Seducing the Dead in Amsterdam

05/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Some believe that the path to the metaphysical is the physical; that in order to feel the soul it is necessary to first embrace the body. But Teresa works as a prostitute in Amsterdam where for years one unrequited desire has burned beneath the surface of her numbed skin. She yearns to be touched in her soul by someone who has not first paid her to flesh-out a fantasy.

Snaking through Stifled Alleyways in a Creepy Conga Dance

Being open to new experiences, even the ones that seem so foreign to us, can help to build a more understanding, compassionate, empathic self.

The Amsterdam evening was a sharp, sad contrast to a day bathed in the splendor of the Van Gogh Museum. Its collection includes 200 hundred of his works, and the colors of his Japanese prints so inspired me that I could almost smell the scent of cherry blossoms as I was reminded of my travels to Japan. But after midnight the air in the old city's legal red light district becomes filled with the stale odor of sex for sale.

Sleazy characters shuffle along the bustling streets as if rushing to join the plot of a Dickens novel. Passageways echo with moans. People squeeze past me, impatient to get to the main attraction: the famous Theatre Casa Rosso with its "Live Sex Show."

In the throbbing heart of an international sex supermarket I watch women try to turn calculated gestures and glances into professional profits. Red neon makes dim-lit doorways glow in front of the miniature storefront glass facades of the small cubicle of prostitution. Scantily clad women of all ages, looks, and ethnicities pose and purr with promises of paid excitement. A surging mass of humanity pulses past - a swarm of shadows buzzing with sexual anticipation.

"Looky-Loos" and Interviews:

Put yourself into an uncomfortable situation but enter with an open mind. You'll experience a surprising outcome and exit the other side of it with fresh and unexpected insights.

I pass a small shop advertising peep shows. Men with hungry eyes enter as others with lax faces leave. One eyes me lasciviously as he wipes his hands on his pants. A gorgeous Swedish-looking teenage blonde spots me from behind her viewing glass. She teases her thin, tanned frame flirtatiously as she opens the door to look me up and down.

"Would it be possible to interview you?" I ask.

"Interview? No." She starts to close the door. "If my parents found out it would make them sad and angry. Journalists always make us out to be victims. We're not. I want to be here. I enjoy my work."

"How long have you been working here?"

"Three months. Please, no more questions. Good luck." Feeling heavier in the heart I continue along the street with its smorgasbord of women for rent.

Unrecognized Angels:

Don't judge others. Everyone has a purpose and we often don't know what our own - or other peoples' - purpose is. Rather than critique choices, behaviors, career paths or life decisions it is more meaningful to listen and learn profound lessons from those experienced in ways that we are not.

An aging blonde jiggles her assets like a conductor leading an orchestra but the only attention she gets is chuckles and bad jokes tossed her way. Something about her intrigues me. We lock eyes and five seconds feels like an hour. I nod; she pauses. I smile; she fidgets with her thinning, bleached-out hair and releases the latch from her door. I ask her if we can just talk.

"Why?" she asks.

"I'm writing an article about the women here."

"Okay, but no cameras."

"No problem."

"It's your session," she says. The price is fifteen minutes, 50 dollars U.S."

I sit on a chair next to the bed and ask her name. "Teresa," she says, taking a long drag on her cigarette. She's been at this for six years, and says she only works four days a week. "I could work more but I find it spiritually exhausting."

She explains how the prostitutes have regulated check-ups. "But, shit, I've had every venereal disease you can get except AIDS. Crabs, herpes, syphilis, the works. You go to the doctor, you take the pills; you get better. People make such a big deal of it."

I ask about her childhood. "What childhood? I grew up fast." I ask about her job. "It's work - and hell, does anyone enjoy working?"

"What do the men expect?" I wonder.

She takes another hit from her cig. "They get what they come for. They all dream about this little room before they arrive. It's like a fairytale to them. They expect a princess, and they get Theresa. But they can't see me; they only see their fantasy. I'm just the vessel to take them where they want to go. I don't see them, either. Everyone has the same face, same smell. If they don't get off, that's their problem. I tell them to change their fantasy or take Viagra. This small room is the house of the dead."

I gingerly ask "If you could have one wish, what would it be?"

"One wish?" She pauses and thinks. "To experience at least once in my life having my soul touched instead of my body." A deep sadness transforms her face. "With no exchange of money. But it's too late for that."

She stands, gesturing for me to do the same. I pay her and thank her for her honesty. She shrugs, pulls the drapes open, and opens the door to let an old Asian man inside. She offers no smile, no good-bye. I'm just another faceless customer.

Entwined in Tragic Lives:

What am I doing here in a crowded corridor of smut with these empty souls, entwined in their tragic lives? Am I one of them? Is everyone?

I rejoin the swollen crowd of sightseers and slither past men queued up and waiting to slip into small, dank-smelling cubicles where they will rendezvous with private fantasies. Suddenly I'm confronted with the sour breath of an old male face in front of me. I pull my coat tighter around my body and push on, pretending to be unfazed.

With a more purposeful stride I head back to the sanctuary of my room as I try to assimilate the experiences of the last 24 hours and reconcile my newfound lessons.

Women of the (Starry) Night:

Especially for those raised in more conservative environments the conspicuous lack of inhibition in Amsterdam's red light district can test or recalibrate one's moral compass. But it reaffirmed my belief that when we allow ourselves to venture beyond familiar enclaves we face our fear of the unknown.

Knowing dissipates fright and invites the potential for enlightenment. When we fear others it leads to hatred. But when we feel safe around others it invites the possibility for love.

I don't know what complex paths or storied journeys have led souls like Teresa into their current circumstances. She does not like her situation. But instead of folding her cards she has the fortitude and dignity to play the hand she's been dealt until her fortune hopefully changes. We have to take responsibility for our own survival when faced with dire circumstances, and tough choices inform our true destiny.

Looking up at the night sky I envision Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and think of how he painted and fed so many trollops. Women of the night - of nights just like this one - inspired Vincent. They were crucial companions who helped him create, and perhaps I should feel envy - not pity - for these muses. As author Henry Miller said, "Only whores appreciate me." Maybe such women - who step forward to willingly embrace a nobler alternative to victimization - are history's unrecognized angels.

Nurturing Anne Frankness:

"Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don't know how great you can be, how much you can love, what you can accomplish, and what your potential is." (Anne Frank)

Young Anne marveled at how wonderful it is that "nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world," and she said, "I don't think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains."

Journal like Anne Frank did. Start documenting your days so you can look back on your past year and discover how much you've grown and what you want the following year to look like.

Along the way others will touch you for free - deep within your soul.