Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Travels with Matt: Remembering a Walk on the Wild Side

After the heaviness of my last two blog entries I thought I’d lighten the mood by reminiscing about my past travels. Sometimes when I am in a lull my mind hearkens back to journeys past and experiences felt or savored.

The other day, while walking, I found myself remembering a day spent in Amsterdam during my Benelux tour of the Europe in September 1999. During my tour I stayed in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Luxembourg City with forays to other nearby cities or towns of interest. I had visited Amsterdam before in 1986 but it was only a fleeting visit so I never really got to explore the richness of the city. My journey in 1999 was meant to rectify that. I did the usual touristy things in Amsterdam—visiting the Anne Frank House, taking a canal cruise, visiting the Rijksmuseum and the Vincent Van Gogh Museum (a magnificent place to savor the fullness of Van Gogh’s art, life, and genius). But the memory that comes to my mind right now is the day I decided to explore the infamous red-light district of Amsterdam.

The red-light district of Amsterdam has always been a locus for those seeking to walk on the wild side of life. At all hours a parliament of humanity comes filtering through the labyrinthine warrens, alley-ways, and side streets of the district, seeking sex, drugs, or both. Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands and prostitutes have licenses to practice their trade, are entitled to health care, and are liable to taxation. If you read travel guides for Amsterdam they always tell tourists to avoid the red-light district during evening hours because of the hustlers, dealers, and thieves who roam the area. My journey took place during the day time but I still took precautions. I only had a small amount of cash on my person and I kept my credit card wrapped in a handkerchief and stuffed deep inside my shoe.

If you don’t know where to find the red-light district, just go to the Oude Kerk—the oldest church in Amsterdam. Why there? Because, in what has to be the most incongruous setting I’ve ever seen, the church is totally surrounded by the famous girls in the glass booths. Imagine Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City or the Washington National Cathedral in D.C. or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem completely surrounded by porno houses, strip joints, and adult book stores? Well…that’s how it is with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam.

When you start exploring the red light district certain things jump out at you. Even though you are in a European country, the vast majority of prostitutes that work the red-light district are not European. When I was there in 1999 the ratio of prostitutes went like this: out of every ten hookers five were African, three were Oriental (Indonesian, Thai, Filipino, etc.) and only two were European. And of the hundreds of prostitutes I saw during my peregrinations I only thought three were “desirable” looking and worthy of interest—had I been inclined to indulge which, praise the Lord, I wasn’t.

What’s it like seeing women of from all over the world displaying their software? If you’ve ever passed by a Victoria’s Secret in a shopping mall try to imagine real live women standing in the windows wearing sexy lingerie BLATANTLY COMING ON TO YOU instead of mannequins. But, having said all that, it’s also important to note that not all the prostitutes were stunning beauties. I noticed some very sorry-looking females; sorry enough to make you wonder how they make a living. I remember one that was in a booth around the Oude Kerk. I would describe her like this: she was five foot five by five foot five and wearing the skimpiest underwear imaginable. When I had the misfortune of seeing this grotesquerie of flesh I ran inside the Oude Kerk—I desperately needed some good time religion after having my senses assaulted like that.

In an area where anything goes there is a protocol when you explore the red-light district. Just because the prostitutes openly display their finery to the world doesn’t mean you can stand there and stare at them. The motto in the red-light district is “do it or get off the pot.” If you are gawping at the hookers you will get angry stares or obscene gestures and if you are still staring they will open their doors and shout obscenities—in perfect English too! And don’t think you can find a blind spot where they can’t spot you. Guess again, they see everything and everyone.

I never stopped and stared. During my explorations I was moving constantly with my head on a swivel. I seldom ever stopped because I didn’t want to attract attention from hustlers or pickpockets. I kept one hand on my wallet at all times. Luckily I never got accosted by anyone.

