Sax on the Streets
Chapter 11:
Amsterdam, Holland

Another Omen?

© Dan Gordon, 2003

So it was Amsterdam, Holland, in the early morning of May 26, 1988, packs on our backs, saxophones in our hands, busking on our minds.

“Well, here we are. What do we now?” I said as we looked around the airport after passing through customs.

“Go to the center of town, I guess,” Gary shrugged. “Let’s see, there’s a shuttle around here somewhere, if I remember correctly. Yeah, there it is.” Gary had flown into Amsterdam the summer before, so he knew his way around. He also had a few Dutch guilders left over from then.

“You have enough money to pay for both of us?” I asked.

“I hope so, or we’re going to have to unpack and play right here in the airport. You think that’s against some FAA regulation?” He laughed out loud at his own corny joke. “Wait a minute—the ride to town is covered by the railpasses. And a good thing, too,” he said as he examined his Dutch change. “I don’t know if I would have had enough to pay for both of us. Not too much money here. We’re going to have to play as soon as we get there.”

“Hey, that’s what we’re here for.”

We did have traveler’s cheques, and plenty of them, but like the previous summer, we wanted to make it with only the money we earned from our music. Ambitious, yes, but we had set that goal for ourselves.

Any feelings of excitement as we approached the city were counterbalanced by our exhaustion. Gary’s bloodshot eyes and disheveled hair made him look like he had been awake for a week. Only the jostling of the train kept us awake during the ride. And it was 7:30 in the morning. Nothing throws a wrench in your system like jetlag. Being cooped up inside an airplane for several hours is tiring enough. To add to it, when you finally get out, your internal clock is all messed up. Traveling east is worse than traveling west, because you lose several hours. That means if you arrive in the early morning, like we did, you feel like it’s nighttime, but when you’re ready to go to sleep you have a whole day to stay awake. Going west is easier; it’s like staying up all night and still having several extra hours to sleep it off. But whichever the direction, it takes a while to get adjusted.

Gary and I realized in hindsight that it would have been an easier transition for us had we flown into a city where we knew someone. At least that way we could have recovered from jetlag in the comfort of someone’s home rather than facing all the post-arrival hassles while in a daze. But when you get a cheap flight, you go wherever it takes you, so it had to be Amsterdam.

Still, if there is one city in Europe where it is easy to find accommodations with a minimum of trouble, it is Amsterdam. Even at that early hour of the morning, as soon as we arrived at the central station, several solicitors offering accommodations approached us. This happens all the time in Amsterdam, where cheap lodgings abound for endless stream of people who flock there to partake of its drugs. Amsterdam is the drug capital of Europe, if not the whole world. Every person under 25 years of age goes there for one reason only. Hash.

All of the drug dealing and other illicit activity throughout the city is condoned by the police, who operate on the belief that any time such activity is tolerated, the desire to indulge in it decreases. However philosophically true this may be, it doesn’t work in Amsterdam. A walk into any bar or nightclub in the city with a picture of a marihuana leaf in the window—the sign indicating that drugs are to be had—reveals blatant displays of drug use. Clients openly pass around joints. The air reeks of weed. Menus offer “space brownies” and “space cookies.” That doesn’t mean they’re shaped like rocket ships.

Equally shocking is the red light district of town. Street after street is lined with scantily clad prostitutes making explicit lewd gestures as they display themselves in cushy showrooms behind full-length plate-glass windows. Amsterdam is the only city I know where the red light district is a tourist attraction. Groups of Japanese businessmen take pictures of the area and laugh at the showcase of decadence.

Yet Amsterdam has another, more refined side it to it as well. Its Van Gogh and Rembrandt museums are world-renowned. The city houses the internationally acclaimed Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. It is also one of the leading centers in the world for diamond polishing. Dichotomous Amsterdam is at once a refined cultural capital and a juvenile playground.

