A true story of culture shock, false promises and that time I (almost) had a Sugar Daddy.
“You have a nice figure, Gringa. But you could still get a little more meat on your bones.”
That’s what Jim matter-of-factly suggested to me, right after gesturing his big, expensive gold watch in front of my face towards the passenger seat where I clutched my cell phone with a sweaty palm and frowned down at said bones, the knobby knees and bony thighs I had since childhood. He was shaking his head, craning to leer at the petite females we could see through my window, blonde ponytails swinging as they jogged Kelly Drive, headphones in, oblivious to his judging stares. “Why do white girls like to work out so much? You see so many of these pretty little things running and it’s like girl, you don’t even have an ass, why you tryin’ to get rid of the fat you don’t even have? I don’t like that. I like girls with curves.” Then that chuckle of his – that infantile giggle like he just got away with doing something he shouldn’t have – followed by an emission of cigar breath. I didn’t agree nor refute. I sat there silent and dumb, as I always did and always would in his presence, only this time I had the unwelcome thought that I really should have learned how to jump out of a moving vehicle if it ever came to that. It didn’t, but the reminder tingled at the base of my skull as I checked my phone for the tenth time that minute.
It was the end of summer of 2010 and I was headed into my senior year of college, majoring in screenwriting at the University of the Arts. At that time, my boyfriend and I lived in a very cheap, small one bedroom apartment at 13th and Spruce that connected to the free UArts WiFi behind the Spruce dorms, had a great window AC unit, and was infested with bed bugs. I mostly lived off student loans and had just started my job as a waitress at Tavern on Broad, where my boyfriend also worked as a barback. Those summer days were pretty humdrum: walking the few blocks to work for my shift, returning chafed and sweaty, passing out from exhaustion and heat on a bare mattress, itching my thighs from welts the bed bugs left there.
I was anticipating my senior year, not so much for the prospects it would bring after, but essentially just to get it over with. I was sick of writing just for the grade, pitching ideas to bored professors who marked up what were once good screenplays until they were mainstream drivel, editing out all the shit that made writing fun for me so they could live out their vicarious regrets of not being the one who wrote Kramer vs. Kramer or Tootsie (damn, they loved Dustin Hoffman). Of course, I wasn’t even a good writer then. I could have learned a few things from them if I wasn’t stubborn and 21. But I had great ideas, a strong work ethic and the unending need to prove myself. I just wanted to graduate already and make my indelible mark on society, whatever the hell I thought that would be.
Sometime around then, a family member from back home in Scranton called me and told me they wanted to put me in touch with a guy they knew (I’ll call him Jim) who had connections for jobs and may be able to help me out. In typical older relative fashion, they said “I told him about you and that you were a student looking for work. He said he wants to meet you and have you work for him, to get you into the field. You should give him a call.” When I asked what he did for a living, they replied, “Media or something like that,” which was vague and could have entailed any number of things, but I was desperate for any line of work that wasn’t pretending to flirt with drunk Eagles fans for tips or wasting away in a 9 to 5 office job.
I admit I first had that moment of dread I always got when I heard the word “networking” in my classes: my mind conjuring up images of attending arts festivals where I had to pretend I knew anything about David Lynch films, or schmoozing stuffy Hollywood exec types at luncheons in places I had no business being. Then I had a moment of thinking this was all too good to be true. Someone important I’ve never met wants to meet…me? But I took down the contact information anyway and hung up, sitting under the lamp light at the desk in our bedroom, dramatically pondering the piece of paper. This was it, I thought. This is my olive branch, the fruits of which if I just plucked could set my life in motion. The moment couldn’t have been more romantic comedy trope if I tried, but I sincerely believed it.
After a quick plan of what I was going to say (my name and…that was it?), I gave him a call, wondering too late after it started ringing if he was even available. He picked up close to the last ring and I introduced myself in my cloyingly sweet phone voice. His first words to me were, “Andrea. I hear you’re very bright.” He pronounced my name “Ahn-DRAY-uh.” My nerves quickly subsided once I heard how easy-going his voice was over the phone. He, thankfully, did most of the talking. He sounded older, with raspy, salt of the earth undertones, but was straight to the point, quick and no nonsense, and yet had this indescribable edge of warmth and laughter. He explained that he lived in both Scranton and Philly, commuting roughly four days during the work week between each for various projects his job necessitated, but that he spent most of his free time and weekends in Philly. To be honest, I don’t recall him ever explicitly saying what it was he did, such as a job title or a description, just that he had “a lot of connections in the media, film and TV industries.”
He opened the floor to me and, by that point, I felt comfortable enough to talk to him about my university experience, my career goals, my hobbies, my current job at the bar. We planned to meet for lunch in the next couple of weeks or so. I left the call feeling like I was making steps towards something better for my future, even though I had no idea what that meant just yet.
Lunch followed soon after once the school year began in late August. He told me to meet him midweek for an early lunch at 11:30 at McCormick and Schmick’s. I arrived at 11:15 sharp (on time is late), after having a near meltdown trying to piece together something presentable out of the offerings of my college wardrobe of jeggings and oversized colorful hoodies, “Broads on Broad” tank tops I was forced to wear at the bar, and booty shorts. I stood in the dog day heat on the corner of Broad and City Hall, fumbling with my fake pearl earrings and matching necklace, dressed in what I managed to whip up: a modest white crew-neck sleeveless top from Express with a barely visible grease stain on the front, a black pencil skirt that fell just above the knee that was too tight at the stomach but too loose at the thighs (also from Express), and one-inch black and white spectator heels my Aunt gifted me from consignment that would’ve been sharp had they not been ripped, tattered and browned from years of use. Nothing overtly sexy, nor conservative. Just professional enough as I could muster for a casual business meeting. I pulled my frizzy hair back into a rather unflattering low ponytail, but it was all I could do in the humidity.
I should’ve just walked away before the meeting even happened. After standing outside McCormick and Schmick’s for well over a half an hour, Jim finally rounded the corner of Broad, no suit, tie, briefcase, or alibi to be had. He was less impressive than I initially had imagined: much shorter than me, portly, bespectacled, at least 60, shiny bald head. He dressed like he was at a beach wedding: bright pink short-sleeve button down stark against his light brown skin, khakis, simple loafers. He walked with a slight limp, but with the confidence of a man everyone greeted like an old friend when he walked into a room, the dimpled smile of an everyman fortunate enough to see their hard work turn into riches. Arms spread wide like he’s been waiting his whole life for me, he approached me, gave me a big hug, kissed my cheek. Nodding his head to the doorman, we entered the restaurant.
