published in Volume 3, Issue 2 on February 29th, 1996
Hemingway (Ernest, not Mariel) said we should write about what we know, and is there any better way to know something, than to experience it? More than anything, that's why I did it. It was the sort of thing a writer is supposed to do. It would be a cool story to tell, like one of those wild buddy movies, the ones where appropriate music accompanies the most mundane action and you laugh at the funny things people say while they're being shot at.
My wild buddy John was getting married, and for his bachelor party he wanted us to go to a whorehouse. The Groom and I had known each other for many years, and although we shared the abiding bond of Foolish Male Endeavors (bungee jumping, parachuting, high speed car chases and bad, high school plays) our contract went beyond adrenal foolishness, each of us having held the other in pain and fear.
He was, and is, my friend.
Did I know what I was doing, what I was getting into? No, the word "whorehouse" carried a powerful flavor that tuned-out level-headedness. It echoed of clipper ships at sea and barroom brawls, of Redford and Newman in smoky, Victorian parlors filled with pretty women in bloomers. I must have had a dangerous gleam in my eye, because when I would tell people my plans, their response was always a wide-eyed: "Be careful."
Oh, and I did tell people. We all did. John's sister knew her husband was going, she just didn't ask about it; the bride, being from another culture, actually told the groom it was okay, but, like her future sister-in-law, she didn't want to know any deta ils. Even my wonderful Amy knew I was going; I told her quite openly at a restaurant. True, it was about an hour before I got on the plane, but I'm sure I sounded matter-of-fact about the whole thing, like a scientist going along strictly for research purposes. In my heart I knew I had no intention of demeaning our partnership, even though tool calendar gorgeous woman were going to approach me with black belt bedding secrets mastered over years of screwing. I was just a writer, looking for a story to tell.
In Houston I rented a car, picked up the groom's brother-in-law and drove to Laredo, where the bridegroom was waiting. As we drove, the talk included stories of the women we'd slept with and maybe loved, and the women we loved now. My own sexual history was out-gunned by that of brother-in-law, so I tried to keep the conversation from hard numbers. The writer in me generalized as best he could, stretching my few lovers into a wider range of carnal adventure. By avoiding specifics I implied several women were many. I doubt brother-in-law was fooled, but in the course of our hormonal mission it was not examined. We were raging bundles of testosterone, bound by the Code of the Y Chromosome.
By the time we got to Laredo, you could almost smell the musk. The bridegroom met us on his porch and we exchanged manly handshakes. We were all looking forward to The Whorehouse. John, the groom, had been there before. He would be our guide, the one who had ventured, charted, and upon coming back alive, was qualified to lead a new expedition.
And so, the Wild Buddies set off for the whorehouse leeringly called Boystown. As we drove across the border, I peered down into the streaming Rio Grande. I was told the filthy depths were full of lethal micro organisms that had killed many foolish enough to try and swim across. I looked hard, but the waters looked the same as the Missouri back home. My imagination seized the image of this deadly canal separating two distinct worlds. As we paid the toll, I spied the uniforms and drug dogs patrolling the foreign land. My heart sped as I saw a place so far removed from my own reality. As we entered Nuevo Laredo there should have been sultry theme music playing, alerting the audience to changes the players could not see.
I have been asked not to judge all of Mexico by the standard of the border towns. Certainly I wish I had seen more of the country, for Nuevo Laredo is a terrible memory; a place of boarded-up buildings, and narrow, greasy, gray streets congested with trash and begging children. Though I am certain it is considered home by many people, it reminded me of nightmares about being lost in an endless back alley where the ability to run is inexplicably broken. And there was a subtle stink, as if nearby, garbage had been left out in the summer sun.
We ate at a restaurant where John had eaten before. I had cabrito--young goat. The entree was displayed in the windows of the shop, and we joked about eating homeless spaniels.
After dinner, we headed to Boystown, and upon arrival the name Boystown took on greater depth. To call Boystown a whorehouse was like calling the O.J. verdict a whimsical misstep. Boystown was a sprawling whore village, not only literally, but geographically. The compound itself covered several blocks and entry was accomplished by driving through a large gate. Incredible as it seemed to my midwestern mind, it was a mall dedicated to sex.
Once inside, we steered to the light of a bar called El Papagayo's. The exterior, with its bright neon pushing back the evening, made me think of all the times the camera would follow a tuxedoed James Bond inside some exotic location. The night air was warm and loud music rang out of the surrounding doorways.
El Papagayo's was dimly lit inside, but not smoky as I had envisioned. Because it was Monday, business was slow and empty tables spread out before us. Even as we sat, the women drew around--like ants to freshly dripped ice cream. They were not dressed in the bloomers of my cowboy movie imagination, but in tight, unflattering Spandex and nylon. The powder on their faces was caked and shiny, making me think of dusty, waxed fruit.
One approached me, reached down to my crotch and ran her hand unerringly along my length. She called me "Super Hombre." which made me laugh; for better and worse, years of high school rejection had made me immune to such tactics. Still, I was polite and explained in slow English that I had someone wonderful at home. When she was convinced that commerce was not about to take place, she moved off, no longer impressed that I was Super Hombre. There was a distinct feeling that time was money.
