It was a brisk and beautiful fall day when I first met Steffi, the madam of an upscale brothel in the Czech Republic town of Plzen. Steffi's Club was one of the many houses of ill-repute surrounding the Namestm (town center), but it had the reputation of being more clean and reputable -- unlike many of the rundown establishments that imported poverty-stricken young Russian women in what pretty much amounted to slave trade. I had heard many glowing reviews of Steffi's from happy German clients while drinking beer at the local cafes. This, I soon learned, was the problem. Steffi had too many German clients and not enough Brits and Americans. Plzen was becoming a more popular destination for English-speaking tourists vacationing in Prague, all of them wanting to sample the world-famous beers brewed in the city that invented Pilsner.
We met at the 24-hour strip club around the corner from my office at the University of West Bohemia. I was a regular at the bar because of Svatka, a bartender and weekend dancer at the club. Svatka was a sweet girl, generous and outgoing. She had the most amazing tattoo I had ever seen: a single, intricate, long-stemmed rose growing out from what she innocently referred to as her "field of dreams." (Czech women go gaga over Kevin Costner.) We had begun dating after Svatka allowed me to closely inspect her tattoo during a private lap dance to celebrate my 32nd birthday. Steffi was one of her best friends.
From the beginning, Steffi was all business. She told me she had four young ladies on her staff (Lenka, Magda, Renata and Tereza), and though they could all speak enough English to get by with a client, Steffi thought they needed to know some cute phrases, colloquialisms and dirty slang to inspire return business and word-of-mouth advertising. She asked if I would be interested in becoming their teacher, providing them with five one-hour lessons a week, with payment to be taken in cash or trade. Since I was already dating Svatka, and university lecturers made a meager $250 a month, I took the cash. Now I had to create lesson plans.
Although I had never used the services of such ladies before, I did know a bit about the business. Before I arrived in Plzen, I lived for six months in Margate, England, along the Kent coast. I rented a basement flat from a friend and lived next to two Scottish girls who turned tricks part-time to supplement their incomes as waitresses at a popular fish-and-chips shop. On slow nights the girls would wander over to my flat with flagons of ale and talk shop. It was from them that I learned that British clients like to be called "daddy" (due to some bygone parental feelings of the vanquished empire) and that Americans liked to be called "soldier." They didn't quite know why young American men liked to be called "soldier," and I offered that it was probably due to the fact that they came from a generation that never experienced war, and it made them feel more masculine and worldly. They agreed with my deduction.
I also learned a bit about the prostitution business from reading Xaviera Hollander's two infamous 1970s books, "The Happy Hooker" and "Xaviera," detailing her experience as one of New York's premiere madams. I didn't actually choose to read the books. It was during my first cold winter in the Czech Republic, and when you are in a foreign country with limited reading material, you'll take what you can get. And those were the only two English books available in the used bookstore, other than evangelical Christian and Mormon texts. Hollander, though, is a good writer and her insights about call girls and their clients were certainly informative. She strips away taboos and myths (such as the one that holds all hookers have been abused and every john is a pervert).
Steffi took me to meet her girls the following week. Her nightclub was above an Italian restaurant and you needed to be buzzed in to enter. An immense man with a long ponytail, dressed in what looked to be a black Armani suit, greeted us at the door. His name was Stepan, and he was well known in Plzen. Stepan was the wealthy son of a Russian politician who had been involved with the Czech communist regime that was peacefully overthrown in 1989. Like many sons of these old politicians, he stayed on in the country under the guise of "businessman." In reality this meant he was part of the Russian Mafia, which has its hands in much of the gambling, restaurant and prostitution business in the Czech Republic.
Stepan was Steffi's boyfriend and, as I soon learned, he provided her and her girls with protection from the local competition. A prominent adversary was Tony, a vicious little Gypsy with a large stable of streetwalkers. Tony's maliciousness was exacerbated by the fact that he was also crippled, the victim of a failed assassination attempt. He had crossed one of the local gangsters and was thus tossed in front of a speeding tram. But the assassin's timing was off and Tony luckily ricocheted off the side, which saved his life but left him with a horribly crippled foot. Stepan warned me that Tony wouldn't like the fact that I was teaching the girls English, so I asked him if his "protection" would include me too. He just laughed and told me that people who couldn't protect themselves from him deserved what he got. I couldn't argue with that.
We walked into Steffi's lounge, which was divided into two rooms, one painted red, the other blue. Lenka, Magda, Tereza and Renata were sitting in the red room, which contained a small bar with four stools and a large wraparound sofa. Not allowed to drink before work (the clients gave them enough during the night), they were all sitting on the sofa laughing and sipping orange juice. Like many Czech women, they were stunningly beautiful, with long legs, high cheekbones, full lips and perfect breasts. (Steffi attributed the breast size of Czech women to the fact that chicken farmers load the birds with growth hormones -- I've yet to corroborate that fact.) Magdá quickly pulled me onto the sofa between the giggling foursome, and as I put my arms around her and Tereza, I felt like Hugh Hefner and began to question my reasoning in accepting cash for services instead of trade.
We started our lessons right away. The girls were better students than those I had at the university, even if they couldn't understand a lot of what I said. After all they didn't need to know why they should call British clients "daddy," and Americans "soldier," they just needed to know the vocabulary. At first, they were worried about their accents and wanted to practice pronunciation. But I put a quick end to that, reminding them of their famous thick-accented Czech colleague, Ivana Trump.
