Originally published in Out of the Gutter

Summer 2007

“How many men did you have sex with today?”


“That seems like a lot.”

“No, not so much. This night is slow.”

“How many men do you usually have sex with in a night?”

“It depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“Weather. holidays. Start of month. End of month.”

“Why does it matter what time of month it is?”

“At beginning of month, the men are broke. They pay for rent, food, bills. No more money. At end of month, they get paid. They have money. Time for sex.”

It’s two in the morning and I’m sitting on a plastic barstool in a deserted casino/disco near the Narodni metro station. It is dark. Very dark. The only light comes from the garish glow of the half dozen digital slot machines slumped against each other in the center of the room. I am talking to Katjana, a prostitute from Slovakia, who moved to Prague six months ago with her boyfriend, an aspiring mathematics teacher that abandoned her shortly after they crossed the Czech border. It is late and Katjana is drinking coffee (milk, no sugar). I am drinking tea (Earl Grey). Our drinks cost about 60 cents total. There is no sales tax and no tip. The bartender is watching European football on a small television that is bolted to the wall. Muffled techno music bounces around in the back room. In my breast pocket, I have a small tape recorder and I can feel it vibrating softly against my chest like a small, defenseless animal. Later tonight, when I return to my apartment, I will listen to this conversation. The sound quality will be extremely poor, but I will be able to transcribe most of this interview onto my laptop computer.

“Do you like the men you sleep with?”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you attracted to them?”


“What kind of men are you attracted to?”

“Husbands, fathers, old men with nice clothes.”

“Really? Why?”

“They have money and they are nice. They bring me things.”

“What kinds of things?”

“Sometimes clothes, sometimes necklace. I like the old men.”

“But are you attracted to them?”

“I don’t know what you mean. They are nice. Yes, I like them.”

Katjana is the ninth prostitute I have interviewed in Prague. I have also interviewed prostitutes in Mexico, Nicaragua, Holland, and France. In every case, I have gotten close to the girl by pretending that I am a potential customer. Prostitutes are accustomed to nervous, indecisive young men, and they usually invite them into a café or bar to chat with them and try to ease the tension.

When I walk home drunk from the bar, they approach me and ask if I want to have sex. In response, I blush and stutter without giving a positive affirmation. This is easy for me. I always blush and stutter when women talk to me. The women then ask if I’d like to buy them a cup of coffee. I agree. They lead me to the nearest 24-hour disco.

That’s when I start grilling them with questions.

The trick is to start of slow, keep them thinking that I’ll pay for sex as soon as they satisfy my curiosity. But you can only keep this up so long before the subject turns back to commerce.

“Why do you ask so many questions? You are a very strange man.”

“Where did you get that coat?”

Katjana’s jacket is long and brown and fringed with ugly, gray fur. It looks as though it was made from the hide of a balding raccoon.

“I take this from my sister,” Katjana says.

“I thought you said you were an only child.”

She shakes her head. “I have sister. She lives at home.”

“What’s your sister’s name?”

“Why should you know?”

“No reason. I’m just making conversation.”

“You make what? I am tired of your talk. Let’s go now.”

“Sure. Right. No problem. Maybe in a minute. Let me buy you another cup of coffee first.”

In Prague, you can get a blowjob for just 1,000 korunas (about 40 dollars and change in the U.S.). Normally, the prostitute will take you to a public park near Wenceslas Square to perform the act. For 1,500 korunas, you can spend 30 minutes grinding on a dusty hotel bed, and for 2,000 you can pick whatever orifice you want.

I have never purchase sex from a prostitute. To be completely honest, I can’t even masturbate while thinking about hookers. I’ve tried. Many times.

This is not because I necessarily have a higher moral constitution than others of my gender; it’s because I have enough conservative, Protestant guilt left over from my childhood to create an extremely dysfunctional sexual cocktail, which sloshes around in my subconscious during the loneliest hours of the night. I am fascinated by the idea of vaginal currency and sexual deviance, but I’m too repressed to ever act on my fantasies.

I don’t know exactly why I continue to conduct these interviews wherever I travel. I never set out to publish them. I talk about them to friends and strangers over dinner, bragging, basking in their awe and disgust. Maybe I want to shock people, to force them out of their perfect, clean lives and get a little dirt on them. Maybe I want to defend the godless hoards who live by a different moral code than the rest of the world. Maybe I want to start a movement. Or maybe I just want to try anal.

