Tuesday, August 31, 1993

BLUE MOON


BLUE MOON


She said all the knowledge
we need is in our bodies.
The planets are lining up inside of us.
The earth is a medicine bundle.

There are more natural laws
that need rediscovering:
the laws of horizon, of vortices,
of our need to breathe.

The deer beneath the buckeye
don’t see the carcass
of their eventual death
sleeping under the tree.

The limestone rocks hunger
for the touch of the sea.
The planets are lining up inside of us.


8/31/93  Walker Creek Ranch
or 9/12


Sunday, August 1, 1993

Amsterdam Nirvana


AMSTERDAM NIRVANA  (long version—see also AMSTERDAM, OH AMSTERDAM)

                                                                                      I see the  needle and the damage done,
                                                                                                                                                a little part of it in everyone,
                                                                                                                                                every junkie's like the setting sun.
                                                                                                                                                —from “The Needle and the Damage,”
                                                                                                                                                                   by Neil Young, Harvest 1972

Ignoring the small red verboten circles with a camera icon nesting inside, a young blonde leans out the sunroof of a red car, flashes her camera at a storefront widow, the driver speeds off with squealing tires. The scantily dressed black prostitute explodes out of the door, cursing in both Dutch and Spanish. Sociology studies aside, photos are forbidden in Amsterdam's Rosse Buurt, the red light district where whores display their goods behind velvet and glass. No money in stolen photos. It made me think of the photographer Edward Curtis. Modern day primitives selling small bits of their souls to the gringos. Only the soulless reside here. It could have been me, a thief of images, come to steal this scene, but I was on foot, with no fast getaway car—a dangerous proposition. Appropriately, this street was once called Vleesstraat, the street of the butchers.  The street of flesh, a slow river of thighs and flagging desire commingling in the debris of morality and commerce. Harder still to believe the alleys named Blood, Cow, and Curtain in the Red Light District.

At the confluence of Oude Zijds Achterberg canal and the quay at Barndesteeg (Cow Alley), we sit at the English pub window watching the men watch the hookers. I take notes. A tourist at the bar can't stand the suspense; asks in couched terms if I'm a tourist, or a student studying sociology while on holiday. I throw him a curve, saying, “I'm a writer.” Not the right answer: wrong sex. “Gathering inspiration?” he asks. “No. Observing human nature.” He leaves mumbling something about how tourists should get to know each other, before I can tell him I'm annoyed by terms such as tourist and holiday, wondering how Hemingway would've responded. “Fucking six-toed cats! Gimme another refill.”

A tourist is someone who travels along the well-worn paths for the sake of pleasure. In my paperback American Heritage dictionary, travail comes before travel. Toil, tribulation, agony. A traveler journeys from one place to another. Journal comes before journey; the journey becomes the traveler. I feel like I'm reciting singsong rules of grammar. As for holiday, there is a holiness in the daily act of writing. Appropriate that Holland follows holiness. So many churches here to worship in. My eavesdropper tosses some German pfennigs on the counter and leaves, much to my relief.

Amsterdam, the magical city of the '60s, and an important stop on the Gringo Trail, has been compared to the mythical cities of Atlantis, Hy Brazil, or the Breton city of Is, with its lights shining from the bottom of the sea. “Is shall rise when Paris sinks,” goes the Breton saying. Amsterdam is already more than three meters below sea level; the reflected lights shining from the watery depths of myriad canals are like a parallel city co-existing alongside the real one.

At the end of Gelderseskade canal is the red brick Schreirestoren, the Tower of Tears, or the Weepers Tower, where it is said the women gathered to watch their men, who, seeking their fortune, left on the ships sailing out to the Zuiderzee—perhaps never to return. This is the city of human cargo, fed on black ivory and spice—the Dutch East, and West India Companies had their headquarters here. Spices from the east, and slaves to the west, this is where the concept apartheid was formed, and later exported. Scurvy of the tongue. The Cape Colony, a garden on the sea road to the Dutch East Indies.

