The City Is Not A City

I’d been in Vilnius for a month living off a commission for a screenplay that never got made. It’s the only time I’ve gotten a paycheck for my writing that covered more than a bar tab. And it happened right after college, which prompted the impression that everything was going to be laid out exactly how I’d imagined it. When America was being spun into financial turmoil, I was in Lithuania thinking I was king of the world with a $5,000 commission to my name. Assessing that my transgressions in Vilnius weren’t devious enough, I bought a plane ticket to Amsterdam; it was only forty-two US dollar and post-Soviet tax and the argument against visiting the city that could push me to my limits was null.
I did not tell anyone in the Amsterdam area I was visiting—for traveling to see a person is an attempt to alter the foreign familiar. Traveling should not confirm, rather it should constantly deny, keeping every assumption unfounded. And it was my current belief in synchronicity, and the spiritual baloney stew I’d eaten in Vilnius, that impelled me to jump into an unmarked cab at the Amsterdam airport upon arriving and gab openly about my state of mind. Youthful optimism—the unyielding sentimentalism for events that have yet to occur—curtseyed and allowed my loose tongue and unskilled jet-lagged to expose truths I shouldn’t have.
Instead of, “How was your flight?” the cab driver asks, “You come to Amsterdam for the drugs?”
My eyes widen, anticipating this kind of talk throughout my days in the city. “Yes! Yes!” I say. “Drugs! Drugs!”
“You come for sex, too?” he asks.
That’s right. One could purchase sex in this city. You know, I thought to myself, this might be the perfect experience to round out my youth.
Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, my weakness for troubled women had always made me curious to visit a brothel in hopes that I would encounter a beautiful waif whose very life I could save from toil and destitution.
“Yes, I guess I am here for the sex, too,” I say to the cabbie.
“You like mushrooms?” the driver continues his thematic line of questions.
“I’ve never done mushrooms, but most recently I did trip acid.”
I don’t know why I am telling him this but there’s something about where I am coming from and where I am going that makes this feel like the most obvious route: to tell the cab driver in the unmarked car how much I crave illicit drugs and sex.
Driving from the airport into the city the rain sweeps in from all sides, a soggy broom slopping liquid weather across the windshield, leaving the passageways into Amsterdam a blur of water and light, a Van Goghic befuddlement. I am not here in Amsterdam; I am in a land of water. In midst of the booming rain the cab driver espouses his advice, in attempts to make the foreign familiar, which can never be escaped. No matter where you go you will be forced to take the city as pill-sized, swallowable, as an aperitif to a never-arriving entree, a diminishing effect that leaves us all so underwhelmed no matter where we go.
His advice runs like this: “Don’t get a whore. Buy cocaine and give it to a Dutch girl. She will fuck you,” and “Don’t buy cocaine on the streets. It’s junk,” and finally, “You want cocaine? You buy it from me.” My curiosity piqued, I ask to inspect the product, only to remember that I am prone to sinus infections and pass it up after rubbing my gums, for confirmation and, mostly, to have a scene in my life where I inspect cocaine by rubbing it on my gums.
We drive into the city and the rain subsides to reveal the canals, the roots. The circularity of the city is immediate and I feel round, over-rounded, and under-rounded, the canals pressing against my body. And in the midst of the wetness is the desire to take something, or to have something taken from me. It’s lascivious, this moistness, and I think of the brothels and the joint I want to smoke and how I am alone in this city and I am young and I can do anything.
Is this the personifying feature of the city? Or am I unduly complementing its cliché? And this is the greatest fear of leaving home: that you might find nothing more than what has already been found. Traveling is never arriving, it is always returning to a place that been sussed out for you. And the cab driver pulls over near the centre of the red light district and informs me, quite matter of factly, that I owe him 400 euros. I mishear him. He obviously means litas, the magical currency from Lithuania, where I have come from, where I’ve been spending my money as if it were a plaything. I ask him what he’s saying and he repeats himself, no stutter, “400 euros.”
“Absolutely not, are you kidding me?” I ask.
He reaches into his glove compartment and pulls out a black steel shadow, heavy and dull. The light of the city barely reveals it, but the shape of his fist is unmistakable, it’s a gun and he holds it pointed at the floor. My mind goes to my bank account and I see the dwindling sums, I check in to my savings account, a flashing red alert.
