’t have no swag. They were just some country-ass punks, and the only way they got hos was to snatch them, ’cause they had nothing else for a girl. They had to kidnap.
I had only been out there for three good weekends when they grabbed me. I was standing in the middle of Clark Street. I had just gotten out a trick’s car in the middle of the block when they rolled up on me. Had I been on the corner, I would have been around more people and they wouldn’t have got me. But in the middle of the block, it’s dark with no streetlights. Two o’clock in the morning and nobody was around. When I got out the trick’s car, I’m walking fast to get to the corner of Clark and Division. But one of the gorilla pimps is walking super quick behind me; the other one is rolling down the street on the side of me. I see the play, but I can’t get away. And then the pimp behind me jumped and bust me in the head with the pistol.
I was shocked because I didn’t know pimps wowed out like that. My uncle was a pimp. He never pulled shit like that. They grabbed me and shoved me in the trunk. In the trunk. I don’t know where to put that. To this day, I don’t know where to put that experience. I was screaming and bleeding from my head where the dude had hit me with his gun. There was a blanket in there and a metal can and a tire jack handle. It was a huge trunk, and I remember getting jostled. A roll of tape bumped into my thigh. The only thing I knew was when we were moving forward and when we took a turn. God, I tossed around and around. I was paralyzed and scared. It was like being in a grave. I peed all over myself in that trunk.
They took me to a cornfield and did Russian roulette to me: They took a pistol out and put it to my head. It was not the last time they did that. They used to do that for entertainment.
Me and the two gorilla pimps were all in one hotel room. I could tell they had been snatching up girls for a while. It was just me at first, but then they got another girl. It was just two girls at a time because a whole lotta girls was too many to watch. I don’t care what you say, a gorilla pimp ain’t gone keep a ho long. Too much food involved. Too much fear and intimidation and physical brutality to keep up.
I never knew what kind of relationship those two assholes had between them, but it wasn’t healthy. One of them was really dark, and he had this half-ass perm, a nappy perm. He was always putting rollers in it, and it never quite looked right, ’cause he had that real fly-up-and-away hair. He had a crooked tooth in the front of his mouth, and his hands were real big. When he hit you, it was like Ah! It just took over the whole head. The other asshole had a little bit of a gut. Brown skin and a ponytail. They had a Cadillac. Dark blue, and they kept it up really nice.
They would send me out to get tricks from truck stops. They would pull in and park in a particular area. At that time, police weren’t messing with pimps doing business. They put me out the car and told me, “You work this side and this side only. You just work up and down this lane. When you get to the end, work yourself back down the other side.” They watched me closely. Some of the truck drivers knew the pimps I was with. I found that out because one time a truck driver walked up to the pimp to complain. I had cried the whole time I was with him because I had gotten beaten up before they put me out there. I was still upset.
“OK, partner. You want her to do it again? ’Cause there ain’t no refunds, but she’ll take care of you.” But the gorilla pimp was looking at me like, You know I’m going to hurt you when we get back to the motel. So when I got back to the room, they beat the snot out of me. To me, that validated every threat they had ever given me. They had told me, “We know everything you do. We got people everywhere.” I felt like even the customers were in on my kidnapping. Was the truck driver their friend? That just happened one time, but that was enough to keep me scared about running off.
Sometimes they dropped me off on a street corner to work, but I didn’t like it. The truck drivers knew what the girls were doing. You could get your money quick. But standing on the corner? It was dark and scary and you could be out there for hours and not make enough money. So the truck stops was where those gorilla pimps really got their money’s worth out of me.
We stayed on a major road; I knew that much. Sometimes we would find a spot and we stayed because I made money there. I mean, these guys weren’t the brightest, but they knew where the money was. We worked between five or six different truck stops. When I came back to the motel from hoing, they felt like they needed to terrorize me some more. They were big on anal rape. They were big on doing terrorizing games. Make you intimidated and keep your thoughts off of planning what to do. Keep you locked up, tossed up in fear.
In the beginning, I was trying to figure a way out. But those were the things that got me beat up. Bad. Every time I tried to escape, I got caught and punished. I kept thinking, If I could be out of this room, if I could get out of this cornfield, I could get around people who would save me. Every time I tried something — not showing up at the Cadillac at the end of working the truck stop, asking somebody for help — it just all went bad for me. No one was willing to step into a situation that looked like it was just between me and the gorilla pimps.
I thought about my kids, but I also thought that somebody was looking for me. Ma’Dea would find me. And I thought if I could just stay strong, I would be found. I didn’t know that people don’t look for little Black girls. They didn’t then, and they don’t now. So many missing Black girls. Nobody looked for us. I didn’t know that back then. All I knew was being lost was a lot for a 14-year-old girl to hold on to. All that pressure gone bust a cap. I’m talking about me and all the girls they did this to. My pressure valve was going to burst. So many petty-ass mind games to throw me off and keep me unbalanced.
