I am sitting in the Red Oak Diner outside Princeton, N.J., with Christine Pagano and her friend Jeannette. They have just finished attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a small room in a strip mall behind us. Many who were at the meeting struggle to make rent or car payments. Those with jobs worry about being laid off. Some live in terror that creditors, or the state, will electronically empty their meager bank accounts for debts they owe. Some fear outstanding warrants will land them in jail. One small tremor and the fragile stability they have achieved will crumble to dust. During AA sessions they admit there are times when they want to blunt the pain again, at least for a moment, by getting drunk or high. And when the meetings are over, everyone stands up, holds hands and says the Lord’s Prayer.
The rain is lashing the window next to our booth. The diner is nearly empty. Trucks on Route 206 roar past, their headlights a blur in the rainstorm. Pagano, 31, has worked all day in a deli and bakery. She was up at 6:30 a.m. Her hands are cupped around a glass of unsweetened ice tea. Her dark, auburn hair is pulled up in a neat bun. Her eyes are carefully lined with mascara.
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Her drug use began when she was a 16-year-old in high school, after a classmate confessed to the school guidance counselor that she had had sex with Pagano’s stepfather. Her mother’s marriage, and with it whatever stability it provided in Pagano’s life, imploded. The story about the classmate and Pagano’s stepfather became public in her rural community in northern New Jersey. She felt humiliated. She began to snort heroin. She dropped out of school and worked to feed her habit. She got into a drug treatment program in 2007. She got sober. She lived in a group house in Brick, N.J., where all the residents promised not to use drugs or alcohol. She met a man who had just gotten out of prison and was also in recovery. They set out to make a life together.
She worked in a diner and got a cosmetology certificate. She and her boyfriend rented a house and bought a car. She became pregnant. After she gave birth she stayed home with her son.
“I was a new mom,” she says. “I had no idea what I was doing. I was really overwhelmed. I don’t remember ever really thinking about using or drinking, but I was never all right. I was never really OK with who I was. I always felt not good enough. And even as a mom, with … this beautiful child, I never felt OK. I use to bite my nails all the time. I was very anxiety-ridden.”
She and her boyfriend went regularly to meetings for those in recovery from addiction. They stayed clean for four years.
“I remember the day that my son’s father and I decided it would be OK that we had a drink,” she says. “And it was like totally normal. We were in our house in Sussex. Our neighbor came over and she didn’t know I was in recovery. And I never bothered to tell her. And she had a bottle of wine in her hand. And we barbecued and I drank a glass of wine. … And I did not want to drink any more. I was still pretty coherent enough that I didn’t want to be drunk, because of my son.”
She thinks her boyfriend, who was working for a tree service company and was a member of the electricians union, was secretly taking the opiate Oxycontin. He suggested they go “doctor shopping” to get pills to sell. Her boyfriend’s family had a history of addictions. His father had died in the jail on Riker’s Island in New York. His sister was a heroin addict and a prostitute who worked for a well-known New Jersey pimp called “Prince” who drove a Rolls-Royce and a white Cadillac with flashy rims and white carpeting. “He would walk into this bar in Jersey City called Ringside,” Pagano says. “He would go, ‘The champ is here.’ ”
She and her boyfriend started taking pills together. A month later they switched to heroin. It was cheaper. She snorted it for a week, and then her boyfriend shot her up with heroin. It was her first time with a needle.
“He called his sister and his sister told us where we could get heroin,” she says. “And she lived in the heart of Jersey City. So we went down there and in the beginning we were selling the pills to support the heroin habit. And then our heroin habit got too big for the money. This was the first time my son’s father told me that I should go out on the street with his sister.”
