Herb Caen, legendary columnist of The San Francisco Chronicle, once wrote of the Crane Syndrome. According to Mr. Caen, Crane Syndrome occurs when you wake up in the morning, discover another body in bed with you, and fervently pray for a crane to come and take it away.
There are men and women who are loners. They may seek companionship now and then to slake sexual desire or loneliness, and gladly share their beds with a consenting member of the opposite sex; however, when they wake up, they prefer that the other person is no longer there: Crane Syndrome.
This phenomenon is the raison d'être of El Undécimo Mandamiento in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. El Undécimo Mandamiento, The Eleventh Commandment in English, is a clean, well-lighted bordello. It’s name is in Spanish because its two attractive young dueñas, Samantha and Cecilia, are from Uruguay — ”justamente como Eduardo Galeano,” as they liked to boast in Spanish that sounded like Italian. I don’t know why they named the place “The Eleventh Commandment.”
Scotch Plains is a strange place for a bordello. It’s a mostly upper middle class town like its neighbors, Westfield and Mountainside. On Brightwood Avenue, near the intersection with Prospect Street, there are houses that resemble baronial mansions with lawns that could be pitch and putt golf courses. Brightwood winds past a large car wash, The Maids of Scotch Plains, and The Scotch Hills Golf Club. El Undécimo Mandamiento is nearby. As this is only about twelve miles from my house, I used to go there by bicycle when the weather was mild. For some reason Samantha, Cecilia, and the other women of El Undécimo Mandamiento found this hysterically funny. Maria Teresa and Cecilia used to enjoy strutting around wearing my helmet.
All six girls at the place were young and attractive, but Samantha was my favorite. She was lanky, but not homely; she was long-legged, had long dark blonde hair and beautiful greenish brown eyes. Although her English was very good, we spoke in Spanish and I understood every word she said. She had read several of Eduardo Galeano’s books; I had only read Las Veinas Abiertas de América Latina. She had also read books by Cortázar, García Márquez, and Vargas Llosa. She read books by English speaking authors and liked the thick volume of the complete poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay that I bought her.
Cecila was shorter and rounder, but far from zaftig. Samantha looked like a runner; Cecilia’s arms, shoulders, and upper back suggested a swimmer, which she was. That might be why my friend and frequent companion for visits to the Undécimo Mandamiento, David, liked her. David and I ran together, usually on the track of the Watchung Hills Regional High School near his house. My other exercises were bicycling and calisthenics on an exercise tower; David was a swimmer.
David was married and had three kids. As far as I know, he never took Cecilia to his swim club. However, I ran with Samantha several times at the track in Warinanco Park which is near my house. After we got to know one another well, Samantha would come to my place. Sometimes she stayed over. I don’t remember ever getting Crane’s Syndrome when I woke up with her next to me.
Richard, another married friend and fellow school teacher, sometimes filled in for Dave when Dave couldn’t make it on our weekly visit — weekly because I worked in an elementary school in the Bronx, and the demands of my schedule as well as the limitations of my budget restricted my visits. Unfortunately, Richard, who spoke Spanish well, was also smitten by Samantha, so it became advantageous for us to visit Scotch Plains separately and on different days.
The Undécimo Mandamiento did not advertise. You either met one of the women who worked there, and if she liked you, you would be offered a “membership”; or you were recruited by a friend who was a member, as were Richard and David by me. I met Samantha one evening on the PATH train heading to Newark from the World Trade Center in New York City. I was reading a collection of short stories in Spanish by Julio Cortázar, a gift from Richard. I even remember the story I was reading: “La noche boca arriba” which was about a young guy who has a motorcycle accident and winds up in the intensive care unit of the hospital heavily sedated. He dreams he is being hunted by Aztec warriors who seek to capture him for the sacrifice ritual in which his still beating heart will be ripped from his chest. The dream is sporadically interrupted by his regaining consciousness for a brief period in the hospital room, but by the end of the story it is no longer clear which is the dream and which is the reality.