I made all their money, and I’d come home and they’d say, “You can’t eat.”
“Why can’t I eat?”
“ ’Cause I said so, bitch. And who am I? Who am I?”
“God. You run this show.”
“Bitch, gone somewhere with your simple ass. Go sit down. You don’t know what you need.”
So not only are you sitting up there confused, tired, you got to go to bed hungry. I hadn’t been hungry in a long time, but I cry if I get that way. I mean really hungry and there’s no food. I get desperate.
I was with them for five, six months. If there had been opportunities for me to get away, I didn’t see them. Or maybe I was too afraid to take them. I needed someone to rescue me. To say, “I got you.” I needed somebody like that because I didn’t have the courage.
As part of my seasoning, they had me in Indiana. For me, it might as well have been New Zealand. They had me at unfamiliar truck stops and little sleazy hotels. I’m talking Motel 6 would have been an upgrade. Side-road motels with rusty-ass showers. They locked me in the closets, mold growing out the carpets, to let me know there were consequences to my behavior when I didn’t follow their commands. “If I ask you something, I need a response right away, bitch.”
“Well, I thought —”
“Bitch, why you thinking again? You don’t think. I think. You do what I tell you to do. What was you doing, thinking?” How brutal is that? To take a person’s will to have a thought in their brain. You begin to question even thinking about something. Someone has cut that down to: “You don’t have the ability to think, I’m going to do the thinking for you.”
So you begin to believe things would be better for you if you just go along and do what you supposed to do, and some kind of way you might be happier or at least you won’t get consequences and that will make you happy. You do things to make them happy.
After the rape became no more rape to me, after it was just part of the formula, they actually stopped raping me. In the beginning, they raped me all the time. Together. Separately. The crying, the begging, it was a part of how they got off. Knowing that they were brutalizing me and messing me up. I was in pain, and hurting me was OK. But I’ll tell you something about myself: I can adapt to a bad situation fast. It was one of my survival instincts.
I was sore, I was hurting. I needed medical attention, but I still had to get their money. I would get to the motel with my money, or whatever they were OK with, because I couldn’t come back to the hotel until they were OK with it, but there was a possibility that I was still going to get jacked up. I didn’t know what was going to happen whenever I got to the room. Were they going to let me go to sleep? Was I going to get a hamburger? If I got a hamburger and was able to go to sleep, it was a good night. And that’s only because they had some other shenanigans going on. Other times, I could expect the brutalization, and it started not to even bother me. I was being raped and not really screaming, not begging and stuff no more. For me, it just became, “What you gone do now? How you gone be tonight? Let’s do this so I can go to sleep.” What they were doing was tearing me down. So I detached myself to deal with it, ’cause if I detach myself, you can’t touch me. That’s why they went and got another girl. I was no fun for them anymore.
The other girl was about my age. I think her name was Sharon, but nobody called her that. They called her “bitch” and they gave her the street name Sparkle. My street name was Liza. I got it from a soap opera: All My Children. Liza was a trip, so I was going to be a trip. I loved Liza, and I adapted to that name. It helped me disconnect. It wasn’t Brenda doing those things, it was Liza. Brenda didn’t have to take the abuse, Liza did. Brenda couldn’t have went through all that.
By the time Breezy came, Breezy was a mess. Breezy was created by all the other names, and that ho was something else. She was her own reality show. I was on That’s Entertainment! when I was Breezy. I used to have costumes when I was that ho because it had become a game. And I had to be the star of the game. That’s why sometimes people wanted to hurt me. I did this too well. I was always hearing, “That bitch think she something.” I don’t know what they thought I was, but I was something. I was surviving. I became a chameleon to deal with the situation.
I became so desensitized to rape that I had a rapist turn around and leave me alone ’cause there was no sense in raping me, given the way I was acting. You think I’m playing? I didn’t give in to what his plan was; I made a new plan. I wowed out with the dude who came to harm me and flipped the script, and now I’m hanging out for two, three days with this monster. But by then I was controlling this game. I remember one time, I told this rapist, “Why are you raping me? This dick is so good, I’m gonna come.” And, well, he just got up. He was trying to have something from me, and I had to get it off his mind. He looked at me and I said, “You want to do this again?”
He backed away, snatching at his clothes. “I’m good. We’re good.”
“Sure you don’t want to go again?”
“Naw, I gotta go.” He was trying to get away from me now, because damn it, I can’t just let you keep on doing this to me! I gotta flip it. I gotta do something with it. I gotta take control. No matter what happened to me on those streets, I had one big thought: I’ll fix your ass. At the same time, I was fixing me, because if I didn’t, the horrible in me might get out. There has to be a good ending for me, I thought to myself.