I walked faster, not wanting to be caught outside after the sunset, alone in a strange downtown. My friends had all arrived on earlier flights and were meeting me. The silent tap-tap of the navigation app on my wrist guided my steps as I searched for the restaurant and tried not to look like the tourist that I was.
The place was in the middle of an outdoor mall. The stores were about to close and it was semi deserted, although the street outside was still bustling with pedestrians walking to clear the area, the same as I was, while the people of the night were hunkering down to get through the evening.
It was a warm one. I was struck by the number of homeless men and women I saw in the short, two block walk. I don’t know if their number was high, or if the suburbs had sequestered me from the rawness that downtown Denver was spewing. The tidiness of the day was going to bed for the night and pulling the covers up around its neck, and I got the sense that downtown was about to show its true colors.
I felt eyes on me as I hopped onto the escalator, and I tried to summon my old New York self and stared straight ahead, forcing myself to not look back lest I be turned to salt as it chugged toward the landing. I focused on the J. Crew store, still open, standing sentinel on the landing.
Two steps onto the second floor of the mall and a girl appeared. I immediately clutched my bag and narrowed my eyes, my face hardening into familiar “don’t fuck with me” that every Queens girl has in their arsenal. She opened her mouth to speak but the roadblock that was my glare wilted her will. She barely managed to eek out “Do you have a dollar?” then “I want to take the bus home?” She thought better of it and backed away from me.
I walked faster, but then, as sometimes happens, my brain caught up with my writer’s eye and what I had seen registered. The girl, about five two, Latina, small, maybe a size zero, wore was were supposed to pass as shorts, but were probably spandex like those worn by soccer players, and a black spaghetti strap camisole. Everything was so form fitting that if she had a pimple on her ass you would see it. Sandals on her feet. Painted toes. Her hair with four haphazard cornrows on one side, the rest pulled into a ponytail. She looked to be about twelve or thirteen. I’d given her thirteen because of her ample breasts. Her large, brown eyes were watery and slightly red. What struck me most was her hands. They were empty. What girl that age, at night in a mall, doesn’t have a friend and a phone glued to her palm? My heart jumped to my throat. I know this because I have daughters. My friends have daughters.
I kept walking, but texted my friends, relaying to them what had happened. Was this sex trafficking, a runaway? They met me outside the restaurant and we looked for the girl, the concerned mother in us taking over. We were up a level in the mall from where I’d first encountered her, but we didn’t have to wait long. Miss phoneless was still trolling the mall, still asking for single dollars.
Empowered by being together, we called her over. Her story was the same. She wanted a single dollar for bus fare to get home. She had been shopping. A blank stare when we slyly asked her what she bought. She has no packages, no wallet, phone or purse and no pockets. She wasn’t alone, she assured us, but with a similarly financially challenged friend that had gone the other direction on an identical mission. She could not run.
We asked harder questions.
Where did she live?
What time was the bus?
Did she know if she called the police they would take her home?
She backed away.
Finally, the hardest question.
Was someone making her ask for money? She did not say yes. She did not say no.
Did she feel safe?
She said nothing, instead her eyes got wetter and she looked around as if frightened.
Finally, one of my group tells her that we will give her money, but her purse is inside the restaurant where we were to meet.
Would she wait?
A nervous nod.
We stepped away to confer, calling 911.
This could be anybody’s young daughter, out at a mall filled with bars at 9:30 at night on a Thursday, with no money and too tight clothes.
This could be one of our daughters. The panic that I felt was shared by my friends. Were our daughters where they were supposed to be? Where they safe? A flurry of texts.
26 minutes passed.
26 minutes before the police arrived.
She was gone. They walked too slow, seemed to unconcerned, apathetic.
We gave a description and were told that “these people want to be in the streets.”
Who were these people?
Young girls of color?
Young girls with no voice?
Young girls with no name?
They are anybody’s daughter.
His eyes seem to be placating us. He said they would be on the lookout for her, but his expression said he’d be wasting his time, that we had wasted ours, that we shouldn’t have bothered.
At least they’d come, but that was all.
She had not been HIS daughter.
If we hadn’t bothered, who would?