She accompanied her boyfriend’s sister, known by the street name “Baby” on Jersey City’s Tonnelle Avenue, Route 1 and Route 9, where there is a string of cheap motels. Pagano, who is white, wore a short, shimmering gold skirt and adopted the name “Gucci.” Prostitutes on Tonnelle Avenue, which is close to the Holland Tunnel, connecting Jersey City and Manhattan, made $50 for oral sex and $100 for vaginal intercourse, “but if it goes any longer than 10 minutes you’re charging them more.” An hour cost $250 and a full night cost $1,500. To the Wall Street traders, business executives and bankers who are the area prostitutes’ main customers, money never seemed to be an issue. Their wallets were stuffed with cash. On her first night Pagano hailed men headed home to the suburbs from New York City but then burst into tears or fought them off once she was inside the cars.
“I think the first night I actually never went through with it, but I ended up making money because I was a sobbing mess in these cars and guys just gave me money,” she says. “Most of them had a lot of money ’cause they were coming from the city. So then my son’s father got the idea that if I couldn’t do it I would … make them get a room, act like I was gonna do it—and he would kick the door in—and rob them. We did that a couple time until I couldn’t keep track of who I was robbing. And the last time I went to do it I had already robbed the guy [on an earlier night] and he started beating me up in the room.”
It took her two weeks to begin having sex with the “tricks.” She slowly began to build a regular clientele and mastered the survival skills that come with walking the street.
“A couple times I got to stay in this really nice suite that overlooked Newark Airport,” she said. “Some of them had a lot of money.”
She would buy heroin after a night’s work—she and her boyfriend together had a $500-a-day habit—from a dealer named “Kiss.”
“Kiss would come out no matter when I called ’cause he knew he was getting his $500 from me,” she says. She would drive home, often around 4:30 in the morning, and shoot up with her boyfriend. Her relationship with him deteriorated into that of “drug partners” and little else. They fought frequently, something they had not done while sober.
“He would throw it in my face a lot,” she says of her prostitution, “but he had no problem doing my drugs. We were no longer parents. We were no longer anything.”
But she still had her son, Liam.
“There were times where Kristen [Baby] would go out and I would sit in the car with my son,” she says. “I would have him out in my car on Tonnelle Avenue. I thought I was a good mom ’cause I would wait in the car. She would go out and she would come back and wait in the car for me to come back with money.”
She began to leave Liam with his father at night while she worked the streets.
Cops, she said, were regular customers, although most refused to pay. Some threatened to arrest her if she did not give them unpaid sex.
“The first time I ever got raped actually was by a cop in Elizabeth,” she says. “He wanted to ‘trick off,’ which is normal for cops.”
“They would get you in the car because they would act like they were arresting you,” she says, “and then once they got you in the car they would tell you, ‘Oh well, if you blow me I’ll let you go.’ And you get smart after a while. I mean after a while I would let them take me to jail because they can’t—what are they gonna say? There’s nothing on videotape. What are they gonna say? They can’t. It takes you a while to learn this type of stuff.”
“We were in the back of the police car,” she says of her first rape. “He had paid me. Then he punched me in the face and he took the money back. He pulled out his gun and told me I was gonna do whatever he told me to do. He stuck his gun up my vagina. He told me he was gonna pull the trigger if I didn’t do what he said. He wanted to treat me like a piece of shit. Ya know, he called me a bunch of names. He made me call myself a bunch of names—a dirty prostitute. At one point he made me say that I had AIDS. Yeah.”
“The only cop I remember his name from down there was a Jersey City cop, we called him Barney, I don’t know his real name,” she says. “He looked like Barney [Rubble, the cartoon character]. He was my first prostitution arrest. And the only reason he arrested me was that I was standing next to Kristen. And she was known. When they brought us in it was her 39th prostitution arrest. They [police officers] were clapping when they brought her in. Everybody knew who she was.”
On a good night Pagano made $600 to $700. On a bad night she made $100. “I made the best money in snow and rain,” she says.
Some customers wanted to indulge in fetishes. “I’ve put diapers on guys,” she says. Others wanted to put on makeup and women’s clothes.
She often injected herself with heroin or smoked crack as soon as she and a client got into a hotel room. “A lot of them would do it [take drugs] with you,” she says. “A lot of them pay you to get their drugs for them.”
She learned to immediately open the glove compartment to get the name and address of the driver when she entered a vehicle. She made more money by threatening to call the customer’s wife.