We were seated in the window, and after a couple of odd stares in our direction from the staff, the waiter approached. Skipping the usual pleasantries, Jim cut the waiter off and flapped his hand at him, pointing to the drink menu, then to me, insisting I order a drink (actually, it was, “She wants a drink.”) It was maybe 12:30 in the afternoon at this point, but I pointed at random to a gin fizz cocktail and ordered that, feeling Jim eyeing both me and the confused waiter intensely. That was the biggest takeaway I got from his demeanor: overall pleasant to be around, cracking jokes, seated sideways, legs crossed, arms splayed over the back of the chair, nodding patiently on the few occasions he was listening and not talking, but always keeping a keen, stern eye on his surroundings, an undercurrent of one who silently commands control.
The rest of the lunch was so dizzying, I can only remember snippets. Catching a buzz on a Wednesday afternoon and subsequently turning hot and flustered, ordering some type of shrimp pasta to eat, him asking me invasive personal questions that I answered too quickly and casually, either out of nerves or the fact that he was, truthfully, one of those laidback types that made you want to divulge. The questions weren’t wildly inappropriate, but they also weren’t ones that would be asked by a prospective employer during your garden variety job interview or business meeting: Why would I wait tables for very little money? How serious was my relationship? Was my boyfriend making good money? Why don’t I order a second drink? I guess I should have stopped expecting it to be a business meeting by the time my second drink arrived and it turned more into two people casually chatting over lunch, complimenting the food, expanding further on the conversation we had over the phone – but part of me was still wondering when we would start actually talking about the job at hand.
From what I can recall, the remainder of the meal was a lot of me being nervous for no apparent reason and him catching on and telling me, “Why you so nervous, Gringa? You need to calm down.” Gringa would become his new pet name for me. Thinking I was offended (I wasn’t), he assured me he was using it in an endearing, affectionate way, rather than the negative connotation one often associates with the term. I didn’t mind, but was still a bit taken aback by how…casual it all was.
He touched upon his job (owning and operating a logistics company, I finally figured out), his Colombian nationality, and his absolute love for America. I would later learn more about this rich history and how it informed his personality, both cultures on either end of his own personal tug-of-war – how he could, in the same breath, both pride himself on his background and yet admonish it, I never knew. Rather sudden, the conversation then shifted from easy breezy to brass tacks. He delved into the details of his many side projects that come with the job of consulting companies, many involving television networks. I perked up at that. There was one particular project, he said, that he wanted me involved in as his “assistant,” one that would be dealing with a notable television network and script writing. I was sold.
We left lunch (after Jim dropped an incredibly hefty tip) and he gave me a terse goodbye on the sidewalk without so much as a hand shake, a “very nice to meet you” or even a follow-up date on the calendar, so I was left feeling a little deflated despite having spent a good chunk of my afternoon with him. Even more so, I had no idea when I would see him next or if I could consider myself employed just yet, so eager to quit my job at the tavern schlepping beer towers to jersey-clad men paying no mind to their own wedding bands. Regardless, I was relieved it wasn’t a tense job interview situation, so I walked out of there fairly confident I finally had what seemed like a golden opportunity lined up; or, at the very least, my foot in the proverbial door.
After that first lunch, what followed could best be described as a barrage of sporadic meet-ups throughout the fall, maybe once or twice a week, sometimes every other week, and spanning from morning to night or a just a couple of hours. It would go something like this: he would call me and tell me what date and time he would pick me up, roll up in his modest navy blue Subaru SUV (I was slightly disappointed he didn’t drive something flashy like a Benz), arriving precisely a half hour to an hour later than said time with no courteous explanation for his lateness, then would drive us to some wildcard location in the city. I rode shotgun each time we headed into the dice roll of whatever the day’s itinerary was. Short of his quick mumblings about “so and so needs me to do this,” I never knew where we were going until we got there, and even when we did I was still far out of the loop.
It was also during this time my boyfriend and I finally moved out of the bed bug apartment and into a new one in the Art Museum area (still plagued with problems and twice as much in cost), only now when I waited for Jim, sweating in whatever ill-fitting cheap business attire I owned at the time, I could at least sit in the ottoman in our bay window and peer out onto 20th Street like a puppy waiting for its owner.
Initially, my time with Jim was centered around the script writing project he mentioned to me, which tamed my original suspicions that it was all a ruse. In a nutshell, the goal of the project was to write, film, edit and broadcast educational, yet entertaining half-hour telenovelas, stylized under the guise of making preventative healthcare accessible to the low-income Latin communities in Philadelphia. In his own words, the intent was to educate them on taking the necessary preventative healthcare measures, such as recognizing the symptoms of a stroke or a heart attack, or maintaining proper prenatal care. He provided me with a couple low-budget DVD demos he and his colleagues filmed a couple years back in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. They were poorly filmed and badly acted. My job, he said, would be something along the lines of re-working the scripts in the most bare-bones way possible so as to make them entertaining and avoid them coming across like a PSA. It would then be translated to Spanish, filmed on a very low budget, then ideally broadcast through the network in places like hospital waiting rooms and pediatricians’ offices.
The promise that I could write, make a positive impact on the community, and get paid for doing it was more than I could dream for at the age of 21. Even more, I was anxious to learn about other cultures, to submerge my Gringa legs into unfamiliar waters. I didn’t even care if the salary would be low, the hours part-time. To me, it was the perfect job.
The first official meeting to get the project in motion was at the prospective network. Jim grazed my lower back as he ushered me into the building, muttering something about following his lead and letting him do all the talking. What could I contribute to a meeting I haven’t even been briefed on?, I thought. I didn’t have to worry after all, since Jim and the bigwig executive spoke entirely in Spanish the whole time, something my naive self should have expected and prepared for, but still took me by surprise nonetheless. I made a mental note to unearth some of my high school Spanish knowledge, a physical note to maybe start an online language course in the margins of the fashionable notebook I tucked in an ugly, camel faux-leather briefcase I, for whatever reason, brought with me (also a consignment find from my Aunt).
