The setup of the prostitution windows in Amsterdam’s Red Light District is counterproductive to the business at hand. To initiate contact with the glass-enclosed females lit by bulbs more hot pink than red, one must approach the storefront and press a buzzer like you’d do at a tony, by-appointment boutique. A potential john will likely be deterred by the droves of onlookers, mostly in groups, mostly inebriated, there solely for the spectacle of seeing a real, live sex-worker. Add to that the opportunity to watch a transaction take place and, for the gawkers, it’s akin to witnessing a lion-feeding at the zoo. But this is less zoo and more broke-down exotic animal park with questionable conditions that leave you with visions of berserk mothers being plucked from their cubs in the wild to be relocated to cages for your viewing pleasure.
Each woman shares at least a fuzzy resemblance with her scantily clad, lace-adorned svelte counterpart the next window over. Perched on stools, cell phones mashed against their heads like fully-clothed civilians killing time until their bus home arrives, there seems to be a trend of ignoring their fluctuating, ever-present audience. One go-getter–or maybe she’s just new on the scene–stands, posing for viewers with one hand pressed against the pane of glass, the other hand diddling inside the front waistband of her panties which strikes me as grotesquely masculine; a teenage boy nonchalantly twisting top rows of pubes between thumb and forefinger.
I attempt to maneuver the street brimming with clusters of randy, intoxicated straight men encroaching upon my personal space and sense of safety. I calm myself with the knowledge that I’m in Europe, and not in some cultural mirage like Las Vegas where me and a friend had anti-gay slurs leveled at us nine different times in a twenty-four hour period, eight of which we were sleeping. We were not holding hands, we were not in drag, we were not chanting that we were there, we were queer, and somebody better get used to it. We were two overtly gay men in town to see Bette Midler, for Christ’s sake. This is all to say that a. what happens in Vegas sucks and b. visibly gay men garner attention so I must remain vigilant.
One window in particular is captivating a number of middle-aged couples, adolescent cohorts, and elderly shufflers who insist that their companions take a gander at “this one.” She stands out like a gangrened thumb, a breath of contaminated air among her peers. She’s a haggard mess of bulbous, blotchy skin, oily hair the color of a smoked cigarette filter, and yesterday’s make-up. Slouching in a chair, donning a too-small bra and g-string, her high-heeled feet are crossed one on top of the other on the windowsill giving her some air of power–a boss with her feet up. Three young men stand directly in front of her in hysterics over what they see. She flicks them off while barking at the window.
Her face is better preserved than I had originally thought as she appears in the sliver of space between me and the door. She is nonplussed when I ask if I can pay her for an interview, issuing no questions or guidelines. It’s disappointing to think I might not be the first person to make this proposal, but I’m sure my intentions are different. I’m not intrigued by the sex work or the kind of woman who does it. I want to know how she can bear to sit in that window every night.
The room which she rents by the day is surprisingly cute–a valentine swathed in slight variations of old-west saloon reds and nursery school pinks. There is a stand-alone sink, even a bidet. The burn holes on the also-red bed spread remind me: “Can I smoke a cigarette?” I ask. “Yeah. You want water or something to drink? I give you free.” We had just deliberated the fee I would pay her. She had quoted me 35 euros but later pressed me for fifty. I understand; she is, after all, a business woman. Still, I remind her: “You don’t have to do anything but talk,” and she relents.
Her name is Christina, she says, answering me a few seconds too late. She doesn’t ask my name but guesses that I’m from Washington, DC. Laid out on the bed, she props her head up with her arm, a rubber LIVE STRONG-type bracelet with the Heineken Beer logo slides down as far as it can go. “How old you think I am?” she asks. Without the glass and the lights and the people between us, she loses ten years. She’s thirty-three.
A native of Rio De Janeiro, English is a second language Christina picked up on the street, so our communication falters at times, like when I ask her to describe herself physically: “Sometimes it’s good because you help your family, but when you go out it’s not easy because really me don’t feel good because this–to be prostitute, no.”