I drank only bottled beer, my sophisticated brain keenly alert to what might be lurking in the frozen Mexican water cooling other drinks. I felt savvy, like a globe trotting pro. After two rounds we headed out onto the streets of Boystown with John guiding us. He could have been at the front of a tour bus: "To your left you can see..." Pointing to the horizon he sagely warned us to avoid that portion of Boystown completely. In the shadows, he explained, were men who did things, sick things that went well beyond the screwing and grunting that God intended straight, decent Americans to purchase.
From the edges of the evening music accompanied us as we walked. The putrid, gone-over smell was along also, causing me to eye the tamale vendor's steaming cart suspiciously. As we walked, another odor overpowered the earlier stench. Across the walk before us, a gray donkey with dry, wiry hair stood amid piles of its own shit.
I felt an electric tingle. John had explained the "donkey shows" to me. When the money was there, and the crowd frenzied, the donkey would be brought in onto the stage, and the whores would perform sex acts with it. Between the donkey's legs hung a long phallus, purple almost to blackness. I knew I was supposed to be shocked, but instead, I heard my mother's voice telling me not to stare at the accident.
The inside of the donkey bar was like a hobo's living room: old car seats propped up between walls papered with aluminum foil. Several barely clad women stopped and sat with us, asking for drinks. The men in the room were GQ poster children. Most wore dirty denim and cotton, while any baths and haircuts were more likely the result of a lawyer's instructions than a habit. My liberal arts upbringing clashed with the reflexive urge to think of them as "bottom dwellers." Periodically, women would walk across the room literally parading for inspection, exposing themselves to another, seated against the wall. One woman, squeezed into a white paint-job-of-a-dress, peeled down her top, barring her breasts for a man at the bar, inviting him to examine the freshness. There was even one prostitute that made us confer in whispers. Her underwear wasn't skintight at the groin like all the others, and a bulge she couldn't hide was what seemed to be an Adam's apple.
These were the pieces of the story I would tell at some later date. I took them in and rolled them around, trying to disassemble the angles and reconstruct them so that I understood fully what I was seeing. As I examined the details I realized I was not a roused. There was no eroticism. No more than one feels when pushing cold meat between slices of bread. There was nothing dirty here except the glasses the drinks came in and the servers' hands. There we were, dropped into an ancient tale: women renting space inside their bodies, taking cash for acts of intimacy and exhibition. The "world's oldest profession" my education said. But this time I wasn't just coming home late through the bad part of town, driving past hookers at two in the morning. I thought about that, wondering how it felt, to be so exposed and vulnerable. Perhaps too briefly, injury and disease came closer than the evening news.
Outside again, we walked along boardwalks as barely clad women lounged in bedrooms, doors open, advertising on a slow night for any attention. It was like a strip of film, each frame consisting of slight variations on the same scene: bed, female, and dim yellow light. Some stood outside their doors. One, ugly and drunken, walked up to me, cupped her hand in my groin and slurred, "I hwant to fuck hyou!" Her free hand clumsily groped my wallet and I pushed away the one palming my crotch. The same thing was happening to our fearless guide, who spoke to the woman in an angry tone, clearly suggesting she was violating some rule of fair trade.
We returned to El Papagayo's where the women again circled. In one hour I rejected more offers for sex than in all my other days on Earth combined. The Groom indulged himself, letting the women sit on his lap and whisper in his ear. One, whose painted face made me think of cartoons where a horse is drawn to look like a woman, ground her butt into John's lap. His face, dreamily contented, contrasted against the woman's bored, far away expression. It was the same face that asks if you want fries with your order and doesn't care about your response. This wasn't an adventure, it was a job.
Looking at John enjoying the attention of women who cared nothing about him, I thought about the professional tone he took with the hooker that tried to pick his pocket. I realized my friend didn't view this as a Wild Buddy movie, instead, he saw the whole thing as business, a meeting between consumer and provider. I think I always knew it wasn't really a movie, nor just a story, but I never believed it was a business transaction. After all, we weren't going to use their services. None of us were going to pay these women more than a tip.
Eventually, brother-in-law allowed a woman to sit on his lap. They talked, but I couldn't hear the words. Still, I'm sure they weren't discussing the location of enemy headquarters, and that she didn't have to embellish stories of her sex life. Most certainly they were not discussing his life in Houston or her secret dreams. This was not affection, nor sex. This wasn't even the business of prostitution, because we were only window shopping. This was just pretend.
I wish I could write that sitting there I felt something under my skin, that I realized it was peoples' lives we were taking lightly. I wish that I had had some English class moment where I saw that we were on a Princess cruise through someone else's existence, and that we had no real business there, but I didn't. I was miles and days away from that conclusion.
No, somewhere before one a.m. we just left Boystown. When we became tired and bored, we simply walked out--a freedom I don't believe the prostitutes shared. Thinking about it now, I understand why someone would swim in the disease infested waters of the river. I went to Boystown expecting an experience, something outside my reality to flavor my own life. I wanted a good story to tell.
And I was reminded that all stories...are a matter of perspective.