Friday, 14 December 2012

Coffee Shop Blues

Selections from the journal of Danny Roberts

Welcome to my favourite observation post in all the northern hemisphere. The second floor of a certain coffee shop, St. Antoniesbreestraat, Amsterdam. The walls are painted a medium shade of blue. Ganesha, the god of new age cliché reclines, serenely, in the corner. The stairwell leading from the street bisects the room. One side contains the bar and pot counter, the other is the chill out/lounge area. Both halves are glass fronted and partly enclosed by Plexiglas like the crystal turrets of a high street castle.

A large brown, L shaped sofa dominates the lounge area. The coffee table in front is littered with the various accoutrements that every good pot smoker requires: Ashtrays, lighters, tobacco and papers, a full size hookah and of course the gear itself. Skirting the Plexiglas there is a semi-circular, Formica table which sweeps out past the windows as far as the jukebox in the corner. Nina Simone’s ‘Mood Indigo’ is playing. And there I am next to it, staring out the window and into space.

I love to just sit here and do nothing. Not only can the finest green and black be bought from a few feet away, but the view is splendid. Everywhere you turn everything is perfectly framed. The open window before me to the pavement below. The archway across the street.  The stoners staring blankly through the glass from the other side of the room. An arcade runs underneath us, through which people pass, gaining a precious few seconds respite from the ubiquitous Amsterdam rain. And it seems that I myself am framed for the delectation of the shoppers passing beneath.

I could sit here for hours (I probably have). Allow the world to orbit in an ellipse with me at one foci and the spliff smouldering in the ashtray at the other. And as it rushes past my eye-line I’ll let my attention roam and relax on individuals and try to discern as much as possible before they exit stage left, stage right. The girl on the bicycle in the sky blue jumper. The acid casualty tramp who jogs past holding his cupped hands to his face as if carrying some precious cargo. The guy in the white shirt, business suit and a Rasta hat. He staggers through my field of view, arms in the air and shouts in the poshest way imaginable, “Hey, where are all the white women at.”  He’s paler than me.

And as below, so all around. The two women who look out of place outside of Hampshire who eat space-cake and swap icing tips and wait for something to happen. An entire family occupy the sofa behind me. Seriously, father and son, nanna and granddaughter. Fuck knows what that’s all about. Maybe one of Bill’s rants got through. You see son, the thumb is opposable, that’s why we can use tools and  live indoors. Cool dad. And sat next to me, an American. He looks like Hemmingway, but as he speaks (“Hey look honey, the walls have babies in bubbles in space.”), he sounds more like Al from Home Improvement.

All these people have stories to tell. Most are just passing through. Since the rupture (I refuse to call it the 'event', it sounds so fucking stupid), there are a few places like Amsterdam, Venice, Timbuktu, San Francisco, Singapore and a handful of others where the local space, time and reality shattered during the rupture and later stabilised. Throughout the city there now exist places where you can walk from one version to another.

If you want to go back to the 1870s, get the 51 tram from Amsterdam Central and stay on until Westwijk (although you may find yourself doing the last couple of miles by horse and trap). The Venice Bridge of Sighs can be accessed via Admiralgracht. Hendrix is busking in the market around the corner from here. Oberon and Titania and all the other fairies have taken up residence in the Vondelpark and may receive you. The shopkeeper from Mr Benn has a place near the station and people stumble into his poorly animated premises all the time. He's either malevolent or means well, I've yet to decide which.

If you want to see zombies take the ferry at the back of the station and head up to the campsite in the woods up there. The army pretty much have the place in lockdown but there are breaks in the fence and enough guides prepared to take you zombie spotting. Hunting them costs a little more.

Many come through the city on their way to try and join Star Fleet. Fuck knows who discovered this route but I am reliably informed that you have to head down to Max Euweplein, where the Hard Rock Cafe is located. You approach from the main road, up to the precinct and out through the arcade, passing the giant chess board on the left.

Then you get a train to Schiphol Airport, fly out to San Francisco, take a guided tour of Alcatraz and once there use the men's room on the second level, first stall. Once in the stall, hop two over to come out in the third one along. You emerge into a vision of what people in the 1980s imagined the future might look night. At most any other time in my life I would have jumped into a Star Trek universe without giving it a second thought. But damm it if Andy hasn't made a sailor out of me. I guess it was inevitable. If my parents hadn't met serving in the Royal Navy, I wouldn't be here at all.

Andy is the reason I'm in Amsterdam. I've sailed all over looking for a clue to his whereabouts. Been at sea so long that the feel of solid ground beneath my feet still seems unnatural. For a while I gave up looking altogether and spent years sailing around and around the globe, coming near land only rarely. It was useless, Andy deliberately makes people forget him, so how was I supposed to pick up the clues to find him?

Mostly I read and marvelled at how even the most magical plots now seemed tame compared to what I had been through in recent times. Yet the new world was created out of these flights of fancy and I resolved that if I didn't have Andy around to help me then I needed to know as much about what possibilities were out there. Books seemed like a good start.

Besides, if you've spent as long as I have staring at the pages of Finnegans Wake, trying to make any sense out of great swathes of its 'narrative' and its dense arcane syntax, then any other text in the English language is a piece of piss by comparison. The Wake powers the most powerful engine on my ship and with a bit of trial and error I've found a couple of hundred secret routes through the bounds of reality and beyond.

