I could not be this close and not visit.
The last time I set foot in Amsterdam was 2005, and it was too early in the day trip to see any action. The time before in 2001 on Madonna’s Drowned World Tour, I was intrigued by the amount of agency the sex workers had about whom they would service. Then I heard that the area was in danger of being shut down, but survived the peril.
So I could not be this close to the Red Light District and not visit.
In the interest of full transparency, I’ll admit that my heightened “red light” sentimentality has to do in part with having recently worked with the dancer who soundtracked my first time with the eponymous TLC song, this along with my best friend’s recent choreographic experience with it. But I was in Amsterdam, so I had to go.
Marlon comes with, which is to say that he leads the way so that I can relax into the joint we smoke en route. Public alcohol consumption is illegal, but smoking a joint is totally fine.
We make it to the District and it is overrun with folks. Mostly tourists. I am irritated, as if my passport indicates Belgian citizenship. We note that the girls are remarkably commercialized. There is nothing extraordinary looking about them by Western standards. They are mostly over-made, very glamourized and silicon-chested—none of which discourages the guys overpacking the streets.
There are only a few seconds to consider the potential of a career in the world of prostitution as a second act; taxes and booth fees notwithstanding, these ladies still make enough to be picky. But onlya few seconds. Thereafter Marlon and I simply fight through the crowd to window shop.
We stop at a burger joint so that Marlon can buy the taste of a happier cow than any we have back home. While we wait, we use his hotspot and my phone to locate gay bars nearby.
“I see a few,” I say. “Amstel’s 45, The Queen’s Head, Dirty Dicks…”
“Which one do you want to go try?”
“Well, that last one, Dirty Dicks, it’s the closest.”
“Sounds good, right?”
We make it to the bar, clear on our accuracy only because there was a flag outside the dark, unlit door. We had seen a few places like this, sketchy entrances that opened up into cavernous places of colorful, bright festivity. Except this is not that. We pass through a small foyer, an intermediary space between the actual door and the building façade that is pitch.
The bar is not too much different. A different kind of red light, less Carmen hot and more Lucifer rich, borders the bar area and the coat check that takes up what seems to be a healthy percentage of the real estate of this small bar.
“Oh maybe we can go upstairs?” Marlon says, after sharing a few sighs and sounds of realization.
“It is very dark upstairs,” the bartender promises, “You cannot see in front of you. Can I get you drinks?”
Inside we are still shook. The shake comes out in tentative, slow orders.
“I have to stick with tequila…”
“I’ll drink tequila with you. Tequila soda.”
“I cannot make this,” the bartender/coat check/doorman/Charon says.
“You don’t have grenadine?”
“No. This is not a fancy place, we don’t make cocktails. You buy the orange juice separate.”
We take our drinks and back away to the seats against the wall, which is to say five feet from who had to be Lucifer’s assistant Mazikeen. We are shook, understand please, not because we are prudish or disdainful, or because we are even conservative. It is because we realize how utterly American we have been, assuming that Dirty Dick’s was surely a play on words, a bar belonging perhaps to someone named Richard who liked the alliteration, or perhaps a joke of the proprietors who conceptualized the place to begin with.
No, they actually mean it. Dirty dicks. As in, not-clean dicks. Dirty. Made so in real time upstairs or on this level beyond the flatscreen hung above the entrance of the downstairs semi-darkness ahead. The clean part is the efficiency, the lack of equivocation or cleverness, the naming so that purpose, products and goals are represented at once. What’s clean is how strongly we believed we were sophisticated travelers and not insipid tourists who ridiculously (and subconsciously) misapplied our American expectations to a Belgian gay bar.
Because of course the gay sex bar would never be lumped into a search with respectable social bars. Of course every culture is as puritanical as ours and would find this horrifying. And since we’re in the Red Light District, there is every reason to assume that houses of ill repute will be glaring and obvious from the street.
I sip my tequila.
On the screen, a man is writing Fuck Me with a sharpee across an expansive, muscular back. He follows up with an arrow down the spine pointing to a behind that has seen no sun ever. For some reason (my PornMD favorites be damned), the specificity of the video, the spelling out of it all, is unsettling.
I turn my head from the screen and it lands on a guy walking toward one of the barstools we ignored. He has on a sweater, a jock strap and shoes and nothing else. He sits, unbothered.
We are clearly not ready. And nobody in Dirty Dicks looks like the guys cast in the video. It’s more like Castle Black, the men of the Kightswatch who never made it into the scenes.
Marlon and I look at each other, cues to drink faster to get out.
We make our way to The Queen’s Head and gag at the number of folks old enough to be my father. After we order proper cocktails, I reflect on how actually very sanitary and pristine the red lights of the District seem. Completely regulated, the area does exactly what it is supposed to on the up and up: provide a specific product involving merchants, goods and exchanges. Should things go wrong, there are cops all over to intervene. The women rent their booths that someone cleans, stand pressed against Windexed windows, lie on beds with laundered sheets (so I hear), and pay taxes after. It’s actually rather clean.
When it thought about it, even while Dirty Dicks is not clean, it provides a pleasure service with no tariff and it is all on the up and up.
This is not a fancy place.
Of course it’s not. Neither are the sex clubs and sex parties in the States. But those are so unregulated and so underground you have to be on a listserve, or get a text, or ask someone who’s been for the address. “We’re going to run to freshen up at the hotel, run to Dirty Dicks for a while and then we’ll meet you up for drinks and dessert after…” or the equivalent says no one in the states about their dirty dicking ever.
Perhaps the Dutch don’t go this far into the realm of casual about it either. But when the bartender says this is not a fancy place, it is his way of distinguishing the brand from those of other gay bars listed in my quick Google search. It brought to mind some of the bathhouses around the world that have pools, gyms, spas, mini-cafes where you can have a quick coffee with someone before getting naked with them in a room. Those are fancy, but they even they aren’t off brand.
Sobered by the awareness that I was not as clear at the beginning of the night as I was at its end, I take my clean crotch home, careful not to judge it—or any other crotches—en route. No assumptions.
Although maybe there is some branding possibility there. Clean Crotch is also alliterative…