Amsterdam wears many guises. Backed by the guilders of influential Amsterdam bankers, this is where the explorer Henry Hudson set sail for the new world—the monikers Hudson's Bay, the Hudson River, and Manhattan Island, or Nieuwe Amsterdam, reflect that legacy; Wall Street was named after the original Waal in Amsterdam. Dutch frugality is jokingly described thusly: copper wire was invented by two Dutchmen fighting over a pen. In 1776, John Hancock was the first to grab a pen and put his signature on the Declaration of Independence, a document which made relations a little tense between the American Colonies and England. Lots of money was needed. While Ben Franklin dallied in the French court of Louis XVI trying to float a loan, John Adams set off to Holland without congressional approval, to convince the tough Amsterdam bankers to part with millions of guilders; he must have had a golden tongue. He convinced the Dutch uncles to hand over the dough (with a high interest rate attached), with that capital loan, the American Colonies were able to break away from the Crown.

Then there's the issue of identity—which Amsterdam to describe; ten visitors would come up with ten different stories. Something of this city has left its mark on the world: there are no less than ten Amsterdams; six in the U.S. alone: New York, Ohio Idaho, Montana, Missouri, and Georgia. One each in Saskatchewan, Canada, Transvaal, South Africa, and on an island in the Indian Ocean. We haven't even listed all the Nieuwe Amsterdams—one in each colony—the city of New York, for example. And there are a few Ha(a)rlems on both sides of the world.

A friend, originally from Haarlem (two aa's), Holland, that is—says I'm three years too late, I should've seen Amsterdam before the city fathers began cleaning up, and closing the legal loopholes. In the '80s, he was a squatter during the Squatter Wars, when thousands took to the streets in protest of militia tactics during the housing crisis.

We'd just come across a footbridge into Oude Zijeds Kolk, one of Amsterdam's first canals (or grachten—moats). This is one of the oldest sections of city raised from the fens of the Waal, on one of the many tributaries of the Rhine river delta. Who were these bog people who first settled here in 50 B.C., preferring to wrestle with the sea and reside in isolated fishing camps, rather than to suffer at the hands of their enemies? On the southern side of the Rhine, Caesar first chronicled warring with the fierce Celts, and on the north side of the river, with the Teutons. Amstelle damme. About 500 A.D. the dam across the Amstelle river made it a permanent settlement. The medieval walls of the village kept expanding outward in oblong concentric rings like the cross-section of a felled tree. My Dutch friend Vins, whom I knew from our college days in Sonoma County, said, “These are new land wrested from the bottom of the sea.” The Zuiderzee, a mere remnant of itself, is now the freshwater IJ, surrounded by the dyked and drained polders, fields below sea level.  Land taken from the sea comprises much of the land surrounding Amsterdam.

On Kreupelsteeg, Cripple's alley, I break my sandal. Wearing open shoes in a city where hard drugs are tolerated can be a hazard. One introduction to Amsterdam's wilderness is to learn to read the signs like a good tracker, like burned aluminum foil and rare teaspoons. Pointing to a crack in the cobblestone, a needle cap, Vins warns me to watch my feet. We drop into a sex shop to fix my sandal. Fleshy apparitions in fallacious shapes and mammoth proportions vibrated, pulsed and hummed from every surface—like being trapped in the middle of a love scene from “Satyricon.” A paperclip and string; my shoe is mended.

The Amsterdammers’ sense of business is traditionally a finely honed art—regardless of the merchandise. From the afterbirth of the AIDS epidemic, a tiny specialty shop on Warmouesstraat emerged—The Condomerie Het Golden Vlees, the first of its kind in the world to exclusively sell condoms. Since a condom shop was obviously not in the same category as a sex shop, the city fathers were baffled as to what kind of license to issue the two women running it. After a couple of years of bickering, they settled on an appropriate business license, for the selling of pottery and ceramics. Perhaps they weren't so far off the mark after all.

