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Hustlers, Strivers, Dealers, Call Girls and Other Lives in Illicit New York
Sudhir Venkatesh built an international reputation as a sociologist and a career as a bestselling author through his bold and unorthodox approach to immersing himself in other people’s lives, but even by his standards taking an enterprising Harlem crack dealer to a swanky party at an art gallery in New York’s Soho must be regarded as rash.
It is not long before Shine, the dealer in question, is deep in conversation with Analise, a social acquaintance of Venkatesh and a woman from a privileged background whom he had recently suspected was a cocaine user. The academic’s awkwardness at introducing a case study into his real life is just the start of it. He later discovers that Analise employs a string of high-class hookers and with her girls and Shine’s drugs yadda yadda yadda . . . they’re in business together “running a citywide brothel”.
Venkatesh’s work featured in the book Freakonomics and his 2008 bestseller Gang Leader for a Day displayed his extraordinary tenacity in being accepted by a Chicago drug gang. His methods are controversial and some sociologists question the ethics of the way Venkatesh enters the world of his subjects to create such vivid, unacademic, highly readable portraits.
He moved to New York, where he is a professor at Columbia University, in 1997. The conventional wisdom about New York is that the crime-ridden, rotten Big Apple had been scoured until the streets were so clean you could eat your bagel off them; so safe you could walk them at midnight with your maiden aunt. It certainly feels that way to the visitor.
Venkatesh digs deep to expose a different picture. The bell-hop who carried your bags? He will sort you out if you require female company. The doorman at that club? He’ll arrange a night of brothel-hopping. The bartender has a friend who will discreetly slip you something to snort up your nose.
In the shadow of the towering citadels of global capitalism Venkatesh goes in search of those toiling in the grimy subterranean economy. He links in with Shine, “an ambitious young American chasing a dream”. The drug dealer gives the book its title, telling him “you need to float” and “This is New York. We’re like hummingbirds, man. We go flower to flower.”
In Chicago the gangs kept to their neighbourhoods. In New York entrepreneurs must venture into new districts and interact across social lines. As demand for crack declines Shine takes cocaine powder to white customers in unfamiliar parts of the city. He has a businesslike approach to brutal violence and dreams of opening an art gallery.
Rich, all-American Analise says she runs her escorts because she likes helping people and enjoys the thrill. At the other end of the social spectrum, Venkatesh finds that street prostitutes are equally hard-working and proactive; moving to new neighbourhoods in search of more up-market clients, renting a flat with other hookers for safety, or joining a Manhattan agency. He documents the increasing number of women of middle-income backgrounds supplementing their straight jobs with part-time sex work. Margot, a madam in her mid-30s, got drunk one night with friends of her Wall Street trader husband. One of them offered her $200 if she performed oral sex on him in the lavatory of the bar. The protagonists all dream of changing their worlds and “their illegitimate earnings helped many legitimate businesses stay afloat. In that sense, they were pillars of the community.”
The author’s argument that these people are products of a newly globalised city seems tenuous. New York has long been a melting pot of hustling immigrants. But his resourcefulness provides the reader with a pungent close-up view of the city’s underbelly.
There is grim tragedy here, but also humour. He attends a finishing school for black and Latina women wanting to work in the sex industry, where Margot, the madam, tells them that the very first thing to do with a naked man, whatever the anatomical reality, is express admiration for the enormity of his manhood.
I have admired Venkatesh since I first encountered his work while reporting on Chicago gangs a few years ago. My week-long assignment was gritty enough. He spends years cultivating relationships, delving so deep into the “vast interconnected web of sexual commerce” that he finds himself searching for beaten prostitutes and fretting that he can’t help them.
With his own marriage crumbling he seeks ever seedier situations, suffers a panic attack and has to be be soothed by Margot, the worldly-wise madam who tells him he is looking to his subjects to tell him something about himself. After witnessing a stripper being beaten and her attacker then battered with a baseball bat he collapses and decides to take a break.
Many of those he studies and befriends aren’t fortunate enough to be able to do the same. Some sink. Others float away to new parts of the city and beyond.
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