VIENNA, Austria Forgive me, gentle reader, for I am about to stray into adult territory. For that is what I did one weeknight evening on a trip through some of the seediest places purely for journalistic reasons.
I had made acquaintance with a fellow journalist, whose identity I shall protect, who was investigating the underworld of Viennas Grtel. The inner belt of the city, the Grtel is lined with dozens of brothels, wrapping the inner city with a belt of vice.
Geographically, Vienna is well-positioned to absorb young economic refugees, fleeing the eastern fringes of Europe that is in many areas still an economic wasteland. If only that was the whole truth. Criminal gangs also operate a cash-on-delivery operation where they import these human beings from the former Soviet Union, Balkans, Africa and elsewhere.
The first joint was one of the most well-known. It was done up in a Grecian style with faux statues of Venus, red lights strung across the bar, and surly men one with a grotesque tattoo across his neck staffing the bar.
The women sat at small tables, looking pensive and smoking Marlboro Lights. In their hands were drinks of various colors. Most of these supple-bodied, sad-eyed beauties were very young.
In the center was a single pole. Ink-neck, as I believe his mother calls him, would point to one of them. Shed stub out her cigarette and then do a strip on the center pole, in a lurid attempt to drum up business. Aside from a few child-molesting arms dealers in the corner, we were the only johns in the place.
After each dance, the women would come at us, a phalanx of lurid grins and greetings. We told them, no we were not interested in their wares, wed only stopped in to enjoy a quiet round of 8 bottles of beer, but thank you all the same.
Looking around, I noticed the place was multiracial. At a far corner were a trio of African women sitting by themselves.
You’d think in a brothel at least youd have some racial harmony, one of us quipped.
The first dancer came and introduced herself. She couldnt have been more than 19 years old. She was from a small city in Bavaria, near the border with Austria, she told us.
Gastarbeiter, (guest worker) quipped one of my companions.
The second dancer came up to us. She had look pretty pissed off when it was her turn to dance. She said she was from Hungary and didnt linger around for conversation.
The whole interaction was watched closely by ink-neck and his fellow pimps. It was like a sales office in a car lot. If the salespeople didnt put appropriate pressure on the suckers, theyd get pulled into the sales managers office later. I didnt want to imagine.
The Africans were the next wave. They tried to put their hands on us, I politely shooed them away, explaining lamely that I was shy. They spoke impeccable English, probably better than their German. They asked us to buy them drinks. At 8 a pop, our sense of chivalry failed us and they went back to their solitary table, empty-handed.
The second place was more subdued. It was named after a major American city and had a few clients. One was a well-dressed man in a business suit looking very pleased with himself. Someone in our party recognized him as a successful car dealer with two children and a wife. He was chatting amiably to an anorexic girl about half his age in a private booth. She looked very bored. He pretended not to notice or just didnt care.
The other john was an elderly man in a dirty red anorak. He looked like he had just enough cash to hang out, but not enough to purchase services. Most of the women were from Romania. I asked one, she said she was 30-years-old, how long shed been working there.
Three weeks, she said. Your German is very good for three weeks.
Im learning every day, she replied.
My companions needed photos to go with their story. They used me as the dumb American holidaymaker and said they wanted a photo that I could take back home. She assented after my companion bought the old codger in the red jacket a strip tease. The face would be blocked out, my friends said.
We continued our travel, armed with a list from an informant that my friend had earlier interviewed. One was just a small shack, above the tracks leading to a main train station. We opened the door. Loud, Turkish pop was blaring out; there were about half-dozen hostile looking Turkish men and maybe two girls.
Our fearless leader stood in the doorway, letting the cold air waft in.
Are you coming in or not, the bartender asked, not unreasonably.
I was but it looks too dangerous, he replied. They didnt really argue. We moved on.
The next place was the last stop for the evening. Usually the Grtel is thronged with streetwalkers and others outside the pavement to attract business, I was told. This club had a couple of women out front. They immediately seized upon us.
How much does it all cost, our drunken leader asked. One hundred and twenty euros for twenty minutes, the girl said. His face was one of shocked disbelief. But that includes the room, she offered. Yeah, its too cold without the room, he replied.
So why was she out there? The boss says I have to wait out here, unless you want to go inside for a drink. It was awkward. Clearly she didnt want to mill around on the pavement in thigh-high boots, but we didnt want to get sucked in either.
Uh, maybe later Ive had too much to drink, our leader slurred.
She was disgusted and, it appeared, with her own situation in general.
You young men all drink too much! she blurted in Romanian-accented German before it accelerated passed my level of comprehension. (My German sucks. To illustrate: Earlier in the evening I was asked if I wanted any company but thought the girl had asked my profession).
Inside the only consolation to this sad place were the photos of D-list celebrities on the wall. My favorite was of an Austrian television actor I hadnt seen since 1999.
She show, Commissar Rex, centered around a police detective and his crime-fighting German shepherd, Rex. And yes, in the picture was the actor and Rex. The girl was smiling, patting the dog.
Less than four hours later, I was at the Parliament building watching the Finance Minister unveil next years budget. Even my terrible German could understand the main points: fiscal responsibility, preserving social security for the future of our children, yada, yada, yada.
Political grandstanding sounds the same, whatever the language.
All the while I couldnt stop thinking of those sad-eyed people who looked so homesick under the garish pink glow of Viennas red light district not more than a mile away.