She wore high blue-suede boots and a short matching trench coat, cinched tight around her narrow waist. I saw that she was Indian as she brushed past the little knot of drunks trading drinking secrets on that Duluth corner. They too, seemed startled by her beauty and tried vainly to get her attention. She responded with a laugh: “Oh, go away, you old motherfuckers.”
Hearing a woman’s voice, however, she stopped when I called out, “Hey girl!” As she turned and faced me, I saw that she was beautiful. Her classic Lakota features, however, were on the brink of corruption. She had the kind of drunken eyes I know well, having seen them in the faces of my relatives since I was a child. Eyes like those come from too many binges, the kind that last for weeks or months.
I introduced myself and told her of my work writing about sex trafficking. “Well, I can tell you everything about it. Come with me while I gather my things,” she said briskly. There was something authoritative about this regal young woman, so my legs, seeming to have developed a mind of their own, followed her into the adult bookstore. The burly deskmen were too startled to object as we passed by them.
“This is my auntie,” she explained.
My sideways gait, imposed by old lady hips, seemed to convince them, and they nodded wordlessly, their mouths open in wonderment.
We breezed past the shelves of sex toys and magazines to the rear of the store, where a row of phone booth–size rooms stood with the words live girls displayed in flashing lights. Each booth had an old-fashioned telephone headset that made a harsh whirring alert noise when the receiver was lifted. In response, a girl would emerge from behind a filthy sheet and sit on a little bar stool separated from customers by a sheet of clear plastic. There were slots for money, $5, $10 and $20.
This was her workplace. I could hear women’s voices from an area behind the booths as I waited for her. Their bold laughing was muffled as it mixed with various sexual moans and groans emerging from other private areas in the store where videos were being shown.
The girl in cobalt blue fumbled behind the sheet in one of the booths for her purse and finally emerged from a side door. I suggested we go for coffee.
She ordered her drink as if she were royalty, accustomed to the fulfillment of her every whim. “A large decaf mocha, child’s temperature, two ice cubes and no whipped cream,” she instructed the waitress haughtily. After some argument, she allowed me to pay for her coffee.
Her name was Debra. Although very intoxicated, she exuded refinement and pride, and she clearly wanted me to know that she was so much more than a girl who sat in a Live Girls! booth in a dirty bookstore in Duluth and took her clothes off for money. She looked to be her mid 20s. I was completely disarmed by this rare spirit who could display such courage in the face of her grim reality. “I want you to tell my story,” she half-begged, half-instructed me. “How shall we proceed?”
I gave her my business card, which she folded into a tiny square and carefully placed in the box of her Marlboro Black cigarettes, where I knew she would never find it again.
Debra told me she was Oglala Lakota. She pronounced it like someone who knew the language. A descendent of the great chief Sitting Bull, she came to Duluth from the Southwest to find her mother, whom she had never met. The meeting must have been a profound disappointment, because Debra soon relapsed into alcohol and drugs that led to another stint in rehab. I learned that she had a long struggle with addiction and mental health problems.
“I wasn’t what my mother was expecting,” she noted wryly.
Her story spilled out in a chaotic, poetic stream of consciousness that was riveting. Being with her was almost like being at ceremony—I was silenced into listening and being witness to whatever this remarkable girl wanted to tell me.
Following rehab in Duluth, she relapsed almost immediately and drifted to her current occupation. I soon learned she was staying at a homeless shelter.
“My family thinks I’m working as an antiques dealer,” she said, telling stories of her expertise in appraising oriental rugs and other antiquities worth thousands of dollars while working in the Southwest. “I know my textiles,” she said, adding that she often advised local antique shop owners in the pricing of their wares. “I’m just here trying to hold everything together.
“Yes, it has been quite a journey from selling antiques to selling pussy on the corner,” she said, suddenly laughing.
During our chat, she made numerous trips to the restroom. I saw that she had a bottle of vodka in her purse. “Excuse me, I just need a shot,” she said briskly. She held her head erect as she teetered back to the restroom on those high heels.
Later, rummaging in her purse, she brought out pages torn from a notebook. “Oh, I was just writing this angst-y letter to my father,” she said. Her handwriting was beautiful, and I told her so.
“Yes, my father used to hit my fingers with a spoon if I didn’t write properly,” she said.
She gave me the letter. It was a painful screed of anger and hurt toward a father who had wronged and disappointed her in some unnamed way. Later I saw that the writing scrawled off into huge letters as she changed from pen to marker, underscoring obscenities. It looked as though she stabbed the pages with her marker as she wrote, “I hate you, you’re garbage, you’re a piece of shit, get fucked, etc.”
One page contained the beginning of a letter to a beloved uncle, “Dear Unk, you are my fave relative. My heart is still broken from when I had to call the cops on my dad. Grandmommy cried on the edge of her bed for two hours.… Please put food and tobacco under my tree when I’m dead.”
Debra was crying now as she watched me read her letter, the tears dripping heavily onto her blue coat. She looked at me sharply. “Don’t feel sorry for me,” she said.
She quickly regained her composure as we walked back to the bookstore. She was her airy, worldly self again as she announced, “Oh, I do so hate it here in Duluth!”
When I asked her why, she said, “Because all the white people are so fucking nice,” drawing out the sssss sound in nice.
After a moment of stunned silence, I began to laugh. Then we laughed together, that loud gravely Indian woman laugh that comes in waves and makes one stagger. Our Indian woman laugh scoured our souls of all the phony niceties and promises from the white man’s world, and I thanked the Creator for it.
Later, when we parted, she extended her hand to me as though she expected me to kiss it. I briefly considered offering her money but sensed it would have been a terrible insult. Instead, I said, “Debra, it has been an honor.”
And I meant it.