Celia Capace - Header - name

In the beginning

How does one become a brothel manager? In my case, I stumbled across this career path while on a three week holiday in New Zealand visiting a much missed close friend. He’d returned from Australia a few years earlier to once again live in his native homeland.

Also known as ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’, the beauty of New Zealand and it’s friendly inhabitants will always have a place in my heart.  Many years before a New Zealand native I was dating told me, “When God created the Earth, He was left with its surplus in His hands. He scattered them to the grounds. Thus New Zealand was born”.  True words, I came to realise. To my absolute surprise and delight it had everything. A breathtaking landscape of beautiful snow capped mountains, deserts, volcanoes, hot springs and an abundance of waterfalls.  I was to learn a few of these small water wonders were hidden amongst the suburbs and only fifteen minutes drive from where I was staying in Auckland with my friend.

My three week holiday was to conclude with a catch up with another well travelled friend to share some tourist tales.  This friend was the person who had convinced me to take the journey to New Zealand in the first place. He'd travelled to Asia the week before I'd left for New Zealand. Making me a part of his travel itinerary he was joining me for my last three days in New Zealand, our time concluding in a return flight home together.

This same travelling companion must have become weary of hearing how much I wished I could prolong my stay. He suddenly turns to the server, who was clearing our empty plates, and asked to speak to the manager of the quaint establishment we'd chosen to repast while doing the tourist thing the day before our departure.

“I'm the manager here”, the server responds.

“You in need of any staff?” This from my friend.

“You looking?”

“Nope, she is”. my friend continued, casually indicating towards me.

“Could do with another waitress. When can she start?”

The manager continued, conversing with my travelling companion only without any acknowledgement of my current existence in the room.  Somehow my stunned paralysis and silent open mouth had me morphed into the surrounding decor. My existence in presence only ended with me starting the next night on a week’s probation.

I finally came to life as we stumbled out of the pub. My mouthy mate trying, in vain, to calm a bewildered, hysterical me.  “Calm down” my friend attempted… ‘Yeah, right!’ This brave man continued, “You've got a place to stay, a country you still want to explore. Now, a job to do that for a while. Think about it, what are you in a rush to get back to anyway?”

In the shock of the moment, I thought about it.  I mean, I really thought about it. He was right. Damn it. I had not long come out of a long painful Crohn's disease session. It had lasted for a few years on and off. I was lucky that I was responsible to no one but myself, as in no husband or children.

Crohn's disease hit me at 21 years of age. The ensuing 2 years it took to diagnose caused some internal bowel damage. No one was to blame for the long time it took to figure out. I was told they knew my body was in distress by my blood tests, they just didn't know the cause, or where to look.  In 1985 Crohn's disease was still not well known and was found mostly in children and the elderly. At that time it was uncommon in someone my age, so I was told.  It had me lose jobs through the years. Again, no blame, it is what it is.  Logically an employer needs someone who is physically and mentally able to perform. Brain fog and fatigue, only other invisible chronic condition sufferers can comprehend, severely affect our performance. If we perform at all.

No matter how hard we try, just putting one foot in front of the other takes every bit of strength we can muster some days. It's not as if we're pre-warned either. We can never, willingly, choose to push it for our bodies always punish us when we do.  We may look fine. We are not. Our bodies punish every time we pretend. Push ourselves to be part of life. Push ourselves to just survive. Push ourselves to earn a living. Most of our hard earned wages end up spent on treatments to get us medically better. Our down time constantly spent recovering.  Don't start me on the judging, suspicion of our severity, ridicule and guilt felt from being burdens, and the constant need to validate ourselves to others who can't begin to comprehend our suffering, only adding to our suffering. As I've said. I was lucky, I had some support. As an unmarried Italian child, I could always rely on the family home to convalesce.

My reward to myself for finally enjoying some remission was to take advantage of these ‘functioning’ days and to spend time with one of my favourite people before I returned to my ‘healthy’ world again. There was a job waiting at the family’s wood fire pizza restaurant when I was better and an idiot that owned one of the local hairdressers, I had just started to see and quickly losing interest in. That was what was waiting for me back home.

Hmm, I was about to turn forty in three months. I was currently living with my parents and about to work for my sister and brother-in-law. I was grateful for both but still feeling the need to spread my wings a little. (Not forgetting whose arms I wasn't missing).

The situation snowballed. As fate would have it. My New Zealand native friend’s sister-in-law worked for the airline I had chosen. A nominal amount of money was exchanged and my return ticket was extended for at least three months. Fine by me.

“My working holiday begins”, I thought to myself.

I remember it well. It was the week Ian Thorpe won a gold medal in the 400m Freestyle event where all of Australia (and I think New Zealand) held their breath. I remember standing, holding two empty plates midair, as all eyes, mine included, were on the big screen. For those few minutes there was total silence in that crowded pub. The silence erupting into a happy vibe once he finished.

