OOTL – The Stories – Ashley

     Ashley came to OOTL as a referral from a Law Enforcement Vice Officer who had arrested her on several occasions and we assisted her with contacting the Victims Advocate to press charges on a violent pimp who was a Person Of Interest in the homicide of an Orlando Police Office. Although he had “sold her contract” to another pimp that she had been with before and had gone on the lam to avoid arrest he was still an ever present threat in her own mind. Ashley was a product of her environment with little opportunity to even consider that she might have other options. Her mother had been involved in prostitution and had married one of her pimps. Both of Ashley’s sisters had been involved in the escort/modeling game and they were all in denial that prostitution was indeed – the “Family Business.”
     The new (or rather new this time around) pimp had given himself the name “Successful” and had dreams of becoming a player in the hip hop music industry. He supposedly owned a record label and was constantly “in the studio” and insisting that his girls work to fund his project. Successful was not what his name implied with the promise that they would live a life of privilege when he achieved his goal. He had 11 children from 11 different mothers and had never paid a dime for child support. Most of the women who had borne his children had worked for him as prostitutes and he was well known to law enforcement as the worst of the Romeo pimps.
     A Romeo pimp is a man who snares a woman by convincing her that they are in love. They target a woman who is looking to be loved and tell them they will fill the void in her life. They usually start off as just being friendly – then escalate the relationship with romantic elements – and then finally – “turn her out” when the couple is faced with a real or imagined financial crisis. He tells her that any financial considerations she provided and for the support of his dream to become a famous rap artist, a world class entrepreneur or the father of her children – would be repaid when he eventually made his fortune. It is not at all unusual for a Romeo pimp to be actively working other girls in the presence of the “new” recruit and
Successful was a mild mannered character that would only become violent if he had too much to drink. He was known to treat his stable as well as can be expected but when it was crunch time and the rent was due, he could pressure them into submission using all means necessary. Successful monitored all the girls weight and would send them to the school playground to exercise if he felt they were putting on a few pounds. He gave them new working girl names and allowed them to make one phone call home to family once a week.
In order to ingratiate herself to the pimp, Ashley took on a role that is not uncommon and she became his procurer and trainer of new girls that he would bring on. She would tell girls he was interested in that he was a great guy and very protective. She would say he was kind and generous and would make sure they were taken care of when he inevitably became wealthy and famous. Ashley was an excellent recruiter and she had gotten Successful several new girls while they were out touring the country in his rented Escalade. It was Ashley and another girl who recruited Andrea during a trip back from Atlanta. They had purposely made a stop in Savannah because the deplorable economic conditions there were an excellent opportunity to get good looking girls at a discounted price. The Savannah girls were more desperate and were more likely to get in a car with a stranger than the more experienced Atlanta girls. Ashley had out done herself on this latest trip and had returned to the cheap motel room in the most desolate of Savannah city limits with a half-starved Andrea and another young scared blonde girl who had just been dumped on the street because she had come up pregnant by a trick, She had already had three abortions in her short 20 years.
    The three girls and Successful set off south to Ft Lauderdale where the Sex for Sale trade was particularly proliferate among locals and tourists. The girls became close on the way back and- without Successful becoming wiser – Ashley shared her experience with OOTL and told them that she was going to run when they got back to Florida.
     Within a matter of weeks of being in Ft Lauderdale Ashley called and stated that she had stolen Successfuls laptop – with all of their contract information on it – and were seeking safe haven. There was a dramatic hideout in an abandoned school yard and several desperate phone calls to OOTL and the initial law enforcement officer that had referred Ashley to us.. They eventually slipped into a convenience store and awaited rescue by a police officer who took them to a local shelter to await the next bus to Orlando.
     Sometime in the night the blond girl took off and went back to Successful, leaving both Ashley and Andrea fearful for their safety. They made their way to Orlando and stayed in a hotel until the safe house was ready to accept them.
     They were at the safe house for an emotional 12 days before Ashley persuaded Andrea that they were in danger and they should run. Andrea – having been recruited and trained by Ashley – had little opportunity to make her own decisions had did as she was told. Ashley returned to her mother’s house where her 3 young children lived and Andrea worked streets until she had enough money to call Successful and beg him to take her back.
     Ashley stayed at her mother’s house with the blinds drawn until the case worker for Childs Services came and informed her that she was in violation of a no contact order of protection with her kids. She contacted OOTL again asking for assistance and we worked once again to assist her by taking her several trade schools and letting her imagine a life that didn’t involve selling her body.