Although the train was not crowded and there were many places to sit, Samantha sat next to me. She peered over my shoulder at the book, and struck up a conversation about Cortázar and Borges. I was dumbfounded that this very pretty woman would sit next to me. When we had gotten off the train and were walking down the stairs to the main floor, I found the courage to ask her if she needed a ride. She did not. Her car was right across from the rear entrance of Penn Station in the Edison parking lot. My car was two blocks away in the Edison lot on Raymond Boulevard. However, she asked me for my phone number.
She called the following Saturday and invited me to a late lunch in an Italian restaurant on Martine Avenue in Scotch Plains. After calamari fra diavolo over linguine, while we sipped an outstanding Chianti, Samantha leaned over the table and said quietly, “Mira, Luis, quiero explicarte algo…”
I listened and she explained.
I was a little disappointed and very surprised to learn that Samantha was a “professional” and I was being offered an opportunity to become a client. Samantha was not inexpensive. On the other hand, I was 45 years old and despaired of ever finding a permanent partner. I was no longer sure I wanted one. Of my more than a dozen “serious relationships” only two had lasted more than a year; most lasted months or weeks. I never wanted kids. Six hours a day with children were more than enough.
Samantha was young, very attractive, and far from boring. Spending time with her was extravagant, but very enjoyable. The prices and structure of the Samantha’s business arrangements assured one of several hours with her, ending with an affectionate goodnight kiss and a convincing “Llámame” — which I did when I had the time and the money.
Samantha was discreet and considerate and never mentioned Richard. Richard and I were discreet and considerate and never mentioned Samantha to one another, although once, in a lame effort to amuse, I left a message on his answering machine that said, “This is Samantha’s other friend. Call me when you can.”
Richard was not furious, but was not amused either, and he asked that I never do that again.
David and I didn’t talk too much about the girls or the place either, although we frequently visited El Undécimo Mandamiento together. David liked Cecilia and an English girl with a page boy haircut who looked and talked like Judy Carne, the British comedian who was in the original cast of Laugh In. Cecilia and the English girl liked David, and when he didn’t accompany me they would pout and ask, “Where’s your cute little lawyer friend?”
I will be as deliberately vague about the building as I was about the location as I don’t know whether the operation is extant. Nevertheless, I will say that visiting a girl at the “office” was like visiting her at her apartment. There was a small lobby and a receptionist, but no waiting room. Arrangements were punctual and precise. There was no evidence of “security” and I imagine the women depended on the exclusivity of membership to keep them safe. The girls were smart and circumspect.
I mentioned that I don’t know if the enterprise is extant. As David and Richard passed their 50th years on the planet, they dropped out. It was not worth the risk for them: they did not want to lose their families.
I ended my visits in 1996 after being diagnosed with Hepatitis C which was probably the result of my carelessness at my workplace. Mott Haven, where my school was located, had a very high rate of people with tuberculosis, asthma, AIDS, and Hepatitis C. The staff of my school were warned repeatedly to wear gloves if assisting a child who was bleeding. I never did.
When the doctor told me that Hepatitis C could be sexually transmitted, I contacted Samantha, encouraged her to be examined by a doctor, and offered to pay for the necessary tests. Samantha was very upset, and was angry with me; she rebuffed my offer, and abruptly concluded the conversation. I spoke to her one more time and confirmed that she did not have Hepatitis C. Samantha was polite, but curt.
I had two photographs of us together in Warinanco Park taken with my Olympus OM2 single lens reflex camera mounted on a tripod. The OM2, like most SLRs, had a timer. In one photo, Samantha is wearing a shirt-sleeved tee and short shorts, has her hair tied in a ponytail, and looks ravishing as she stares directly into the lens. My arm is around her waist and I’m trying my best to scowl like Jean Paul Belmondo. I shredded this photograph because as Andre Gide’s character Ménalque observes in L’immoraliste, “Memory is an invention of misery.”
I have not yet shredded the other photo in which I maintain the same ridiculous pose. Samantha is looking at me and smiling: I like to think it’s with affection.