Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A steamy profession

Near the intersection where my office is located is a large, square hole, right in the middle of the road. Maybe once there was a metal covering, but someone probably stole it and sold it to China for scrap metal.

This afternoon, I watched one car almost get stuck. It’s wheel fell into the hole and the car, stopped at a stoplight, had just enough momentum to get out.

The car behind it wasn’t so lucky. A beautiful, shiny silver Mercedes, it crawled forward, oblivious of the trap. The wheel approached the edge, then slid right down into the hole. It held the bottom of the wheel like a vice.

I watched the driver get out and look in dismay – his shimmering piece of metal caught like a desperate animal in a trip. A while later, I saw them trying to raise the car, trying to release it from its trap. Once they got out, I knew it would only be a matter of time until another vehicle got caught.

Today was my first, and hopefully last visit to a “sauna.” I see signs for saunas all over the place and didn’t give them much thought. I assumed they were bathhouses, the steam and the clean enjoyed in the typical Russian tradition.

So when someone offered to show me his sauna, I accepted. It was located at a cheap hotel I’d stayed at before, near the bus station. He asked why I hadn’t visited his sauna when I stayed at the hotel.

“I didn’t know it was here,” I said. “And I didn’t really need a bath at that time.”

We went in and he showed me a steam room, a billiard table, and an attractive swimming pool, where people could jump in after steaming up. He also showed me a small, dark bedroom with a double bed.

“What is that for?” I asked. The owner looked at me strangely.

“You know, people get tired after taking a sauna,” my colleague, a male in his early 20s said to me. “It’s so they can take a rest.”

Seemed a bit fishy to me, with a hotel next door, but whatever. The staff, an administrator and an assistant, were busy cutting up sausage, cheese and bread, and laying out salads for several male patrons who’d come to use the sauna.

“You’re no cook!” the administrator, a disheveled blond in her early 30s said to the older administrator.

“And you are?” the middle-aged woman with frizzy brown hair asked.

They told me the men had brought the food themselves.

“Do you charge extra to prepare it for them?” I asked.

“No,” the blond replied. “But I suppose we should – like a service.”

The atmosphere in the cramped administrative office was tense and somewhat unpleasant.

When I went out to find my colleague, he told me he’d see three prostitutes come through the door. “I didn’t want to tell you,” he said.

The owner explained. “We are all adults here, so I’ll be honest. I offer services – erotic massage as well as medicinal massage.” He told me about the $500-800 profit he makes each month on erotic services alone, though he himself does nothing except provide a place for it to happen. We got onto a discussion of pimps and the division of money. I was disgusted to see how much money men would claim for a service being provided by women alone.

I was already struggling to conceal my disdain for this man’s new business. But my colleague remained interested. So we went to his apartment. And upon opening the door, in mid-afternoon, we found three young girls. Two of them were lying in bed, holding each other. It was clear they were all prostitutes and that this older middle-aged man, just back from Russia, was a pimp himself.

We got out of there pretty quickly.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, trying hard to retain civility for a man who used poor, vulnerable local women.

“You too. And happy belated women’s day!” he said, as he left us at the bus stop and walked across the street. I could only wonder what that holiday could possibly mean to him and how he celebrated it with his staff.

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