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The other day I ran into my friend Bill down at Bob's Steak and Chop House on the corner of Montgomery and California. You know the new place that everyone was wondering about during about a year of construction? What a pleasant surprise when the scaffolding came down to see a classy bar & grill rather than one more set of office suites for attorneys or accountants.

Maybe you remember Bill's story about the Broadway strip joints. Well, it seems Bill has a little problem now. The story drew huge readership and Gail his editor wants more pieces along those lines—the hit rate pumps up advertising, pumps up revenue, pumps up Gail.... But there was more to Bill's problem.

"You see," he said to me, looking somewhat embarrassed, "I think I'm becoming addicted to this sex thing. I actually went back a couple of times to some of the strip joints. I know some of the girls now pretty well."

"Could be worse," I said.

"I know," said Bill, "but I thought I was a better person than that. Good god, getting off on young sexy girls. Now I'm not saying I'm doing anything with them but I enjoy their company and they seem to enjoy mine."

Bill took a sip of his martini and stared at his own image in the mirror in back of the bar. He looked like he didn't like the unsmiling guy he saw.

"So what are you working on now," I asked.

"A massage piece," he said in a feint voice, still looking at his own image in the mirror. He looked like he was staring at the devil.

The bartender came by and I ordered a second scotch, something I don't usually do. I looked around at the dark new woodwork in the bar—someone had done pretty nice job and though the old photos of San Francisco were perhaps a bit contrived, I could stand this contrivance. It's a long walk to North Beach for a drink; this place could come in handy.

Bill had quit seeing the devil and was now looking at me.

"What have you found out so far," I asked.

"Well, a few interesting things that I might have guessed. But when I guess I am often wrong, you know. So I like to find out for myself. I started finding things out last Monday."

Bill paused, staring into his martini glass as though scrutinizing the stuffed olive for some some hidden meaning, then told me this:

"You know that place down on Taylor Street called Paris Massage? Red lights, red curtains, statue of some kind of goddess in the window? Well, about 11:30 on Monday I walked down there. I was intending to get a drink before going in. But strange to say, all the bars seemed to have closed early. Maybe because it was President's Day. So I just decided I would go in 'unfortified.' Mind you, I do not fortify myself for other stories. But this sex business has gotten to me. I find a little relaxation first helps—puts me in the proper frame of mind.

"The door to Paris Massage is on the alley. I push the buzzer, and a large woman soon opens the door.

"'It's 60 dollars,' she says smiling and friendly. She has a little black eye shadow but is not heavily made up. I ask for a receipt. She looks surprised—that is the last thing most of her customers apparently want. She goes to a little adjoining room, gets a receipt book, and tears about ten receipts out of the book and hands them to me. Does she think that ten trips to a massage parlor is going to fly with anyone's accounting department? I don't ask.

"'Let me show you how it works,' she says and takes me for a tour of the premises. There is sauna, there is a shower, there is my room, number 5. We are now standing by number 5. 'When you're done in the sauna, get a shower—the girls like you to get a shower first—then go lie down here. That way she'll know you're ready.'

"After a short bake in the sauna, a quick shower, I was lying down in number 5, a small room with red lights, red wallpaper and large padded table on which I now lay. Many images of what was to follow went through my mind. Laugh if you like, but mostly they consisted of some variation of a thinly clad and very pretty Asian masseuse gently beginning to massage my neck and shoulders, always full of writer's tensions, and moving down my back, lower and lower, and ending up who knows where.

"What could then be more surprising than the fully clad young woman of European descent who arrived and ordered me to turn over on my back. She had a tough leathery look about her and exited the room until I had flipped myself and covered back up with the towel.