     Ashley is the poster child for women who grow up in an environment where prostitution is not only accepted, but almost encouraged. The poverty stricken, low income, project style atmosphere breeds gangs and drugs and guns and anywhere that those elements are present there will also be prostitution. It has been this way for generations and the offspring of pimps and prostitutes brought up in foster care or by exhausted grandparents who have lived similar lives continue a cycle of impoverished existences where education rarely continues past the 8th grade. Few can read or write well and the importance of education escapes them because they only know what they see and the best they can hope for is a low paying job behind the counter of a fast food drive through window. The only successful people they see are the drug dealers who prey on the meager government assisted living that only further traps them by denying them the ability to excel – or even the knowledge that they could do better.
     Imagine that you woke up tomorrow with no skills – and no knowledge that you didn’t have any skills. No opportunity – and no knowledge that you had no opportunity. No education and no role model to show you an example of what a normal day might look like. In fact – in this very real example of how life in the projects is. The best opportunity you might have as an attractive young woman is to go to work as a lookout for a drug runner or hold onto weapons for gang members, or, already at high risk just by the nature of the environment, become the girlfriend of the “Romeo Pimp” so that you won’t risk being attacked by all the others and then – just like Ashley, you find yourself trading sex for money and giving it all up to the one who promised to protect you.
     To those of us who work with these women, it seems crazy that they don’t leap at the first chance they have to get out of that environment and get an education or a good job or learn new skills that will enable them to provide for their families. But life on the streets is measured in milliseconds and being in what any normal person considers a safe place is like being set on fire. They have never considered a future because one has never been offered so thinking in terms of anything other than what is going to come about in the next few hours is practically impossible. When confronted with an opportunity to enter a year long program, they go immediately into survival mode and survival means fight or flight, and because we refuse to fight they take flight and head straight back to the chaos of the street. A year to them is like an eternity. They have a hard time committing to a single day.
     We call these girls runners. We call them runners because no matter how close we come to considering them as “rescued”, the instant they sense a chink in the armor they take off. In hindsight it could be funny if it weren’t so tragic. What are they running from? A comfortable bed with clean sheets in an air conditioned home with hot running water and a full refrigerator? They would rather stand on a corner for 20 hours a day, having sex with strangers, risk contracting a venereal disease, being beat by a pimp or a trick or even being killed and dumped on the side of the road.
     A prostitute has a 20 percent higher chance of being murdered than any other human being on the planet. Her life span is considerably less than what the average person could expect if they ate nothing but fried processed fat and smoked cigarettes from morning ‘til night. And even when she’s in her prime and highly sought after because of her youth, the life will age her beyond her years and her eyes will become dead. As lifeless as the life she only pretends to live.
     Ashley fears that should she take a leap of faith and embrace a life beyond the confines of what she knows, then all of the time she has already wasted will taunt her every day. She doesn’t consider that her destiny could be one where she shows others that are trapped by their circumstance that there is surely a way out. Her past could be such an example of a God that loves and forgives all to take a shredded and tattered mess of several generations and repair it beyond her greatest expectations. If she could consider that there is the possibility of possibility, her life could account for the salvation of her own generation and for her children’s future, which if history indeed repeats itself, surely will score a similar outcome that she – and her entire family – has already dictated.
     Today Ashley is a well-recognized recruiter for yet another pimp in a house on “The Trail” and continues to draw new women into a life of prostitution. She is estranged from her three children and regularly sneaks into her mother’s house and leaves money to care for them. Her mother knows what she is doing to leave the cash but does nothing to stop it. She is currently married to a pimp who was convicted of murder and is serving 20 years in Florida State Prison. She grieves for him and I wonder sometimes if she doesn’t think back to her brief 12 days where she had a chance to break the chains that bound her and chose instead to fulfill her destiny. She told me once in a rare quiet moment when she wasn’t trying to shock me or find a way to manipulate me into complying with a ridiculous demand that she wished she would be murdered because she didn’t have the will to commit suicide and she thought that somehow if her life were taken in violence that God would forgive her of all her treachery and she would be able to go to heaven.
     All I could tell her was that she was already forgiven – that it had always been so.