Living up to my pet name, I sat there in a quiet, uni-lingual stupor, not quite sure of my role in all of this. I had already forgotten the network honcho’s name. I studied the posters in glass on the wall of the soap operas and their chisel-jawed stars. I took useless notes (‘Always sit to the right of the head of the table, opposite the door’; ‘Greet in casual Spanish’; ‘Bring gifts!’; ‘Sigue = go ahead’). I wondered what they were talking about in their negotiations. Was this serious-looking woman in the pants suit the CEO? Vice President? Marketing Director? Did she even like Jim’s idea? I never found out, since he didn’t tell me any details about the meeting afterwards, and I was too hesitant to ask him myself.
Much to my disappointment, the next meeting a few weeks later had nothing to do with the network project. We were now in Northeast Philly, “Little Puerto Rico,” he called it. It was an area I had never visited, one I didn’t even realize existed outside my bubble of Spring Garden Ave. The Philly skyline was so far away, I didn’t even feel like I was in the city anymore: the relentless, still-too-hot-for-September sun beating down on a culturally diverse landscape of interwoven diagonal streets and blocks of bodegas decorated like fiestas year-round.
We were sitting in the chilly lobby of an impressive glass building, home to a health and safety organization that serviced the community, its floor to ceiling glass and bright orange trim erect like a mocking prismatic oasis in a desert of budget grocery stores and abandoned fields as lush as overgrown jungles. Jim explained to me that this building was having problems with vandalism and gang fights outside at night, causing destruction to their property and disruption to their night staff. He was here to propose new security features, which would include a state-of-the-art video surveillance system, metal detectors, and tasers for the front desk security guards.
Still waiting far too long for whoever it was we were meeting with, Jim turned to me with his sharp gaze and asked, “How would you feel about coming to the Dominican Republic or Colombia with me?” Caught off-guard, I fumbled for an answer, smiling slack-jawed and waiting for him to elaborate. “Have you ever been?” he asked. I shook my head no. He continued, “They have poor slums, but they’re beautiful countries. But we would be in the nice hotels with the beach and the pools. And unlimited food and alcohol,” he continued with a wink and a chuckle. “I’ve never been but have always dreamed of traveling,” I responded. “Good. We may be able to film our healthcare project down there,” he said. I was relieved he brought the project back to the forefront, now positively electric in my seat that I would actually be traveling for work. Leaning in closer, he breathed, “Would your boyfriend mind?” I thought it was a strange question to ask, so I hesitated. Thankfully, Jim’s cell phone ringing saved me and he left to take the call.
While I leafed through the Spanish magazines, trying to read the articles, I thought about his proposal and what my boyfriend would think. It would be for work, so I’m sure he’d be okay with it, right? Maybe he’d even be excited for me. Jim returned and curtly announced then and there the two conditions of my job: (1) he’ll be giving me business cards with the title of “Media Consultant,” and (2) He will pay me for my work. I’m sure I groveled with gratitude, but deep down, something didn’t settle well with me. What am I doing here at this meeting with you if it has nothing to do with the project? When will I actually start working? Traveling? I quickly shoved aside my doubts, convinced it was just in the beginning stages of the project and it might take some time to sprout wings. I decided I was willing to endure his many ride-alongs, so long as it meant me getting paid and getting some valuable work experience.
After what felt like an eternity, we finally met with a red-headed man, who I presumed to be someone very important in the company. This time, they spoke in half-Spanish, half English, so I repeated my gambit of sit down, shut up, scribble fake notes, nod at the few words I did remember. After only five to ten minutes in the conference room, we were then ushered to a room down the hall that looked like where you’d hold detainees. A burly security guard sat at a folding table. Jim whipped out a bag I didn’t see before and grabbed an array of tasers and stun guns, varying in size and intensity. He laid them out on the table before the security guard, picked one up, and turned it on, its loud electric current and sparking white light making me instinctively step back a few feet. Jim laughed.
I took a seat as far away as possible from the tasers as he demonstrated to the security guard the proper self defense in using one. Here was Jim, all lumpy 5’5″ of him, teaching someone much more physically fit, younger and taller than him how to swat away at a forward attack and come in from the side with the taser, aiming right at the neck. He mimed this action over and over until the security guard mastered it, and despite Jim’s surprisingly deft hand movement and agile instincts for his age, it was the first time I noticed the dark liver spots on his hands, and the golden wedding band on his finger. Regardless, I was curious why Jim was doing this training. Was he an ex-cop or something?
Before we left, he joked in Spanish with the front desk security guards and gave them a goody bag of tasers and mace. He promised to give me some, too, for self defense in the city. I never did receive any, not like I wanted them anyway.
The random ride-alongs continued into the rest of late September/early October, and I was still, unfortunately, without a clue as to what my role in this whole thing was. One day, he drove us far down past the airport to a health insurance agency in a business complex where we met with a woman who I presumed would be funding our project (it was also the first time he introduced me as his “assistant” and not just by name). Another time, we attended a fancy luncheon at the Union League for a seminar held entirely in Spanish, where I ate a delicious four-course meal and sipped tea at a round table seat I’m certain was in no way intended for me. I spent the entire opening cocktail hour nursing a Pinot Grigio out of anxiety while Jim mingled (and where the red-headed man from the first meeting tried to reintroduce himself to me and open a dialogue in Spanish; and me, shaking my head in confusion, displeased him greatly, to say the least). Another time, we had a sit-down with a trainer at a physical therapy center in Little Puerto Rico, the purpose of which I was once again left to figure out based on context clues of Spanglish and body language.
Around the time of this flurry of activity, he gave me a handful of the business cards he promised me. And sure enough, there it was underneath my name, embossed in blue: “Media Consultant.” Despite not having a single useful place in the city I could actually distribute them, I was dumbfounded that the position was now in print. I hadn’t done any consulting, let alone anything of the media variety. But I tucked them in my ugly briefcase nonetheless and made a mental note to add the spiffy new title to my resume.
