by Charles L. Leong

Editor’s note: This was published in Rising Waters in July of 1976, a production of the Asian American Studies Planning Group and the Asian American Student Alliance at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The street jutting at right angles from Main Street is fancifully called Riverside Drive. My eyes caught the wide-fronted store but I knew it was no longer Chinn’s Market. Johnson, the son of the original owner, now was in the real estate business. The place was now called Union Square, a complex featuring La Flor del Valle fine foods for the now predominate Mexican populace of the lower Main Street sector. Union Street was just at the corner.

“We’re coming at a real interesting part of town,” I said to the boys.

“More interesting?” they laughed with mock surprise.

I guess that inside I really backtracked a little, seeing what I then saw. But bravely I pointed to a few mangy rose bushes and said, “Well, I think this was #73 Union Street, and the aristocrat of the old whorehouses was located right here.”

An illustrated view of Main Street, Watsonville, CA, with the Hotel Resetar  in the background. Printed on the front of … | California, Santa cruz  county, Santa cruz
Historic postcard of Main Street, Watsonville.

Russell grunted, and with eyes raking a few almost broken down, dusty wood framed buildings, asked whether this was the old whorehouse district…nothing but ruins.

It’s a helluva way to put it, but I guess, or rather have to concede that Russ was right. Both my psyche and ego already were badly battered during the short walk from lower Main Street, and I shook my head incessantly after discovering that the old Johnson’s Drug Store building was gone, kaput, demolished and in its place a shining, heartless Arco gas station, forever sealing the memories of my wonderful years at the old drug store.

Here we were, the three of us, face to face with the harsh, tawdry graveyard of romance. Why did we have to come in the glaring afternoon sun which obliterated my memories of a soft romantic dream of scented nights, the beautiful parade of the houses including Rose’s, Margie’s, and others and the whispered passions vortexing into a hideous nightmare and cries, and exploding into a trillion bits of dust. Dust is still coating the unkempt, drying rosebushes and proclaiming Union Street as a street of broken dreams.

Night really is nature’s great camouflage. Here I was, visiting this street in searching daylight. Searching for what? To show it up for what it really was? That a street of whorehouses was no more or less than the crass, commercial testimony to man’s inhumanity to women, or simply, just other human beings? Even if I had a choice, maybe for this occasion, this was the best time to see it.

Union Street. In its prime, it was known in the entire Pajaro Valley area and beyond as the place to have girls. I never knew it ever to be referred to as being a “redlight district” as it would be in a city. Not a street of bagnios, bordellos, houses of joy, etc. Sometimes they were jokingly referred to as “the cathouses”. Never a whorehouse. Was a part of the small town folksiness, or sense of dignity and sensitivity, that this street of sin was called simply “The Houses”? Because that for a predominately farming community, with literally hundreds of single men, men who lived without wives and families, “The Houses” was part of something as fundamentally simple, natural and necessary as ham and eggs for breakfast?

The world of the l920–30s was not a world of liberated women. Nor men. Men either were married or indulged at a House. This was equally true, or perhaps even more so, for the many hundreds of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino migrant workers in the Pajaro Valley area. This rule covered also those White men I used to see when as a delivery boy at Johnson’s Drug Store, I saw them enlighten from one of the cabs of Mr. Peavey’s taxi service, and furtively and swiftly walk into The Houses.

Union Street. The street of love for sale, by the hour, or much less. Whatever others called it, however, the town blue noses and hypocrites condemned it (but never being able to close it, except for short periods of political expedience). To this Chinese American high school boy, it was a street of friends; a street where “bad” girls gave him good tips; a street where with the illicity of commercial love, he first explored the eternal mystery of womanhood.

Union Street. This was the street which gave me a certain notoriety in high school since a number of students knew I worked at the drug store and delivered to The Houses. This was where quickly I learned sly, harsh little tricks such as picking up extra coins by lifting the upholstery pillows in the little parlors where the girls would kid around and jostle the customers as the warm-up to the bedroom action. This was the street where I delivered sundries, lots of beauty make-up things, cigarettes, magazines and sundries to the girls, and where, somehow for years afterwards when I think about a House, a peculiar, but not unpleasant blend of perfume, cigarettes and antiseptic seem to permeate the air. Always the antiseptic.

For the several years when I worked at Johnson’s Drug Store, I never realized, because it never was in the range of my limited world, that the sociological implications of harlotry, of prostitution—which Union Street definitely was, in its most simply honest terms—were layered with the troubled questions of greed, individual human sufferings, indignities of the spirit.

I am sure now that for some of the “girls” in the business at Union Street or anywhere in the world for that matter, darkness can be a time of terror hidden by their painted smiles. For the men, darkness was a time of romance, and streets like Union Street were a parading ground for the egos of macho young men feeding their oats; for middle age men seeking a change of wifely surfeit; for old men simply wanting some synthetic sympathy for spent passions; or any man, young or old wanting the convenience of a quick simulation of romance, although it would not be strange that to many men this “two dollars a trick” business was to them their only romance and therefore a real romance peddled in this street of broken dreams.

