Sex Trafficking Up Close: Can a Mama Bear Save the Truck-Stop Hooker?
I was on the high road to making my escape when I saw her standing next to the road just outside the truck stop. Way too thin and dirty from sleeping rough, her long red hair incongruously combed into long carefully flowing waves over her shoulders. She looked to be about 16. I watched her as I filled up the tank of my rental car. I was headed for the airport, headed far away from talk of predator economics, sex trafficking and polluting pipelines. All I wanted was a bit of escape, but there she was. I was disgusted and cussed under my breath because I knew I’d have to stop. My inner Ojibwe mama bear had been awakened and there was no turning back.
I drove up to her and rolled down my window. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I said. “You know you can’t do this, don’t you?!”
Her sharp little face didn’t have the hardness of a true street kid, and was covered with freckles. She looked utterly exhausted; I could see she didn’t have much left. It made me angry.
Even though she was a white girl, my mama bear voice seemed to translate for her because she immediately became bashful. “Oh I’m just hitchhiking west,” she said. “I’m following my dream.”
“What the hell is your dream,” I said, “to get raped and killed?!”
She told me her name was Faye, and that she was 24 years old. I gave her some money and said, “Now go into that Denny’s and get something to eat. I’m gonna find someone to help you!”
Dutifully obeying the Ojibwe mama bear, she took the money and walked back toward the truck-stop. As I watched her walk away, I pulled out my mobile phone, and called some of the sexual-assault activists I had met over the weekend at the Protect the Sacred Conference; I was gonna fix this! I was going to save Faye.
I talked to an advocate for a local women’s crisis center who said she would get back to me soon, so I headed for the Denny’s to look for Faye. She wasn’t there, and I began to feel a little frantic as I searched for her. I asked the waitress, “Did a little skinny white girl carrying a backpack just come in here?”
“Not sure, but you can look if you want,” she said in a disinterested voice.
I looked in the shower room and lounge areas where truckers were watching TV in a road-weary, desultory fashion. No one seemed too interested in a middle-aged Indian woman looking for a skinny white girl. After a few minutes, I felt that queasiness I’ve felt come over me when I can’t locate my own kids and I got angrier. I didn’t like the feeling of powerless this situation was giving me.
Finally I found her sitting on a patch of gravel in front of the gas station, drinking a huge bottle of Gatorade. She sat sprawled on the rocks with a junky langor that makes even gravel look like a chaise lounge.
As I squatted next to her and looked in her eyes I could see she was very high. “Faye, I know some ladies who can help you. Please let me call them for you.”
“No, I’m good,” she said dreamily.
Just then the legal advisor for the women’s crisis center called back. She sounded worried. “Please don’t be alone with this girl,” she told me. She also told me that if Faye was a minor and came into contact with her agency she would have to report her to the police. “You need to know that this may result in her being returned to an abusive situation,” she said.
Even more troubling was her warning that a pimp was likely watching me and if I gave Faye a phone number, she might receive a beating for accepting it. Just then I noticed a man sitting in a white SUV with a sign in the window that read, “Stranded. Need gas money.” He was watching us intently.
“Unless she’s ready to ask for help, there’s not much we can do,” the legal advisor told me.
I pleaded with the girl. “Faye, you can’t keep doing this, you’re going to die.”
Suddenly she straightened up; a spark of pride shot through her as she flipped her hair and said, “Ma’am, you need to stay out of my business!”
She refused to take accept any contact information. It was getting late and I had a plane to catch. That sickly powerless feeling washed over me again as I realized that my inner mama bear couldn’t fix this. I was going to have to walk away.
And so my getaway wasn’t clean. It never really is. In my last glimpse of Faye, I saw her fragile silhouette as she walked among the parked semi-trucks. I saw her stop, and her freckled little face was turned up hopefully as she talked to a trucker.
I knew that vision would haunt me forever.