Down and Out in Amsterdam

         I was living with a woman in Sweden. We were fairly serious. We'd even talked about marriage, but it was an open relationship and she had started fucking the bass player in my band. One day I came home to find them making out on the living room floor, and she explained that she thought she might love him. It was the spring of 2000 and the European Cup of soccer was about to take place in Amsterdam. My friend Chris and I had always dreamed of living there some day, and this looked like a pretty good time to clear out of the scene in Sweden. So I left first and spent a few days with a girl I knew there. Chris arrived about a week later, but I'd already worn out my welcome with the Dutch girl. Chris is the type who works and holds onto some money, so he was ok. I, on the other hand, was entirely up in the air. Chris quickly landed a job in a youth hostel. He got me an interview, but I was turned down. I found out later that when the manager had asked for my favorite animal, she was looking for a 'dolphin person'. I had said wolf. Just a matter of luck. I say dolphin sometimes.
          Chris's work deal included room and board so I didn't see him a lot of the time. I started lurking around the places where the younger homeless people seemed to hang out. It didn't take more than a day or two to get some good information. I found out where the squatters went, and where they didn't want the new guys to go. I also learned which parks it was possible to hide in at night, and where I could find myself a free sleeping bag. I got the schedules for all the soup kitchens and shelters in the city so I'd always know where my next meal was coming from. Like everywhere, the Hare Krishnas were giving out the best tasting food, but rumors persisted that their meals were laced with saltpeter. The urban legend among street kids is that the saltpeter is used to reduce libido. I took my chances and never noticed any effect on my sex drive.
          At the shelters, I started striking up conversations with anyone who carried a guitar or sported blue hair, or otherwise advertised that they were on the streets as a matter of principle rather than a consequence of illness or inability. I hooked up with a group of kids who performed on the Dam Square with Diablos and Devil Sticks. They would play guitars and breathe fire for the tourists. They worked as a group, and at the end of the night they would all get drunk and have dinner together before heading back to the various squats they all slept in. They taught me some tricks and let me share in their spoils, but for a long time I wasn't invited to the squats. People with nice digs weren't looking for any extra bodies to fill the space.
          Some nights I made enough money to stay in the dormitory-style room at the cheap hostel. In the mornings, I would go down for the free breakfast and try to hustle the tourists with the house chessboard. That was usually worth 10 or 15 bucks a day. One morning, in that breakfast room, I met a smart and charismatic guy named Dwayne. He was an American who was making his way around the Dam as a professional thief. He checked into hotels and hostels under a variety of names and lifted backpacks for a living. Strangely, he was the person I related to the most and we became fast friends. I don't know if it was because I was hanging with Dwayne, but eventually the hostel pegged me for a local junkie and threw me out.
          After that, I mostly slept in the park. I had found a good spot, surrounded by dense bushes, over near the fence that separated the park from the grounds of the mental hospital. The rumor, among others who had slept there, was that you could hear screams from inside during the night. I would lay awake sometimes, hoping to hear them and wondering at each of the little distant sounds I couldn't quite make out. In the days, I ate whatever was at the free lunches for the homeless and I drank or got high at the whim of generous strangers. When Chris was around, he was always good about helping me out with a bottle or a meal. When I wasn't hanging out with him or the punk kids, I often stood around with the brothers who sold blow down by the train station. I would help them find clients or paint the stolen bikes that were always being brought to them in exchange for dope. In return, they were usually generous with their supply. When you're homeless, drugs can solve many of your most immediate problems. They make you feel warm, awake (more or less) and not hungry. This is often enough to get you through the night. Then the next day, you can go back to find that girl you flirted with, or the new friends you made this week, and try to hustle yourself into a better situation. The danger was always that the nighttime lifestyle would one day 'stick' and take the place of whatever things you had previously dreamed of doing.