Eventually though even a man as misanthropic as me craves the company of others and it occurred to me, rather than running around looking for Andy it would be better to drop anchor in one place and wait for him to come to me? Amsterdam seemed the obvious location for a number of reasons. Not least of which that if I'm going to be sat around waiting for the man, I'd like a smoke while I do so. I also heard of a couple of people that were able to remember Andy that pass through these parts from time to time. Haven't heard a peek out of any of them in months.

And yet a hyper-dimensional crossroads like this is a gift for a writer. This spot isn't just perfect for its visual treats but for the things you hear. I come here every day to hear people talk of triumphs and disasters, narrow escapes and nightmare endings, new worlds and fresh realities, rekindled passions and lost loves and childhood dreams realised and discarded in the blink of an eye. All these tales deserve a chronicler and as I've not been doing much else of late, I've taken the task upon myself to the point where finding Andy seems a secondary mission at this stage. You will excuse me if I have occasionally used some artist licence, but I have that Joycean strain in me and I do so hate to do things the same way twice...

I’m thinking about my first trip here. It was my first time in a coffee shop. First time abroad. Me and a mate popped in for a couple of hours. But the sofa devoured us and we ended up staying six. I forget what we were smoking, but for a moment there time seemed to speed up and slow down and stop.

The whole thing freaked me out to begin with. Sat in a public place, smoking gange and no one gives a fuck. In fact it’s actively encouraged. The first spliff always takes me by surprise and this was no exception. You have to treat it like a roller-coaster. If you tense up, you’ll hate it. But if you lie back and let out a healthy laugh from the pit of your stomach, you enjoy every second of it.

That’s what I did. Went with the flow. Turned on my scanner and took in everything in around me. The Dutch guy selling the dope. He had the look of Brian May mixed with Stretch Armstrong. The girl serving drinks. Dreads half way down her back, nose ring. The epitome of Dutch beauty (And as I’m watching her, she turns and winks at me - but it’s just that time’s broken free of its mooring again and she’s only blinking).

Then there was the clientele. The Filipino boy, with his dad (‘Look father, this is what passes for opium in Europe.’). The local popping in to pick his stash up for the weekend, complete with dog on lead. Can spot British tourists a mile off. The German fallen asleep in the corner. And a couple of twenty-something lads who seem to my pot-addled brain to be a kind of Jeeves and Wooster pairing. ‘Sir, I have purchased half an ounce of the finest Nepalese White.’  ‘Excellent Jeeves, now let us depart with all due ambulatory rapidity before we are observed frequenting this working class establishment.’ (Only in Dutch).

However, the star of the show almost defies description. He works here. He’s dressed in skater jeans and sneakers. Boomerang t-shirt and rainbow suspenders dangling from his sides. He’s white, American I think, with a mushroom afro and goatee. There’s a half finished joint permanently balanced between his lips that I haven't seen him light once. I’m not quite sure what his job is, but it must qualify for laziest occupation on Earth. Having watched him for the most of the evening, I narrowed down his main responsibilities to the following:
  1. Emptying ashtrays
  2. Shouting, ‘No cameras near the counter.’
  3. Lighting four candles at about half seven.
  4. Greeting people at the top of the stairs, shaking their hand, nodding his cocked head and saying,   ‘Awright man.’ in his best Jamaican accent.
And you just know to look at him that he came to Amsterdam for a week and he’s been here ever since. He's an absolute star!  I picture him fifteen years in the future when cannabis is legal and not merely decriminalised and space-cake is served to visiting dignitaries as a Dutch delicacy. He’ll be dressed in a tux and cumberbund, the same joint pursed between his lips. He’ll greet visiting ambassadors, shake their hand, nod and say, ‘Awright man’, in twenty five different languages.

In the middle age of Awright Man  he'll be perpetually slumped in the corner of some coffee shop. Muttering to himself about  how Amsterdam’s became too touristy and the best place to toke skunk is now some cabin at the northernmost tip of Norway, 'cause it’s permanently dark there for three months of the year. Then they'll throw him out and he'll trudge home to slump in front of the TV, one hand down his pants, spliff in his mouth, snoring and muttering ‘Awright man’ with every exhale.

I was so high that night, I lost the power of speech for most of the evening. Claire had a conversation with a Parisian about speaking French. Something about how you don’t have to speak French, just believe you can and you will. People talk such bollocks when they’re stoned. Probably true these days. Most things are possible with enough time and space.

We left at midnight. When we arrived back to the street level I turned around and said, ‘Brilliant night.’ and we went off home to our hostel.  You never forget your first love...

My God, that spliff’s massive. Oh, hang on. Hang on. No, it’s just closer.

Of course, eventually I’ll tire of sitting still and drift out into the parabolic streets to wander lost, defeated once more by Dutch street design until I either stumble into another coffee shop or walk off the map or onto another map. Or more likely, I’ll walk in a straight line for forty minutes, turn left and be back where I started. Which will be here.

This place is like a lighthouse to me. Whenever or wherever I get lost in the city, I can always find my back here even if I get lost trying to find anywhere else. Like the second-hand American bookshop with a portal to a fantasy adventure world in the back room. Found it once by accident, meant to go back, can't find the bloody place now.

Then there was the time I was watching the snooker in a coffee shop, left my bag in there and by the time I realised I'd forgotten it, I'd walked in a complete circle and was standing outside the same place. My bag was still tucked under the chair.

But enough of such nonsense. Especially when there are real tales to tell. Like this one...

No comments:

Post a Comment