The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail
A woman begins to fall. With her long dark hair in a ponytail and her black-and-red scarf loose around her neck, she is plummeting from a fourth-floor balcony, through the neon-charged November night.
Below awaits 40th Road, a gritty street of commerce in the Flushing section of Queens. Chinese restaurants and narrow storefronts, and dim stairwells leading to private transactions. Strivers and dawdlers and passers-by, all oblivious to what is transpiring above.
But before the pavement ends the woman’s descent, a few feet from a restaurant’s glittering Christmas tree, imagine her fall suddenly suspended — her body freeze-framed in midair. If only for a moment.
She toils in the netherworld of Flushing massage parlors, where she goes by the street name of SiSi. A youthful 38, she is in a platonic marriage to a man more than twice her age; harbors fading hopes of American citizenship; and is fond of Heineken, Red Bull and the rotisserie chicken at a Colombian place on Kissena Boulevard. Among her competitors, she is considered territorial and tireless.
It is the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and SiSi is in a shabby building’s top-floor apartment, for which she pays her “boss” a hefty fee. She has returned from a market with provisions. She has tried calling her younger brother in China, but he is asleep. She has been on the phone with friends and clients, unaware that she is in the sights of a 10-member police team working vice.
She heads downstairs to stand at her building’s entrance, a necessity of her job. Soon she is leading a man back upstairs — an officer working undercover — as her closely held cellphone casts a glow about her face. Their awkward conversation in her apartment convinces him that SiSi has broken the law, just as it convinces SiSi that he is a cop. She pushes him out and closes the door, though not to the inevitable. She knows from experience what comes next:
More police. Tromping through the dusky vestibule of her building, across the worn scarlet rug and up the 50 tiled steps. Past the Chinese sign that says if you’re looking for the driving school, you’re in the wrong place. Then right to her door.
The handcuffs. The hurried escort to a police vehicle. The humiliation. Again.
SiSi watches the officers ascend on the video monitor she keeps near the door. Under the fixed gaze of one of those lucky cat figurines perched on a table, its paw raised in a wish of good fortune, she begins to pace.
Now they are pounding on the door and shouting Police! Open up! SiSi rushes to the apartment’s north balcony, with its panoramic view of the street hustle below. Day and night, sun or sleet, this is where she and her sister competitors sing their plaintive song to passing men: Massage? Massage?
On the narrow balcony, barely two feet deep, she keeps a broom, a bucket and a small blue stool. Up she steps — and now she is falling, plunging toward the hard tenth of a New York mile that is 40th Road.
在栏高只有2英尺（约合60厘米）的狭小阳台上，放着一把扫帚、一个桶和一个蓝色小凳子。她踩了上去——然后开始坠落，跌向楼下四分之一纽约英里(New York mile)、坚硬的纽约40路。
A tenth of a mile. Where Mandarin trumps English and a glance trumps the spoken word. Where sex is sold beside cloudy tanks of fish and crabs. Where seedy quarters controlled by local powers are rented to illicit massage operations, and the police make sporadic sweeps, and immigrant women are arrested again and again, and few in this city take notice.
The undercover officer, his job done, exits the building and turns right — at the very moment that the woman who has just offered him intimacy for money hits the pavement at his feet. A woman known along 40th Road as SiSi, but whose given name was Song Yang.
In the Google Maps of the mind, pull back from this tiny street to take in the borough’s 178-square-mile sprawl: a pulsating hive of parkways and boulevards, apartment buildings and single-family homes, two airports, a major league ballpark, remnants of a world’s fair — all bracketed north and south by ocean, river and bay.
A striving borough of comity and contradiction, Queens is both the birthplace of the American president — elected in part on an anti-immigration platform — and home to 2.3 million people, nearly half of them foreign-born. With hundreds of languages spoken here, it may be the most linguistically diverse place on earth.
Every day, airplanes alight at Kennedy International Airport in southeast Queens, their passengers including many immigrants who join the borough’s anonymous, aspirational ranks. They chop the vegetables, wash the dishes, clean the toilets, mow the lawns, drive the hired cars.
And some wind up in the commercial sex trade. Making money for a pimp in an airport motel in South Jamaica. Waiting for the next client in a dingy building along Roosevelt Avenue in Corona. Or, like Song Yang, standing on a Flushing street on a cold November night, hiding behind her cute nickname, calling out to men. Playing her role in a shadow economy that benefited others through the exorbitant rent she paid.
