From prison, Tillie Henderson narrates that she wasn’t allowed to go to Corrigan’s funeral. She gives a survey of her criminal record, which has fifty-four entries on it. She remembers being arrested for the last time during the police raid. Bob Marley was singing “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights” on the radio as the officers rounded up the prostitutes, and Jazzlyn yelled, “Who’s gonna look after my babies?”
From the beginning of her section, Tillie is presented as somebody who has been caught up in the penal system time and again, a woman who is well-acquainted with the cyclical nature of crime. She is also presented as somebody who has been relatively cut off from the outside world, her personal relationships abruptly shorn.
Tillie gives a review of her history as a prostitute, saying, “Hooking was born in me.” The first time she slept with a client was when she was fifteen. She remembers her first pimp, who used to beat her with a tire iron and then treat her with kindness two days later. She says that she will never forget him.
Again, Tillie addresses the idea that a life of crime is difficult to escape by asserting that “hooking was born in [her].” When she says that she will never forget her emotionally unpredictable pimp, there is a strange mixture of scorn and nostalgia, a combination that speaks to the idea that certain experiences—even horrific ones—are hard to completely leave completely behind.
When Tillie gave birth to Jazzlyn, she left her with her mother so that she could go work as a prostitute. Tillie would come home after work and take Jazzlyn in her arms. She promised herself that she would never let her daughter become a prostitute. This, she explains, is the first thing a prostitute says to herself when she has a baby: “She’s never gonna work the stroll.”
The promise that Tillie made to herself when Jazzlyn was born indicates a desire to break out of the culture of prostitution, ultimately complicating the notion that this sort of lifestyle naturally perpetuates itself. Though Tillie was aware of how a life of crime sets a precedent and pattern for generations to come, she was still unable to break away, a tragic but—given the circumstances—ultimately understandable fact.
Tillie remembers her first days in New York, when Jazzlyn was still living with her mother in Cleveland. Tillie remembers going straight to the seediest motels she could find in order to start prostituting herself. She quickly found a pimp named TuKwik and started working on the East Side, where the other prostitutes were predominantly white. As she worked, she told herself that she was going to make enough money to return to Cleveland and buy a large house to live in with Jazzlyn.
This is the cyclical, self-perpetuating life of crime in which Tillie existed even as she tried to break from it—in order to make a better life for her daughter, she threw herself more wholeheartedly into prostitution. In other words, prostitution was a means to an end, and that end was keeping her daughter from prostitution.
In prison Tillie has a cell mate who keeps a mouse in a shoebox as a pet. This woman is in prison for eight months because she stabbed somebody. She won’t speak a word to Tillie.
In addition to having been cut off from her loved ones—like Jazzlyn, who is dead, or her grandchildren, whose whereabouts are kept from her—Tillie is isolated from even her cell mate.
Tillie quickly rose in the ranks under TuKwik. But being his favorite prostitute came with consequences: the more he liked her, the more he beat her. And the other prostitutes were jealous of her, so they would often fight with one another on slow days. Eventually TuKwik was killed, and Tillie worked without a pimp for two weeks before finding a new one named Jigsaw, who was incredibly rich but met the same fate as TuKwik before long—he was shot three times.
The turnover rate of Tillie’s pimps speaks to the danger inherent in this life of crime and prostitution. Violence was seemingly ever-present.
Tillie remembers one client in particular that stands out amidst all the others. He rented a room at the Sherry-Netherlands hotel and she stayed with him for an entire week. He never wanted to have sex—he only wanted her to read to him in the nude. She would recline naked on the bed and read him Persian poetry while he sat in ecstasy. At the end of the week he gave her eight hundred dollars and a book of Rumi’s poetry. Tillie remembers this fondly, saying that if she could repeat only one week of her life, she would choose that one.
In this recollection of Tillie’s, we meet the man who introduced her to Rumi. This is how she was able to impress and disarm Ciaran so staggeringly by quoting from the Persian poet. The fact that this man from the Sherry-Netherlands made such an impression on Tillie reveals a gentle, sentimental aspect of her personality—it becomes easy, in a way, to imagine her leading a wholly different life full of literature and slow, lounging days.
Despite her great desire to see Jazzlyn’s children—her grandchildren—Tillie begins considering hanging herself in prison. “Any excuse is a good excuse,” she says. She stops eating and spends her time playing with the key ring that bears photos of her granddaughters.
The effect of prison (the isolation, the barrage of unrelenting memories), in conjunction with a hard life in which many loved ones have died, is made quite clear by Tillie’s decision to commit suicide.