Sadly, it was to be the only good memory of my week there. I don't mind busting my arse but my pay rate, I discovered at the end of that week, was NZ$8 an hour. Tipping is uncommon in the Southern Hemisphere so that was literally it.

My new housemates, dear friend, and his mother were surprised at my disappointment. That was the norm, more or less, for New Zealand wages. This was to be my first lesson on the plight of why the inhabitants leave their shores for Australia. As a tourist I was puzzled as to why so many would leave such a paradise. I'd observed that the cost of living was the same as Australia, though rent was a little steep compared to back home.

My puzzlement turned into a sad realisation.  Though the cost of goods were the same as Australia wages were half of what I was used to. I couldn't see much left over after paying my rent and the rest of life's basics.

My free accommodation holiday fairly consisted of sharing a bedroom with my host. The other two bedrooms were occupied by his mother and an exchange student.  The exchange student’s lease was about to end and he was returning home, thus perfect for my longer stay. I'd already started to move some of my belongings into that room, thinking my new job would pay my way. Not on $8 an hour it wouldn't averaging twenty hours per week. I knew $160 per week wasn't going to cover my arse in rent and the rest.  There was no way I could afford to stay now, not by my calculations.

My landlady came up with a suggestion. She'd been a sex worker in her younger days and suggested I try asking for work as a bartender in one of these establishments (yes, we're talking brothel).  Her logic, I'd just be serving drinks in a “different kind of night club” and for that reason it might pay more. When in Rome...! There would have been no way I'd have set foot in such a place back home, but I wasn't home and I still wanted, so much, to get to know more of this wonderland that New Zealand had become to me.

Ironically, on my way to that first job the bus route passed an opulent building well known for being such a place. I gather my courage and decide there's no harm in trying. So, the next day I'm talking to the owner about bar work. I am again put on a week’s trial, starting that very night. This time the pay is $15 an hour, nearly twice the wage of my previous employment. Now that's more like it. What the son-a-bitch failed to tell me was that my trial week consisted of six fourteen hour shifts in a row!  This was my ‘hell week’, I non-fondly recollect. Never have I worked somewhere where you're thrown in the deep end with no training and absolutely no idea. What the son-of-a-bitch owner also failed to tell me was the bar manager managed the sex workers and the receptionist took care of clients and bookings. Manage them? I was terrified of them.

The first couple of nights I kept my eyes downcast.  Tending bar and concentrating only on the task at hand I'd already decided I didn't want the job.  I thought “persevere through the week, take the money, and run”. That would give me some financial security till I found something else.

Personally, I believe alcohol and brothels don't mix. That's all I'll say, on that, for now. It happened the third night when the ‘manager’ part of the job became required. A huge guy, who looked part Neanderthal, asked me who I'd recommend.

Though the question was directed at me, I knew all had heard. Spattered conversations silenced and only music could be heard. Most eyes had turned towards me by now. I realised the ladies had been waiting for this; my reaction. None had approached me previously except for drinks as they were good at selling themselves nothing more had been asked or expected of me.  I look at the ‘gentleman’ and think to myself spending time alone with him would be the last thing I'd want, ever. I scan the waiting crowd literally thinking to myself,“Who do I sacrifice?”

After what seemed like an eternity one of the sex workers pulled me aside and gave me the best advice I was to learn in the business although it would still take me over a year to fully appreciate and understand it.  She goes on to show me her hand, cupped upwards and tells me, “when we go home and that's full, it doesn't matter how we got it, as long as we have it. If we go home and it's empty”, still showing me her fist, but now fully closed, “that's when it gets to us”.

“We are here to be picked. We want to be picked. Now pick one”. It took this wide eyed blonde a moment to realise she was talking money, not penis.  Well, we were in a brothel.

“You.” I manage to croak.

She smiles. “You can't pick me. They'll think that's why I pulled you aside. You'll have to choose another worker.  Pick a girl, just do it”. Ok, now I am in sales it seems. I enquire if he has a type. He doesn't understand the question.  

“Blonde, brunette, red head?  Curvy, slim, tall or short?”, I ramblingly continue.

“One who's good at it”, he says.

“How about the lovely lady holding on to your arm?”, I suggest as a practical option.

“She is good then?”, he continues.

Without missing a beat I reply, “can say, with total honesty, I'm yet to hear of any complaints.”

“Done deal”, he toothlessly grins.

I felt bad for the woman chosen and felt uneasy for the rest of the night.  Some of the ladies now introduced themselves, their way of saying they approved.  I had just passed my first muster with the staff although all I could think about was that poor woman and that the job was definitely not for me.  Boy, was I deluded then, unknowing that this was just the beginning of a whole new bizarre career.