"Then the massage began—from the top and heading down but hard and impatient. My masseuse was named Christina. She was probably about 25. I did not get a sense of service from her, rather resentment. We went through the usual 'Where are you from?' routine, and as it turned out we were both from the City and I was not some business jerk or tourist, she began to loosen up and we talked. She was having a tough time with her life. She had gone to college and gotten a degree in art but did not have much interest in it anymore. She had gotten married and then divorced. She had been homeless for six months, she said; then went to Europe to visit her sister. Now she was back and wanted to learn welding 'to make furniture'. I told her I thought most people wanted to make furniture from wood. She looked baffled. She also wanted to buy a gun and learn to take it apart. I left that one alone. She told me of a long string of odd jobs that she had done. Then we started talking about books and Kurt Vonnegut. She loved Vonnegut. We talked about Cat's Cradle and Slaughter House Five. I pointed out that Vonnegut had done a few other things before he had started writing. I suggested, without saying so, that one had to find a focus and that for some people doing so could be hard work. She really began to warm up to the discussion, stopping my massage, unfortunately, and leaning against the wall to talk. She no longer wore the flat or restrained expression with which she entered the room but was smiling and talking in earnest. In the end I had the impression of a nice but badly confused young woman who was scattering her energies all over the map. If I were a tourist from, say Denmark, I would have a nice little story to take home about young American girls not having a clue. As it is, I have a daughter and I do not laugh; I hope Christina finds herself. I could see she was hurting.

"But now when Christina has finished with my back side, she says the massage is over—unless I want to pay $100 more for someone else to come in to do the front side. If I were the tourist from Denmark, I think I would be pissed. But as I am just here to learn what transpires in massage parlors in the City, I accept this as part of the lesson. I decline the other half of the message, whatever it would consist of, get dressed and go back out front.

"The large woman who let me in is still there. Her name is Jordan, and I ask her some questions without being to nosey. First, she tells me she has worked at Paris Massage for 16 years. She came to the City when she was 19 and says she loved it from day one. She is rather the opposite from Christina—loose, outgoing, easy.

"There is now a cop outside the door and Jordan opens the top half. 'Do you need to come out of the rain?' she asks him. It has started to drizzle. No, he says he is okay. He and his partner are getting a young man to move out of the alley. It is about 1:30 in the morning now.

"She say she would like to get rid of the red curtains and lights but the woman who owns the place won't let her. There is another place just up the street on Taylor that has similar decor and features private lingerie shows. 'But it fits the red light district,' I say. She says this is really not a red light district; it just looks like it. She laughs and says a lot of tourists and business people come here, get a massage and leave looking relieved that they have not been disloyal to their wives.

"The 'other places,' she says, have a different kind of smell about them. She says they had a girl working at Paris Massage awhile back—'She drank Bud out of an open can'—who had worked the 'other' places. She was trying to remember her description of the smell in those places. Christina, who was now in the adjoining room and listening, said, 'She said it smelled like "men and women."'"

Bill paused, and I asked, "Well, are they all like that in the City? Simply appearance?"

"Oh, no," said Bill. "Strangely enough, I would say this place is probably the exception. I still don't quite understand it."

He was back to staring into his martini glass, a habit he has that I don't much like. I prodded him.

"The exception? The exception to what?" I asked.

"The exception to what I ran into the next day, for instance." He halted again and I waited him out.

"I really wanted to be right about something for once," said Bill. There is this place on the edge of Chinatown that I have always been curious about. I have always pictured girls upstairs. That part I was wrong about, but my general intuition was correct.

"I killed a little time at a bar first—the City's oldest, the Bow Wow on Grant Street, know the place?—then I paid my visit. There is no alley; the door is right on the main street. I pushed the buzzer on the metal security door and waited. It was awhile before I heard the electronic latch unlock. I walked down to the basement level, not up. There on my left was another secure door and a shuttered window. The window opened and an older Asian woman told me it was $50 for a message. She was pleasant and efficient. I paid the $50 and she unlocked the other door to let me in.

"It was brightly lit in the white hall inside, and she lead me to a room with a large massage table and a shower.

"'Would you like heat?' she asked. I told her that would be nice and she turned on a small space heater on the floor. The room was very clean, almost like a doctor's office.

"She told me to take off my clothes and lie down and that Kim would be with me shortly.

"I did as told, and a few minutes later Kim arrived. She was about 35-years old—older than I had expected—wore a short, low-cut dress with a leopard-skin print and was barefoot. She was relaxed and friendly. I felt at ease with her almost at once.

