by Meg Marotte
I’d never paid too much attention to the ladies of the night. They strut the streets of John R peering into car windows, gazing into my vehicle as I make my way home, a flash of something like disappointment as they realize I’m not in the market for a date. I’ve casually wondered about the lives of these women and transgendered sex workers, but despite their close proximity to my life their world never seemed to quite touch mine. That is until very recently.
It happened early one morning back in April. I awoke in the cold darkness of 4am to the sound of screaming. I laid in bed listening, hoping it would stop. It didn’t. Finally I looked out my window to see a person under the streetlight, flailing around on the pavement. From the attire I gathered that this person was one of the many transgendered prostitutes that regularly populate my neighborhood streets, but unlike most streetwalkers this person wore tattered stalkings and I could see her top was almost completely torn off.
Through the fog of early morning confusion I began to recognize that something was terribly wrong. Then the screaming stopped, and she laid motionless in the street. I looked around in a panic. I reached for my phone and dialed 9-1-1. As I waited to see how long it would take someone to come, I cursed myself for waiting so long to call. Why had I been so reluctant to get involved? Why had I been so slow to recognize a real emergency?
After about 15 minutes the ambulance arrived. I watched as they loaded her into the vehicle, as they tried to pump her heart back to life. They drove away, and then the police arrived. Several men in dark uniforms stalked up and down the street with flashlights. Then I heard a gentle knock on the door. I recounted my story to an officer as I stood in my pajamas halfway out of the door-frame. The officer asked only a few questions before he was off, leaving me to return to my bed to stare at the ceiling, unable to sleep, unwilling to think: stunned.
After some time I was brought back to focus by the doorbell, this time a homicide detective. I learned that the victim had been shot up the street and crawled in front of my house, perhaps following the streetlight, looking for help. I learned that she was pronounced dead before making it to the hospital. But the officer had little use of me–I hadn’t seen a car, I hadn’t heard a shot–I was considered useless and dismissed.
Within a few hours the house was roped in by police tape and local news vans littered the block. I watched these phony men in drab suits rehearse take after take, trying to get just the right turn of phrase. Later when I read their reports I was appalled. Not only were they filled with inaccuracies and misinformation, but they were insulting to both my neighborhood and the victim.
The news reports seemed to focus on whether the victim was a female prostitute or a male prostitute dressed as a woman, and even insinuated that that may have been the reason they were shot. It seemed dehumanizing the way they fixated on this aspect of the story. To me it didn’t matter what gender she was but that she was a person that I watched die, cold and alone. I didn’t see her as some example of the crime problems that riddle this city or this neighborhood or this block, but as a person that was struck down too soon.
After the incident I saw neighbors placing flowers and wreaths where she had fallen. I saw posters with her image and rewards promised for any information regarding her killer. I learned her name was Coko. I shook the hand of her brother as he asked me questions about that morning and thanked me for calling help. I learned of other stories like this one; stories of people in similar circumstances killed or left for dead, how no one puts up much fuss over these victims.
Regardless of anyone’s opinions of prostitution, these victims are members of communities. Their safety affects the lives of people around them. We are not going to seriously be able to address the problems in our neighborhoods unless we start by recognizing all of our members, and start really looking out for one another. For Coko it’s too late, but my hope is that her story will inspire more of us to see the people that walk our streets not as outsiders but as people whose lives are of value and worth protecting.