When I first left home and settled in a new city, I noticed after a few weeks that we had a large local population of two sorts of folk I hadn't come across before: crack whores, and evangelists.
It was a nice-looking area on the edge of a park, surrounded by large, decaying Victorian mansions. Once it had been very gentrified, but by now it had gone to seed and most of the houses were split into tiny flats filled mainly with the scabby unemployed, like me. I lived at the top of an enormous mouldy Gothic pile, the sort of house that looks really interesting and picturesque if you don't live there. It had dragon gargoyles, a huge marble tiled hallway, a wide, grand oak staircase with a fifteen-feet-high stained-glass window above it, several floors, one toilet and 24 inmates. It stank to high heaven. All the rooms had once been beautiful and would have been again, if the landlord had been interested in anything apart from skimming money off his tenants. The solitary bathroom was big enough for a party, with a moulded plaster frieze of bathing nymphs and a panelled bath deep enough to swim in. But the green rust and dubious stains were a little off-putting, and everything was rotting: the nymphs had no noses, which was just as well for them.
There was a small spooky wooden back staircase leading to the attic, which was cut in half to make two long narrow dank bedsits. One held me and the lad I was living with; the other was occupied by J and R, a pair of gay brothers on the run from darkest Somerset. Angelically beautiful, excellent fun, they knew the prostitutes on the corner quite well and often picked up condoms for them from the local shop (which had banned them, hoping they'd move their patch elsewhere). There were about ten girls in total who worked the corner, all run by the same notorious pimp and all crack addicts. Sometimes J and R would stop and gossip while I was with them, but the girls and I never got friendly, although we always swapped hellos. I guess what they did scared me a little, and made them defensive.
I got to know their habits after a while, the way you do with neighbours. The crack whore day seemed to consist of sleeping late and starting work around seven, earlier in winter. They did a seven-day week with long shifts and grim working conditions. Even on snowy nights they never wore any tights or stockings, standing there on their corner with their skinny mottled purple legs sticking out from beneath a plastic skirt, like frozen chickens. They were usually fairly busy: a good fifty percent of the night traffic in the area was made up of cruising punters. I asked J once how much they made in an evening. "Oh, plenty," he said, "but most of it's gone on crack by midnight." Walking back across the park late at night, I'd see the girls trooping off to the crack house to spend their earnings. It was the big place on the corner, the one with about fifteen Rottweilers in residence and half a ton of dogshit in the yard. I guess you could see why the evangelists thought the area needed sorting out.
The evangelists were legion. Mostly of Caribbean origin, they all worshipped at a funny little home-made church in a basement opposite our house. I can't remember its exact title: Church of the Flaming Fury and all the Heavenly Angels, or something like that. I liked it at first because they sang, gospel-style, with lots of hearty hallelujahs. The spectacle of them all coming out was also quite something: all dressed up to kingdom come in satin turbans, multicoloured silk dresses, big decorated
fancy hats. Ancient grannies in fuchsia lace, stately serene mothers, tiny kids in bridesmaid-style dresses, painfully neat boys in ties and suits with red necks from their mothers' scrubbings. I soon learnt to avoid them after being chased up the road by a lady shouting loudly about LUST! and waving a tract at me.
They were determined to convert every sinner in the neighbourhood. Tied to their corner by their job and unable to run away or slam the door like the rest of us, the crack whores were sitting ducks. If the evangelists had brought food or warm clothing they might have been welcome, but conversion by fear seemed to be their only tactic: befriending the crack whores or doing anything practical to help just wouldn't have occurred to them. The crack whores were an abomination unto the Lord, and deserved hellfire, or at the very least a good tongue-lashing. So most days of the week there'd be a loud battle on the corner, the crack whores trying to make their living on one side while some silk-frocked old girl stood on the other side with arms akimbo, hollering damnation in a fruity Jamaican accent on their hapless heads.
Eventually the crack whores would start hollering back and then everyone would join in. Half the neighbours came out and stood on their doorsteps to watch and throw in their opinions: casual passers-by stopped to cheer on one side or the other, usually the whores. It wasn't that we were especially matey with them, but most people had some sympathy with their shitty jobs, and we all hated the evangelists. Hard not to: they seemed to hate everyone else. I was living in sin. J and R were gay and thus automatically minions of the devil. The violinist next door was an unmarried mother and regularly got shouted at in front of her kid. All of us had been brought up not to be rude to old ladies, and were not at all sure what to do when old ladies were rude to us. So it went on, until one week, when one of the whores was murdered.
She was just twenty, and it was a horribly gruesome murder involving knives. For a couple of days after it the street corner was empty. Local people left flowers in the spot where she had been found, and for a while nobody went out alone at night. The pimp was losing money though, so three nights after the murder the girls were back in their usual place, very scared by it all. One large evangelist lady obviously saw her chance to preach on the wages of sin, so she marched herself out to the corner, and started up her rant. Five minutes later she found herself surrounded by a mob of neighbours. They didn't shout at her: they just clustered round her and stared, and kept staring, until eventually she shut up and went home. I guess the crack whores won in the end, for nobody bothered them after that, and the following month the church was
relocated elsewhere. We were all glad to see the back of it, but I missed the singing, sometimes.