Prostitution: As times change, so do solutions

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 04, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Here we have the distinguished City Councilman Timothy D. Murphy, who looks like the actor Michael J. Fox on a particularly earnest and buttoned-down day, confronting prostitution in South Baltimore and declaring formally that he is against it.

Somebody's gotta be. On strips like Patapsco Avenue in Brooklyn, there are some souls who apparently haven't gotten the message drummed at us daily: To have sex with strangers today is to roll the dice with your life. In South Baltimore, says Murphy, certain professional women are rolling about, available as movable convenience store outlets, and Murphy's constituents want him to do something about it.

They tried doing something about it themselves, but apparently got nowhere. Some put up signs saying No Prostitutes Here, No Whores Here. The hookers, if they noticed at all, sneered and went about their business.

So Murphy introduced a bill a few weeks ago to set up so-called Prostitution-Free Zones throughout Baltimore, which would be similar in nature to the city's Drug-Free Zones except for one crucial distinction: Somebody still thinks the prostitution zones might one day work.

Or maybe not.

"It's not called the world's oldest profession for no reason," Murphy was saying the other day. "No one expects this to eradicate prostitution."

But maybe it'll move the come-ons a few blocks from busy areas, so working ladies won't find it so easy to accost fellows innocently minding their own business. Some of them, Murphy says, actually approach men who are on their way to work.

"Yeah," he says, "6 in the morning, guys are going to work at the Point, and they're getting hit on. Right there on Patapsco Avenue, in busy commercials areas like that."

I have mixed emotions about such talk. For one thing, in a city buried by frightening social problems, why is City Hall attacking such relative piffle? For another, this Patapsco Avenue talk strikes a rather nostalgic chord with me, as I once used to write about a lady named Posie who hustled customers near the 7-Eleven down there.

I made up Posie's name, since she had a fetish about getting arrested. But the rest of her story was real, and rather innocent by today's standards, including the high point of her career, when some guy gave her $120 merely for the pleasure of her company.

"Just an old, lonesome man," she explained, "who wanted to listen to Mario Lanza records and talk. I told him I had to get back to work, but he kept wanting me to stay, and every time I'd get up, he'd give me more money, till it mounted up."

Posie had a slightly awed quality about her. She had a sing-song way of talking and an upbeat outlook in spite of the conditions of her life. Pushing 40, she was putting on weight and wondering how much longer she could finesse the years.

"My customers aren't overly exciting," she shrugged one time. "Most of 'em are just lonely. They appreciate my experience. Their wives aren't interested, and they haven't got a girlfriend. You know, not every guy is tall, dark and handsome, so that's where I come in."

Apprised of this story, Councilman Murphy thinks it is quite lovely, and so what? He says we are no longer dealing with such reality. Now the women operate in teams of two and three, with dangerous pimps lurking in the background. Now there are usually drugs in the women's backgrounds. Now there is previously unseen aggressiveness, sometimes criminal in nature. And now there is the threat of AIDS.

"I don't know why," he says, "but it's really changed in the last seven months or so. Some of it might be the economy. Some of it might be The Block. These girls used to work there, but The Block has shrunk so much in size that they've been squeezed out, and they've moved into the neighborhoods now.

"I go to community meetings virtually every night and hear it all the time. I hear it from almost every member of the council. They're seeing it in their own districts. Down here, you'll see a hardware store, a doughnut shop, a dry cleaner and these women. It's all part of the business district."

Murphy, taking bows in South Baltimore, thinks his bill is an idea whose time has come. It's years since the likes of Posie worked Patapsco Avenue. Nobody's interested in Mario Lanza records any more.

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