Still in Amsterdam and Soccer
Author’s Note: This being the Web, the newest installment of these letters will appear at the top of the page, with its predecessors following in reverse chronological order. Sometimes information in a prior installment will prove essential to the understanding of the current one. Today, an encounter with a massage therapist who wanted to write novels, and a subsequent encounter with the novelist Jay McInerney, who wanted to dance with models, are prerequisites. Also, I am waiting to meet Susan Smit, a model, who said she would take me out to see Amsterdam with her friends and would text-message me (at midnight) with the details. Thanks!
With several hours to kill before my next scheduled text message, I visited Susan Smit’s website (www.susansmit.nl). Among other things, it explained, in a brief English bio, that Susan had abandoned modeling for journalism, then became fascinated with the figure of “the crone” as a role model for young women, and had then chosen to become a witch.
It occurred to me that “I will text-message you at midnight” might be the perfect line for a contemporary witch.
Come midnight, Susan called instead of texting. A few minutes later, a cab pulled up outside my hotel, and Susan opened the door. We headed east along the Herrengracht.
I said, “Hey, I read on your website that you’re a witch!”
She laughed and changed the subject.
We pulled up to a bar full of dripping candles that was on the ground floor of a massive, semicircular public housing project, where we met a group of Susan’s friends. I got into a long conversation with a blond photographer and her bald boyfriend. He wore heavy glasses and worked in “logistics,” a job he described as “incredibly boring.” Then he told me, “What I really want to be is a massage therapist.” Automatically I looked at his hands. They were in good shape. And he had a kind face. He looked like a man with the makings of an excellent massage therapist.
“You should do it,” I said.
“I’ve signed up for a course,” he replied.
I found myself badly wanting a massage. Then I was struck by the coincidence of having just met a massage therapist who wanted to be a novelist, a novelist who wanted to hang out with models, and a guy hanging out with models (well, one model) who wanted to be a massage therapist. In the candlelight of the curved housing project, it was all beautifully Dutch.
Having spent six months co-editing a book about soccer (Dutch title: De WK-gids voor geschoolde voetbalfans), I was filled with soccer-related knowledge, passion, and desire. So I scared up some tickets to see Ajax, Amsterdam’s soccer team, play their archrivals, PSV Eindhoven, at the capital’s big, 50,000-seat stadium. I took a cab to the game with Arjan, an editor at Rothschild & Bach, O, wat schitterend allemaal’s publisher.
This was the big match of the season, and the stadium was completely sold out. Since Arjan is a season-ticket holder, he was sitting in the south stands on the bottom tier with all his friends. Both Ajax and PSV have players who will be in the World Cup this summer. PSV is coached by Guus Hiddink, probably the greatest soccer strategist alive. I was in the second tier of the north stands, sandwiched between the hardcore home-team fans and a small, barricaded-off section of traveling PSV fans. Whenever the latter got going on one of their “Heeey! Heeeey! We are here for PSVaaaaaay!” chants, the Ajax fans would yell, “Ajax!” and stomp their feet three times in succession.
I wound up missing the best shot of the game, a deflected strike that still hit the goal post and went out for a corner, because my phone beeped and said, “On your seat? Arjan,” and I wasted tons of time writing, “Yep. Hope they score!”
There was at least one other American in the stadium, DaMarcus Beasley, a right winger for PSV. He’s also on the U.S. national team, so I kept hoping Hiddink would put him in. I spent a lot of time staring at Hiddink and willing him to do this. The coach was a big man with a pompadour in a gray suit. Later, when I mentioned to Arjan that Hiddink must have been freezing in that suit, he said, “Nah. Lots of blubber.”
Slobodan Milosevic is freshly dead in The Hague, 30 miles away.
I’ve just been to Amsterdam for the publication of O, wat schitterend allemaal, a book I wrote, which is called Oh the Glory of It All in English.
Holland’s principal medium of communication is the text message. Everything logistical is handled by text message. Unfortunately, for every perfectly punctuated 10-line message I receive, I require 15 minutes to compose my awkward, error-ridden, strangely punctuated response. (I have to press my phone’s minuscule “1” key 23 times—the thumbnail works best—to get the apostrophe required to say “I’m here.” When I overshoot the 14 depressions required for a question mark, I get an inverted question mark …) A fair amount of humiliation comes of firing off one of these tortured messages and having a Dutch respondent get back to me immediately, and at length.
I flew to Holland via London. The intense texting started on the way to Heathrow. Oscar Van Gelderen, my editor, who is a man-about-town of the old New York (New Amsterdam?) publishing variety, wrote and said, “Hey, mate, are you on the way? I can’t be there but Maria from my office will meet you at Schiphol.”
After several miles, I replied, “Great but whats schipol¿”
“The airport. Where are you?”