She also learned what to avoid. “In Jersey City there’s a street when you go down Tonnelle Avenue,” she says. “I think it’s called Industrial Way [probably Industrial Drive]. It’s industrial parks. You never, ever, ever want to go down there. And you always knew you were in trouble if you got in a car with a guy and he started driving that way. I’ve jumped out of many cars. ’Cause as soon as you saw you were driving down that street, you knew you were gonna get raped.”
She endured for nine months. She begged her boyfriend to help her get off the streets. He decided to rob a bank. He entered a bank in Jersey City in June 2010 with a backpack and a note that said he had a bomb. He did not cover his face. He took $578 from a teller.
“I was driving on the Turnpike from our house down to Jersey City and I saw a big sign ‘FBI wanted’ with a picture of my son’s father,” she says. “And I pulled over on the side of the road and lost my mind.”
He was arrested a month later when the FBI, the state police and U.S. marshals kicked down the door of their house at 5:30 in the morning. He is now serving a nine-year sentence in the maximum-security federal prison at Lewisburg, Pa.
“That’s when I really went off the deep end,” Pagano says. “I gave up on everything.”
She sent her son to live with her mother, who is a teacher. She moved in for a while with her boyfriend’s sister, Baby, in Jersey City. She eventually became homeless, sleeping in an abandoned flower shop. Her drug use soared. She would be awake for six or seven days at a time. She had as many as 20 clients a day. Finally, nearly broken, she got back into rehab. She became sober again. She met a man in the program. He relapsed two weeks later and went to jail. She began drinking heavily with the mother of her baby’s father.
“We were in Atlantic City one night, me and his mom,” she says. “We were out all night long at some grimy bar. Some guy offered me ‘dog food.’ And I said, ‘What the hell is dog food?’ I had never heard a lot of terms before. It was heroin. I was drunk. I followed him. I got the heroin. It progresses very quickly.”
She started taking the bus from Williamstown, N.J., where she was living, to Atlantic City to “trick” and buy drugs. She got arrested. When she got out of jail she decided to go to Camden. Camden was where many Atlantic City pushers got their drugs. Heroin costs $10 a bag in Camden and $6 a bag in Jersey City, but the Camden heroin was far more potent and provided a much longer high. And Camden was only 20 minutes from where she was living.
Camden is among the country’s poorest and most crime-ridden cities. The loss of its manufacturing base has seen its population shrink from 120,000 in the 1950s to less than 80,000 today. Whole blocks lie abandoned. There are an estimated 1,500 derelict buildings. The roofs of many empty row houses, gas stations, stores and warehouses have collapsed. Basements in derelict buildings are flooded. Copper wiring, metal doors, radiators and piping have been ripped out by scavengers who sell the materials to the huge scrap yard along the Delaware River. Some 175 open-air drug markets exist in the city. Hookers, often white addicts, congregate on street corners and near the main exit ramp of the multilane highway that cuts through the heart of Camden.
The first time Pagano took the bus to Camden, she walked up to the first person she saw upon her arrival at Walter Rand Transportation Center and said: “Where do you sell your ass around here?” She was told to go to Broadway. She never went home. Camden, however, was not Jersey City or Atlantic City. Her clients were not wealthy businessmen or Wall Street managers, but fellow addicts. She could not make the same kind of money. There were women on the street who would give oral sex for as little as $5.
“They’d suck your dick for a hit of crack,” she says. “Camden was like nothing I had ever seen before. The poverty is so bad. People rob you for $5, literally for $5. They would pull a gun on you for no money. I would get out of cars, I would walk five feet up the road and get held up. And they would take all my money. The first time it happened to me I cried an hour. You degrade yourself. You get out of the car. And some guy pulls a gun on you.”
She scaled down her charges, eventually giving oral sex for $20. And she found that her clients refused to let her use condoms.
“I gave up on everything at that point, I wanted to die,” she says. “I didn’t care anymore. All the guilt and the shame and leaving my son, not talking to my son, not talking to my family.”
