[This is the eighth in a series of stories about interesting people I’ve known, a series I call “Lives”. I don’t know whether you would call it non-fiction, or fiction. I’ve changed the names, and some of the details, so that the individuals are not easily identifiable. However, I think I’ve stayed true to the essence of what really happened. The point is what can be drawn from the story, and at least that part is 100% true.]
The message I got last week was terse: “Sandra has died.”
At the funeral, I stood beside the sender of the message, one of Sandra’s sons, as he and his brother stood tall and stone-faced in the cold fall air. There were a lot of people there, because Sandra was a social person. Many people did not know each other, but some still talked: brief, admiring comments on Sandra and her life. A lot of people liked Sandra, as did I.
I didn’t go back to the house after the cemetery. I can talk to the boys another time, and I don’t really want to talk to her many other friends. I probably don’t know any of them, and so I don’t know what they know about Sandra’s life. Easy to make a mistake.
Sandra was my very first client as a young lawyer, and it was certainly a strange way to start the practice of law.
I was 28 years old, just starting as a tax lawyer with a medium-sized Bay Street firm, (now called “Blaneys”). I had no clients, and the expectation was that the firm would provide me with their clients needing tax advice for the first several years. I wouldn’t have to find clients of my own. (That turned out to be completely wrong, but that’s a story for another day.)
Only a couple of weeks after starting work, I got a call out of the blue. It was a woman who needed some advice on how to structure her real estate and other investments in a tax-efficient way. She got my name, she told me, by looking at the list of lawyers who had just graduated, and researching to see who might be right for this task. I had a notable academic record, and the right specialty, and a credible firm. She thought she’d try me out.
Certainly an unusual way to approach it, I thought, perhaps with a little wariness lurking in the back of my mind. But I agreed to meet with her.
Anyway, she came into our office a few days later, and a very nervous young lawyer (this was, after all, my first client meeting, so I was petrified) met a woman of 35 or so who seemed to be very much on top of her legal and financial situation.
The awkward unfolding of the conversation is perhaps interesting, but lengthy and ultimately irrelevant. My style as a lawyer, which started then and has continued throughout, was all about lateral thinking, which meant I had to find out as much as I could about any client, on the theory that even some apparently random fact about them might be the key to solving whatever problem I had to solve. The conversation, therefore, was about Sandra, her situation, her life, and what kind of person she was.
Her situation was that she had a good deal of money, all of which she had earned herself. She had been saving for fifteen years, building up a portfolio of Toronto real estate, plus stocks and bonds, and now wanted to develop a plan to use her savings to transition away from her current job. In effect, she was, over the course of a few years, planning to retire and live off her investment income, while perhaps finding a new career.
What was wrong with her current career? Well, she was a prostitute – call girl, as they were called then, to distinguish them from streetwalkers – and she realized that by the time she was forty she would be much less in demand. She had no desire to end up as – her precise words – “just another piece of meat”.
Sandra’s story, told to me then and over the next several years that I worked for her, started when she wanted to go to university in the early 60s. Her father, who seemed like a pretty unfatherly sort of guy, refused to contribute to her education. Girls should get married, he told her.
(Actually, he told her that women are all sluts, and the best they could hope for is that a man would look after them. When I first met Sandra, she was completely estranged from her father, and I don’t think she ever talked to him while I knew her.)
Not willing to accept the limitation, Sandra decided she had to pay her own way. A high school friend suggested that she come along to a party where men might pay for her company. She did, and it didn’t take long until she was a regular making a good income.
Sandra knew from the start that she was different from her peers in the sex trade. For one thing, she was not particularly good looking. More like “ordinary”, she would have said, although she also said that it never seemed to matter. For another thing, she saw selling her body as simply a job, and didn’t get wrapped up in either the morality of it, or the lifestyle. She needed money to get a degree, and this was the easiest way to achieve that goal.
It helped that she really didn’t like drugs or alcohol, then or throughout her life. While she was sociable, certainly, she was more a thinker than a partier. (Partying, to her, was just part of the job.)
