Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Netherlands, Part Six

The rain got heavier as I made my way north across the canals into the party district of Amsterdam. I took a break from the rain and stepped into a pub for a beer. In a little while, the rain let up, and I resumed my walk.

Tucked here and there among the restaurants and nightclubs were coffee shops. A friend had recommended two shops I should look for, and I had their addresses, but in the dark and confusion of the street it was awkward to consult the map. So I just walked around, hoping I would happen across one of them or, failing that, maybe find another one that looked right or had the right vibe.

I saw one that radiated bad vibes. Can't remember the name, but it was too big and crowded, too much flashing neon, loud music, large tv screens tuned to sports. No, I was looking for something something quieter, relaxing.

I found a few of these, but in each case grew indecisive before going inside. So I walking, kept looking. In a little while, I saw a closed sign on the door of a coffee shop. Uh-oh, I thought. I’m running out of time. I started back to one I had just seen, but now I couldn’t find it. Oh well, I thought, I'll just try the next one I see and hope for the best, if it's open.

The next one I saw was Stix, lit so dimly I wasn’t sure it was open. But when I tried the door it opened and I went inside. Very stark décor, black walls, and small, with only a few places to sit, one booth and some benches with ashtrays on tables. The booth was full (two couples talking American, something I hadn't heard in a while), but there was plenty of bench space.

A young man stood at the counter. I asked him what he recommended. "Do you want to get stoned or high?" he asked.


In that case, he recommended the Diesel. He opened a cigar box packed full of thick fuzzy aromatic buds and held it up to me for inspection. Without hesitation, I said I would take five grams, the legal limit. He tore off a big beautiful bud and dropped it into a small zip-loc bag. I paid my 50 Euros (ouch), then sat down on a bench, rolled a joint, and lit up.

Two or three hits into the joint I realized I had not only spent too much money, I had also bought a lot more grass than I could possibly use. This was about a month's worth of smoking for me. Unfortunately, I would only be in Amsterdam for 36 more hours, and no way was I going to try taking this home.

It was also so strong, I realized, that if I smoked the entire joint I might have a hard time getting back to my hotel. So I smoked half, then dropped it into the zip-loc bag with the bud and stepped outside.

Now, which way had I come from? I couldn’t remember. My sense of direction was gone. It seemed like I had approached the shop from the left. That would mean I should turn right to go back the way I had come. This I did. But after walking a couple of blocks, I began to think I had made the wrong decision. Or had I? I couldn’t be sure. I kept walking. No, I'm going the wrong direction, I decided. Nothing looked familiar. And yet, maybe it only seemed unfamiliar due to my high state. The Diesel was powerful stuff. Under its effect, my own hometown would seem unfamiliar.

I kept walking. No, I thought, this isn’t right. I turned around. Bicycles whizzed past. I reminded myself about the bicycle lanes. High as I was, it would be very easy to forget.

I walked on. A tram passed, reminding me of a deadlier danger than bicycles. Whatever you do, I said to myself, stay the hell out of the way of those trams.

No sooner had this thought occurred to me than I saw the entire accident play out in my mind, with vivid realism: the moment of impact and horrible realization, the blood, the limbs flying—OH MY GOD I COULD DIE HERE!!!! I thought.

Don't panic. Just walk. Get to the hotel. Fast. So I walked. And walked.

Shortly, I thought I recognized my surroundings. I pulled out my map. If I was correct, Kerkstraat ws nearby. Yes, I thought, if I keep going this direction without getting hit by a tram, I'll come to Kerkstraat. And then on Kerkstraat, if I turn right (or is it left?) and keep going without getting hit by a tram, I should reach Weteringstrat (or is it Vijzelstraat? [no maybe it’s Stadhouderskade] no, it’s Kerkstraat—no wait a minute, I’m on Kerkstraat right now, I think) …

Whatever the name of the street was, it was a fairly quiet street, a good place to check my map without being observed. Standing under a street lamp, I took out the map. Then it occurred to me I could get mugged on a quiet street like this.

I glanced over my shoulder, saw no one, but that didn’t mean no one was there. Someone could be hiding, waiting for the right moment to pounce on me.

I put the map back in my pocket and started walking, quickly, aggressively. Don’t Act like you know where you’re going, I told myself. Don't act lost. And for God's sake get off this dark street. This may be a nice relaxed city in the daytime, but it’s nighttime now and several people warned me about the junkies. Albo’s words came back to me: “Be safe in Amsterdam, Mack.” His words seemed to be a presentiment. Something awful was about to happen. Again I thought, I could die here. Then, in a little while, as the paranoia increased, it was not a matter of "could." It would happen. Someone was following me, I was sure of it. I walked faster.

