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Photography by Katsu Naito/ West Side Rendezvous

On a cold day in November, I was walking around midtown in New York looking for interesting details to photograph. My large-sized Cannon was draped around my neck. I felt a tap on my shoulder and expecting another mugger turned around feeling dejected.

“What?”

“Mushrooms? Mushrooms? Shrooms? You want?”

Really perplexed I looked the peddler over – a youngish chap, maybe in his early 20s, dressed in a smart, blue collar shirt with a white Tee underneath, and preppy blue jeans. The only thing remotely street about the man was that he wore his cap back to front.

I tried but couldn’t see the merchandise he was offering. I thought it was strange but kindly told him ‘actually I don’t buy vegetables because I eat my meals at the dorm.’

Thinking what a dunderhead this guy was I turned around and continued on my path to become the next Annie Leibovitz.

A few days later, while having lunch at Tom’s Restaurant – the Columbia University eatery that is famed for being featured as ‘Monk’s Restaurant’ in the sitcom Seinfeld – I shared with a friend how funny it was that a guy who looked like he had climbed out of a Tommy Hilfiger catalogue would be peddling mushrooms on the streets of midtown.

“Oh yeah! They sell mushrooms to kids in the City all the time.” She was dragging long slurps of strawberry milkshake out of a funnel-like red straw.

It made no sense. “I don’t get it. What kind of mushrooms are they selling – Portobello? Button? Porcini? And why on the street? Why kids?”

My friend looked me over, rolled her eyes and sounding nearly in pain by the levels of my idiocy proclaimed, “Oh my God Irene, what I’m I going to do with you? Mushrooms are drugs. Hallucinogens? Like … Seriously?”

A few days passed on and still on the hunt for the perfect photos I decided to try my luck in the Meatpacking District. Of course I wasn’t going to find anything there in the light of day. The only thing that was hot in the late 90s about the Meatpacking District – during the day – was swinging slabs of beef, white aprons with streaks of blood and streets covered in thin film of meat sludge. At night however, the area was known to be popular with transgender prostitutes and a drug dealing hot spot. That seemed appealing to a budding photographer.

It’s really a contrast to the Meatpacking District of the 21st Millennium, which New York magazine has rated the most glam, most happening neighborhood in New York City. In the late 90s, it was a ‘lawless’ area of town.

But as with all areas, a smart developer realized a diamond in the rough and soon office lofts started to move in and were later followed by high-end boutiques, the Apple store, velvet-rope nightclubs, swanky hotels like the Standard and Hotel Gansevoort and the tourist attraction, the High Line.

Today, it’s the spot to catch a Kardashian yet back in the day, it was a rare occasion to see women rolling around in their Jimmy Choos and their LV purses. But that’s where I wanted to be. I decided that I wasn’t brave enough to circle the neighborhood at night, and waited until early dawn to make my way. At about 5 a.m. I started my little journey to W 14th Street and with my camera, toddled around the blocks down to the Hudson looking for anything and nothing. Finally, my portrait –  a group of transgender women stood in the middle of a cobblestone street talking and laughing in high spirits. Most wore little to nothing outfits accessorized with fishnet stockings and up-to-here high-heeled shoes, and almost all of them were drop dead beautiful. It took me a while to bait the courage I needed to walk up to the posse.

As I got closer they seemed to quiet down, and by the time I was at reach, there was dead silence. Shaking like a leaf, I managed to breathe out my opening line. I had rehearsed it on the subway. I didn’t know how it would go over, but I knew either way it would break the ice.

“Hi ladies, first of all – let me just say how gorgeous you all look tonight.”

Silence.  I had bombed, big time, and now I’d have to re-strategize.

Just as I was shifting around to say something less daft, one of the girls put out her hand to high-five me.

“Girrrrl, you know, I needed to hear that. It’s been a long night! Thanks honey, and you’re gorgeous too! Who are you? What’s your name?”

And with that all the other ones chimed in, and thankfully, the ice was broken.

That night, I got an education about the working girl. It’s a hard job, and it doesn’t matter if you’re straight-up female or transgender. The job has long hours, no benefits, and more likely than not, you will end up in a car with a sociopath and be very badly hurt. For the transgender women, their clients are mostly married men. The Hudson Street girls told me most of their clientele came from New Jersey.

The girls were lovely. They let me take a few photographs of them, all of them wanting to go with their ‘stage’ names. It didn’t matter to me. When the sun came up, I saw the girls in the light of day. I realized they were just like me. Good, funny, loving, friendly souls.

That night I learned why journalism is so important. Journalists must remain non-judgmental, fair, objective, neutral, and with that naturally comes compassion for humanity. Suddenly you realize nothing is what it seems and every story has another side.

The girls had bared their all. Showed me who they really were, which is more than can be said for most of us. That night, I had a black and white film roll in my camera. As I rode the subway back to my life, I realized it fit perfectly, because tonight was a black and white night.

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