Ben Manso drifts through life, working as a rent boy, until an casual encounter with an eight-year old street kid named Bobby at a convenience store changes everything. When Ben sees Bobby again, the boy is with a man who claims to be Bobby’s father, but Ben suspects the man is a pedophile and the boy his captive. A third encounter draws Ben even more deeply into Bobby’s drama and forces him to face his own haunted past. After Ben’s well-intentioned plan to rescue Bobby puts the boy in even greater danger, Ben is forced to make a life-changing choice.
Street People is the story of lives at the margin, about the throw-away people we see without seeing, and the real meaning of family.
On a warm night in May, 1988, the sky above Los Angeles glowed Martian red and Ben Manso pushed his way into a 7-Eleven on Santa Monica Boulevard to buy cigarettes and condoms. The only other people in the store were a kid standing at the check-out counter and the clerk standing behind it. The boy was scrawny, brown-haired and dark-eyed—Mexican, Ben thought, wearing jeans, a dirty tee-shirt, and ratty sneakers. Waiting his turn behind the kid, Ben watched him carefully place his purchases on the grubby counter: a bag of Doritos, two pre-wrapped ham and cheese sandwiches, a carton of milk, and a Hostess cupcake.
The clerk’s name tag identified him as Ahmed. He rang up the boy’s purchases, peered at him through thick glasses and said, “Five dollars and thirty-two cents.”
The boy pulled a handful of crumpled bills and some change from his pants pocket and dumped them on the counter.
Patiently, Ahmed counted it. “This is only four-fifty,” he said gently. “Not enough. You have to put something back.”
The boy stared at him helplessly.
Ahmed picked up the cupcakes. “Take this back, ok?”
Mouth quivering, the kid took the pastry and lurched backwards, bumping into Ben.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
“Wait a second,” Ben said. “I’ll pay for his food and give me a pack of Merits.”
“Just the cigarettes?” the clerk asked.
“No,” Ben said, “A pack of Trojans, too.”
Ben slapped a twenty on the counter. Ahmed got the cigarettes and rubbers, rang everything up, and bagged the boy’s groceries. The boy grabbed the bag and threw Ben a look of startled gratitude as he hurried out of the store.
“Kind of late to be grocery shopping,” Ben said.
“He’s a street kid,” Ahmed replied. “He eats when he’s got the money. You need matches?”
“Thanks,” Ben said, accepting a matchbook advertising a nearby bailbondsman. “Are you saying he hustles?
“Could be,” Ahmed said.
“He can’t be more than eight or nine.”
Ahmed shrugged. “If he’s a seller, there’s a buyer.”
Ben tucked the cigarettes and matchbook into the pocket of his unlined ash-gray silk blazer.. “You must see a lot of sick shit working here.”
Ahmed laughed. “Yeah, they don’t call it the graveyard shift for nothing.” He picked up the rubbers. “Don’t forget these. Someone’s getting lucky.”
Ben shrugged. “Business.”
“Ah,” Ahmed said. “Take care my friend.”
Out in the parking lot, one of his pagers went off. He spotted a phone booth at the corner. Heavy traffic moved in both directions on the boulevard and the air was foul with exhaust fumes. Across the street, a teen-age kid with a mop of wild hair, in tight jeans and a wife-beater, stood beneath a streetlight smoking and peering at the passing cars. Ben stepped into the phone booth, pulled the door shut, and watched a blue Corolla pull up to the curb in front of the teen. All Ben could see of the driver was that he was male with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a blue Dodgers windbreaker.The boy approached the car, leaned into the window and after a brief exchange with the driver r, opened the passenger door and climbed inside.
“Hey, Pete,” Ben said, watching the car’s tail lights merge into traffic.
“I got a guy who’ll pay to watch us get it on,” Pete said. “You in?”
“I have a date tonight,,” Ben said.
“Meredith get to you first?”
“Yeah, it’s an overnight. Sorry, Petey.”
“Okay, cool,” he said. “Call me tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Ben said.
He hung up. A panhandler emerged from the darkness and leaned drunkenly against Ben’s Fiat. Ben smelled the guy before he reached him; he reeked of booze, body odor and unwashed clothing
“Hey, man,” Ben said. “Do you mind?”
“This your car?” the man asked, carefully forming each word.
The drunk pushed himself off the hood, pulled a filthy rag from his back pocket and said, “I’ll clean the windshield for a buck.”
“The windshield is fine,” Ben said.
“Please, man, I really need a drink.”
Impulsively, Ben asked, “What’s your name?”
It took the drunk a minute to remember. “Ron.”
