I don’t know what made me think about J. Maybe reading the Sunday newspaper and picking up the sexual undertones. A good deal of the conflict in the modern world is between the cultures that have gone through the sexual revolution and those who have not, and that got me thinking about actually going through the sexual revolution, back in the day, and that lead to J.
This was on a scientific research vessel converted from a North Sea trawler, and J. was a sort of bosun. He was the senior member of the crew and he made the machinery go. He also made a lot of money playing chess. The scientific party would be inveigled into a game with this simple sailor and they would get their asses handed to them; major money was sometimes bet. In any case, a formidable man, heavy jowled, mustached, with a bad haircut of thick black hair, just going gray. He spent a lot of time in the galley and we grad students would have conversations with him there, at slack times while we cruised to a new station.
So we arrive at a port in a tropical nation. We have been at sea a while and working, actually fairly dull work, dropping and retrieving trawls, taking samples of the water, seining plankton and looking through microscopes to distinguish between two virtually indistinguishable crustaceans or whatever. To me, boredom itself, to a taxonomist the most fascinating thing in the world.
That evening we went ashore to get a meal and explore the town, a sleepy, steamy little port, the sort of place that a film company would use as background for a bad movie about seedy remittance men and exotic beauties. J. recommended a brothel. We went to the brothel. We returned to the vessel. How was it, asks J. Terrific, we say, great. (It was not great. It was far from great. It was as far from great as the present space-time continuum allows.) But we liked J. and wanted to show appreciation, and also to show we were real men and not nerdy science types.
Then we got under way again. Then we had whore stories, a genre that had escaped my notice until then. J. had fucked a very, very large number of whores, it appeared, and he had a good memory (chess!) and a vast store of anecdotes, often hilarious, often horrible. According to J., the crown and apotheosis of whoredom was Germany in 1945. J. had served on tankers in the North Atlantic, been torpedoed twice, had spent days in open boats, the whole nine yards. Now he was shipping peacefully the oil that kept the Occupation running and he had plenty of shore leave, plenty of money, and a twenty-three-year-old body. He told us, wonder yet in his voice, that you could fuck anyone, anyone, for a pack of Luckies. Everyone in the country was whoring: you could fuck blondes who looked like princesses, who might have been princesses, for a carton and a chocolate bar.
They he asked us what the brothel had charged and we told him and then he told us we'd been ripped off and asked what we usually paid in the city where we were based. Embarrassed looks; then one of the scientists said that we didn’t pay for sex. Then we were all married? No we were not. Nor, as he then jokingly proposed, were we homosexuals.
And then as we tried to explain that we got laid because women also liked to get laid and if we liked each other we just did it, clouds started forming in his eyes, and we turned the conversation to safer ground: he was not a fellow you wanted angry at you. Because he thought we were making fun of him. He thought we were implying that Germany, 1945, without the cigarettes had become the permanent condition of people under thirty, which was impossible, unthinkable, because it would mean that women liked sex, in which case many of the assumptions on which he had based his existence were incorrect, for example, that no woman would have sex with a man unless she was paid off in some way. Guys like that may be extinct in the US now; or maybe not. There is certainly a great deal of prostitution. So many separate moral universes exist in any society and it is hardly surprising that the mores adopted by the chattering classes (as reflected in the Sunday papers) may not obtain in all of them. I suppose that’s one of the reasons for novels.