Amsterdam, Netherlands – September 2004
I have entered De Wallen, the red light district of Amsterdam. The neon lights emit a pink glow in the gray autumn light. It is a weekday afternoon and, even though the narrow streets aren’t deserted, they are calm. Most people seem to be strolling through on their way to someplace else. Or maybe, like me, they’re feigning nonchalance.
I glance at the windows out of the corner of my eye. Girls of every variety are on display. Most of them have the statuesque, glacial beauty of Eastern Europeans. Some file their nails, others stare out at the world with a wistful, daydreamy expression. I’ve heard that most of these girls are trafficked by “boyfriends” or pimps. To my surprise, a couple of them smile at me. I return the smiles.
In the mid-1990s, I worked for a short time as an exotic dancer in Southern California. I had recently recovered from a nervous breakdown and was trying to rebuild my life. I wanted to go back to school, but I didn’t want to be imprisoned by debt ever again. I didn’t want to be hungry ever again. But how could I sink so low and become a stripper? Weren’t they all druggies and prostitutes? They’d probably beat me up!
At that time, Southern California had the strictest laws in the United States. No contact. No nudity unless you were two meters away. Constant surveillance. Cameras everywhere. Zero tolerance. After much reflection, I found myself on a lighted stage with a new name and new persona: Claire DeLune. But, most unexpectedly, I found one thing that I’d never before experienced: camaraderie with a group of women.
Most of my colleagues were made up of single mothers who chose to work rather than go on welfare. Then there were the students like me. Of course there were stereotypes, but they were the smallest group. None of them were more promiscuous than women I’d worked with in any other job. My old judgements dissipated immediately. Those years were some the funniest and most vibrant of my life, and even though I never could get over feeling like I was a loser, I will never regret them. Because empathy forever replaced the self-righteousness that I used to feel.
As I approach the end of the street, a group of men passes by. They gawk and hurl insults at the girls, and then break into a loud discussion about which one they’ll allow to experience the honor of their presence. The hair on the back of my neck stands up. We used to call their type Date Rapers. We would spend days comforting each other after a group like that came in, and it was only words that we had to endure. I can’t imagine…
The woman in the last window makes me do a double take. She looks to be about sixty. Her shapeless housedress pushes against her bloated belly. Dirty gray curls. Compression hose. Her expression holds the anguish of a thousand lost battles. I shake my head. Like all of the girls, she rents the window, so she must have customers. Does she fulfill some kind of bizarre fetish?
The agitation ebbs away as I walk along the houseboat-lined canals. I peer into the coffeeshops as I walk by. They are dark and intimidating. If any noise can be heard, it is the raucous laughter of men. No way I’m going in there.
Most of the afternoon remains. I’ve already taken a boat tour of the canals. The Rijksmuseum is closed for remodeling. I don’t want to visit the Anne Frank House. I’ve had enough sadness for today. I’ve wandered through the Bloemenmarkt, the floating flower market.
I come across a coffeeshop/cafe that has a patio overlooking a canal. Potted plants hang from the ceiling. Pretty murals are painted on the wall. Two smiling, gray-haired women work busily behind the counter. I look over the menu. An American woman hands her young son a soda and sends him out to the patio. “I’ll be out in a minute, honey.” After he goes outside, she lights up a joint with shaking hands, casting nervous glances out the window. After a couple of hits, she stubs out the joint and puts it in her purse and hurries outside.
I scan the menu. I haven’t smoked in many years. I was a huge smoker in high school. A burnout, is what they called kids like me. The bullying at school and the troubles at home were obscured behind a constant veil of smoke. After I moved away, the rage slowly dissipated and the urge to smoke along with it. I only smoked on social occasions, if it was offered to me. A massive panic attack eventually brought an end to all of it.
I order a tomato, mozzarella, and basil panini, a cappuccino, and, after consulting the nice lady about it, a hash joint. It’s a subtle buzz, she says. I sit at a table outside and cradle the joint in my palm. Freaked out tourists are probably not a rare occurrence here, but it would be embarrassing. Maybe after I eat something I’ll feel more confident. And if I don’t, that’s fine.
A middle-aged American couple takes a seat in front of me. He’s wearing a black turtleneck and she’s wearing a beret. From their conversation, I gather that they’re from San Francisco.
One of the cafe ladies comes out. She sets my panini and cappuccino in front of me. “Oh, I forgot an ashtray. I’ll be right back.”
At the word ashtray, the American woman shoots me an angry glare and then turns to her husband. “She better not start smoking.” Her husband curls his upper lip at me.
I lift my eyebrows. Oh really? Now I’m determined to light up. They are in Amsterdam. In a coffeeshop. It’s on the menu, for crying out loud. Most of the cafes that line the canals are smoke free. They can just take their sanctimonious selves elsewhere.
The woman from the cafe leans out the door and hands me an ashtray. “Bon appetit!” She winks.
After I finish my lunch, I lift the joint to my lips. At the sound of the lighter being flicked, the American woman whips her head around. Mouth open. Indignation carefully groomed. She catches my look and blanches. She turns back around without a word. I turn my head and exhale away from them. I’ve proven my point. No need to rub it in. They finish their cappuccinos and leave.
I take one more hit and then stub it out. I linger for a while. The only thing I feel is a slight softening of edges. A recession of perturbation. I wave goodbye to the cafe ladies and make my way to the Van Gogh Museum.