Ben handed him a ten. “Here you go, Ron, for protecting my car.”
“Hey, thanks,” Ron said. “Thanks a lot.”
Clutching the bill in his hand, he lurched into the store.
Driving down the boulevard, Ben saw the kid from the store on the other side of the street lugging his little sack of groceries. He was trying to look tough but when Ben honked at him and waved, the boy jumped. He stared after Ben as if he’d seen Santa Claus and waved wildly with his free hand. For a second, Ben thought about turning around and giving the kid a ride, but he was already running late and the boy was no longer visible in his rearview mirror anyway.
He turned off Franklin and headed up the hills into a neighborhood of twisting, narrow roads, and enormous houses that commanded expensive views of the city below. At a stop sign, he fluffed his hair, put out his cigarette, and popped a breath mint. The thick scent of tuberoses in the bouquet on the passenger’s seat filled the air. Ellie was a regular, but even his regulars expected a little courtship before getting down to business; flowers to be admired and arranged in a fancy vase, the nice wine in the pretty glasses on the terrace, and the conversation that trailed off to the pregnant silence that was his signal to kiss her. No money changed hands—she had paid the agency when she requested him—but in the end, he was no different than the kid climbing into the Corolla to give a driver a ten buck blow job. They worked different streets, but they were all street people. He headed up the hill to her house.
Wade was outside his apartment in his walker when Ben let himself into the building. The old man smiled, or grimaced, it was hard to tell which. Since he’d broken his hip the summer before he was always more or less in pain. He was shapeless in an old, oversized Pendleton shirt and pair of baggy khakis. His mottled skin was like the fly-specked pages of an old book and time had dissolved his features into a puddle topped by a crown of wispy white hair. His blue eyes were still bright, however, and they missed nothing.
“Just getting home, baby?” he wheezed.
“You want some coffee?”
“Come on in and put on a pot,” Wade said.
Unless he was sleeping, Wade kept his front door open. He spent most of the day in a rocker that faced the door, trying to snare passersby into his room to visit. The other tenants hurried by because once Wade got started it was hard to shut him up. Ben didn’t mind. Ben was as natural a listener as Wade was a talker. He liked to hear the old man’s stories of his days as a bit player at the studios, tales documented by the black-and-white photographs that lined the walls of his apartment showing him with the big stars of the forties and fifties.
Wade’s room smelled faintly of bird shit. He had had a pair of canaries, Goneril and Regan. Opening the cage door to change the water one day, he’d moved too slowly and the birds had flown out and through an open window. Wade had refused Ben’s offer to replace the birds telling him, “At this rate, they’d outlive me, then what would happen to them? Unless you’d take care them.”
Ben shrugged, “I don’t know, Wade. Birds in cages? Might creep out some of my johns.”
“I thought you were strictly out-call,,” Wade crackled.
Ben smiled, “I make exceptions for the right amount of money.”
Wade knew Ben was a hustler but made no judgments since, as he had told Ben more than once, “Everyone in Hollywood has a price.”
Ben worked mostly for an agency called White Knights, which provided escorts to women, and free-lanced on the side with men. White Knights was operated by a woman named Meredith, whom he had met through Pete when they were cater waiters for the same company. One night, after working a party at Bel-Air in a steel-and-concrete house that reminded Ben of an airport hanger, he’d gone home with Pete. Later, lying in bed, Pete told him, “You’re good at sex.”
“Thanks, I guess.”
“No, I mean it,” he said, taking a drag from Ben’s cigarette. “Most guys are lousy at it because all they care about is getting off. You pay attention to the other person.” He took another puff. “You fuck women, too?”
“You wanna do a threesome?”
“Just answer the question, man.”
He shrugged. “I’ve had sex with women.”
“Would you fuck someone for money?”
“You mean would I whore myself out?” Ben asked.
“Yeah, could you do it for money?”
“I never thought about it,” Ben said.
“Think about it now.”
Ben stubbed out his cigarette. For the most part, Ben, being naturally accommodating, had sex with people because they wanted him and because, having little sexual passion of his own, it interested him to observe theirs. Reading in bed late into the night was more thrilling for him than sex, a legacy of his years of boarding school when, after lights out, he had read secretly by flashlight beneath the covers in the narrow, uncomfortable beds that seemed to furnish every dorm room he had ever occupied.
“Sure,” he told Pete. “Why not?”
Pete grinned and said, “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
“What are you?” Meredith had asked Ben during his interview.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am?”
