An exciting new habit carried an unexpected price tag!
Contemporary YA fiction dealing with social problems (delinquency, prostitution, drugs, etc.) kind of wusses out when it comes to depicting the lurid details. There is a reason why the patently fake Go Ask Alice remains a widely-read classic (of its kind), and that reason is that it doesn’t skimp on the descriptions of exactly how many soiled mattresses you’ll be shooting up “horse” on after you get your money from “turning your tricks” to support your habit as a “junkie”. The more disgusting the details, the more teenage girls are prevented from running away from home! Or at least the more copies sold in paperback.
The Plot: And the author doesn’t disappoint, as 14-year old Debbie Carter goes from hard-luck orphan to Minnesota Strip junkie streetwalker in the time it takes to get a haircut, encountering big time coke dealers, crooked vice cops, bloodthirsty Satanists and exactly six face-eating rats in rapid succession on the way down. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Delinquent Debbie is introduced sassing off to the Brooklyn family court judge who is about to send her up to juvie for shoplifting a pair of jeans; her adoptive father is no help at all, as he immediately flees the courtroom when the judge catches him in a lie about Debbie’s poor academic record.
Debbie further sabotages her chances for leniency when she gets into a scuffle with the prison matron, but eventually gets her caseworker to get the ear of the judge for one last plea:
“I know if I’m sent to the penitentiary, all the bitterness and rebellion that I have on the inside are going to make me hate society as I’ve never hated it before. I won’t be able to resist those girls up there with their wicked ways. I just know I will go into a life of crime!”
The judge turns out to be a soft touch, especially after Debbie agrees to hug it out:
“I’ve found that giving a child a loving, fatherly hug can cure the worst kind of behavior in anybody.”
The judge sends Debbie to live with the Green family on their farm in Binghamton. Life is idyllic for almost an entire chapter, until Mr. Green is killed in a car accident and Mrs. Green struggles to provide for her six biological children- Debbie knows that she’s going to be dumped back into foster care, so she takes matters into her own hands and runs away, determined to hitchhike back to New York City.
Things get off to a bad start (she’s picked up by a truck driver who intends to pimp her out to his buddies), then get slightly better (a switchblade-wielding hobo is foiled by a benevolent private detective who teachers her self-defense and drops her off at the YWCA), then bad again (she gets into a knife fight with the desk clerk at the Y) and then too good to be true, when she meets independently wealthy Steve, who takes her home to his posh apartment on Central Park west and treats her to a new wardrobe (“They’re a famous fashion line- Calvin Klein.”) and dinners at Tavern on the Green. They also awkwardly talk about drugs:
“That sweet smell, Steve; is that some kind of exotic cigarette?”
“Don’t you know that smell? I’m smoking a joint.”
“A joint? I didn’t know you smoked marijuana.”
“Oh, every now and then I’ll have a joint. But I tell you, the big scene is coke.”
“Coke? You mean cocaine?”
“Sure do. Want some?”
“Oh, wow! I’ve only had a couple of joints in my whole life, and I’ve never had any coke. I mean, only the groovy people take that stuff. Isn’t that right?”
While Steve shares his riches, seemingly with no strings attached, Debbie is slightly worried about his unnamed “business” that takes him out of the apartment late at night; especially when he returns home with a broken nose and a torso full of stab-wounds. The admirably blasé doorman calls an ambulance and Debbie learns that Steve is a big-time dealer of The Cocaine and his rivals are trying to steal his latest shipment.
He orders Debbie to not leave the apartment until he’s discharged from the hospital and not to let anyone in; she disregards his warnings, the rival dealers break in and smash up the place looking for drugs and leave Debbie tied up. This all goes on for much longer than necessary, but the point is that eventually Steve is arrested for The Cocaine, leaving Debbie on her own again with only the clothes on her back.
After getting conned by a crooked vice detective, Debbie meets Maria and Stephany, a couple of “party girls” hanging around the cocktail lounge at the Hilton. They take a liking to Debbie and show her the ropes of prostitutin’, like always getting your money up front and watching out for plainclothes detectives. They take Debbie back to their Times Square apartment, and out comes the works:
“Ever snort cocaine?” I asked
“Yeah, a few times,” Maria answered. “But heroin’s the best.”
“Yeah, man, heroin’s where it’s at,” Stephany chimed in.
Aaaaand Debbie’s on the train to Junkieville.