“Listen, 400 euros is a large amount of money,” I say. “I don’t have that kind of money.” The gun comes up. He points it at me, into my eyes. The gun stares at me and from the barrel I look down the arm and into the eyes of the cab driver. I see him for the first time, his eyes menacing, his veins bulging, his face pock-marked – a terrifying man with red eyes and a massive beard spread out across his body like a coat. I reach into my wallet and count the money, with hurried, shaky hands. I have purposely taken only cash on this trip, purposely budgeted my pleasure seeking, knowing that with planning comes security; the trips taken in childhood with anxious parents stuffing money into socks, cash hidden throughout the car, in baggage, in plastic bags in underwear.
“I’m sorry,” thinking an apology will prompt reconsideration. “Why are you doing this?”
“Next time, take the air rail. It’s only 10 euros,” he says, and lowers his gun.
I’d no idea Amsterdam had an air rail.
Part of me thinks I understand, that this man has been sent to teach me a lesson, that there must be meaning in the threat. I give him 410 euros, a weak tip, but considering the sudden robbery this should not be taken as a slight to his service. He was quite good and, in his own right, helpful.
He speeds away as I recall the repeating reminder from my European friends, “You know, you don’t have to tip here, right?”
Instead of finding my hostel I stop at the first coffee shop and purchase an eighth of the White Widow, the notorious filet mignon of smokers worldwide, and a small wooden pipe, which I immediately name Amstersteady. The naming of pieces is a facet of the culture I never understood. “This is Chester.” “This Sally Ann.” But in light of recent events, this pipe is now my compatriot, my partner, my guide, and it cannot go nameless.
Finally checking into the hostel, I recall my woeful tale of robbery to the bartender and am promised complimentary drinks and meals for the rest of my stay. She brings trays of potato delights to my territory of the bar and keeps my whiskey glass full. The world cannot be all so very bad. Kindness must reign. It is good to be alive, to have been taken advantage of! This is living!
The room radiates in a hazy European glow, languid from history and language, and in this warmth I fall asleep on the bar.
Dragging myself up to my room, the whiskey and the pot stir in me a drowsy anger: mad that I am sleepy, sleepy that I am mad. In the midst of this confusion the event of the robbery rises to the forefront. It is not just an anecdote, as it was when I recalled it to the bartender, but it hits me as reality, square in the core of my consciousness, where the White Widow is webbed in the corner, taunting with her spine-like legs, coaxing my anxiety.
The White Window villainously teases. She jitters back and forth, the way those deathly thoughts do at night, the ones of cancer and pain, death and darkness—she lives in those, next to my gut and up my ass.
I propose to her my thoughts.
“This robbery was put upon me,” I tell her. “This was intended for me! I deserved this, didn’t I? I earned this from all the time spent in other places. Yes! And I was brought here for the reckoning! I have arrived in Amsterdam just in time to die! They would have me die here!”
The White Widow lures me into her bulbous sac and licks my ears, and whispers, “Yessssss! You’ve got it figured out. But what are you going to do about it?”
The mix of whiskey and marijuana settles into my loins and I know what I must do, not because I planned for it or given it much consideration, but the throb hits and I am in Amsterdam, the city that would have me give up, and it feels so personal, a repetitious flick on the forehead, taunting me to retaliate.
And in the moment in which I have no control over, I get hard, hard in a way that demands action on my part, and because I am in Amsterdam I know I can and that I must go fuck someone right now.
But no, I can’t do this: the HIV, the disease, the sexually transmitted diseases. I can’t even kiss a stranger without having them tested for strep—a precaution that ensures my frailty. I rationalize my impulse, “You don’t mean really fuck. Maybe you’ll just jerk off in front of someone. Yes, pay them to watch you jerk off. That’s not so bad. In fact, in a way, it’s quite sexually devious of you. Paying them to watch you. That’s sick! You’re sick!”
I can do this. I’ve convinced myself I can do this.
As I pull my winter coat over my sleeping clothes and march out of the hostel, I shout my battle cry, “I’m gonna find a sex worker! And I’m gonna pay her to watch me jerk off!”