(Fifteen minutes later.) “On bus to heathrow see u soon”
Before I shut off the phone, it beeped and said, “What’s Heathrow? Ha ha.”
Some notes on the Dutch:
They like candles, even in the middle of the day. If you are going to sit down across a table from someone in Holland, there will be a candle between you.
They all speak (and text) excellent English.
They excel at drinking, and, as with texting, they are better at it than me. My first meal in the country, which was hosted by Oscar, began with mixed drinks and beers all around, continued through four bottles of Sancerre (for four of us), then tapered off into four more rounds of beers and mixed drinks. The Dutch do not like to leave their mouths unoccupied.
The Dutch wake up without hangovers. Hung-over on my first morning there, I had a long conversation with Susan Smit, a tall, blond former fashion model who is now a reporter for AvantGarde magazine. She asked me about memoir and about James Frey. When our conversation was over, she asked me about my plans for the evening.
“No plans,” I said.
“Well, then,” she stated with Dutch matter-of-factness, “you can come out dancing with me and my friends. I will text-message you at midnight.”
The day before, I’d met an Irish woman named Siobahn, who was a massage therapist but wanted to be a novelist. After the interview with Susan, I met Jay McInerney. The novelist was on his Dutch tour. I introduced myself.
“I’m Sean Wilsey. We’ve actually met before, at a dinner.”
“Oh, yeah …” he said, noncommittally.
I said yeah.
He turned away and looked out the window.
It being a Friday, McInerney’s Dutch publisher, who had just arrived to take him shopping, asked me what I was doing that night.
I said, “I’m going out dancing, at midnight, with a woman called Susan Smit, and her friends.”
“Ah, Susan Smit, the model! That’ll be fun.”
When the word “model” was pronounced, Jay McInerney turned back and said, “Oh, hey, maybe we’ll see each other around the hotel later!”
I’m in Maine. I’m on vacation. Sometimes I’d rather be sent to prison for a couple weeks than go on vacation. If I were incarcerated I’d get time off work, I’d know when I’d be getting my meals, and I’d get regular exercise. Instead of prison, my wife Daphne, my 1-year-old son Owen, and I are sitting in a beautiful old granite workers’ union hall about a hundred yards from Clark Island, the site of two former quarries, now two static pools that reach as deep as the center of the earth. Friends of ours own the union hall, and they were kind enough to loan it to us for two weeks. What to do with all this free time? On the way up here we stopped in Portland and spent the night with Daphne’s uncle Sam. Uncle Sam knows Chris Bowe, the owner of Longfellow Books in Portland, and Chris arranged for me to come back and give a reading there this Friday. Uncle Sam put me on the phone with him and he said, “We’d love to have you read! Your book’s been big here! We’ve sold six copies!”
There’s also a bookstore near the union hall, in Thomaston. It’s called “The Personal Bookstore.” My book is a personal memoir, so I stopped in and introduced myself. The store’s owner was a middle-aged woman with a 1940s hairstyle sitting in a chintz armchair in the center of the store. Behind the cash register was a wonderfully awkward 14-year-old boy called Gordon.
“What’s your book called?” the owner asked.
I told her.
“We don’t have it,” she said.
Gordon, listening, said, “Whoa, that’s you—your book was in People magazine.”
I turned and said, “Yeah, you saw it in People?”
Gordon said, “Sometimes I like trashy magazines. Only in the summer.”
The owner said, “Where’s it been reviewed?”
I told her three places.
She said, “Well, how’d you get that? It’s your first book. Why’d they pay attention to it?”
“Um, well, I worked really hard on it …”
Gordon, trying to clue her in, said, “It’s really mainstream!”
An older man who’d been reading said, “You should read here.”
The owner said curtly, “I’m not ready to engage about that!” Then she added, in a more conciliatory tone, “Come back and show me your book sometime.”
Daphne, Owen, and I left and went to Thomaston’s main attraction, a store where everything is wood, and made by inmates of the Maine State Penitentiary. There are guards behind the counter. We wanted to find a lamp that was a boat, but faced with hundreds of such lamps, each one labeled “Made by an Inmate at the Maine State Penitentiary” along with a prisoner ID number, we grew sad, and headed back to the union hall. Owen took a nap, and I called Chris Bowe in Portland. He told me I was booked at the Space Gallery, which could accommodate a crowd in the hundreds. I am hoping the six people who bought my book in Portland will bring their friends. Or maybe some vacationer/prisoners can get bused in.
In Milwaukee I read a passage about meeting the pope. (I met the pope at age 12 when my mother took me—and a multiracial band of other children—around the world to meet leaders and plead for peace. Why did she do this?
1. She was the daughter of itinerant ministers.
2. My father left her for her best friend.
3. Meeting world leaders helped stave off depression.)
I read this:
The pope walked down the aisle toward the throne. In his long white garments, with his red face, he looked like a butcher. He climbed the platforms, a man holding each of his hands, then turned to either side of the hall so that the entire congregation could witness him. Men in black suits collected gifts, passed them back, and received new ones, like a bucket brigade in reverse.
