Carla Jaye Walker wants to go to work. She needs a ride, or at least some cash to catch the #11 bus to Pigtown. The man she lives with won't give it to her. He is watching TV. It's Oscar night, and, somewhere very far away from this apartment in Lansdowne, Barbara Walters is interviewing Richard Dreyfuss about the difficulties of being a millionaire movie star.
"If you want to go into town, you won't get any money from me," the man says. "Why don't you stay here? I'll buy you beer, you can get drunk, and go to sleep."
"C'mon, Walt," Carla snaps back. "I don't need to hear it today. You know I want to go straight. But I'm sick today and I need to get well. And I don't get money unless I go to work."
Walter Jess Sr. keeps his wallet in his pocket and smokes a cigarette. This is a daily struggle, a ritual dance, in his two-bedroom apartment on Fifth Avenue in Lansdowne.
Walt, a 58-year-old retired truck driver with a missionary streak, fashions himself a savior. Between completing books of word puzzles and smoking two packs a day, he tries to keep Carla, a 31-year-old prostitute with a heroin and cocaine problem, off the streets.
For both of them, life here in Lansdowne is a test of faith. There is Walt's unshakable faith in the ability of people, faced with their destructive natures, to turn their lives around. And there is Carla's less certain faith in herself, in the belief that she can be redeemed, that only the drugs make her a whore, a thief and an absentee mother.
"Carla has a problem with the drugs," says Southern District Police Officer Van Watson, who has arrested her twice and shares her faith. "But she doesn't have a problem with who she is."
Most prostitutes scratch the needle holes in their arms, look you in the eye, and swear they don't use drugs. But the truth is that most of the city's few thousand prostitutes, like Carla, are tethered to their trade by addiction.
From a distance, their lives follow an aimless line, headed inevitably downhill. But the reality of their lives is circles.
In southern Baltimore, along Patapsco Avenue and The Strip, as Washington Boulevard is called, Carla spends days and nights moving from customer to dealer and back again. Dart out to a john's car for a trick. Duck back into an alley for a hit. One circle.
All the while, the cops chase her and arrest her so the judges can let her go because she's not a violent criminal so it's safe for her to be on the streets where the cops arrest her. Carla has been arrested more times than she can remember and has seen the inside of five different jails, but never for long. Another circle.
The lunacy of it all, Carla says, is that her life makes perfect sense. She is like us: She commutes into the city to work, and tries hard to develop regular customers. She plans constantly for the future, and makes promises to herself -- some of which she manages to keep.
Put most simply, Carla works to buy what she needs. That is a circle we can all understand. It is a circle that is difficult for anyone to escape.
But Carla has strengths she could muster: a quick wit and unmistakable intelligence, a stubborn nature. And the simple wisdom that she has only herself to blame.
"If I'm going to beat this addiction," she says, "I've gotta do the hard work myself."
That is a promise, and a hard fact.
They met five years ago in Pigtown, outside Bob's Bar on The Strip. Carla, a rail-thin figure with ghostly white skin and a little girl ponytail, was on the street, getting high. Walt was on his way inside to have a drink.
They were just acquaintances at first. He was busy driving trucks, ignoring his wife and drinking so much he couldn't pay his mortgage. She was busy shoplifting, re-selling the merchandise and spending the money on speedballs of coke and heroin supplied by dealers named Bruce and Black Ricky.
After a few stints in jail, though, Carla decided shoplifting was too time-consuming and carried too great a risk of being caught. So one day in January 1994, she flagged down a car at Washington Boulevard and Carey Street. She said she was only doing oral sex, and 10 minutes later she was $20 richer.
That same winter, Walt's doctor looked at his liver and told him: Sober up or die. The message shocked him, and he obeyed the doctor, maybe because it came hard on the tail of other news: His wife wanted a divorce, and his son had AIDS. Separated at once from his wife and the bottle, retired from his job, Walt needed a new mission.
Carla stayed with him and a buddy a few times, at a decaying rowhouse at 1337 Glyndon Ave. in Pigtown. Late at night, Walt channel-surfed, and one evening he stopped to watch an old movie, "Hotel," and began to imagine himself running a place where folks could stay for a while, relax and repair. He thought such a place could help Carla turn her life around -- if he could find the right location.