Thursday, October 06, 2005

Путана, путана, путана...*

I never intended to hang out with hookers.


It just happened.

Despite being a rotund, sadly man-repelling schlubette myself, I am a hooker magnet - at least when overseas. Russia, Central Asia, Thailand. If there's a bar girl or a hard currency whore who's bored, she will to make a beeline for my company.

Although it's possible that I'd encountered hookers somewhere in the Twin Cities when I was in college (probably down near Hennepin Avenue), I'd never spoken to any working girls until I lived in the Soviet Union. Krasnodar, my genteel southern Russian hometown (location of my potential unwitting adventure in cannibalism) had a small, but lively group of prostitutes serving the town's international element. As far as I know, none of the male students in my small study abroad group used the ladies' services (interestingly - most of the men in our group were gay.) But the putany (Soviet slang for hard currency hookers) frequented the same limited haunts as we students did.

No offense to Krasnodar, but it wasn't exactly a swingin' hot spot in 1987. Most of the local excitement took the form of a couple of street cafes, offering the local chalky ice cream and outrageously sweet hot chocolate (which was, literally, melted chocolate bars served as a beverage.) There was one "friendship" nightclub that was theoretically only for citizens of Eastern Bloc countries. A friend took me there one night, telling me to pretend that I was Polish (at that point, my language skills sucked so much, I easily sounded like someone from another Slavic country when I actually was trying to speak Russian.) My visit to the club ended quickly, when I tripped over a dead body while trying to get to the ladies' room. A "friendship" customer had drunk himself to death on the local hooch. Game over, man. Game over. (That was my first contact with a dead body in Krasnodar, to be followed by several more. And no, I'm not counting the possible accidental ingestion of Ivan-kabobs as contact with a dead body, thanks.)

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that our academic program, newly minted, was not yet fully integrated into the local university system, and, as such, the university administrators made us live in the local Hotel Intourist instead of the school dorms. I was assigned room 721 for the semester, which I shared with a very cool chiquita from Grinnell College in Iowa. Damn nice roommate. One of the best roomie situations I've ever had. Our room overlooked the hotel bar, where Finnish tourists drank themselves silly, and the bar band practiced the one song they knew in English. Over and over and over again. I'll never forget it - "You're in the Army Now" by Status Quo. Bloody awful song. Worse - yet hilarious - when destroyed by a Russian bar band. We also had an enormous red neon sign outside our room that read "Put' k kommunismu!" The way to communism! Often times, only the big "K" in the middle was lit up, like some freaky Soviet K-mart sign.

Downstairs in the bar, the putany plied their trade, working over the small room of Finnish men, most of whom were too cheap to buy a quickie with the ladies. Their money was saved for the inexpensive booze - the main attraction of a vacation in the Soviet Union for people from a country with highly taxed liquor. The girls made most of their money when the Cuban and Angolan fighter pilots came in on weekend leave. Krasnodar supported a military pilot training program for top guns from Cuba and key African nations. These guys would come for a few months and learn how to fly the MiGs that their governments bought from Moscow. The guys were friendly, lonely, spoke a little English and usually had "a cousin in Chicago - you must know him!" And they had moolah for the working girls.

During the week, though, the putany were a bored and unemployed group. They were at the Bar Intourist each evening, sitting under the tawdry rainbow lights (that dementedly reminded me of an Dairy Queen set-up, minus the DillyBars), pushing around their glasses of Pepsi and vodka. (The bar usually only had five things for sale: vodka, Pepsi, bitter lemon, quickly melting ice cream and really awful waxy chocolate bars - and we bought 'em all.) On nights when we weren't being feted by our adopted Russian families, the local militia watched our comings and goings very closely. It was forbidden for us to go out and about on our own, so we had two choices - go to the bar and drink, or stay in our rooms and drink.

A month into our program, my roomie entered into a very hot and heavy relationship with one of the few straight guys in our group. Being a decent soul, I would retire to the bar while they got it on in the tiny room. My only requests: 1) please god, not in my bed; 2) keep the balcony door open to air out the room; and 3) did I already say, please god, not in my bed? It worked out just fine. She got down and got funky with Mr. Dude, and I practiced my Russian with the only other weekday night bar creatures: the hookers.