I ask again, in a different way, how she would describe herself physically. “Ah, ah, ah, okay. How I am? I don’t know…I have 150 centimeters.” (That’s four-eleven and a half.) “I have big boobies!” she cackles. Maybe it’s the broken English or the synthetic ponytail sprouting from the crown of her head, but she seems to be channeling Charo, and I like it. “Then, I have, I think, nice face. Yeah, very beautiful. And the more important,” she says, “I good girl. I do the job because I have to live and I have to help my family, my mother and my babies. But I really, inside I don’t feel good, to prostitute, to be prostitutes, no. Because it’s very dangerous here.”
Three years ago, a woman who occupied a nearby window was murdered. Last year, a man, a client, attempted to kill Christina in this room. “He tried to–” she grabs her throat. “I stay in the hospital for three days. A friend, she listen to the noise, and she call police. The police find the guy inside the room without clothes and me died in the bed.” The tears I’m expecting to well up in her eyes never materialize, and her voice switches from sorrow to frustration. “The men, they want to take money back, they don’t want to use a condom, they want to do things you no want. They want to have everything from you, you know. Men is crazy.” I know, I tell her.
She fingers her necklace. “It’s Catholic,” she says. “Somebody gave it to me to protect me. This is Virgin Maria and this,” she flips the pendant over to an image of Christ, “is God.”
“Does it work?” I ask.
“Yeah…and the angel.” She points at a ceramic angel hanging on the wall facing the bed. “The angel always there. I like angel. I believe in angel.” She laughs like she knows it’s silly. “Always I have one angel in my room. And that’s the–maybe that’s why he don’t kill me. I believe in God. Really. But you know,” she sighs, “sometimes say, ‘God why you put me here?’” One rhinestone-studded sandal slips off her foot and plunks onto the floor.
Christina doesn’t smoke weed or slam shots of liquor to bide her time in the window. She talks to pals on the phone–other sex-workers. “We ha-ha-ha to be happy,” she says. And when there’s nothing left to discuss, she tries to shut her brain off. “I no want to think about nothing. I want to think maybe this day I make money for my family and I want to finish, I want to walk home and sleep. Don’t thinking. You have to be concentrated on your work.” Being concentrated is honing the ability to appear unaffected while people hoot and holler in your face.
“The men, they say something bad, they say ‘look at the bitch.’ The old people and the women, they see you like you are different. Some people, they look like it’s funny and it’s not funny–you no have to be inside here, you know?” I know, I tell her.
The tourists come armed with cameras, of course, pining to get a few shots of these freaky night creatures to accompany images of the Anne Frank House and the Bulldog Cafe. A friend of Christina’s had to pay a 500 Euro fine for attacking a photo-happy tourist and throwing his camera into the canal. “And you know what they do with picture,” she asks incredulously. “They put on internet and you know it’s not good because all the families see us, what we do here, and my family don’t know what I do here.” She shrugs when I ask what they think she’s doing. “Work in the restaurant,” she guesses.
Christina has allotted me twenty minutes but isn’t watching the clock. I let her know that we’re well past the half-hour mark. She has a request. “Will you write–say, this girl tell me to get all the countries, all the world, to help to stop prostitute. Includes the baby.” She had seen a news segment about child prostitutes. “Tell them that girl say to me she want everyone to help end there to be prostitute. You can do that for me?”
“You are gay?” she asks–or states. “But you happy?”
“Sure,” I reply, still unsure if she’s asking me or telling me.
“Because the people, they hate–but you happy. You happy with your life, and your family help you?”
“In America,” she reflects, “it’s very different because the people they don’t have conscience. I, I like gay. I like gay.” She takes my hand and shakes it. “I like it because I respect your life, and you happy, I be happy.”
“It’s a deal,” I tell her. She’s still got my hand.
“You feel the same to me,” she says.
“I feel the same to you?”
“Yeah. It’s very bad for you, and very bad for me. The people–they looking at us always.”
“Hey,” I whisper, “is Christina your real name?”
“It’s Angela,” she whispers back.
As soon as the storefront door shuts and I’m back on the street, a man yells at me: “How was it dude?”