She met a man named E-frie who had just finished an 18-year prison sentence. He gave her drugs in return for sex. He drank heavily and smoked marijuana. He taunted her for being a junkie and frequently beat her, once pushing her down a flight of stairs.
“I was still living on the streets,” she says. “I was living everywhere. Abandoned buildings. Most of my stuff was hidden all over downtown Camden. I would dig holes and bury stuff in backyards.”
She gently fingers a ring dangling from her necklace.
“My mother gave this to me from my son,” she says. “I never take it off my neck. It’s a mother-and-son ring. It’s made it through everything with me. Someone ripped my necklace off one time. I flipped out. It was the only thing that made me feel like I had my son with me. I found the ring after someone ripped it off. I used to wear it on my hand. But I would get nervous that someone would rob me over a ring. I would dig holes and bury it. I would bury it with my money.”
She put her profile on an Internet site to solicit clients. By then she had been raped as many as 20 times.
“The last time was the most brutal,” she says. “It was on Pine Street near the Off Broadway [Lounge]. There’s weeds on the side. I never took tricks off the street. They had to be in cars. But I was sick. I was tired.”
A man on the street had offered her $20 for oral sex. But once they were in the weeds he pulled out a knife. He told her if she screamed he would kill her. When she offered some resistance he stabbed her. “He was trying to stab me in my vagina,” she says. He stabbed her thigh. “It’s kind of bad because I actually never ended up doing anything about it. It ended up turning into a big infection.”
“I had seen this episode of Oprah years ago and this girl had been raped—her survival skills kicked in and what she did was tell the guy that he didn’t have to do that to her, that he could do better,” she says. “I got outta him that he and his girlfriend had gotten into a fight and that she wouldn’t have sex with him and that somebody was gonna have sex with him that night. He made me hold his phone that had porn on it. He never really pulled his pants all the way down. And at this point I’m bleeding pretty badly. I’m lying on glass outside of this bar. I had like little bits of glass in my back. I remember being really scared. Then it just got to the point where I was just numb. I asked him if he could stop at one point so I could smoke a cigarette. He let me. I got him to put the knife down because I was being good and listening to him. He stabbed the knife in the dirt. He said, ‘Just so you know I can pick it up at any point.’ I think in his head he thought that I was scared enough. In my head I was trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get outta there. And it occurred to me one of the things he kept asking me to do was lick his butt. And he was getting off on this. The last time he turned around and asked me to do this I pushed him. I had myself set up to get up.”
She ran naked into the street. The commotion attracted the police. A passerby gave her his shirt to cover up. At 5 feet 5 inches tall she weighed only 86 pounds. Her skin was gray. Her feet were so swollen she was wearing size 12 men’s slippers.
She would last four more weeks on the streets, until a private investigator hired by her mother found her in September 2012. He called her mother and handed the phone to Pagano. “I told her to leave me the fuck alone, just let me die,” she says. “And she told me that she was not going to let me die out there. She said, ‘You will not be sleeping on the streets of Camden tonight.’ ”
Because Pagano had a raft of outstanding warrants the investigator took her to jail, but her physical condition was so bad the jail refused to accept her. She was hospitalized for two weeks. She went into a methadone program that cost her mother $20,000.
“I was so hurt and so broken,” she says. “I was in shock. When it all wore off I would wake up at night screaming, sweating, I had peed myself a couple times in the middle of the night. I still have nightmares. A lot of it goes back to that last rape. A lot of it has to do with E-frie.”
“I live in a shitty little apartment, at 31 years old, with a roommate, who used to be sober and is now a stripper,” she says. “I have a crappy car. I will never have a prestigious job. I’ve never been more happy in my life.”
This summer she will regain custody of her son.
She tells me about her new boyfriend, José. She speaks his name as if the fact of José is a miracle.
“He knows everything there is to ever know about me and has never judged me, never,” she says. “If I’m in a funk, he says, ‘Just go to the 5:30 meeting,’ ” referring to a daily Alcoholics Anonymous session. “He doesn’t even know what the 5:30 AA meeting is.”
