If it comes down to a matter of four hours or less, I’ll take a train over an airplane any day. It has nothing to do with a fear of flying or anything like that. Call me old fashioned, but there’s just something endearing in the clank of a departure bell, the no-hassle boarding, and knowing that no matter how many nail clippers I have clanging around in my pocket, some haughty security guard isn’t going to take them away from me.
We had been anticipating this trip to Amsterdam for some time. Neither of us had visited the Netherlands before, and were not quite sure what to expect.
That sense of “arrival” doesn’t hit you until you step outside. We hadn‘t walked out past the awning when Takayo immediately stopped in her tracks like a Pointer on a scent: The reefer. No doubt, we expected to see people doing it, but it’s hard not to be astonished when you smell it in the crowded streets of a first world country. We laughed it off, marveling at the fact that pot -- despite the debates, arrests, and stigmas attached to it in the States -- is regarded as nothing more than an accessory to tourism here.
Like good tourists, we crossed the street tracks to tourist information and waited for our number to be called to buy museum tickets and train passes. This allowed us some time to consort with our first loose screw.
“They’ll talk about trust,” the man said to Takayo, as if picking up in the middle of a conversation. “They come on television, and they ask you to trust them, but they’re not in a position to be trusted.” He looked normal enough, but then I looked to the sleeves of his white micro fleece, which were sullied with dirt. He talked relentlessly, offering point to his own counterpoint.
When he finally paused to breath, I asked “Who do you trust, then?” Looking as if the question was some sort of riddle, he quietly stared off as Takayo and I inched away from him. When our number was called, we laid a stack on the counter girl for the museum and train passes.
We would walk a few blocks and eventually make a left to find our hotel. While crossing a street, I was nearly run over by a bicyclist, the swish of his coat tail slapped my shoulder as he sped by. It was the sort of bust-out riding one might expect from someone named "Tiny" during Bike Week. It quickly became evident that bikes are King of the Road in Amsterdam. They bullied through traffic, ignored red lights and sped toward pedestrians, swerving around them at the last possible moment. They might have been scarier had they been brandishing steel toes and neck tattoos, but as it were, their necks were hid under thick scarves and slim-fitted overcoats.
“Look at that,” I said, remarking on the street-level apartments on the way to our hotel. The residents kept their curtains open, the rooms arranged like still-life pieces on display. Most of the homes, lit by carefully chosen lamps, were void of people. Many did not have televisions. I took every open window as an invitation. One woman sat at her dining room table facing the window, drinking out of an orange mug. I felt obliged, expected even, to look inside. She made eye contact with me as, I expect, she had every other passerby that cared to take a peek into her life.
The city spreads out from the port and all of the canals flush you toward the busy shops lining the streets to the Dam. You don’t need a thing if you’re out for a stroll. We had checked in to our hotel and eaten at a small sandwich shop run by a Spaniard. We let the streets take us where they would, playing right into their hands. Since we deliberately had no agenda for the day, we decided to get a freewheeling impression of the city.
Your heart starts to pump when you see the street urchins smoking sensitizers on the bridge. They were all bearded and heavily pierced. Perhaps after graduating high school they went backpacking through Europe to “find themselves,” but ended up losing everything. Even if their faces had been on some Mid-West milk carton, the toll of experience and grime might have rendered them unrecognizable. We ignored their mumbles as we passed, smiling and looking forward diplomatically. Moreover, we looked good doing it. It was finally cool enough to wear the custom-made clothes -- double cashmere pea coats, dress shirts, etc. -- we had tailored before leaving China. We strolled through the glowing red markers in the street, arm in arm, living in a white bread world .
You think it’ll be seedy at first, but it don’t show you everything at once. Roses bloom the way Amsterdam unfolds. I get the impression that this isn’t a place to be ‘conquered,’ as one might say of an American city such as DC. Just sliding through the crowd, taking in the cobblestone streets, the slender buildings, chalky perfumes, and gang plank floors is an unexpected luxury.
The city has enough class to keep walking aimlessly for hours. The guidebooks tell you not to walk through the Red Light first thing (you don’t want to get the wrong impression of the city), so that’s exactly what we did. An interesting aspect of the sex shops is the feeling of being on the outside looking in. At one moment you can secretly judge some pervert coming out of a store, and the next minute you’re bathed under the neon glow of a storefront window, intrigued by the items on display: Condoms with reservoir tips shaped like elephants, rhinoceros, hand mixers…latex arms, strap-on dildos, pseudo-erotic headgear, grainy Persian sex tapes, etc.
And then there are the half naked girls in windows with dark-glowing skin and radiant underthings. The first window ladies we saw were black, and were tightly cinched with corsets into human wasps. One was standing at the window on the phone, while the other sat on a stool, lazily puffing on a butt.
“Oh my god!” Takayo gasped. “There really are women in the windows.”
“Of course” I said, feigning a macho attitude. “Who did you expect to see?”