OOTL – The Stories – Alana

               Alana’s story began in Albuquerque New Mexico where she was literally kidnapped from a nightclub and transported across many state lines, eventually landing in an upscale hotel in the tourist district of Orlando.  There, among exhausted parents with small children, world class theme parks and the busy convention center business travelers, the fast growing criminal enterprise of Sex Trafficking grows at an alarming rate.  It is also one of the few areas in the United States where the local police department vice unit has accepted the challenge of treating prostitution as Sex Trafficking and have successfully prosecuted several cases where long prison terms have been imposed on pimps. 

               Alana was actually living in Tampa with her pimp and had accepted an escort service call off of a website called backpage.  They frequently made trips to the Orlando tourist district and set up an in-call situation at one of the hotels where families stayed while they were vacationing at Disney. 

               The pimp – known as Boogy Fox – was already under investigation by a federal task force because he had been known to force other young women into sexual slavery.  His last girl had run from him but was too afraid to make a statement and had disappeared from the radar.  They had made several attempts to set up a sting in Tampa but were unsuccessful.  After noticing that the pimp was posting ads in Orlando, they reached out to the local law enforcement and requested cooperation.  It was at short notice and on a Friday, but the officers immediately made arrangements with Alana by phone to meet her at the hotel they had booked through priceline.com.  After agreeing on a price for sex, they immediately let Alana know they were police officers and that they were not looking to arrest her – they only wanted to arrest the pimp.

               At first she denied any knowledge, but after assuring her they would be able to protect her and assist with getting her home, she allowed the detectives to call OOTL for extraction.  While they waited for us to arrive, she showed them the meticulous records she had kept, detailing every phone call, every client and every transaction.  She also showed them her bible which she obviously read regularly while highlighting passages – making exhaustive notes in the margins.  At the request of the federal officials, they did not arrest Boogy right there and then.  In fact, they went down to the car where he was waiting and told him who they were and what was happening with Alana.  They told him they were confiscating her laptop, her cell phone and that she was being arrested.  While he was obviously surprised, he didn’t say much and drove away.  The federal officials that had been tailing him when he left Tampa easily picked up his trail when he drove back into town and followed him to his home where they watched him “sanitize” his home and dispose of any incriminating evidence that Alana had ever been there.  He contacted friend who came and picked up a large amount of cash which was also confiscated by law enforcement.  Later, after obtaining a warrant to search his home, they found that he compulsively kept all of Alanas identity documents and her dental records in a safe hidden in the wall of his closet.  Alana confirmed that he had told that since he had her dental records there would be no way anyone could identify her body if she didn’t comply with his demands and he had to kill her.

               During their search, they broke down the door and removed nearly all of his personal possessions as they had been purchased with illegally obtained from the proceeds of prostitution – including his car, cell phone, televisions, stereo equipment and most of his clothing.  He was quite put out by the officers actions and angrily asked one of them what he was supposed to do now.  The officer pulled a quarter out of his pocket and tossed it on the now empty nightstand and told him to “call someone who cared”.

               I arrived at the hotel and faced two exhausted detectives who had been on duty more than 72 hours.  I quickly helped her put together what little possessions they were leaving with her and we loaded up my truck and headed to the OOTL house.  Alana was extremely nervous about what was going to happen to her and didn’t really seem to believe that she was not being taken to jail until we actually entered the condo.  We set her bags down and I showed her her bed and the bathroom as well as the generously stocked kitchen and told her she had access to anything she wanted.  I let her use my cell phone to contact her cousin who immediately offered to come and get her.  We agreed upon a time and place to meet and I left her to enjoy her newfound freedom.

               I came back about two hours later to make sure she didn’t need anything and found her fast asleep – fully dressed – on top of the covers.

               When I picked her up to go to breakfast the next morning, she was rested and much more relaxed than she had been the previous day.  And she was ready to share more of her story.

               Alana had met Boogy at a nightclub in downtown Albuquerque New Mexico.  He had wined and dined her.  Been flattering and attentive.  Told her she was beautiful and the kind of girl he could fall in love with.