“I struggle with God,” she says. “I have to believe that I haven’t been put through this to give up. And there’s been a lot of times when I wanted to do just that. I sat through Camden County jail [on an old warrant] sober. I was looking at all the same people I used to be out on the street with—being called Gucci again.”
“I think the one thing I am most grateful for is that I am scared today,” she says. “I’m scared of the law. I never was. I’m scared to lose what little I have. Not the material things—but I look at my son now. I remember the day that I had him and thinking this was it. And looking back I think I thought that this was gonna fix me. But it didn’t. And I learned that nothing is going to fix me. Liam’s not going to fix me. Those [AA] meetings are not going to fix me. They’re going to help. Jeannette’s going to help. All these people in my life are going to help. But the only person that can fix me is me. And that’s a hard pill to swallow when you’ve done nothing your whole life but fuck it up. And one of the biggest things I still can’t get over is that even when I’m doing something right, I still feel like I’m doing something wrong. I always have that feeling that it’s not good enough. That I’m not good enough. And now here I am at 31. I have a huge criminal record. I have horrible credit. I lost a house. I lost a car. It amazes me that my mother still looks at me knowing what I’ve done—and she doesn’t look at me any differently. And [when I go wrong] she’ll be the first to tell you, ‘That’s not my daughter, that’s what my daughter does when she’s not thinking straight.’ ”
Liam, 5, recently learned where his dad is. Before, when he asked, Pagano had answered by saying only, “Your dad loves you very much.” But eventually she had to tell him the truth. The boy cried for more than an hour. He asked his mother to play a game in which she is a cop who arrests him so he can go to prison and talk to his father. It is a game they play often.
“He’s going to be 11 when [his father] gets out,” she says. “Liam wants to know if he’s going to be in his life. I can’t give him an answer. It’s really sad that for $578 [the father is] sitting in prison for nine years. I’m not condoning what he did. He did it. He’s guilty, but nine years?”
“The system is set up for us to fail,” she says. “Ten years from now I’m still just going to be a number. I’m always going to have an SBI [State Bureau of Identification] number. I’m always going to have mug shots all over the Internet. Liam’s father is going to be out when he’s 42 years old. And what the fuck is he going to do? And they expect people not to go back. What’s he going to do? I realize everyone’s got a choice, but the state won’t even help me. They’re not going to help him. I’m not saying people shouldn’t pay for what they do. Most people don’t change. I’m not going to say that they do. But some change. I fight everyday to be a better person. I fight to fit into society.”
The manager of the diner comes over to tell us he is closing in 15 minutes. He looks at Pagano. He sees she is distraught. “Take your time,” he says gently. We are drinking coffee, pouring in little containers of creamer and stirring it too long.
“I never thought this would be my story,” Pagano says. “You couldn’t have told me this. Now I cry a lot. I’m very compassionate. I never used to be. They used to call me the ice queen.”
She pauses and looks down at the table, trying to recover her composure. “I look in the mirror. Half the time I still see that girl again,” she says, referring to her former self. “The other half of the time I see me.”
We leave the diner, darting through the rain to our cars.
The poor in America usually get only one chance. Then it is over. Those who were on the street with Pagano in Camden will most likely never have a private investigator rescue them, or have a mother pay for their drug rehabilitation. Most will live, suffer and die within the space of a few squalid city blocks. No jobs. No hope. No help. No way out. They blunt their despair through alcohol or drugs. And if they do get out, as did Pagano, they carry the chains of their past wrapped in long coils around them. Employers do not want them. Landlords will not rent them an apartment. Real estate agents will not deal with them if they seek to buy a house. Banks and credit card companies will not give them credit. They never have enough money. They probably never will. They live one step away from hell. And they know what hell feels like. This is how the bankers, bond traders and financial speculators, the ones with the packed wallets, the ones with the fancy cars and the multimillion-dollar homes in New Jersey’s suburbs of Mendham, Chatham and Short Hills, the ones who paid Christine Pagano for sex during their nightly journeys to their homes and wives, want it. The hell of the poor is their paradise.