Thursday, April 14, 2011

De Boot in het Kanaal

During my junior year at 211, much of the gang joined forces to lease a house on a once quiet residential street called Viburnum Drive.  The house became known simply as "Viburnum," and its reputation as a welcomingly inclusive den of iniquity quickly spread across the Anchorage bowl.  Viburnum’s residency ebbed and flowed, and “rooms" were erected ex nihilo to accommodate new boarders.  JD, for example, slept in a closet beneath the split-level staircase.

One night I opened JD’s little door to see if he was there.  He was not, but an eighteen-year-old girl was with her pants and drawers around her ankles.  This might seem like a lucky thing for JD, but as I could vaguely make out, she appeared to be squatting on JD's bed, and the streaming sound of liquid splattering upon mattress convinced me JD was, in this instance, uniquely unlucky.

“What the hell are you doing?  Are you…you’re not—”

“H-h-hey.  Ims jus gotta go and go to take a pee now—”

“You are peeing!”  I nearly peed myself.  “This is JD’s room, you stupid little girl!”

She babbled something, toppled over, and JD had to spend the night in piss.

Night in, night out Viburnum burst at the seams with revelers and partygoers; many were underage, each living the pleasure principal to its fullest.  Not surprisingly, Viburnum’s owners opted not to renew the lease after one year’s time, and the Viburnum Diaspora had thus begun.

JD and Kyle moved into an apartment.  One night we played a game called "The Century Club."  If you’ve never played, you really should.  It’s hilarious fun for the whole family!  What you do is you get a bunch of friends, from work, church, the gym, the reading group, AA or wherever, and pour one shot of beer for each participant every minute on the minute for 100 minutes.  Sound easy?  It isn’t, because the contestants must drink each shot, and if they miss the stroke of any given minute, they’re out.  Enticing, no?  Midway through you’ll feel pretty drunk.  By shot seventy you may start to doubt your ability to finish, wondering why you can’t just drink a beer like a normal person.   By shot ninety, bladder ablaze, you’re dialed in, and you can taste sweet success.  And urine.

As JD, Kyle and I pounded our hundredth shots I leapt to my feet in victory and to dash out the front door to puke.  As I opened it and leaned on the banister to spew onto the sidewalk below, the entire railing apparatus began to peel away from the second story landing.  As it folded off the staircase, I plummeted to terra firma, ankles in the air.  The terra proved firma indeed, and as I landed in a pool of vomit, my arm folded ninety degrees around the curb.  Entangled in wooden banister and regurgitated beer, I softly wheezed “help,” paralyzed.  I spit and sputtered feeble “helps” until Eve poked her head out the door to behold the mess of mangled mayhem quivering on the sidewalk below.  Presently, the rest of the crew emerged, called 911, and soon an ambulance arrived.  

The EMTs took no time to triage the situation.  

“Intoxicated male” and “fractured left humerus” went over the radio, and off we sped.

My retinue was also intoxicated, and it milled about the hospital lobby while my arm was splinted and I was pumped with pain killers.  I may have been an unwitting placebo recipient in a pharmaceutical experiment, for all I knew, as the pain remained unabated.  My kidneys squealed with rage as I lay semi-conscious in the dark, sterile room, alone, and wondering what the hell was the matter with me.  I was totally paralyzed, so pissing was out of the question.

You’ve really jacked yourself up this time, Armstrong.  

I lay in the bed wondering if I was ever going to be able to urinate or if they’d need to fit me with a catheter.  I wondered how long I was going to wait there and when the pain meds would start working.  I wondered what it was about me, about my decision-making processes, and about my life generally that had reduced me to this state.  I wondered what my parents would think, if they would feel more pity or disgust.  I wondered if this might not be some sort of sign. 

A surgical steel rod was implanted from my shoulder to my elbow, and the arm healed over time.  Settling with the slumlord's insurance company was fairly easy; after a couple of years, and after my medical bills and lawyer fees were paid, I found myself with a sizable chunk of cash. 

How, you ask with wide eyes and gaping mouth, could I win a settlement when I was so drunk?  Well, gentle reader, I don’t see why you have to be so harsh.  Why doesn’t an inebriated person have the right to lean against a banister without fearing it will collapse under his weight?  This was my attorney's thinking as we entered pretrial discovery.  It was an open and shut case, and the insurance company settled without much noise.

With this windfall, I could finally afford to visit Europe for the first time, where Wolf and Abe lived.  I visited England (where I had sprinted into the man at Euston Station) and then met up with Abe and Wolf in Leuven, Belgium.  We rented a car, drove trough France and into Barcelona, Spain (where I had knocked over the small kid in the street).  Following the vacation, Wolf needed to resume his life in Leuven, and to sober up after our sangria-fueled tour of northern Spain.  To save money on lodgings, we'd park our tiny rental--a 2-door Peugeot--at highway rest areas and simply and literally drink ourselves to sleep each night. 

