© DANIELLE CHENETTE

Christmas Card from a Drunk (and Twelve Hookers) in Van Nuys

© DANIELLE CHENETTE
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The Los Angeles Police Department officers who handcuffed me and put me under arrest on the side of Interstate Highway 10 were very polite. They informed me of my rights and allowed me to sit in the front seat of their black and white—still cuffed—on the way to the Van Nuys jailhouse in the San Fernando Valley.

For years now, I had engaged in the same strange calculus as so many of my fellow citizens had done, by virtue of our city’s rambling geography, peculiar infrastructure, and our shared assholery: I was driving drunk.

This was likely my tenth or fifteenth time doing so and, like any native, I knew the typical tricks: avoid the highways, take the side streets, stay out of certain canyons after 10 p.m., and, most importantly: do not speed. I broke all these rules. Despondent and agitated over some latest bout of male rejection, I had an extra glass of wine at a bar with friends before angrily setting off toward the coast. I manically checked my phone along the way for the response to an unrequited text message. I hoped that in the twenty-minute drive to the seaside I would cool down and that, somewhere between Santa Monica’s neon Ferris wheel and the cliffs of Malibu, I’d recover my composure and a sliver of dignity.

Instead I was handcuffed to a bench in the Van Nuys Jail, seated next to a urine-soaked gangbanger who was about to be booked on drunk and disorderly conduct. After my fingerprints were taken, I was ordered to disrobe and change into jail scrubs in front of a female guard because my strappy party dress could be used as a device to inflict harm on myself.

In itchy scrubs—but weirdly still allowed to keep on a pair of Vivienne Westwood spiked pumps and a black J. Crew cardigan—I was put into the holding cell with two other women who’d been popped for drunk driving. One was an underage student who’d crashed her sorority sister’s Volkswagen during a pledge party and another was a visiting tourist from Russia who was utterly bewildered that two tequila shots and an ill-timed U-turn on Sunset Boulevard had ended here.

It was nearing 2 a.m., the cell was dark and freezing. The Ruski, the student, and I huddled for warmth and avoided discussion of what awaited us once we made bail: suspended licenses, mandatory twelve-step meetings, morgue tours, encounters with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and extremely steep fines and fees. Instead we asked the Russian for her impressions of Los Angeles—“stupid,” she spat—and debated various faces we’d strike for our mugshots.

This is a moment when the gravity of the situation—not just my arrest but the months of loathing, insecurity, and self-destruction that had led up to the very insane decision to drive a twelve-cylinder, two-ton machine down a freeway at eighty miles an hour while drunk—had still not managed to press itself down on me. In the jagged topography of my own recovery, this would later become the region known as Rock Bottom.

Our quiet complaints about the cold and our creeping hangovers abruptly ended around 3 a.m., when the double doors outside our holding pen blasted open and a platoon of streetwalkers descended upon booking. There was a major prostitution sting on the grubby end of Sepulveda Boulevard early that morning and the triumphant L.A.P.D. vice squad of undercover johns were parading in their haul. While the prostitutes waited to be fingerprinted and photographed, they issued a nonstop stream of profane insults at the arresting officers and guards.

“What, Bitch?! You just mad I make more in an hour than you all day! An hour!”

One of the women arrested, “Passion,” sat next to me on the bottom bunk and remarked, “this is exactly what a group home feels like.”

In the intervening years, the ways Southern California law enforcement deals with sex workers would go through a profound change. At the time, busting prostitutes was an easy way for cops to “clean up” high-crime areas. Oftentimes, the police would simply arrest the prostitute and the john without ever going after the real criminals: pimps. When Proposition 35 passed, in 2012, it was considered a “paradigm shift” in the dynamic between cops and hookers. The voter-approved legislation put harsher penalties into effect for sex traffickers including longer prison sentences, requiring sex traffickers to register as sex offenders, law enforcement training on sex trafficking, and requiring sex traffickers to pay criminal fines that would go toward services for their victims.