When it comes to condoms, disguise the limit—however, ceramic condoms are not among the items for sale, though stoneware penises sport some of the racier models. The Condomerie’s windows artfully display condoms of every stripe, color and persuasion—posing as sweets, lollipops, tucked inside walnuts, “Okeido” perfume samples, toys, fur-lined pet boxes; condoms in cartoon animal shapes, or with myriad appendages and growths that defy description. French Ticklers are staid extraterrestrial blossoms in comparison to the trick exploding rubbers.

After hours, the “Spuitenruil,” or needle exchange program, is self-service. Put a used needle in the vending machine, get a new one free. (Baltimore is considering emulating this innovative program in the States.) I take a photo of a pair of suede boots in good condition, and a needle with the orange cap, all neatly placed under a canal bench. Some childhood habit persisted long after the junkie had left this realm. Perhaps the Germanic mode for organization led this person toward the nirvanic solitude of a junkie's journey into hell. This compulsion for tidiness juxtaposed against self-destruction is a paradox typical of the Dutch.

This area is heavily patrolled  by cops, users, customers and tourists. A white whore, and several men descend upon us at the street corner. I'm holding my arms around my pouch, camera and notebook. Something's coming down—and quickly. A deal. A small white car, blue lights flashing, comes wheeling up Geldersekade street—the  politite, or police, are quickly on the scene. Vins points out the runner. No one's caught “holding.” I take photos of an underworld figure astride a motorbike making cellular phone calls to hookers or business clients, and a comatose drug addict with his frail arms locked around a bicycle rack to keep his head up. Patrolling on bicycles, the police keeps tight tabs on them.

Contrary to popular notions, drugs are not legal in Amsterdam. The use of drugs—especially soft drugs (marijuana and hashish)—is considered to be a social, not a criminal, problem. Drug use is more or less tolerated, but no pushing, or selling is allowed—offenders are swiftly dealt with. The junkies are comprised mostly of natives and flotsam from the '60s, and, youngsters. With a doctor aboard, the Junkie Bus makes several scheduled stops a day to care for the registered junkies. But busted foreigners are usually swiftly exported, and at their own expense. Rotterdam, Holland's second largest city, has approximately 2500 to 3000 registered users, but Amsterdam (the largest city with a population of one million) attracts more tourists and natives alike.

I find my own broad-minded '60s notions are quickly challenged in less than a block. The dark energy of the skinny whores, the users and dealers, tangible as a knife, severs the umbilicus from the mother of chaos. I'm in the duck-and-cover mode, protecting my psychic, and physical space from these stealers of souls. I haven't had to use these street skills in more than twenty years, skills learned in the ’60s and ’70s. No more Flower Children, or Holland's Provos, just the walking dead, zombies seeking other planes of sensation. Two men prepare their fix á la Chinees style. Foil, a match, and a spoon, if they’re lucky. The tentacled stench of urine curls up from the cobbles, seeking a brain-hold via the nostrils. On this street, it's too much of an effort for the junkies to use the commas, the curvilinear green wrought iron urinals punctuating each canal mid-sentence, to the bridges where one can cross over to other islands of thought. The Dutch East India Company building, for example. Once this was the center of the universe. In the 1600s, a fabulous empire that changed the map of history, now reduced to a sandstone building housing a musty maritime collection for the tourists and the nostalgic Dutch to contemplate.

Four burly teenagers, obviously foreigners, sit in front of an empty storefront and roll a joint in public. Vins snarls at their stupidity, “A fast way to get deported.” The purchase and smoking of marijuana is allowed only in the licensed coffee houses. Weed was declassified from a hard drug to a soft drug in the ’70s, and contrary to popular belief, it too is illegal, but a loophole in the law allows the police to not prosecute. A legal distinction is made in the Dutch word, gedogen, to allow. This creates some rather oxymoronic situations.  Prostitution is legal, pimping is not. It is illegal for coffee houses to display or advertise cannibus. The cannibus museum lost its central exhibit to a police raid. Some unsuspecting tourists wandered into a coffee shop for coffee and space cake, and were hospitalized and medicated for freak “psychotic episodes” by the Amsterdam police. In the more relaxed Catholic south, the police merely explained the situation to the bewildered tourists with the advice to “sleep it off.”

