The Exchange Rate Between Lust and Money

Charles Cohen, 7A from the Series Buff, 2003, Archival Inkjet Print, 8 × 10". Courtesy of the Artist (www.promuglator.com) and Bonni Benrubi Gallery.

December 2007, and Intergalactic Capital LLP, having concluded a string of big-time real estate deals, has sent Khan Kerensky to Amsterdam, Holland, with instructions to whitemail the city. The deals adhering to Intergalactic’s usual formula, commercial properties with rents that can be raised with just a little sprucing. Preference for professional tenants, as these were felt to be most price-elastic. And these tenants were certainly from a well-established profession: the oldest.

Dusk and branches of bare plane trees are sunlit against a winter sky, vast and Protestant blue. Khan Kerensky wanders the red-light district, happy to be back, smoking vaguely. It’s been a harsh winter, the canals have iced over for the first time in a generation, and now tourists take turns skidding laughing along them, swerving around decrepit rowboats stuck listing in the ice, frozen puddles inside holding frozen empties of Heineken.

His first commitment is a meeting with the managing agents for a block of eighteen properties, comprising fifty-one windows in total, to bring them up to speed about the forthcoming whitemail. “Window” in this instance having a more nuanced meaning than usual: these being full-length plateglass ones from which partly nude figures, often young and slim but sometimes spectacularly neither, attract clients who approach the door, chat, set terms, and, once behind drawn curtains, transact.

“Fifty-one windows?”—Bill Heavenly, Khan Kerensky’s boss, had been in Amsterdam in August for the funeral of a friend. “Fifty-one windows in eighteen properties,” shaking his head, leafing through the architectural plans. “Shit is bananas. How have they survived.”

Yes, the gearing was unacceptably slack. He called trusty Khan Kerensky on the satellite phone, who at that time was kite-skiing across Antarctica, and said why didn’t he drop in on him in Amsterdam, Holland. Twenty-eight hours and $12,000 later, Khan was back in slacks and promenading down the Oudezijds Achterburgwal with his boss. Early evening, fairylights just coming on in the trees, wrens going in to roost and Brits coming out to swarm.

“No reason they can’t rationalize like any other business, Khan. Look at this building: One window. One!” Bill Heavenly sucking on a pomegranate smoothie and absently inspecting the construction. “We could get four in here no problem.” He wandered up to the plate glass, peering at an angle to establish wall thickness, load-bearing structure, et cetera. He nodded. Less than a foot away, the most beautiful woman Khan had ever seen was threatening to remove an already insubstantial top, and her eyebrows were asking the two men if she should proceed. “Oh man check it out,” Bill rapped the glass with a knuckle, “double plexi.”

To Khan, it was all achingly beautiful: the vertical and slim vernacular of the city finding expression in its windows, houses, girls. The most beautiful girls he’d ever seen bicycled past in military coats, redcheeked and laughing into cell phones.

“So the Dutch have windows just on the first floor, see Khan? And sometimes the second. Total cottage industry. We’ll show em how to do business. We are going to buy up this crummy little town, and put windows up to the sixth floor. You hear? I want these buildings looking like a woman vending machine! You hear me, Khan?”

“But aren’t there zoning laws?” Khan asked.

“Good one, good one,” Bill said, when they’d finished laughing.

More from Issue 9