WHERE HAVE YOU GONE?! …….. PIET MONDRIAN, chapter 1, Monday
I was reading a book. I read a lot. It was one of the residuals from not having a television. The boob-tube was a fitting expression to describe it. And it consumed much time. Not having one saved me time which I used, in turn, to explore my modest library. But my eyes needed a rest; and my attention was wandering. Generally, that probably had more to do with the tome I had immersed myself in---I try to balance my reading between fiction which includes literature, current best sellers, thrillers and non-fiction like biographies, histories and even science. Some of it can be tedious and you can only absorb so much at a time. Strangely enough, the present read was a detective. I guess I just needed air. And it was summertime in the city. The living was easy. No fish were jumpin' in the canals, but that probably had more to do with the pollution of the water more than anything else.
I put on my corduroy sports jacket and headed for the big double doors of the old carriage house that I called home. I had rented it more for a back space that had been added onto to the building by an artist who had then used it as an atelier. I had winterized the big 12x5 meter space. It had skylights and windows along one side that overlooked a small and attractive garden. A neighbor, two gardens away, had a peacock. I enjoyed watching it strut its plume. However, there was a price to pay. Each morning, shortly around sunrise, it greeted the new day in its own personal way. And loudly, too. It was a grating sound.
The garden house, as I referred to it, was an oasis in a city and country where people live atop each other. The Netherlands has the highest density of population in the Western hemisphere; and it rivals many Asian countries. Since I was cut off from all the other flats I was able to crank up my 200 watt amplifier, that drove the 18 small ten centimeter cones in my Bose 901 speakers, at any time, day or night, and not bother the neighbors. It was a luxury that few in the city shared.
I unlocked my bike. It wasn't much of a bicycle. I had bought it at the Amsterdam flea market at the Waterlooplein for 25 euros. The man had wanted 35, but didn't bat an eye when I made the offer; he just held out his hand. Still, even at that price, I thought I had overpaid. Of course, there was the other side of the coin and that was that after a year it still had not been stolen. I had read recently that nearly 1,000,000 bikes a year were stolen in this country of 16.5 million people. A real crime wave.
I headed for the Jan Pieter Heijestraat and made a lefthand turn and biked to the Kinkerstraat and made a righthanded turn which would take me into the center. While my bike had more rattles than a pockets full of coins, it had an easy peddling action and I could zip along at speed. I might not win the Tour de France, but I wasn't going to embarrass myself by being passed all the time. A few years back, I had met a lady at a club. After the opening pleasantries she said, "I have seen you riding your bicycle through Amsterdam," she paused, then added "...and I like the way you ride a bicycle!" It came out sounding like a sexy complement.
I had decided to go to the Arti et Amicitiae, an artist' club, which is at the center of the city. Amsterdam is known for its canal and often described as the Venice of the North. And there are canals; about 75 km that meander through a topography that had once been river delta land. And they defined the city's map. As a result, there are over 1,200 bridges in a city of 700,000 people. Most bridges you don't even notice, but there are some that require more pedaling effort. My present journey would involve several, but nothing strenuous.
I crossed the Bilderdijkstraat and whisked past a bike that seemed and sounded worse off than my own. The back tire appeared to be nearly flat. I paid little heed. But it wasn't long, literally seconds, before I applied concentration to it though I was in front. That's was because I could still hear it. And from the level of the sound I knew it was right on my tail. I put more pressure on the pedals. Just as I approached the Marnixstraat the light turned green and I shot through the intersection like an arrow homing in on the target. The other rider was keeping with me.
I was now on a straightaway, so to speak, the Elandsgracht, and, again, I applied more energy in my effort to make the wheels go round a little faster. No one impeded my progress when I reached the Prinsengracht and transversed the bridge like I was a dog with his tail on fire. As I entered the Berenstraat, I could tell from the echoes reverberating from of the walls of the buildings, that bordered the narrow street, that my nemesis was sticking with me. Across the bridge at the Keizersgracht I was rewarded with a somewhat diminished sound. I was gaining on him. Once over the Herengracht, the sounds were even more muted. By the time I reached the Singel I could hear nothing. I had won! Or had it all been my imagination? Had there indeed been a race?
I passed through the narrow alley and made a righthand turn onto the Spuistraat. My breathing was returning to normal. And there was something jogging at my memory. I was recalling a similar incident from years ago. Another race much like this one. At the time, I had thought about a short story by an American 19th century short story writer, Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The protagonist, one Ichabod Crane, while on horseback, on a lonely country road, on a pitch black night, had been pursued by a headless horseman. In a sense, my pursuer had been "headless" in that he was unknown to me. In fact, I had only seen him from the back of his head. More was coming back to me. I had lost that race. At the end, the pursuer had passed me and left me huffin' and puffin' for breath. And, coincidentally, I had been, at that time, on my way to the Arti. Weird. Déjà vu all over again.