“I hear she was No. 1: young, pretty, and her service was great,” said Michael Chu, a travel agent and community advocate who worked across the street from her on 40th Road. “People just lined up for her.”
For years now, Flushing has been an ever-replenishing repository of immigrants entangled in the underground sex economy. The commonplace raids of illicit massage operations across the country routinely lead to the arrests of women with Flushing addresses.
These parlors disappear and reappear with regularity, undermining the police crackdowns often prompted by neighborhood complaints. The industry’s opaqueness adds to the confusion. Some parlors have legitimate state licenses; some legitimate operations have masseuses making sex-for-money side deals; and some are illegally unlicensed, with no interest at all in addressing someone’s sore neck.
Emotionally manipulated by their bosses, ashamed of what they do, afraid to trust, the women rarely confide in the police or even their lawyers about their circumstances. They might be supporting a family in China, or paying back a smuggling debt, or choosing this more profitable endeavor over, say, restaurant work. No matter the backstory, the police say their collective silence further complicates law-enforcement efforts to build racketeering and trafficking cases against the operators.
But society has become increasingly aware of the complexities and inequities of the commercial sex economy, including a criminal justice system that has tended to target the exploited — often immigrant women and members of the transgender community — while rarely holding accountable their customers and traffickers.
In early 2017, New York’s police commissioner, James O’Neill, announced at a news conference that he would redirect his vice division to address prostitution and sex trafficking. This would include training intended to alter what he called the “law-enforcement mind-set.”
“We’ve already switched much of our emphasis away from prostitutes, and begun focusing much more on the pimps who sell them and the johns who pay for their services,” he said. “Like all crime, we can’t just arrest our way out of this problem.”
Since the establishment of this new “mind-set,” the police have continued to struggle at building criminal cases against the operators. But prostitution arrests in New York City have dropped more than 20 percent in the last year, while the arrests of customers have spiked.
Still, this change in attitude at Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan had not necessarily crossed the East River to benefit an immigrant now lying on her side, unable to speak, gazing up at a plainclothes officer trying to calm her until an ambulance arrived. Beside a spent cigarette, her blood pooled on the pavement she had so often worked.
By morning, Song Yang would be dead, shattering a tight Chinese family that would never accept the police version of events. Her death would also come to reflect the seemingly intractable nature of policing the sex industry, and cast an unwelcome light on the furtive but ubiquitous business of illicit massage parlors.
In the epic of Queens, this stretch of 40th Road is little more than an asphalt hyphen. But along its short expanse exist worlds within worlds within worlds.
Baba, I want to go, I want to go.
I want to go to work, the little girl would say to her parents. I want to pick ginseng. She was a born worker, their Song Yang.
She and her younger brother lived with their parents in a remote village in China’s northeastern province of Liaoning, where they grew crops on land allotted to them by their local village committee. Little Song Yang was especially efficient at harvesting the family’s ginseng crop, her mother, Shi Yumei, recalled. “The more her father praised her, the harder she worked.”
Her father, Song Xigui, eventually found moderate success selling construction-grade sand he bulldozed from a nearby river, and by the 1990s the family had replaced its thatched-roof home with a modern brick house that included two “kang” bed-stoves, heated slate platforms that provided warmth during the severe winters. Still, they continued to work the crops, with Song Yang often responsible for running home to light the stove, cut the vegetables and mind her brother.
As she grew older, she began to collect specimens of the enchanting butterflies zigzagging down by the river, and became meticulous in preserving their fragile iridescence. When friends came for boisterous sleepovers, they would marvel at her book of butterflies, and take turns asking to keep one.
Butterflies became Song Yang’s gift.
At 19, she moved 2,200 miles south to Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, an American commonwealth, where she became one of the thousands of young Chinese women who labored in sweatshops to produce apparel bearing the guilt-absolving label “Made in America.” Sharing a room with five other women in a dormitory, she covered her bottom-bunk bed with a silken cloth curtain, and adorned her small rectangle of privacy with family photographs.
Saipan’s garment industry was shrinking by the early 2000s, and Song Yang left to become a waitress on the island. She married a worldly divorced father named Chau Chuong, an American citizen who had worked for years in New York’s restaurant grind. He was so much older — 67 to her 27 — that her family was slow to accept him.
In 2006, the couple opened a small Vietnamese restaurant on Saipan that became so successful they opened a second place, with 150 tables. He worked the kitchen and she worked the front. “She attracted a lot of friendly customers,” her husband recalled.