“Ah,” she said, approvingly, “nice manners, but drop the ma’am. It makes women feel old. Your look,” she continued. “It’s All-American boy, but there’s something about your eyes and skin that’s rather. . . exotic.”
She studied him with the intensity of a jeweler examining a diamond for weight, flaws, and luminosity. Her large office, on a side street off Rodeo Drive was aggressively feminine down to the spindly white and gilt Louis XIV chair on which Ben perched. Meredith herself was a tiny woman who favored shoulder pads, wore her short blonde hair like a lacquered helmet, and exuded the faint rose scent of Jean Patou’s “Joy.” Heavy but expertly applied make-up concealed any vestige of personality, but even it could not hide her square, determined jaw and shrewd eyes. Later he would learn Meredith ran the business with her lover, Carol, who, apart from being a brunette, could have been Meredith’s twin.
“Your last name, Manso,” she said, speculatively. “Italian?”
“Spanish,” Ben told her. “My father was Mexican-American, my mom is white.”
“Ah,” she said. “That explains it. God, you mixed race boys are gorgeous. Pete says you’re bisexual.”
“I guess,” he said. “I’ve never thought about it much.”
“I don’t care what you are,” she continued briskly, “as long as you can perform with a woman. Can you?”
“Yes,” he said, biting off the ‘ma’am.’ “I’ve been with women.”
“Of course,” she said quickly, “White Knights is in the business of providing companionship, not sex. Still, what happens between you and the client once she’s paid for your time is entirely up to her. Do you understand, Ben?”
“Oh,” she said, “and you can sleep with boys on your own time, if that’s what you’re into, but use protection and I’d better not find out you’re hustling men on the side. I will cut your balls off if I catch you free lancing.” She extracted a business card from her desk drawer and slid it to him. “This is our photographer. Make an appointment with him for this week. He’s very good, the best. Of course, you’re giving him a lot to work with.”
He tucked the card into his coat pocket. “What do you do with the pictures?”
“They go into the book,” she said.
“The one our clients look through when they come in for an escort.”
“What kind of pictures?” he asked, nervously.
She smiled, “Don’t worry, Ben. They’re headshots and one or two with your shirt off. Nothing that would embarrass your mother.”
Ben helped Wade into his rocker.
“God, being old is fucked,” Wade said. “It’s the most depressing thing in the world.”
Ben smiled. “Yesterday you said bad drag was the most depressing thing in the world.”
“This is worse.” Wade rocked morosely.
From the doorway of the little kitchen, Ben asked, “Did you eat today?”
Inside the refrigerator was a can of Folgers, a few slices of bologna, half a loaf of bread, assorted condiments, and something in a Tupperware container covered with fuzzy mold.
“Make a grocery list. I’ll go shopping for you,” Ben said and set about making coffee.
“So, what was it last night,” Wade asked when Ben brought him a mug of coffee. “Scrumptious dick or disgusting cooze?”
Ben sat on the floor, back against Wade’s narrow bed, and smiled. “A woman.”
Wade pretended to shudder.
“Your doctor’s a woman. You like her.”
“I’ve loved many women in my time,” Wade replied. “From the neck up.” He blew across the surface of his coffee. “You ever fall in love with any of your tricks?”
“You know the old saying, Wade, when you start to come with your johns it’s time to get out of the business.”
Wade cackled. “You’re pretty smart for a whore.”
“No, I’m just another pretty face.”
“That you are, my boy. You prefer tricking with men or women?”
“Money doesn’t have a gender.”
Restlessly, Ben’s gaze swept across the room. Over a dusty desk was a framed photograph of the young Wade standing at the gates MGM with a teen-aged Judy Garland.
He remembered asking Wade, “What was she like?”
“Fifteen going on fifty, poor thing,” Wade had replied.
He told Wade about the kid he’d seen at the store the night before.
“He couldn’t have been more than eight. The guy at the 7-Eleven thinks he hustles.”
“The queen who used to manage this place let street kids stay here. I think he took the rent in trade. Filthy little things.”
“Not this one,” Ben said. “He was just a little boy. Too young to be out on the streets.”
“Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”
“You’ve been reading too many tee-shirts,” Ben replied. “What do you want from the store?”
Michael Nava is the six-time Lambda Literary-award winning of the Henry Rios novels and the historical novel, The City of Palaces. His most recent work, Lay Your Sleeping Head (Korima Press, 2016), a reimagining of the first Henry Rios novel, was hailed as “one of the literary events of the year,” and earned him his tenth Lambda Literary award nomination. You can find him on Facebook at Michael Nava Writer. His website is http://michaelnavawriter.com/.