2:30 a.m. on Fourth and K
By Dan Zak,
Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
The sound of gunfire echoes down the brick alley and resounds across the weedy parking lot where a giant construction advertisement proclaims THE NEW DOWNTOWN in big block letters. The sign promises 750,000 square feet of glistening office space at Fourth and K streets NW, but tonight it’s just ironic set dressing for Staci Daniel, who struts past it wearing black Air Jordans, a zebra-print miniskirt and gold crescent earrings that jounce as she swivels her buzzed head.
“And here she comes running from the bushes!” Staci says as a skinny woman — as distressed as her jeans — emerges from a nearby row of parked cars by the alley.
The woman shakes her arms and skitters over buckled concrete in her go-go boots.
“They were shootin’ at me!” she says, smoothing over her blue lace bodice, swishing her waist-length wig. “They were shooting. They were shoo-tang.”
Across the street from the City Vista condo monstrosity, a gaggle of women congregate, air-kiss, pivot and peer, speculate, volley “oh-mah-gawwwds.” Police cars screech by and heave down the alley toward the scene of the crime.
“I took me a nice nap; I come down here and I see all these cops,” Staci huffs. “I’m gaggin’ ’cause the boys they said did it are the boys that be chillin’ on the regular. This is not the usual drama. Usually it’s inside drama, pettiness, girls being girls.”
At 2:30 a.m. the girls own the strip, K between Third and Seventh: escorts such as Staci, plus the $150-an-hour diva prostitutes and the homeless-and-hungry hookers who’ll jump in cars at a red light for spare change — all transgender or transsexual, male to female. They’re trailed by bashful “straight” boy groupies and older men who can’t quite transcend drag queendom, never mind pass with the aggressive elegance of Staci, who seven years ago was a chunky teenage boy from Alexandria sitting on that electric box at Sixth, watching the ladies walk K Street like a runway.
At that time Staci’s 5-year-old niece needed money for school. Her first client was a Howard University employee, she says, and she spent 20 minutes with him for $200 and everything started to fall into place.
“Some of these people just look like big men,” Staci says, fluttering her eyelashes, waving her hand up and down the street. “They don’t care about the art of being a woman.” She hocks a loogie onto the curb. “They just put a wig on.”
Cigarette and marijuana smoke wafts from the sunroofs of souped-up Hondas and Mitsubishis. Big women vault onto the trunks of parked cars, cross their legs, bounce their feet to show off new shoes. The cool air, the rain puddles, the lingering tension from the gunfire — feels like autumn’s coming.
Staci, 23, says she doesn’t need to come down here for money. She’s got her own clients from her own escort site. Like some other women, she comes to the strip just to say hey. Socialize. See who’s got a new look. See who got out of jail. Check up on the girls who can only be themselves on this stretch of road at this time of night. Out here she becomes a mother, an aunt and a sister, tossing words of caution and “love yous” to girls whose families couldn’t deal with it all.
By 4 a.m. the meet-and-greeters scatter. The boys migrate to Eastern Avenue NE, on the line with Prince George’s County, and the girls follow. Staci calls that area “Death Valley” because there have been two shootings (one fatal) involving transgender women in the past month. Across the city there are attacks on transwomen on a weekly basis, but many remain unreported or are not recorded properly by police, according to the D.C. Trans Coalition.
“I don’t wanna die,” Staci says, sucking on a sour-apple Blow Pop while sitting on a concrete flower planter. “I wanna be better than a female. By the time I’m 30 it’ll all be complete. I will walk past women with my . . . amazing bottle-shape figure and if you don’t have to grab your man’s hand tighter then I don’t want your man. Anyway, men don’t give power. Money is power. Education is power.”
She wants to finish school, get her pediatric nursing diploma.
“I’m a homebody,” Staci says. “I’d rather stay at home and cook and watch DVDs. . . . I could be a pediatric nurse. Have my place. Let that be that.”
She gnaws the gum off her lollipop and flicks the stick onto K Street. A man in khakis and a rumpled dress shirt teeters by, headed east, maybe looking for his car, maybe looking for trouble.
“Nothing but death and destruction down that street,” Staci calls after him. “You better go home to your wife.”