On Friday night, shortly after darkness fell, we set out for the red light district. We weren’t alone. The quiet streets of the eastern and central canal belts soon gave way to a Vegas-like swath of neon lights and coffeeshops, filled with tourists. We turned down a side street lined with the red-lit windows of the prostitutes’ quarters; the street was so narrow we couldn’t have stretched out our arms. Around us, the lingerie-clad prostitutes stood idly in their windows, seeming unfazed by the early-hour tourists who were obviously there simply to gawk. One woman was checking messages on her cell.
We emerged back onto the main street and were confronted by two things: a large Japanese tour group, led by a guide holding a large flag, winding their way into the narrow streets; and a brass band playing rallying songs more suited to a parade than the red light district. This part of Amsterdam is like a carnival gone wrong—a confluence of all things normal and strange, shocking and ridiculous, a normal-seeming tourist quarter with not-normal-at-all around every corner.
We detoured around the band down another narrow lane, ready to leave the red light district and find a place for dinner. Around us, again, prostitutes stood and waited. One woman held a whip. As we walked past, she stuck her arm through the open doorway of her quarters and put the whip on Andrew’s neck, beckoning him inside. “No—no—“ Andrew said. He was wearing a brown corduroy blazer and a navy blue v-neck sweater. We escaped unfazed.