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Mean Streets

Beneath the high-tech sheen of Silicon Valley there's a darker world of sex, drugs and violence. One prostitute talks about what life is like in San Jose's underworld.

By David Madrid

THERE IS A WHOLE other world in San Jose that many pass through and don't see. In this world, business is exchanged day and night, unnoticed by cars and folks waiting for the bus. If you look just a little closer at the streets of San Jose, you can catch a glimpse of life on the street—of sex, drugs and violence.

Barbi is a veteran of this world, a San Jose prostitute for 20 years. She is not your Hollywood Pretty Woman type of prostitute. She is past middle age, in her 50s, and years of heavy drug use have taken their toll on her body. Her worth as a sex maven is slowly fading. She has a terrible skin irritation that covers her from head to toe, and she is infected with Hepatitis C. Bald spots peak through her unkempt hair.

Because of Barbi's endurance, she has built a loyal client base. It is these "regulars" she depends on. These days, she mainly does favors just to get a fix. "I'm not gonna lie. I do it for dope, 'bout 50-50," Barbi says, looking out the window of her East San Jose house. She has been addicted to crack and crystal for decades.

Barbi says the prostitution scene here in San Jose is different from most other cities because the business is not so blunt. Though there are spots where you can find "hoes" tapping on car windows on East Santa Clara Street, the majority of the action is hidden in San Jose bars, not through street-corner solicitation.

Bars on major streets of San Jose culture and commerce such as The Alameda, Santa Clara and Monterey Road form the circuit that Barbi works. I ask her if she ever worries about getting caught, but she says her main worry is not the cops but the competition.

"Those goddamn transies," she says angrily, referring to men cross-dressing as women who are "blowing up the spot."

She says their appearances are dead giveaways to police on the hunt for prostitution. "They dress all flashy, causing too much attention. They're too sloppy, standing out on the corner flagging cars down." Barbi's approach is much more concealed; that's what has allowed her to keep working for so long without once being arrested for prostitution. She dresses casually, instead of promiscuously, and looks like a secretary who just got off work on nights she goes out.

"You gotta be slick if you want to last out here," she says.

Cornering the Market

Barbi and other streetwalkers often hang out at local bus stops. When a potential trick drives by, the two will arrange to meet at a local bar. If cops come while she's waiting for business, she jumps on a bus and gets off a few blocks down so she won't seem suspicious.

"The tricks know who we are," says Barbi, "and the rollers [cops]—shit, we keep them guessing."

There is a strong fear of undercover cops, especially in the bar scene where most of the dialogue takes place. "You a cop?" is a standard way for a transaction to begin.

"You can tell who the rollers are by their lingo," Barbi says. "They tend to use the same phrases, but I admit they are getting good."

She says it's hard at times to tell who they are because sometimes "some look just like homeboys." She plays it safe by mostly sticking to her regulars. The undercovers and uniform cops even do weekly sweeps. Every Tuesday and Thursday night along Santa Clara Street, the cops are out in full force in what Barbi calls "vice night."

Risky Business

Barbi is full of war stories, tales of occupational hazards that have nearly taken her life. Her favorite story is about getting set up by a customer. He, along with some of his friends, invited her to "party" with them. She accepted. She grew suspicious when one of the men began acting nervous, and she noticed the short ride to downtown was turning into a trip to the east hills.

Before she knew it, she was punched repeatedly in the face and dragged out on to the side of the road. She was brutally beaten and gang raped, robbed and left half-naked for dead. As she tells the story, she pauses every now and then, shaking her head with a disgusted look on her face and curse under her breath—"those punk motherfuckers."

But she didn't turn to the police for help. She kept to the code of the streets by turning to friends, trading drugs for revenge. Barbi is like many who have lived through the street life—both victim and perpetrator of street crimes. She has also been a part of many scams herself. She has even set up unsuspecting victims to be beaten and robbed.

"That's just the way it is, you know, when you're living that life," she says.

"What goes around comes around, right?"

There's regret in her eyes as she reflects on her past and present state. She seems to end every conversation with "I know there's nothing out there" or "I'm tired of the life." Her ill health seems to be catching up with her.

"I'm gonna quit for my babies," she says.

But though a part of her might want to stop, another part seems to believe she's far too deep into the lifestyle to quit now. She has been at it so long, she doesn't know how to live any other way, entrenched in addictions so deep that they have become part of her.

Her four children now are grown up, in their early 20s, and have lives of their own. Her oldest daughter says she has come to terms with her mother's lifestyle, even though she doesn't agree with her "job." Countless times before, she says, she believed when her mother said she was giving up the life, only to see her return to the streets.

"That's her life," Barbi's daughter says. "And she is never going to change."

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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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