I barrel through the streets, past the coffee shop where I purchased the White Widow, now trembling under the great red heat pumping through me, propelling me across the canals in the middle of the night so I can show a stranger my penis.
I hit De Wallen, the red light district, a stretch of storefronts on either side of a canal, and at two in the morning, with the Oude Kerk, the mammoth wooden church guarding the district, looming above the neon streets, the surrealistic sets in.
When are you in a new place, you can’t help but think of another and in Amsterdam I thought of the American descendants of iniquitous release: Las Vegas and New Orleans. Las Vegas is like writing or flirting; the gambling is an unknown and best with the accompaniments of other vices. New Orleans is better with age, having thought you’d seen it all, only to arrive and find that when the hearse awaits you, there will be a band, marching, to follow you to your grave. There are moments of great shame in Las Vegas and New Orleans, where you look at the desired object, and you feel guilt because you want nothing more than to just stand and stare. You want to remain, gaping open mouthed, watching it occur in front of you, to not do anything about it—just spectate. The impulse is short-lived. You are zapped out of it by proper behavior, by the social mores that tell you spectacle is cheap.
And this is happens in Amsterdam, the moment I hit the Red Light district. The fury of anger that brought me to the red lights diminishes and guilt overtakes me. I can’t look in any of the windows. I pop my head up only to look down again. I want so badly to stare at these women, to spectate, but I fear I may recognize someone, a face from elementary school, a woman that resembles my mother, or the cab driver, who will reappear wanting to return his tip, “Hey man, you don’t have to tip here!”
In each panel of windows women sit on the edge of stools, scantily clad, waving with empty bounces like marionettes held by some half-sleeping child. The physical gesture signifies sex, the full commitment, the all-out performance is not necessary to incite the customer.
I jog up the stairs to an establishment, my head buried in my puffy winter coat. Before I can say anything the girl at the door immediately says, “50 euros.” This is comforting, as I only have 60 euros left to my name.
I explain to her my situation, “Listen, I don’t want to have sex.  I just want to masturbate. Is this possible? Just to jerk off?” I motion with my hand.
“Don’t tell me. Tell your girl,” she says.
I am ushered down a set of stairs to a sub-basement where many people emerge and disappear: another couple pass by to enter a lair below me, a tall black girl with piercing eyes sweeps past me up the stares and then, seemingly, from above, I am ambushed. A streak of platinum blonde across my face and, dizzy, I am revealed to the woman is who is supposed to help me – no, watch me! – masturbate.
“Hello, big guy,” she says, grinding her body into me. She is goldenly bronzed and wears her smile tightly around her shining teeth. The white of her mouth makes her eyes nebulous, hidden somewhere in the glaze of her tan. She mechanically pulls me to the bed. “Come here, big guy.”
There is nothing in this room that refers to my imaginary brothel. This is a subterranean ecstasy trip from the mid-nineties: floor to ceiling in white tiles, pink and green neons lamps reflecting madly about, and techno music pumping as if to inflict a heart attack.
In my imaginary brothel I pictured a bare wooden floor, a twin mattress against, a thinly threaded blanket, a single light bulb hanging from the center of the room, a metal electric fan whirring in the corner and, for whatever reason, Enrico Caruso on a phonograph. In the brothel of my dreams the prostitute was lyrical, literary even!, and spoke, devastatingly, of her provincial upbringing and the tragedies, all acts of God, which had brought her to the profession. She offered me coffee or whiskey, which I politely declined. There was, also, a child borne out of wedlock in the corner, playing jacks, quietly whispering a novena impressed upon him by a local priest.
I yell over the music, “I don’t want to have sex! I just want to masturbate! To jerk off! I want to jerk off! On you!” I give the motion again.
“I vant yur sverm,” she says, handling me onto the bed.
“No! I said I WANT TO JERK OFF!” I motion, yet again, wildly, like I’m pulling on a rope – a rope that will whisk me back to the street.
“I vant yur sverm. I vant yur sverm,” she repeats.
I don’t want to be here. I want to run, run far from here, back to the cab driver, to the airport, to Lithuania, to my mother’s womb.
