If you drop out of college before you turn 20, you might end up selling sex for a living.
At least, this was true in 1979, before the internet was a prayer inside the testicles of porn entrepreneurs. Jerking off to glossy images was a man’s sovereign right. No one wondered whether the models were oppressed while off-camera.
Magnates like Hugh Hefner tried to make his Playmates seem more human by including lists of their turn-ons and turn-offs. In painstaking balloon handwriting, young women detailed such howl-inducing faults as “Men who are dirty and loud” and “stuck-up people.” No one stopped to wonder if these descriptions fit them.
Instead, guys turned up their stereos and cranked tunes like “Imaginary Lover” as they worked themselves over. Afterwards, they drove around Chicago in their Gremlins and Pacers, looking for hot pickup action in the streets.
Chicago, before the dawn of the AIDS crisis. I worked on Howard Street on the second floor of a porn sweatshop called TRA. The acronym stood for exactly nothing. Mike, the owner, just liked the way the letters looked together.
Eventually, Mike made up an ersatz female CEO for his company, a woman called Tracey. In his irritating nasal voice, he painstakingly coached me. “You must always say, “Hello, this is Tracey, what ad are you answering? If I ever find out you’re saying something else, there will be hell to pay.”
Mike placed ads in publications ranging from Playboy to the Chicago Reader. Our boss’ daily amphetamine dosage made him dream big. TRA became so popular that he drilled holes in the wall and ran additional phone lines into the building. Employees labored at mismatched desks, scooping up receivers seconds after our phones jangled.
Our crew sold lists of swingers for $25.00, women who “liked to travel to meet sexy friends.” The process of extracting callers’ home addresses proved surprisingly easy. Men with dicks in their hands seemed eager to believe that beautiful females would travel hundreds of miles to meet strangers.
I imagined their thought process. “Oh, here’s one in Iowa City. She can jump in her car and be at my place in four hours. I’ll just give her a call, tell her I’m ready.”
Mike kept hiring new women to work the phones. He hovered over us, alternately praising and criticizing our sales tactics. Each captured address netted a $2.00 bonus. This, on top of our $3.00 hourly wage, added up to a decent weekly paycheck.
No one owned a credit card, so sales were done via COD. When the postal clerk arrived, a caller’s ardor was long spent, and he’d say, “No, I don’t want this envelope. I don’t even know who ordered it. Not me. Get it the hell out of here.” But sometimes curiosity and lust prevailed, and the stupid fucker shelled out $25.00 for a worthless list of disconnected phone numbers.
As soon as Mike left the building, the fun began. Phone protocol flew out the window. My best friend Astrid was the worst of the lot. “We have hundreds of Swedish women who like to tap-dance on your floor and braid their pussy hair into tiny dolls!” she’d say brightly. Half the time, she ended up making a sale.
My co-workers and I dug inside filing cabinets and unearthed hardcore kink. I felt both horrified and titillated as I gazed at photos of sad-looking women with mousetraps hanging from their nipples.
One night, I discovered several stacks of newsletters, all written by men with saddle shoe fetishes. Deranged souls loved to share stories about jerking off while fantasizing about pleated skirts and bobby socks. I didn’t want to imagine them washing out the shoes afterwards, but how could I not?
I’d spent my adolescence in the rural Midwest, surrounded by jocks and farmers, so I should have known how fucked up men were. I avoided jocks, preferring the company of mordant intellectuals. My boyfriend Mark was a philosophy major at Eastern Illinois University. We ran away to Chicago together, and he scored a job in a bookstore. I cycled through a series of ill-fated waitress jobs, until I finally landed the porn house gig.
My shifts lasted eight hours and often seemed interminable. Men called Tracey all night long, demanding to know how they could meet sexy friends. Phone sex for hire didn’t exist yet. The clever fellows had figured out how to get it for nothing.
A particularly terrifying man called every weekend. “I’m using a vacuum cleaner on my dick.” His voice sounded timid, almost inaudible. Perhaps the powerful machine had sucked all the air from his body. I could hear a mechanized whooshing sound in the background.
“What, is it really dirty?” one of us always guffawed.
