THE MAN WITH THE GUITAR CASE

spliffseeds amsterdam van

He said he was from Kentucky ….or was it Louisiana?

He talked so much that the details began to run into a minestrone soup of blurred imagery. He was fifty five years old , was the grandfather of a little boy by one of his daughters . He spoiled the little fellow rotten when he saw him,which did not seem to be too often,stuffing him with chocolates, much to the mother’s horror..Well it’s the kind of thing grandfathers do , isn’t it ?, I thought .His back was giving him some bother but he shunned medication and thought that America was over-medicated to a fault and it was all the business of doctors handing out pills and potions willy-nilly.They were all hooked and it was perfectly legal.”Oxy” was the thing, he said . I asked him about this because I ‘d heard it often mentioned in the plot of the series “Justified” which was based in Harlan County , Louisiana.

 

This set him off on a riff about his past work as a police-officer. He was obviously an intelligent man with a robust vocabulary and used a lot of technical-sounding American phrases(the way Americans tend to do), when simplicity might have been a better choice…. that were probably the norm in that line of work, but the gist of it was that a higher percentage of those he’d stopped for erratic driving during his tenure as lawman, were not dope-fiends per se , not even drunks , but were perfectly normal citizens and users of pefectly legal drugs. We shared a joke about that one ; him reminding me that a stoner would probably be more than capable of driving in a perfectly concentrated straight line while in search for that little snack of something to quell the appetite brought on by marijuana’s well-known “munchies”. Yes, I agreed . That was indeed a very valid observation by anyone who knew about such things .Stoners were very adept at concentrating on a task in hand….almost to a fault. This “Oxy” was a different kind of animal altogether, apparently .Oxycodone is an opioid pain medication and of course it was a legally available very addictive narcotic that everyone seem to be hooked on . He figured that it was on a par with heroin.
He had no problem with someone smoking a little dope and we talked about how it was legal in a couple of American states now , where it was a great little tax-earner and was apparently so well regulated that crime had ceased to exist. I laughed , thinking back to the van that I’d spotted outside our hotel with the company logo and legend , “SPLIFF SEEDS, Amsterdam, Cultivating quality since 1995″. I’d inadvertantly stepped into the bicycle lane , while attempting to capture a photograph, and had nearly been run over by a silent fleet of furiously pedalling holiday-makers who crammed the bicycle lanes. This cycling mania had only barely begun in Amsterdam in the 1970s . A few years previously ,in the mid 1960s, forebears of the local hippies , known as the Provos(!) , comprising of a group of beatniks , hipsters, thinkers and happeners who agitated for social reforms in a pranksterish sort of way, had instigated the then anarchic idea of leaving free, white-painted bicycles lying about the place. These could be used by anyone and left where they landed, to be lifted and freely used by the next needful customer. The idea was to give a service out for free that encouraged people to clear cars from the crammed roads and at the same time be eco-friendly.The Provos proposed one of the first bicycle sharing systems:.Their idea was that the municipality would buy 20,000 white bicycles each year, which were to be public property and free for everybody to use. These plans were rejected by the city authorities, so the Provos decided to go ahead anyway.There was a lot of crazy, flippant humour associated with the rapidly growing underground movement. They initially painted 50 bicycles white and left them on streets for public use. The police didn’t like this at all and impounded the bikes, because they violated a municipal law which forbade citizens to leaving bicycles without locking them. The bikes were eventually returned to the Provos who then, naturally enough, fitted them all with combination locks and painted the combination numbers on the bicycles . There was a psychedelic song written about it by Keith West who also had a hit record with “Excerpt from a Teenage Opera”and it was initially performed by a pop group called Tomorrow .”My White Bicycle” was a hit in Holland and later covered on several ocassions . Forty years later these radical ideas might only be remembered by old hippies such as myself but there are now a plethora of thriving bicycle -hire services across the city of Amsterdam and cyclists out-number motorists to the point where the car is virtually non-existent, except for those new eco-friendly electric taxis.Cyclists operate in such numbers as to make driving a car virtually untenable in the crowded streets and cyclists have literally a free run of the entire city.The air has become much cleaner as a result and the idea thta the combustion engine should reign supreme has been pushed back. From small acorns grow mighty oaks….