At first, they just stared at me and whispered to each other. I assumed they were just mocking my hideous haircut (dumbass here decided to cut her own bangs, wet, and did not understand the physics of damp hair - I ended up looking like Joan of Arc on a very, very bad day) or my equally hideous Madonna-rama-wannabe-era clothing. God help me, 1987 was not a good fashion year for yours truly. Turns out, the ladies were afraid I was some sort of spy. Eventually, though, curiosity got the better of them, and they started to talk to me. We talked about movies they'd never seen, but heard of. We talked about music and travel, and I tried to dispel the weird myths they believed about Americans. They, in turn, told me about space aliens they swore lived down by the river and worked in the local steel plant, and they gave me family recipes and embroidered hankies.

They were sweet and sad and most of them better educated than I would ever be. But hooking the occasional foreign client paid more than an office job or teaching school, so they took on a shadow life. Their chosen profession wasn't legal, but the local police turned a blind eye for a cut of the profits. It also kept the foreign military guys out of trouble. There was a large Ethiopian community in Krasnodar, too - mostly men attending the local university. Pervasive racism kept them in the shadows, too, so they socialized with the hookers, and sometimes an unlikely marriage resulted. The ladies assumed life would be better in Ethiopia; the Ethiopians often had no intention of returning to Africa, which the ladies did not realize.

I attended one "Ethiopian Prince/Russian hooker" wedding. That was weird. I brought a friend with me - another zaftig American woman. It was only at the reception that we came to understand that the single Ethiopian men thought we were American hookers, and we fled when the groom approached me to negotiate our "services" for his groomsmen. You've never seen two fat chicks run faster. I remember booking out of the room while "Thriller" played on the crappy stereo. Ranks up there in the Surreal Experience department.

I don't think I've ever been mistaken for a prostitute again in my life.

And that's okay.

Upside: the groom was willing to pay really well for the fat women. Gotta love the compliment, eh?

I recall coming down with some horrific flu-like illness in Krasnodar. I was sick for days, unable to attend class or even crawl down to the hotel restaurant for meals. This coincided with the annual "cleaning of the pipes" in town, when they shut down all the hot water in the city to prepare the system for winter. Lovely Soviet tradition. And when winter comes early, it means bathing and laundering in ice cold water. Not a great experience when you're feverish and ready to die.

But, bless their hearts, the putana patrol trooped up to my room on a regular basis, bringing tea and homemade soup, watermelon and ice cream. (The Krasnodarans were big on presenting visitors with watermelon - they'd carve the words "mir i druzhba" - peace and friendship - into the rind.) The ladies would quietly sit and watch awful old Soviet films with me on the nights when I was awarded one of the few tiny TV's in the hotel. And when it was time for our group to depart for the 'States in December, I gave them most of my belongings. They gave me postcards in return, each one with a lovely personalized message on the back. They looked so sad when we left for the airport. It meant a return to recruiting drunk Finns and servicing the pilots and no silly young Americans just willing to talk to them like humans. I wonder where they are now.

In Moscow, the hookers were a tougher lot - the street girls were mostly unfriendly and desperate, and I worked very hard to avoid contact. One night, walking to a bar with a French friend, a slobbering streetwalker, unsuccessful with her male clientele, tried to convince me to use her services by grabbing me by the boobs as I walked by, offering me a price, and attempting to kiss me. It was gross and unpleasant, and her desperation, fueled by booze and, surely, poverty, was pretty scary. I was furious with my friend, as he found the whole thing hilarious. I didn't. It was vile, and I felt violated. Tough crowd. Not my cup of joe. Despite an interest in Ethnographic Experiences, this was one I could have passed up.

Across town, though, in my 'hood, high-priced hookers serviced Middle Eastern diplomats and businessmen, cozying up to them on the dance floor at the Cosmos, and silently picking up spare room keys from their accomplices at the front desk. It's not that the Cosmos was a classy joint. It was a fairly decayed hotel by the time I moved to Moscow. But it was familiar territory for moneyed Arabs, and they knew that the girls would be there as long as they kept the cash flowing. These were not the sad schoolteachers of Krasnodar. These were sharp-eyed supermodels in Chanel and Dior, with too much makeup and a great want of a foreign passport. They reminded me of the "band" in the "Addicted To Love" video. The only thing missing was Robert Palmer and a good beat.

