A doorman sees everything. It’s part of the job. And when you work the door of a popular brothel on Große Freiheit Straße (“Great Freedom Street”) along the Reeperbahn (Europe’s largest Red Light District) in Hamburg, Germany, you see more than your fair share.
But it’s not just about nightclubs, 6AM shots of brandy, or pay-to-play prostitution. There is a lot of history in St. Pauli. A million stories running through the cracks and spilling out onto the street. A million people with a million different views, scents, and sounds for the world to absorb.
A doorman, then, becomes more than just a doorman. A doorman becomes a gatekeeper of experience, a holder of secrets, a monolith at the mouth of pleasures, memories, emotions. This is one doorman’s story.
The doorman POV
“I start when the sun goes down. The Reeperbahn is busy most nights, but especially so on weekends when the suit and tie people don’t have to wake up early in the morning. Mostly I give directions, tell people where to go. I tell them not to come inside unless they want a woman, and if they want a woman that they have to pay.
I am like a stoplight. You know? I say when to stop, when to wait, when to go.
People listen to me. They must.
We get the kids drunk asking how much, how much. Some of them serious, most of them not. I don’t want to be mean, but I must be firm. If they can’t pay, or they are too drunk, then I tell them to leave. They listen.
I’m not supposed to be physical unless there is no choice. No other way to get them out of the way. It is not violence, it is pleasure you are seeking here. I am meant to open the door, not close it. But sometimes they are abusive or erratic and they must be removed from the premises one way or another.
There was one time, when I was much younger than now, a punk got in my face and said something disrespectful to me. I laid him out, you know? I was having a bad day. My asthma acting up, my woman acting up. I hit him so hard his mother felt it, I know. And my colleague, he says to me, you should not do this. You’re supposed to be firm, physical maybe, but not violent. The kid was on the ground, people stepping over him. His nose was bleeding down his shirt. No one helped him. What could I do?
The city at night
When I first came here I thought this is where I want to stay forever. The lights, you know? The people. The women. Not as much anymore. This is not so great of a city. You see the trash everywhere? You see drunk people pissing anywhere. The Reeperbahn has history, yes. But look around you. There is nothing but drugs, drunk, debauchery that makes people blush. This is what people come here for? History matters only during the daytime. When I sleep.
But there are times, when night covers the dirty streets and the lights come on one by one with a neon glow down the street, that it still looks like a dream. Something like the dreams I had as a kid in the country. I’m from a small town, Abenburg, near Nuremburg. I grew up with the sounds of the woods and the sounds of birds and cows in the field.
The Reeperbahn still feels new to me. Every night. It feels like freedom.
I understand the beauty of the underground. The pull of a lifestyle polite society does not recognize. There is more freedom here than in any office building in the world.
But I can’t stay. I won’t survive if I stay here, I know. It has gone too far. How many kids I see, yelling and fighting and getting drunk and doing things I would not tell my children about. What pain do they feel that they need this every night? These kids, not even old enough to buy beer in America. What do they need to escape that they come here to disappear into sin, to wake up on a doorstep with no real memory?
I will probably move to somewhere new. Perhaps Vienna. Mozart was what my mother listened to. Then perhaps I would care more for what goes on during the daytime.
There are many misconceptions about women who work on the Reeperbahn. There are of course the cliché women, working simply to make ends meet. Through college, or just for now.
But for many women this is a career. This is a life.
One girl I knew, she was very sweet, was very lonely. Her son died in an accident. While she was sleeping with her boyfriend, the baby rolled over and suffocated under the blanket. Her boyfriend left her then. She was left alone, so she started to have men over at night. She decided she would get paid.
Each story is different. Each woman is different. There is no way to say that they are all the same.
I find these women to be more respectable than the bankers who take your money, or the lawyers who defend rapists, murderers. You know? These women work, they put up with so much, they make their money. They make their way as everyone does. Someday, perhaps, the world will recognize this as just another job and not something that must exist only in shadows.
There are parts of the Reeperbahn that women cannot go to. Do you know this? Only men allowed. Many clubs, many strip clubs, many puffs (brothels) where women are not welcome. No women, no under-18.
It’s changing, however. Most of the old brothels, the old hotels are gone now. It’s for tourists now. People come here to party, to escape as I said before. It is not longer the world of pleasure it once was. It is no longer about these women and their beauty.
And many women must leave. Find work elsewhere in worse, much more dangerous situations.
The world is not made for women. This I know. There is no place for them. Maybe that will someday change.”
Read next: What it’s like at the strip club for…