Sex paid her way through university, an honours degree in Psychology. She got scholarships, and almost decided to go to graduate school. She later said that the degree ended up being mostly useless on her resume, but she actually learned a lot that helped her later. She remained interested in psychology throughout her life.
Sex paid her way, yes, but her relationship to the sex trade changed. Once she realized it was becoming her primary job, she started to take charge of her professional life in ways that are probably quite alien to most prostitutes. She found an apartment to live in, but then rented another apartment, in a different neighbourhood, to see customers. She set up a savings account, and before she left university she had enough money to put a down payment on a small house. She stopped taking calls from the company that organized her original parties, since they took too big a percentage of her earnings. Instead, she kept her own records of customers, and saw them only when they contacted her directly.
Her business expanded through word of mouth, and she never advertised. Her business cards were elegant. They said only her name and phone number, and “Perfect Personal Services”. It became almost a trademark. (She told me recently that they had become collectors’ items.)
To deal with the ongoing problem that what she was doing was still illegal, and at that time enforcement was sometimes diligent, she created a “job”. A regular customer put her on his payroll for a modest salary, but it was enough for her to get a mortgage, and enough so that she didn’t have to explain how she had money in the bank. She paid her taxes. She was a member of the middle class, a young woman embarking on a career in sales, as it appeared.
I never got into the details of how she pursued her profession on a day by day basis. It was just a job to her, and she didn’t share the daily reality with me. She didn’t care, and I probably was less interested than I could have been.
One story, though, provided a glimpse of both her approach, and her character. As she told it, while she was still in university she came across her first client who liked violence. It was completely unexpected. She had no idea some men would be violent with her, and that they would see it as morally acceptable to hurt her because she was a prostitute, and thus not worthy of protection.
Sandra is not petite, but she’s not an athlete either, so most men would be bigger and stronger than her. Her reaction, after tending to her bruises from the first encounter, was to sign up for martial arts classes. She continued that training for more than twenty years, but very quickly she got good enough to defend herself when needed. Customers that saw her as a punching bag got a rude awakening.
Her whole approach was like that. If she was going to be a prostitute, she would make sure she was good at it, and the job achieved her goals in life.
By the time she met me in 1980, more than fifteen years later, she lived in a house in the Annex, and owned three downtown condos, two for rental income and one for her work. One of the early investors in Toronto condos, she presaged a trend that carried her and many of the other early adopters to substantial profits. She also had more than $150,000 in stocks and bonds in a brokerage account. Doesn’t seem like much now, I suppose, but in 1980 that was a lot of money for a single 35 year old woman to accumulate.
When she came to me, she was at a bit of a crossroads. One of her long-time customers had stopped seeing her, giving her embarrassed excuses that failed to hide that she was simply not young enough for him anymore. The writing was on the wall, so she had to make a plan for how to deal with it.
She also – no real surprise, if you think about it – was considering her biological clock. She thought kids were in her future, and in 1980 the age to get on with it, or give it up, was probably 35. To her mind, that meant finding a husband and starting a family. She couldn’t do that working as a prostitute.
None of that worked out as she planned, but it did work out in a different way.
I set up her tax plan, a corporation carrying on an active advisory business that replaced her fake job with a real income from her work and her investments. Some regular customers gave her consulting jobs from their companies, and she also invoiced some customers as their psychological counsellor or fitness advisor (perhaps an early version of a personal trainer). She joined business organizations, and started to network just as she would as a more conventional small business owner. I found her an accountant who would look after her books and taxes, without making judgments on the source of her wealth. She drew a salary from her company, and investigated other types of work she could do going forward.
After the initial flurry of activity to set up her tax plan and corporate structure, I didn’t see her much for a few years; just the odd phone call for routine paperwork, and a little catchup. However, in 1984 she called on a more serious note, saying some important things were happening, and we needed to think about her planning again.
When she filled me in, I had a feeling that nothing she told me was unexpected. She did try to date, but quickly realized that a) she was not going to marry someone who didn’t know about her past, and b) she wasn’t going to find anyone for whom that past didn’t matter. Then she investigated artificial insemination, which at that time was not nearly as sophisticated as today. To her surprise, the initial tests revealed that she was not able to have children.