In subsequent lessons we learned cute euphemisms for the male anatomy (General Patton, Mr. Churchill, Uncle Wiggly) and for bodily functions (tinkle, wee-wee and No. 2), as well as old-time flirt lines like "Is that a rocket in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?" (Let me tell you, boys: There is nothing sexier than that line delivered by a pretty Czech harlot with a heavy accent.) And, of course, I taught them all the bad, naughty words to use during sex and foreplay with those clients looking for a whore in bed rather than a mythical virgin.
The girls were quick learners, and by the end of a month had mastered most of their lessons. Steffi thought that two classes a week would be sufficient now, but, knowing of my poor financial situation working at the university, she offered me another job: limited partner. For every client I steered or brought to the club, she would give me half of her 50 percent take. (The girls kept all tips.) By this time I was so incredibly bored with the rampant plagiarism and lack of initiative that is known as Czech education that I took her up on the offer. She handed me 100 Steffi's Club business cards, and I went to work.
Up to this point, I had kept my moonlighting at Steffi's a secret from my friends and colleagues. Now I figured: Why not do a favor for the hard-up ones who hadn't been laid in a while and were reduced to ogling young teens (by the way, 15 is the legal age for adult relations in the Czech Republic) on the streets? To a degree, I figured I was performing a public service. First there was Tom, an American teacher in the Pedagogical Department who was in his 40s, foolishly trying to pass as 30 in a desperate attempt to pick up students. He became a regular. Then there was William, a young Irish guy on the law faculty who had been complaining to me for months that his German girlfriend wouldn't perform oral sex on him. We fixed him up. Then there was Robert, Scott, Joel, Danny ... after a few weeks, I was getting surreptitiously pulled aside by my Czech colleagues, who wanted to know prices for (and details of) Steffi's girls. Never underestimate the poor sex lives of those around you.
Money was starting to pour in at such a brisk pace that I started to get greedy, recruiting tourists at the local clubs and hotel bars. I tried to be extremely selective about who I chose to send to Steffi's, and in general the clients were always polite and tipped well. The only major fiasco occurred when I got drunk with two Southern rednecks who worked as engineers at an American military base in Germany. Big Dan was from Alabama and Jimmy was from Georgia. They would come into Plzen about every other weekend to pick up girls and drink up a storm. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have given them a second thought, but after they plied me with single malt scotch for a couple of hours, I invited them over to the club. Big Dan went immediately for Lenka, as she was the tallest and skinniest of the four. Jimmy chose the redheaded Tereza while I took a seat at the bar to chat with Steffi. Things seemed to be going along fine in the bedrooms. Big Dan had busted into a raucous version of "The Love Boat" tune, keeping time with the bedsprings (unusual, but not too out of the ordinary).
Then screams started coming from Tereza's room. I leaped from the sofa, grabbed a truncheon that Steffi kept behind the bar and burst into the room, just in time to rip Jimmy off her before he could force her into anal sex. It's on nights like these that I feel ashamed to be an American.
For several days after the episode with Big Dan and Jimmy, I had the unshakable feeling that it was a bad omen. Then one night it happened. I was walking up the alley behind Steffi's to catch a late-night tram when Tony appeared, brandishing a pocketknife. Tony hadn't bothered me when I was simply teaching the girls English, but my new status as Steffi's limited partner was obviously the last straw. He came running at me like a lunatic, but too fast for his little legs with the crippled foot, and I quickly stepped aside, tripped him up and sent him in a somersault to the pavement. Then I high-tailed it out of there.
Tony's vengeance, though, would not be denied. Two days later I unexpectedly faced him in a vacant restroom inside the Hlavnm Nadrazm (Main Train Station). This time he had one of his goons with him, an obese, greasy-looking Gypsy with long stringy hair. It wasn't looking good. I imagined that the rotund Gypsy was going to pin me to the wall with his immense belly while Tony kicked me in the shins until something snapped. Then the little shit would laugh demonically while I pulled myself along the floor to seek help.
Luckily, help arrived sooner than I could have hoped. Suddenly Stepan the Russian loomed large, and miraculously, in the doorway, having needed to relieve himself of a six-pack he drank on his train journey back from Prague. He began screaming at the two gypsies in fearsome Czech. What he actually said, I don't know, but after the two slunk away he told me reassuringly, "Tony won't be bothering you again. He knows next time I toss him in front of tram, I won't miss. You need drink?" I nodded, wondering how the hell my life had turned out this way.
Soon after, Stepan was suddenly deported without apparent reason. Though he told us not to worry, that he would be returning "toot sweet" (one of the many phrases I taught the girls), we all began to feel a little nervous about losing our Russian guardian. Steffi decided that since summer was fast approaching, she would close shop for a month to give the girls a break before the busy tourist season began. And I, having escaped jail and bodily injury, decided it was a sign to cut out while ahead. The university had not renewed my contract due to "budget cuts," though rumors of my moonlighting activities had been circulating awhile. And, after spending three years abroad, I was becoming tired of European life, and looked forward to returning to the States. So, one last time, I climbed the stairs to Steffi's Club to give the girls a farewell English lesson. This time they insisted I take my payment in trade.