I was a regular at the Cosmos only because some of my foreign friends did business there - we'd meet up after their meetings ended and grab dinner or coffee before heading out for an evening of typically odd Moscow mischief. Also, back then, the Cosmos was the hotel for the Lufthansa crews flying in and out of Russia. My brother, a Lufthansa steward, would fly in as often as possible to visit and bring me goodies from Germany. (The man made me blackout curtains for my apartment, so I could sleep in the long, bright Russian summer. How cool is that?) While I'd wait for my friends or my brother, I'd watch the ladies work the room, checking out potential johns, meeting up with regular customers, exchanging keys and money in surreptitious exchanges worthy of a LeCarre novel.

The disco in the basement was the most popular location for negotiating business, and it also had the best coffee and the only functioning ladies restroom in the public area of the hotel. And that's where I met most of the girls. They hovered in the restroom, fixing layers of carefully applied war paint, spraying perfectly coiffed hair, checking their figures and exchanging notes on their high-priced fashions. These ladies made more in a night that I made in a month - by Moscow standards, they were millionaires. (Interestingly, Russian hookers started their own union right after the Soviet Union fell - I think it was a short-lived, but gutsy move.) I did not envy these women their jobs, but some of them were absolutely stunning. The only thing that seemed to strike a false note in my profoundly Western mind was the smell. No deodorant. Lots of B.O. I think that's what kept these ladies from having an American clientele. It got pretty damn ripe in that ladies room.

And there I'd be, waiting for a stall, surrounded by stinky, but gorgeous fashionistas, feeling like a toadstool. And yet, they'd stop and talk to me. Vy otkuda? Where are you from? America? Tell me about it! I want to go there. You are so fortunate. They'd buy me drinks in the disco bar and pepper me with questions. They'd try their English and tell me of dreams to live in New York City. They'd wave to me in the lobby when I waited for my brother. Once a group of them invited me to come to their apartment for dinner. I passed on the offer, more because we had a strict contact policy at the embassy, had to take at least one friend along, and were required to write up any home visits we had with locals. Frankly, I really didn't know how to sell that to any of my friends. Hey, some hookers would like to cook us dinner. Wanna go? That would have been a pickle for embassy security, too, I reckon.

I was a schlub, but I was a lucky schlub. An American schlub. I didn't have to beg johns to marry me for a lovely little passport of a different hue. And I didn't avoid these women or ignore them, like a lot of disdainful foreigners did. I just talked to them. I brought them clothing catalogs and magazines, and they told me who paid the most and who the most miserable customers were. In retrospect, I could have pulled off the most amazing anthropology research coup. (If only I had a degree in anthropology.)

Crap, I just realized that I'm babbling. That's what happens when I don't write for a few days. I become a blogging motor mouth. And I didn't even touch on the big Moscow police hooker map I got to check out one night at the local militia station (and uber-creepy jail) or the Thai bar girls I met on the overnight bus to Phuket (and the French doctor who'd "bought" them for a week for his 13-year-old son...) Jeez, I didn't even cover the retired porn star with whom I used to have a lively Internet correspondence. (Some amazing insight and... advice... 99.9% of which I reckon I will never have an "opportunity" to implement...)

Ah well. Another time, then?

*That's "putana, putana, putana." Russian pop star Oleg Gazmanov hit it big several years ago with a song called "Putana" about the hard currency working girls in Moscow. He even mentions the Hotel Cosmos in one verse. Ask some Russian speakers about it. If they're under 50, I'll betcha dollars to donuts most of them can sing the chorus of "Putana" for you. Hell, catch me on Skype or GoogleTalk or Yahoo Messenger, and I'll sing it for you.


Cyn said...

What a great story (I wasn't expecting a tale of hookers to have so many bittersweet elements.)

Now I have to read about your brush with cannibalism...

Merujo said...

Just make sure you've already eaten, first! ;-)

suze said...

great story.

but yes, i'm rather curious about the possible accidental cannibalism...

your life just gets more and more interesting the more i read :)

Claire said...

sounds like quite the adventure. Well, adventures. I hope there's a sequel.