It was the beginning of October and Jim was driving me home on Spring Garden, the golden sun setting ahead. At a red light, he silently handed me a check for $300. On the memo line it read, “Project.” I stared at it in disbelief, just barely stopping myself from having the knee-jerk reaction of handing it back to him and saying, “No, I couldn’t take this.” Instead, I murmured “Thank you.” He responded, “I just want to help you out, you know? You’re in college, I understand how it is with student loans and costs for books and god knows you’re not making enough at that server job. I like helping you out.” It’s not in my nature to shut up when someone hands me a gift (that’s what it was to me, after all, considering I hadn’t put in a single ounce of real work since this all began), so I told him I was excited to start working on the project with him and that I had been taking Spanish lessons online with LiveMocha so I could understand the meetings better, which was the truth. He fell silent, a frown forming at the corners of his mouth. I stopped talking, confused why he didn’t even acknowledge my eagerness to learn and get to work, but still ecstatic to have that extra $300 in my bank account now.
I called my mom that night and told her I received money from Jim. She said to call my uncle who does our taxes and figure out if I’d need to claim it or not. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. Was this really income? It’s not like I signed any official paperwork to be his employee. Erring on the side of caution, I called my uncle, who asked me “Are you his employee or is it freelance?” I said, “I guess its freelance. It just said the name of the project we’re working on in the memo line.” He said I probably wouldn’t have to claim it unless he continued to pay me on a regular basis. If he did, then I would have to. I was certain I would receive more money, at first guiltily relishing in the thought of receiving $300 for doing absolutely nothing, but then reminding myself real work would soon follow so the money could be well-earned.
But after that first check, something shifted. Perhaps it was being in the weeds at my real job, up to my ears on football Sundays in greasy french fries and shots of Patron, referee whistles and Al Michaels’ voice blaring in my ear. Or it could have been that I was stressing because I hadn’t even started my Burn Notice spec script for the midterms. Maybe it was that dreaded October to November transition, when, historically, I would suffer from bad seasonal depression, the mean winds and daylight savings time vacuum sealing all my happiness and energy and storing it in the back of the freezer until I could take it out to defrost when winter ended.
More likely, it was the harsh realization I was never going to have an actual job under Jim’s wing.
The first of many red flags came in mid-October, when he picked me up with another woman riding shotgun. It was his roommate, a spitfire Dominican woman in her thirties (I’ll call her Vicki) with dark lipstick and long, silky dark brown hair with caramel highlights. The nights he stayed in Philly rather than Scranton, he shared a two-bedroom apartment with Vicki on the outskirts of the city, right off Kelly Drive in the East Falls area. Vicki would join in on some of our car rides around the city, chatting incessantly and chain smoking cigarettes the entire time, bitching about that boyfriend or this girlfriend, every now and again turning around to face me in the backseat and call me adorable, like a child. She, too, quickly adopted the Gringa nickname for me.
While I didn’t mind her ever-entertaining company, it made me feel uneasy to suddenly be demoted to the backseat, Jim quickly dismissing me as a “family friend” when she asked who I was. I felt oddly jealous of this sudden arrangement – not of the attention she received from him (and it was a lot) – but that the project we were supposed to be working on together, the ride-alongs with me as his assistant in the shotgun seat, my promised position as “media consultant” were now, figuratively and literally, taking a backseat. When we dropped her off at their apartment, Jim watched her protectively, and a bit seductively, until she stepped inside, then told me she came from an abusive relationship and was on the verge of being jobless and homeless when he swooped in as a favor to a friend and more or less saved her. “I gave her a job, a place to live. I just want to help people,” he repeated. I wondered if he was fucking her. As if he read my mind, he continued, “People like Vicki are great in bed but they’re crazy women. That’s why I could never date a Latina. See, you have the white woman as the one you keep at home and the Dominicans as the ones you fuck on the side.”
Plain and simple, I felt uncomfortable at this brazen talk. These are conversations I’d have with my male friends at Oscar’s Tavern over one too many beers. Not with someone who was supposed to be my boss. I wanted to express my discomfort, but chose to remain quiet, instead retreating my body farther towards the passenger side door and praying the long day with Vicki and Jim and everyone else we met with could just come to an end. I had a headache, tired from a day of fake smiling and sitting in his SUV, which now started to feel more like a chore and less an exciting adventure. I texted my boyfriend that I missed him.
The second warning came when Jim introduced me to yet another person he was fucking (I’ll call her Laura), a Puerto Rican with a beautiful smile and fake straw yellow hair. He picked her up on our way to lunch at a fantastic Colombian restaurant-cum-nightclub in the Northeast that we frequented often because Jim knew the owner. I, true to form, sat opposite them and observed silently until I was prompted to talk, which wasn’t much. Laura was sweet, but glanced at me curiously the whole meal. I had the sudden fear that maybe she thought I was fucking him, so I acted extra young and naive to make up for it. At quick glance, the two of them could pass for father and daughter with the age difference, and they certainly weren’t romantic, but occasionally I would see him sneak a rub on her thigh or her gently graze his forearm.
With Vicki, and now Laura, I never found an opening for follow-up discussions with Jim about the supposed project, so I chalked up this day as yet another loss, save for the delicious meal in front of me that I had no problem eating on his dime: tripe soup, avocado with salt and lemon, shrimp paella, steak, rice, refried beans, unlimited Coronas, delicious and refreshing lechosas, all finished off with shots of Aguardiente, which Jim and Laura gulped like water. I cringed at its rubbing alcohol taste and they giggled at my absolute whiteness. But if I was going to sit there useless and awkward, watching them canoodling, I figured I may as well be drunk doing it.
After Jim dropped her off (a little tipsy, I might add), and without prompting from me, he explained he and Laura’s arrangement: that she was his side-piece, his “city girlfriend,” someone he helped get off welfare and into the workforce. He paid for her classes at community college. He got her back on her feet so she could raise her three kids. He continued, “I enjoy sleeping with her, but I don’t want a real relationship with her.” Before I could even process that, he explained, “My wife knows about the affairs in the city, but she doesn’t mind.” I didn’t even need to know the woman to know that “doesn’t mind” most likely translated to “turns a blind eye.” The Aguardiente doing its work, he started pouring it all out, telling me his wife has pancreatic cancer and is constantly in and out of treatment, and that it’s caused a rift in their relationship. Did I detect a hint of sorrow there? He told me about their teenage daughter and that he didn’t think she had much confidence, wishing she would break out of her shell. “She’s not like you,” he finished.