One coffee house, the Cafe Paradiso, formerly a church, still caters to higher thought as well as rock and roll. The Dead Kennedys & Red Hot Chili Peppers are playing. I decide to make an informal tour of the coffee houses. The Maloe-Meloe. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. At the Jolly Joker, we scan the cannabis menu du jour: Afghani, Maui, Thai, Hindukush, and several local brands of Dutch wiet (weed) Super Skunk, and Northern Lights, in varying weights are available for 12 guilders (about nine dollars). I feel like I'm perusing a wine list. Sonoma Grown is not offered on the menu, though they've heard of Humboldt weed. At The Spirit, a young sprout proceeds to tell me about the virtues of THC versus alcohol, not realizing he's addressing the generation that wrote the book on weed.

Hemp has been cultivated in the Netherlands several centuries—a sailing nation has much need of rope; smoking it wholesale (in the form of imported hash), came much later. Amsterdam's The Cotton Club, where musicians and sailors indulged in the '30s paralleled that of U.S. consumption, until the ’60s counter-revolution ushered in experimentation with the smoking and growing of hothouse weed. Northern Light, a high-tech grass, was developed to grow under artificial lighting. But there were problems: seed and root rot was a common ailment, commercial fertilizers and pesticides have weakened the strain.

The counter-counter-grower's revolution focuses on biologically diverse weed grown in the ground—outside. Some new varieties are so tough they can withstand (presumably mean-summer) Alaskan temperatures. The green thumb responsible for this miracle is that of Amsterdam's Dr. Wiet. Among amateur agronomists, Dr. Wiet is a legend in her own time; she's developed at least 40 varieties of grass with such names as Double Dutch, Early Dutch Queen, through the crossbreeding of Dutch Sativa and Indica. In the process, the THC content of grass was boosted from a measly 1-10% to a whopping 40%. It's estimated that Dr. Wiet has the largest grass seedbank in the world (and we aren't talking lawns here).

One seed store, “Homegrown Fantasy,” founded by a biology teacher, and inadvertent student of Dr. Wiet, sells 5 seeds “hand-pollinated by The Skunkman” for 25 guilders, about $17. Stores make an estimated 400% profit on the seeds. Dr Wiet, who is against legalization of weed, is afraid “the big boys” will further enhance the THC qualities of Dutch weed, making it on par with lethal weaponry.  

We cross over to St. Olaf's street and alley, the oldest streets in Amsterdam.. This original wharfside with its confluence of cutthroats, junkies and whores could use a saint, it needs all the blessing it can get. The newest addition of tourists creates a strange tide marching through this section of alleys constructed before the Renaissance. Yuppification in the thieve's den.

Here, the buildings lean toward each other as if to kiss the neighboring buildings across the canal. At first glance, Amsterdam resembles a forest of leaning towers of Pisa, some of the older towers really  do list a bit. The proliferation of acute angles is not the result of too much good Dutch beer or grass. Many building were used for storage, goods had to be lifted from the street through street-front windows. They were designed to lean out to make it easier to hoist things up. People still use the hook and pulley system to move into apartments. I watched Vins's new neighbors move a bureau up to a fourth floor flat, the woman using a guy rope to keep the bureau from smashing out a window. Many of the newer buildings don't lean out so much, but  centuries later, the system's still the same. The bureau careens, as if attempting first flight—the man yelling. Vins comments, “This part always tests the relationship.”