"'You want some water, some tea?' she asks. I told here I was fine. She started on my back and neck.

"I don't remember pumping her for information. Quite naturally she informed me that she was from Vietnam and was here by herself. She said she works seven days a week, 10 in the morning to 4 the next morning. But I got the impression that the pace was slow.

"'The woman here is very nice,' she said. 'She let's me go shopping down on Union Square.' Kim has a place in Oakland, but she only goes over now and then to pick up clothes. She makes occasional trips to Vietnam to visit family. Why she is here I'm not quite sure, but I believe it has mostly to do with money. She has the easygoing nature of a village peasant. I like her slow, sleepy pace.

"She has finished my backside now, and she says she can do "everything" for a hundred and fifty dollars more. Her offer is made with grace and does not surprise or offend me. It is her trade and she is comfortable with it.... Later she prepared the shower. 'I'll come back to say good-bye when you are dressed.'"

I guess I was staring hard at Bill now and he did not like it. He almost shouted:

"Call her a prostitute if you want but I wouldn't. Her service was basic—perhaps the most fundamental service of all—but she had more dignity and grace than most of the 'proper' ladies I have known. And she was at ease. Who can say that in this City of bad nerves?"

I waited then asked softly, "Did you feel at all like she was being exploited?"

Bill gave me a look as if to say "spare me your self righteousness." He thought for awhile, then said:

"I felt sad, but it was a sadness for us all. Couldn't we all do better? We dishonor the lowly with bad names and praise the high and might, many of whom ought to be in prison. If there is shame, it is a collective shame. Or maybe it is my shame? I can accept that. Neither Christ nor the Buddha would be pleased with us. But my sadness went away when she smiled and said I had made her day. I think she meant financially. Sex does sell, as they say, but it has not been selling as well during the Bush recession. Ask the 'girls' at the strip joints. The guys come to look, not buy. Anyway, think what you will, I left feeling refreshed."

Bill seemed to have finished his speach. I asked:

"And is Gail going to pick up the bill on that?"

"I think so."

"So there is sin in the City after all," I said, swirling the ice in my half-empty glass of Scotch. "What's the name of the place?"

"Not telling," said Bill coyly. "But I don't think it's untypical."

"So where is this all going to end?" I asked.

"I really don't know," said Bill. "But on Friday I was really curious about one thing: I wanted to know about the 'outcall' business. That, I thought, must be the other end, the high end, of the massage spectrum. Now in the old days, which weren't too long ago, I might have just bought newspaper, but you know how it is now. I did a web search on 'massage outcall' and, bingo!, I was there: masseuses, photos, bios replete with attitude, phone numbers, etc. I started making calls. I was curious what these ladies had to offer and how much they thought they were worth. I was rather nervous the first call I made to a woman name Alejandra whose JPEG I had been pondering. But then the second call was easy. I went into the mode you go into when working on a story—you know, one call right after another like you're working in an emergency room. I got prices, how much advanced notice they required (not much in most cases), and so on. After awhile I felt like I was pricing furniture and shopping around for the best deal, quickest delivery, etc. One young lady named Honey even called me back a few minutes after I had talked with her to lower her price. I guess she felt like she was dealing with a sharpie and wanted badly to make a sale.

"One young lady only wanted $300 dollars to come over (she could be there within the hour), while another, a snooty blond named Claudia, wanted $1000. She claimed to be the best in San Francisco. Terrific website anyway."

"So did you 'buy any furniture'?" I asked Bill.

"Good Lord no," said Bill. "Gail, our editor, would never go for an expense like that no matter how many hits the story got. And I really didn't want to. I was still feeling warm about Kim."

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. But that was Bill—senstive one moment, insenstive the next, and always out on a limb. "So what's up next? Got another story coming along?" I asked.

"I'm thinking about a story on fly fishing. I think I need to get away. Maybe go up to the Mattole River."

"Sounds like a good idea to me," I said.

"Yeah, and if I stick around here, I might end up calling Claudia. She's snooty but there was something I like about her. Kind of gaunt cheeks but ..."

I left Bill at the bar. I had work back at the office.