Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dirty Pants

Quite literally, every day when I come home, I realize that my pants are filthy. That should come as no surprise as I spend the day actually sitting on the curb or on the sidewalk with some of the women. Although most of the women stand while working, many of them take a break by either sitting on the curb or on a concrete step outside of a building that as many of us as possible squeeze onto. I like sitting with them on this step. Usually I get pulled into the middle of four women and we all crunch together giggling and laughing. I always feel part of the group when sitting with them there. Some of the down-and-out women (i.e. drug users) find themselves sitting on the concrete sidewalk or sometimes even half-lying across it. I plop down to talk with them, not minding knowing that I’ll get my pants dirty for the day.

Some of the women disapprove of my overly-liberal “sitting on the sidewalk” behavior. They “tsk, tsk” me and say I’m not being a lady. Indeed, most of the sex workers pride themselves on their clean, shiny, sexy clothes. For them, it’s important to maintain their status as “ladies” because their work as prostitutes often automatically negates their attempts at this more dignified identity. But it’s important to them that they try. For me, it’s another defense mechanism I use to detract men and potential robbers. The more I sit on the sidewalk or curb, the less of a gringa I become. Obviously, I’m already “different” from a typical gringa because I’m not passing through as a tourist. I’ve been spending every day on the streets, slowly becoming immersed in its vibrant and dangerous community. When I sit on the ground, I seem reify my position as an insider, rather than an outsider. They expect gringas to behave differently, perhaps with more elegance or decency—just my subject position as a white North American ensures these characteristics in me, but I tend to rebel against them to let everyone know that I AM different. I will sit on the street with the quasi-junkies or on the concrete step (there’s no stigma to sitting on this particular step). Sometimes, it’s just the most comfortable place to be.

I’ve never been concerned about getting dirty or grimy, a personality quirk that aids my fieldwork considering just how dirty I can get during the day. As a typical day involves playing with or caring for a few of kids I’ve become close to—sex workers’ children—I’m used to having that grubby-kid dirt rub off on me. Sometimes I get splattered with ice-cream or find myself with a can of soda dumped on my lap. Sometimes I laugh on the bus heading homeward as I notice a piece of gum or sticky candy stuck to my pants. Perhaps I’m so carefree about my dirty-pants because it’s such a welcome change of pace from my previous four years of academic life on campus. Now during fieldwork, it’s time to get “down and dirty,” I finally feel free, no longer glued to a chair and desk for 9 hours a day. I don’t care if fieldwork means literal dirt, these past four years have been too sterile for my liking. No dirt in the library, just shiny rows of desks and chairs where students pour over computers, only a small percentage of time dedicated to actual working.

I had a funny incident happen two weeks ago when I went out with my friends at night in the historic center, near where I work. There was a free concert in one of the plazas where our friends’ band was playing. Naturally, out of work I dress very differently. I have mentioned in a previous post that while working on the streets I wear my most conservative, “un-sexy” clothes possible to present men from thinking I’m a sex worker. Despite my totally nerdy appearance, with tape recorder and backpack as my most prominent accessories, men still harass me and ask how much I cost. As such, I have a strict no make-up, no tight clothes, always grubby sneakers dress code. But on this occasion, as I was out on the town with friends, I dressed up in a skirt, make-up, jewelry, and boots. I wasn’t surprised to run into one of the women, still working near the plaza. When I went up to greet her she didn’t recognize me at first. Then it dawned on her that I was “Anita”—her friend “Anita”—and she laughed. The first thing she said was “Wow, Anita—you look so pretty! I’ve never seen you like this before—why don’t you ever look so nice on the street?” I explained to her my theory of detracting men and unwanted attention, which she understood—she just couldn’t believe I had this totally separate life, going out with friends and wearing clean, sexy clothes!

It’s true, this Anita, out on the town would never (well, I can’t ever say never) sit on the pavement with my friends. That Anita only exists during the work day when I feel free and open to do as I please—sometimes outside the norms of traditionally “decent behavior.” But goodness, if my rebellion from my constrained academic life only consists of sitting on the pavement when I know I’m not “supposed to” I’d say I’m still pretty wholesome (especially considering what I could be doing, being exposed to so much decidedly unwholesome activities all day, every day). The most negative side effect of my “scandalous” behavior is having lots of laundry to do at the end of the week. Perhaps getting “down and dirty” doesn’t actually make me more “down” with my community on the street—perhaps it’s something I do for myself—somehow making me feel that I somehow “am” more down—but regardless, I like it. I find it part of the release that fieldwork provides, as a stark contrast to the physical position I must occupy in my straight desk and chair at home, poured over books at the library-- sometimes so unbearably rigid and boring. Through fieldwork I’ve discovered that if anything, sitting on the curb getting dirty, comes more naturally to me than the clean monastic lifestyle of academic life.

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