“How old are you?”

“How old you like?”

“No, really. How old are you?”

“I am twenty.”

“You don’t look twenty.”

“How old do I look?”

“You don’t look twenty.”

Prostitution is not legal in Prague but the police turn their heads, primarily because their palms are being greased by the brothel owners and pimps around town. There’s plenty of money to go around. Women come here from all over Eastern Europe to take advantage of the blossoming tourist industry. Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Russia, Turkey. They trickle into this wedding cake of a city, usually in the spring, girls, just girls, sixteen or seventeen, beautiful girls, girls whose innocence will cling to them for the first few months like a shadow, blondes, brunettes, Christians, communists, atheists, gypsies, skinny, barely able to fill out their second-hand blue jeans, frail, tough as fucking rocks, but still just girls. In the beginning, many of them try to get jobs at the local shops, but their English is not good enough to sell sausages and fried cheese sandwiches to the drunken foreigners that are stumbling through the streets at all hours of the night. The shops won’t hire them. They don’t have the educational background to enroll at the universities. There aren’t many options for employment.

Prague is a prime destination for Europeans who want to stretch their dollar. Considerably less expensive than the capital cities of Western Europe, it offers a mystique that you won’t find in London or Paris.

The British are particularly fond of Prague. It is their Las Vegas. They come here on the weekends for stag parties. They guzzle cheap beer and scream obscenities in the streets and pay women to fuck them. These are proper English gentlemen, these chaps, these mates, these businessmen, raised in private schools, Oxford alumni, equestrians, polo players, fox hunters, Tories, Whigs, and they can’t wait to discard their Victorian principles and run around like a pack of ignorant, perverted hillbillies.

There are also Italians of course, and some are Scottish, and a few are Americans, but the British are the worst. Everyone knows this, though no one talks about it. They are pigs and everyone hates them. But at least they pay. They may be offensive, Anglo slobs but at least they pay for what they take from these girls. I am worse. I waste their time and steal their stories while I delude myself into believing that I have the moral high ground. After all, I’m not having sex with them. I’m not exploiting them physically. I buy them coffee and I ask them questions. What’s the harm in that? I just want to learn about their lives. Like a counselor, or an anthropologist. I am concerned about them.

“What color is your bra?”

“Come with me and I’ll show you.”

“Is it black?”

“No. Not black.”

“Is it red?”

“No. I leave now.”

“Don’t leave.”

“You can come with me. We can go to my room.”

“Do you use the same room every time or does it change? Do you know the owner of the hotel? Does he get a cut of the profits?”

In the end, the truth is that I want to know everything about prostitution without actually experiencing its horrors. I get a vicarious thrill from talking to hookers, from imagining myself as some sort of manly rogue who moves seamlessly through the cultural underbelly. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. I’m just a frightened, self-conscious boy that has spent too much time reading Bukowski and idealizing a lifestyle that I will never comprehend. In my mind, prostitution is guiltless debauchery; it is sin without remorse; it is freedom without the responsibility that makes freedom unbearable.

Finally, after three cups of coffee and about 50 more questions, Katjana gets up from her seat to leave.

“You never talk to me again,” she says.

I nod and finish my tea. The bartender stares at me with murderous intent while I count out the coins to pay for our beverages. “Have a good night,” I say.

He mutters something in Czech that I can’t understand, but I doubt he’s returning my genial salutation.

My apartment building is less than four blocks away, but I don’t go there. Not right away. Instead, I turn in the opposite direction and walk to the center of the city. The night is young and the streets are still filled with vendors and policemen and faceless tourists. British, American, French, Spanish, Italian, Canadian, Australian. We are all the same in the half-glow of the Prague street lights.

Immediately, I blend into the crowd of foreigners, perverts, pimps, drug dealers, fathers, brothers, deviants, priests, husbands, professors, artists, rejects, stockbrokers, writers. I see a young woman standing beside a street vendor wearing an impractical skirt despite the evening chill.

“Sex?” she says. “You want?”