The influence of Amsterdam is so powerful, in many of the former Dutch colonies, the same building style is retained. And the former Dutch colonies were extensive: the Dutch East Indies—including modern day Indonesia, and New Guinea; The Dutch West Indies—Yucatan, Mexico, Cayenne, Brazil, the Bahamas. The Dutch Antilles—Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, are still provinces. Dutch Guyana—Surinam, is independent, as is the Cape Colony, South Africa; the Dutch fortress/towns along the Ivory, and Slave coasts are no longer under Dutch rule. Parts of de Witte's Land, or Nieuwe Holland—the Australian coast—was once under Dutch rule: Paas Eiland, or Easter Island, Tasmania (after Abel Tasman), New Zealand, Vuurland, or Tierra del Fuego, and Cape Hoorn—all discovered and named by Dutch explorers—still reflect their Dutch legacy.

“Tolerance, or the art of compromise, was invented here,” says a Dutch-Jewish acquaintance. Sephardic Jews, escaping the repressive Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century, arrived from Antwerp in droves, setting up the famous diamond business, giving Amsterdam its other name, the Diamond City. However, with the dissolution of the Dutch colonies, and the importation of foreign workers earlier in the century, the great influx of neo-colonialists returning “home” to the “spawning grounds” threatens to sink Holland's generous social security system. Tolerance is sporting a shorter fuse these days.

Abutted against the church walls, the alley is the heart of the red-light district where royalty, religion and sex conmingle. Coronations are held at Nieuwe Kerk, built in 1490. (Queen Beatrix took the throne in 1980. The position of the Dutch royalty is titular, the Government has the power). Oude Kerk (built in 1200) where Rembrandt's wife Saskia is  buried, is now a desecularized concert hall with extraordinary acoustics used for carillon and organ recitals. Ironically, the abbreviation of Amsterdam is A'dam. Calvinists and Catholics divvied up the churches, spires and clocks dominate the sky. Calvinist guilt and commerce make strange bedfellows, the Netherlands’ sex industry nets 350 million pounds a year. With legalization prostitutes (there are approximately 25,000) have founded their own union, de Rode Draad, the Red Thread, intent on lobbying for health care. The city fathers have plans to tax their profits. On the Street of Curtains, an interesting thought comes to mind as I watch the hookers gyrate under blacklights. One needs to observe both the whores and the customers—those who are window shopping, those who are buying, and those who are disturbed at the sight of the oldest profession on the world. Time is money. The ladies of the evening are efficient, a john clocks out anywhere from six to ten minutes.  

When Martin Luther, a Capuchin monk, was excommunicated in Worms, Germany in 1517, Charles V tried in vain to maintain control over his holy Roman Empire which included most of Europe. Luther fled to the north, and all hell broke loose in Northern Europe—Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Charles V's abdication in 1556 led to the break-up and the redistribution of the first Habsburg Empire. His son and heir, King Philip II of Spain, defined his new role as the “sword of the Pope.” Dubbed Philip the Pious, the cloistered esthete was as fanatically Catholic as the Swiss-born republican Calvin was Protestant. Luther still perceived a reformed Catholic church, while Calvin didn't accept any authority higher than that of the local synods. 1566 was the year of Iconoclasm, and the of the Spanish Tithe; paying 10% of one's income to the Catholic church was considered unbearable. Amsterdam managed to maintain a Catholic identity longer than the rest of Northern Europe before entering into the Eighty Years War in 1568. For the commoner it was a religious war, for the nobleman it was an economic battle. Today, the average Netherlander pays at least 30% of his income to the government. During the polarizations that occurred during the Protestant Reformation, boundaries of religion, money and power, merged. A'Dammers merely accepted the faith of their times, and continued on with business as usual.

In 1648, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands became the mightiest nation in the world due to expansion and trade. Its heyday was over by 1700, the English followed suit for the next hundred years; the world divvied up like a pie, English fleets beating the Dutch back. The consequences this neo-colonialism and expansion of world trade burning to a conclusion, caused the Netherlands, England, France, Spain, and Germany, to erupt in 1914, with a repeat performance in 1942.