All very civilised and liberal , but smoking dope is not for me now, I murmured to my new loquacious companion .Having given up smoking anything vaguely herbal many years ago , I’m afraid that toking on a spliff now would very probably blow my lungs inside -out. Well, we all know that you’ve got to do this kind of thing in your youth because you only live once…and I’d lived once already for about fifteen years! I’d asked him had he been to see this wonderful city but he professed that he hadn’t , having flown in only a few hours previously and was only killing time before his connecting flight out. I added that it was my first time there in over forty years . I had been there a couple of times back in the early 1970’s when Amsterdam was a well-known point of departure for young Europeans setting off on the “Hippy Trail” .Most of that old “Hippy Trail” has since been reduced to assorted warzones, of course. In those “pre-family” days I had nothing more to worry about other than the meagre contents of my rucksack being purloined by some wretched heroin addict in Dam Square . I’d arrived there by land and sea, hitchhiking in the days before cheap Easyjet flights. This time I’d found the city much- changed .There were no hippies now but everyone seemed to have aquired that same old ethos in my absence.The freeks had taken over and only the costumes of the well-fed youngsters had changed to show the passing of time .
He had also been divorced relatively recently and with a hint of bitterness he implied that his ex-wife got the house in the settlement. He now had a girlfriend who worked as a nurse ….an “MN” , as he termed it, on an army base, but that wasn’t about to stop him eyeing up any pretty girl he spotted walking through the airport.He also said that he’d sometimes suffered from depression in the past ….He certainly loved to talk…
My wife and I had found the only two available seats in the rather spartan airport while awaiting our flight home .We’d been half-awake most of the night waiting for that early alarm.I thought I might need two hip-replacements anytime soon from all the walking we’d done up and down the streets of that beautiful city and I’d ‘ve happily taken any damn thing to ease the pain in my joints.You can see why hard-pressed athletes might cheat a bit.I couldn’t sleep with the bloody pains. He happened to be also in transit from somewhere outside Washington DC , already having hopped up from Dallas where he’d left his girlfriend .In four or five hours he’d be flying to Basra.I know all this because he barely stopped talking for the half-hour or so we sat together . When I sat down initially , he was simply another fellow -traveller but he had a goatee and a guitar case beside him, so ,thinking he may be a travelling musician of some sort, flying out after a gig in town, I asked him if this was the case .He laughed . “Not really”, he replied .”I just mess about on ma bass guitar on down-times”.I introduced myself , telling him I like to play a little too and I was Irish. He said he’d never been to “Oireland” or the UK but his great grandaddy ‘s people had been from the Old Sod and , indeed his surname hade a trace of the Irish in it. He hoped to persuade his girlfriend to go there sometime soon. I told him it was a very beautiful country but on the scale it might appear very small compared to the American experience.He said that he’d heard that was the case.He loved mountains. He talked on about beautiful places he’d visited with his girlfriend, such as the old Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and the two great sacred mountains of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. His girlfriend hadn’t enjoyed the experience of losing her breath in the rarified atmosphere and never let him forget it .It wasn’t her idea of a holiday apparently. . I told him I had a similar experience in the Atlas Mountains some years ago where the height made breathing difficult. It is something that people rarely consider before embarking on these adventures.
He said he loved the music of that black Irishman, the late Phil Lynott of the band Thin Lizzy and mentioned their recording of the old Irish folksong “Whiskey In the Jar” . I said that they’d apparently recorded the song as a bit of a laugh and were more than surprised to have their first hit record with arocked -up version of it.I added that, as teenagers ,we’d see the band gigging in Ireland in an earlier lineup as they first tried to establish themselves . Mr Lynott was hard not to notice even then among the longhairs, with that whip-thin frame of his , topped by his huge Hendix -inspired afro .Legend had it that Philo was seeing a girl in a local village at the time, which is why he was spotted on the street ;doubtless one of his many scattered paramours.
He talked on as we veered from one subject to the next. So far he’d given me his life-story chapter and verse and all he knew about me was that I was Irish. Politics then entered his spiel as a nearby television silently talked in subtitles about the shootings that had just happened in Munich when a teenage gunman went wild with a weapon and killed both himself and nine other young people. I found out later that apparently the young misfit had idolised the mass-killer Anders Breivik, but that hardly mattered to my new acquaintance. It very quickly emerged that that he was very much Pro- Guns and was as gung ho about the subject as Charlton Heston might have been. He told me that America had never had a real leader since Ronald Reagan was President and that “if that bitch (pardon me , ma’m he concurred to my unshockable other half) got the presidency, the country would go to hell on a handcart”.