               This was music to Alana’s ears.  Her relationship with the father of her two children was hopelessly deadlocked in a battle over custody.  Since Alana had no education, she was unable to provide a stable living environment and her Ex rarely allowed her to see the children and constantly told her she was a bad mother.  In fact, he told her she was a bad wife, a bad woman and a bad person in general.  Eventually she believed it and became reckless – a party girl.  And the perfect prey for a monster like Boogy.

               Boogy convinced her to return to Florida with him. He told her about his house and his job as a club promoter.  He promised her he would help her get custody of her children and they could all live together in bliss – away from the prying eyes of her family and friends and especially the controlling ex-husband.  It sounded like a dream come true and Alana packed a few things – Boogy said not to bring too much because he would buy her everything brand new! 

               By the time they drove through Houston, Alana knew she had made a mistake.  The clothes he bought her were nothing more than skimpy lingerie and he would take pictures of her and post them on a local website offering sex-for-sale.  At first she said no, but Boogy became menacing and violent so she eventually complied.  After Houston, they moved on to a rowdy New Orleans right before Mardi Gras and the pictures and ads started again.  It was in New Orleans that Alana was nearly killed by a client who wanted to play domination games with her as the submissive.  When Alana didn’t return to Boogy at the appointed time, he knocked on the clients door, and found a tearful and terrified Alana tied up in a closet.

               They made their way to Florida and before Alana knew it – she was trapped.  She was too ashamed to call her family for help and Boogy closely monitored her phone calls and computer access. Her days and nights became a single ongoing nightmare.

               It was four months before the sting in Orlando finally freed her from Boogy.  He was later convicted of various trafficking charges and Alana now lives back with her family and has reconciled with her children and is in school studying to be a nurse.

               It was her willingness to testify about Boogy’s brutality that brought about a ten year sentence and sex offender status for Boogy.

Out Of The Life – The Stories -“Sandy”

  In January of 2008 I met a prostitute inside the walls of the Seminole County Jail during my “Out Of The Life” Life Skills class who I will call Sandy.  She was 46 years old and this was her 78th arrest during her adult life.  She was only sentenced to a few months for a minor felony drug possession charge and had very seldom spent more than 6 months in jail at any one time.  All of her charges between the two local counties ranged from Lewd and Lascivious to Open Container and a couple of Solicitation charges in addition to countless drug and drug paraphernalia charges. 

              She was disconnected from her family – elderly parents and 3 children who were grown and lived out of state.  In fact, she was disconnected from her own self and was well known for being a belligerent and demanding inmate.  She was not well liked by her fellow inmates and had all the hustle of getting coffee and snacks from them for performing various chores and trading the small comforts one is allowed in jail.  An extra pillow can be traded for three instant cups of decaffeinated coffee and the willingness to take over other inmates daily chores could get her a few snacks and candy from another inmates bi-weekly canteen purchases.  Sandy was always on the lookout for someone who was new to the system and would befriend them with full intention of getting them to assist her in making three way calls to the outside and helping her garner information about what was going on in her “hood”.   Not that it mattered.  When Sandy was sober she was one of the nicest most generous people I had ever met, but when she was using, she was hell on wheels.  She knew all of the frequent flyers in this relatively small jail system and she didn’t like them any more than they didn’t like her.  Her relationship with other inmates was usually strained because she was combative and confrontational.  She didn’t fight enough – or in front of anyone important – who could send her to solitary – but she certainly didn’t try to keep any peace either.  She slept with one eye open and always had her ear tuned for an opportunity to hustle.

                Sandy was about as institutionalized as a girl could get even though she had never been to prison. She had spent enough time doing time she felt comfortable in jail even while swearing she hated it.  She was on a first name basis with the women’s chaplain who had been there more than 28 years.  She knew every correction officer in the building and kept a meticulous mental note of the ones she could manipulate and the ones she couldn’t. 

                Sandy was not anyone’s favorite person.  She would feign illness to get to the medical unit just for a little peace and quiet.  She didn’t have any friends, inside or outside the jail.  She had failed at nearly every drug program in the Central Florida Area.  She hadn’t done much better at transitional houses.  She had been to several and they all not only kicked her out, but refused to even consider letting her back in.