Usually Tillie and Jazzlyn didn’t rob their clients, she explains, but one time a man took them far away—from the Bronx all the way to Hell’s Kitchen—promising them large amounts of money. He was, of course, lying, and when they found out that he had no intention of paying what he had promised, they robbed him. This was the reason there was an outstanding warrant for their arrest at the time of the police raid. Because Jazzlyn needed to get back to her daughters, Tillie took the blame, the detective assuring her that she would receive no more than six months of prison time.
The dizzying notion of chance comes forth in this explanation of how Jazzlyn was released from prison on the fateful day of her death. It is morbidly ironic that, in trying to be a good mother by taking the blame for the robbery, Tillie inadvertently set the wheels in motion that led to her daughter’s death.
Tillie plans her suicide, deciding that the pipes in the prison shower stalls will be strong enough to hang herself from. She takes to banging her head against the wall repeatedly. She continues to worry about her grandchildren.
Tillie’s behavior here begins to reflect her inner turmoil, and we see a person slowly unhinging in an environment where she has no one supporting her.
Tillie goes on narrating the history of her New York life. She explains that in the mid-sixties she returned to Cleveland to pick up Jazzlyn, who was eight or nine years old, and she brought her back to New York. At this point, Tillie was with a new pimp named L.A. Rex, who sent her to work in the Bronx because that was where the older prostitutes worked. He told her not to come back to Lexington Avenue—where she had been working—or else he’d break her arms. She went anyway, and sure enough, he broke her arms.
This passage gives a glimpse of the harsh world of a prostitute who is past what her pimp considers her prime.
After this injury, Tillie decided to clean up her life. She stopped working as a prostitute, put Jazzlyn in school, and got a job at a supermarket. She was, by her own account, happy. But then one day on her way home from work she found herself under the expressway in the Bronx holding out her thumb for a passing car, looking for a client. She couldn’t understand why she did it, but she did, and a new pimp, Birdhouse, took her on.
Just as the cycle seems to break, when Tillie gives up prostitution, she once again enters the same life she had left. This illustrates the magnetic pull that even a difficult existence can have, emphasizing how deep certain patterns run. Within this also lurks the uncomfortable idea that somebody could, on some level, enjoy aspects of something they logically ultimately abhor.
Soon enough, Jazzlyn started working as a prostitute alongside her mother in the Bronx. At the age of fourteen she started using heroin and hanging out with a gang called the Immortals. Unsure of what to do, Tillie tried to keep her safe by staying with her on the streets. At least, that was how she justified it to herself. Not long afterward, though, Jazzlyn started taking heroin in front of Tillie, and sometimes Tillie would even help wrap the elastic around her daughter’s arm so that the needle could more easily find the vein. “I was keeping her safe,” she says. “That’s all I was trying to do.” Eventually, Jazzlyn got pregnant and had a child—and not long after the first, she gave birth to a second.
Once again, we are reminded of the way prostitution has the ability to perpetuate itself throughout generations. For somebody like Tillie, who has only ever known a crime-filled life, it is very difficult to protect a daughter. Her only resources to help her daughter are the very things she is trying to protect her from.
In prison, Tillie gets a visitor. She excitedly fixes her hair and puts on lipstick, readying herself to see her grandchildren. She bounds down the stairs to the visiting room. There, waiting for her behind the separation glass, is Lara. Tillie doesn’t understand—she feels like she might recognize Lara, but doesn’t know why. She asks her if she is the one taking care of Jazzlyn’s children, and Lara replies that she is not. Confused and angry, Tillie asks who she is. Lara explains that she is Ciaran’s friend. She promises to try to get Tillie’s grandchildren to visit. When she asks if there’s anything else Tillie needs, Tillie replies: “Bring Jazzlyn back too.” Before leaving, Lara slips several books by Rumi beneath the glass. It isn’t until after Lara has left that Tillie remembers that she had once slept with Ciaran and quoted Rumi to him.
Lara’s appearance again seems possibly self-interested, as if carried out only to alleviate her guilt. But at the same time, the kindness she shows Tillie still counts for something, since Tillie has heretofore received no other support in prison. Whatever spurs along Lara’s kindness doesn’t ultimately matter (from this perspective), because Tillie is in desperate need of human connection.
