Tis the season of bell ringers outside every market and mall. But the collector outside the Vons in Hollywood has no bell, and instead of a red hat wears skintight hip-huggers, snakeskin boots and several ounces of lip liner. Then you hear her plea: Can you help the transgender community in crisis?
An elderly gentleman automatically hands her a buck on his way out of the store. She gives him a flier, which he nods at absently as he walks toward his car. Then he stops, looks back at the woman, back at the flier, and just stands there with the leaflet from El Shaddai Resurrection flapping in the wind.
I do have a lot of men wonder if Im transgendered, says Pamela Petty (who says shes not), as she collects for the ministry she and her husband started 11 years ago. I guess they want to know if they should be interested. She laughs. Its all for Gods glory.
Unlike the nearby Salvation Army collector, whose feet appear embedded in the concrete, Petty uses her lean, midriff-bare body to politely invade peoples space. The reactions she elicits are both wary and fascinated; what, exactly, is this woman with severely penciled eyebrows, tinted sunglasses and Cher (circa 1970) hair asking for?
We work with transgender prostitutes, runaways and drug addicts, Petty says, to a woman with a baby strapped to her chest. We provide emergency clothing and food, and were trying to open a crisis center and disciple home here in Hollywood.
I live in the area, says the woman, digging into her purse, so it sounds like a pretty damn good request to me.
Can you give a dollar to help transgender prostitutes? Petty asks two African-American teens, laden down with cases of soda.
The boys look at each other, and then, one after another, put down their cases, and hand Petty a dollar. An elderly Russian couple say together, God bless you, as they offer their money. A middle-aged man teases Petty about the patchouli oil shes wearing (Takes one to know one, she jokes back) and hands her a five. People who dont have any cash on them actually apologize; so many, in fact, are stopping to throw money Pettys way, theyre causing a jam-up, which chagrins the Salvation Army guy, whos told by a Vons manager to move to a lesser-used entryway.
The consistency of the donations seems a little bizarre. Shouldnt Petty, after all, get the occasional negative reaction, perhaps someone saying, Well, you know, these folks youre helping have sort of made lifestyle choices I disagree with?
I think people who have a problem with this would basically have a problem if I were collecting for the Girl Scouts, she says. Though I do sometimes wonder if people think Im telling a joke. I mean, what could be weirder, pedophiles with dyslexia? Sometimes one of my hookers will come stand with me, so people know were legit.
Whats El Shaddai mean? asks a man who grinds to a halt not one but two overflowing shopping carts.
Its a Hebrew word that loosely translates to God, says Petty. Years after we chose the name, we found out it also means big-breasted one, which seems pretty appropriate for a transgender ministry.
The man hands her three dollars.
As the morning wears on, I congratulate Petty on her large haul.
Oh, its not me, its God, she says, rolling singles into stacks of 10. Then again, I do have a lot of people tell me theyre happy to give me money just because I dont have those damn bells.
Blessing: A Christmas Carol
Twas a week before Christmas, and at the corner of Highland and Franklin avenues, just north of the new Hollywood and Highland mall, a young guy on crutches encountered a middle-aged man in a camouflage cap (call him the Vet) walking his dog. With little preamble, they began yelling at each other. The young guy (call him Tim) jabbed a crutch at the Vet, who seized it and repeatedly beat the differently abled wayfarer about the sides and shoulders with it, at one point knocking him sprawling into the gutter alongside traffic. The dog looked on, wagging its tail.
As the Vet walked away, still carrying one of the confiscated crutches, Tim limped along behind, and they continued exchanging salutations. The words were hard to make out, but the conversation sounded sort of like this:
Tim: God bless us every one!
Vet: God bless America!
