In 1988 I worked nights as a data entry clerk for the Internal Revenue Service in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It was boring work. It didn’t help that I didn’t sleep very well while Ryan was in kindergarten. I was tired most of the time. Although I didn’t like the job, I thought I was lucky to have it. We had one car: my old Chevy, and Tom needed that to commute to New York during the day.
Driving home one night in late February, I cranked the radio to stay awake. It had rained earlier. A thin sheet of ice covered the road. The highway was salted, but I skidded on the exit ramp. Creeping twoard home, I timed my progress to avoid red lights. I knew I’d probably have to coast to a stop once I neared Tilgman Street. It was a long light, especially at this hour. The heater puffed out warm air as I sat, huddled in my coat, humming along with the radio to distract myself. Allentown at night revealed the underbelly of the small city. That was when drug deals were made. When women in heels patroled the sidewalks.
Several blocks ahead, I could see the signal at Tilgman glowing green. Rejecting the urge to speed up, I thought, Damn. I’ll never make it. One street away, it switched to yellow as a truck sped through the intersection. We’d have collided if I’d done the same thing. Thank you, God. My car stopped neatly on the red.
Then I heard a tapping on the passenger window, making my heart thump in my chest. Like a kid afraid of the dark, I kept my eyes glued straight ahead. Maybe they’ll go away. More tapping. Grow up, Debbie. I made myself turn to look. A shivering figure peered through the wet glass. It was a woman. Reaching across to the passenger side to pull up the lock, I motioned for her to get in and turned off the radio.
“I was hoping a woman would stop for that light,” she said, closing the door and snapping the lock. Her teeth chattered.
Turning to ask her where she lived, I saw that she was shirtless. She clutched a damp newspaper across her chest. Her face was swollen. I let out a gasp.
“I got beat up,” she said. “I don’t live far. Would you drive me?”
“Oh, my God. You need to go to the police,” I said, pulling off my coat.
“You don’t got to do that,” she said, but pulled the parka around herself. I don’t live far. Would you drive me?”
“You need to go to the police,” I repeated. “I’ll go with you if you want.”
She faced me and spoke stiffly, but the rest of her shivered..
“No, I can’t. It was a john. I’m okay. Just drive, okay? Let’s just go, okay?”
I checked the empty street before pressing the gas pedal and running the red. We drove a block before I tried again.
“You should go to the police station. I’ll go with you if you…”
She cut me off, shaking her head. “I a hoe.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“I’m a prostitute. Cops ain’t gonna do nuthin. I just got to get home to my kids, that’s all.”
A patrol car passed us. “I could flag him down.”
“No, we almost there.”
We drove several blocks before she spoke again. “Could I borrow five dollars? I got to get the kids something to eat in the morning.”
“You can pull over right here.” She pointed to a large brick row house. The windows were dark. Checking my wallet, I only had a twenty. Tom was going to be pissed, but I gave it to her anyway.
“I’ll be back with you coat in a minute.”
I watched as the dark doorway swallowed her. The minutes stretched by. The heater didn’t work unless the car was in gear; I could see my breath. A patrol car pulled alongside me, and a cop motioned for me to roll down the window.
“You okay, miss?” His words were polite, but he shot me a suspicious look.
“I’m fine, Officer. Just waiting for my friend to give me back my coat,” I said, as if it was perfectly reasonable to be a lone white woman, parked on that street in the middle of the night, waiting for the return of a borrowed jacket.
He looked doubtful.
“I work nights for the I.R.S.” Somehow, that tid-bit lent me some credibility. He nodded and pulled away. I don’t know why I didn’t tell him the truth. Maybe I was afraid she was right, that he wouldn’t care about her or about the monsters running loose on his streets.
Just as I decided to pull away, a thin man skipped out of her dark doorway holding out my coat like a prize; his smile too big to fit with any concern for the woman. I took the jacket, pulling away without putting it on. Ten minutes later, I found a parking spot in front of my house and sprinted from the car. Tip-toeing up the steps, I got ready for bed in the dark as Tom snored. Easing into my side of the bed, he stirred.
“Hey, Babe. Did you have a good night?”
I almost told him–imagining myself curling into his arms, sharing the icy roads, the desperate woman, the cop, the grinning man. Then I thought about how tired I was, and how I’d be getting up in a few hours to wake Ryan, to walk him the mile to school. And about how I missed having a car.
“Yeah. See you in the morning.”
It took years for me to notice the similarities between me and the woman who lived on the other side of town.