Most of the boys arrived via Germany, where they failed to get political asylum, and then heard of an easier life in the Netherlands. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dutch tolerance has backlashed on itself; the dark shapes in the Festivalbar convey a picture of mutual parasitism, with East and West feeding off each other. The customers are mostly men in their 50s and 60s, from all over the West including America.
Under the lanterns of Paardenstraat, Corneliu swings nightly between indolence and violence. A beautiful and volatile 22-year- old from Maramures, northern Romania, by the Ukrainian border, he lost his job when the local textile mill went bankrupt. He is a regular visitor to the packed, all- male Festivalbar, where Romanians form the largest single contingent and the boys easily outnumber the men. 'The French pay best,' says Corneliu of his customers. 'I usually only let them suck me,' he explains in broken English. 'If I feel like it I tell the customer to put on a video, and then maybe - maybe - I agree to fuck him. I never let them fuck me.' Yes, he always uses a condom. What kind of video enables him to perform the act? 'Sex between two women. I like that. I like women, not men.' He illustrates the point with yet another fond and swaying grope.
Corneliu has been here over a year but has learned only a smattering of Dutch. His Dutch counterparts avoid him when he is drunk. 'The Romanians are mad,' says Wim, at 26 a superannuated rentboy who has trouble pulling trade since he came out of jail for car theft three months ago. 'Since the foreigners came there are more boys than customers. Before it was really easy to get a job. But the foreigners are younger and the younger you are, the better you are.
'The Romanians really make a lot of noise. There was a terrible fight last week with a Romanian boasting he had made 3,000 guilder ( pounds 1,000) in one night. Even the customers get upset. They want to have a quiet time. Most of them have been coming here for ten or 12 years.'
Romanians are the most audible and visible group, but there are boys from the Czech republic, Slovakia and Poland. The Czechs are said to work hard in bed and save their money. 'Before the Berlin Wall came down, most foreign boys here were English,' says Gert Tezing, of the local council-funded Streetcorner Work Foundation, which offers rentboys coffee and counselling. Mr Tezing says out of an estimated 40,000 illegal aliens in Amsterdam, it is hard to know how many are male prostitutes. But East Europeans are believed to constitute at least a third of the rentboys.
'The Romanians are not good at comforting the customer in bed,' says Mr Tezing. 'They're into ripping people off.' He does not approve of boys denying their homosexuality while earning a living as male prostitutes. He says it 'destroys the fellowship of the gay community'. One of his colleagues, a doctor from the official health authority, runs workshops to 'get the boys to admit they are really homosexuals'. The Romanians would never be caught dead there. They have nothing in common with Amsterdam's gay cult.
Petru is 22 and arrived only two weeks ago. He studied marketing at university. 'Not one of my Romanian friends here is gay,' he says. 'At first I lived on a construction site. I met a Romanian on the street who told me about Paardenstraat. I didn't really think about what it would be like, I just did it. The first guy was an art teacher in a school.'
His friend Ion, who says he is 19 but looks years younger, does not have much to say. He speaks only Romanian. 'He is looking for someone to help him get his papers,' explains Petru. 'You have to find a sponsor to give you a warrantee to let you stay in the country.' If he means a gay marriage, why should a Dutch gay agree to one without sex? 'It is easy. You just say 'I'll do anything if you help me' and then after he has signed you don't do it.'
Male prostitution in Amsterdam is structured on several levels. At the top there are the clubs - legal brothels inspected by police. They must fulfil two conditions: no boys under 16 (the Dutch age of consent for both heterosexuals and gays) and no illegal immigrants (those from countries outside the European Union without the right papers). The conditions rule out legal brothel employment for the East Europeans.
The owner of Why Not?, reckoned the best-run of the brothels, says he employs only boys from EU countries. Formerly owned by a British businessman, Why Not? houses a cozy downstairs bar - that is, until you look at the video screen, where a tape shows a close-up of anal intercourse between two men. One of them is wearing a leather hood over his face, repeatedly slapping his partner who is lying like a trussed chicken on a table. (That is as far as they got before, as a woman and a journalist, I was asked to leave.) Having a drink at the bar is a man I recognise as the health authority doctor who runs the gay awareness workshops. Upstairs are the working rooms, which operate on strict schedules.
Other brothels are not so scrupulous. Mr Tezing tells of one where the boys lodge on the premises. 'The 200 guilder fees are split half way between boy and owner, so the boys think they are making 100 a go. But since they spend most of it on drink and drugs sold by the owner, they are in fact only making perhaps 25, while he makes 175. The boys never go out, except perhaps once a day to get a bag of chips.'
The bottom rung is the central train station, haunt of Moroccans and runaways, where immigration police occasionally round up illegal aliens (because prostitution is legal over the age of 16, foreign boys would only be arrested for breach of immigration laws). In between are bars like the Festival, where police do not put in much of an appearance (there were none in evidence the few evenings I spent there).
All human vice is here. Drugs are readily available. Some of the customers have a reputation for violence when drunk, but most of the boys look able to defend themselves. On the walls are leaflet guides in five languages to Safer Gay Sex, financed by the Dutch Ministry of Health.
The head of an orphanage in Poland is awaiting trial for renting out boys to homosexuals in Sweden. In Amsterdam, a man has been charged with transporting a Polish under-age boy to the Netherlands to have sex with him. Social workers and police here say they do not know whether the transport of rentboys from East Europe has yielded organised, profit-making business at the other end. 'There are rumours about that,' says Cees Rameau, a spokesman for the Amsterdam police. 'But they are just rumours. We don't know.' Mr Rameau is defensive. Was there co-operation with police in East Europe? 'There has been, as needed, for the past three to four years.'
Mr Tezing of Streetcorner Work thinks there may be a racket in Prague: 'A group of nine Czech boys arrived all in the same go recently. I think there must be a Prague- Amsterdam connection, that's for sure.'
Whatever the substance of the allegations, it is clear Prague is emerging as an important notch in Europe's post-Cold War sleaze belt. William Higgins, the American owner of Drake's - an upmarket empire of porn and dildos in a prime location on Amsterdam's Damrak - has moved full-time to the Czech capital. His assistants now run the Amsterdam end for him. 'He says that Prague is like Amsterdam was 20 years ago,' one of them tells me. 'He says people here don't care anymore and the Dutch aren't really tolerant, just indifferent.'
Among the inflatable, remote-controlled, vibrating, state-of-the-art paraphernalia hangs a poster advertising the new Prague branch: 'Gay Erotic. William Higgins Drake's. Free Prague Gay information. Zborovska and Petrinka Streets. Non-Stop 0-24H. Plus gay erotica . . . At any hour, day or night, you could encounter that special person to make your visit to Prague so much more enjoyable. Visit Drake's - Find a Friend.'
In Paardenstraat at 1.30 am, Corneliu is drunker than ever. Carrying a large pink plume, he has returned from a cabaret with a balding man in his sixties whose eyes are alight in anticipation. Corneliu abandons him to greet me, reiterating that he loves only women. He goes on to pick a fight outside with a Dutch boy who has offered to escort me down the street. The latter runs round the block to shake him off.
The wistful eyes of the abandoned customer recall lines from Auden's 'Brussels in Winter', written 50 years ago:
A look contains the history of man,
And fifty francs will earn a stranger right
To take the shuddering city in his arms.
Of such strangers, boys like Corneliu can clearly afford to take their pick. As his friend Petru says: 'I think everyone can do what they want. If we are used for sex, it is only because we want this. We just want to live in the West.'