top of page

Crack Ho

        She was crowding the curb of Charleston Boulevard, wearing a hospital gown and white tube socks. Bandages blotted with blood concealed her elbows. An ID bracelet hung precariously from her frail wrist, partially concealing notes scrawled on her forearm. In typewriter-style font, the bracelet read “Ivy Valentine, F, 3/16/1978, O-.” Her dark-brown, twig-like fingers pinched a cigarette butt that she’d fished from an ashtray outside of the hospital’s main entrance. 
        Though dwarfed by University Medical Center, “Poison,” as she was known on the streets, was six feet tall and had a half-inch afro. If the bracelet had included weight, it would’ve read “107 lbs.” She was flat chested and had raccoon eyes. When she took a drag from the butt, a tarnished silver stud flashed faintly on her tongue.
        It was forty-five degrees and drizzling, but she didn’t appear to be cold. Nor did she seem concerned by the afternoon rush-hour traffic that ruffled her light-blue gown. Between drags, she exhaled a mix of smoke and water vapor and looked out across the traffic, toward something no one else could see, while occasionally making bloodshot eye contact with oncoming motorists.
        I see you looking. Judging. I know what you’re thinking. Skinny black bitch. Nigger. Crack ho. But you don’t know nothin’ about me. Not the half of it. I’ve been through more in the past two days than you’ve been through your whole life—and those two days won’t even be a chapter in my book. More like a footnote.
                                                                *     *     *
        I was cutting through the parking lot of the ABC liquor store when I saw him. Short guy with glasses. Graying goatee. 
        “You got a light?” I asked him. 
        He gave me one and said, “What are you doing tonight?”
        “Tryin’ to get me some money.”
        “For what?”
        We got some dope and went to his apartment. Month later I was still there. Terrance. Terry. My guardian angel. He saved my life.
                                                                *     *     *
        Jamaica, Queens. Farmers Boulevard and Murdock Avenue. Three-story home. Five bedrooms. Ten brothers. I was the only girl and the youngest. Daddy’s little girl. The baby of the family. 
        My bedroom was as long as this street is wide. An old attic. A hideout. I’d pull the string and the steps would come down. Dolls, playhouses big enough to sleep in, a Raggedy Ann and Andy set. I was spoiled. The boss of the house. 

                                                                *     *     *
        Las Vegas. Fremont Street. Fergusons Motel. I put on my smallest skirt and burgundy wig with bright-red tips. The second my high heel hit the sidewalk a trucker pulled over. Gave me $200 to suck his dick. 
        A few weeks later I was trading blowjobs for dime rocks. Didn’t have no pimp; the crack was my pimp. 
                                                                *     *     *
        Mom was a nurse. Dad worked on the railroad. She got addicted to crack and he left her and committed suicide. Stepped in front of a train. Mom started selling me to the dope man. He popped my cherry and broke my pelvis. I was eleven years old.
        As Ivy was taking another hit off the cigarette, something wet and heavier than the rain splashed against her biceps muscle. She looked down while exhaling. The cuff of her gown was soiled and her sinewy muscle glistened with spit.
        She smiled and, again, looked out across the traffic. 
        “If we’re gonna make this work,” Terry said, “you gotta stop ho-ing.”
        How am I gonna do that, I thought? I was more addicted to it than the crack. But one week later I was done with it. Through. 
        “I’ll show you how to make money without lying on your back,” he said. 
        I started washing cars with him. Spray bottles, red rags, little yellow brushes. We were making $2,000 a month. When we wanted to.

                                                                *     *     *
        Group home to group home. Foster home to foster home. I was thirteen when Mr. Roberts penetrated me with his fingers. Mr. Simpson abused me, too. And Mr. Delaney. And …
                                                                *     *     *
        My mom. Facedown on the floor. Blood coming outta her nose and mouth. My oldest brother found out what she’d done to me. Didn’t say a word. Just walked into the kitchen and punched her in the face. Knocked her out cold.
        I felt sorry for her. Woke her up and put a towel to her face. Then I got some ice. 
        She did what she did, but she was still my mom. I still loved her.
                                                                *     *     *
        Sewage coming up outta the drains. Ceiling tiles falling. Leaks everywhere. The health department came in and shut down Terry’s apartment. Kicked everyone out. We moved into a tunnel. A flood channel. Didn’t have nowhere else to go.
        He’d lived in ’em before and I thought, Whatever. I can handle it. But the rats and spiders and cockroaches! Took me three months to get used to it. It became home. 
                                                                *     *     *
        Senior year of high school. A poetry competition. First place: full tuition at St. John’s University. I wrote a poem ’bout God and family. Still remember a few of the lines: “They told me to forsake her/Instead I just forgave her.” Won first place. The poem was published in the paper. 
                                                                *     *     *
        I’m a Christian. I love the Lord. When I was still in the womb, my mom read the Bible to me. The whole book. Matthew 6:14: “Forgive others when they sin against you, and your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” 
                                                                *     *     *
        The milk crates fell over and woke us up. The bed started shaking. Took us a minute to figure out the tunnel was filling with water. We tried to save a few things—our Bible, our phone, my notebooks—but we couldn’t see nothin’. It was pitch dark. Then a wall of water hit us and took us away. We were talking to each other at first, then I didn’t hear him no more. Just the water. So loud and fast.
        My last hope was a concrete ramp. I rolled onto it. Busted up my elbows and knees real bad.
Terry? The people at the hospital said he didn’t make it. Said he’s gone. Contact the coroner’s office. Wrote the number down for me. 
        I ain’t called yet. Guess I’m scared to. I don’t wanta believe it. Not my Terry. Not my baby. 

                                                                *     *     *
        Like I said, just another story for my book. My memoir. I’ve filled four notebooks and started on a fifth. Got some notes on my arm right now. Wrote ’em down in the hospital bed. I ain’t leaving nothin’ out: my dad’s suicide, what Mom did to me, Mr. Roberts, Mr. Simpson, Mr. Delaney, my addiction and ho-ing, Terry, the tunnel. The flood stole my notebooks, but I remember every word. I’ve tried to forget ’em, but I can’t.
A shiny, bronze SUV with tinted windows honked twice and pulled into a bus lane and cut on its hazard lights. Ivy took a drag from the butt, inhaling mostly filter, then flicked it into the gutter, where muddy runoff whisked it toward a storm drain.
The rain had intensified. The temperature had dropped. For the first time, Ivy appeared to acknowledge the elements. Jogging pigeon-toed in the direction of the SUV, she crossed her arms over her chest, concealing her protruding nipples. She peeled off her socks at the bus stop and dropped them into a trashcan.
Approaching the SUV, she looked both ways. She then opened the passenger-side door and paused.
Matthew O’Brien is a writer, editor, and teacher who lived in Las Vegas for twenty years and is currently based in San Salvador, El Salvador. His latest book, Dark Days, Bright Nights: Surviving the Las Vegas Storm Drains (Central Recovery Press 2020), shares the harrowing tales of people who lived in Vegas’ underground flood channels and made it out and turned around their lives. You can learn more about Matt and his work at
bottom of page