Again, your heart starts to race because you’ve heard that it was real and you thought you were prepared to see it. You think you’re prepared, but you’re never really ready to see the girls until they‘re right there in front of you. I made eye contact with the one on the phone and quickly looked away. She shook her tits. We walked past. Our footing became awkward, a combination of coming to terms with our surroundings and the uneven cobblestone street. The whole scene is euphoric and vile, but it’s strangely fascinating like a crash you can’t look away from. Special horrors comes to mind. Get inside them, allow them inside you, all the kinky tubes and smelly bulges of human anatomy summed up to a trick.
We walked around, looking at the prostitutes and commentating their activities.
“I love how half of them are on the phone,” said Takayo. “Shouldn’t they be fighting for business?”
“Maybe they’re responding to customers by phone, instead of pawing at the window like a cat. These are modern times we‘re living in.”
The location of the window, as related to foot traffic, was directly proportionate to how attractive the prostitute was. For the most part, the spiciest girls didn’t have time to be bored. They were too busy reeling in johns with their Red Bull inspired squirmy dances.
The initial shock of it all was starting to wear off. We had talked about going into a bar earlier. We marched into the most decadent joint on the street. As soon as we walked in, people eyed us up and quickly looked away.
“The waitresses doesn’t serve here,” said the waitress. I thought about asking her what she did do, but at the risk of sounding like a buzz-kill, I held my tongue.
We sat down at a large table across from two couples. A few minutes after we sat down, the couples at our table staggered out. A group of copper faced boys took their place. The boys look as if they were twelve. What was it like here, I wondered, when there was no televisions or kaleidoscope phones or latex fists flooding the town. Visions flashed to mind of a roaring queen, playing a piano in a corner, the brittle sound of peanut shells underfoot, and the glow of a hundred candles with wax boiling over like fondue.
Meanwhile, the speakers pumped out a relentless beat, reminding me of the sound a vet might hear in his stethoscope. Ideas flashed and flitted away before they could expand. I walked to bathroom and laughed to myself in the stall. A sign over the sink read:
DON’T DRINK THE WATER fish fuck in it!
We hit the street arm-in-arm in the direction of the regressing sun. The clouds drifted across the sky like gun smoke over a burning body. A leather clad man stood in a doorway, poking his head around the doorframe like a terrapin. Anyone with a Euro to his name has a chance here. There’s something timeless about the blind alleyways here. They echo in the huffing, grunting displays of involuntary muscle spasms. Sticky, able men. The suckers in the shops pull money out of their pants like burning peckers. We didn’t make eye contact, won’t give them the satisfaction. We have an image to uphold.
Stiffened by the cold, I stubbed my toe on the ground, thinking, ‘It’s getting hard to walk.’ Like an omen, all of a sudden this man in a wheelchair rolled out from an alleyway like a bat-out-of-hell. I cast aside my complaints, grateful for my legs.
Cathedral bells gossiped through the passages, springing to mind a past-life vision as a medieval bell-ringer. Below the sagging flesh, my muscles react like jumper cables. The rooftop is a bell-ringer’s domain. I awake at dawn. A bell-ringer’s peak is at sunset. That‘s when I sharpen my trade.
“I feel like I just fled the scene of a crime,” I said, as the street opened up to the Dam. We were walking toward the great white pillar. Tourists milled about the protrusion as children gamboled up and down the levels encircling it.
“What if there were people circling around this thing for no particular reason? You know, like they might have done in the stone ages.”
“Monks circling around it.” Takayo said.
“Yes,” I said. “Monks.” Boy was that ever good. I envisioned the top level thick with monks.
The bricks underfoot seem to slosh about like brine water, causing us to walk askew. We crossed the street toward the Royal Palace. Large men in overalls manipulated brightly painted machines, screeching in the center of the square. The thrill rides were collapsed like boxed accordions. A greasy, longhaired drifter dropped his rucksack and wrung his hands. We pushed through the square, minding the framework of electrical hoses and pigeon shit strewn across the stones.
OMAN. The word was emblazoned upon some signage, hanging by the doors of a large, gothic cathedral. It seemed like a curious juxtaposition to me. I needed to go back to the hotel for my coat, but at that moment, I was compelled toward that structure tucked into the corner of the square.
“We need to be humbled,” I said, making a beeline for the church.
The sharp, ancient spires seemed to rake the sky’s hyper-colored underbelly. As always, I resorted to thoughts of planetary warfare. It’s the same song and dance: Swollen red bombs arching into space, reentering the stratosphere over some bleak regime. More countries annihilating each other. The Message is broadcast, in English, just moments before all of the marbles fall to the ground.
We arrive to the foot of the entrance and I immediately start pulling on the doors. The knobs are the size of polished honeydews and they don‘t budge. We walk around to another entrance, where a group of kids hung from the locked wrought iron gate drinking sodas. The gift shop windows were full of, what appeared to be, Omani gutting knives. I can appreciate weapons in a place of worship, but it’s hard to feel humbled by a cathedral that has a café sticking out of its side.
In the hotel room, we opened the window and kicked off our shoes, looking out over the skyline. The slates glowed orange and sharpened in the last of the fading light. We laid on the bed like punched geese as bells echoed over the canal. A pigeon roosted on the blade of an adjacent rooftop, puffed up his feathers, and become a silhouette.