The Arti was an artists' club that had opened in 1839. In 1855-56, a building was constructed on the Rokin to house the growing membership. At the front---and near the roof---there were four large bronze statues, done by a neo-classical sculptor named Leliman, which represented four muses from Greek and Roman mythology. In 1893-1894, two prominent architects were commissioned to redesign the interior, A.C. Bleijs and H.P. Berlage. The latter was credited with planning the grand baluster stairway that lead to the two big upper galleries. Berlage's Beurs van Berlage, which had been the stock exchange until only a few short years before, was his crowning jewel achievement.
The outside of the building was virtually intact with its original facade. And this was pretty much true of the interior as well though a few years back new lighting had been installed, the bathrooms updated and a few other improvements had been made. However, the dark and sturdy wood interior was all the original. Even some of the members appeared to be originals in the sense that they looked as if they had been sitting in the same chair for the last one hundred plus years. In fact, the most major change, at the time, had been a membership drive that had been deemed necessary when it was determined that the place was void of activity. The membership rolls had not kept pace with the changing styles in art. While the moderns had easily replaced the representational and genre school painters of the 19th century, during the 60s, the club had found it difficult to accept those artists who were being labeled as conceptualist. That had been rectified. There were now about 1500 members; one third were artists and the rest, art lovers and the dealers. The exhibitions now featured all and every style. The galleries were even for rent for special exhibition and sometimes the walls once again displayed works from the 18th and 19th century.
I took out my plastic card and passed the swipe card through the slot in the electronic reader console. The door was buzzed open. I passed through the narrow four meter long passage and entered the members room. To my right, there was a table and a corpulent well coiffure matronly dressed woman, of a certain age, greeted me respectively and with a mischievous glint in her eyes. Even with the added kilos it was clear that she once had been a beauty. Perhaps an artist's muse. And, who knows, maybe she still was.
The big space was divided into two sections. The front section, where I had entered, was filled with tables and large sturdy and expensively made chairs of leather and copper fittings. They were amazingly comfortable with an arm/backrest that curled 180 degrees around you. You could even do a 360 degree swivel. At the center of the table grouping there was a billiard table. Against one wall, an enormous fireplace looking more like a hearth at a lord's country estate or hunting lodge. Above it hung a late 19th century oil by Jonkman depicting a busy Amsterdam harbor. On another wall there was an Amsterdam canal scene which had been painted by George Hendrik Breitner at about the same time. Other works of art hung along the walls but were examples of work by recent deceased members and current members of the club. At the back was the horseshoe shaped bar. I saw the "Hog" standing at it and waving at me. I walked over to him.
"Hi ya, Bert!" No one called him "Hog" to his face, but the nickname suited him. He was tall even for a Dutch person. I had read that the Dutch were the tallest people, on average, of all Europe. Hog, or Bert's, problem was he nearly equaled his height in the circumference of his waist. He hid it all very well by having his suits made by a good tailor. "Can I buy you a drink?" I asked him.
"Oh, please do, my good man. I was just finishing this draught. How kind of you. My, but you look all tuckered out, Cord. It that the correct English expression?"
"Indeed it is. And indeed I am all tuckered out. I have just been in a bicycle race ... anyway, I think it was a bike race..." I went on to explain the incident and Hog knowingly nodded as I went through the scenario. Finally, he said, "There is something familiar with the story. There was a man, years ago, that people would talk about and describe an experience much like what you just encountered. But it has been some time since I have heard such a story. I thought he was probably dead."
"Yeah, the incident has jogged something in my memory. I seem to be recalling a similar race I had about 20 or 25 years ago. Like tonight, I was on my way here. I also seem to recall I lost that one. Maybe it was the same person, because, as you indirectly indicated, he would be very old and I did win this time."
The beers arrived and we toasted each other. Bert purported himself to be an art dealer. But the money came in from an antique shop on the Utrechtsestraat that he and his wife owned. The story was told that he had once made a big purchase of an art collection with examples of major Dutch artists like Jan Sluijters, Leo Gestel, both Israels and a few French impressionist to boot. He was bewildered when he discovered that everything was a copy. At first he disbelieved. Then humiliation set in when one expert after another told him of his error. What had hurt the most was that it became so obvious as one expert after another pointed to the most elementary flaws. He was still selling them off and, to save face, explained that he was the copyist. As we made small talk, Hog's eyes were constantly shifting their gaze from me to the entrance door.
The wife was an attractive lady; even now in her later years. She had been a very pretty lady when I had first met her nearly 30 years before. Hog had always been fat, but back then, one could see that in his youth he probably had been rather good looking. Now he had more chins than an Honk Kong telephone book. The hair on his head was thin. And his pompous demeanor made him still more unattractive. I was saying something when he broke in and said, "I got to see this man about a big deal ... talk to you later." And he was headed for the door with a gait one wouldn't expect from his girth.
I went back to my beer and my memories.
Photo 1: Luuk Kramer