Montmartre, Paris, 2 September, 2008

Regardless of whether or not you’ve ever been to Paris, you’re familiar with Montmartre. In the early part of the 20th Century it was home to a couple artists whose names might ring a bell: Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Theophile Steinlen, amongst others, who made names for themselves and places such as the Moulin Rouge or the Moulin de la Galette. If you’re a troglodyte, or simply a bit more pop and contemporary, think of the movie Amelie.

Montmarte is pretty much the only significant hill in and around Paris, and from its vantage point you get a really wonderful view overlooking the city. Besides being known for the famous artists who’ve resided there throughout the years and its red-light district nightlife, Montmartre is also the home of the Sacre Coeur, a prominent landmark on the Parisian skyline. I spent a good amount of time at the Basilica with Lora, my hostess here in Paris. We had a great time exploring the church, traveling the 300-plus steps up to its dome and back down all the way to the crypts lying below, where, oddly enough, I found a statute dedicated to St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle, who just happens to be the patron saint of the high-school I attended in Detroit.

Afterwards we walked down the main thoroughfares, which mostly consist of sex shops. At the Moulin Rouge, which in truth is a cabaret and not a sex shop, a dinner show will cost you 175Euors; a two-drink show without dinner at the bar is 75Euros; and though the novelty was appealing it was a little out of my price-range. Walking through any red-light district is unsettling for me, and not simply because I’m a prude. I quite literally don’t know how to feel when I’m in such a situation: the thought that I could walk into an establishment and simply pay for sexual favors — maybe a peep is all I could afford, or perhaps, if I’ve been frugal enough that month, a little physical contact — is something that my brain struggles to comprehend. It’s not lack of exposure, for I’ve been in similar situations before. I remember a trashy, sports-bar themed shithole crammed with drunken Coast Gaurdsmen in Astoria, Oregon, and I can recall like it happened yesterday being in a “strip-club” (read: whorehouse) in La Paz, Mexico, where anything went as long as you had the cash (or credit, because that Visa symbol knows no limits). I’ve never known how to act in such setting: Should I walk by in indignation? Pretend I see nothing? Act as if I’m unbothered by my surroundings?

And this doesn’t even begin to consider things from the other side of the proverbial pole, which is a perspective that’s so shrouded in urban legend that I don’t know what to think. I’ve never spent any time around or worked with prostitutes, and while I understand a cabaret dancer or a stripper isn’t necessarily one, I’m not naive, and I’m certain that if times are tough enough most of us will do anything to get by. It’s the oldest profession in the world, the expression goes, which is about as good a justification for sexual manipulation as Cain killed Able is for violence.

The really odd part is that the pictures on the street advertising sexual favors in the various shop windows were terribly unappealing – aged, sun-bleached photos of unattractive women in awkward poses, most of them with terribly large 1980’s hair, ridiculous lingerie and and body piercings in all the wrong places; their photos, images enlarged to nearly to life-size proportions, were untouched by graphic editors and revealed and magnified every bodily blemish; their poses so manufactured as to remove any hint of vitality or enjoyment; in short, they were horribly poor home-images captured by some amateur, and couldn’t hold a candle to the soft-core porn available in any men’s magazine.

In the end I walked by and looked without staring, trying not to gawk like a passerby at a roadside accident nor appear incensed like some prissy pietist. Lora and I found a cafe off the strip a bit where I had a beer and she a coffee, and after we sat a spell took the Metro back to the apartment. The reality is that these thoughts will fade from my mind soon, to be aroused the next time I encounter this situation on my travels. I’m certain to come across it again in due time, after all, It’s the oldest profession in the world… Again, that seems like weak rationale to me, and if it’s true then I suppose it’s only the case because there continue to be customers.

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