“The goal became rescuing women from their pimps and redirecting their lives, reducing prostitution one life at a time,” Anaheim police lieutenant Steve Marcin wrote in a 2013 article for FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. While it may sound a bit paternalistic at first blush, it’s a far more enlightened stance than the previous one. Women who end up walking the boulevard or listed on Backpage.com typically get there because they are recruited by a boyfriend who then exploits them for his own profit. One of the prostitutes in the cage that night told us she was pregnant and her boyfriend was also her pimp. He was supposed to be on lookout to make sure she was safe. “He saw me get arrested,” she said, “and he sped off.”

After Prop 35 passed, California police departments started working with victim advocates to get prostitutes services, shelter, and education, and (hopefully) secure their cooperation in prosecuting their pimps—although California prosecutors have learned how difficult obtaining a prostitute’s allegiance can be when she’s going up against her pimp in court. One of the first cases to be tried under the new law collapsed during preliminary when a witness recanted that her pimp had kidnapped her. And last year, the Los Angeles Times captured this exchange between a former prostitute and the district attorney attempting to bring a case against her pimp, Eric Avery:

When a prosecutor asked her to point to Avery, she said she didn’t want to.

“Do you want to be here today?” the prosecutor asked.

“Nope,” the girl said.

“Why not?” the prosecutor responded.

The girl shot back: “Because I don’t.”

Ultimately a jury convicted Avery and he was sentenced to thirty-three years, a marked increase in prison time. This type of policy change, while progressive, is largely limited to California, and though there have been some advances in federal legislation about sex trafficking, most states still regard prostitutes as criminals on a par with burglars and petty drug dealers.

Back in 2009, the Californian prostitutes were in handcuffs. We, the drunks, stood silent and terrified that there would be reprisals for our new roommates’ aggressive behavior. We also made a point to distance ourselves from the arrested sex workers, as though we were model, temporary prisoners: polite and obedient. When two of the hookers were put in our frigid cage, they would not stop their insults and loud singing until the guard gave us blankets. This was a strategy we would never have considered, but greatly benefited from.

Eventually we were all moved into one giant bunk room down the hall that had all the charms and comforts of a storage container. One of the women arrested, “Passion,” sat next to me on the bottom bunk and remarked, “This is exactly what a group home feels like.”

Unlike the realization that my drinking was, um, maybe out of control, I did have the wherewithal to recognize the tragedy of that statement.

Dehumanizing, severe institutional settings can do wonders on middle-class, college-educated girls who dread disappointing their doting parents. Jail was such a foreign and jarring scenario that I made some promises the moment I got bailed out. Having to change a tampon in front of twenty-six strangers, being chained to a bench, stripped, and confined—these were things I would endeavor never to experience again. And it seemed perfectly reasonable and easy to avoid it all going forward.

Dehumanizing, severe institutional settings can do wonders on middle-class, college-educated girls who dread disappointing their doting parents.

What about the other women? The ones who endured the privations of poverty, drug addiction, group homes, and pimps? How did a night or another week in lockup serve as a deterrent? Particularly when having an arrest sheet excludes you from the potential services or employment that could offset the “appeal” of sex work. The easiest solution, the most readily available one for them, was not to make changes, it was to just to avoid getting caught. While the main fear of decriminalizing sex work is that more women will be drawn to it, the criminalization of sex work assures its continued, seedy, abusive existence.

When it came time to make our phone calls, I decided I would not try my parents because I didn’t want to hear the sigh of my father’s disappointment. I desperately tried to recall the phone numbers of close friends whom I could ask, at 4 a.m., to drive down to the station with a $5,000 cashier’s check. One of the prostitutes was on the phone with her pimp, who did not know her legal name, so he didn’t take the collect call when she first placed it. She complained that she already had a bench warrant for an unpaid traffic violation and that now, with the solicitation charge, she was surely looking at jail time.

We spent the next few hours in the bunk beds. The guards’ nearby TV blared morning news shows. A woman bunked next to me, who was suffering from psychosis or drug withdrawal or some toxic combination of the two, would scream in my direction whenever I shifted in my bed. We were given a breakfast of an egg-like substance and a small carton of orange juice. The hookers were delighted and jokingly said, “Oooo, it’s breakfast in bed!” They munched on their food, watched the morning-time shows through the cage, and laughed loudly at the goofy weatherman’s antics.

I decided to call my dad; thankful to hear his voice, I finally started to cry.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a criminal justice reporter in Los Angeles. She tweets from @natashavc.

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