Brothel Watch

Two years ago, a women's rights organization claimed there were 60 to 100 brothels operating in Tallinn, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Estonia. The police cracked down, and now it's believed there are fewer than half that number. You can't deny the progress, but if you look at the numbers for very long (old or new, take your pick), you start to see brothels everywhere. You start to think your neighbors are operating bordellos. Which mine actually happen to be.

I live in what is supposedly one of the more upscale residential suburbs. It's a small enough neighborhood that I know most foreign residents. At the beginning of last summer I heard English spoken on my neighbor's deck. They were just over the fence, through the hedge. The accents and voices changed daily, and it struck me as a very social family.

I wondered if I should I stick my head over the fence and introduce myself? "Hi, I'm Scott. Strange we haven't met before." But for some reason I didn't. Something held me back.

"It's probably a brothel," my wife said. "There's one up by the petrol station which they just closed. They're all over."

A week later, I ordered a taxi and got a driver who liked to talk. He was 70 years old, had been driving since Soviet time.

"Lots of brothels in Estonia?" I asked. Why not ask? He would know.

"There were forty up until about a month ago," he answered, as naturally as if I'd asked about a football match. "But the police closed eight."

"What about in this neighborhood?"

"Oh, you've got two at least."

"The one near the petrol station," I said, trying to sound smart.

"And the one right behind you." He named the address.

"Right," I said. "Of course." A guy can't admit to being too naïve.

Later on in the summer, when the apple trees were in full bloom, the brothel workers held a sing-along. Though the girls themselves were masked by the foliage, their voices carried throughout the neighborhood. It was like living next to a Girl Scout camp. And, I have to admit, they were pretty good.

Was this a practice to ready them for the workday? A friend suggested this was "the famous Estonian Whores' Choir," rumored to be competing with the Estonian Men's Choir for a shot at a Grammy. Whatever the reason, the ladies of the morning completed only two songs before disbanding to meet the challenges of the day.

Usually, though, the music isn't so pleasant. Most days are comprised of a mini Russian rock concert. The girls blast music as they hang red and black underwear out to dry on the balcony. My wife refers to the ritual as "raising the pirate flag."

"I wouldn't tolerate a whorehouse in my neighborhood," said a friend visiting from England. He was enjoying a drink in my garden with a group of friends, all of us listening to the cackle of a bleach-blonde and her john through the firs.

"I'd be afraid to complain," countered an Estonian. He suggested that the Estonian police--not always sterling examples of law enforcement--would reveal my identity to the hot-blooded types who own the brothel.

"You could call from a payphone," the Brit suggested.

"Yes, that might work," the Estonian agreed.

But I don't intend to call the police. Sure, the girls make too much noise, and maybe they do drive down the property value. But if the prostitutes were driven out, they might be replaced with worse. Like a family with teenagers. Teenagers with a rock band.