Heading north we were stopped near the French border, and our rental car was searched.  The French authorities discovered Wolf's plastic baggie of vegetable-based laxatives, and concluded the pills were methamphetamine. 

"What?" Wolf spoke almost no French, and tried to communicate to the officers what the bag's contents were.  

"These are help you go to the bathroom?”  Wolf mimed a constipated face.  “They’re just laxatives…not drugs."

So the border agents took the pills and tested them.  When they returned, they brought their results and showed Wolf.

"Those are laxatives, for, you know...loosening your stools."

"Non!  Observe: methamphetamine."

They displayed the drug testing kit to Wolf and showed him the corresponding color on the box.  The agent then pointed out on the box that the drug test kit was made in the USA, and was therefore infallible.  The ironic notion that an American-made anything could be flawed was not lost on the agents.

"Made in USA! Made in USA!  Ha ha!"  They laughed together in French. 

Abe and I laughed in English.  "C'mon man!  Wolf needs those to poop!"  We were no help whatever, laughing at the border agents and at Wolf, remarking on how we'd need to get some new meth now.

"Shut up, you guys!  I cannot get arrested in France right now!"

The officers confered amongst themselves.  We assumed they were discussing the international ramifictions of detaining three Americans on bogus drug smuggling charges.  Eventually, one officer lead us to the trunk of the rental car.  He opened a backpack, removed a pair of socks, stashed the bag of laxatives inside the rolled-up socks, returned them to the backpack, turned to us, and said in a French accent, "You understand."  It was not a question.

Wolf was livid.  "You don't understand!  They aren't drugs!"

The officer stood waiting, asking repeatedly if we understood. 

"OK, well, let's get going," as Abe slid behind the wheel.  Wolf and I smiled ignroatnly at the crew, and off we went. 

"What the hell was that?  Those bastards wanted us to bribe them!"  Wolf couldn't believe the ludicrousness of the whole affair.  "Fuck that, I'm not paying these fat frogs a dime.  Good god...I need a drink."

In addition to a much needed detoxification, Wolf was angry with me following a drunken theological debate on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea in which he'd posited it was irrelevant whether or not Jesus had actually raised Lazarus from the dead, that the value of the story is principally allegorical of god's omnipotence and the divine nature of his son.  My position was that the relative truth of the story is precisely its value.  If Jesus had not in fact raised Lazarus from the dead, the story was naught but a tall tale telling us nothing of the supposed divinity of Jesus Christ, that the truth value of the story is its only meaningful aspect.  The debate wound up in a wrestling match and with Wolf biting me.  The Wolf bite was deserved, as the poor guy had endured more than enough of my godless, drunken belligerence.

So Abe and I hopped a bus and headed for the Dutch capital. 

Abe is the most skilled artist I've ever known, and he'd already served as a stellar guide as we explored the works of Miro, Cezanne, Monet, Rodin and others.  We wanted to go to the Van Gogh museum, as well as any others we might come across, and also to visit a Dutch coffee shop.

For, you know, a cup of coffee.  Possibly a scone.  

Our bus rolled into town around ten at night and we tracked down a hash bar which was closing in a matter of minutes.  With chairs stacked on the tables, the barista sold us piece of hash which we ordered "to go" and took to a little underground absinthe bar we spotted only because of the small, neon sign at foot level reading “Absinthe Bar” in haunting orange.  

The expat bartender informed us "This is one of the only authentic absinthe bars in Europe.  We serve real Czech wormwood absinthe, and not the faux-knockoff crap that's really just strong liqueur which you can get anywhere."  

"Is this stuff legal in Amsterdam?"

"Not really, but the cops don't care.  There actually are drug laws on the books here, but they're never enforced."

We listened to outre world music and left after four or five shots, complete with the customary flaming sugar cubes.  The absinthe was expensive, and we were pretty loopy. 

With little else to do, we smoked cigarettes on a bench overlooking one of Amsterdam’s myriad and murky canals.  The full moon’s reflection shimmered on the water, and the night air rustled the leaves in the trees along the banks of the canal.

"Van Gogh thought the colors of the night were more spectacular and remarkable than at daytime."

"He obviously didn't have RP."

"No, I gues not."  Abe laughed as he exhaled his cigarette. 

"I wonder what he meant by that.  I mean Vincent was bat shit crazy, right?  So—"

"I disagree, actually.  I think he was the sanest person in the world.  The world he lived in was mad, and he knew it."