               At first she denied being a prostitute.  She liked to think of it as hustling for drug money.  To her, it wasn’t prostitution – it was commodities trading.  Much like a Wall Street stock trader would negotiate the price of wheat, Sandy would negotiate a sex act for drugs or money to get drugs.  She loved to drink, smoke crack or marijuana, snort cocaine or shoot heroin when she got the chance, and she never wanted to party with other people.  After she had negotiated her transaction she would disappear into the woods or under a bridge and get as high as she could stand for as long as she could stand it until her body demanded more drugs or alcohol and she would reenter society almost as a lioness would hunt for food.  The cycle was continuous with brief interruptions of sobriety forced upon her by the justice system.

               Every time Sandy was arrested, she would get prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping medication by the jail facility because she would answer the classification questions as if she were likely to harm herself or someone else.  She would discontinue them as soon as she was released.  Sandy lived in hell and she felt perfectly comfortable there.  She expected nothing better. 

                Sandy was only a little taller than 5 feet.  She was slender but in horrible shape.  She had a pasty complexion that was a result of poor nutrition and her color was exacerbated by the cold jail environment.  She had natural blond hair that was a bit stringy and unkempt and green eyes that could be very dark when she was agitated and very bright when she laughed, which was seldom. Sandy had been pretty at one time before all the drugging and drinking had ravaged her body and her mind.  She had lost all her teeth to the fist of a pimp she refused to work for and had been raped and beaten on so many occasions by street gangs she had lost count.  She was constantly outrunning one drug dealer or another to whom she owed money.  Just a few months before this latest arrest she had been dragged into an alley by a group of young men who were initiating a new member into their street gang and she was beaten and raped repeatedly, losing all of her identification as well as the cheap and broken dentures that were held together with super glue.  The boys – all under the age of 14 – crushed what was left of them with the heel of his boot as they left.  Sandy had managed to walk to her parents house over the next couple of nights, hiding in the woods and under bridges during the day out of fear of being arrested.  She had several fractured ribs and was bruised from head to toe.  She never reported the beating or the gang rape…after all she reasoned – with more than 50 arrests for prostitution, who would believe her?

                Her decent into hell had begun when she was young.  She had been sexually molested by her father from the age of eleven until a few days before her arrival at jail for this current charge.  Her mother was terminally ill and she routinely stole her mothers’ pain medication in addition to having her father regularly supply her with drugs so she would continue to have sex with him.  Sometimes she would beg him not to make her do it – and sometimes her wish would come true because he would be too drunk to perform – but in the end, she was complicit in her relationship with him as she was both his daughter and his lover.  After all – cheating with Sandy didn’t really count to him as a violation of his marital vows.  The sexual misconduct had gone on so long, neither of them was able to consciously delineate between the rightness or wrongness of the action.  Sandy knew it wasn’t necessarily right to have sex with her father in exchange for drugs, but the alternatives to supply her gargantuan need for the abuse of substances were far more horrific than what went on in that little guest room less than 20 feet from her mothers’ death bed.  And it was far better than turning tricks behind a gas station or risking running into a gang in the park.  Sandy considered the home of her abusive father the safest place she knew.

                Everything had come to a head for Sandy and her father one cold night in January because Sandy was too high to be a compliant sex partner and he raped her anyway.  The police were called, discovered – or were shown by her father – the drugs and the paraphernalia that he had secretly purchased and Sandy was locked up.  Her father told her had placed a restraining order against her and she would never be allowed to come back to the house again.  Her mother was within months of dying a horrible death from cancer and her children and her sisters had – quite literally – thrown up their hands in frustration and cut off what few lines of communication that were still open to Sandy.  She had three children she hadn’t spoken to in years.  She had never been a part of their lives.

               So there she sat – less than 30 days into a 6 month jail sentence.  She hadn’t written any letters or made any phone calls home.  In fact, she told our small support  group that she would never contact her parents again because she was so embarrassed at the shame she had brought to the family.  She had stated that no one else in her family was the way she was.  They were all smart and had good jobs.  I would later find that substance abuse was the norm in her family dynamic and Sandy was just carrying on a family tradition.  She was always generally uncooperative but she was more belligerent than ever and when she signed up to attend my class, stating that  she only did so to escape the daily drudgery of the pod she spend 24 hours a day in, hustling for coffee and treats from the more affluent inmates.

