Inside a modest home in Ontario, California, the sun is setting on what seems to be—at first glance—a typical picture of domesticity.
A woman sweeps up the floor while a dog nips at her heels. Her daughter sits at the kitchen table, mulling word problems. Somewhere, a man is away driving his 18-wheeler, on the road between California and Idaho.
A scene of this nature is unremarkable for many truck driving families, who have grown accustomed to being apart for weeks or months on end. This story, though, is markedly different.
Up until six weeks ago, Jennifer, the woman in the scene, was having sex with truck drivers for money, then using that money to shoot heroin. Jim, the trucker on the road, isn’t Jennifer’s husband. Jim is her spiritual advisor, and a chaplain at the Trucker Chapel, a converted trailer parked at the local truck stop.
In the world of trucking, things are often not what they seem.
When Alex Perlman, Daniel Marracino, and I set out to create a documentary about truck stop sex workers, we wanted to share the stories of people living on the fringes of society—those who are usually discounted, judged, or ignored. While we initially imagined a film that looked at the orbit of sex workers inside the trucking industry nationally, we quickly became engrossed in the narrative of individuals.
Jennifer is just one of the many women we interviewed who is struggling to keep it all together. “I have to find a job now,” she said. “If I don’t find a job, I can’t pay my rent. I’m running out of time.”
She pores over newspaper job advertisements, tension building in her voice. “It’s hard because there are these crappy-ass jobs for $8.00 an hour, or I could work one day a week on the [trucking] lot and make $300 easily. It’s easy to suck anything up for a few hours to make some money.”
Ask a truck stop sex worker to tell you about the most outrageous sexual feat she (most of the sex workers we met were women, though there were a handful of men) has performed, and she’ll tell you everything. Ask her if she has any siblings, and she’ll walk away from the interview. From the few stories we were able to record about family life, we learned of the extraordinary abuse and neglect many of the women experienced throughout their childhoods. Jennifer, for instance, was sexually abused by her uncle while growing up in Idaho.
The choice to work a truck stop, for many women, is largely due to familiarity: The truck stop is either close to home, or they have family ties to the trucking industry. Sometimes, it’s both. At the Triple T truck stop in Tucson, Arizona, a sex worker named Betty dates truckers only a few miles from the trailer where her parents live. Her father met her mother at a truck stop. He is a former trucker, and a methamphetamine addict, and Betty’s mother is a former sex worker.
Truck stop sex workers are often vocal about how they reject society’s definition of their labor and its judgment of their lifestyle.
Our first interviewee, Sunshine (“Sunny”), was adamant about this. Sunny was 45 years old, with a weather-worn face and wild hair that aged her another decade. She was also blind, reportedly from syphilis.
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“I never called myself a prostitute, because there’s a difference between a prostitute and a working girl,” Sunny said. “Everybody has their way of working.”
Sunny was our introduction to the Triple T, where we would eventually meet Betty’s family and stay for weeks. Navigating through the complex and shifting ecosystem of truckers, hustlers, drug dealers, pimps, and security guards became our daily grind as we dove into the deeply personal stories of the women on the lot.
Eventually, though, our time in Tucson came to an end when a drug dealer reportedly threatened our lives.
“There’s a contract out on you guys,” Betty told us one afternoon. “People think you filmed something you shouldn’t have.”
We suspected that she just wanted us to leave so she could go back to her regular life, but why risk it?
The truck stop-adjacent Rodeway Inn in Ontario, California, became our home for the next two months after leaving Tucson. One night during an unexpected and particularly powerful rainstorm, there was a knock on the door of our motel room. I was half-asleep, and an anxious and energetic Alex came to me to wake me up.
“Monica and Bobby are outside. They want to crash in our room,” he said.
We’d met Monica—who goes by the CB handle “Party Girl” because of her ability to bring drugs onto the lot—only a few days prior. Though we were always excited to meet a new woman, we had largely discounted Monica. She and her partner, Bobby, lived with the squatters by the railroad tracks across from the truck stop, and all of our efforts to record her story up until that point had proven ineffective. She moved too fast.
We proceeded to discuss the relative merits and dangers of letting them into our room, quickly deciding that the risks were worth it. We slid the bed into the corner, cramming our camera equipment into the gap between the mattress and the wall.
Monica and Bobby were cold, wet, and exhausted. They thanked us for letting them crash in the room, laid down, and started to snore five minutes after wrapping themselves in the wool blankets we had picked up from a surplus store in Texas.
Over the next few weeks, Alex and I grew close to Monica, who was both playful and deeply introspective. “When I’m doing my hustle, it is what it is,” Monica often mused.
The couple slowly made the room into their own, scattering their belongings around and, eventually, transitioning from the floor to the bed. Bobby stayed in the room for hours each day waiting for Monica while she worked. In those moments alone, Bobby regularly expressed his concern and uncertainty about Monica’s practices on the lot.
“She’s out there on the lot, doing her thing. She’s doing whatever she does,” Bobby said, his denial palpable. “I just try not to think about it. Sometimes, I don’t feel so good when she gets in a truck and whatever happens—I don’t know what happens. Truckers get onto her about the sex thing, but I don’t think it happens too many times.”
As unlikely as it is for two people to grow close in the world of truck stop sex work, Monica and Bobby stayed committed to one another while attempting to manage the forces (crack cocaine, sex, illness) that threatened to drive them apart.
While each truck stop sex worker’s story is wholly unique, they all share a deep level of humanity. With Sunshine, there’s a familiar resistance to the ways in which society tries to shame and judge women. In Jennifer, we see a mother struggling to define herself and find salvation. Monica and Bobby’s story is, in large part, a reflection on the desire to love and be loved despite our many faults.
By turning a camera of the faces of these women fighting each day for survival, the similarities that twine us together as a society can slowly make their way out from the shadows and into the light.
The Keep on Truckin' project is an effort to shine a light on the past, present, and future of the truck-driving industry in America, exploring all facets of our most pivotal, and overlooked, economic engine.