You can’t watch Nights of Cabiria without falling in love with the title character:  she’s spunky, outspoken, fiery, proud, and, at her core, eminently hopeful.  She’s like a mouse encased by concrete.  Giulettta Masina plays Cabiria as a female Little Tramp (as opposed to a regular tramp, I suppose), replete with a cute blonde bob and a fake fur shoulder wrap.  She picks fights with stuck-up prostitutes and is spry enough to dash away from the cops when they raid.

What struck me most, however, was the community that the prostitutes had formed for themselves.  Sure, they teased and tussled and got into spats, but they also organized a carpool for themselves to the Feast of the Assumption.  There, as they bought candles and queued in the mass of good Catholics, they kept track of one another in the crowd, even as, one by one, they prostrated themselves before the Virgin Mary, to ask for a miracle.

I’ve known only a few prostitutes — and none in the Biblical sense.  Rather, in 1998, on a trip to Vietnam, my sister and I hung out with the various bar girls and rent boys in Saigon, though, for the life of me, I can’t remember any of their names now.  We saw them mainly at Apocalypse Now, open seven days a week until four in the morning or later, depending on how many people were dancing.  The dance floor was almost always full:  the music, a condensed overview of American pop hits from the 60s to the present.  The helicopter-rotor ceiling fans barely dried the sweat coming off all those bodies.

Apocalypse Now served soft drinks without ice, conscious of tourists who didn’t trust the water, but beer was the main beverage.  There was a two-tier pricing system:  Vietnamese, $2; foreigners, $3.  The lighting came from twenty-watt bulbs in frosted glass globes.  A bloody blotch of red paint covered each globe, dripping like a war wound.  The bar resembled a thatch hut, and a surfboard hung from the wall.  It read:  Charlie Don’t Surf.

Obviously, my sister and I weren’t the clientele for the working girls.  Whenever a Westerner walked in, bar girls surrounded him in a feeding frenzy, and we’d lose sight of him among the girls clinging to his arms, following him.  My sister would point and giggle with her slatternly pals, while I hung out mostly with the rail-thin, gay Vietnamese boys, all of whom, it seemed, had foreign boyfriends who sent them gifts:  clothes, cologne, occasionally cash.  They rarely, if ever, dated one another.

“It’s like dating your sister,” they told me.

One night, as we waited for our hotel to let us in (the doors were bolted at night, and metal grates were pulled around the premises; my sister and I had to ring a doorbell to wake the maids sleeping on the floor), she asked, “Why is it that, wherever we go, we always make friends with the fags and whores?”

I shrugged.  “Birds of a feather?”

She wasn’t pleased with my answer.