Eventually Maria and Stephany are arrested, leaving Debbie alone in the apartment, which becomes the scene of the single most surreal chapter in YA history when a maniac breaks in, demanding a blood sacrifice for the dark lord Satan:
“My little flower child, don’t you know I have power over you? I have claimed you, and you’ve been given to me. You are mine, and I have you now, and I shall use you in the way that you were destined to be used- as a sacrifice! You are honored. You have been selected to die for a worthy cause. Your blood shall flow forth from this room and atone for my guilt.”
Debbie, still thinking on her feet, gets him to excuse her to the bathroom:
“Let me douse my body with fragrances from the far corners of the world. Then when I shall be offered, your sacrifice shall be sweet, and it shall smell gloriously.”
Debbie sets a towel on fire and hangs it out the window, attracting the fire department, who arrest the Satanic murderer.
To calm her nerves, Debbie goes down to the local all-night coffee shop, which is almost immediately closed down when a disgruntled junkie throws a brick through the window. However, she does meet Harding Mason, a TOTALLY REPUTIBLE theatrical agent who wishes to represent Debbie and offers her a contract if she will just come to his office right this minute at 3:00 am.
While Debbie is somewhat suspicious due to the amount of urine in the stairwell of his office, she doesn’t understand what she’s gotten herself into until the point that he beats her with a coat hanger and throws her into a padlocked closet:
“I have six rats in there, and they are hungry. Those rats are always hungry. So if you don’t do exactly what I say, you’ll end up as rat food. And let me tell you, they’re vicious. And poisonous!”
(For some reason, the fact the he specifies that are exactly six rats just cracks me up)
Well, things go on in this vein for quite awhile, until Harding demands that Debbie brings him $500 one night and Debbie lies and said that she already made $500, but was ripped off by George, a rival pimp, touching off a full-fledged Pimp War.
While Harding goes off in search of George to murder him, Debbie meets a couple of do-gooders out on 8th Avenue.
The older woman, Mrs. Benton, introduces her to Randy, who explains that she used to be a junkie, too:
“A few years ago I moved to Greenwich Village. There I was introduced to speed, LSD and finally heroin. From that day on I began taking too many barbiturates. I even had to write illegal prescriptions to get them.”
After being arrested, Randy reads a book called Carmen about a junkie who turned her life around.
“My husband wrote that book,” Mrs. Benton said proudly.
Wait, who wrote this book that I’m actually reading at this moment…
Randy and Mrs. Benton take Debbie to the Walter Hoving Home in upstate New York, where she kicks heroin cold turkey in a single day after accepting Jesus as her personal lord and savior.
Mr. and Mrs. Benton really seem like lovely people, if optimistic to the point of absurdity, especially once Harding finds out where Debbie is and comes barreling up the Hudson after her:
“Oh, isn’t that just wonderful!” he responded. “Here is an opportunity to reach one of the hardest people in the world with the Gospel! Thank the Lord!”
“But, Brother B., supposing he kills us!”
He smiled again. “Why wouldn’t that be wonderful, Debbie? We’d be in heaven!”
But, like the family court judge at the beginning of the book, the Bentons believe in the power of “loving, fatherly hugs” and in short order Harding has renounced his old life (although to be fair, it didn’t seem like he was a very successful pimp, since his entire stable was Debbie and exactly six rats); Harding stays for dinner and…
I introduced Harding as a Christian Brother in the lord. It was super!
Debbie goes on to attend Evangel College in Missouri, and returns to New York to work for the Walter Hoving Home, helping runaways in Times Square, when one afternoon she runs into a dynamic street minister…
When I got to where I could see him, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Harding Mason!
I learned that he and the other fellows were all attending South-Eastern College in Lakeland, Florida, studying for the ministry.
Well, Harding and I kept in touch by correspondence. Our letters became more and more frequent and the subject of love became stronger. He’d even call me sometimes.
Uh-oh. I don’t like the turn this is taking.
A year later the most wonderful thing, outside of meeting Jesus, happened to me. I met Harding at a church altar, and I became Mrs. Harding Mason!
Look, I like a good redemption tale as much as the next person, but I have to say that it is ALWAYS a bad message to send to teenage girls to marry off the heroine to the dude that was feeding her face to exactly six rats 20 pages ago. Not-super.
Sign It Was Written in
1981 I Don’t Know Exactly Department: “Besides, with the newspapers full of campus riots and anti-Vietnam demonstrations, chances were that the old law-and-order would make it rough on any teenager brought before him.”
Whatever Happened To John Benton? Department: Still operating the Walter Hoving Home in Garrison, NY.