Gary and I weren’t interested in any of the city’s juvenile activity, and in our washed-out post-flight state, we weren’t up for any of its cultural activity either. We couldn’t even accept any of the accommodation offers from the people in the station because we didn’t have enough money to pay for them. Our only option was to unpack the act right in front of the train station and play.

We followed the same routine in setting up as we did the previous summer: unfold the music stand, clip the music onto it with clothes pins, turn one volume of the books face-out for bystanders, and put the saxophones together.

“Aaah, back on the streets of Europe,” I said with grin as I adjusted the reed on my mouthpiece. “It sure feels good.”

“‘Feels good’? I’m about to keel over from exhaustion!” Gary grunted.

“Merely a temporary inconvenience. Here, I’ve got something that will cheer you up.” I rummaged through my backpack and pulled from within it THE HAT.

“THE HAT!!” Gary’s face lit up like a child’s on Christmas morning. He coddled the cherished object and regarded it with wonderment. Slightly wrinkled from the ravages of the previous summer, the hat had nevertheless endured handsomely. Its pale tan color took on an earthy glow. Its sides were still firm; its bottom, supple; its brim, like fingers poised to accept falling coins. Gary bent over slowly and laid the hat down before us with great care. “It has been too long. Too, too long,” he uttered. He dug into his pocket and dropped his remaining guilders into the hat’s open mouth. The hat seemed to grin slightly when it swallowed the change, as if pleased to nourish itself again on the diet of coins it had been denied all winter long.

“May it be the first of many coins and many currencies to come,” I said.


Moments later, Telemann echoed through the streets and canals of Amsterdam. Our summer was underway.

After about half an hour, a local busker carted up a calliope and cranked it into action not more than ten yards away. The thing was enormous—about the size of a horse—and pumped out so much sound that it completely drowned us out. This guy had obviously never heard of busker etiquette. He knew his act could blow anybody else’s away and he took full advantage of it. Some kind of generator powered the calliope, so while the contraption wheezed on, the just man stood there and shook his little sardine-can-shaped collection box in the face of anyone who came near.

An act like this is a disgrace to busking. For one thing, it is so loud that even those who aren’t interested have to have it forced down their throats. Worse still, the guy who operates the thing has absolutely no talent. All he has done is invest a lot of money in a machine. The charm of a street musician is to watch the music being made before you, to see the creative process in action. That guy with the calliope had no part at all in making the music. To aggravate matters further, he had intentionally committed the cardinal sin of busking by setting his act up so close to ours.

As heinous an offense as this justifiably warrants an argument, if not outright violence. But such activity would have been too much for our first day back. We packed up. “Great way to start off the summer,” I muttered as I folded up the music stand. “Did we make any money at least?“

Gary counted up the change in the hat. “Not much. No, in fact, this stinks. There’s less than 15 guilders in here. We didn’t even make four dollars apiece.”

“Terrific. I guess it’s too early in the morning to earn decent money.”

“What time is it now?” Gary asked.

“Quarter to nine.”

“Only quarter to nine? God, it feels like this day will never end.”

“We’ll get over it,” I said. “‘Come what, come may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.’ Shakespeare. Macbeth: Act I, Scene iii, line 146, Macbeth aside.”

“Shut up, Dan, I just want to sleep.”

“I hear it’s better to wait until night to sleep if you want to get over jetlag more easily,” I said.

“I’d rather drop dead than stay up another twelve hours,” Gary snapped. “Let’s find a cheap place to stay and go to sleep. I’m exhausted.”

Meanwhile, the calliope oom-pah-pah-ed all too loudly in the background. Its owner busily badgered passers-by. He was well aware that we had packed up and were leaving because of him. We glared at him as we passed. He grinned a spiteful grin and shook his grimy collection box in our faces.

We headed straight back to the station and accepted the first offer for accommodations we could afford. We slogged behind as the solicitor led us to the lodging, a seamy room with exposed, hissing pipes overhead and a ratty rug underfoot. One bed was concave, the other, convex. But to our bleary eyes, the place looked like a palace. We paid for it with our last guilders, dumped our things on the floor, and went straight to sleep.