               Naturally, as was expected of anyone who wanted to catch the sympathetic ear of the women’s chaplain, she buried herself in the bible and was able to quote more scripture than I was.   I later discovered in her property an impressive collection of bibles that were issued by the chaplains office, reflecting living proof that Sandy took these bibles with her when she left.  Apparently, they could also be traded for drugs and were handy for rolling joints of marijuana laced with PCP.  The missing pages pretty much confirmed this little trick I had heard of but never actually witnessed.

               In spite of her difficult nature and her characteristic spitefulness, there was something about Sandy that resonated with me.  I wanted to help her.  I wanted her to help me.  I was new to this “ministry business” and I was enthusiastically naïve.  I longed to teach Sandy that she could live a life free from substance abuse and self neglect but it would turn out that Sandy would be the teacher and I would be the student and I would learn many things from Sandy.

               This book is a compilation of what I learned about myself and the girls I work with as we try to find our place in a society that is grudgingly sympathetic to our plight but unsure as to what station they are comfortable allowing us to serve.  We have all been involved in the sex industry in one form or another and we have all managed to overcome but we are plagued with memories, guilt, shame and a social stigma that very few understand. 

               Out Of The Life was born out of desire to reach out to girls like me as my husband and I sat outside on our patio on a balmy October evening in 2008.  We were talking about our lives and how we felt about what it had taken to get to where we were.  We had a small business of our own that was treating us pretty well although we didn’t own a house and certainly didn’t have any money in the bank.  We worked really hard, seldom taking time off – much less taking a vacation – but we enjoyed having all our bills paid on time and a little left over at the end of every month to go out to eat or catch a movie guilt free.  And best of all – we really enjoyed getting up every day – working hard and going to bed totally at peace with having a life we loved living.  It had not always been so.

               I had been thinking for a couple of years of writing a letter to my probation officer in Texas and apologizing to her for being such a rotten probationer.  I had called a few numbers and googled her name and discovered that she had died from Breast Cancer.  I was devastated.  I had written the letter so many times in my head that it almost felt as if I would be unforgiven forever if I failed to do something that would reconcile – even if only in my own head – the damage I had done.  I felt defeated and I hadn’t even begun to fight.

               This was not a new feeling for me.  My struggle to regain my footing in a life that had begun with so much opportunity and so much promise has spiraled out of control in the early 80’s and I had paid for much of it in the 90’s.

               Much like Sandy, I was completely undone by my circumstance and – even as lately as a few years ago – I feared that I would never be “OK”. 

               As I looked into Sandy’s eyes week after week, I saw myself from years ago, bound in hopelessness.  I knew how she felt in that moment.  And I knew – I just knew – I could help her find her way back.

               It turned out that Sandy was bound to the street with invisible ties that I never even came close to being able to see at the time.  She returned to the street 2 weeks to the day that I picked her up from the jail and we haven’t spoken since. But the lessons I lived will stay with me for a lifetime and have come to impact the manner in which I continue to try and reach them.

               There have been others – many others – that I was unable to “save” but I continue to have an open door in hopes that they will one day walk through it and find a life they never imagined.

               A Life they Love Living.

Oil and Water

I live a fast paced life.

I never run out of things to do with my time.  In fact, my time generally runs out before my things to do run out.  Somehow I think I get fewer hours in the day that the rest of the world.  I look at the clock in the morning and then again when the coffee starts to wear off and I realize I have nothing planned for dinner.  Fortunately I am blessed with excellent contacts in the food delivery genre.

One of the things I have committed to is Thanksgiving Dinner for close to twenty people and as I looked at my house, I realized I didn’t want to have company without a fresh paint job in my living room.  I’ve been perusing paint colors for months and finally came up with a unique combination that I felt reflected my personal taste and would cover the revolting camel color the previous occupant had used.  But there’s a whole back story to that that goes along with my personal update.

I’ve done a lot of painting in my life.  Some results have been better than others, but I have taken some professional advice along with some personal preference and managed to blend them together in to something I can work with.

