I rode the dark streets of the Pittsburgh community looking for a prostitute; it was around 7:30 pm on a Saturday night in January. The forecast was for overnight temperatures to dip into the teens. I found Nicky on one of her usual corners, bundled up and smoking a cigarette. I offered to drive her to the old Stewart Center building and put her up for the night. She sheepishly declined and said she needed to make money.
Nicky was born in East Point Georgia to a single mom. She was raised by her grandparents and never knew her father. She bounced through childhood, attending at least six different schools before completing the 12th grade, without graduating. At some point her grandmother kicked her out of the house. In her twenties she worked at a salon and a security company, met the wrong guy, got involved with drugs, lost her job and then the apartment.
Housing redevelopment is a major component of the Stewart Center’s strategic plan. In the next couple of months the Center will complete renovations on two homes in the Pittsburgh community of south Atlanta. The housing initiative is designed to provide families with quality, stable housing. Among other criteria, families must have children in Stewart Center programing to qualify for one of our rental properties. As it so happens, Nicky is one of our neighbors.
This September, I’ll turn 40 years old. I had a great childhood; I grew up in a safe neighborhood and went to great schools, then off to college, work, graduate school, and finally the Stewart Center. Our paths could not have been more different, yet Nicky and I are working the same block in south Atlanta.
This November, Nicky will also turn 40 years old, meaning our lives have covered the same period of history. We were 9 when the Challenger exploded, we were 13 when the Gulf War began, and we were 24 on September 11, 2001. Nicky has been having sex for money for the past twelve years. Over that period of time Anna, and I moved to Atlanta, I completed graduate school, we had two boys, bought two houses, and celebrated our 15th anniversary.
Knowing Nicky for the past 9 months has enlightened me to the role sex plays in our lives. For some people, sex is a sacred part of marriage; for some, it is an intimate experience shared with only a few people; for others, it is little more than recreation; and for quite a few people, it is a profession. As troubling as it is, it is not the sex that has me agitated.
The social context of our parents, the people who had sex to create us, has a huge impact on our life’s trajectory. Nicky, a black girl born to a single mom in a low income neighborhood without a dad or a college savings account did not grow up in the same America as a white kid raised in a college town with great parents and good schools. As a child I struggled to overcome learning disabilities. I went to special classes in elementary school, took medication, and had numerous tutors. If I had been born as a black boy into Nicky’s context, statistics say that I would most likely be in jail instead of writing this blog.
Nicky provides sexual services, stays in vacant houses in the Pittsburgh community, and is banned from two local convenient stores. She has a long rap sheet that includes prostitution, indecent exposure, and criminal trespassing. She can be hard to love, but Nicky has met my boys and calls them by name, she has done work on our construction projects, she takes care of elderly neighbors, shares what she has, and has a sharp mind.
On the day the Stewart Center closed on the house at 552 Rockwell Street, I went with a uniformed police officer to sweep the house. The officer had to kick the door in to gain entrance. He removed a woman who had nothing to her name except a grocery bag full of clothes. It was not until recently that I realized the woman was Nicky.
I have no judgment for Nicky; I hope she does not have any for me. I care only for her health and personal safety. In the 70’s, we were two kids with our whole lives in front of us; today we are two friends brought together by the Stewart Center. I have no idea what will become of this relationship, but I am certain that my life will never be the same.
Nicky is not enrolled in any Stewart Center programing and there are no goals and objectives for our relationship, but it does relate to the Center’s mission. For 100 years the Center has existed to love our neighbors and to disrupt a society that offers disparate opportunities based on who your parents had sex with.