Nancy became a prostitute at age 17.
"I started selling drugs at first and then I went and did a double date with a girl. I made $300 in like 15 minutes and so I was like, 'Whoa, I'm in the wrong profession,'" Nancy recalled.
Nancy talked on a chilly February night while standing just off Union Avenue waiting for customers. She spoke to a reporter, a photographer and volunteers for Magdalene Hope, a group that reaches out to help prostitutes.
As she smoked, the thin woman in her late 20s talked of a dangerous life that requires her to work from early evening to 5 a.m. and endure whatever harassment she encounters. She asked to be called "Nancy" and didn't want her identity revealed. She declined to be photographed, even in a way that wouldn't identify her.
Nancy said business is slow lately, and she pulls in $300 to $400 a night. But on a good night, she can go home with $700 to $800.
Nancy said she's trained to be a medical assistant, but doesn't see herself changing careers anytime soon.
"I know how to go get a job, but it's just like, I don't wanna wait two weeks for that money where I can make it in one day. I don't want them to take my taxes out when I can keep all my money," she said.
Nancy came to Bakersfield two years ago. She is from Arizona and got into prostitution after she, like many other young women, bought into a guy's lies.
"I started at 17 and a guy sold me so many dreams and I fell for it because, you know, I come from a neighborhood where we're all poor and we want the bigger things," she said.
That guy beat her up and broke some bones, Nancy said. Now, she doesn't work for anyone but herself, a fact she keeps quiet for fear pimps will harass her.
"You can lose your life if you're out here working by yourself," she said.
Nancy said police seem to be cracking down on prostitution on Union and men are getting scared reading about prostitution stings and arrests in the news. She has been arrested and held in county jail for prostitution, she said, but those misdemeanor charges don't deter her.
"The longest they've held me is like 19 hours on a cite and release, and I mean to me that's just like sleep, you know, for me to come back out to work so it really doesn't do anything," she said.
On a typical day, Nancy gets home early in the morning and goes to bed. On weekdays she wakes up in time to watch Judge Judy, then she might go to the mall or grocery store before returning to the street.
Her teenage niece is staying with her and she hides what she does from the girl. Her niece thinks she heads out at night to stay with her boyfriend, Nancy said.
"As long as she thinks that, that's fine," Nancy said.
Nancy describes her favorite corner to work on Union as a perilous spot that paradoxically is so lucky that she can't resist it.
"I've got robbed on this corner, I make good money on this corner, I always go to jail on this corner, but for some reason I can't leave this corner alone," she said.
Nancy has her own apartment, a car and bills to pay. She has a relative in Bakersfield but not really any friends, she said, because other prostitutes might feign friendship when they really just want to dig into her business and might tell their pimps that she is working alone.
Some of the women out on Union are working as prostitutes for drugs, others for themselves and others for pimps, according to Nancy. Some use online sites to market themselves.
"I be listenin' to some of the girls and a lot of the girls don't want to be out here, it's just like they have that pimp and they have to be, you know. And it's like they can't get away from him because it's like there's gonna be problems if they try to make money somewhere else," she said.
When news broke last month that a 15-year-old Bakersfield girl was allegedly trafficked to Reno by a pimp, Nancy wasn't surprised. Pimps target young girls who are easily manipulated, she said.
"They'll tell them all kind of stuff like, 'Oh, we're gonna get a big house, we're gonna have big cars,' but at the end of the day, all the money is just for him. You're not gonna get nothing, maybe a $5 outfit, maybe. Maybe a $20 nail job," Nancy said.
Nancy said she tells young girls on the street to go home. But she also keeps her distance from them for fear of being caught by police in a minor's company.
The prostitute said she can tell which girls are the young ones because they are "wild" and just thinking about "the fun and the money."
"They don't know about those guys that you get in the car with that's gonna beat you up, that's going to act like he's going to pay you or that guy that's goin' to pull up to you and throw eggs at you or shoot you with a BB gun," she said.
People hurl dirty looks, insults and even physical objects at the women on Union, Nancy said.
"You can't really get mad at them. They just don't want to see like girls walking up and down the street in their underwear," she said. "Maybe if they understood, they wouldn't be as hard on us."
If she could, Nancy said, she would explain to those people that all prostitutes are not "nasty." Many of them are working for their survival, she said.
And Nancy doesn't see any other way of surviving for herself.
"I think I'm just out here 'til the fat lady sings, whenever that is. I don't know when it is," she said.
As Nancy talked about her life, she was alternatingly jovial and starkly serious. Pastor Doug Bennett, Magdalene Hope's leader, interjected comments to lighten the conversation.
His group has known Nancy for a while, and Bennett tried to persuade her to go out for a meal with him and his wife.
"We wanna take you out to dinner, alright? So use that phone number and call us, please," he said.
"Alrighty, I will," Nancy said.
"No you won't," Bennett replied, teasing but also serious. Later as he drove down the street, Bennett said he hopes the group is close to forging a stronger connection with Nancy.
"She said, 'When the fat lady sings,' and I was thinking, 'When's that? What's it gonna take for the fat lady to sing for you to get out? Is it gonna be a bust? Is she going to have to be hospitalized, maybe beaten near death before she actually gives up the game?'" he said.
Whatever would incite Nancy to leave the lifestyle didn't appear to have transpired that night. A moment after the interview ended, Nancy was gone and her corner was empty. ___