Tel Aviv’s central bus station, with three levels of concrete parking ramps and an adjacent seven-floor mall, is enormous. Inconspicuously tucked away in a second-story corner of the mall is the Livinski Health Center, Tel Aviv’s only STD clinic.
The tiny clinic’s three small rooms are hidden behind shuttered windows. The assorted posters that adorn the walls are its only distinctive feature. One poster, featuring a photo of a chili pepper sitting atop a pair of underpants, reads (in Hebrew): “Burning? A thousand firemen can’t save you. A single doctor can.” Another safe-sex ad, a picture of an empty condom wrapper, cheekily reminds, “Also for blowjobs.”
Dr. Michael Dan introduces us to Nadav Davidovich, an epidemiologist, and Yael Goor, the social worker who keeps Livinski running. We learn that everyone who tests negative for sexually transmitted diseases receives a little certificate proclaiming total cleanliness. I am given a fake card as a sample; as of Nov. 18, 2009, I am not a biological threat. The smiley face on the card further proves my harmlessness.
We also learn more pertinent things, like the fact that a plurality of the clinic’s patients are Israeli men fearing the worst about their new rashes, but that the majority of non-Israelis who visit the clinic are women. Unsurprisingly, 40 percent of the women patients are prostitutes, almost all of them illegal immigrants. Yael thinks that many prostitutes are prohibited from visiting by domineering pimps, and others don’t come because they fear that the bus station is teeming with immigration police.
Yael visits the brothels every week and passes out fliers advertising the clinic. Even though the clinic is free and does not require any official identification or insurance, the prostitutes usually politely decline her invitations, or, if they do end up coming, they are often accompanied by a wary pimp. The ones who visit alone almost never take up Yael’s offer to provide further social services such as counseling or help finding housing.
But Yael has been making inroads nonetheless, and today we join in on her weekly door-to-door crusade. Our first attempt at outreach fails; the whorehouse is closed. Since it’s only noon, this is not a surprise. What surprises me is the mezuza, the sacred scroll-in-a-box that sits in any identified Jew’s doorway, hammered properly in next to the faded aqua-blue wall. I wonder if God still has doubts about the owner of Spring of Beauty.
My father, Yael, and I then enter the dim, forest-green lobby of a brothel called “23.” Two Slavic-looking girls, a chunky dyed-redhead in a tank top and a thin blonde wearing cheap white lingerie, loaf on a couch while watching television. A heart-shaped red pillow with big white letters reading “I love you so much” sits directly above them, on the back of the couch. The owner, a greasy balding man who looks like he could be an alien from Men in Black, welcomes us from behind his corner desk. Yael hands out the Russian-language version of her flier to the girls, and the brothel owner willingly translates her Hebrew instructions. His “employees” knowingly and politely nod.
When we step out into the alleyway to move on to the next brothel, the blonde follows us outside to get some fresh air. In the sun, we get a much better view: She is startlingly waiflike and probably younger than me. She tries to feign a world-weary smirk, but her slumping posture and the weakness of her smile attempt reveal her truer, more depressing situation. When we get back out to the pedestrian mall, Yael tells me to remember the address of the club. She also tells me to hide my notebook and camera, because the Russians who run the clubs don’t want to deal with snooping reporters. I’m an intern, I tell her, not a reporter. Do you expect the Russian mob to know the difference?
We walk down a hallway between a currency-changing shop and a kiosk selling stolen fake-designer jeans. The hallway is inside an old warehouse-type building, with prison-style catwalks lining each floor. This architectural misfortune begins to disturb me as we climb the dank linoleum stairs to the second level of grubby rooms (which Yael tries to avoid when alone). We pitch the goodness of the clinic to a near-empty brothel with only one woman on duty, and then decide to leave. The people milling around in the front of the building give us strange, suspicious glances, and a Eurotrash fellow in a sweaty gray T-shirt quickly hangs up his cell phone.
At our final stop, in a similar building around the block, the same fellow scurries past us while we lean into a doorway trying to pass out still more fliers. Forty-five seconds later, a dwarfish man with a white Stalinesque mustache gently takes us by our shoulders and directs us to the exit. Yael tells me that probably we were preventing the guy in the gray T-shirt from getting his jollies. I am slightly disappointed that he was not a mafia lookout assigned to follow us. Then my mother really would have been upset.