"I thought it was commonly accepted he was mentally ill.  He cut off his ear, and he killed himself, right?"

"Yeah, he shot himself in the torso with a handgun.  He died over the course of a couple days in abject agony.  His brother took care of him and wrote down his last words."

"What were they?"

"Something like 'the sadness will last forever'.  Pretty damn bleak.  But I can't say it's due to mental illness, per se.  I mean, yeah, the mainstream art history world says so, but there is no evidence of it.  I think people just tend to assume he was nuts.  They've suggested venereal disease may have been the culprit.  We know he contracted gonorrhea.  Some even think he ingested poisonous paint." 

"Ingesting paint?"

"Well, he was around paint all day.  Beyond that, he was a drunk and was addicted to absinthe."

"Yeah this stuff is pretty good."

"Yes.  Plus he just took shitty care of himself.  He'd go days without eating, and he didn't eat meat.  He'd pour himself into his work with such fervor people nowadays have said maybe he was bipolar or manic depressive or whatever.  There were other periods when he was totally unproductive, and actually he didn’t get started as a painter until relatively late in life, anyway.  Oddly enough, his best work was at the end before his suicide.” 

“Maybe he was really manic, painting like crazy, then getting really depressed and stopping for awhile?”

“Could be, but no one knows.  Ultimately, I think he was tormented, sure, but it was the result of sanity, not of insanity.  Tons of shrinks over the year have tried to diagnose him, but there isn't any real consensus."

"The STD hypothesis doesn't sound that off, dude.  I mean he hooked up with a hooker for awhile, didn't he?"

"He did. Sien was her name.  She was a fellow alcoholic.  I think he really loved her, but he couldn’t afford to care for her and her kids.  She was worried about Van Gogh's mental state and eventually drowned herself.”

“Like Ophelia, crazy herself, and convinced her man was crazy, too.”

“Sure, I suppose you could say that.  For sure Vincent is a tragic character, in a lot of ways.”

“Did they have kids together?”

“She had a boy named Willem—which was Vincent’s middle name—and claimed the kid was his, but they now know she was pregnant before they’d met.  Vinnie had told his family the child was his, but later owned up her wasn't.  He never had any offspring of his own, that they know of, anyway."

"Do they know much about his life?"

"They do and they don't.  Most of what historians know is from hundreds of letters written between himself and his little brother, Theo.  Theo was an art dealer, and he Vince were best friends, although their relationship was rocky sometimes.  Thank god they saved their correspondences."

"So you don't think he was crazy?"

"He recognized the craziness of the world, the ridiculousness of the phony life of his fellow Europeans.  I think history has the reality inverted.” 

Abe lit another cigarette as the moon swirled in the canal.

“He was obsessed with beauty.  It was due to his clarity of vision he could recognize what was valuable in the world, beautiful things like starry nights and sunflowers and such."

"And his brother was an art dealer?  I wonder why he got no love for his art while he was alive."

"Well, he sort of did, to a small extent, but for sure the big exhibitions were posthumous.  His fame didn’t take off until the turn of the century.” 


“Because the world is off its nut, but he knew his shit was awesome.  He had no false modesty or anything.  He knew he was right about his art, and about the world he lived in."

"What about Sien and his ear?"

"I don’t know.  He’d wanted to be a clergyman during his twenties, and he probably wasn’t very good with women.  I mean, that's not such a great move.  And so he had a prostitute: big deal!  A lot of great men throughout history have.  Prostitutes, mistresses, whatever.  Poets, artists, writers, hell, our founding fathers did.  Even the word “hooker” comes from General Hooker in the Civil War who had lots of them in his camp.  Historically, it's not so unusual for a man to keep a lady of the evening around."

"Have you?"

"Have I rented a prostitute?"  Abe laughed and dragged on his cigarette.  "No, man.  Have you?"

"Nope, never have.  I doubt I ever will, but at the same time I really don't have all that much of an issue with it on a moral level.  Do you think it should be illegal?"

"No.  It's victimless.  I'm not sure about the moral question, though, but like I say, it has a rich cultural history...the oldest profession in the world and all that.  It does seem kind of shady nowadays, though."

"I know, huh?  But whatever.  I mean it's an individual question, or at least it should be.  Why's the law need to get involved?  It never ceases to amaze me how Americans fuss over sexuality.” 

“There’s still a lot of Puritan in our cultural DNA.” 

“Totally!  And the twisted legalism that comes from it.  Check this out: Isn't it funny how prostitution is illegal, right, unless you're videotaping it, in which case it becomes pornography, which is legal.  How much sense does that make?"

