I wake up early, 7:30. There's a pile driver outside, in the canal in front of my hotel. The noise is loud enough to shake the fillings from your teeth. I throw some clothes on, grab my backpack, camera and a notebook then negotiate a steep and narrow stairway to the hotel bar where there’s a door that opens to the street. It's cool outside, but comfortable below a cloudless Maxwell Parrish sky. I have some breakfast at a little place on Warmoesstraat and then decide to cruise the coffee houses that are strung along this busy street. A place called, BABA is the first. It's nice, with booths on one end, and a giant statue of Ganesh, the Hindu deity who removes obstacles. Two counters run along the street-side windows. Every table and both counters feature hookas. I warn patrons I'm about to take a photo. Only one of them has turned away.
A dealer comes out from behind a glass topped drug bar that displays varieties of marijuana and hashish. The names are fascinating: Purple Haze, New York City Doobie, Dutch Treat, First Lady, American Dream, Silver Haze, Early Skunk, White Diesel, Kali Haze, to name a few. The dealer’s name is Maddy, in her early thirties. Wants a cup of coffee. I just had one but decide to join her. She speaks perfect English . . . sounds like an American. Most people here speak second languages, most often English, also German.
Drug Bar The PC monitors display requested information behind electric scales.
“Were you born in Holland, Maddy?”
“No. I come from Sweden. I moved here when I was twenty. Mom went nuts when she found out where I was working. This used to be one of the most dangerous streets in Europe. If you started out at one end you'd be lucky if you reached the other without experiencing something you would rather have avoided. But all that was long ago. It's nothing like that now. There's very little trouble. Our worst problem here is people falling off their stools. We keep close watch on customers who have their eyes closed, but that doesn't happen very often.
“How long have you been working here?” I ask.
“Almost eight years.”
“You like the job?”
“Oh, yeah. It's fun.” she says. “Pay's good. The job is easy once you get to know your
way around. It used to drive me crazy weighing out a gram. I'd put some ganga in the scale - too heavy. Take some out - too light. Put more back in - too heavy. Took forever. Now my fingers know exactly . . . only use the scale to show my customers the weight is right.”
Our coffee comes. I pay for both, five Euros . . . eight bucks if you count the tip, for two small cups. “You think the Red Light district's changed?” I ask.
“Oh yeah. I liked it better when I first arrived. It's more commercial now. The politics is crazy sometimes. They keep trying to fix what isn't broken . . . changing laws. I plan to leave here in about a year . . . to Canada I think.”
“You'll probably like it there,” I tell her as I finish off my coffee and slide off my window counter stool. I tell her I'll be back, tomorrow or day after as I'm sure I'll have more questions, and she's very friendly, nice . . . and smart. Today I want to wander through this labyrinth of streets and alleyways . . . check out some other coffee shops.
I find none that are sleazy. All are clean, well kept, and more or less expensive. Single pre-rolled joints can cost as much as fifteen dollars, but are dynamite I'm told. I look but don't inhale. Who said that? Clinton? I decide to take a cushion laden window seat at Happy People and have one more coffee. They sell grass and pot laced brownies here.
Three girls come in, Americans . . . late teens or early twenties. They have occupied a table next to where I'm at, chattering happily, and constantly as only women do. They're talking about how cool it would be to go to a rave in Berlin. I'll bet! They make me wish that I was younger.
“Who are those guys?” asks a shaggy brown haired member of the trio who has noticed a large Marx Brothers poster on the wall. None of them know. I feel my age again. All three are gobbling brownies . . . must be good. When they have finished eating one begins to read the label that was on the cellophane the snacks were wrapped in.
“Oh! Look at this,” she tells the others. “It says we should eat them very slowly . . . ‘consuming too fast may cause nausea!’”
“What's nausea?” a blond asks.
“It’s like, getting sick.” one of them answers.
“Oh, that’s great. You read instructions after we've gulped this stuff down. We might throw up!” one of them says. All the three burst into hysterical laughter . . . happy people.
I pass other coffee shops but don't go in. This brick paved street once dangerous is now a quaintly antique shopping mall. There are abundant souvenir shops, homey store fronts, coffee shops and restaurants: Chinese, Hispanic, Argentine and German. One establishment stands out from all the rest, glittering newness . . . glass and stainless steel. They sell sophisticated vibrators plus other intriguing devices who’s forms suggest their function. The designs could double as small sculptures. One apparently plugs into Ipods, and the other end. . . ?
A photo of a woman with pierced nipples is an excellent attention getter.
One block further on I pass a condom shop. Sex products and drugs are both best sellers in this area called Wallen, one of the oldest parts of the city. Prostitution has been rife here since the 13th century, but window girls did not appear until the 18th, when the port of Amsterdam was filled with sailors looking for a good time. Some found more than what they had in mind. The window workers all get health checks now I’m told, and they insist on condoms.
I head back to my hotel . . . the noon shift window-workers on display now. They get very pissed if someone tries to take their photograph. My guidebook warns that doing so could get a person thrown in a canal. I kind of doubt that, even though canals are just a little over four feet deep. I use a telephoto lens to keep me from harm's way.