Her brother, Song Hai, joined her after his high school graduation, eventually opening a henna tattoo parlor with a friend. When their mother came for a visit, she posed for photographs beside her daughter’s well-stocked restaurant bar, her smile radiating pride.
“We had a real sense of accomplishment,” Mr. Song said in Mandarin.
But a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011, disrupting a main source of tourism to Saipan, as well as the fortunes of Song Yang and Song Hai. The restaurants were sold, the tattoo parlor shuttered.
Photographs from her brother’s wedding in March 2013 capture the last happy times that Song Yang spent with her family. Here she is back home, posing with the bride and groom. Here she is, sharing a restaurant meal with the growing family. Here she is.
A month later, Song Yang joined the hundreds who arrive daily at Kennedy Airport, direct from China. Straight to Flushing she went, like so many before, where she hoped that she and her husband would succeed again as restaurateurs.
But there is the dream of Flushing, and the reality.
With her husband now too old for kitchen work, Song Yang became their sole source of income. A waitressing job failed, as did a short-lived Chinese fast-food venture on Main Street. So she became a home health aide, and took a massage-therapy course in the hope of earning additional money. Then a friend told her of a more lucrative opportunity, to be found along 40th Road.
由于丈夫上了年纪，无法从事后厨工作，宋扬成为了家里唯一的收入来源。一份服务生的工作没能做下来，在缅街上一个没存活多久的中国菜快餐生意也失败了。于是她成了一名家庭护工，开始上按摩疗程方面的课程，希望能赚些外快。然后一位朋友告诉了她一个赚钱更多的机会，就在40路上。 纽约时报中英文网 http://www.qqenglish.com
The understanding of her parents and brother was that Song Yang worked in reflexology. They knew that gifts arrived from New York. That she called regularly for video chats while sitting in a black office chair, sometimes eating a bowl of porridge. That when her nephew was born, she proudly announced on social media that she had become an aunt — a “gugu.”
That she seemed happy, mostly. But there was that time when she refused to video-chat for several days, after which she explained that a man had beaten her about the face. And that other time, when she revealed that a man — a law-enforcement officer, she said — had held a gun to her head while forcing her to perform oral sex. Family members reassured her: She had no choice.
Song Yang told her family last fall that she had booked a flight to China for December, and was looking forward to meeting her nephew for the first time. So far she had connected with him only online, through the popular WeChat app, where her avatar sometimes featured a butterfly.
What kind of present do you want Gugu to bring home? she would ask the child, her image beamed halfway around the world from some exotic place called Flushing.
The thoroughfare known as 40th Road was Grove Street, once.
In the 19th century it had a volunteer firehouse, a nursery and residents with Irish surnames. Just in living memory, there was Harry Barlow’s auto garage, the mimeograph services of Case the Printer, an appliance store proud of its color Zenith television sets and, of course, the Old Roma restaurant — famous for its veal cutlets on linguine, and that yellow sponge cake with pineapple filling.
19世纪期间，这条街上有一座志愿消防站、一家托儿所，还有爱尔兰姓氏的居民。在世的人记得的事情包括：哈里·巴罗(Harry Barlow)的汽修厂、“印刷工凯斯”(Case the Printer)的油印服务，一家以出售“增你智”(Zenith)电视为傲的电器商店，当然了，还有老罗马餐厅——以其意大利小牛肉饼扁面和菠萝馅黄色海绵蛋糕而闻名。
It is all long gone, replaced by ginger duck rice casserole and a shaved ice treat called red bean baobing. The 40th Road of today is almost entirely Chinese, its restaurant signs often featuring no English at all — one more reminder that the only New York constant is change.
The street’s 20 buildings, including Song Yang’s, are mostly three- and four-story structures from the 1980s and ’90s that evoke a utilitarian, Soviet-bloc drabness. Narrow and claustrophobic, they loom like set pieces for a film noir.
The one-way street itself always feels like a wrong turn, an obstacle course of idling delivery trucks and construction equipment. One end elbows past a small playground; the other runs into the ever-clogged Main Street intersection, where plainclothes police officers can often be seen sitting in an unmarked vehicle in an attempt to deter quality-of-life crimes. Pickpocketing is so prevalent that a nearby grocery displays signs of a stick figure reaching into another stick figure’s handbag.