Abe laughed again.  "Not too much.  Fuck, no one's holding a gun to anyone's head.  Rape should be illegal, obviously, but prostitution is consensual."       

“I wouldn’t want to get the clap like Vinnie did, though.”

“No kidding.  He was pretty morose in his final days, of course.  His last pieces is of this old man—presumably himself—sitting in a chair, with his face buried in his hands looking totally hopeless.  It’s called Eternity’s Gate.  It’s really powerful, and definitely a bummer of a painting.  It’s crazy knowing he finished it just a few days before his suicide.”

“The sadness will last forever, eh?”


The absinthe was wearing off and fatigue was setting in, so we decided to find a spot on the sidewalk for some shuteye.  Abe got up and walked alongside the canal looking for a spot to crash.  Oddly, I chose to walk straight, toppling headlong into the canal.  Even Kyle and JD's pathetic banister would have been better than the nothingness through which I plunged.  But this time luck was on my side and I landed face first in a boat eight or ten feet below.  Abe, initially stymied by my suddenly unknown whereabouts, heard confused groans from somewhere, and discovered me in the boat in the canal.  He helped me disembark and to climb up the canal wall back onto the street.

“What the fuck, Dave?  What the hell happened?”

“I—I don’t know!  We were sitting there staring at the canal.  I knew the canal was there.  I guess I just…I don’t know…forgot and walked in.  That was the stupidest thing I've ever done!”

Had I landed in the "water" it’d be anyone's guess if I'd drowned or melted first.  In either case, I may never have emerged from the canal's toxic depths.

"Dude, you really need to think about using a cane to get around, at least in the dark.  You could have killed yourself just now!  What if you'd landed in the water?  That boat probably saved your life."

" Whatever. All's well that ends well."

Deep down, deeper and darker than a Dutch canal, I knew Abe was right.

We slept on the sidewalk, and my boat-battered body ached. 

Awaking at sunrise, we decided to sleep some more in the train station a block away.  After starting to doze off, we were woken by station security guards nudging us with their boots and telling us in Dutch to amscra. 

I guess that's Pig Dutch.    

Groggy from the previous night’s debauchery, we reemerged into the brightly lit morning, and met a vagrant and his girlfriend outside in the station.  The vagrant asked us sweetly for “twenty or thirty cents so we can have our breakfast,” which seemed like not that much, so we gave him a few coins and asked where this so-called twenty to thirty cent breakfast was being served.  He eluded the question, and, gesturing to his girlfriend's backside, asked, “Doesn’t she have a terrific ass?”  He said we could look at it for a euro, but Abe and I figured we could just as easily look at it for free, and told the pleasant couple thanks, but no.

"Is everyone either pimp or prostitute in this town?"
Off to the Van Gogh museum we went, where Abe was my personal docent.  I often find museums frustrating because the art is often hard to see in dim light, and masterpieces always seem to be kept in the dimmest of light to minimize fading.  But this museum was awe-inspiring.  One piece in particularly caught my eye because it was so bright and colorful, much more than the others in the display.  I think it was of a farm house on a county road or an orchard of some kind.  Abe agreed it was the best piece in the museum, and I was relieved Abe loved it, too.  I was afraid he'd be thinking "yeah, Dave just likes this piece because it's so shiny." 

We wrapped up the museum, waded through a group of school children and back onto the gritty streets of Amsterdam.  We headed on foot to the Red Light District to look at hookers and to find another coffee shop.  The prostitutes were on display in shop windows, as advertized, but most of the windows were too dimly lit for me to see into.  

What, to prevent fading?

The ones I did see depressed me.  Many of the prostitutes I saw looked like they'd just disembarked off a pirate ship.  Who knows, though?  Prostitutes are unionized in the Netherlands, and I hear they live pretty quality lives, better, certainly, than in other parts of the world where it's unlawful.  

Holland's Sexmuseum Amsterdam displays dioramas of Betty Paige, Debbie (from Dallas), Rudolph Valentino, and Marilyn Monroe, as well as exhibits featuring sex toys throughout the ages and pornographic materials taken by cameras from very near the time cameras were invented, like probably that same week.  

A sign by the front door reads “Children under six free.”

"Sort of a weird town, Abe."

"Yeah, it kind of is.  Let's go somewhere better."

So we left Amsterdam for Paris.


  1. Oh man, I remember Viburnum...vaguely. I also remember when you broke your arm. That night was really fun until you dove off the balcony. I never played century club again.

  2. What a lucid exchange for two drunken louts. Plus I have never known you to have had a conversation with Abe where you spoke only 30% of the time.