To my relief, I saw a more populated street ahead, a main thoroughfare that could only be Vijzelgracht, I thought, trying to remember a street I had glimpsed on the map. I hurried towards it, hopeful, but when I reached the intersection there were no street signs.

Doesn’t matter, I thought. I’ll just turn left (south?) and soon I’ll—I’ll what? I had no idea. I pulled out the map. Weteringschact should be right down there, I decided, and started in a southerly direction, or what I took to be a southerly direction.

In a little while I came to a street sign. Finally! I read it: Josef Israelskade.

Josef Israelskade? Where's Weteringschact? I took out the map and tried to find Josef Israelskade. I couldn't.

At this point it occurred to me I should look for a pub, go inside, find out where I am and ask directions to my hotel. But at the moment there were no pubs. Okay, I'll just keep walking till I find a pub.

I walked on. In a little while, I thought I recognized a street: Staadhouderskade! But no, it wasn't Staadhouderskade, it was some other street, Weteringschact or Rostenburgerstraat or Sint Willibrordusstraat, or some other name.

This happened over and over again. I would think I had found my way, then after walking a long way to find a street sign, would discover it was another street with another strange name and it wasn't on the map. But then, I would start to get my bearings, I thought, and my heart would rebound, only to sink again, and each time sink lower as I began to come to grips with the truth I had been denying: I had no idea where I was, and the more I walked, the more lost I became. But it wouldn't do to stop walking, because my only hope was to keep moving, in the hopes I would somehow stumble on wherever it was I was needed to be to get back to the hotel.

It was a terrible dilemma, made nightmarish by the foreignness of the names—Quellijnstraat, Wouwermanstraat, Uiterwaardenstraat—and, of course, the Diesel.

I walked on, looking for a pub. Earlier they had been everywhere. Now I couldn't find any. I had seen cabs earlier too, and foolishly hadn't hailed one. That was what I really needed, because now, to make matters worsse, my feet were blistering.

The blisters were slowing my gait. That was no good, I remembered. Got to walk aggressively, don't look lost, etc. I picked up the pace. Faster and faster I walked, faster and faster, ignoring the pain in my feet. Faster and faster. Someone jumped out of my way.

Okay, maybe I’m walking a little too fast, I thought. I slowed down. Then, up ahead I saw an Amstel beer sign over a doorway. A pub!

I went inside. It was busy. I found a place at the bar and ordered an Amstel. When the bartender brought it to me, I asked if he could help me get a cab.

“Do you want it later or right now?”

“Right now.”

He went into the back and called the cab. I took a long, soothing drink of the Amstel. Ah yes ...

In a little while, the bartender told me the cab was out front. I left a couple of Euros on the bar, then hurried outside. “Best Western Delphi Hotel,” I told the cab driver, “on Apollolaan.”

Helooked at me quizzically for a moment, then shrugged and off we went. In my pocket my cell phone rang. It was Chandra, back from a day trip to Delft, calling from her bed-and-breakfast to see if I had arrived in Amsterdam. “Yes,” I said, “I’m in a cab right now going back to my hotel. Let’s talk after I get there.”

I sank back comfortably in my seat, relieved after my long nightmarish paranoid walk, to have heard Chandra's voice and now be off my feet and heading for the hotel. Or was I? The cab, I noticed, was moving through dark back streets. Was this like a Mexican cab where they took you to the edge of nowhere and robbed you and left you for dead. But, before I could get too paranoid, the the cab came to a stop. We were already at the hotel! I couldn't believe it. The ride had taken less than a minute. I had assumed I was in an entirely wrong part of the city, but apparently, after all that walking, with no idea where I was going, I had somehow managed to end up just around the corner from my hotel. Which explained the driver's quizzical expression (you want me to take you around the corner?). I tipped him, perhaps (judging by his surprised smile) too generously, but I was happy and in a generous mood …

(to be continued)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Netherlands, Part Five

So easy. Just follow her, he said, sliding the envelope across the table that day in the Denny’s in Fort Worth. I didn’t ask what it was all about. Didn't have to. I recognized the woman's last name. It had been in the papers lately. Messy divorce, millions at stake. Millions at stake, of course, meant someone, in this case the oil-rich bastard, had plenty of cash to throw around. And if some of the moolah landed in my direction—well ...