But now she has my pants off and is working on my briefs as I struggle to stop her. She won’t give up. I jump up from the bed and she comes after me.  She goes for me again, tugging at my underwear, and I sidestep her. Suddenly, a chase ensues.
I place a chair to block her; she pushes it out of the way. I jump to the bed. She follows. I hold the chair up, in defense, to block the running of the bulls; she’s quick to challenge me and throws it to the ground. I jump from surface to surface. I am doing all I can to keep this woman from touching my penis, but she continues, “I vant yur sverm! I vant yur sverm! I vant yur sverm!”
The scene overwhelms me, I am out of breath and so I pull myself out of my briefs and show her exactly what I want to do. “I WANT YOU TO WATCH ME MASTURBATE!”
Something clicks and she shakes her head, “I see. Yur veird.”
She hands me a condom, which I attempt to put on but the difficulty increases, the more I try the less aroused I become. She writhes in front of me continuing the catch phrase, “I vant yur sverm! I vant yur sverm!”
I give up on the condom as I diminish in size. She notices and bursts out yelling, “I see vhat yur do! Put zeee condom on! Now!” I drape the latex over me, like a shawl, or a scarf; the condom becomes an accessory, losing its purpose completely, merely a fashion statement. I cheerlead under my breath, “Come on! Come on! Do it!”
Finally, barely, the event is over. I skulk to the sink and wash myself.
The woman reclines on the bed content, smiling. She lights a cigarette and the ashes flurry over her chest. I want conversational banter, like the kind I would have had with my imaginary prostitute. Sex should always promote conversations on existential profundities. Too much attention is given to the pleasure of sex and not the sadness. But instead she says, “Yur vunny.”
I check my wallet, preparing a tip, when I remember where I am. “Is this the same as the rest of Europe? Everyone tells me you don’t have to tip.”
She stares at me.
I give her my last bills and leave the brothel, sure as ever that this will be my final night on earth.
After leaving the brothel I wander the streets till the sunrise, returning to the hostel lobby to call the producers of the film, hoping that after weeks of silence they’ll move forward with the next draft so that funds can be wired as soon as possible. They know my call is one of desperation, and like killing Old Yeller, they take me to the proverbial backyard of the conference call and shoot me. If only they’d known where their money went, having spent it all on jazz clubs and krupnikas in Vilnius, and the remainder now being disseminated through Holland’s black market economy.
On my second day in Amsterdam I call my friends Shelly and Francois from Rotterdam and tell them what has occurred, asking if they can wire me funds, that I will pay them back as soon as I can. Since they are on holiday they hop on the train and spend the rest of the week with me. We ride bikes in the day, and eat and drink and smoke late into the night. We don’t go to the Van Gogh museum or the Ann Frank house. We go to the Children’s Museum and to an Anthropology Museum outside of town.
During my time with them I repeat the refrain: “Why couldn’t I do this alone? Why couldn’t I do this alone?”
“You know,” Shelly says to me, “You’d be a lot nicer if you knew you needed people.”
Francois agrees.
Leaving Amsterdam I promise to pay them back for swooping in and taking care of me. I leave very early, before the sun even rises, and I catch the city in its silence, recognizing that this is not the city. This cannot be the place I came to alone.
I take the air rail to the airport, as suggested, and I bookmark in my head: You should visit Amsterdam someday.
I think of Amsterdam from time to time, as I do the other cities I have spent passing time in, for weeks, months, years. This is what makes the movement from one place to another significant – not because anything has changed, but that we, for a brief time, until the city reveals itself to us, are moving on sheer instinct, intuition, some would say on pure luck. And at every turn it must be remembered, “This is not the city and this is not the city and this is not the city.”
The city reveals in infinitesimal turns and never as a whole. The whole, the continuity of experiencing it, exists only in the memory, in piecemeal, in closing the eyes and feeling the rush. The ceremony of culture is inbred in us like retarded thoroughbreds– the sanctimony of the ritual, the rule, the unbreakable, unshakeable idiocy of expectation. The city is always the reminder of our greatest compromise; that we are drawn to others and will never be allowed to do this alone.
And there is a comfort in that, I know. I just can’t get myself around to liking it.

Front page image by Tais Sirole.

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