Substantial houses, as uncompromising as the Dutch matrons of old oil paintings, watch over the canals. The curvilinear pediments gracing the roof fronts mimic the starched winged bonnets of Rembrandt’s respectable womenfolk, the fancy window shutters — the showy lace cuffs of their best dresses.
In the sex trade district, at the windows of the lower floors, a red light signals ‘open for business’. The painted lady cavorts in the frame of the window, her flesh artfully accented by bustier, thong, garter belt and stockings. She gazes out as though looking into the lens of a camera, poses with a nail buffer or hair comb; she is an animated portrait of the same woman you’d once have seen in sepia-toned Edwardian post cards, quaint, coy, lady-like — pre-Playboy erotica . A gaudy butterfly trapped in a display case.
The sex industry is regulated in Amsterdam. Business and premise are licensed. Both worker and client are protected by health and safety regulations. The rates for service are up-front and surprisingly low.
Not one classic beauty in sight, a few cellulite-free, conventionally pretty younger women, but on the whole a collection of ordinary women — your sister, your daughter’s friend, the girl at the supermarket check-out, your mother — doing a day’s work, primarily evening shift , in five inch heels and false eyelashes.
When the red window curtain is drawn, I presume a fee-for-service act is being performed. I like to think that somewhere on the window there is a notice that reads: Back in five minutes. Please wait. Form an orderly queue.