I happened to drop in one evening when Lisa wanted to do a movie and dinner in Jane’s motel room. Lisa wasn’t there yet, so I accompanied Jane to the grocery store across the street.
Jane left home at 13, spent the last of her teenage years in Mexico, and has four children with an abusive husband. She has another child with a boyfriend who spends more time in jail than not. She’s got a crack habit. And she’s got a soft spot for Lisa.
Lisa made the money the only way she knows, the way she’s been doing it since a pimp turned her out at 13.
This wasn’t always the case. As we walked through the produce aisles, picking avocados for fresh guacamole, Jane confessed she’d been pretty mean to Lisa. I don’t remember the details, but it seems that on the street, especially with drugs, you don’t have much more than your reputation.
A few years ago Jane went through a rough patch. She was kicked out of her motel room, was broke again, and was on the outs with everyone. She was, literally, curbside with all her possessions.
Then Lisa showed up and handed her a key to a motel room. It was paid for, a week in advance.
Since then, Jane has looked out for her. Jane said Lisa made the money for that room the only way she knows, the way she’s been doing it since a pimp turned her out at 13. She made it laying on her back.
I’ve got a deal with the cops. We share some things about our work, but some things are necessarily vague. Like the motel.
They arrested Lisa in January. Instead of jail, they took her to the drop in center, the Genesis Project. Not long after, she let me tag along with her. The cops saw she was trying to leave the life, and they became invested in her. They hoped she might make the necessary choices to get out.
Sometimes I’d get a call from them; they’d seen her walking, she’d been to the drop in center, she’d called someone. Once they did a hotel bust, arresting a firefighter and citing her for prostitution. Again. The cops were part of a network of people I could rely on to tell me where she was because, even though she and I had a deal, she wasn’t the most reliable.
The cops asked what I was up to. I told them I’d been going to a motel, because that’s where Lisa was. I didn’t say much else; I try to compartmentalize, first out of respect for my subjects and second, so I don’t influence the story. As it happens, I didn’t need to say much because the cops were in the middle of a year-long investigation that lead to the motel raid.
What I heard from two different police departments went something like this:
“You’re going where?”
Followed by, “You’re carrying, right?”
“Carrying what?” I asked.
I don’t carry. I don’t own a gun.
I’m waiting for Lisa to show up, chasing her texts. I’ve spent hours like this, driving up and down the highway, past the motels she frequents, looking for where she said she’d be.
The guy has been at the bus stop for the last 20 minutes, but he doesn’t get on. Then he’s meeting another guy. They leave, then he comes back, alone. I’ve been watching from the car.
Eventually, I get out and go talk to the guy.
In reality, it was a bunch of different guys, and some women, but they all presented the same uncertainty for me. They know Lisa, maybe they know me, we talk; it’s happened over and over. Most are hustlers, selling drugs, sometimes girls, whatever it takes to get by and keep partying. It’s an unfamiliar world for me.
Most are hustlers, selling drugs, sometimes girls, whatever it takes to get by and keep partying
They’ve all got a certain level of curiosity, the ones who talk to me, wanting to know what’s up with the camera, why I’m following Lisa. I’m pretty straight with them, letting them draw the boundaries as I ask questions. I want to know who’s connected to who, what’s the gossip, if there’s any pimps. I still want to talk to a pimp; they’re a missing voice in this story. But, no, they say, the pipe is the pimp on this block.
There’s a guy who lost everything, family, friends, job. He’s super nice, they say, but he just kind of gets by. Sad, they say. There’s another guy, he works construction. He’s a migrant without papers, he misses his family. He likes to unwind with the pipe. Not long ago, walking home from the motel, he was beaten and robbed. He smiles a lot.
Then there was the motel manager. When we first met, in the frenzy of Lisa’s send-off to detox, he tried to kick me off the property.
“People here have a right to privacy!” he shouted. I can respect that.
Somehow I persuaded him to let me stay. Since then, I’d always check in with him and his pregnant wife.
She talks more than he does.
One evening, I saw his hand and forearm were in a splint. He just kind of shrugged when I asked. Jane filled me in. His wife, still pregnant, had relapsed. She was back on the pipe.
I got a phone call, number blocked. The guy sounded urgent; I kind of recognized his voice.
“Are you from the Genesis Project?” he asked. “Do you know Lisa?”
He identified himself as a SeaTac police officer.
She must be in trouble, I thought. I answered carefully, walking the line. He wouldn’t say much and then hung up. I called Lisa, no answer. We were supposed to meet up.
That evening I found myself in the lobby of the SeaTac motel where she was staying. It felt like a movie, walking in, asking questions.
“Is Lisa here? No? What happened?” I asked.
Come to find out, they called the cops on her and I knew the arresting officer. She’s gotten a reputation around here, amongst the motels, with the cops, and with her community. I won’t say friends, because she struggles with that word. She knows they’ll take her for whatever they can, as they would anyone else, and now it sounds like she’s gotten a reputation for being a snitch.
I wonder if it’s because of me and my camera, or because she’s been at Genesis Project, the drop in center the cops founded.
Some emails and phone calls later and I was at the jail, after hours, looking at her through a window. We talked through phone handsets; their cables were too short.
As I said, it felt like a movie.
It was 3 a.m. and I was reviewing video I’d shot that night. In the glow of the monitor, I wrote a note to myself. Jane’s words kept coming back to me.
It was pouring rain as Lisa climbed into her ex-boyfriend’s truck. They’re sort of together, but he’s got another girl. Two of them, actually. The relationship looks pimp-like, though Lisa says it isn’t. But it’s her money, from selling herself, that’s paying for the night’s hotel room.
“Don’t give up on her,” Jane said, closing her door. “Don’t let her go.”
The Motel, Part 1 was published yesterday. “Leaving the Life” is a documentary project by Tim Matsui on grassroots efforts to address Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST). This project is funded by the Alexa Foundation’s Women’s Initiative Grant. The trailer for “The Long Night,” a documentary film being produced by MediaStorm with the footage Tim has gathered is now available. See more posts from this project here.