One of the best things you can do as a writer is say "yes" to things.
This, incidentally, is how I learned that strip clubs in Prague are also brothels.
Four years ago, I was in Prague with my wife, Amanda, and two of our friends — Jacqui, and a guy I’ll call Dave. We’ll get to the reason for the pseudonym in a bit.
Dave had just gotten out of a relationship, and it was like a little storm cloud following us around. It wasn’t enough to put a damper on our good time, but you could tell it was there. So one night, I figured he needed a little strip club therapy.
I’m trying to tell this story without sounding like a creep. Strip clubs can be a lot of fun, and they’re great for giving you the measure of a town. I set my second novel — City of Rose
— in a fictional Portland strip club, because of how fond I am of the city’s strip club culture.
One night we left Amanda and Jacqui at the apartment we were Airbnb-ing. Dave and I sat in Staromestské námestí (Old Town Square), near the astrological clock, before embarking on our mission.
We were psyching ourselves up. Not that it was our first rodeo; at least, not mine. But there’s something about going to a strip club in Eastern Europe that conjures images of movies like Hostel
. Like the worst-case scenario if things go south is finding yourself in a dingy basement with a ball gag in your mouth.
Neither of us had our phones because we didn’t want to pay the international data fees. All we had was the name and address of a club Dave’s friend had suggested, and a general direction to walk in.
Prague is not easy to navigate. If you’ve ever gotten yourself lost in the mishmash of streets in Philadelphia or Boston, imagine that, except nothing is in English and you can’t access Google Maps. We kept getting lost, then ducking into pubs to get our bearings, downing a pint or two, and then heading back out, just to get lost again. At the two-hour mark we were ready to give up, when Dave pointed to an alley and said, “That’s it.”
We were both drunk enough that going down a dark alley in a strange city seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. We found a door, went inside, and there was this jacked dude working the front. So big he had to be generating a gravitational field.
And this is where drunkenness overwhelmed logic. He didn’t charge us a cover. I should have noticed that.
We stepped into the club and it was full of dudes. Not just watching — dancing, too. So many oiled-up men in thongs. I started laughing at that most perfect moment, during a gap between one song and the next, so that nearly every eye in the place turned toward the two of us standing in the doorway.
Either the person who tipped Dave off to the club was screwing with him, or we were just completely turned around. We stepped into the front room and I told the bouncer this wasn’t the club we were looking for. He smiled like it happened all the time and gave us directions to the neighborhood where the clubs featured women.
Turns out, of course, that neighborhood was a very short walk from our apartment.
As we exited the club, Dave said, “Please don’t tell anyone about this.”
I replied, “Are you kidding me? I’m telling everyone about this.”
You’re welcome, Dave. At least I changed your name.
We were psyching ourselves up. Not that it was our first rodeo; at least, not mine. But there’s something about going to a strip club in Eastern Europe that conjures images of movies like Hostel.
So we made it to Wenceslas Square and found ourselves at the bottom of a gentle incline, where we were immediately swarmed by African men, yelling at us in various languages, grabbing at us and forcefully trying to pull us in different directions.
It was a little jarring, but once we broke off from the scrum I was able to talk to one of them — they were runners for the clubs and got a cut of every person they brought in. We made friends with this guy and he walked us up the block to what he promised was the best club in the area, though I suspect he was biased.
As we walked, a woman leaned out of a window and offered to have sex with me for €40. I waved and said no thank you. I remember trying to figure out the exchange rate — what that would be in American dollars, and then in the Czech koruna. But I’m hopeless at math when I’m sober.
We got to the club and inside there was a turnstile, like you’d find outside a subway station. The man at the front collected our cover fee and handed our runner his share.
Inside it was pretty quiet, like maybe it hadn’t opened yet. We sat at the bar and were beset by a horde of glittered, smiling dancers. Dave seemed to take a liking to one of the girls straightaway, so I handed her a wad of bills and told her to dance his lap off.
They disappeared and I turned my attention to a woman who introduced herself as Serenity, which I suspect was not her real name. I bought drinks for the two of us (being careful to pick the drink for her — a popular scam in Prague strip clubs is for the dancer to ask you to buy her a drink, and then order a grossly overpriced glass of something you’re on the hook to pay for).
I asked her where she was from and she said Ghana. She asked me where I was from and I said New York, and she got very excited and said she hoped to visit one day. I almost offered to show her around, but realized that would be weird. She asked if I wanted a lap dance and I said no.
She asked me if I wanted anything else. Intrigued, I asked what else was on the menu.
And, truthfully, I had read there was a bustling sex industry in Prague. I just didn’t know how accessible it was.
According to Serenity, a hand job or a blowjob was 1,500 koruny (at the time, roughly $70). Sex was 2,500 koruny. For an additional 1,000 koruny we could invite another girl in. There was more, but I was getting a little dizzy from trying to do the math. And I had a lot of questions.
Did all the girls charge the same? (Yes.)
Was there a printed menu? (Yes — there was literally a laminated bar menu of sex acts.)
Why do a blowjob and a hand job cost the same? (She didn’t understand why they wouldn’t cost the same.)
Where do you go for all this? (The “hotel,” a series of upstairs rooms with beds and showers, accessible by elevator.)
She wandered away once she realized I wasn’t going to buy anything, and the other dancers came up to me in turn, asking what I was looking for. I didn’t have a good answer. I tried to chat them up, but none of them stayed for long.
A little while later Dave came back. We made it home. No dingy basements. No ball gags. One pretty good story. So good I had to use it somewhere, which is why a fictionalized version of this appears in my new book, The Woman from Prague
. It’s just too good not to use.
There’s an epilogue here. A few days later we were in Kraków, sitting outside a bar drinking beers we couldn’t pronounce, when a golf cart stopped on the sidewalk next to us. It was owned by a local strip club and picked up drunken revelers.
I almost got on the cart, because c’mon, that’s brilliant. I didn’t, because we had one key for the apartment between us, which made it difficult to coordinate stuff. And it was late. And I was tired.
I regret not taking the ride. It’s one of the rules I try to live by as a writer: Don’t say no to things. (Within reason — saying no to sex with a stripper in Prague is okay.) But the best fiction is born from truth. This may be the silly, gonzo version of that, but that doesn’t make it untrue.
÷ ÷ ÷
Rob Hart is the author of The Woman from Prague
, available July 11, 2017 from Polis Books, and picked by Publishers Weekly
as one of the best reads of the summer. He is also the author of New Yorked
, nominated for an Anthony Award for Best First Novel, City of Rose
, and South Village
, chosen by The Boston Globe
as one of the best books of 2016. His short fiction has appeared in publications like Thuglit
, and Joyland
. Nonfiction has appeared at Slate, The Daily Beast, and Electric Literature. You can find him online at @robwhart or www.robwhart.com.