“Yes,” he replied. “Very dirty. I’ve been so bad.”
Another fellow called nearly as often, demanding that Tracey forgo her evening’s duties and come to his home for a foursome. He played a cheesy porn tape in the background while we discussed the benefits of obtaining Tracey’s list. The two actors shrieked and moaned. Every so often, the caller turned his head away from the receiver and hollered, “Would you please be QUIET? I’m on the phone!”
The Phone Sluts all had imaginary boyfriends, guys who called and asked to speak directly to us. We employed clever monikers; false names so far removed from our real ones that no one could ever figure out who we were.
My Phone Slut name was Melissa. Over time, I acquired a coterie of male admirers. I attracted brainy guys who wanted to discuss cinema and literature. They didn’t jerk off until after our conversations had ended. It was polite of them.
Though Mike had forbidden us to meet in-person with our phone boyfriends, several of us flaunted his authority and did exactly that. The Phone Sluts played a dangerous game, but it was 1979 and we felt invincible.
One night I picked up the phone and heard a low, soothing voice. Its cadence sounded almost familiar. “I’d like to meet women who are into oral sex and light bondage.” A couple of drunk men chuckled in the background. One of them dropped a bottle on the floor and cursed.
“Only light bondage?” I replied. “What are you, a wimp?”
The caller laughed. “Nothing sexier than a sense of humor. Actually, I just made that up. My name’s Paul. Tell me something about yourself.”
A week later, he called again. “Melissa, it’s Paul on the line,” one of the Phone Sluts said, giggling.
“Oh shit, he’s a goddamn alcoholic,” I said. “I don’t want to talk to him.”
I accepted the receiver anyway. A week later, Paul became my boyfriend. Mark and I had drifted apart. We didn’t have much to say to each other anymore. The porn job had turned me from a naïve girl into a cynical, angry bitch.
My new boyfriend wore a black leather jacket and owned a Fender Stratocaster. He drank quarts of beer and played scorching blues riffs, using his toilet paper spindle as a slide. Paul wasn’t an intellectual like Mark but could be quite entertaining when he wasn’t in the middle of a blackout.
Though Paul had met me via the porn house, he exhibited an inordinate amount of jealousy towards my imaginary phone boyfriends. He insisted I quit but had nothing to offer as an alternative. If I wanted to keep my independence, I needed to hold on to my sleazy gig for as long as possible.
I worked the night shift, from 5:00 PM until long past midnight. After continued practice, I developed a brisk, business-like style, one geared to attract high bonuses. My co-workers’ phone romances blossomed and developed cartoonish dimensions. Though I felt more than a bit jealous, I had my hands full with Paul.
The phone room drew a young crowd. We either rented cheap studio apartments or shared cockroach-infested flats with roommates. One of the employees, Mary, was in her mid-forties. She lived with her cop husband, a man so addled that he often called the phone room, threatening to use his vast network of police connections to shut the place down.
Mary was the most promiscuous Phone Slut of the lot. Men liked her even more than Tracey. Her phone jangled several times every night. Breathless male voices whispered, “Is Mary there?” as if they were high school boys calling an unattainable prom queen.
Mary’s favorite paramour was a man named Buddy. He called almost every evening and promised eternal love and the contents of his bank account. Buddy owned a successful gas station in rural Alabama. He adored Mary and wanted desperately to meet her. The poor man proclaimed his ardor in a loud, fervent voice, as we all covered our mouths and tried our hardest not to laugh.
There was something poignant about Buddy’s love. Also, the routine entertained us so much that we didn’t want to hasten its ending. Mary sometimes wondered whether she should egg him on, but her only other option was to go home and listen to torrents of abuse. Who could blame her for preferring a fantasy?
One night, at the end of an especially long shift, Mary’s phone rang. Without thinking, I scooped up the receiver. “Hi, this is Tracey.” My mechanical voice seemed to emanate from the other end of the room. “What ad are you answering?’
Buddy’s thick twang assaulted my eardrums. “Please, can I speak to Miss Mary?”
