Thanks for the inside view. That's one side of BP I never did see. Maybe next time. ;-)
Inside Erotic Retail – An Interview with Budapest's Forgotten Employees
Ever wondered what's inside the shadows? I visited seven sex shops one bright afternoon to interview the city's least visible wage earners.
Penetrating beyond the blackened windows, down lonely silent stairs and into the steaming bowels of Budapest's established titillation industry, I'm in search of it's forgotten people who get by seated on raggedy stools of murk and mire – the dicey striplings peeping around their tills like silent myriapods as they consult with incorrigible freneticism on the erogenic. At least that's one mutation of what may await me. What else to imagine before entering Budapest's erotic shops? Grizzly-armed gangsters framing the barred door, big fists on the counter, ugly stares, a cloying threat, brazen voracious browsing against an all-crimson-lit sweating hue of pulsating brick walls.... Giggles even..., white noise, thick carrier bags. The mind depicts an automatically sinister vision. But what of the reality?
Entering one of the notoriously esoteric szex bolts feels like exiting the matinee, with white strip lights beaming down unforgivably from the ceiling – whereas another is a dim basement accentuated with red lamps, and yet another lets recycled daylight diffuse in through barred windows painted yellow. Six out of the seven establishments feel more mellow within than their outside warning stripes, flashing pink-blue, belie.
Above anything else – the indecomposable seediness, brash branding, and lurking undercurrent of the low areas the shops often settle in – I was interested in the people who make a living in them; to get the low-down on erotic shops directly from those whose reality pirouettes around dispatching blister-packed items to a small clientèle, around a routine of days that stretch hard into the night.
I discovered an inconcinnous workforce variously conscious of their detachment from the world – their eyes irregularly peculiar; alert on a liquid mix of insouciance and exhaustion. And although my proposal was rejected or deflected in four establishments – most commonly with a shake of the head from older men of suspicious nature – I found three forgotten employees who were willing to have a confab about existence in the cabins, cupboards and large showrooms.
Interviewee 1, Walter, was nonchalant, glaze-eyed, amused to have been noticed, clipped. Discovered him milling around with his colleague in a deserted basement unit.
Interviewee 2, Hector the Second, was unreserved and candid, swathed in a full length nothing-to-lose attitude. He presented as the most forgotten character, with the dishevelled appearance of a student but graced with a clarity of mind usually found in those doubly his senior. Relieved to talk to me. Driven to distraction in the small enclosure that sealed him from the street.
Interviewee 3, Don, was confident and outgoing yet remained on best behaviour throughout questioning; clearly worried about a few of his own words jeopardising the job that he loved in this big shop.
Their responses are pooled into the following collective interview. Names have been changed out of courtesy.
1. Did you actively choose to work in a sex shop or did it just work out like that?
Walter: No response offered – mulled the question over blankly, and with a smile.
Hector the Second: It really just worked out like that.
Don: I specifically chose to work here.
Because it's interesting and different.
2. Would you recommend it?
Walter: No response offered – a shrug.
Hector the Second: No, it's a lonely job – twelve hours per day.
3. Tell me, how many customers come in each day?
Walter: About one hundred.
Hector the Second: In summer, not many – four or five in twelve hours. You're the third person to come in today (4pm). But there are more customers in winter – ten a day.
Don: Unwilling to confirm without authorisation from the boss.
4. Best selling product?
Walter: Realistic vibrators and poppers.
Hector the Second: Handcuffs, toys, lubricants, Viagra pills.
Don: Unwilling to confirm.
5. People might assume that sex shop customers are weird... are they?
Walter: Sometimes. [His colleague also nods]
Hector the Second: Not really; they are normal people, a mix of everyone. Old people come in for pills; women and couples for lubricants. Younger guys don't buy DVDs, they watch everything on the internet now... only over 30s buy the DVDs.
Don: No, they're normal people.
6. Any stories?
Walter: Drunk people often come in and break things or try to get off with the staff.
Hector the Second: People wanting to try before they buy, that's quite common. A woman once forced me to watch her sex movie on her phone. Being propositioned by customers wanting to take me in the back, that also happens.
Don: None offered. Looks around uncomfortably.
7. What's the strangest thing you've been asked for?
Walter: No answer beyond a shrug.
Hector the Second: A special machine.
It's pneumatic. The Pleasure Machine!
Don: No response.
8. Do you think sex shops are important in society? As a form of expression for example?
Walter: Half and half. They serve the depressed and lonely people that make up half of our customers.
Hector the Second: Often people have the wrong idea about sex shops because they think there are girls inside – they think they are brothels, which they are not.
Don: Yes. They're cool.
9. So would the world be better or worse without them?
Walter: Hmmm, I think it's ok to have them, but maybe not to work in one.
Hector the Second: Worse. We sell natural, normal ideas and toys.
Don: Definitely worse.
After question nine I left them to their isolation. But let's not forget the public. One voice disapprovingly called out “sex shop man!” from a car window as I pushed open one of the doors, his drowned face heaving past the pavement like a sinking gondola suffering from an ichthyic protrusion of the eyeballs.
Perhaps he thought there were many women inside.
Perhaps he'll never know.