After considering the option of a European clinic that claimed it could help her with that, and after considering the then fairly new and perhaps illegal concept of surrogacy, she went the more conventional route, for the 80s, of adoption.
Hence, she said, her visit with me. She was planning to adopt first one, and later a second, baby from Guatemala, and wanted to ensure that her will and tax plan dealt with those kids. (I had just become a father for the first time, so I was an almost bubbly and certainly enthusiastic supporter of her plan. She later told me that she thought I might have been more excited than her that she was planning to adopt kids.)
And so it was that, in 1985, she adopted her first son, now 31, and in 1987 her second son, now almost 29. Typical of Sandra, part of her preparation for adopting from Guatemala was to learn Spanish, and for the rest of her life she regularly kept up her knowledge of the language. It didn’t really matter to her kids, who were each babies when she adopted them, but later she was able to teach them Spanish and help them connect with their own biological heritage.
I kept in touch with Sandra sporadically over the next three decades, as her lifestyle shifted from parties and nightlife to middle class mom. Her work as a prostitute phased out, so that by the time her oldest was 10 she was really not seeing any customers at all, except perhaps the odd Platonic dinner to reconnect. Instead, she became a social (and somewhat political) fixture within her local Toronto neighbourhood – charity fundraising, local political organising, the tennis club. She did some good things. Like many people who make the effort, she was able to make the lives of others just a little better.
She even took up golf, at which predictably she excelled. (I only played with her once. She killed me. It was not pretty.)
Along the way, she had a couple of relationships that lasted for a while, but none that continued to last long enough to be permanent.
Mostly, though, her role was mother.
I was curious at one point about what she was going to tell her kids about her past, and when (a subject I later bumped into in another context). She told me that she had a company, and she had investments, and beyond that the kids just didn’t ask much. To them, she was an apartment landlord and a former psychologist who had lots of money. They didn’t ask why. It wasn’t until they were in their 20s, and she was in her 60s, that she shared some of her history. By then, they were both head-on-straight young men who took it in stride. The boys are a lot like their mother.
And she did other things, as well. She wrote a book, a novel, which fared poorly. I read it at the time. It wasn’t very good, as she later admitted. She did some acting in commercials, which it turned out she did quite well. She never made much money at it, but it did give her a lot of personal satisfaction. She probably could have turned that into a new career, but she didn’t have the drive to make a real leap into it.
To my surprise, she also became quite an accomplished art collector. I’ve long been interested in art, so as she spotted young artists, and started collecting their work, I was impressed by her eye for talent, even before that talent really showed. It was Sandra who first recommended that I go to the Ontario College of Art annual open house to see some of the best young artists at work. (I still go sometimes, although it isn’t what it once was.)
Her life, though, was her kids. A few years ago, at a long dinner, with a lot of laughter and a little wine, Sandra talked to me about how her life had changed after having kids. “I was entirely in control of my life,” she said. “Control was my thing, so when I had kids I thought I could still control my life. Wrong. I had to learn – and my boys taught me this – that life is a dance in which sometimes you lead, and sometimes someone else leads. It’s so much better that way.” (That’s a quote from a country song, as it turns out, although I don’t think she knew that when she said it.)
Now Sandra is dead, victim of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 72. Her boys, one a lawyer out west, the other still searching for a career, but probably a doctor in the end, are without any parents. They do, however, have a solid grounding for their own lives, thanks to a mother who cared, and worked hard to be the best mother she could be. Like everything else she did in her life.
Sandra wasn’t a close friend of mine. She was a client first, but with some clients there evolves a social connection, which happened here, and continued for a long time. Her passing makes me sad, but it would be dishonest for me to say I’m going to miss her in any serious way. Life goes on. I won’t forget her, but I won’t grieve either.
There is no real moral to this story. It is just a story I wanted to tell. Her life was an interesting one, to be sure. In one sense, it was about as unconventional as it could be. In another sense, it was a classic case of an achiever working hard to have a good life, for herself and for the people around her.
What you can say, perhaps, is that this is proof once more that it is possible to put the most unexpected, even disparate, components together into a life worth living.
Hers certainly was.
– Jay Shepherd, October 26, 2016