I'm walking past the Old Kerk on this sunny afternoon and hear strange music . . . nice. A drifty, fog-soft, different sort of sound than any instrument I've heard before. There's a young woman sitting on the bricks cross-legged with an elf-like countenance. She holds an instrument that looks like two woks joined together, clam shaped, with a series of circular dents that produce an astounding variety of sounds. The tones are mellow, chime like, magical in some way . . . dreamy. Her hands and fingers dance rapidly around the metal dome, tapping it’s circular depressions to create sound. She’s very good. I stop to listen.
She plays by memory, with practiced ease, a thin smile on her face, lost in the melody . . . perhaps not lost at all. An interesting face, an almost smirking innocence. Her eyes gaze musingly, seemingly focused on some space in front of her. A small crowd gathers. She plays happily, bemusedly for ten or maybe fifteen minutes, stopping now to take a break – not getting up from where she sits. I have to find out what the gizmo is and walk to where she sits. “What do you call this thing?” I ask her as I drop a Euro coin into the basket at her knees.
“It's called a hum.” She spells it for me. “H U M,” she says. “They're made in Finland. Only one man makes them . . . just sixteen a year . . . a master craftsman.
“Hmmm.” (No pun intended) “So, are you from Finland?”
“No. I come from Budapest,” she says.
I want to ask her more, but others come to ask her questions. She responds in German, Italian, or English. Whatever works. She also speaks Dutch of course, and I assume Hungarian. Most who have gathered here drop Euros, sometimes two, into her basket. She has made CDs and sells a couple for ten Euros each as I move off to find a shady place to sit and wait for her to play again. The tourists leave and now a man and woman that she seems to know stop by and show her something they have bought . . . looks like some kind of chain and lock.
Another man arrives and squats down next to her, a lover or her husband I assume. The four of them all wear loose clothing that looks comfortable, softened by age and many washings. Gypsies, I decide. The husband, or whatever, scoops the money from her basket. Euros she's collected will add up to thirty five or forty dollars easy. Husband stuffs the money in his pocket and pulls out a couple more CDs for her to sell.
Another friend rolls up on a green bicycle. (I need to tell you more about bicycles later). He has also been spray painted green—completely, all his exposed skin, his hair and shoes. He wears a holster with a plastic pistol in it, also green. He's been around the neighborhood. I've noticed him before—hard not to. I've seen tourists pay to have their photos taken with him. Why, I can't imagine, but perhaps I should have, now that I am writing this. The woman starts to play again. I listen for a while and then move on.
It seems like almost everyone rides bikes in Amsterdam. Note the upper left side of this photo. There are more bikes on that upper deck than you can see below. The city’s vehicle traffic is very light. It seems like that would make it safe for us pedestrians. Not so, although the city's done the best it could. Bike lanes are colored red, as wide as sidewalks in the States, and run beside the lanes marked for pedestrians. It isn't easy for Americans who learned how not to step on cracks as children, but are unaccustomed to bicycle lanes on sidewalks, and both lanes are often crowded. People walking wonder off into the red zones, bikes drift into white, bells tringing warnings as they come up from behind a person. I’ve almost been hit a dozen times, but riders here are skilled. I find my best defensive move is just to freeze when I hear bells, but have been brushed against a few times. I've begun to shout, “Olé!” on these near miss occasions as the bike sails by.
Beer drinking at the hotel bar again, a female bartender tonight. Her name is Mary, and she's very nice, good sense of humor. There's four younger guys who came to Amsterdam from England, and myself, all of us watching the quartet of window hookers on the other side of the canal. No business yet . . . as usual.
The windows and the people passing by them are more fun to watch than television, which is on but without sound – a soccer game.
As Mary serves another round of beer a wise-guy asks, “Do you feel paranoid taking a man home? I mean with all of these professionals around.”
“I give them more than fifteen minutes,” Mary says. She never bats an eye.
There's a sex show next to the four window workers called, Theater Casa Rosso. “A world famous live sex show,” the hotel brochures say. The sidewalk we are watching, on the other side of the canal, has been contrived to titillate the endless stream of tourists . . . a sex Disney Land that they can snigger though unharmed, untouched, returning home with tales of the bazaar. Perhaps the four girls in the four windows are just props, erotic scenery for the amusement of the tour groups that pass by in herds of twenty-five or thirty . . . one group’s followed by another passing by, or lined up waiting to get into Rosso’s. The admission’s forty Euros, over fifty dollars. I have never gone. My whole life’s been a sex show, but if I was younger, maybe . . . curious. There was a time when I was thirty and alone in Bangkok. . . . I digress
Sex Palace, is a few doors down from Rosso. There are several others along this canal.
