WHERE HAVE YOU GONE?! …….. PIET MONDRIAN, chapter 5
I decided to stay in the immediate area. At the Jan Pieter Heijstraat I turned the corner and headed for the Quella. It wasn't really a traditional brown cafe; it was more what you would define as a dive.
Walking into the place the first thing that hit you was the heavy smell of tobacco smoke accented with the harsh odor of hashish mixed with the sweet aroma of marijuana. I went to the bar and ordered a pils. I paid for the beer---I wasn't staying long enough to run a tab---and selected a chair at a communal table. Looking around the room I noticed a fellow American, Augie, sitting alone at a table at a corner. I picked up my glass and walked over. "Feel like company?" He had been in deep thought and looked up with a start, but quickly recovered, "Wes! Please sit down."
I had met Augie---the diminutive for Augustus---a few years before. I had been sitting in the Quella---again, at a communal table---talking with a Dutch person who, at one point, tired at the conversation he motioned to a man, several years older than me, sitting across from us. His dress was disheveled and his hair was in no better shape with white and gray tufts protruding at several different angles from his dome. The person said, "He's one of your fellow Americans." Generally, I avoid Americans. I think I am in Holland as much to escape them as for the Dutch weather. Dutifully, I looked over at him. He was staring back at me with no particular interest. I said, by way of introduction, "Where you from?" He replied gruffly, "Chiiii-cago!" That got me by surprise. "Chicago? That was one of my homes." But it is a divided city. Racially, ethnically and...my next question was: "Cubs or White Soxs?" naming both Major League baseball teams which vied for the sports fan's devotion of the city's population. A light of interest sparked in his eyes and he said, "Cubbies!" I extended my hand across the table and said, "Brother." We have been friends since that moment.
He had a professoral aire to his demeanor which was apropos since that was his profession. He taught American literature at an Amsterdam university. He often would "lecture" me on the writings of Henry Roth as a great American writer that no one had knew. That certainly included me. The first time he brought up the subject, I said, "Don't you mean Philip Roth?" "No, no. Henry...but Philip is okay too...Have you read The Great American novel?---" But it was baseball that occupied most of our discussions. His journey to Amsterdam had been nearly as circuitous as my own. He had met a Dutch lady, when he was at Oxford College, in the UK, and followed her home. Her home being Holland, that is. That marriage was long over and he was now going through the trauma of a second divorce. Baseball was a more agreeable subject.
So, we talked about the present season. The Cubbies were so far faring better than the previous year. That year had been a disaster for both the Cubs and baseball and a pivot point in their history. The longtime owner William Wrigley---or the Wrigley company, don't know what the corporate structure was---had sold the team to a media power, The Tribune Company, for an incredible sum of $22.5 million. The '81 baseball season had been marred by a two month strike and the Cubs emerged, at the end, with a record of 38-65, for the shortened season, and in last place. There was one saving factor, they had first dibs in the baseball draft in which young promising players were selected in an order corresponding to what the major league teams had done the year before. The worse the record, the better the order for picking. The Cubs got first pick and had chosen Shawon Dunston, a shortstop. The scouts had made glowing reports on his potential. During the previous January, they had traded Ivan DeJesus, a journeyman infielder, to the Phillies, for Larry Bowa and a youngster, Ryne Sandberg, a third baseman. At the midpoint, of the long season, the Cubbies were in fifth place. Not good, but not a disaster either.
Having exhausted the subject, he asked me if I was working on anything. He was enamored with the idea that I was a "hard-boiled dick" as he was wont to dwell on the jargon of the genre. He had once pondered over how one should refer to the female equivalent of a "dick?" He said, with the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] that was being proposed in the states that would give women equal rights to men, that sooner or later there would be females trying to break into the game. Would "dickette" be proper?
Augie was no literary snob. In fact, he was a wealth of knowledge when it came to discussing the "modern day detective novel" as he described it. He had told me that the granddaddy of the modern American detective scribers was one Carroll John Daly whose alter ego was a dick named Race Williams who first appeared in pulp magazines in 1923. Augie said, "He slept with a loaded gun in his hand, used it often and speedily and with serious intent to kill...Race would say, 'It may be brutal and all that, but why beat around a stiff.'" He told me of the others. Of course, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were at the top of the list, but there was also Frederick Nebel, Frank Gruber, Lester Dent and Jim Thompson who could write gore and blood and deception with the best of them. Sam Peckinpah had made a film from Thompson's "The Getaway," with Steven McQueen and Ali McGraw. Good film! But when I read Thompson's version, I was amazed to find that the story only really begins where it ends in the movie when McQueen and McGraw cross over the US-Mexican border.
At times, Augie would peer at me with a discerning eye and say, "The dicks were not always entirely honest, you know?" I didn't take it personally; I just shrugged it off. Hey, I had never borrowed money from him!
I described, briefly, my newest client and the case. I went on to say that the new employer was eccentric, in a sense, and that while I wasn't thrilled with him, there was something that was interesting about the whole affair. I mentioned that it just didn't seems logical for anyone to go through the trouble---not to mention---danger of stealing something with no real value. That lead to me talking about what is real. Augie nodded from time-to-time and when I got into the what is real? part, he said, "Don't forget your Sam Spade. Remember the 'Maltese Falcon?'"
I said, I remembered the Bogart, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet version, but "I haven't read Hammetts' rendering."
"My good man, you owe it to yourself. It is America's greatest detective novel! I must have read it the first time as a kid, under the bed covers, with a flashlight. It defines the American conception of the hard-boiled private eye; not to mention the femme fatale. Any women involved in this latest caper, Wes?"
"None that I know of. At least, not yet."
Disappointment registered on his gaunt face and he muttered, "Pity... a pretty and sexy lady, who is both clever and intelligent, would give some spice to the scenario." He stopped, thought for a moment, then said, "There may be a lesson there. In 'The Maltese Falcon,' I mean." Other than pointing that out, he said there wasn't much he could help with though he did have a friend---he had never introduced me to---who was a Dutch art critic. "I know him from the old neighborhood. The one I lived in before this dreadful annoyance of yet another separation. We hung out at the same cafe. Should you need any assistance that he might be able to offer, I'll take you to the place. Introduce you."
I said, "Great!" and bid him a good night.
I was in bed within 30 minutes.