Berkeley, CA, 2011
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|“Write… Yolanda deserves it.” That’s what Emile texted me. Just write. But who is this Yolanda Williams, this crack-addict, this prostitute? Who is this woman in the picture and, really, why does she deserve it? Hell, does she deserve it?
Yolanda Williams grew up in Berkeley; it seems like she never really strayed far from San Pablo Ave, not in her youth, not in her days as a crack addict, working the street, not now. Her mom and step-dad, loving parents, homeowners, raised her right and protected her: she always got her thirty minutes on the tennis court at San Pablo Park. Her mother made sure. She was “swift, quick, with a mean backhand, and a mean serve.” Guess what? Yolanda had a happy childhood.
But things happened. She had a girl first. Quit school. But she had a job, had a husband. Then she discovered crack. She lost her job. Not wanting to rely on others or steal, she started prostituting. And she worked hard, too! Yolanda doesn’t do things half-assed: she took tennis seriously as a kid, she took her job seriously when she was raising her child, and she took prostituting seriously, often walking San Pablo alone.
After awhile, her family stopped talking to her.
It wasn’t all bad, though. One client worked as a janitor, cleaning up the bars on San Pablo— all the way to Oakland!— late night. Not always, but if business was slow, Yolanda would make the rounds, helping him clean, no charge. And then there was Mel, homeless in a leaky RV with leopard-print curtains and “funky feet.” A good man, Mel was a savior to prostitutes who needed a place to sleep, never asking for sex or money.
Things weren’t all good either. She grew tired of being “raped and robbed, kidnapped.” Tired of jail. Yolanda had a “money addiction” and a “crack pipe for a pimp.”
For 20 years, maybe 25 even.
Then something else happened. Yolanda’s mother got sick, emphysema, and someone needed to care for her. Yolanda was “not the daughter she needed… not the daughter she raised.” That’s it; it was time to quit. She needed to be a good daughter again. So she quit. Prostitution. Crack. Done. And you know what? Her family started talking to her. She got a job. She tutors kids. Things are so much better. And Yolanda deserves it.
-Written by Nick Newman. Newman works out of New Orleans, LA.
Open the story further, listen to NPR’s Snap Judgement