My first evening in Madrid I strolled from my hotel a hundred yards to Gran Via, the most celebrated street in Spain and frequent scene from movies highlighting its ornate old buildings and statues that hold up balconies bordered by iron railings. After waiting for frenetic traffic to stop at a red light, many people and I crossed Gran Via, and I headed straight to what I considered a plaza but, technically, is very wide Calle Montera, a street with no vehicles, unless they belong to the police, and that’s lined by shops and restaurants and sidewalk cafes. On the right side of the street every several yards or so, frequently next to rather skinny trees, stood young women wearing hot pants, halter tops, and lots of makeup and lipstick. On the left side, interspersed with diners and shoppers, several young, muscular and blue-uniformed members of the Madrid Police leisurely patrolled.
The second or third working lady I passed said in English, “Let’s go.”
Without looking at her, I continued walking. A few seconds later a beautiful young blonde said in Spanish, “Come here.”
I complied, and we continued in Spanish. “Come with me.”
“Sorry, but I can’t,” I said.
“Really, I can’t. I’m going to a play. But out of curiosity, how much?”
“Twenty-five euros for twenty minutes,” she said. That’s about forty dollars.
“Where do you go?”
“To an apartment very near here.”
“Do you live there?”
“No, there are ten bedrooms we use.” She stepped close, softly held my arm, then leaned into me.
“What about the police?”
“Where are you from?”
“Romania,” she said.
“You speak Spanish well. But I’ve got to go.”
“You could come with me first, then go to the play.”
I ignored a few more propositions walking down Calle Montera en route to adjacent Plaza Puerto del Sol where hordes of young people protest political issues and sell watches, clothes, and art. And then I took a cab to the Matadero, once a massive series of slaughterhouses, and watched Incrementum, a humorous play about six women angry with their “jefe del departmento,” the boss. These stunning and dynamic young actresses, I felt, must have begun life under more congenial circumstances than the prostitutes.
The following day I began talking to taxi drivers, hotel workers, waiters, and others about my experiences with the ladies on the street. They usually responded that most of the women on Calle Montera are from Romania though some come from Bulgaria and Slovenia and elsewhere in the European Union, which allows citizens from member nations easy movement for residence and work. Legally or illegally overcoming documentary difficulties are many women from Russia, Africa, and South America.
“I’m surprised the police don’t do anything,” I told one taxi driver.
“The police, like many in Spain, believe that prostitution is a way of living, and the women sell their bodies to survive,” he said.
“Is there ever any trouble?”
“Yes. The girls look for foreigners. They say twenty-five Euros but they’re not going upstairs for that. When they’re talking to men, their chulos (pimps) are watching, and they’ll follow them and rob them if they can. Watch out for those guys. Sometimes, when the girl and the guy are in her room, she’ll slip him a pill with a kiss that knocks him out and when he wakes up his money, credit cards, and passport are gone.”
I asked another taxi driver, “Does that really happen?”
“It can happen, but not much. There are much tougher areas than Calle Montera. One is called Villaverde. Women are on the street twenty-four hours a day.”
It was around ten a.m. when I said, “Let’s go.”
In about fifteen minutes we arrived in an industrial area dominated by warehouses and heavy equipment, and cruised a couple of streets before seeing the first lady, a statuesque brunette, about age twenty-five, clad in a long stylish white dress and high heels and who could decorate the covers of fashion magazines. I powered my window down and motioned for her to come to the taxi.
“Hola, cómo estás?”
“Why are you speaking Spanish?” she said in fluent English.
“I want to practice. Where are you from?”
“And how much?”
“One hundred euros for one hour,” a hundred sixty bucks.
“Where would we go?
“There’s a hotel near here,” she said.
“Muchas gracias,” I said, and powered the window up. Gracefully she turned and walked back to sparse shade under a scraggly tree in this hardscrabble zone.
We moved on and within a couple of minutes passed several more women, most wearing miniskirts or hot pants and halter tops. I motioned for the taxi driver to pull over, and summoned an attractive but somewhat chunky lady in her mid-thirties. Undaunted by formidable competition, she also wanted a hundred euros for sixty minutes labor.
“Are you from Romania?”
“Where would we go?”
“To my house,” she said.
I thanked her, and the taxi driver moved on and said, “These girls also sell a lot of drugs: marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy. There’s a good chance guys she takes home have problems with her chulo. And they don’t change the sheets afterward in the houses.”
“Aren’t there any girls from Spain on the streets?” I asked.
“Almost none. Spanish women are in nice clubs or available by telephone. They get a hundred to three hundred euros per hour, plus cab fare.”
These experiences were enlightening but satisfied my desire for information about the subject. That night about midnight, after watching an Israeli movie with Spanish subtitles and eating a late buffet dinner, I crossed Gran Via and wearily walked along a boulevard still relatively busy with traffic and pedestrians. Suddenly, an attractive woman appeared at my left side. I was holding my omnipresent notebook in my right hand.
“I love you,” she said in perfect English. “Come to my apartment and sleep with me.”
“Where are you from?”
I walked a little faster but she kept bombarding me with offers and started bumping me and then seized my left arm with both of hers, sending a shock from heart to brain, and I ripped my arm free and shoved her and spun around and saw a large young man, who’d clearly been closing in, abruptly change directions and walk fast down the sidewalk, looking straight ahead.
“Don’t push me,” she said.
“Do you speak Spanish?”