After the jump read the feature story on Lucky Torres, from our current Photo Issue, and click here to watch a slideshow of the photos, as narrated by Lucky and writer Laura Checkoway.
I met Lucky Torres on one of the last summery nights of 2007. Around midnight a group of young lesbians gathered on the steps at the Christopher Street Pier in Greenwich Village to talk about homophobia, how the pier is like home and Lil Wayne. Lucky was the unmistakable standout of that group, dripping with the kind of unhinged swagger bred only on the streets of New York. Just under five feet and covered in tattoos, her look was both an armor and rebellion. Her multi-colored mohawk and diva demeanor attract attention, but it’s her facial tattoos—eight stars, tribal designs inspired by Apocalypto, a skull on her chin, and BITCH down her right cheek—that elicit a constant stream of commentary from strangers: “Are those real?” Or: “Did that hurt?” Or simply: “Oh shit!”
“I feel like I’m a star,” the aspiring poet, singer, and model tells me, pushing her two-year-old son Joziah Carmine King across the pier in a stroller. “People are always taking pictures of me like, Oh my God, you’re so awesome! Some ain’t never seen someone that looks like me.” She sports a new ensemble every time she goes out, her nails newly painted, her mohawk freshly dyed. Sometimes, when she wants to feel ladylike, she wears a wig, although now that this photo shoot is completed, she swears she’s going to burn it.
The pier has always served as her second home, and sometimes, her actual home. “Nobody knows that I live in a shelter because I walk around like I’m all that,” she says. “People don’t know that I don’t have parents. My mother used to just have kids and give them up to foster care. I was in the system since I was born, in and out of group homes, juvenile detention, mental homes, so nobody wanted to take me.”
Her birth name is Waleska Torres Ruiz, but she was nicknamed Lucky after being hit by a yellow cab at age thirteen and surviving. She says her father died of a drug overdose in 1992 and her mother passed three years later from AIDS. Though she has no memories of either, a tattoo on her right calf commemorates them: Julio & Rosa Rest In Peace.
The sign outside 2240 Grand Concourse in the Bronx says “HOTEL,” but a piece of paper taped to the front door explains, “This is not a hotel.” Lucky has lived here since February 2008, when she and her younger sister Fantasy were kicked out of the Saratoga Family Inn shelter in Queens for alleged assault and robbery. The case dragged out through the spring, resulting in restraining orders, community service and a judge’s insistence that the sisters stay out of legal trouble for one year. In their room, Carmine attempts to climb out of his crib while America’s Next Top Model plays on TV and Lucky spikes her pink mohawk. “There was a girl on America’s Next Top Model that had better tattoos than mine, lovely beautiful pieces, and she was the first one to get disqualified,” she says. “Why you can’t be different, Tyra Banks? These bitches look too normal! You need a bitch that has that inner life in her! You gotta see the I-want-it-and-I’ma-take-it in her eyes. And I don’t see that in none of them hoes up there.”
Lucky gets by on food stamps, welfare checks, braiding hair, hustling and the ladies in her life, who give her what money they can. She says she can’t find work because of her face tattoos. “I started thinking I was ugly and wanted to cover my face,” she explains. “When I’m angry I’m not gonna go cutting myself like I used to, I have a son to live for now. So either I pound somebody’s head in or I go to the tattoo shop and get that needle ramming through my skin.” This May on her twenty-fifth birthday, Lucky was sprawled on the kitchen floor of a halfway house in East New York while her friend tattooed FUCK YOU in turquoise down the backs of her thighs. She spent the summer in shorts and skirts to show it off.
“I didn’t go past the seventh grade,” Lucky says over pizza one spring day. “I don’t know if I completed it. I was a runaway living in the streets and I joined a gang. My name in the street was Bloody Rose. I stayed with friends in West Harlem and ended up getting raped and got pregnant with my daughter.” Less than a year later, Lucky lost her parental rights and Sherice was taken away. Her name is imprinted on Lucky’s right shoulder, her very first tattoo at age fourteen.
“Can Snoop see some titties? Can I get a flash?” Felicia “Snoop” Pearson shouts from the VIP balcony of The Lab in Bed-Stuy, microphone in one hand, bottle of Hennessy in the other. The Friday night lesbian party is always packed, but having the star from HBO’s The Wire host is an occasion.
Rick Ross’ “The Boss” booms through the club. In the back stairwell, Lucky is finagling her way into VIP to take a photo with Snoop, hoping that someday soon it will be her holding the microphone, getting all the attention. “I’m ready finally for something happy, something warm. I wanna leave my son a will before I pass. That’s what I seek,” Lucky says. “What am I here for? Is it gonna come tomorrow? Why is it taking forever? I don’t know whether there’s a God, a spirit, whatever the hell is up there. Can’t it see that the time is now?”