I'm leaning into the passenger seat of my filthy black mid size SUV, which is littered with used Kleenex, paper cups, recycled plastic utensils, old magazines, and random toys from an eternity of party favor bags. All of it is covered in a liberal layer of Pirate's Booty dust. Thanks, "Robert", for making such a prolific snack.
Yes, I have kids. I've just finished washing the outside of the car for two bucks in under three minutes at the DIY car wash in the heart of Hollywood. I'm a peasant at heart, all tips go to me. And now for the vacuum cleaner portion: I'm praying the hose at the suction station I chose doesn't smell like wet dog or vomit...
I'm looking for the coins I just spent forever coaxing from the change machine with a series of flaccid dollar bills that lazily make their way in and get rejected just as lazily on the way out. I try this exercise repeatedly until I cave and put in a ten dollar bill. Works every time. Now I just have to remember that these are dollars, not quarters. There are parking meters all over town that I've loaded to capacity with dollars that look like quarters. It's a conspiracy.
The suction bays are empty except for mine and one other car- a late-model Datsun Z, cobalt blue - parked about twenty feet away.There is a guy in exercise clothes doing the same thing I'm doing, except he's with someone- a girl-who looks about thirteen who is sitting in the passenger seat playing with a cell phone. Even from twenty paces, I can see that she's quite pretty, and very groomed- jean jacket, hair done in a high poofy ponytail. I can't hear him, but I can see the body language. I watch them for a second, and he tells her to put the phone away. She does, and then suddenly turns and looks at me through the seats. Our eyes meet, and she holds the gaze. I do, too, for a few seconds because her expression is so direct. It's not unfriendly, but she doesn't smile. I throw the hose through the backseat and walk around to the driver's side to start sucking up the weeks of build up: When did they have Ritz crackers? Why am I buying more rubber bands when clearly there's enough for seven girls right here in my car? Who leaves a half eaten apple in the side pocket? Yes, it was wrapped in a napkin, but now I know why my car smells like a big yellow school bus...
I trot around to the passenger side to investigate the other kid's hidden treasures and am startled to see that the girl is now standing outside of the car, on the rear driver's side, feet together, holding her shiny pink purse against her body, facing me. I pause for a second. She is looking at me with the same expression, like a deer in the woods that stands there, trying to determine if I am friend or foe. I kind of nod at her and smile weakly and go back to vacuuming, uncertain of what is happening, but I'm quickly starting to question things like why isn't she in school in the middle of a weekday, and who exactly is the guy in the exercise clothes and what is the nature of their relationship.
The guy digs around in the car, finds his wallet and starts to walk to the change machine. She takes a small step towards me, and he says over his shoulder something like "get back in the car". He gets to the change machine. We both watch him. He can't get the dollars to make change. He goes around to the other side of the car wash, out of sight.
She mouths "Help me".
Without thinking, I beckon her. She starts walking quickly, and I open the rear door.She gets in.
"Get in the trunk, under the blanket" I say. She does.
My heart is pounding, and the vacuum cleaner stops. I quickly fumble for more quarters and shove a handful of golden dollars into the slot. It starts again, and I'm hoping its screaming loudness will repel him. I walk slowly around to the driver's side and get in, just as he is walking back across the lot to his car. He puts the quarters in and suddenly turns abruptly towards his car and realizes she is not in the passenger seat. He runs around to the other side-the vacuum cleaner hitting the ground like a giant snake. He peers into the back seat then runs to the street and looks up and down. He wants to find her alright, but this is no brother, boyfriend or father. There is no anguish in his expression. He does not call her name. He looks pissed because his money maker just escaped. He gets in the car and screeches away, I watch him drive away and quietly thank the window tinting guy for talking me into the maximum.
"Are you okay?" I ask. She is quiet.
Then "Is he gone?".
I say yes but tell her stay down in case he comes back.
"Who is he?" I ask after a silence.
"A guy." she says plainly.
"What is your name?" I ask. She seems to think about it for a second.
"Marcella", she says."But everybody calls me Cella"
"Is there somewhere I can take you? Someone I can call?"
She is quiet. "Not really..." she says. Then her phone starts ringing.
"He's gonna call all day.." she says casually, looking at the phone.
"Is he your boyfriend?" I ask, knowing that he isn't.
"Kinda, but mostly I just work for him."
"How old are you?" I ask. She doesn't respond right away.
Yeah, right, I think, and I'm thirty-two.
I start driving, in case he comes back. First, I call my sister, who is a doctor, thinking she can help me. She doesn't pick up. I want to call the police, but I fear they will do nothing, and she'll be back on the street by tonight. I finally call the Sexual Abuse Hotline, and they have me drop her off at a safe house near Atwater Village. A woman named Brenda does her intake, assuring me that she will be assigned to a caseworker by tomorrow. I say goodbye, giving her a hug and wishing her luck. She smiles tearfully. I drive away sobbing, just in time to pick up my kids at school. Thank God I'm so observant and knew exactly what to do...
Okay, so that's not what happened. Not even close. Nope.
Yes, I saw the girl, I saw the guy. I knew something was off, but I had no clue what to do about it. Yes, she stared directly at me for an odd amount of time, and moved from the passenger seat to stand along the backside of the car, but that was it. She did not ask for help. But she might have needed it.Was I to approach her and ask if she was okay? And if she wasn't, am I going to leg wrestle her well muscled pimp to free her? I detest busybodies, but I'm prone to it because I notice things. Yet, I was paralyzed by the prospect that I might be mistaken and did nothing. That's correct, I did nothing. Because I didn't want to seem inappropriate. But what is more inappropriate than pimping out a little girl...?
I drove away, feeling horribly conflicted. I circled back, though-immediately-to get a license plate, but they were gone. Of course they were gone.
I had successfully compartmentalized this until a few months later when I read the article in Los Angeles Magazine at the doctor's office about the phenomenon of child sexual slavery in our city occurring in staggering numbers right now at this very moment. The people at the car wash pretty much fit the basic description:young, really well groomed girl not in school with an older guy. They were also both black, which added to my consternation because even though the preponderance of victims of sexual slavery in LA are young black girls, what if they were just law abiding citizens washing their car? Can you imagine the amount of back pedaling required to not get punched in the face by someone you've wrongly accused of being a pimp? Talk about awkward. I really want to believe that she was his sister or his daughter, but that's just not the feeling I got. Do I call the police because of a feeling? And what will they do, really.What can they do?
What I did discover is that there is somewhere to call if this ever happens again, or at the very least, I can give the next girl that information: Saving Innocence. The website has prevent,rescue, and restore pages that explain how they can work to rebuild the lives of girls that are lucky enough to get permanently removed from this awful existence. While I can't abandon my current job as a full time parent/laundress/chef/driver/problem solver/finder of lost items/summer activities coordinator/travel agent/housekeeper/aspiring author to volunteer in their office just yet, I can send supplies for the girls they do rescue. Most of the these girls come in wearing very little, some have been beaten or worse. They need comfort. Specifically, they need sweatpants, t-shirts, sweatshirts, socks, blankets, underwear, bras, and hygiene supplies (tampons, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, deodorant, hair brush, and hair ties). Collected items can be sent to PO Box 93037, Los Angeles, CA 90093. Yay, now I have a valid reason to go to Evil Target.