Loyalty: The Guest Driver
My girlfriend is about to strip for strangers. Again. Rowdy yelps spill out of the plain stucco house in Tarzana that murmurs with the dull thud of bass. I lean back in the drivers seat of my car, watch Natasha get ready. She applies bright red lipstick to her clever mouth; her hair crowns her face in red ringlets. I look at my watch were too early. Natasha stretches her arms along the dashboard, plucks cat hair from her outfit. Shes wearing a stretchy black shift with a Chinese dragon scrolling from her breasts to her left hip. Underneath this is a silver metallic G-string. Underneath that, her pear-rounded hips, the knotwork tattoo at the base of her spine. She looks me in the eye and sighs with exaggerated force, grinning.
Dont worry, she says. Parties are easy. Lots of cash.
She carefully drops the lipstick tube in a side compartment of her huge athletic bag, and I see the collection of toys: whipped cream in a can, a metallic vibrator, a huge double-headed dildo in case another girl has been invited. You can never overprepare, Natasha assures me. She gets out, adjusts her outfit, looks at the nondescript stucco house. Heres what you say: Im the driver. We collect half at the door and half after, plus extras. Tell them youll be just outside.
This is my first week as her driver. The guy from the agency, Manny huge, with Death and Mother tattooed on opposing forearms is away in New Orleans. Natasha doesnt trust the other drivers.
In her 6-inch heels, shes two inches â taller than me. We climb past a dozen cars and knock on the door. No one answers, and my stomach churns maybe theyve all passed out. Natasha tries the handle, turns, opens the front door to a blast of music and smoke. Fourteen men line the room cradling their beers at the neck, eyeing us. Pointing at me, one of them moans, Ai, mi hijo! His friend chokes with laughter. Natasha, forcing a sly smile, asks for the host. A short young man with a shaved head comes out from the kitchen, his hand in his pocket, his pupils enormous. Smy house. Sis party, he says, pointing to the other end of the room, where a man wearing a bra and wig is talking heatedly to his friends.
Im the driver, I say.
What? he yells.
Im the driver! Half at the door!
He considers me for a moment. He looks at Natasha, who squints her eyes and pouts, then laughs, hands on hips. The host pulls out a wad of 20s and gives me a hundred.
There you go, kid, he sneers.
Ill be right outside, I say. Natasha touches my shoulder, then lays down her boom box and trots off to the bathroom. I push past two men coming into the living room, bumping into one of them in a way that I think is hard, but the man apologizes and keeps walking. No one looks at me, and I have nowhere to go but out. I close the front door, and within a minute I hear cheering. Oooooh. Oh! Yeah, baby, me!
I sit on the porch, stand up, sit back down again. One hour, and then I can knock. More cheers. Im such a good boyfriend, I think, very understanding. They see her, they touch her, they watch her, they want her but hey, she comes home to me. Isnt loyalty sexy? When she began stripping, that thought was reasonable and even consoling. It was my mantra. Heres another one: Im young, and shes putting herself through school. Or: What right do I have to tell her what to do? How can I insist she keep working at burger joints and fund-raiser telethons? Thanks to college, my friends are going to be in debt for a decade. Natasha can pay for it all in one year of stripping, but here we are in year two. No matter how often she comes home exhausted and smoky-stale, cavalier and hating men, shell be doing this for a long time. The moneys too easy, Natasha said today while we lay in bed. You strip till they wont have you.
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Another cheer goes up, and then a chant: Go! Go! Go! I think of the gig earlier in the week, the house of the widower in Eagle Rock, no porch light, blue TV light coming from the front room. He had Natasha dress up in his wifes pearls and masturbated while she played with the vibrator. I know because I stood watching in the window, appalled at my excitement. The widower danced around the room with her in the center of it. She was moaning and hed become a windup toy, begging Natasha, Please, please let me fuck you. She told me later she came for real.
I feel the car keys in my pocket and the hundred bucks. I think about how it took hundreds of men loving her wide hips, not just me, to make Natasha believe she was beautiful. I imagine myself driving away alone, now. I stay seated and my hands twitch.
More yelling and whistling. Then more. Then Oh, honey! and I know that was her yelling, know shes come for them spectacularly. An hour is up. I knock. The host comes out grinning, looking back inside as the cheering continues. Natasha says hang on, shell just be another 10 minutes. And he closes the door again.