At home on the nightstand next to my bed I had a framed picture of the pope. Dad had given it to me. I thought the pope was cool. No other religion had a man who dressed exclusively in white and ruled his own city-state. As he drew closer I thought about how impressed Dad would be if I actually got to meet him, if we had a conversation, if he laid his hands on me, if we became friends and he decided to be my advocate, if I was tying up the phone one evening and Dad asked who I was talking to, annoyed, and I said, “Karol,” and he furrowed his brow into the Al Wilsey accordion and I handed him the phone, and he said, “Carol?” and the pope’s Polish Darth Vader voice said, “Yays. Karol Wojtyla. Bayter known to you, my soan, es Johannes Paulus Secundus, speaking.”
I’d grab another extension and say, “The pope.”
“Tak,” the pope would say in Polish, fondness in his voice.
“Vicar of Christ. Bishop of Rome. The Holy Father, Dad,” I’d say.
“Tak, tak. Eet ees very spaycial young men thayt you hev there,” the pope would say. “Eet ees a very great sadness for me, aynd for God, that you do note understand the value oav him.”
People in Wisconsin found this funny. But I was really touched that a Jesuit priest was in the audience and liked it, too. He was warm and kind and told me he wasn’t at all offended by the way I wrote about the pope. “This last pope was a man of the people,” he said. “And he liked to be among the people.”
In the post-reading Q&A, I mentioned that my Catholic father managed to have all three of his pre-Mom’s-best-friend marriages annulled. This must be why a woman handed me her business card, along with a note that read:
“Hello Sean I can relate to your history in that my father (Irish Catholic) had his marriage to mother (a poet) annulled sp? after she bore his 11 children (I am #3) Kathy”
The next night, in Boston, I read a different passage, but again mentioned my dad’s affinity for annulment.
A dark-haired woman in her 40s came up to me and said, “All these Irish Catholic men are handsome and charming and think the children are raised by fairies. That’s how mine was.”
Then I went out for dinner with my old friend Donna, who teaches kids with learning disabilities. She has taught in some pretty rough schools for the last 10-plus years. One time she came across two students having sex on the floor of a hallway between classes. Other kids were just stepping over them. Not knowing what to do, she just stepped over them, too.
Donna told me that, nowadays, in the Boston public-school system, that kind of taboo sex could soon be called “priesting.” Thanks to all the sex scandals in the priesthood, which have centered around her city, Bostonians are adopting this new term.
Donna, excellent teacher that she is, elaborated on “priesting” or “to priest.”
“It means ‘molest,’” she said. “But somehow in a more positive way. It definitely is used as ‘feel up.’ So a woman walks by, very pretty, a guy’ll say, ‘Boy, I’d like to priest that.’ So it’s the same kind of verb as the ‘f’ word. It takes a direct object. It definitely means ‘touch and fondle,’ and can mean ‘having sex with.’”
The dictionary says that “priesting” is a noun meaning “the office of a priest.”
Now “priesting” is making the lexical journey toward synonymy with “fucking.”
How long will it be before we hear:
“He is so, so priestable.”
“I priested her brains out.”
“Let’s get butt naked and priest.”
“I’m all priested up.”
And, perhaps inevitably, “Holy priest!”?
My Seattle reading was downtown near the baseball stadium. Clayton Joyner, the bookseller who introduced me, said, “You’re competing with a Mariners game, so everyone who comes out has to pay $15 for parking.” This wasn’t the best news to get right before reading. But there were 20 or so people who’d been willing to pay. And the former dorkiest kid in my class was a no-show! (He either wasn’t willing to shell out $15 to see his former competitor for “dorkiest kid,” or he now pitches for the Mariners.) The closest thing to a groupie was a blond woman with glasses like Cadillac fins who smiled beautifully every time I looked at her. After the reading, we started talking. She told me she’d come to see me because her neighbor always comes to readings, said he made her nervous because he was “always fidgeting,” then added: “I think he’s got psoriasis.”
After reading I stopped back at the Alexis and had another chat with Crystal Gallant. The writer Mavis Gallant came up. Crystal had never heard of Mavis, but claimed that there was a famous writer with her name: Crystal Gallant.
I said I doubted it.
She said she’d prove it.
I changed the subject.
We talked about travel, and Crystal said she wanted to stop being a concierge in Seattle, move to San Francisco, and “open a boutique in Cow Hollow.”
I said, “Will your boutique be called Crystal Gallant?”
Then I went out to dinner with Clayton Joyner, from the Elliott Bay Book Company, and Christopher Frizzelle, the arts editor of the Seattle indie newspaper The Stranger. They’re both gay, and very handsome. I’m straight and losing my hair. I felt like the dorkiest kid in a whole new way.