Above, looming airliners grumble as they approach LaGuardia Airport, across Flushing Bay. Just behind 40th Road, Long Island Rail Road trains grind and whine along the raised tracks. Up and down the block, the earthy aromas of produce stands and restaurant waste commingle with the classical Chinese instrumental music emanating from a soup-dumpling restaurant.
And here, beside the upturned fruit crates and the overloaded garbage bags, stand the women of the massage parlors. In their 40s and 50s, mostly, they check their cellphones, drag on untaxed Korean cigarettes bought in bulk, and chat, but with eyes scanning for unattached men lacking a law-enforcement vibe.
The offer is understood, if not explicit. If the man consents, he is led up the stairs of one of the dull buildings, where massage operations are often crammed amid barbershops, driving schools and employment agencies.
Massage parlors offering sex are hardly a recent phenomenon, and business models vary. But the trade along 40th Road is especially audacious. The women stand on both sides of the street — five, 10, a dozen at a time — as ubiquitous as the delivery trucks. In the merciless heat and cold, they sweat and shiver on staked ground, prompting resentful neighborhood complaints about lost business and children exposed to the seamy daily spectacle.
A common arrangement on 40th Road is one in which a “boss” rents an apartment or office from one of the building’s tenants, then provides space to women for a $20 cut of whatever they charge each client. The general expectation is that each woman will generate at least $100 a day for the boss.
But the bosses provide no meaningful protection. The women are at the mercy of the street, where they have been robbed, beaten, raped, thrown down stairs. The surveillance cameras nearly always present are intended less for security, perhaps, than to provide the boss with a way to count the clients who walk through the door.
Over several months, the women along 40th Road shared in Mandarin the stories of how they came to be standing here, offering sex to strangers. They use names like masks. Some have chosen Americanized names — Jenny, for example — while others have been rechristened by bosses with nicknames that sound like Lala, or Kiki, or Yoyo.
They came from all over China, and from myriad backgrounds. One woman said she used to clean houses. Another said she was a former reporter who covered Chinese real estate. Several described the circumstances that left them in economic straits: a failed bus company, a bankrupt jade dealership, a gambling-addicted husband.
One woman often positions herself near a standpipe at the corner of Main Street, so as to be the first to approach any man venturing west. She is in her 60s, small-framed and usually dressed in layers, with long hair dyed black. She said in a raspy voice that she was from the southeastern Chinese province of Jiangxi, and that she was trying to pay off a debt incurred by her adult son in a business deal gone wrong.
She had visited two job agencies on 40th Road, looking for work as a nanny, but nothing panned out. And now she was here, on the corner, where her half-joking refrain — “I’m too old” — did not seem to deter clients.
Another woman, who gave her name as Xiao Li — or Little Li — said she was from the city of Dexing, in Jiangxi Province, home to a well-known copper mine, where she once was a welder. Thin and often wearing a simple black dress, she said she had briefly left the street to study legitimate massage — “So my heart could have a little bit of peace” — but had concluded that the classes were a waste of money. Back she came to 40th Road.
“My body can’t take it,” Ms. Li, 50, said. “My body can’t take so many men.”
Others were even more expansive, including a stocky, 40-ish woman with cropped black hair and a lazy eye who called herself Rachel. Eating a sweet baked potato at a dumpling stall on Main Street, she recalled that while working at a job she loathed — waitressing at a Chinese restaurant in Seattle — she began hunting through WeChat forums for leads on other work, and came across an offer that she recalled saying:
Massage Woman to Stand on Street. $20,000 a month. Flushing, N.Y.
Rachel called the number to ask what the job entailed. The boss replied: Everything.
After her first day, Rachel said, “I got home and took a shower, and cried.”
She paused at the memory, and added, “But then I just thought to myself, ‘I have to keep thinking positively.’”
Michael Chu, the longtime neighborhood advocate, has befriended some of the women who stand outside his building on 40th Road, and occasionally offers them assistance with police matters. His office, where an old dog named Scout is usually napping on some cardboard, is furnished with desks left behind by an accountant who moved rather than work beside a massage parlor.
A bespectacled man of 65, Mr. Chu has listened to the travails of these women, whom he calls “sisters.” The beatings, the robberies, the harassment from teenagers in the playground, the pressure to attract enough clients to cover their “rent” to the boss. The hopes they harbor for permanent residence, for having enough money, for finally not doing this.
“They also have an American dream,” Mr. Chu said. “The sisters have an American dream.”