We awoke several hours later. I sat up in bed and looked around. Where am I? What am I doing here? I wondered. My watch said it was evening. My brain argued otherwise. My stomach screamed for food. Suddenly, the sinking, helpless feeling of being alone in a strange place overcame me. A good meal would have cleared my head better than anything, but we had no money for it. The streets awaited.

We gathered up our playing gear and proceeded to the front desk to get some advice on where to play. “What kind of audience do you prefer?” the attendant responded to our request. “Smoking or non-smoking?”

It took a few seconds before we realized what he meant. It had slipped our minds for a moment that this was Amsterdam. “Non-smoking, please,” Gary finally replied. I felt like we were making an airline reservation. The attendant gave us a map and pointed out a pedestrian zone.

Fifteen minutes later, we were in the pedestrian zone and had found a pitch near one end of it. There were plenty of people about, the time of the day was far better than that ridiculous hour we tried to play that morning, and Dutch guilders were good busker fare. For the first time since we arrived, I felt optimistic.

The music was free of the grogginess that had weighed it down earlier. The duets didn’t sparkle, but were at least coherent. The hat neatly digested the coins that passers-by fed it. Gary peered down at the accumulating change and declared, “We’re back.”

Afterwards, when we counted up the money, we found the earnings considerably short of our expectations. “Maybe we’re not back after all,” I said. “What is it with this city? Or is it us?”

“We’re not exactly in the best condition to play, but everyone in Amsterdam is too wasted to appreciate our music.”

“I guess we don’t eat too well tonight,” I sighed.

We roamed around the streets and compared prices of every restaurant we found. Most were out of our budget.

Suddenly, I heard a shout in the distance. “Daniel, is that you? What are you doing here?”

I stopped, stood still for a moment, and thought to myself. Okay, somebody just called my name out of the blue. The last time this happened was in the train station in Barcelona when an unexpected Gary happened along. At least then I could have guessed who it might be. But in Amsterdam, Holland, on my first day back in Europe? No clue.

I turned around slowly, prepared for a shock. Running toward me, as if in slow motion, was Agnes, a Dutch girl I had met at that Hungarian workcamp two summers earlier. I looked down, drew my hands over my face, and looked up again. She was still there. Must be real. Had I been on the next street, or in the same spot five minutes later, or arrived on a different day, I would have missed her altogether. I had an eerie feeling that somehow, in some way, someone had planned this.

Another omen?

The three of us spent the evening reacquainting ourselves over a cheap dinner. Agnes was now a proper businesswoman, a far cry from the carefree student lifestyle she had when we first met. She was leaving town the next day on business, so she couldn’t spend more time with us. But we did exchange addresses and promise to meet again when we returned to Amsterdam at the end of the summer. The chance meeting provided the lift that Gary and I desperately needed.

Our cheer turned out to be only temporary, as the following day, with Agnes gone, the realities of our precarious financial situation stared us in the face again. We were scraping bottom so badly that at breakfast the next morning, when the proprietor asked if we wanted toast with our coffee, we had to ask if it cost extra. We couldn’t afford a lousy piece of bread! Amazing how much torture we put ourselves through to avoid cashing a traveler’s cheque. At the time, it seemed like a fate worse than death.

The remainder of the day was a succession of feeble attempts at earning money. Nothing worked. We tried several pitches throughout the city and played at all times of the day. No luck. Still scraping. By evening we were thoroughly frustrated.

“Why are we wasting our time here? I hate Amsterdam,” I scoffed. Already we had fallen into the trap of judging a city by our busking successes. “This place is the sleaze capital of the world. Every drug addict in Europe must be here. They’re all too wasted to realize we’re not a hallucination. We gotta get out of here!”

“Fine,” he said. “I hate this place as much as you do.”



Paris! Saved by the railpass.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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