The Old Sailor rests at Oudezijds Achterburgwal and Molensteeg in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Order drinks at the bar and take a seat at the rearmost table, overlooking the street. Across the canal, there’s a woman in a window, crouching in a striped bikini, balanced just so to show her ass off to the passing throngs.
Chances are you’ve already seen her by the time you get to the Sailor. They hang out in the windows of De Wallen like featured product, adorned with “fuck me” stares in place of price tags, looking you up and down as though you’re the customer they’ve been waiting for all night. It’s their job. Most wear little to show off the merchandise. Some work hard, drawing attention to body parts trained to perform. Others smoke listlessly. An inordinate number sit too absorbed with Smart Phone screens to pay attention, sending texts to pimps, fellow workers, parents and friends, either too tired to allure or making it part of their presentation.
There’s an alley over by Oedekerksplein that’s only shoulder-width wide. Sleazy red boudoirs line the walls. Up ahead a crowd gathers; one potential client has struck up a bargain, but can’t commit. The girl has him by the elbow, trying to drag him inside as his friends laugh at his expense. Over by the Moulin Rouge, you can hear the deals being struck – 50 Euros for something or other, as a girl looks up from a basement window with a wry smile, techno music blaring out of a blue-lit back room.
A look back at the window across from the Sailor reveals that the crouching woman is gone; she’s been replaced by two women with unbelievable figures complemented by even skimpier swimsuits. It’s hard to look away, and conversation falters in their presence. Soon a young guy, 30, 35, enters their building and climbs the stairs, begging their attention. Negotiations ensue, and the man ultimately leaves with both women, off to a part of the building not facing the street.
Everything is tempered by the tourists who roam the streets, representing all age groups and genders. On this particular Sunday night, seniors stroll both sides of the canal – part of some kind of amusing package deal – and take it all in with bemused detachment. Still another tour group lines up at the Sex Palace, waiting to see a live show. A young couple walk by holding hands. Later on they’ll cuddle close in the Bulldog hostel, exchanging chuckles.
Out front of the peep shows, men in suits stand smoking, looking half intimidating and half impressive, like they have something to show you but would kick your ass given the flimsiest excuse. Some of the windows have their curtains drawn; clients are being entertained within, separated by a thin sheet of fabric from the curious gaze of onlookers. Other windows lay vacant, gutted on order of the city in an effort to keep things contained and send a message to the pimps and mafia.
Down in the “special interest” section of De Wallen, a prostitute with an impossible backside is talking with a potential when a bike taxi accidentally runs into a pedestrian. Like the rest of us, she stares, wondering what happened, and for a moment the odd sensation exists that prostitute and tourist alike are looking at the very same thing, as though they’re on the same side of the glass.
Back at the bar, another look in the window reveals that the first woman in the striped bikini is back in her crouched position as though the last 20 minutes hadn’t elapsed. Still more tourists gawk and leer, none brave enough to take a camera shot directly, resorting to shots taken from nearby bridges, where it’s too much work for the whores to give chase. Before long another young man enters the building and engages the woman. It’s time to leave the Old Sailor.
“What do you think?” my friend asks as we head back up Oudezijds Achterburgwal. I’m not sure. Outright condemnation seems puritanical and prudish, while endorsement ignores the fact that some of these women are trapped, prisoners with no way out. But it seems like De Wallen belongs wholly to Amsterdam. It is what it is. At the end of the canal, off in a section just north of the Red Light District uninhabited by tourists, a lamentation of swans has gathered, providing a starkly beautiful contrast to the proceedings to the south. Marvel at their gentleness and go.