The Netherlands has always followed the business route, and became a great nation in the 1600s by trading in everything from spices to humans—with everyone, Protestants, Catholics, and Pagans; Royalist and Republicans alike—no lucrative offer was refused. In this, the parallels between the U.S. and the Netherlands are similar to ignore—pragmatism; i.e., John Adams got money from the Republic to fight the English; they had an enemy in common. Both countries just said “Yes” to any lucrative business opportunity. The U.S. Constitution, the only declaration to legislate “the pursuit of happiness;” but Amsterdam is one of the few places in the world where one can practice certain pursuits such as smoking a joint, without fear of arrest.

Both the Dutch and the Germans claim invention of a tool that revolutionized the Olde World—the printing press; Laurens Jansz Coster in Haarlem, and Johann Gutenberg in Strasbourg. The map of the known world was altered because of a bible (and maps) printed in the Netherlands. Fearing ex-communication, or the rack  for his worldly views, the mapmaker Mercator fled to Amsterdam from Catholic Belgium. Exported to England, that revised bible translation led to the expulsion of a small fanatic sect by the Anglican clergy; the group, America's Pilgrim Fathers were kicked out of London, and fled to Amsterdam, but their brand of fanaticism proved to be too much even for the tolerant A'dammers. They were ousted from several other Dutch cities in succession before they set sail to the New World from the Netherlands.

Though the U.S. is currently in the vise-grips of fundamentalism, it has never taken root in the Netherlands; each person is free to be his own rebel, to do whatever they want—be it heroin, methadone, or religion—as long as no one else is hurt. The only thing precluded from tolerance is fanaticism. From the outside, this may be viewed as permissiveness or freedom. Rembrandt's painting, “The Syndics of the Draper's Guild” could be a portrait of those pilgrims who sought religious freedom in America—the Pilgrim Fathers and Rembrandt were contemporaries. Ironically, that fanaticism associated with the Pilgrim Fathers continues to manifest itself periodically; the latest rash of censorship and repression in the U.S., from the 1989 NEA “Piss Christ,” to the current anti-abortion activities, are all part of that legacy.

My third sortie into the red light district has the same unsettling effect upon me, I come away with disturbed energy. Tired, I can't sleep. Seeing the junkies at sunset with their fixes, I'm buzzing, a contact high. I can philosophically deal with the skinny derelicts—they exist in every city. One develops a discerning eye, learns to see through them. I'm not sure I want to get used to seeing the junkies preparing their fixes with such tender devotion. One image I can't shake is of the well-dressed young German in a teal jogging suit and Gucci bag, fumbling to make her fix in a shop doorway on St. Antoniebreestraat between Nieuwe Markt and the Rembrandt house in the old Jewish quarters.

When the city fathers decided to clean up the slums of the Oude Zijde to put in a new metro line, they destroyed what was left of Mokum (an old nickname for Amsterdam), the old Jewish quarters. Some perennial sadness as long as the lines in front of Anne Frank's house, clings to the gray skies and adheres itself to the cobblestones—lest we forget. Once called the Jerusalem of the west, Amsterdam relies on commemorative plaques and sculpture in place of memory. The WW II pink granite triangle takes in new significance as Aids take its toll here too. A bouquet of yellow roses—Tiger, I miss you. —Love, Bear. The triangle, half the equation of another symbol of persecution. The yellow star of David. And another monument proclaiming Amsterdam, oh Amsterdam! I toss rose petals into the canal, drops of blood emerge from the other side of the bridge. Those who have their fix for the night are gezellig, euphoric. Everyone openly preparing for the coming night, the stars barely visible specks of light. Where I am I living at this moment? I don't exactly know. . .

1993? 4?

Amsterdam, Oh Amsterdam


AMSTERDAM, OH AMSTERDAM
                                                                        I see the damage in everyone,
                                                                        every junkie's like the setting sun.
                                                                        from “The Needle and the Damage,”
                                                                                    Harvest, by Neil Young

Ignoring the small red verboten circles with a camera icon nesting inside, a young blonde leans out the sunroof of a red car, flashes her camera at a storefront widow, the driver speeds off with squealing tires. The scantily dressed black prostitute explodes out of the door, cursing in both Dutch and Spanish. 