          I ran into Dwayne a lot during those days. In the afternoons, he would come check out the punk kids performing on the square. At night he would often roll up on his bike behind the station, looking to cop or trying to offload some hot credit cards. He always had a bag full of something and could never keep track of his regular fence. They were both getting high a lot, so it was really no wonder. One afternoon on the square, Dwayne asked me what it was I wanted to be doing in life. I thought he was taking the piss, so I threw the question back in his face. "No, seriously," he said. "We all sit around here getting high, sleeping on benches and shit. What do you wish you were doing instead?" I told him that I'd like to be playing music. He asked why I wasn't doing it and I told him that I didn't have a guitar. "Is that really your only problem?" he asked skeptically. I assured him that it was and he announced immediately that he was taking me shopping. I guess he'd made some extra money that week. He walked me into a music shop and asked me what kind of guitar I wanted. "You don't have to do this," I started to say. "Shut the fuck up," he insisted. "You need a guitar. We're getting you a guitar. I just want you to be doing your thing." I thanked him and told him that I required a steel-string acoustic. He bought me one and we walked back to the square.
          The people were really pouring into town now for the soccer tournament. I was playing famous rock songs on the square and making a fair amount of money at it. I was still mostly sleeping in the park but I was eating and drinking well, investing the rest of my fortune in cocaine and prostitutes. The red light district was surprisingly inexpensive and the weeks of Krishna food didn't seem to be holding me back one bit. During the tournament, Jeff, an old friend of mine from Prague, showed up in town. He liked soccer and took me to some of the matches. He stayed for a couple of weeks and put some money into renting an apartment. I, and a few pals, chipped in and crashed there for a little while. They were great summer days. The streets teemed with people from all over Europe, waving flags and singing anthems. I spent my afternoons playing guitar, my evenings watching soccer and my nights getting high. I didn't have too much to complain about.
          One night, Jeff and I stumbled into a bar called the Scandinaviska. I think we were looking for somewhere to watch Sweden play their match that night, and the name of this place looked good for it. But what we found inside had little to do with soccer. We sat down at the dimly lit bar and were immediately approached, at both sides, by attractive girls in slinky dresses asking us to buy them drinks. The bartender gave us a stern nod as if to say that this was expected. We agreed to buy each of the girls a drink, then found out the drinks were about 20 bucks each. Jeff picked up the tab, but warned me that he was only doing it once. The girls weren't strippers, so we figured they were whores working the bar to find their next client. I asked the one I was talking to, Elsa, if they had rooms for that upstairs. "Not exactly," she informed me. I pushed her and she eventually explained that the Scandinaviska was what the girls called a 'drinking bar' because that was all the girls ever had to do there.
          Their sole job was to get the guys to buy them overpriced drinks. Often, the girls were served non-alcoholic cocktails – no matter what had been ordered for them – so they could keep their wits and work longer hours. Their ultimate goal was to talk us into going to the champagne room. They would insinuate that there might be something sexual going on in there. But Elsa admitted to me that if we'd actually paid for the 100-dollar bottle of supermarket champagne, we would have found out quickly that there was nothing going on in there at all. Just the same girls in the same dresses, having the same boring conversations on a ratty couch in a dark corner. I asked Elsa how she could stand working in such a place, ripping people off like that. She agreed that it was a fucked-up arrangement but explained that she'd just arrived from Poland – escaping from an abusive family – and that this was the first job she'd found. I told her I thought it was a bullshit job, that she should either go all out and be a whore or not charge people to drink with her. I figured if I was going to pay just to talk to a girl, then she better damn well have something important to say. She seemed to agree with what I was saying, but her boss was pressuring her, giving her firm looks from across the room. She told us that there was a limit on how long she could talk to a customer before he had to buy her another drink. The girl who was talking to Jeff had already left and he was making it clear that he and I were about to do the same. I told Elsa she was beautiful, and that I liked her but that I wouldn't stand there paying her to pretend she liked me too. I said that if she was interested, she could come down to the Dam Square some afternoon to hear me play.