Watsonville’s T.J. Horagan Ranch harvest crew with many Filipinos, 1931. Photo with permission from Pajaro Valley Historical Association.

Maybe it was pretty naive of me to think that going away to a college only fifty miles away was a big deal, but at that time it was to me. To live away from home. To be on my own, if only for five days a week attending San Jose State college and coming back on weekends to work at the drug store. In any case, I thought it was the right thing to do to see each “madame” on Union Street to tell them that I would no longer be serving them daily, except on some weekends. Perhaps it was a combination of common courtesy, mixed with good business appreciation which prompted this action since they always were nice to me and gave good tips. And perhaps unbeknownst to them, for several years they had furnished me a ring-side seat to a side of life actually not too pretty, but nevertheless superficially glamorous and realistically a sordidness wrapped in bright red tinsel.

I went first to 58 Union Street. Marge was the woman who ran the place. Marge always had been my favorite madame. She was tall, actually rangy in figure and seemed as if she fitted right in a saddle on the range. She was freckled, kind of horse-faced and had a brilliant smile. At the Houses, it was the custom for each customer I delivered to tip me individually. Marge always tipped generously.

Or did I go, with a sensor guide, simply because I had good memories at #58, such as the girl whom I remember even now forty years later as having a purplish black sort of Dutch bob hair style, with a body which I, in my youthful innocence, thought of being perfect in proportion—and perhaps it was—and alabaster skin. She was very good to me, always teased me by looking close to my face with her deep purple Irish eyes, and best of all, treated me like an adult whereas some of the other girls, especially new ones, liked to call me a cute Chinese boy when, hell, I was old enough to mount them.

It’s ironical, and maybe it was her own private joke: she put her “professional” name up as Joy.

This one afternoon I saw Marge, told her I was finally going away to college. “Bless you, Charlie,” she said, and gave me two $5 bills. Later when I was over with some things from the drug store, she had a nice neck tie wrapped and ready for me, and it had the label of a fashionable San Francisco men’s shop.

I went to four other houses, and they all gave me a good going away tip. The last place I went to was Rose’s at #73 Union Street. Her place was located right on the corner of Union at Riverside. Rose’s was known as the French House, for she herself, short and gruff, spoke with a French accent. Hers was also the most expensive place, the “classiest”, and restricted.

That meant: White men only.

Civil rights? What civil rights in those days, although I am certain that today an equal rights activist could cut right across the beribboned barricades and paid bedroom romance, and get a court ruling that a girl can accommodate a man of any race that she wants. Plus getting lots of newspaper publicity.

By custom, Rose catered only to White customers (or is guests the better word?) whereas the other houses had among its steady clientele the sizeable non-White population of the Pajaro Valley including the Filipino and Chinese migrant workers, the Japanese farmers, the Chinese merchants and gamblers. In those days of the 1930s there were but few Mexicans and the only Blacks, or Negroes as they were called in those days, numbered only the maids at the houses.

In any case, this was the way Rose ran her house. Rose was small of stature, matronly, and possessed of sharp eyes hooded by rimless glasses. She was gray haired. Perhaps age had given her a sagged, folded look on her face. I’ve tried to imagine when, I’m sure, she was petite, and even pretty in a pixie way, and spirited instead of just stern, but as shrewd then as now. That would be why, if she had been a “girl” she was able to become a “madame” instead of just another woman wrecked before her time. The other madames I called simply Marge or Rita, etc. But Rose was always Miss Rose.

“Miss Rose,” I said, “thank you for everything. I’m going away to college in a few days.” With her, I didn’t even want to annoy with detailing about the possibility of being back to work weekends.

“I am so glad for you, Charles, school never hurt anybody,” she observed in her heavy accent. She never called me Charlie as did the others. Then she called, “Jeanette, please come here,” and as she entered the parlor, Rose told her “See what Charles wants to drink. And be sure you give him a real good time. Real good.” A pause, then “Charles, everything is on me.”

I was more than a little stunned. Rose always was correctly generous with tips, with a little extra for Christmas like the others, and even Chinese New Years. Although she had no Chinese customers, of course, I wondered why she observed it. Nevertheless. But she never seemed too friendly.

“Miss Rose,” I faltered in a mumbling tone, “you, uh, really don’t have to do anything.”

She smiled. Really smiled! And quietly said, “Have a good time, Charles. Goodbye, and good luck in college.”

Jeanette was standing by all this time. She was not flashingly beautiful. In fact, whenever I delivered to her, she seemed rather quiet, and, in comparison to most of the other girls, she was much more plain, both in make-up and dress. She never kidded me. However, she always was pleasant and tipped good. She was a long-time regular at Rose’s.

Jeanette looked at me, and beckoned me with a smile and amused eyes which promised much more than I had expected.

What a going away present for this small town Chinese boy.

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