When we first moved into this condo, it was the view from the room length sliding glass door that took our breath away.  Somehow, in the middle of this busy and construction filled suburban community, a builder in the late 1960’s built five 5 story buildings that look out onto a peaceful and tree lined lake.  The view is unobstructed and the acoustics provide a sort of echo effect that allows you hear everything when you are outside and nothing when you are inside.  I honestly believe it’s a little bit of heaven right smack in the middle of Orlando.  We didn’t really even notice the paint job until much later.  We didn’t see the broken ceiling fans, the marginally safe electrical wiring or the appliances that were barely surviving.  When we were finally able to take our eyes off the million dollar view we slowly replaced and repaired the most necessary items first and the less important items as we were able.  Regarding the paint, the previous tenant had given the place a fresh coat of oil based exterior paint.  And he had also been creative and ambitious enough to also spray a nice orange peel texture as well.  The problem was that he had textured and painted over every surface – including – but not limited to – the air conditioning return vents in every room, the light switches, electrical outlets and their respective faceplates, and most of the chair rails and of course, the base boards.

Eventually the paint became the eyesore I could no longer ignore.

Now I would have liked to have just done a little taping off and slung on some cheap paint from Walmart and called it a day.  But – I know from some really bad past experience that you can’t throw cheap water based flat paint over oil based exterior paint.  It won’t stick and it won’t cover and you will forever be noticing shadows of the former outdated color dredging through the fresh contemporary façade and it will look like what it actually is – a desperate attempt at a cover up.  At first it will look fine, but every day that passes will find it getting just a bit worse until there is no other choice but to completely start over and do it right.

I waited until Michael was well on his way to his Sunday golf game and I breathed a heavy sigh, made my list of supplies, selected a color combination that I loved and trotted off to the local home improvement mecca where I purchased the best quality paint I could afford on the budget we had agreed on.

I started in the hallway and made my way into the living room.  I replaced light switches and wall plates as I went.  I had the unpleasant experience of getting zapped by not having the correct breaker turned off and I blew the main breaker to the whole building for a couple of hours by hooking up one of the electrical outlets with the wires touching.  That’s another story entirely.

As I proceeded to the second coat of latex satin finish corn silk yellow paint, and my thoughts turned inward, it was almost impossible not to draw parallels between the covering of the wretched color of the walls, my own past and my fledgling outreach to women who have crazy oil based paint colors of their own that they are struggling to cover with watery crayons and childish sidewalk chalk.

You can’t swing a dead cat in Orlando without hitting someone who has a ministry dedicated to helping men.

There are ministries that help men find housing and shelter and food and spiritual rebirth.  They will help them find transportation and jobs and a welcoming church where they can find even more of the same.  They can access services directly from jail, after they get out of jail, help them get into rehab, help them get out of rehab and – once again – help them find a job, a way to get there, a place to sleep and food to eat.  It doesn’t seem to matter what chaos they have inflicted on their lives or the lives of their family, there are multiple ministries that will embrace their desperation and fight over who gets to help them first.  I wish I were kidding about the fight over them part of that last statement, but I’m not.  They literally fight over them.  The ministries.  They fight over who gets to help the men.

Women, however, are another story.   A woman who faces these very same challenges – along with assorted others – is assisted by ministries who dedicate them selves to – and I quote – “Making the Community AWARE of Women in Need.”  You must be kidding me.  You mean there is very little to actually provide something for them?  “Yes!” – I am told.  “We must make AWARENESS our top priority.  We must raise money and form a committee to examine the need and then we will need more money to assemble yet another study group who will then determine how to provide these services and then we will need more money to get another group together to figure out which women we will help and then more money…more funding…more resources…”  And meanwhile time slips away and more women fall into the cracks.  More women go hungry.  More women have no place to sleep.  More women turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain.  More women resort to compromising their bodies and their souls so that they can find a single moments peace.  Just a single second where they are able to lay down the baggage of their life and rest, regroup and stand another day to do it all over again.