One bright and early Monday morning, after spending the previous day into the night watching a baseball game at McFadden’s, I was a little hungover when he picked me up, not entirely chomping at the bits for whatever bullshit he had in store for us that day. This time when he picked me up, the shotgun seat was occupied by his daughter, an awkward 16-year-old entering her junior year of high school, resembling her father in every imaginable way, most noticeable in stature. I wasn’t sure why he brought her to the city for a day of what I imagined would be a Russian roulette of inconsistent stop-and-gos, but I stopped questioning his methods. He drove us to the intersection of 5th and Jefferson in North Philly where he parked the SUV outside a free clinic, next to a single row home and an abandoned field that seemed to stretch for blocks. “I’ll only be a minute. There’s a pistol underneath the driver’s seat if anyone gives you problems.” I’d never shot a handgun and was a terrible babysitter, so this couldn’t end well, I thought.
Five minutes passed, then ten, then a half hour. Hungover, exhausted, hungry and frustrated, I writhed nauseous and bored in the backseat, feeling very much like an au pair for a rich family who leaves me with the spoiled daughter to test me. Finally unable to take the loud silence, and realizing she might be a tad scared in this area of the city (I was older, so did that suddenly make me responsible for her?), I forced conversation: asking her about her favorite school subject, music, hobbies, goals. It was like pulling teeth, but she eventually started to open up to me, and I discovered she was extremely intelligent, with lofty goals of being an architect. Finally, after forty painstaking minutes, Jim returned, a white baggie in his hand and zero explanation for why the hell he parked his teenage daughter and new hire outside a place like this.
A few meaningless pickups and dropoffs followed, but Jim had to cut the day short after only a couple hours to get his daughter back home to Scranton. When he dropped me off, he handed me another check for $300. Had I not been tagging along with him for a month like some rookie cop with a rubber gun, I would have been a little less irritable and a little more grateful for the money. Today was an utter waste, I thought, pissed I didn’t just call in sick to sleep off my hangover and eat more than the granola bar I had in his backseat. But I swallowed my thoughts and curtly thanked him as I rushed into my apartment, already undressing at the threshold of my door to conk out for the day. I folded the check into my wallet, remembering the age-old adage of “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” But this wasn’t a gift. Nor was it simply “helping me out.” I was indebted to him now.
Still, by early November, I maintained optimism. Actual, tangible work had to follow soon, I was sure of it. In fact, I wanted to believe it so bad, I willed myself into making it happen. I bragged to my friends and family. I quit my job at the bar, not even the least bit convincing as I told my boss the reason for leaving: “I got a job writing telenovelas and traveling!” It sounded so ridiculous, I couldn’t even fool myself. But the $600 for doing nothing justified it. I figured that if I met with Jim even once a week for a mystery meeting, it could hold me over financially until we eventually charged head-on into the network project. Then I’d have a real job, I lied to myself.
Instead, the only “work” required of me was simply accompanying him on his many personal errands. I drove his SUV around the block of the parking authority while he ran inside to dispute a parking ticket. Another time, he needed to stop at Holt’s Cigar on Walnut so left me to watch the car in the alleyway with the flashers on. Fed up with having no real purpose once again, and also out of sheer curiosity, I made sure he was well out of sight before snooping through his car. Some things I found: mace and a stun gun in the center console, a pistol underneath the driver’s seat (he wasn’t kidding), prescription pill bottles in the driver’s side console, and most shocking (but also not at all if you really think about it), a pair of bright red silk panties tucked in the sunglasses compartment above the rearview mirror. I felt guilty, but had been in his car enough that I felt I earned the right. He exited the cigar shop, several cigars for himself in his hand. For reasons unbeknownst to me, he then handed me two Ashtons (“A gift for your boyfriend“) and then I felt even more guilty.
Just when I thought the circle of women couldn’t get any bigger or more awkward with me somehow wrapped up in the middle of all of it, his 30-some year old niece (I’ll call her Nancy) soon joined Vicki and I on the drives with Jim. Nancy was my favorite: highly intelligent, funny, quiet and calculating, but feisty when called for, a short, boyish build with a mane of curly black hair she kept in a low bun, and an attractive but stern face with deep-set brows and no makeup, the same observational awareness Jim had. Vicki and Nancy went way back, simply through the closeness in age and the common denominator of Jim, but they couldn’t be more different. I wouldn’t say they were friends, but they were friendly, often chatting in Spanish. Nancy made sure to keep me in the loop, translating key words and phrases so I could get the gist of their boisterous laughs, and I began to feel more welcomed by them, like one of the girls, gossiping and cracking jokes, swapping stories, sharing beauty tips.
I still naively hung on to the tiniest shred of hope that we would circle back to the project at hand. I was getting impatient, but left my trust in Jim – he was, after all, the brains behind the operation, so surely he would tell me about any new developments if there were any. I know we were waiting on grant money, so maybe that was the holdup, I thought. But it would soon become apparent that the project was not at the forefront of his mind. That wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I had even one iota of responsibility as an assistant. Any meetings to attend or errands to be run unrelated to the project still didn’t require any contribution on my part. For some of them, Jim even allowed Vicki and Nancy to join. I remember one particular afternoon, we all got out of his SUV and he extended his arms so we could all hook on to him. “Look at me,” he joked, “I’ve got all these beautiful young ladies.” That was the first time I started to feel more like a trophy and less a colleague. But I kept my mouth shut and laughed because Vicki did. We entered the building lobby, the three of us flanking Jim, intertwined like some weird foursome, knowing full well this ridiculous show of older man and young hot things wouldn’t fool onlookers into believing anything besides its negative implications.
Nancy side-eyed me to silently convey that she shared my thoughts, and I realize now, looking back, that was the third red flag that went unnoticed by me at the time. Nancy was trying to warn me.
The jaunts quickly were reduced to fun outings in the city, not even a glimmer of errands or meetings. One day, the four of us visited a hole-in-the-wall food joint in Little Puerto Rico where Jim flirted with the counter girls he knew. He ordered me fried plantains and pastelitos and other deliciously flaky, fried, meat-filled things I forgot the names of. He sent me home with a to-go container of treats, once again, “for your boyfriend.” I thanked him, but wondered if these gifts were a simple gesture of good-will, a machismo show of who makes more money, or something more under-handed and calculated, a way to “buy” his approval before swooping in,
After we ate, Jim was driving us home and reached an intersection. A man ran the stop sign and narrowly hit us, then pulled over hard and got out of his car. Angry and menacing, he approached us. Nancy reached for me and Vicki cowered. Jim swung his door open and got out in the middle of the road, shouting, “Ayy, PAPI! Watch where you’re going! I have women here!” The man screamed, “My friends and I got guns!” Thinking, and hoping, that would have sent Jim scurrying, locking the doors and taking off, he instead moved closer, slapped his chest and shouted, “Yeah? Well I got guns too! Get outta here!” The man quickly got back in his car and peeled off. I again wondered if Jim was ex-cop. What else didn’t I know about him?
