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It's 8 AM on a Saturday. Rafaela is 52 years old, smoking a cigarillo and talking to me about how she believes in true love. A few feet away, two rats are rustling around in a parking lot. Over the last night and day I've spent around her Rafaela has only had sex with one man, but says that, on a good night, it can be eight or even more. Sometimes it sounds like she's coughing. She claims to be an optimist, "though that doesn't help you much.
By this point, Rafaela and I have known each other for about 24 hours. She has been awake the whole time—keeping herself going with coffee, vodka, and beer while passing her spare hours on slot machines in local bars. In order to better understand this area of Berlin, Rafaela and some of her fellow sex workers agreed to let me spend an entire day and night wandering around with them in the red-light district.
Over the course of those hours, I met a woman who has worked here since she was 12; a local parish leader trying to offer sex workers a way out; a year-old who sits on a portable chair all day just to watch the women stroll by; and, of course, Rafaela.
I met Rafaela a little later, sitting in front of the cafe Bistro Adler. She was soon explaining that she began her life as a prostitute at the age of 18, but only recently returned to the streets. For the past seven years, she's worked as a street cleaner in Berlin, which, she told me, was her dream job.
But she claimed she then fell in love with an IT specialist, who, as time went on, started asking her for more and more money—for things like a jacket, and then for a full stereo system. Rafaela eventually moved in with the guy, but after he admitted he didn't actually have a job she soon found herself homeless.