Window hookers in the narrow alleyways and side streets, where there’s far less traffic, do a lot of business. Gay, straight or fixed, they will accommodate. Twice now I’ve seen couples go behind the glass together. Hinky! Takes kinds of people. . . .
* * *
I walk out of sex-world though a labyrinth of narrow lanes, emerging on the edge of drug-world, bars and coffee shops . . . paraphernalia boutiques. I pass Mr. B’s, where you can get your body pierced, tattooed, or buy that rubber outfit you’ve been dreaming of. The same guy’s standing there in front each day. I guess he runs the place, or tortures people. Maybe both.
I find a curvy, stainless-steel bar ending near a glassed topped counter holding an array of pot and some hashish . . . there’s quite a lot of choices. I pull out a stool beside the bar and sit to watch a dealer talking to his only customers, a guy and gal, young couple asking prices and advice. The dealer answers all their questions easily. Do they want to go up, or down? Sideways?
“Something? asks a barmaid with a colorful tattoo that starts out at her shoulder, winds around her arm, down to her wrists. A skull wrapped in a wavy scarf of smoke, or hair, and other images that I can’t quite make out as she is handing me a plastic menu. At the top it reads:
Smoking Not Allowed
Below that, printed in a smaller font, are details:
In compliance with new Dutch law we have disallowed tobacco smoking in our bar. Cigarettes, blunts and joints with tobacco must be smoked outside. Pure marijuana joints can still be smoked indoors, as can pipes and bongs that do not contain any tobacco. Smoking is allowed. Tobacco is not.
It’s surreal, and nice here, comfortable . . . Euro-cool and hip. The music’s great, good sound system, and not too loud, just right. One of two bartenders appear when needed. Mine is back. “I’ll have a smoothie, banana and strawberry.” There are piles of fresh fruit, oranges, and bananas on her side of the bar. They don’t serve alcohol. She nods and smiles, then goes to make my drink. I turn to watch the dealer and the crowd. A backpacker’s at one of four computers lined up at a stainless steel shelf, with some stools below for users. He drops coins into a slot, most likely searching on the internet for places he might stay. The price for thirty minutes on-line is about five bucks. Expensive. There are internet cafes, not many, but with rates about a tenth of what they charge for time at coin machines. Hunter’s is almost high-tech, in a nice way. Stainless steel, and stacks of fruit, computers, flowers, cozy tables, one long booth at the street side window. Seems to be a kind of haze. . .
The dealer’s customers have made their choice and left him idle for a moment, and he’s noticed I’ve been watching him.
He asks, “Are you from England?”
“No. The States,” I tell him. “You?”
“From England. Here eight years now.”
“Can I ask some questions about Amsterdam? The Red Light District? I’m a writer.”
“Sure. No problem, but we’re pretty busy.”
As he speaks a group of would-be buyers crowd around the glass display case, fascinated and confused. So many choices. Dealer gives them his professional advice. What this does, and what that does, different blends and their associated highs. You can buy ready-rolled, or roll your own. They have a very different way of rolling joints here, using a rolled up, narrow strips of paper as a filter. Someone is at work just two stools down from me. I ask if I can watch, if he can show me how they do it. “Can I take a photo?”
“Sure, no problem.”
The creation of this joint’s more complicated than you’d think, but I suppose with practice it gets easy, just like people used to roll their cigarettes. I take this photo of his work, then notice that the dealer’s without customers again. I drop my camera in the back-pack that I carry with me; there’s a couple notebooks in it, pens and glasses, tape recorder, city maps.
I ask. “What do you think is going to happen with the Marijuana laws here? I keep reading that they want to make it legal for the locals only. No more sales to tourists.”
“Well, that would be stupid enough for them to do. It qualifies as what they think of as an idea. It would turn half of Amsterdam’s youth into illegal dealers, buying drugs for tourists. I really don’t think they’ll do it. But they’re nuts,” he tells me. “They’ve been havin’ a purge on weed in Holland for the last three years, chislin’ away. Changing the rules. There’s a new law every day. They keep screwing with things that have been working very well, for a long time.”
More customers arrive, and I go back to finish off my smoothie. Then a cup of coffee.
Shoppers are nonstop now, and the dealer has no time for idle conversation. Girl who brought my coffee says that he starts work at 10 a.m. On my way out I tell him I’ll be back tomorrow morning, and return to my hotel. What are the four working girls doing?