You see, women are more complicated to help.  Their desperation is never just about their own circumstances.  They have children and husbands and elderly parents who are in failing health.  They have crushing guilt and immobilizing fear.  They have worries that seem completely unfounded because they are tied up with a history of abuse and neglect and childhood secrets that even they don’t understand.  Nothing about a woman’s worry is connected to any single event.  Her consternation is clouded with recollections she can’t nail down to a specific time frame because even those chronicles are created from other memories and trials that she can’t or won’t talk about.  And the worst thing of all is that they don’t believe they are worthy of a better life.  They don’t believe they deserve feelings of joy.  They are convinced that their life doesn’t warrant a positive outcome.  Quite simply, they don’t expect any improvement in their situation, therefore they usually don’t get better circumstances.

Men eat because they are hungry.  Very simple.  Women eat because they are reminded them of a past time that made them feel good or because they are experiencing emotional pain that is so great it must be fed so that they can experience it more fully.

And the loneliness can bear unbearable.  A woman’s loneliness can show in any number of ways but it usually manifests itself in seeking out another doomed relationship.  I know this to be true because of my own shockingly bad taste in relationships.  The expectations were always too high and I could never meet the bar that was set for me.  I was a study in the ultimate let down in a relationship.  I was an old rubbery oil based paint that was peeling from the corners and bubbling in the middle.  I tried to fix it by covering it up and gluing it down but there was no disguising the old crumbling plaster that was my life.

I remember quite clearly the night that Michael whispered in my ear the he was going to show me how true love felt like I’d never experienced before.  It was on a late January night in 2003 and it was very cold outside.  I was half asleep and the wall that I had carefully constructed to keep all the hurt outside of my personal space had already started to show some wear.  The many years of memories and trials and complicated relationships had worn me down and I was tired…so tired.  I felt guilty for many of the choices I had made.  I felt undeserving or any real happiness and I knew – I just knew – that this relationship would not be any different.  For now – in this beautiful rose colored moment – I was as satisfied as I thought I could get – but I knew the end would not only be inevitable – it would be painful.  I honestly didn’t know if I would survive another failed relationship.  I had also failed miserably at more than one suicide attempt already many years before and I knew I would have to come up with a better method than a prescription overdose if this relationship didn’t work out.  My relationship with Michael was going to be the last thing I screwed up.  He had no idea how much I had riding on this relationship.

When he whispered those words – as sincerely and confidently as he could – he might have well have just put the bullet in my brain himself.  He never knew it, but adrenaline shot threw my body like I was being chased by a big brown grizzly bear.  My eyes flashed open and I was flushed with fear.  There is no way I would be able to meet his honest love with one that matched its sincerity.  It was doomed from that very moment I was sure.  My twisted brain immediately started the process of reinforcing that crumbling wall of emotional pain with whatever muddy stucco I could find.  My desperation and my anxiety had come full circle and I was faced – in that moment of fear and self loathing – with a rare moment of crystal clear clarity.  Maybe…just maybe…I was wrong.

This might be the man who could renovate my life.  I had watched him take months to scrape the paint off of a massive five piece mahogany 1950’s bedroom set, polish it to its former natural glory and replace the zillion little handles with shiny solid brass ones.  I had watched him wash and wax 10 year old cars until the water beaded on the hood like champagne in a crystal fluted glass.   You could eat dinner off the engine of his car.  He took special joy in caring for things that had been misused, neglected and discarded by others.  Could I be one of those things that he could restore back to normal?

Many years later and with a great deal of help from a higher power, I do feel restored.  Renewed. Revived.  And Michael is probably very tired from all the work he has had to put in to bringing me back from the brink of destruction.  And now I struggle to pay it forward and – with the help of other women – and we scratch and claw through the thick gluey oil based paint of their past and help them find a shade of fresh color that reflects their wish to be free from the past.

It’s never easy.

They often lay down their brush out of weariness or a fear of failing again.  Sometimes they choose a color that isn’t appropriate and we have to let them get it up on the wall to see that they have made a wrong choice and they need to re-evaluate their palette.  Sometimes they are distracted by someone else’s color choice, or they just decide they don’t want to paint at all that day.  But – in spite of the challenges, we know the Universe has shown them – through us – that there are better days in front of them and the future is greater than their past and all the tools are there to live a vibrant and colorful life, full of Love, Joy, Peace and Forgiveness.

Me?  Well I still have to start painting the bathroom!