I shrug my shoulders and brush my hand lightly over the tape recorder covering my heart. “I don’t know. Maybe. Let me buy you a cup of coffee.”

The Sky’s the Limit

January 13, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

September 2008

I’m thinking about redecorating my apartment. Nothing fancy, just a giant 7’ by 7’ Cross-Word Puzzle Mural to cover the east wall in my bedroom. It has 28,000 clues and 91,000 squares, and it comes with a 100-page help book and a nifty storage box, all for the very reasonable price of $29.95. Of course, if I purchase that, I’ll also need the World’s Largest Write-On Map Mural, which covers more than 10 square feet of wall space and features capitals, countries, major cities, political boundaries, time zones, ocean depths and more! This is the only detailed, eight-color 2006 mural of its size, and it’s a bargain at just $149.95.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that my living room is going to look pretty drab after my bedroom has been bedazzled with these unreasonably large wall-hangings. That’s why I plan to throw out my couch and replace it with a full-scale replica of King Tutankhamen’s Egyptian Throne Chair. At just $895, this detailed copy of the 3,500-year-old original is a steal. With a hand-painted gold exterior and a carved lion head on each armrest, it’s a must-have for any Egyptophile.

I know, I know — the throne is going to look ridiculous sitting next to my normal, boring oak bookcase. Which is why I absolutely must have the matching $895 King Tut Life-Sized Sarcophagus Cabinet, which looks like an actual sarcophagus on the outside but also has a surprising amount of shelf space on the inside.

*     *     *

I first discovered SkyMall magazine on a flight from Denver to Chicago in 1996. I was 21 years old, and it was the first time I’d ever been on a commercial jet. Consequently, I was scared shitless. I tried to relax by listening to music and digging my fingernails into the right arm of the octogenarian sitting next to me, but I couldn’t get my mind off the fact that I was sitting in a 300,000-pound hunk of metal that was filled with 50,000 gallons of flammable fuel hurling through the sky at 500 mph. For the first time, I truly understood the meaning of the words “death trap.”

After annoying the flight attendant with a million questions, most of them concerning the laws of gravity, I finally picked up a SkyMall and started to flip through the pages. I was immediately enthralled. Robotic vacuum cleaners; collars that translate your dog’s barks into human speech; fish tank coffee tables; musical toilet-paper dispensers — I was perfectly content for the rest of the flight.

Over the past decade, I have continued to collect SkyMall magazines, although I have never made a single purchase from any of them. My favorite issues sit on my coffee table (which, sadly, is not also a fish tank), and I look through them on a nightly basis. As a tool for understanding American culture, SkyMall is more important than The New Yorker, Harper’s, Newsweek, Esquire and Rolling Stone combined. These magazines can only give you facts and supply you with social commentary; SkyMall on the other hand is an ongoing sociological experiment. And since SkyMall’s only agenda is to make money, you can trust that it’s not influenced by anything except greed. SkyMall products that don’t sell are quickly removed from the magazine, but the popular items return month after month, year after year. Therefore, if you’re an obsessive nerd with a lot of time on your hands like I am, you can trace cultural trends by examining how the contents of the magazine evolve over time.

It’s important to note that SkyMall customers don’t fit into a single category. I doubt if bluecollar workers in Detroit are scratching their heads and wondering where they can find a portable commercial steam cleaner or an electric shoe buffer. On the other hand, SkyMall is not just a magazine for high-class millionaires, either. It’s difficult to imagine Donald Trump and his cronies ordering a toolbox with orange flames painted on the side or a bar stool with a motorcycle seat.

At first glance, SkyMall appears to be extremely random and chaotic: a hot dog cooker on one page and a tapestry depicting the French countryside on the next. However, if you read it consistently, you realize that SkyMall has actually tapped into an extremely specific piece of our national psyche: the desire for more. No matter what socio-economic class we belong to, Americans want more. If we have a 24” television, we want a 32” television, or a 45” television, or a flat-screen television. If we have an appliance that makes two pieces of toast at a time, we want one that makes four pieces, or six, or we want an appliance that cooks rotisserie chicken while it balances the checkbook and plays samba music. Americans defeated the British, we conquered the wilderness, we landed on the moon, and now we want a fountain pen with a builtin digital recorder and an FM radio. All for the very reasonable price of $89.99.

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