Jim first dropped Vicki off at their apartment, still heated and silently stewing in his seat, minus the occasional racist outbursts about “these black thugs and criminals” and all the violence in Philly (for the record, the man wasn’t black), to which Vicki agreed and ranted about the rest of the ride. I was, regretfully, too quiet, too afraid to speak up against their prejudices, instead zipping my mouth shut in the back seat, but extremely grateful when she finally got out of the car so I didn’t have to listen to her anymore. Jim ran inside to pick up a few things and Nancy bumped up to the shotgun seat (I was realizing the front seat hierarchy was always lover first, family second, whatever the hell I was last). I don’t remember the details of me and Nancy’s conversation, only that she mentioned Jim can get angry sometimes because he served in Vietnam. I later learned from him that he was, in fact, an army medic during the war, hopelessly attempting to sew infected wounds that would never heal, put organs back in that came out, death and illness purveying his senses. He told me he would drink a bottle of Jack every day just to get through it.
The drive back to my place felt like an eternity, Jim still rattling on about the scuffle in the street while I sat there with the to-go box of empanadas for my boyfriend getting colder. It was getting darker. I rested my head back and tiredly followed the oncoming traffic lights forming wavy lines across Nancy’s face; Nancy, who would occasionally glance back at me sympathetically, eyeing my out-of-place business attire (I never learned to just wear jeans, always ready for a professional outing), probably wondering just as much as I was what the hell I was even doing here.
On a Friday afternoon in mid-November, I was looking forward to a weekend of doing absolutely nothing. Then Jim called, inviting me out for a night on the town the following day. “Vicki and Nancy are coming, too. We’re gonna go out for drinks and salsa dancing. You should join.” Though I had just about had enough of this foursome arrangement, having still put in zero hours of work after three months with him, I figured it would be rude to decline considering he did give me that $600, and, in any event, thought that it couldn’t hurt to meet some new people that Jim could introduce me to, maybe even in my field, though I pretty quickly resigned myself to not have high expectations about anything career-wise. The invite was for pleasure only, but I wasn’t going to pass up on a free meal and a night out dancing.
That night, I skimmed my wardrobe after googling “what to wear salsa dancing” and realized I had absolutely nothing to wear on bottom but jeans, so Saturday morning I woke up early and ran to the city to last minute purchase a chintzy bright purple pencil skirt made of stretchy cotton with a fabric rose and a slit on the side. It went just below the knees, but was body hugging. I tried it on with a low-cut, too-tight ruched black top and black velvet open-toe pumps. It was shoddily put together, but it would do. The next afternoon, Jim pulled up in his SUV, whistling at my outfit as he met me on the sidewalk, a kiss on the cheek and big, long hug. Jim’s word for the night for me would be “Mami!”, a step up from Gringa, I supposed. Nancy, in the front seat, actually put on a little bit of eyeliner and lipstick. She acted strange, nervously greeting me, watching me uneasily as every few seconds I tugged at the bottom of the skirt that kept riding up. You get what you pay for, I thought. We picked Vicki up, who was dressed for the opera: hair sprayed dramatically, lips lined aggressively, massive cheetah print fur coat. The three of us women sat in his SUV, stuffed in puffy winter coats and perfumed like plumed prize swans.
We started our night at a posh little lounge in a strip mall next to the big glass building where Jim did his taser demonstration. It was only 6 or 7 at night, so pretty empty, as Nancy, Vicki and I took a seat at a trendy low table in the back, drinking margaritas and chatting (them in Spanglish), while Jim spent the entire time with the bartender whom he knew well. They made me feel comfortable, but I still felt unfamiliar with my surroundings, not to mention at least a decade younger than everyone in there. Vicki had one too many and talked an awful lot about her ex-husband and how terrible he was. The music got louder, so the girls pulled me on the dance floor and taught me how to salsa dance. I knew how to, but the refresher course was much appreciated. Out of nerves or a higher college tolerance, I kept a steady, electric buzz while Vicki and Nancy got much drunker. Outside, we smoked acrid clove cigarettes and Nancy got emotional about something and started to well up. She hugged me tight and sloppily whispered something in my ear about how smart I was. She offered a lot of older sister sage advice that night, dropping hints I didn’t pick up about using my skills for something good, following on a smart career path.
Not this, not with him, is what she was trying to tell me in so many words.
Our next stop was a corner neighborhood dive bar in the same neck of the woods as the first place, where I drew curious looks from the patrons and staff. We drank Coronas all night and salsa danced until my hairline stuck to my forehead in sweat. I’ll admit I felt rather like Baby in the watermelon scene of Dirty Dancing. I’d been to bottle service nightclubs, to underground hipster dance spaces, to block parties with live jazzy music, to warehouse raves, and countless bars (hell, the one I worked in turned its sports-watching area into a dance floor after games), but I’d never seen a crowd so lively, confident and unabashed in their moves. Every single person could have done professional backup dancing, and there were no breaks except for more booze, just a constant stream of limbs and heads swaying in an organized, chaotic fashion, first salsa dancing to themselves, then moving seamlessly from partner to partner, do-si-doing around the room, syncopating to the beat.
I was grabbed at the haunches by random men and more or less forced into undulating my hips to match theirs, unsure of what to do with my arms until they grabbed my hands and placed them over their shoulders, my center bringing me closer. The song changed and I took that as a cue to stop, but this satin-shirted man smiled and pulled me in for another round. Now, I thrived on dancing. Hard and fast and being the center of attention was my M.O. This was a crowd that understood my style. I could fuck with a dance camaraderie like this. But goddamn, my thighs hurt, I was out of breath, wanted to take a seat, have another drink, get some fresh air.
