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In the middle of this dark, dingy passage, next to a computer shop and across from a hotel catering to business travelers, there is a doorway lined with incandescent light bulbs and plastered with gaudy 80s porn posters. I hand her the money and enter clumsily through the glass door, staring at my shoes. Inside, the air is thick with perfume and astringent with bleach. Amid the gloom, some fifteen women crowd the small bar, sending forth affected desire and haunted looks.
High-heels, shorts skirts, straining cleavage, and mouths like crimson wounds. Their faces flash in and out of the lights and the dry ice, a brume of voluptuous hosts. I pass by and sit on a sofa that smells of too many bodies and of too much spilled champagne. In front of me, a young woman presses her breasts into the chest of a reserved sixty-year-old man, promptly straddling him with practiced confidence.
The man stammers and stutters, writhes and twitches, but she pins him to the seat with the force of her hips and the fervor of her flattery. He is short, with the bulk and sag of a man in his mid-sixties. He has neat, medium-length, salt-and-pepper hair parted in the middle, and a bushy moustache. His expression is stern as he grumbles at the waitresses working alongside him. His bar is not what many in Spain call a puticlubor brothel: large motels-cum-bars where women work legally as prostitutes.
Making a living from the night has taught Calero many things. He knows the types of people that will break down in tears and the kind of man who will be aggressive with one of his girls. He knows the people that enter to escape and the people that come to study. Calero was born in the Spanish city of Albacete, but he spent little time there, leaving for Palma de Mallorca, in the Balearic Islands, at the age of fourteen to find work.
In Palma, after years of scraping a living from odd jobs, he finally secured work as a deliveryman during the day and as a cook in a cabaret bar at night. The bar had two sections: one, a flamenco-themed restaurant, the other, a late-night strip club with live porn shows. It was there that Calero first encountered the world of live sex. Calero went home and proposed the venture to his wife, Fatima, who he had met in his early twenties after living on the island for many years.
She was curious about the offer. Calero liked the idea; he figured that not only would he be saved constant worries about his sexual health, but having his wife up there would also make the ordeal psychologically easier. Back then, managers were very demanding of their performers, mainly due to the high rates they were charging customers for the shows. Calero tells me that an actor had one chance. The next evening the couple was on stage, in front of hundreds of people.
The show was a success. At least, Calero thinks it was; he was so focused on his performance that he can no longer recall it. An erection that, according to him, never let him down. From there, they started working at other clubs across the city, sometimes performing 12 shows in a night. Calero says he never tired of having sex with his wife, even though she was the only woman he had sex with on stage.
The pair planned their routine every night, in an attempt to recreate, at least superficially, the intimacy they shared in private. But as Calero admits, if he thought about it too much, he ran the risk of failing. You had to focus on the task at hand, and pretend that no one was there. Calero had turned something innately private into a business but had to make sure that the business seemed as if it were anything but commercial.
But Calero assures me that he became used to this dilemma and soon treated it with the professional indifference that success in the industry required of him. With this practiced stolidity, his reputation continued to grow. Offers came in from clubs all over Spain, and directors wanted to cast him and his wife in their porn films. But Calero stuck to the stage and bought Chelsea, what was then a late-night bar in the center of Madrid.
In films, you have long breaks, stunt cocks and more opportunities to succeed. On stage you have one chance and a real audience; I always enjoyed that pressure to perform. Calero transformed Chelsea into a large cabaret-cum-sex-club: a cross between the Moulin Rouge and a Broadway show. There were 60 hostesses and live sex shows of various types almost every night, in which Calero regularly performed.
On the weekends, some people came to the club to enjoy its services. Five years ago, the lease on Chelsea ran out, and a large hotel chain outbid Calero for the rights to the building. By luck, there was another site free, just across the road from the old one.
He bought the place and renamed the club Chelsea II. Although smaller, the new space is an homage to its predecessor. There are the same faux-leather seats; electric candles flickering on red, satin tablecloths; sticky, leather banquettes ensconced in private booths divided by thick, burgundy-colored curtains; and gold-plated picture frames encasing TV screens showing hardcore porn.
The clients are a mixture of gnarled regulars, drunk tourists, and lonely men. I recognize that kind of man even before he has sat down. At the back of the room, a petite Russian woman skids down a dancing pole in staccato squeaks of skin on metal and thrusts her hips asynchronously to the music. Pulling aside her sequined lingerie, she starts masturbating for a disinterested audience. She does this ponderously, with a hesitancy that makes it look as if she were fumbling through a bowl of peanuts. Straining for sexiness, she rubs her breasts violently and grimaces. People came to these shows to live out their fantasies.
He keeps the show running with different actors and by involving volunteers from the audience. But, whereas demand for live porn has dwindled, the desire for prostitutes has not. Prostitution was decriminalized in Spain in and is not covered by any current law.
It exists in a grey area; only some activities related to it, such as pimping, are illegal. I read on internet forums that at the old Chelsea, the standard rates were 50 euros for a blowjob or euros for sex. But when I ask Maria—not her real name—a year-old Dominican, if she has sex with her clients, her coquetry turns to hesitation. Maria is careful not to say anything incriminating, redirecting the conversation with ribald comments.
But when she sees that I am not interested in buying her a drink she gets up to leave, ing her colleagues at the bar. The rest of the women avoid me for the remainder of the night. There are an estimatedprostitutes working in Spain, mostly hailing from Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Their arrival in the country is often a nefarious business with many of them shipped in by criminal organizations who pose as legitimate agencies offering job opportunities in Western Europe. I have no part in that. The ones that decide to stay have contracts and those that perform in the sex shows willingly do so. Calero has also never hidden anything from those close to him. Calero has four children. The eldest, 45, is in charge of another strip t, and the rest have worked behind the bar at Chelsea at some point in their lives.
He believes he provides a service to the public, which makes more people happy than sad. Most of the club is drunk now, drunk enough to want more of everything: more compliments, more champagne, more flesh. Amid it all, Calero weaves through the tables with practiced discretion. He watches from the shadows, making sure everything is running well, without ever drawing attention to himself.
He is a consummate professional. But with his professionalism comes a certain dispassion. It is a dispassion that can be heard in the way he talks about sex.
In Internet sex Madrid gruff, gravelly voice, he describes intimate moments mechanically. He outlines the acts without reflecting upon them. Indeed, it is an indifference that allows him to thrive in this world, but never to engage with it critically. All around him people listen to one another with imbecilic smiles while others skulk in the darkness, sipping on cocktails, enveloped by expensive embraces.
Calero does not move, that stern expression still on his face, a look hardened by a thousand disapproving stares. To him, this world is normal. With what others see as shocking, he pays the bills. Like sport to many great sportsmen, sex has become banal to him so it can be accessible and exciting to others.
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