Tel Aviv, with its rotting block architecture, stylish skyscrapers, warm beachfront breezes, ubiquitous Vespas, and ever-present saggy Jewish ladies in bikinis always evokes for me the same quirky sensation—it reminds me of a lower-rent, Mediterranean version of Miami. Professor Michael Dan of Tel Aviv University has a slightly harsher opinion: “Tel Aviv is the ugliest city I’ve seen in the Western world.”
Yesterday around noon, we arrive at Dr. Dan’s Wolfson Hospital office. On our informal tour of the hospital we meet his lab staff, including a woman he has termed the “yeast lady.” We see a sign proclaiming, in big happy letters: LIFE IS A SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASE WITH 100% MORTALITY. This is all you need to know about the basic mentality of STD doctors.
After a rubbery but edible state-subsidized lunch at the summer-camp-style cafeteria, Michael drops us off in the Neva’i Tzedek district of southwest Tel Aviv so my father can begin his “social mapping.” Everyone tells us that Neva’i Tzedek is an up-and-coming artsy neighborhood with skyrocketing rents and droves of incoming yuppies. But it’s clear that it was a slum in its recent past life; alongside the cappuccino bars, natural food shops, and hippie boutiques sit rusty corrugated-iron doors and crumbling concrete apartment buildings.
To our dismay, Neva’i Tzedek is way too reputable for whorehouses. My father looks at me with a broad smirk and giddily notifies me that we are brazenly going to defy Michael’s orders to avoid the prostitute-heavy areas until tomorrow. But first, we decide to take a walk through the Carmel Market.
The market is your standard ethnographic experience: piles of fresh olives, scruffy shopkeepers with ratty polo shirts unbuttoned down to their sternums, pita-delivery mopeds snaking through the streets, and, of course, 50 Cent blaring from a boombox. Intriguing, but where are the prostitutes?
Unfortunately, my father has no idea where we are. I begin to think that “social mapping” means my father aimlessly asking passers-by where we can get a city map, then disregarding and/or not fully understanding their directions. (He insists he does this to flaunt his knowledge of Hebrew.) At a random intersection in a slummy neighborhood, he suddenly declares, “We’re going in the right direction for what we want!” Two blocks later, we buy a map.
I can tell that the area is getting worse and worse. We see international call centers, “Internet Cafes” that only have video poker machines, and stores with poorly translated names like Gentile Shoes and Casa-Tex. The signs are in Hebrew, English, Russian, and Thai because this is where many of the migrant workers hang out. At exactly 3:38 p.m., while crossing a small street between two scuzzy bars, I glance through the right corner of my eye and experience a moment of depraved Zen: a real, live hooker!
Never could I have imagined I’d be so elated by the sight of a slightly chunky Russian woman in ill-fitting black lingerie leering out of a shoddy doorway. This was the only “sex worker” I’d see for the next 15 minutes, but as we walked by places named Health Club, Paradise, and Pip Show, I sensed we were on the right track. The beefy, tight-lipped Russian man that eyed us as we walked down an empty side street further solidified my suspicion. And then we hit the jackpot.
Imagine an outdoor food court, where, instead of greasy pizza, you can only buy greasy women. My father pulls out his Dictaphone, and, as my father dryly recites the names and addresses of each brothel, I realize what “social mapping” really entails. People give us, the two obvious tourists, goofy looks; the corrugated-iron door of the Muncko Pip Show stealthily slides down immediately following our arrival.
The women from Garden of Eden, Class Place, Dolls, Class and a Half, Ecstasy, VIP Show, and the multiple Pip Shows, Sex Styles, and Sex Lines are all cut from the same mold. Though some are flabby, some are emaciated, and some are an odd combination of both, nearly all of them smoke; all of them are wearing shoddy lingerie or cheap wraps around their bodies; all of them look Slavic; and all of them wear the same bored, apathetic look as they drag on their cigarettes. Some of the women lean against a door frame, some relax in the couched foyer behind a brothel’s entrance curtain. If they don’t ignore the passers-by completely, they throw them a faint smile and a half-hearted sales pitch.
In between blocks, while waiting for the road to clear, we stand next to a little kiosk selling socks, belts, T-shirts, and piles of yarmulkes. The thought dawns on me that such a large number of yarmulkes for sale must mean there’s a demand for them in this neighborhood. I don’t know whether the rank hypocrisy should make me giggle or fume.
I stop for a second to readjust my camera bag, and my dad and I suddenly absorb the same nauseating image of an obese, bikini-clad woman with mottled skin and aviator glasses jauntily bouncing through a brothel lobby. My father makes his first Dad-you-are-making-me-feel-awkward-by-reminding-me-that-you-were-once-a-teenager comment of the day, whispering, “You really have to be hard-up to be attracted to these people.” He definitely could have said worse, but still, I think what a shame it is that I’ve already submitted my yearbook page.
One right turn later, all the vendors are hawking cheap shoes instead of cheap sex.A couple of blocks ahead, we can see Tel Aviv’s massive new Central Bus Station. The cigarette-butt littered pedestrian mall we stroll through is no less seedy than before, but the commerce there is mainly in the form of quasi-legal slot machines and rancid-looking restaurants that would comfortably fit into a zero-star, roach-infested Cancun resort. The crowd is an odd mixture of shabby elderly Russian men hawking tchotchkes, bleary-eyed customers searching for something illicit, and a few Thai and Filipino foreign workers loitering around. I almost buy a copy of the Manila-Tel Aviv Times; it’s hard to resist a newspaper whose slogan is “Give us the power to improve your life.”
Tomorrow we will be visiting the STD clinic at the Central Bus Station to get a public-health sense of the area. Then we’ll go brothel-hopping with some of the clinicians in order to spread the word that free disease screening is available, which will hopefully help ameliorate the plight of these exploited women. Later in the day we’ll meet with a lawyer who advocates on behalf of sex workers and tries to help bring people-traffickers (in other words, pimps) to justice.
For the first time in my life, scores of women were offering easy sex, though not in the way most teenagers likely prefer. I’m sure there’s a Woody Allen quip for today’s experience, and I’ll probably remember it 20 years from now … when I’m in therapy. Thanks, Dad.