Thursday, September 22, 2011

YA-Again: Steffie Can't Come Out to Play

Sometimes when I leave the library, I leave with great literature. Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye: First checked it out the summer of 1992. The Count of Monte Cristo: Acquired a huge overdue fine when I borrowed it to use as a prop in an elementary school/Somerville Community Access Television production of Rod Serling's The Girl Who Could Predict Earthquakes. (I had the lead and, already displaying method actress tendencies, insisted that I use the actual book.) I finally read it when I checked it out again in the summer of 1998.

Sometimes I leave the library with this:

I like to re-read books. I even like to re-read horrible books. It comes from the same part of my brain that allows me to watch the VH-1 I Love The Marathons in repeats.

I first encountered Steffie Can't Come Out to Play in my elementary school library. It was a badly designed space, that library with a mezzanine entrance to the gym. At least once a year a basketball would bounce out of the gym and into the library, and the librarian's pent-up rage would erupt into wordless squeals. I spent more time there than most. I ate lunch there because I didn't enjoy the cafeteria's atmosphere. (This should not surprise you.)

It was in the YA section. I had special permission to read things in the YA section before seventh grade because I was a nerd and had already read everything in the age-appropriate fiction section. But this book was rumored to be so scandalous, so dirty, that I wasn't brave enough to take it out or be seen reading it. I read it in furtive bursts when the librarian wasn't looking. I read it so quickly that I forgot most of the details. Years later, when I had a nagging memory of a shocking book with a red cover, it took me a while to figure out the title and find the book.

Steffie Can't Come Out to Play is the story of a fourteen-year-old girl with a sad home situation, from a nothing town near Pittsburgh, who dreams of being a model. She runs away on a Sunday night with nine dollars in her pocket. She arrives in New York City on Monday morning, and immediately upon arrival (page 13) meets a suave and mysterious man at the bus station. His name is Favor, baby. Favor. He takes her to dinner and buys her wine, takes her home, buys her bubble bath. If you watch Lifetime you know where this is going. By the end of the week she's convinced she's in love with him and joins his prostitution ring to prove her commitment. That's the end of Chapter One.

The rest of the book is a cliche montage of Times Square in the 70s. You can almost hear the electric bass when you turn the page. Halter tops. Hot pants. Discos. Steffie gets a pair of knee-high high-heeled silver boots. Favor has other women in his employ and there's as much girl-drama as a Taffy Sinclair book. Steffie falls in and out of Favor's favor. She professes her love for him as he drifts in and out of Cadillacs with shirts unbuttoned to show his chest. Her roommate is attacked by a trick with a knife. Steffie herself is attacked by another girl over a teddy bear before finally meeting up with the jaded cop who keeps appearing in a distracting sub-plot with a third person narrative. He sends her to a shelter and she goes home.

When I was a kid, I was sure this book was for adults and got mixed into the YA section of our school by mistake. Reading it now - 33 years old and having read Portnoy's Complaint - it's not so vulgar. It's a book about a teen prostitute for the Ann M. Martin set. It dances around the subject. No dirty words are ever used. The most graphic it gets is a client who asks her to stand unclothed in front of a window, and she gets a cold. Which is actually a decent and age-appropriate metaphor for feelings of humiliation and helplessness that might be part of forced prostitution, but it's buried in pages and pages of Steffie's screamingly bad judgement, ellipses, and melodramatic pining.

Anyway, Go Ask Alice? Way dirtier.

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