He was pointing to a bookstand across the floor with a selection of Hilary Clinton biographies displayed . He hardly heard me when I said there wasn’t such a great choice for Americans at the moment , but surely Hilary Clinton was a slightly better choice than Mr Trump, if only by the fact that she was actually a real politician. I thought that the fact that she was a hawk and might just push America into another war might have appealed to this gun-lover. Trump was promising , improbably, without any real hope for success, to make the Mexican Government pay for the building of a wall across the country to keep their citizens in check…. but I don’t think he heard me .
I had a notion that if Trump had this kind of support , he might actually get into power in America.He seemed rational in every respect, if somewhat outre ; he used all the right words , but what was coming out of his mouth seemed far -right of Attila the Hun. I interjected that surely what was being proposed was something similar to what Hitler had on the menu in the 1930s. In any case he knew a thing or two first -hand and he believed that all these muslims should be culled at birth because they were being taught from a young age how to decapitate infidels and their parents already got them to practice on goats. In his version of reality it was better to kill them all before they got started, just to be on the safe side . On his tanned leg was a garish tattoo of a large celtic cross , adorned with the word “Mum”.I wondered if his back was similarly adorned with a large , youthful swastika.I began to think that if Brexit could happen in the UK and a slim majority could vote to exit the EU even though it would probably destabilise the country, there was a good chance that there could very well be a President Trump in the White House from November 2016. This wasn’t about what should happen anymore. It was about what people wanted to hear, no matter the consequences.Trump had promised that those damned Mexicans weren’t going to be allowed to build good old Ford motors on the cheap and a President Trump would be damned if he couldn’t get Apple to build good old American I-Phones in America and blow China out of the water.Jeezis !! It was bad enough that a black man had been president and now they wanted a woman in the hot seat?!! What would it be next….a Japanese, gay transgender who proposed to reform the gun-laws and paint the White house ,pink?
Before his stint as a law-officer he’d been in the army, but as the years peeled off, using weapons was taking its toll on his body. He refused to take pain-killers on principle, of course, sounding like some macho character out of the film “Apocalypse Now”, even though lying on the ground while suppressing a bucking machine -gun was putting kinks in his back.I mentioned that it might be something like repetitive- strain -injury, the kind of thing typists might get, but he didn’t seem to hear the dryness of my tone or notice the expression on my face . He was off now in his capacity as a “security operative” to work in Basra. The money was excellent apparently and he knew his business ,but he wasn’t too sure whether or not his girlfriend would still be there on his return . He had to sign- on for stretches of over 130 days at a time ,but he saw this enforced absence as something of a test for her fidelity . His plan was to buy another property before he wasn’t fit to do this kind of work anymore and if she didn’t wait…well there were plenty of others…..
I thought as he got up and shook both my hand and my wife’s , in that very courtly southern way, and as he left to search out his travelling buddies, that maybe it was best that he hadn’t had a chance to visit the city of Amsterdam this time around. I recalled the day-long queues of an annual five million plus people of every colour, creed and nationality, crocodiling endlessly for some hundreds of yards , waiting for a glimpse inside the Anne Frank house(We tried for an hour or so and finaly gave up); then there was the fraught beauty of the exhibited paintings and the story of his short, doomed life, in the Van Goth multi-media museum which had just opened in 1973 around the last time I was last there; the beauty of the canals , the cafes and other peacenik European indolences such as the cannabis coffee shops and flower markets selling “grow your own marijuana” kits (I bought some exotic tulip bulbs , if you must know …and thought that customs just might confiscate them as vaguely unethical)… and the glorious sunshine shining down on it all. Dam square, back then was then a riot of scruffy, long-haired back-packing hippie youth and now it was annointed with well-fed tourists from every corner of the the world.I thought by the sheer number of people now evident that the population must have doubled since last time I was there but in fact I discovered that in 1970 the population was 927,000 and in 2016 it is now 1,099,000 .What with the population mix and the burgeoning liberal populace well- entrenched , showing the very opposite faces that neither my talkative companion or the ISIS diaspora would prefer to see, it seems.I imagined that he’d probably prefer if it all was likewise destroyed, like some stain, so I didn’t think it would really be his kind of town, after all.
I hope he gets to visit Oirland sometime in his future, mind.There are parts of it, especially in some of the northern counties , where he might feel very much at home .