Tillie remembers Corrigan fondly. She explains that the first time she and the other prostitutes saw him, they assumed he was an undercover cop. Still, he brought them coffee while they worked despite the fact that their pimps beat him up when he did so. After a while, when it became clear that he wasn’t going to let the beatings keep him from coming down to visit the prostitutes, the pimps started respecting him, or at least this what Tillie suspects. She asserts that he was the only white man she would have liked to have slept with. She says that she would have married him if she could have, even if just to hear his accent her whole life.
We are reminded of Corrigan’s influence in the Bronx, a reminder that stings with the knowledge of his passing. At this point in the book, we as readers—similar to how the characters feel—may come to miss this vivacious man, and deeply feel the lack of his presence as the characters deal with his tragic death.
In prison the boss matron develops a crush on Tillie. She invites her into her office and tells her to open her jumpsuit. Tillie does so, and after a minute of looking at her breasts, the boss matron tells her to leave again.
This moment touches upon the fraught and incredibly distorted power dynamics typical between prison matrons and inmates. Just like in her outside life amongst pimps and criminals, Tillie is abused and objectified in prison—her agency has been violated throughout her entire life.
Tillie waits and waits for her grandchildren to arrive. In the meantime, another inmate attacks her with a lead pipe. Tillie defends herself, sending the other woman to the infirmary. As a result, the boss matron tells her that she’s going to be sent upstate, to a more severe prison, for the last several months of her sentence.
It seems that everything that can go wrong for Tillie will, indeed, go wrong. It is not often that Tillie stands up for herself with violence—as she is often mistreated—and this time that she does, she is severely punished.
Tillie offers to take her clothes off for the matron if only she can stay. The matron refuses, but Tillie comes around to the other side of the desk anyway, with the intention of unzipping her jumpsuit. The matron hits the panic button and guards rush in. As they try to take Tillie away, she kicks the matron in the face and knocks out her front tooth. Tillie is arraigned, found guilty of assault, and her prison sentence is extended by eighteen months.
Tillie’s life has taught her that her body is often the only advantage available to her. In using it this time, however, she finds herself in the middle of a serious misunderstanding. Once again Tillie shows her quick temper and easy shift to violence—the products of living in a world that has consistently abused her.
On her way out of court, Tillie tries to scratch the guards’ eyes out. She is restrained, put in the hospital wing, and then put on a bus to Connecticut. When she arrives, she meets with a therapist, to whom she reveals her plans to commit suicide. As a result, the prison puts her on medication, but she maintains her desire to end her life.
The institutionalized help sent Tillie’s way—a court-ordered therapist—proves wildly unsuccessful, most likely because the therapist doesn’t truly know or care about Tillie, thus once again failing to save her from isolation and mistreatment.
Finally, Tillie’s granddaughters are brought to visit her. She runs over to where they sit behind the glass and sticks her hands through the opening at the bottom, but they don’t appear to recognize her. She is deeply hurt and disappointed. The woman caring for them explains that she was conflicted about whether or not to bring them to see her. Tillie recognizes this woman from the housing projects in the Bronx. The woman says that she is living in Poughkeepsie now with the two little girls. After only a short while, the visiting session ends. The woman leans the girls toward Tillie, who smells them through the slots in the glass. She puts her finger through the hole and one of the girls, Janice, touches it. Heartbroken, Tillie walks back to her cell and cries all night.
Tillie’s grandchildren are essentially her only connection to her previous life; they are the only things left to remind her of Jazzlyn. This is why it is so difficult for her when they don’t seem to recognize her and are afraid of her. The fact that their caretaker lives in Poughkeepsie—far away from the Bronx—may feel somewhat like an insult to Tillie, as if it is an acknowledgement that no good mother would ever try to raise a child in the Bronx. In this moment, Tillie is made to feel everything she has lost and everything she did not do as a mother.
Tillie goes to a church service and talks to the chaplain about Rumi. He tells her that Rumi’s work isn’t spiritual, and Tillie decides that God is due an ass-kicking.
Once again, Tillie’s last vestiges of hope—the very few things she holds dear and that comfort her—are dashed.
Tillie thinks about the last time she saw Jazzlyn and Corrigan in the Bronx. She thinks about how there is probably no Sherry-Netherlands hotel in heaven. She painfully recalls the way she mothered Jazzlyn, realizing that she was a junkie and a bad guardian. With nobody to say goodbye to, Tillie thinks about her daughter, saying, “Here I come, Jazzlyn, it’s me.”
Utterly alone and isolated, Tillie resolves to die. The prevailing sentiment in this moment is not that she lived a wretched life that lead her to this sad death, but rather that the world—its institutions and laws and ideas about who deserves love and support—failed her miserably.