When I cut out early and went back to the hotel to sleep, there was a voice message on my phone. It said: “Sean, it’s Crystal. After we talked I Googled Mavis Gallant. She is a short-story writer, and I’ve actually read a couple of her stories. I also Googled myself, and nothing came up. So I was lying to you when I said there was a writer with my name. There isn’t. I was thinking of Mavis. So I just wanted to tell you that, so you didn’t think I was a big jerk. Good luck on the tour.”
Crystal Gallant’s superpower is super truthfulness.
Before I left for Seattle I got an e-mail from my nephew Trent, who’s the oldest son of my dad’s oldest child. Thanks to my father’s hypermatrimonialist tendencies, Trent is actually older than I am. He grew up in Tahoe, where my half sister was a school teacher, and I used to visit a lot during vacations. One time Trent took me to school, stood me in front of his class (full of intimidating older kids), and said, “This is my uncle.” I was his show-and-tell project.
Trent wished me well on the tour, told me his mom, my half sister, was only reading one page of my book a day, and asked, “Got any ‘groupies’ yet?” He’s a dentist and lectures about 20 times a year on “dental philosophies.” Dental assistants, dental fanatics, and dental hygienists tend to fill out the audiences on the philosophical-dentistry lecture circuit, and he warned me that similar literary types might turn up on a book tour.
I flew into Seattle the night before the reading. The plane was only a third full, but for some reason my row was completely taken, and they wouldn’t let any of us move. My seatmates were very-happy-seeming honeymooners. They lived in Buffalo and were taking a train back home from Seattle in a couple days. I told them I was a writer.
She said, “Let me guess, sci-fi.”
I told her I was a “memoirist,” which is always a good way to assassinate a conversation. Then I asked what they did. He was a New York state National Guardsman just back from Qatar. She was a “transcriptionist.”
“Mostly sci-fi?” I asked.
“Touché,” she said.
I invited them to the reading. They wrote all the information down, and I figured they’d come, we’d have dinner afterward, and I’d probably wind up knowing them for the rest of my life. Then I took a cab into town. When I arrived at the very swank Alexis Hotel, at 1:00 a.m., someone else had been given my room (the “Author’s Suite”) in what the concierge described as “highly irregular” circumstances. He then asked to see my ID just to make sure I really was the unknown memoirist I claimed to be. Satisfied that I was, he put me in the last remaining room. The next day, before the reading, a much friendlier concierge, with the unlikely name of Crystal Gallant, kindly upgraded me to the “John Lennon Suite.” Grateful, I looked at her nametag, then burst out with, “Whoa, Crystal Gallant is the name of a superhero!”
It is a testimony to the superheroism of Crystal Gallant that she didn’t call security on me. Instead, she just said, “Actually, I am kind of like a superhero.”
I said, “What is your power?”
She said, “My powers are many.”
I’m on a book tour. Right now I’m in Denver. In Denver people are so nice that if you only want to discuss three things with them—jeeps, aliens, omelets filled with diced ham, bell pepper, cheese and onion—they are delighted by your knowledge of and interest in their city. Prior to my arrival in the Rockies, I thought it might be insulting to mention these things. But, in fact, everyone here drives a slick blue Mork and Mindy’d-out Jeep Wrangler as a sort of homage, and Denver omelets are at the top of every breakfast menu.
I’ve been on the road for two weeks. I started in San Francisco, where a lot of my book is set. It was wonderful, and weird. Wonderful: A bookseller at Booksmith on Haight Street asked me to sign her copy of The Lord of the Rings! Weird: A woman in her 60s accosted me in a restaurant (I was there for a “literary lunch”) and rubbed her breasts up and down my right arm till I fled.
But here is the most surreal moment:
I was sitting at a desk signing books when a woman handed me her copy and said, “Don’t you recognize me?”
I said, “Mrs. Warburg!”
She said, “Yes. That’s right. Mrs. Warburg, on page 84. We have a new car now.” I smiled. Had I insulted her car? She leaned close, hissed, “You shit!” and smiled back twice as wide.
Page 84 contains a description of car shopping with my mother: “We were in the Oldsmobile showroom. Who’d ever even heard of an Oldsmobile? The only one I’d ever seen belonged to the parents of the dorkiest kid in my class, who’d tried to befriend me, until I realized he was only going to make my life worse and mercilessly ditched him. His parents were even older than mine. The Oldsmobile was like the car of the dead.”
I said I was sorry, signed Mrs. Warburg’s book (she couldn’t have been that pissed), and congratulated her on the new car. Then she told me her son lived in Seattle and would be coming to my next reading. She had recognized herself from a description of her son as the “dorkiest kid in my class,” and she was now going to send him to my reading.