Sociology studies aside, photos are forbidden in Amsterdam's Rosse Buurt, the red light district where whores display their goods behind velvet and glass. No money in stolen photos. It made me think of the photographer Edward Curtis. Modern day primitives selling small bits of their souls to the gringos. 

Only the soulless reside here. It could have been me, a thief of images, come to steal this scene, but I was on foot, with no fast getaway car—a dangerous proposition. Appropriately, this street was once called Vleesstraat, the street of the butchers.  The street of flesh, a slow river of thighs and flagging desire commingling in the debris.

At the end of Gelderskade canal, is the Schreirestoren, the Tower of Weepers, where women watched the ships sail out to the Zuiderzee and beyond—perhaps never to return. This is the city of human cargo, fed by black ivory and spice—the East and West India companies had their headquarters here. This is where the concept apartheid was exported.  Scurvy of the tongue. The Cape Colony, a garden on the sea road to the Dutch East Indies.

We'd just come across a footbridge into Oude Zijeds Kolk, one of Amsterdam's oldest canals (or grachten—moats). This is one of the oldest sections of city raised from the fens of the Waal, on one of the many tributaries of the Rhine river delta. 

Who were these bog people who first settled here in 50 B.C., preferring to wrestle with the sea and reside in isolated fishing camps, rather than to suffer at the hands of their enemies? On the southern side of the Rhine, Caesar first chronicled warring with the fierce Celts, and on the north side of the river, with the Teutons. Amstelle damme. About 500 A.D. the dam across the Amstelle river made it a permanent settlement. The medieval walls of the village kept expanding outward in oblong concentric rings like the cross-section of a felled tree. 

My Dutch friend Vins, whom I knew from our college days in Sonoma County, said, “These are new land wrested from the bottom of the sea.” The Zuiderzee, a mere remnant of itself, is now the freshwater IJ, surrounded by the dyked and drained polders, fields below sea level.  Hy Brazil, Atlantis, or the city of Is rising up from the sea, lights shining from the watery depths. This magic city of the late ’60s, an important stop on the gringo trail—like London, Munich and Istanbul.

On  Kreupelsteeg, Cripple's alley, I break my sandal. Pointing to a needle cap, Vins warns me to watch my feet. Wearing sandals can be a hazard in a city where hard drugs are tolerated. 

One introduction to Amsterdam's wilderness is to learn to read the signs like a good tracker. I take a photo of a pair of suede boots in good condition, and a needle with the orange cap, neatly placed under a canal bench. Some childhood habit persisted long after the junkie had left this realm. Perhaps the teutonic mode for organization led this person toward the nirvanic solitude, a junkie's journey into hell. 

This compulsion for tidiness and propriety juxtaposed against self-destruction is a paradox typical of the Dutch. A white whore, and several men descend upon us at the street corner. I'm holding my arms around my pouch, camera and notebook. Something's coming down—and quickly. A deal. A small white car came wheeling up Geldersekade street—the police are quickly upon the scene. Vins points out the runner. No one's caught holding.  This area is heavily patrolled by cops, users, customers and tourists.

Contrary to popular belief, hard and soft drugs are not legal in Amsterdam. Brothels and coffee houses were legalized mid-1990. I find my broad-minded notions are quickly challenged in less than a block. 

The dark energy of the skinny whores, the users and dealers—tangible as a knife severing the umbilicus from the mother of chaos. I'm in the duck-and-cover mode, protecting my psychic, and physical space from these stealers of souls. I haven't had to use those street skills in more than twenty years, skills learned in the ’60s and ’70s. No more flower children, just the walking dead, the zombies seeking other planes of sensation. 

Two men prepare their fix a la Chinees style. Foil, a match, a spoon if one is lucky. The tentacled stench of urine curls up from the cobbles, seeking a brain-hold via the nostrils. On this street, it's too much of an effort for the junkies to use the commas, the curvilinear green wrought iron urinals punctuating each canal mid-sentence to the bridges where one can cross over to other islands of thought. The East India Company building, for example. Once this was the center of the universe. A fabulous empire that changed the map of history, now reduced to a sandstone building housing a maritime collection for the tourists to contemplate.

