Center of the Universe (21)
We’ve been holed up here a week. Superannuated gangsters of something or other, gone to the mattresses. Not sure who we’re hiding from — wait, yes, I am.
Last time Roni and I were here together was one million BC, with Sandy and the band on tour. It was his wedding present to us, a honeymon across Europe with Blue Öyster Cult. Which was pretty decent of him, seeing as he was in love with my wife. But, by that time — after he’d said he’d pay whatever it took when I was in the charity ward with the appendectomy and steered us work when the rent was overdue and picked up the tab on scores of late-night dinners, back in the day of Sandy riding high, in nighttime shades and the black 911 — we’d actually become friends.
And I knew him well enough to know he didn’t so much laugh, as turn his head and try not to. But it was still laughing. And that first night in Amsterdam, strolling the Red Light district, Sandy was trying not to a lot, mostly over a funny Dutch word. Another one.
What’s this thing broodje? we asked the waiter.
And with just enough accent to allow for misunderstanding, the guy said sandwich and then, looking down at where we were pointing on the menu, amended it: ham sandwich. But in my persistent silliness, in my exuberance at being on honeymoon with Hoffman and on tour, I heard what I wanted to hear — not ham, but hand. So we kidded, I did, incessantly, about the word for sandwich meaning hand job. Dropped it into every conversation — across Holland, Europe and home in NYC — especially when Sandy was surrounded by admirers, trying to keep his cool. Thought about it today, looking at a chalkboard outside an Amsterdam lunch shop.
“Broodje!” the board said, with an exclamation mark. Once again, it seemed extreme for a sandwich.
Thought about the band, too, when, after the modern museum, the Stedelijk, Hoffman and I found ourselves facing the Concert Gebouw. Who could forget the heavy metal thunder there? So glorious — and so alarming — when they doused the house lights, cranked the loomingest section of Gotterdammerung (the loomingest opera by Der Führer’s favorite composer) and a disembodied voice, belonging to a thick, hairy fist of a fellow named E, boomed over the PA:
“On your feet…or on your knees…”
Whereupon great flashpots flashed and long banners, in black and red, unfurled, proclaiming the cruciform-sickle sign of the Blue Öyster Cult — a logo some American critics had the gall to revile as fascist.
At least with these guys, the thing was tongue-in-cheek.
The Europeans were nuts for them. Big crowds, big coverage and Europe’s rock intelligentsia — Oxbridge longhairs with Lennon specs and hash packed in the tip of their Gitanes — crowding into dressing rooms, limos and afterparties for the answers to big questions. From a rock manager, who in this case was also a lyricist.
In Europe, Sandy became the major poet he imagined himself to be. In the States, Lester Bangs made fun of him for living with his mommy.
Anyway, it was all a long time ago — so long that Roni prefers I don’t say. I don’t want to. But I don’t have to — just look at me.
That’s another thing we’re hiding from.
After the honeymoon, I didn’t go back until three years ago, when our agency blew the pitch for Booking.com, which is based in Amsterdam. Which only made it more disappointing. Still I got another trip here. And it’s always fun to do business overseas. Or try to. Makes a small business guy feel large.
When people ask today what I’m here for, I tell them work. But the work I’m doing is writing things like this. The work I’m supposed to be doing is writing something else. And what I’m really doing, 10:00 to 18:00, is zooming around in my cranium, looking for a cure—like that movie Fantastic Voyage, where the scientists and their submarine get small, really small, and are injected into a colleague to zap a clot in his brain, along the way fending off a giant pathogen-munching macrophage and an arteriovenous fistula.
It’s an adventure in here. But does it have anything to do with Amsterdam? Hunkered in the hideout, I’m staring at a blank wall that could be any blank wall anywhere. Because when that scrivening sub of mine is all-engines, full-speed, voyage underway, I’m blind even to the considerable charms of Oud A’dam: the canal, with its antique arc of brick bridge and scrim of crooked houses, just beyond the leaded-glass of an Airbnb — with all the modern conveniences — carved from a 400-year-old house a few roundtopped doors from Rembrandt’s. And while we’ve had an unexpected string of sunny climate-change days, I find myself, against type, rooting for rain.
(And getting the distinct impression my inner micronauts are on the verge of smuggling something out.)
But, face it. The blank walls weren’t working at home. The demons onto us. The scrivening sub becalmed in the Sea of Sorrow. It’s why we’re on the lam.
At Oudeschans, 39.
Which reminds me — in the unforeseen ways of the fantastic voyage — of another old flick:
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
I assume we saw it with Sandy, because it was the kind of movie — subtitled — that he always wanted to see and that I — mired in my college dropout pose — always resisted. One time I made the mistake of persuading him to go to the opening of Caddyshack, instead of where he wanted to go: Celine and Julie Go Boating.
But I love the run-on title, especially this part: 23, quai du Commerce.
Not the language, the comma. It instantly says elsewhere.
A land of misplaced commas was where we wanted to be, bad. Bad enough that we’d already booked the Amsterdam trip in March, not long after being appointed conservators, when Sandy was still just very, very sick from the clots in his brain.
With no wife, kids, parents or siblings, distant, East Coast cousins — fifty years distant — who we’d never heard of, and a couple other close friends who were too far, we were all Sandy had. But having been European tour-mates and fellow broodje jokers, Sorellas regulars together and Wendy and Dave groupies, next-town neighbors, old-town homies and sometimes, in a pinch, housemates, we were more than enough, we thought. And in February a court made it official.
We figured, by October, we’d have assembled enough volunteers to cover a four-week absence. Make it five. Six. Six weeks of daily visits and periodic emergencies and regular checking in with the nurses and docs and therapists and keeping on top of the bills and legal bullshit and reeling in farflung funds and raising more and, at the end of the week, grinding out a report to friends that was also a way for a writer to put it in a box. Pretend it was manageable, tidy, instead of, in every way — practically and philosophically — untidy. Infinite. And if we couldn’t find reliable volunteers, we’d have to raise even more money and hire.
Aching in March, the urge to escape, by October, would be inescapable. We told ourselves not to feel guilty. We’d done more than enough.
A few years ago, when I crossed some gerontological threshold and our son was living in Russia with a girlfriend who couldn’t get a US visa, we decided we should all meet in Barcelona, because the EU isn’t so dicky about those things. Didn’t used to be. That started a routine, where we’d save up vacation days and go to Europe in the fall to celebrate my thresholds. Last November we went to Paris. So did ISIS. You may have gotten a Google alert. I got a frantic call from Sandy asking if we were OK. But in the end, there were tears on both sides of that conversation. A rare declaration, before — six weeks later — it was suddenly too late.
The night his blood pressure blew his brains out, hours before, we were on the phone again, in California, the call where Sandy persuaded me and Roni to go to the big, bad city, on New Year’s Eve, instead of cozy, close-by Sorellas, to see his old friend, muse and protegé Patti at the Fillmore. That’s when, said Patti, she and Lenny were planning to premiere their cover of the Byrds, for Sandy.
Patti and Lenny premiered it instead for us. Because the imponderable spiral of physiological failures that are the fate of the obscenely damaged didn’t permit Sandy to make it till October. There were no micronaut miracles. Now there are no worries about volunteers.
Back to our own burdens. The fifth of November, to start with.
So here we are, on the canal, by the bridge, opposite the crooked houses, staring at the blank wall, escaped from a friend — too soon, not soon enough — hiding out by the Amstel from the OG they call Time.