There was one funny moment that I will always savor. The vast majority of visitors to the red-light district were spectators like me. There was one exception. I was making my way through a narrow alley lined with girls in glass booths. There was a line of guys following in my path. I paused for one second and heard a little commotion behind me. When I turned and looked at what was going on, I saw that a group of four Britons hovering outside a glass booth. One of them: a man with a distinctive Cockney accent actually dared to knock on one of the booths. At that moment everyone within ten feet of that booth stopped and stared at what was going to happen—and I was one of them. The girl that emerged from the booth was unforgettable. I had noticed her earlier before. In fact she was one of three “desirable” looking hookers that I mentioned sooner. In fact she was the prettiest looking hooker in the whole district. She was a college-age girl with golden blonde hair that cascaded on her shoulders. She had a magnificent body packaged in black lace lingerie. Bluntly speaking she was the product of perfect Aryan breeding if you’re into that type of ideology—which I’m not!

When she opened the door and stood in the doorway, the Cockney gentleman went up to her and whispered in her ear what he wanted her to do. I remember she flashed a demure, coquettish smile and then she leaned over to him and whispered in the man’s ear what it was going to cost him. When the guy heard the price, he spluttered, “Wot! Bloody fooking hell, Albert. Fifty bleedin’ guilders. Fook that!” and he and his friends slinked away while the rest of us laughed uproariously. (And what did the hooker do? She shrugged her shoulders and went back into her booth).

In 1999 fifty guilders was worth $25 U.S. Dollars. My guess is the guy wanted the girl to perform oral sex on him.

Sometimes you would see empty booths and you could look through the windows and see what they looked like inside. The booths are rather Spartan in appearance. There is a chair, small cot and table with tissues, condoms, lotions, and various other items to enhance the experience. The doors and the windows have shades. If a customer goes inside the shades are drawn for privacy. If you see a booth with the shades drawn almost certainly there is something going on inside.

Soon it was getting dark and it was time for me to leave but not before I had another good laugh. I was making my way back to the Oude Kerk when I saw two young ladies standing outside the church looking down at something on the sidewalk. They stopped me and asked if I knew what it was. It was getting a little dark and the object in the shadow of the church steeple. I bent down to look and saw the following thing: a brass cast of a man’s hand fondling a woman’s breast. I started laughing and when I told the two ladies what it was they collapsed in hysterics too. Since the ice was broken we got acquainted. The two ladies were sociology students from a nearby university just up the way from the red-light district. They were working on a research project and they were busy interviewing prostitutes for their studies. I told them who I was and we both remarked on the environmental theater that was the red-light district.

With that, my exploration of the red-light district was complete—or so I thought. After returning to my hotel to freshen up and relax before dinner, I wrote a song about the experience titled Window Shop Women. I came up with that title because I realized if you go to the red-light district for sex what you are doing is literally window-shopping for human flesh. There is no better way to describe the process and the song I wrote captured the aesthetics and emotions of doing that sort of thing.

Afterwards I was walking towards a restaurant near my hotel to eat dinner. I was going down a narrow street and was looking around when I saw something strange in a window overlooking the street. I couldn’t make out what it was. I stopped and looked and saw a middle-aged woman wearing a beige slip reading a newspaper with her reading glasses. When I realized what I was looking at I did a double-take. I thought I was far away not to attract her attention but I was wrong. She lowered the newspaper and locked her eyes into mine with a look that said “well?!”

All I could do was shrug my shoulders and give her a “oh dear, me!” look and scuttle away.

Like I said before, they come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and age groups.

If you’re reading this and asking yourself why I didn’t indulge myself sexually all I can say is what a Chicago vice cop once said to author Connie Fletcher in her book What Cops Know, “where’s the romance?” (Don’t laugh I once wrote a song based on what that cop told Connie Fletcher, pretty good song too!)

Call me crazy but the idea of purchasing sex as one would purchase an ice-cream cone or a pretzel doesn’t sound thrilling or erotic to me. I’m not prudish by any means nor am I casting aspersions on the prostitutes themselves. It’s just that the act of buying a hooker is too cold and impersonal and demeaning for all parties involved. I’ve never reached that level of desperation to do something like that—and I never will.

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