          The next day, she actually showed up. She was doing some shopping with a friend. I was doing my regular gig on the square with a wild assortment of junkies and street people around me. The girls were a bit apprehensive but they sat down to listen. They wound up staying most of the afternoon. Eventually, the crowd thinned out and Elsa's friend got up to go. Elsa was reluctant but left with her friend that day. A few days later, though, she returned on her own and our affair began. She told me she'd thought about our conversation at the drinking bar and had decided to become a prostitute. I replied that I was excited for her about her new adventure in life. I think she expected (maybe even wanted) me to be shocked, but I didn't pick up on it at the time. I already knew several people in the local sex industry and they were all doing pretty well for themselves. Plus in Amsterdam, where the sex trade is legal, the people doing it have government health insurance and regular mandatory check-ups. Elsa had just become safer to sleep with than I was.
          She was living with a girlfriend in the home of the girl's tyrannically jealous boyfriend. I wasn't allowed to be there at night when he came home from work. But Elsa worked nights at the brothel anyway, so it didn't matter much. I took to staying up all night, wandering the streets and smoking rocks with the all-night people I'd gotten to know. I would meet up with Elsa in the morning and sneak up to her room for a few drinks. She liked to drink Malibu Rum with milk after work. She said it calmed her nerves. We would go through a bottle, then fall asleep cuddling in her bed, careful to set the alarm so I was up and out before the crazy-abusive-roommate-asshole came home to terrorize the girl in the next room. For obvious reasons, Elsa was never in the mood for sex when she came home. For the first couple of weeks we were together, we didn't do it once. I always thought it was funny that my girlfriend was having sex 10 or 12 times per day, but never with me. I remember trying to kiss her once and her telling me that she wasn't up to it because a professional basketball team had come to her work that night. Yet somehow none of this bothered me. I thought it was sweet and special that she was making me wait. One afternoon, we woke up earlier than usual and we took a shower together. Afterward, she crawled on top of me in the bed and made love to me nervously, like it was her first time. Then, after that, we made love every day. She started wanting it in the mornings when she came home from work. She jokingly referred to me as her 'last customer of the night'. We were having a lot of fun together.
          But I was playing less and sleeping less every day. I was spending more and more of the night out scavenging for blow and smoking it, huddled into shop fronts and behind dumpsters. I would smoke until I couldn't even feel it anymore and then keep smoking. Some days, I couldn't sleep at all when I got back to Elsa's. She would drink her rum and pass out; then I would sit up at her side for hours, cleaning a pipe or meticulously licking my day's collection of little plastic baggies. I was trying to get another hit, but I was mostly just trying to keep the ritual going. I saw Dwayne sometimes at night and we would smoke together. He would give me shit if he hadn't seen me on the square for a couple of days. He wanted me playing that guitar he'd bought. I had been working on some new music when I first got together with Elsa and Dwayne was always pushing me to get back to it, to try and get it recorded. But I was increasingly disinterested. I would still play when I needed money for food or dope, but I wasn't playing with any passion or love. I wasn't writing anymore. Even Elsa complained that I didn't seem fun or attentive like I used to be. Chris had noticed my problem too. Every time I saw him (which was now down to about twice a week), I would hit him up for money so I could get high. He had always been pretty cool about helping me out, but I could tell he was starting to worry.
          I don't remember how it happened - it might have been Chris who organized the call - but one day, toward the end of summer, I found myself on the phone with an old friend from Paris who had devised a plan. She had a cousin who was in the publishing business. She said he was interested in my poems and that I needed to get back to Paris right away. It was only a few hours by bus and she offered me the ticket. I told everyone the good news and got on the bus. The initial withdrawal was not fun. I had brought two pipes to scrape so I'd have one more big, calming hit somewhere around the Belgian border. By the time I got to Paris, I was a wreck. I didn't know anyone there who smoked rock, so I wound up just sleeping the first two days.
          When I got my senses back, my friend explained to me that she'd arranged a deal whereby I could stay at her cousin's château in the country while I finished getting my manuscript together. He was remodeling a building and would hire me to work with him while I was down there. When fall arrived, the same friend introduced me to some producers who helped me make an album from the songs I'd started writing on the Dam Square. I never made it back to Amsterdam that year. And I never saw Elsa again. I remember only good times from that summer, but I've always had the vague sense that I was rescued from something deeper than I had imagined it to be.