Reading my body language or mind, and as a surprisingly welcome relief, Jim came snaking smooth and quick through everyone like a hot knife in butter, shouting “Mami!”, and gently pulling me towards him, the man I was just with following the unspoken rule of letting him take me and not arguing. Jim briefly salsa danced with me, not nearly as lithe as my former dance partner but still light on his feet. Over his shoulder, Vicki and Nancy watched us from the bar. He pulled me in closer, and breathed in my ear, “All the men in this place want to be with you cause of your long legs.”
The two of us rejoined the others. Vicki grabbed my hands and sniffed them, yanking a bottle of hand sanitizer out of her huge purse and squirting an unwanted tablespoon in my hand, gesturing at the man I was just dancing with across the way, whispering conspiratorially, “Black guys’ hands always smell like cocoa butter.” Thoroughly uncomfortable, I turned to Nancy to change the subject and ask what she was drinking. She gave me a suspicious look and I, not for the first time with the women in his life, worried that she also thought I was sleeping with Jim.
We finished the night at El Camino in Northern Liberties where we met about four or five bombastic off-duty Philadelphia cops with beer bellies that Jim was buddies with. He said, “I’m very good friends with the cops,” explaining that’s how he gets all the tasers and guns he carries. “Remind me I have a police sticker to put on your car. And I wanna get you a gun permit, too, so you could carry.” I was too tired and drunk to even entertain that thought. It was well past midnight, my feet hurt from my heels, and we had been drinking since dinnertime. One of the cops handed me a drink and I tried to decline but he shoved it towards me, grabbed me forcefully and pulled me into his chest, boisterously laughing, keeping me in his clutches with his baseball mitt of a hand. Vicki and Nancy were also each assigned their own rude officer of the night, grabbing where they saw fit, like we were all escorts-for-hire. Two of the cops began a play-fight, lifting their shirts to reveal guns tucked into their waistbands.
I tolerated this for, thankfully, only 45 minutes or so before it was time to call it a night because Nancy made it clear she’d just about had it with all of them and wanted to leave. She and Vicki took a cab back to Jim’s place separately while Jim drove me home. Apparently you get a pass on drunk driving when you have an in with the cops, I thought. During the ride, he apologized on Nancy’s behalf. “Sorry we couldn’t stay there longer. Nancy…she’s not good in social situations.” Silently thanking her for getting us out of there, I responded, “It’s fine. I like Nancy. She’s really nice.” He chuckled. “She’s extremely intelligent…knows everything about science and biology and all that. But she’s bipolar and can be a bit emotional. And she lacks confidence.”
Seeing how fondly he spoke of his wife, daughter, niece, and lovers, I wondered how he spoke of me when I wasn’t around and decided I neither wanted to know nor cared.
It was the end of November, but the sun added some extra heat. Today, it was just Jim and I. We spent the day doing god knows what all over the city. I was burnt out, at my wit’s end with this whole arrangement, and I feared Jim could sense it. But I maintained composure and professionalism, still wearing my pencil skirt and a forced smile, like playing a practical joke on myself. Later afternoon approached as we headed towards my apartment, driving on the parkway. But he didn’t turn up my street. Instead, he kept driving past the museum and on to Kelly Drive. “Where are we going?” I asked. “I have to stop at my apartment. Remind me, I also want to give you that police sticker for your car.” In no mood to argue, I sulked in the passenger seat, tuning him out until we got there.
Near Wissahickon, we turned off the main stretch into the parking lot of an outdated and uninspired apartment complex with a handful of units. I remained in the car, but Jim came around to my side and opened the door, gesturing me to follow. That was the first time I felt truly hesitant to move, but I obliged, clutching my cellphone tight. We entered the unit he and Vicki shared. For the first time in ever, I was hoping she would be there, but the place was empty. “Vicki’s out of town this week,” he said, once again reading my mind. I took in my surroundings. It was a decent living space for two people, with a fairly updated kitchen, a sizable, well-furnished living room, and a full dining room, very clearly decorated by a woman with a touch of drama – all Vicki. Jim offered me a beverage, which I declined, then shuffled around in one of the adjacent bedrooms, telling me to take a seat in the dining room rather than the living room, which I thought was strange.
I took a seat at the dining room table in an upholstered turquoise chair by the window. Jim entered and once again offered me a beverage, a note of irritation in his voice, which I declined again. He sighed, giving up, and sat pointedly with a huff in a chair across and down the table, so far it looked like we were two coworkers who hated each other, waiting for a board meeting to start. He crossed his legs, drummed his knees, tented his hands, and stared at me. Not sure where to look or what to do, I looked out the window at the trees to the right and said, “Nice place.” He ignored that, chuckled.
“Why’re you so shy, Gringa? I don’t bite,” he asked with a mischievous grin on his face and a head tilt beckoning me towards him. Why did you sit all the way over there, then?, is what I thought. What came out was, “I’m comfortable here,” which was a lie. I was too upright, like I was in interrogation. I checked the time on my phone, yawned, hoping he’d leave it at that, grab his keys, and just take me home. Rather abruptly and loud, he continued, as clear and confident as a marketing presentation:
“You know, Andrea, you’re very attractive. I would like to have a sexual relationship with you. I would not force you. You would need to be the one to initiate it. I am just putting it out there.“
Stunned, shaken, betrayed. These are a few words to describe how I felt when he propositioned me. Heat rising in my esophagus, scalp prickling, I white-knuckled the arms of the chair, looking down at my pencil skirt. Stupid pencil skirt. I wondered what I looked like to him: face flush, palms clammy, lips parted in a half laugh as I tried to formulate an articulate response, legs crossed into themselves as far as they’d go.
I wanted to scream, to punch him, to run out the door and bawl to my boyfriend or mother on the phone. Instead, I turned to face him and carefully planned my words, my brain doubling back to the months prior: the so-called “project,” the countless free lunches and dinners and booze, the cigars for my boyfriend as peace offerings, the overtly sexual comments, the infidelity and city girlfriends and ass on the side, the plan to whisk us away to Colombia, the MONEY, the goddamn panties in the SUV! Was I really that dumb? What was even real? Was there even a fucking job? I quit my actual job for this. And I’m in a committed relationship, for Christ’s sake! And worse, imagine what all those professional folks thought! The pants suit executive at the television network, the red-headed businessman at the Union League, all the waiters and bartenders who served us, his fucking daughter – Who is this skinny Gringa who can’t speak a lick of Spanish? Why does he bring her around? She’s so young…she probably has sex with him in return for money. I was nothing more than a flashy, bejeweled cane he didn’t rely on to walk, but to spin around and point here and there, advertising he was important, he was rich, he was successful, he was virile, he earned this. The thought made me literally sick to my stomach, and I might have thrown up had I not, in some nagging way, known this was coming all along since that first lunch.
