I first visited Amsterdam and its Red Light District in 1973 when I was a grad student in London. I had met an American girl touring Europe for the summer. She wanted to visit Amsterdam, so I decided to come along for a few days, as I had a long weekend without classes. We hit several art museums and other points of interest. She wanted to smoke weed in coffee shops, so we did that, too. I didn’t do drugs, so I didn’t partake. I don’t drink coffee, either.
She was a mix of innocent and adventurous, so she wanted to see the Red Light District. During the 1970s, it was a much rougher place than tourists find it today. But we escaped with our virtues and wallets intact. The next day, my American friend headed to Paris, and I headed back to London to work on a paper.
Over the next decade, I visited Amsterdam a few more times and wandered into the Red Light District if I was with someone who wanted to see it. I also visited the Sex Museum a couple of times. It wasn’t the Rijksmuseum, but it was interesting. My favorite restaurant for rijsttafel was near the Red Light District, so I often passed some of the red-lit window displays on the way to dinner.
A Job in the Red Light District
My experience working in the Red Light District—no, I did not display myself in a window—came about indirectly through a Concorde flight I was on from New York to London. I had struck up a conversation with a couple across the aisle who owned various properties in Malaysia and ran a few different businesses there. At some point, I mentioned that I did security work, and the husband asked if I had a business card. He also mentioned that he sometimes had business in Amsterdam, and we discussed the city.
I’d forgotten about the encounter on the Concorde until I received a cable from my Concorde acquaintance. He wanted to hire me to be a combo tour guide to Amsterdam’s Red Light District and minder for a group of his business associates. I was teaching high school and college English at the time and doing security jobs in the summer. To take the job offer, I would have to fly out within a couple days of the end of school, but the pay was good for less than two weeks’ work. That included arriving a couple days early to reacquaint myself with the Red Light District.
As part of my preparations, I contacted a friend of mine in a St. Louis Hell’s Angels affiliate and asked him to put me in touch with someone from the Amsterdam chapter. Once there, I also visited some of the judo dojos, as many of the big, tough Dutchmen who worked in the Red Light District were judo practitioners.
I mentioned what I would be doing and asked for advice from a couple of the judokas and a couple of Hell’s Angels. Basically, I was establishing relationships with people who could put the word out that I was a good guy, not to be harassed. By the way, I had asked my employer for a slush fund of 2,500 guilders to thank those who helped me. He had also given me a draw of 10,000 guilders to make sure his associates enjoyed themselves. More would have been available had I needed it.
I had suggested the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky for their stay. It’s a classic luxury hotel located on the edge of the Red Light District. I assumed that, at least initially, the visitors would want to stroll while they window-shopped. I had used the Krasnapolsky previously and found the service excellent and the atmosphere lavish. Since I wasn’t protecting them 24/7, I did not register myself at the Krasnapolsky. Instead, I stayed at the Frisco Café/Hotel, a place run by American expatriates who had come to Amsterdam in the ’60s or ’70s and stayed. I had stopped there before, and it was a good place to meet my Hell’s Angels contact. As I remember, the bar was open 23.5 hours a day; everyone was shooed out for half-an-hour very early in the morning so the bar could be cleaned.
Red Light District Refresher Recon
I got to Amsterdam two days ahead of the clients, partially to give me some time to get over jet lag and partly to reacquaint myself with the Red Light District, since I hadn’t been there in almost 10 years. I also intended to do a threat assessment of the area. On a previous trip, when the Red Light District was rougher, I had gone to a large flea market and purchased a good-sized folding knife that I carried tucked into my watch pocket with the upper part under my belt. I had figured if I had to use it, I’d ditch it in one of the ubiquitous canals. I didn’t purchase a knife on this trip.
In the time that passed since I was last there, the area seemed to have become a little less seedy. I think that was partially because there were fewer American kids roaming the streets looking for drugs or panhandling. There were still panhandlers, but they tended to be non-threatening. If not, I was confident that they would steer clear of a confrontation with me if I told them to “F*** off!” with an American accent. We were generally considered more violent than most Europeans at the time.
In the ’70s, I had seen brawls in some of the bars, especially ones frequented by sailors. I planned to avoid those, though the one that I remembered as being a mega-dive was no longer open. Pickpockets would still be a problem. I would try to convince my clients to keep their gold Rolex watches and other bling out of sight. My contacts warned me that smoking drugs on the streets was illegal and also to be aware of pushers of fake drugs. However, I didn’t expect drugs to be the vice among my clients.
The Guests Arrive
Once the clients were settled into the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, I gave them a chance to rest from their rather long KLM flight and checked that they wanted to have a look at the Red Light District that evening. They did.
Fortunately, most of them spoke English fairly well; that was good for them and good for me. Most residents of Amsterdam below a certain age speak English fluently. A Dutch girlfriend once told me that they not only studied it in school, but that American TV programs were shown in English with Dutch subtitles.
I tried to give my clients some quick pointers about Red Light District etiquette. One major point was that they should not take photos, especially of the girls in the windows. Violating this rule could get you hosed down or thrown into a canal.
I also emphasized not to stand in front of a window too long gawking and blocking potential customers. Discussing the girls with potential customers was not acceptable, either. These guys were big spenders, so I didn’t feel it would be an issue, but I did give them some guidelines about not starting by bargaining too low. In fact, I told them I would bargain for them if they wished. My plan was to give the girls a bit over scale so they would take good care of the clients. After all, it wasn’t my money. If I remember correctly, 50 guilders was typical for standard 15- to 20-minute session those days.
A Good Time
One night, I took the travelers to the most upmarket brothel I knew of in Amsterdam—the Yab Yum. With entrance fees, booze and girls, that evening ran several hundred guilders each for the six clients. They really enjoyed themselves that night, but I think they also liked the Red Light District’s sleaze factor.
When the clients were with a woman in the Red Light District, I tried to stay close by. If some had chosen to go to windows a couple of blocks apart, I set up a rally point and wandered back and forth. One night, I got a lot of my Christmas shopping done at one of the sex shops along the way. I purchased a case of pasta depicting various interesting things and shipped it home. I also enjoyed window-shopping in the sex shops. The “inflate-a-dates” were often indicators of the popularity of various film stars or entertainers. If I remember correctly, dolls resembling Madonna were quite popular at the time.
Overall, the clients were well behaved, and we stayed out of trouble. Fortunately, I didn’t have to bash anyone. I didn’t go with them in the daytime, but they did a lot of shopping. On the last night, we had dinner together at a rijsttafel where they presented me with a well-stuffed envelope to express their thanks. The next day, I stopped by to see my judo friends and my Hell’s Angels contact and slipped each of them a few hundred guilders.
My friend from the Concorde seemed to be happy as well; in addition to my pay, he sent me a gold and stainless Rolex Submariner. I’m wearing it right now as I write this article.
So, long story short, I worked in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, strolling the streets but keeping my virtue, such as it was!