So I flew to London. Stayed in a flat across from hers, it had all been arranged. Someone else had the day shift. At night I took over. The first night, nothing. She stayed home. Next night, she took the Tube. I followed her. She met some guy in the OXO Tower. I took pictures with my cuff-link camera, followed her back home. Then on the third night, Easter Monday, I followed her again to the Tube station. Mind the gap, mind the gap. I was standing two people behind her. I could hear the train approaching. Suddenly someone shouldered me aside, heavy guy, dark complexion. Turkish? Mind the gap. In an instant he pushed her onto the tracks. Everyone screamed and—

I woke up. I've been dreaming, I realized. A dream noir. So realistic, such detail, and strangest of all, I had been someone else. Not a trace of my own identity. Weird.

Clop clop clop clop. Was I hearing horses? I got out of bed, looked out the window and seconds later a team of Clydesdales appeared below, pulling a wagon full of Heineken kegs.

I'm in Amsterdam, I thought. I'm me, Mack White, not some character in dream noir. And now I'm rested, and hungry, and ready to find something to eat and see Amsterdam without having to haul around my luggage.

It was raining, not too heavy but heavy enough for an umbrella, so I brought mine. I walked to nearest main thoroughfare, Stadhouderskaade, and began looking for a restaurant. The rain let up. It was cold, but a pleasant walk nonetheless. Now and then I would stop to examine a menu posted outside a restaurant or pub, then decide it wasn’t what I wanted or cost too much. No problem. I was in no hurry, even though everyone around me was in a hurry. It appeared to be the afternoon rush hour in Amsterdam, bicycles whizzing along the bicycle paths, street crowded with cars and the trams, and the trams packed with people and the sidewalks packed too, a big thrilling hustle-and-bustle.

At some point, I found myself strolling along a stretch of wide-open sidewalk uncrowded by pedestrians, hands in pockets, taking my leisurely time, when a bicycle shot past me so close the bicyclist’s sleeve brushed mine. He glanced back at me, frowning. Then I heard shouts behind me. I turned and saw five bicyclists coming towards me at a high rate of speed. Oh my god! I’m in a bicycle lane!

I jumped out of the way just in time, feeling foolish and cussing myself. For the past two days, in Rotterdam and Utrecht, I had followed my hosts Marcel and Albo’s example and stayed off the bicycle paths. But now, here I was on my own in Amsterdam with no examples to follow, and though I knew to stay off the bicycle paths, it had not become a habit to me yet. Thus, it was all too easy to forget and stray into a bicycle path. Which is most unwise, given the speed with which the bicycles travel and their numbers. An accident would be very bad. Bad, bad, bad. Don't do that again, I told myself.

I decided on a Turkish fast food place at the corner of Kinkerstraat and Nassaukade. It was called The Corner. I ordered The Corner Burger. The fries came with mayonnaise. Now, where had I heard of that before? Ah yes, Pulp Fiction.

While eating, I came to a decision about something. Ever since I had begun planning this trip, I had wondered if I should check out a coffee shop. At one time in my life, there would not have been a moment’s indecision. Yes, I absolutely would indulge in "Dutch coffee." But, over the past five or six years, I have not done a great deal of grass. Oh, I’ll smoke a joint if it’s offered to me, but I don’t use it regularly anymore. Long list of reasons, the main ones being: It costs too much, finding a connection is a pain in the ass, it’s one more thing the cops can use to fuck you over, and is it something I really need?

But, in Holland, those reasons don’t apply. You can walk right into shop and buy it for not too terribly much, smoke it right there in public, carry it around with you, and never worry about the cops.

So that took care of those reasons, but there was another one: The panic reaction I sometimes experience when I do grass. It happens, of course, because I don’t use it often, therefore don’t have the tolerance I once did. And the panic, or paranoia, is particularly pronounced if the grass is super-potent.

A few months ago, for instance, some friends offered me a superb, high-grade smoke. Then we walked to a Mexican restaurant. On the way—YIKES!!! I thought I was going to leave my body. But I didn’t want to leave my body! What if I couldn’t get back in?! I was just about to ask my friends to carry me back to the house and call 911(come quick, he's about to have an out-of-body experience!) when we arrived at the restaurant. Good food and conversation with friends brought me back to Planet Earth and I was able to enjoy myself.

But here in Amsterdam, I was not with friends. I was alone among strangers in a foreign country, already homesick for Texas and Diane, and to make matters worse, all the grass here, not just some, all of it is super-potent—a perfect recipe for a panic reactioni that could reach epic proportions and maybe kill me. Could I handle it?

Well, I decided, I’ll never know if I don’t give it a try. I finished my fries and mayo, and went across the street to a little store to buy a lighter and some papers. It was getting dark and starting to rain again …