Four burly teenagers sit in front of an empty building and roll a joint in public. Vins snarls at their stupidity, “A fast way to get deported.” Weed is only allowed in the coffee houses. Grass is not legal either, but a loophole in the law allows people to indulge in a little smoke. 

One coffee house, the Cafe Paradiso, formerly a church, still caters to higher thoughts as well as rock and roll. The Dead Kennedys & Red Hot Chili Peppers are playing. At another coffee house we scan the menu du jour. Afghani, Maui, Thai, and several local brands of Dutch whiet (weed) in varying weights are available for 12 guilders (about nine dollars). I feel like I'm perusing  a wine list. Sonoma Grown is not offered on the menu.

We cross over to St. Olaf's street and alley, the oldest streets in Amsterdam.. This original wharfside with its confluence of cutthroats, junkies and whores could use a saint, it needs all the blessing it can get. The newest addition of tourists creates a strange tide marching through this section of alleys constructed before the Renaissance. Yuppification in the thieve's den.

Here, the buildings lean toward each other as if to kiss the neighboring buildings across the canal. At first glance, Amsterdam resembles a forest of leaning towers of Pisa, some of the older towers really do list a bit. The proliferation of acute angles is not the result of too much good Dutch beer or grass. Many building were used for storage, goods had to be lifted from the street through street-front windows. They were designed to lean out to make it easier to hoist things up. 

People still use the hook and pulley system to move into apartments. I watched Vins's new neighbors move a bureau up to a fourth floor flat, the woman using a guy rope to keep the bureau from smashing out a window. Many of the newer buildings don't lean out so much, but centuries later, the system's still the same. The bureau careens, as if attempting first flight—the man yelling. Vins comments, “This part always tests the relationship.”

On the street of curtains, an interesting thought comes to mind as I watch the hookers gyrate under blacklights. One needs to observe both the whores and the customers—those who are window shopping, those who are buying, and those who are disturbed at the sight of the oldest profession on the world.

 An ironic twist—the abbreviation of Amsterdam is A'dam. Calvinists and Catholics divvied up the churches, spires and clocks dominate the sky. Calvinist guilt and commerce make strange bedfellows. Time is money. The ladies of the evening are efficient, a john clocks out anywhere from six to ten minutes.

My third sortie into the red light district has the same unsettling effect upon me, I come away with disturbed energy. Tired, I can't sleep. Seeing the junkies at sunset with their fixes, I'm buzzing, a contact high. I can philosophically deal with the skinny derelicts—they exist in every city. One develops a discerning eye, learns to see through them. I'm not sure I want to get used to seeing the junkies preparing their fixes with such tender devotion. 

One image I can't shake is of the well-dressed young German in a teal jogging suit and Gucci bag, fumbling to make her fix in a shop doorway on St. Antoniebreestraat between Nieuwe Markt and the Rembrandt house in the old Jewish quarters.

When the city fathers decided to clean up the slums of the Oude Zijde to put in a new metro line, they destroyed what was left of Mokum (an old nickname for Amsterdam), the old Jewish quarters. Some perennial sadness as long as the lines in front of Anne Frank's house, clings to the gray skies and adheres itself to the cobblestones—lest we forget. 

Once called the Jerusalem of the west, Amsterdam relies on commemorative plaques and sculpture in place of memory. The WW II pink granite triangle takes in new significance as AIDS take its toll here too. A bouquet of yellow roses—Tiger, I miss you. —Love, Bear. The triangle, half the equation of another symbol of persecution. The yellow star of David. And another monument proclaiming Amsterdam, oh Amsterdam! I toss rose petals into the canal, drops of blood emerge from the other side of the bridge. Those who have their fix for the night are gezellig, euphoric.

Everyone openly prepares for the coming night, the stars barely visible specks of light. Where I am I living at this moment? I don't exactly know. . .

? 1993?