He watched me patiently with a warm grin and fingers still tented, like a pensive, wizened sage. He had all the time in the world, graciously allowing me to sleep on it and make a decision; but his glossy and shallow eyes said otherwise, silently commanding control: he had tunnel vision and I was on the other end of it.
I anticlimactically came up with, “I would like to keep this business only…strictly a professional working relationship. That’s it.” I said it with a passable amount of finality and conviction and a look directly in his eyes of being deadly serious, even using my hands to batten down the air to prove my point. That didn’t please him, but I didn’t care. I said my peace and I wanted to go now. He didn’t whine or cajole or react in any way, except I think I detected a slight eye roll and a “your choice” shrug, like I had declined a fucking brunch invite. He grabbed his keys and motioned to the door. Our time here was done. It was no more than ten or twenty minutes, but it felt endless. Did he really drive me all the way here to ask me that? Was he thinking I’d say yes and we could go at it right then and there? We walked down the steps to the parking lot in utter silence.
The setting sun glimmered off the Schuylkill as he sped down Kelly Drive back into the city. I worried, but also secretly hoped, it would be awkward now and I wouldn’t see him again. Would I still technically be working for him after this? Should I even? As if the conversation at his apartment never happened, he went right back into his regular self, eyeing the women jogging outside and commenting on their bodies, finishing with, “You have a nice figure, Gringa. But you could still get a little more meat on your bones.” He continued, perhaps thinking if he waxed poetic enough that I would come around to my senses. “These women – they all want hot bodies, but then they stay single! If you have a man giving you money, feeding you, giving you opportunities, why wouldn’t you want that? So many women want to be independent. Like you – why stay at that awful, shit-pay server job when you can have someone providing for you?” He said that last bit with a hand towards his own chest.
I made it a point to be mute the rest of the ride to my place, partly out of my usual passivity, but also because he needed to know he was full of shit and needed to just shut. the. fuck. up. already.
He dropped me off and I cried my eyes out. That was the last I ever saw him.
“Ghosting” wasn’t a thing then, but it’s how I would best describe what happened to me. It was December and I hadn’t heard from him. It was Christmas break, and nothing. My last semester of college snuck up on me in January, and I still never got so much as a text from Jim. I’m not sure what my 22 year old self even thought would happen. Sure, I had told him “no” on the sex front, but I still expected some sort of follow-up considering the sheer number of hours I spent in his damn car, a courteous “Thank you very much but I’ve decided to pursue the project with someone else,” at the very least.
And then, after months of nothing from Jim, finally, I forgot about him entirely. I wrote, and re-wrote, printed all 120+ pages of my final original screenplay for the year, hole punched it and threw it in the professor’s mailbox seconds before the noon cutoff. I scoured Craigslist for jobs in writing or media or anything related to my field. I drank at parties with my friends, cooked meals with my boyfriend in our kitchenette. I graduated on a 90 degree May morning, took the classic picture with my mother in the median of Broad Street with City Hall in the background, holding my diploma and positively beaming. I would find a job, I promised myself.
Later that month, I woke up to a random email in my soon to be defunct UArts inbox. It was from Jim to someone I had never heard of, the subject line reading “Health Care Media Program,” and I was CCed, among a handful of other people. It was a follow-up to a meeting he attended the week prior, detailing an outline of next steps. The project was back on! But I swiftly tampered my excitement, sure he copied me on accident. And why now, after months of crickets? I contemplated the implications. I was still thoroughly offended by his forwardness, but I desperately needed a job, as the search was not going well and my hail mary pass for a job at the radio station I interned at the year prior fell through. So, despite my better judgment, in early June I emailed him: casual greeting, checking up/hoping all is well, wondering how the project was coming along and if he could use my help, I would like to plan for my summer, should I start looking for other jobs instead, please let me know a good time to talk or meet up. Send.
He got back to me in a matter of minutes, saying “Let’s meet over the next two weeks.” I offered dates and times, he said he’d get back to me, and then…no surprise…nothing. As a last ditch effort, I threw one more piece of spaghetti at the wall to see if it would stick: emailing him an invite to my graduation party later that month, extending him an olive branch, a way to start our coworker arrangement anew, but mostly, me clamoring out of the trenches for a sign – any sign – of a career I already knew wasn’t there.
Jim never responded to my email, and that was our last communication. I would later come to find out that in 2017, seven years after we last saw each other, and after many sobering months of exercising, eating better, and losing weight due to heart problems I didn’t know he had, he died suddenly at the age of 67, asleep in his bed.
His wife would remain at their home in Scranton. Nancy would move to North Carolina and start a new life after he passed. Vicki, I’m not so sure what happened to her…I imagine getting into all types of drama with whoever she was with. And his daughter would successfully pursue a career in architecture like she had dreamed.
I imagine my first reach-out after graduation had initially sparked him to take the bait and respond, hoping I would finally accept him into my life as a sugar daddy, of sorts. And maybe I would have, if I had been single or operated under a different set of personal guidelines; and especially if he hadn’t dangled the prospect of an exciting career in front of me.
But more likely, it was that after a rich, eventful life of serving his country, traveling, working hard and starting his own company, then finally enjoying it with heavy drinking, lavish eating, and philandering, he was finally just about ready to call it quits, return to his wife and child at home, and start over. It wasn’t really about me after all, was it? I was just a small sliver of his history, one Gringa in a purple skirt moving her limbs in a sea of salsa dancers doing the same.
At the end of the day, I truly believe Jim just wanted to help people – yes, sometimes in return for something else – but he was a provider nonetheless.
The other day I rode my bike around City Hall and passed McCormick and Schmick’s, where I first saw Jim rounding the corner. As I, too, rounded Broad, I stood up on the pedals and slowed a bit to take it all in, feeling a bit sentimental. I looked down at my legs as I cycled by, much more muscular in the calves and thicker in the thighs. There you go, Jim. I got a little more meat on my bones.
© 2020 Andrea Festa