By Mort Laitner
I first met Wendy in a cold, dank Juvenile Justice Center jail cell. In this eight-by-eight cubical stood a skinny, plain-looking, white girl. A sixteen-year-old imprisoned to her profession as well as her addiction. Wendy was a prostitute addicted to crack and infected with HIV.
We talked. I listened. I watched as Wendy tumbled towards death.
While she told me her life story, I examined her rap sheet. The document measured nine inches, exactly the length of her platinum blond hair. As her eyes flickered, I observed her Leonardo da Vinci smiles fade in and out of her face.
Wendy’s formal education was as short as her nibbled finger nails. But she was as tough as the thick enamel covering them. Her eyes revealed the sadness of a lost youth, blue teenage eyes that had seen the dark side.
As I continued studying her criminal history, I saw one of her many aliases was Turnpike. I thought no harm in asking, “How did you get the nick-name Turnpike?”
Wendy threw me her best Mona Lisa smile and whispered, “On the street they call me Turnpike ‘cause that’s the way I charge for my services.”
I found it hard to believe these words were coming out of a sixteen-year-old’s mouth. I thought, sometimes there is harm in asking.
“Wendy, tell me about your family. Your early upbringing?” I asked.
“I was born and raised in Northern California. At twelve, my stepdad started to sexually abuse me. I was thirteen when my mom found out. She blamed me. Mother told me, ‘This is all your fault. It’s because of those pink baby-doll PJs you prance around the house in.’
“So I stopped wearing the baby dolls. But that didn’t stop him when my mom left the house,” Wendy replied.
“What happened next?” I inquired.
“A year later, my little sister accused me of doing ‘things’ to her. My mother believed her and kicked me out of the house.”
“How did you survive?” I queried.
“I started hitching rides with truckers. In exchange for food, shelter, drugs and money, I gave them sexual companionship. I travelled across the country so many times I can’t give you a number. I did this for about a year. Then a mean SOB trucker abandoned me at 79th and Biscayne, right in the heart of the red-light district. The trucker told me, ‘This is a place where you belong. Make your living on the streets.’ ”
“When was that?” I asked.
“About six months ago. I opened up shop, right there in the street. Then a pimp took me under his wing. He turned me on to crack. He bought me a sequin-covered mini-skirt, high-heels that lifted my small body six inches off the ground, and lots of makeup to paint my face.”
I asked, “Did you ever get any STDs?”
Touching her upper lip she replied, “Yup, I got them all – Chlamydia, syphilis, the clap, and herpes. My pimp took me to the health department for treatment. While in the clinic I was given the option of being tested for AIDS. I just wanted to get back on the street as quickly as possible. I needed my crack, so I agreed to the test. Two weeks later when I returned to the clinic to get my test results, I learned I was HIV positive. I did not cry. All I could think about was getting another hit.”
“Did they counsel you on how AIDS was spread?”
“Yes, I was counseled. They told me to always use condoms. I know I should tell my tricks to wear condoms, but a lot of them don’t want to; and if they don’t want to, I’m still going to date them because business is business. I need the money and when I’m high, I don’t think about nothing but another hit of crack.”
Social services, with the backing of the juvenile court judge, sent Wendy to a specialized AIDS foster home in Jacksonville. They hoped the distance would keep her off the streets of Miami. I heard Wendy escaped two weeks after her arrival. Like a homing pigeon, she flew south to her coop on Biscayne and 79th Street. Back to her crack, back to her pimp and back to spreading death on the streets.
The next time I saw Wendy was in the Dade County Jail. She had turned 18 and was now considered an adult in the eyes of the law. She had not aged well, the dope, the street and the trade wore her out like a ragged pair of jeans.
Wendy’s notoriety spread across the nation. She was a test case, the first prostitute in America to face imprisonment for spreading a new deadly disease. Wendy’s Johns watched her Mona Lisa smile spread across their TV screens. The smile appeared, then faded away only to reappear again. A public health doctor warned them that if they had unprotected sex with Wendy to get an HIV test. Many responded by being tested. Some customers reacted in a more violent fashion by mailing death threats to Wendy.
One read, “Turnpike, when you get out, you better watch your back because I’m going to shove my blade right in the middle of it. Don’t you be spreading AIDS on the street. If you want to kill me, it is only right that I put you out of your misery. Girl, I’m cruising the boulevard every night till I find your sorry AIDS filled body.”
Media flew into Miami from as far away as Australia and Italy to cover the story. How would the richest, most puritanical country in the world handle the oldest profession’s death trade?
I worked out a deal with the state prosecutor, Wendy’s public defender and the Judge to have her placed in a locked-quarantine facility for drug rehabilitation and AIDS treatment (which was limited and unsuccessful at the time). On the day of the hearing, I received a call advising me to kill the deal. I learned that Wendy set fire to a cell mattress
by shoving a lit cigarette in it. As the toxic smoke filled her cell, the guards rushed in shooting fire extinguishers. Wendy’s suicidal act was a cry for help. The State responded by charging her with arson. Knowing that her time on earth was limited, Wendy and the State agreed to a four year sentence.
For the next two years I heard nothing about Wendy. One day in 1988, as I sat in the criminal courthouse snack bar, I picked up my Herald, sipped my café con leche and read the headline:
“AIDS Prostitute Dead At Twenty”
A tear welled up in my eye as I tried to focus on the article. Wendy had been released from prison three months prior to her death. She passed away in the home of a Christian family. The family had petitioned the court to allow her to die outside prison walls. On her death bed, Wendy found the Lord.
I remembered her at sixteen, at eighteen and now she was dead at twenty. Pressing the paper napkin against my face, I wiped away the tears, blew my nose, and picked up my portable phone. I called Wendy’s public defender to give him the news. After exchanging pleasantries, I said, “Wendy died yesterday.”
I heard his quivering voice ask, “How do you know?”
“The story is on the front page of the Herald,” I answered
We talked about her ambiguous Mona Lisa smile, her flickering eyes and her tragic short life.
Then I asked him, “What did Wendy teach us about life?”
After pausing, he softly replied, “It’s a mystery to me… I don’t have a clue, but if you figure it out, call me.”
I hung up. I stared at Wendy’s black and white photo that graced the front page of the paper. I took another bitter-sweet sip of my now cold mixture of espresso and scalded milk. In the photograph, Wendy was standing in front of the Judge as he passed sentence on her. She looked baffled– like she had no idea as to why she was put on earth or why she was soon to leave it.
 Blais, Madeline. (1992). The Heart is an Instrument: Portraits in Journalism. University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst, MA. 132.