I thrust the receiver in my co-worker’s direction, but she shook her head. Sensing her distress, I covered the mouthpiece with one hand. “What’s wrong?” I hissed.
Mary buried her face in her palms. “I just can’t do this anymore. He bought a plane ticket and plans to come see me in Chicago next week. I don’t have the heart to say I won’t be there to pick him up at the airport. Tell him I quit or something.”
I removed my hand from the mouthpiece. “I’m sorry, Buddy,” I said, without skipping a beat. “Mary left town. We don’t know where she went. She hasn’t been here for three days.”
Buddy emitted a low, shuddering gasp. “Oh no. Does anybody know where she lives?”
“I’m afraid not, Buddy. It’s a complete mystery. None of us really knew her.” I gazed around the phone room and noticed that several of my co-workers had collapsed on their desks, shoulders heaving with laughter. Astrid tittered, then cupped her fingers around her mouth so she wouldn’t completely lose it.
Buddy burst into noisy tears. “Oh no,” he gasped. “That’s terrible. I loved her so much. I was going to marry her next week. How could she do something like this?”
I needed to say something to ease the guy’s pain. Reaching onto Mary’s desk, I jostled a disheveled stack of porn magazines. “Wait, I just found a note.” I rustled the pages again. “It says, “To Buddy, from Mary. Hang on, let me open it.”
Buddy emitted another sob, then fell silent. “Dear Buddy,” I continued. “I am so sorry, but I cannot be with you, or with anyone. I will always love you and treasure our conversations. With my deepest love, Mary.”
The crescendo of Buddy’s sobs increased. He cried hard for a couple of minutes, stopping occasionally to catch his breath. Finally, he said, “It’s okay. I don’t understand why she did this, but I still love her.”
“We don’t know either,” I intoned. “At least she left a note.”
Buddy sniffled. “Well, thanks for your help. Let me know if you hear from her. Please.”
“I certainly will. If you don’t mind, I have to go now. I’m sorry, Buddy.” I pulled the receiver from my ear and prepared to return it to its cradle.
“Wait!” Buddy cried. “I have one more question.”
I was willing to do anything to offer succor to the pathetic, deluded man. “Sure, Buddy. Go ahead.”
“What’s YOUR name?”
My job couldn’t possibly last much longer. A few weeks later, I called my boss a pimp. He told me to get the fuck out of the building, or he’d call the cops and have me arrested. Astrid grabbed her purse and quit out of solidarity. “Mike’s got some really bad karma coming to him,” she said as we fled down the long flight of stairs towards the street.
“The sooner the better,” I agreed.
Paul and I sputtered along for two years, but his drunken escapades became increasingly violent. The two of us split up on a frigid November night, and I ran barefoot to the local YMCA. Eventually, he suffered a complete breakdown and went to live with his fundamentalist Christian parents in Wisconsin.
Mike sold his business and became a fervent anti-porn crusader. I ran into him four years later on Michigan Avenue. He spotted me from a block away and dashed in my direction. I’d scored a short-term job as a horse-drawn carriage driver. As I stood on the sidewalk, shivering in my cheap overcoat and top hat, he threw his arms around me and said, “Thank you for being honest.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked, puzzled.
“You were the one person brave enough to call that place what it was. A porn house. I hated hearing you say that, but you were right. It was a filthy, horrible, disgusting business, and I’m glad to be rid of it. Thank you.”
Several years later, Mike vanished from the face of the earth. He disappeared without even leaving an electronic paper trail. Only the building on Howard Street remains, with its long stairway leading up to the office where Phone Sluts once labored over rotary phones.
Of course, the phones and the sluts aren’t there anymore. Most porn is online. People meet on Tinder and Grindr, or they watch flickering, naked images on pockmarked computer screens. So much has been lost to convenience. The porn of the 70s possessed a certain organic innocence that can never be regained.
Maybe I’ve just gotten old and moved backwards into feeble romanticism. I hope Mary divorced her shithead husband. I hope Buddy eventually found the love he wanted so much. That’s the least any of us deserve. We’re either searching for sex and calling it love or searching for love and calling it sex. In that respect, nothing has changed at all.