On the Stroll
The streets surrounding The Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown New York are known by the prostitutes who frequent them as “the stroll,” hence the title of Alix Kates Shulman’s third novel. On the Stroll begins and ends at The Port Authority, making the reader aware that Shulman is using the ancient and honorable literary motif of life as a journey to underscore one of her novel’s most significant themes: especially in this neighborhood, everyone is a transient. Shulman’s other thematic interests—in power relationships between women and men, in the search for love and truth—are equally ancient and honorable. In less skilled hands than hers, such material might be trite, but Shulman’s wit, her sharp eye, and her transparent, colloquial style infuse these familiar themes with vitality and contemporaneity. The crime-ridden setting of On the Stroll is the perfect milieu for this gifted novelist’s perceptive sociological observations and for her portrayals of three characters—a pimp, a runaway, and a shopping-bag lady—whose actions and motives, at first remote and objectionable, quickly become as comprehensible as the reader’s own.
It is obvious that Shulman writes from direct observation of street life and also from extensive reading and interviews. Her handling of detail is convincing in part because her acknowledgments include references to The Port Authority Youth Service Division, the West 42nd Street Project, and the book Black Players (1973), by Christina and Richard Milner. By drawing on these resources, Shulman informs her readers while she entertains them with the rituals and patterns of street subculture. One learns, for example, that a pimp uses affection to attract a potential prostitute, but that it is the prostitute who claims the pimp by giving him all her funds, called “choosing money.” This transaction symbolizes the complicated financial and emotional arrangements between the two. The prostitute must make her “trap” each night, and the pimp may charge her for clothes, food, and mistakes. The pimp’s dependence on the prostitute for money is balanced by her dependence on him for love. Without allowing himself to be touched emotionally—“a blow to the heart kills”—the pimp must manipulate the prostitute’s emotions so that she is both afraid of him and reliant on him for comfort, security, and love. All the intricate elaborations of the pimping code are thus aimed at control. As Prince puts it,
The one thing a player could never afford to compromise, not even for a minute, was his position of power. If, for instance, a man let a woman begin to dominate him, his manhood would soon be threatened; he had to regain the upper hand quickly or else, according to the pimping code, the woman would take over and make a trick out of him.
Prince, who is only twenty-five but already worried about getting old, is a hard-working student of the code. Beginning each day with pushups and deep knee bends, he aspires to match the successes of Bluejay and Sweet Rudy, his mentors at pimping and three-card monte. With his nervous stomach and catlike fastidiousness—he is constantly bathing, getting his clothes pressed, and having his nails manicured—this “Prince among men” is the 42nd Street counterpart of the young executive on the make. His history of personal failure motivates him to maintain the tastefully decorated apartment, the fancy car, and the colorful wardrobe which are both the fruits of his labor and the tools of his trade. Obsessed by the belief that men must control women, Prince is deeply appreciative of the “childlike docility” of the sixteen-year-old runaway whom he catches at The Port Authority in the novel’s opening pages. He understands her need to trust him and to be cherished by him, and he carefully manipulates that need, timing his responses so as to create and maintain a profitable dependence.
Shulman’s objective treatment of Prince’s commitment to the pimping code generates understanding of, if not sympathy for, this conscientious young Filipino-American who wants only what many young men want: success, wheels, and a compliant woman. It is not so much Prince himself that Shulman implicitly asks her...
(The entire section is 1736 words.)