Center of the Universe (22)
Merl, Meet Merl: A Brief History of Happenstance in Holland
Eventually, in Amsterdam, you get up from the blank wall.
And where you go, before or after Indonesian or Thai or French or Surinamese or, for that matter, cockles (which, I now know, are like little clams and, soaked in garlic, inordinately tasty) is a bar. And there are equally as many excellent selections in the bar category, as in the restaurant, in this seagoing capital that for centuries has been satisfying sailors in search of, among other dubious delights, strong drinke. From a booming, bro-tastic dive — with a woot-wooting dude clambering onto the bar, Coyote Ugly-style (just as we enter — and immediately 180) to a cavernous disco with a long line of short skirts outside (and me, never, ever inside — even if they’d let me) to a cozy, unpretentious, comfortably wood-paneled neighborhood pub a few doors down from where we’d scarfed rijstafel until we ached.
I’m talking about Café Onder de Ooievaar, corner Utrechtsestraat and Prinsengracht. Where we wound up last midnight. Utterly at random.
To answer your first question, yes, they offer broodjes. But, no, sandwiches have nothing to do with sex (see previous post), and by the time we got there, the kitchen was closed anyway. As one does at midnight, we got to chatting with the bartender. Our first question was: What the hell does Onder de Ooievaar mean? (Except we could only point at the name on the menu, because who could ever say it?) Like everyone in this generally open-minded and well-traveled swamp-nation, the barkeep spoke English exceedingly well — that is, like a twangy Yank. And offered up the biographical tidbit that he’d spent five years in the Bay Area, at the College of San Mateo. Which is random, too.
But it got randomer.
It means Under the Stork, he said.
At slightly more than a century old, the Stork is one of the new kids on the block in Amsterdam, where most of the buildings — the one that holds our Airbnb, for instance — are three or four-hundred years old. The bar’s building used to be the headquarters of a big insurance company, whose symbol was a stork, with a stork flag on the roof. Plus, the bird has significance in the history or mythology of the Netherlands or Amsterdam. But I don’t exactly remember which or what, and he wasn’t sure why. Anyway, those were just a few of the explanations this chat-meister had heard in his seven or twelve years at the pub.
We learned further that, while our new friend was born in the Netherlands, he grew up in Goa, southwest coast of India, where his Dutch mom was part of the early seventies tsunami of European hippies. All in all, good stuff, fun stuff, exactly the kind of stuff you’re looking for when prowling foreign dens of iniquity at midnight — including our pal’s take on the state of this city, which, I’m happy to report, was free of the standard laments about A’dam overrun by unrelenting tourist hordes, undeterred even by the chill of November.
But worried that, in a half-full saloon, we’d taken more than a full measure of a bartender’s time, I reached out a hand, by way of wrapping up, to introduce us. He introduced back.
Merl, he said.
Without the E, he replied. Like Saunders. Merl Saunders.
But, he added, nobody knows Merl Saunders.
For those who’ve been aboard for the complete journey, you know I’m not only aware of the late, great Merl Saunders, who played organ with those gods of the hippie tsunami, Jerry Garcia and the Dead and was intimately connected to Fairfax — the hippie town where we live and where, at a lovely little Italian joint run by lovely Brazilian-Koreans, we dine — I actually know, personally, his son, Merl Saunders, Jr.
Merl Saunders, fils, in fact, was our across-the-street neighbor on Dominga Avenue, and I wrote about him here in this very blog, episode 17, a month ago. Merl, without the E!
I tried to explain to this Merl about Fairfax and Sorellas and this blog and my post, four posts ago, about the other Merl, but it was coming out a little messy — not so much due to drunkenness as to mind-blown-ness, to the sheer shroomery of six-thousand-miles-away serendipity.
Of all the jenever joints in all the towns in all the world, as Bogie more or less said.
Once again, the dice-throwing deity confirms the operating principle of the universe — and all praise to the untidy axioms, to chance and randomness, for repeatedly rescuing us from the forces of planning, prediction, preparation, from algorithm and actuarial table and arduous routine.
This rando hippie mom had named her baby Merl, but never gotten around to explaining. And, in the smoky, freewheeling atmosphere of the coast of India, in the day, he hadn’t gotten around to asking. And hadn’t caught the reference. And never encountered another Merl without the E till that fateful night he was deep in his couch watching the credits of the movie The Twilight Zone.
There it goes, he says to us, finger following imaginary titles flying upwards on a TV:
Music by Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia.
Oh, right, his mom clarified.
Soon Merl and I had exchanged Facebook digits. And I’d showed him how the other Merl was one of the contacts in my phone — See? See? I said, doddering after him down the bar. And I promised to send the post about the other Merl. And now I have to send this one about him. Which means I have to sort through the napkin scraps and bar coasters collecting in the back pocket of my drinking jeans and find his address. Which I’d have to guess, in the only possible ending to a story like this, will be: