It was still a cold and rainy Tuesday December 4 1973 and I and my three comrades were still high from Butch’s hashish we’d smoked before leaving the hostel that morning (it truly was ‘killer’ stuff!). And we were now pretty drunk from the five glass limit of beer after doing the Heineken brewery tour for a second straight day. Despite the intoxication and after a couple wrong turns, we finally found our way to the Van Gogh museum, and were able to take off our wet ponchos and jackets and hang them in the coat room.
Beyond the whole cannabis ‘hive mind’ thing, we’d been drawn to stay together out on the streets while we had a common destination, but now here in the museum with its random array of rooms full of Van Gogh’s works, it was a very different dynamic. It really didn’t work for four people, even in a kind of stoned, peas in a pod mode, to experience each painting together. The level of interest in a particular piece was bound to vary, it either drew you in or it didn’t. Particularly when you were stoned, an evocative work of art, like much of Van Gogh’s stuff, is a very intimate experience. Also a lot of his paintings were on the small side, making it hard for more than one or two people to look at a painting at the same time. So we soon drifted apart, each of us drawn to different canvases in different rooms of the museum.
Van Gogh had such a unique style and look to his work. Many of his paintings were flowing waving lines, particularly when you got up close to them. His portraits seemed very intense and again, intimate, like the subject of the painting saw you and was about to say something profound. Even his ostensibly placid country scenes had so much motion and energy in the fields and the skies, a sense of great tension in some of them. The ones I liked best were the scenes with the little buildings, tiny people, and big waving fields of grass and vibrant, even at times violent, sky. Maybe they seemed tranquil to some because the human element, the houses and people, were so small and peaceful contrasted to the intensity of the lines of grass and sky.
Also with my love of interior spaces, my buzzing brain was captivated by and drawn into ‘Bedroom in Arles’. The simply laid out room looked so cozy and inviting. As I gazed at it my mind wandered to my own bedroom upstairs in our house, with my own casement window looking out across the street at the park and my old elementary school. The thought danced through my brain that just a week from tonight I should actually be sleeping in it again. It was an invigorating thought, I so wanted to get home.
The moment I encountered it on the wall of the gallery, ‘Wheatfield with a Lark’ captured my attention. I recalled my mom using a print of this particular piece to demonstrate to me the concept of good abstract design. It was one of many Van Gogh prints she had in her array of art books. As she explained it, though somewhat lost on me at the time, the essential elements of abstract design were not only the lines, forms and colors, but the relationship of those lines and forms with each other, what she called the “negative space”. The proper use of these visual design elements would draw your eye to each part of the piece in turn. And though Van Gogh painted scenes from real life, his paintings “worked” at that abstract level as well.
I recalled the big art book opened up on our square coffee table in the living room, which also doubled as a horizontal work surface when she was working on a “canvas”, the word she used particularly for an unfinished painting. The print of this particular painting filled the thick glossy page, and her fingertips reverently caressed the shiny surface as she used them to demarcate the design. Three forms – cut grass, tall wheat, and sky – running in horizontal bands that her fingertips traversed, each of increasing height relative to the band below. And then the fourth form, the tiny lark, critical in its relationship within the sky band, above the grass band and just to the left of center of the vertical axis, critical to making the painting “work”. And to try to demonstrate that criticality to me, she covered the lark with the tip of her index finger and then triumphantly noted how without that tiny form, placed where it was in exquisite “negative spacing” to the three main forms of the piece, the painting “no longer worked”.
Seeing the actual painting now, with its raised strokes of paint on the canvas, and not just the flat representation on the page of her art book, incanted the thing with incredible energy. And the lark, a tiny island of paint strokes atop a turbulent ocean of paint stroked sky, created a depth to the thing that was not visceral in the print.
I knew you were not supposed to touch the paintings, but with my ever craving for sensual intimacy I could not resist just once. I waited for when the docent and no one else was looking as I moved in close to the canvas, the paint piled on it seemed positively geographic. I reached out with my finger and gently caressed a little stroke of the painted lark, the hardened, brittle old pigment like a scab on a wound that had not yet healed.
Then as I headed into an adjoining room, I came across Gwendolyn, with her back to me, standing alone in the space staring at ‘Wheatfield with Crows’, maybe just two feet in front of her. She had pinned her big mane of hair up into a fairly tight bun on the top of her head, so I could see the shape of her head, neck and her broad shoulders, her head slowly oscillating from side to side as she pondered the thing. Her hands were on her hips, her butt nicely pear-shaped in her jeans, and her left leg and butt cheek quivered as she tapped her toes on the floor. Some sort of nervous habit, like the way I would bounce my heel when I was sitting on a chair with both feet on the floor. I thought it gave her character, a sort of pensive energy, not unlike Van Gogh’s paintings, that I found intriguing, and a thrill to watch unnoticed for the moment.
I could see the tiny tensing of muscles in her neck as she sensed someone behind her. She rotated her head just enough to catch me in her peripheral vision, and without turning to actually look at me or speaking and smashing the quiet thrall of the place, she held up her hand at her side and waved me up to join her. I walked up next to her, choosing to come in close, my left shoulder just a half inch from her right, hoping that she might adjust herself and our shoulders would touch. I paralleled her exactly, staring at the picture. Still buzzing a bit from the hash but walloped by all the beer, and though we were not physically touching, I could feel our energy fields prickle against each other as she straightened up and rolled her shoulders slightly back in reaction to my approach.
I sensed she was comfortable having me physically close to her. I certainly was developing a thing for her, particularly since she so brazenly grabbed my poncho earlier on the walk here from the brewery to get my attention, and then was willing to own up to her assertiveness. Of course she had her boyfriend Burton, but that was not an issue, since I wasn’t going to actually hit on her, but with both our shields down there was still an opportunity for some sort of deeper connection.
Being shy me, I don’t recall ever ‘hitting on’ a young woman I was attracted to, even the ones, unlike Gwendolyn, who did not have a boyfriend. I had my patented subtler approach of listening and saying the right thing to acknowledge a female comrade, more like a trusted girlfriend than a prowling male, even a friendly prowling male. Of course, even if the female type person didn’t have a boyfriend, my approach wasn’t on any sort of path to getting in their pants, but it did often lead to at least some moments of real intimacy which I craved. I approached Gwendolyn now hoping for a dose of that sort of intimacy.
Still staring at the picture but tilting her head in my direction conspiratorially, she asked quietly, “Did your mom ever tell you about this one, ‘Wheatfield with Crows’? It’s my favorite of his work!”
She said “about” with that faint Canadian drawl that sounded a bit more like “a boot”, making her seem that much more exotic, and endearing her to me that much more.
I almost lied and said yes, just to draw her in more, wanting to hear me share my mom’s artist wisdom, which I would then have had to make up. Instead I went with the more honest no, but then invoked my mom anyway.
“If my mom were here she’d probably have her face right up to the picture studying the paint strokes, trying to determine the technique, paint brush or pallet knife.”
I moved into the painting even closer and Gwendolyn followed suit. It was barely big enough for both of us to engage it so intimately, and the wannabe artist’s shoulder pressed against mine in the process. That contact was electric, and the libidinal energy shot through my body and continued to percolate in my inebriated brain. I was careful in that moment not to acknowledge the contact in any way, either verbally or nonverbally, as attention to it might break the spell and cause her to pull away. She deliciously did not acknowledge it either. The buzz still messing with my time sense, it seemed forever with our shoulders touching that we studied the surface of the painting together, the content of wheat field, sky and crows giving way to the pure form of strokes of now hardened paint piled on top of the canvas, our shared intimate voyage of discovery through the terrain of the surface of the artist’s work.
We were now, at least for this moment, kindred spirits, until the spell somehow would be broken. Without any verbal agreement, we proceeded together to move about the gallery and engage the various self-portraits of Van Gogh. He seemed obsessed with painting his own face, and there were at least eight of those likenesses of him on display, and apparently many more in other collections around the world. In each he stared at you from the canvas looking like something was definitely on his mind. Along with paint brush versus palette knife, Gwendolyn and I debated in hushed voices whether that intense look of his in a given painting was more fear, menace, questioning, or deep understanding.
Apparently while she and I had been exploring the intimate geography of the great artist’s painted canvases, Butch and her boyfriend were continuing to indulge in their fundamental political argument about privilege, in hushed voices and that playful overly esoteric way that stoned people can. As we reengaged with them after our own less contentious exploration of Van Gogh’s obsession with himself, Butch explained to us that their argument had rekindled around the artist’s ‘The Potato Eaters’. The painting depicted five rather homely, salt of the earth white peasants at the dinner table, presumably eating the fruits from their own toiling of the soil, the artist’s homage to their unpretentious and honest labor.
Butch’s blow by blow, delivered in what seemed like a practiced quiet modulation appropriate to the place we were in.
“The erudite Master Burtonburg noted that though the figures in the painting were obviously white, what ‘privilege’ did they have as lowly peasants”, Butch recapped in his signature style, “With that gauntlet flung unceremoniously at my feet, I countered with the argument that they indeed still had the privilege of their race, and though low in the pecking order, they still were above a black laborer, who even in the late 19th century would still be viewed as little more than a slave.”
Burton scoffed at Butch’s characterization.
“I’ll tell you dude, where we live in Canada it’s definitely what you know rather than who you are that leads to being successful.”
“Being white might be at best an ephemeral advantage”, he continued, “But if you can’t cut the mustard you are no better off. Black folks in our town go to school with us and have their opportunities just like we do. They just have to work hard and commit themselves, just like we fucking do, to take full advantage of them.”
Then adding a final statement, “Gwendolyn and I had to work hard and long for every penny we’re spending here in Europe. There’s no ‘white privilege’ paying our way!”
Butch’s grin, while he nodded at what Burton was saying, bordered on turning into a grimace, and I could tell he had heard this argument before from other people.
“I do not know your world in Ontario Canada”, he responded, “But in my mostly white world in New Zealand, most of the white kids I knew were pretty clueless of their built in advantages from being part of the
‘ruling tribe’. Sure, everyone has to work hard to succeed, but the white kids have at least a few more ‘cards in their deck’ to play as needed, and if they fuck up they’re much more likely to get a second chance.”
These were indeed heavy political thoughts, but Butch threw them out in passing with a wink and a grin that was very disarming. And he was the first to admit his own “economic privilege” that allowed him to go to an elite private school and take this extensive sojourn through Europe, saying his parents had done well for themselves “working for the man”.
Gwendolyn and I had been just interested spectators in this discussion up to now, but Butch turned his gaze on me and asked.
“So what’s the manster Coopenstein’s take on this weighty tussle?”
I was kind of caught by surprise by the question, having been happy to be in listening mode as buzzed and boggled as my mind was by our intoxicants, and I said that I needed to ponder all this before I responded.
My own ideological guru was my ‘feminist aunt’, my mom’s good friend, Mary Jane. She was more likely to talk in terms of ‘male privilege’, but I knew she wouldn’t be antagonistic to the concept of white privilege as well. As always a wannabe radical more so than a real one at this point in my life, I had not really confronted the concept of my own white privilege. But I decided I was going to be with Butch on the privilege argument, it was more consistent with being that radical person I imagined myself to be. I decided I would hedge it a bit and not take full ownership of the position, and finally commented.
“My mom’s best friend Mary Jane is a radical feminist and is always talking about ‘male privilege’, so I imagine ‘white privilege’ is along those same lines.”
Burton glared at me and forced the issue of ownership of that view of things.
“So do you agree with her assessment? Have you truly experienced white and male privilege for yourself?”
I was not comfortable being in these crosshairs at the moment, and though I responded with a “yes”, it came out kind of half-ass and tentative. In that male sparring style that I always found discomforting and generally refused to engage in with other guys, Burton called for my evidence.
“Okay dude, give me an example!”
At this point, Gwendolyn finally chimed in, and whether intended or not, came to my rescue.
“Hey babe”, she said to Burton, “Remember how your parents unconditionally supported your plan to travel through Europe?”
“Yeah”, he responded tentatively, probably wondering where she was going with this.
She continued. “Remember how MY parents were only okay with me traveling through Europe if I went with you?”
Burton scoffed and threw up his hands. “Listen babe, that’s just the reality of the world we live in! Believe me I wish the world were safer for women!”
Her eyes twinkled triumphantly, he had essentially made her point, she nodded and said, “Yep”.
I could see him struggling for a counter, but he either did not come up with one or decided not to fight with his girlfriend.
Butch, chuckling, rarely missing the opportunity to playfully taunt and tease, said, “Ooo how sweet, you two call each other ‘babe’. How ‘Sonny and Cher’!”
Burton, obviously miffed but still a bit tipsy and trying to be a good sport, blew air noisily out of his mouth and shook his head, coughing out a chuckle. Butch, ever the alpha tending to his ‘flock’, took control of the conversation, putting his big hand on Burton’s shoulder and turning to face Gwendolyn.
“So lady Gwenifer”, he said.
I hadn’t heard that nickname before, maybe Butch had just made it up. Seemed like he could only say your regular name once or twice before he got bored with it and started to invent and elaborate. Now starting to wave his hands in the air, though continuing to modulate his voice in a museum appropriate volume, but still with his ever crisp diction despite the cannabis and alcohol, he continued.
“While you were off ogling good Vincent’s profoundly deft palette strokes, the right honorable Burtonburg here”, patting Burton on the shoulder, “a.k.a. ‘babe sub two’, with you of course being ‘babe sub one’, for so many reasons that we don’t need to go into right now”, Butch playfully spinning off on tangents and losing the thread of his sentence, then resetting.
“Your charming and thoughtful boyfriend graciously allowed me to harangue him on history south of your border, and particularly W.E.B. DuBois first framing the concept of ‘white privilege’ in his essay ‘The Souls of Black Folk’. Stating that, while black and brown people were very aware of racial discrimination, most white people did not give it a second thought.”
Then with a twinkle in his eye and a wave of his other hand not on Burton’s shoulder for a flourish, “‘Flying fuck’ would have been my term!”
Then continuing, “Further, Dubois spoke of the ‘wages of whiteness’, which included at least a minimum of courtesy, unimpeded access to all public functions, leniency in court, plus access to the best schools granted to, in my words though not Dubois, the ‘pale of skin’.”
Listening and both grimacing and chuckling at Butch’s recap, Burton rolled his eyes and shook his head.
Noting Burton’s response, Butch winked at him and now put both his hands on his Canadian comrade’s shoulder, then proceeding, still in his modulated mellifluous voice, directing his playful recap at Gwendolyn.
“Your ‘babe sub two’ then skillfully put forward a well played argument that it was Americans, particularly white Americans, that were infatuated with being a ‘chosen people’. Canadians, were not so infected by that disease, and being much more down to earth, and less vulnerable to that ‘addiction’ of privilege. Butch looking at me now, me obviously the only white American in the conversation, and eyes twinkling said, “Present company excepted of course!”
The only thing I could think to do was laugh, and it kind of bubbled and burst out of me, way too loud for the museum, a docent and various other museum visitors looking askance in our direction. I was more and more impressed with Butch’s knowledge and facility with words, despite having ingested as much hash and beer as the rest of us. I pondered whether it was just his exceptional mind, or if this was the sort of rigor of discourse one learned in an elite private school like the one he had attended.
Pondering me now chastened by my noisy outburst, he seemed to read my mind and chuckled, saying, “Well forgive me, I’ve been too well trained by my taskmasters at school to be all bark, while I am at heart your obedient lap dog!” He then bowed to us theatrically, throwing out the olive branch but with his patented dose of sarcasm or satire or whatever the hell it was.
Having listened to his whole monologue, the alcohol still juicing her brain and egging her on to respond somehow, Gwendolyn sauntered up to Butch and gave him a gentle slap on the face, then delivering her line admirably, not unlike if she really meant it.
“Quit harassing my boyfriend!”
Burton laughed, again like I had, too loud and drawing the docent and others’ attention, and seconded his girlfriend standing up for him with a “yeah!”. I followed suit with a “yeah” as well, to playfully pile on. I could see Butch basking in the attention, plus the touch of this vibrant young woman’s hand on his face.
There we were. Four budding young adults, with our various configurations of big hair, in the last throes of the second millennium of our species’ Common Era, enjoying the pleasant effects of the two most popular recreational intoxicants of the age, in a friendly live and let live city, on the delta of one of the planet’s largest rivers, near the eastern shore of one of its great oceans. Together, connected, in the moment, for the moment at least. I of course imagined us all naked together, but that scenario was going to have to play itself out in my own fantasyland.
Butch, ever the alpha setting the agenda, suggested that he would buy us all candy bars if we would just find him a vending machine in the museum or a store right outside the place. We searched the premises as a four person team rather than fanning out, not wanting to separate and break the spell of connection we were all feeling. No vending machine was found, and we donned our jackets and colorful ponchos and made our exit from the place, back out into the cold but friendly and now familiar wet kiss of the goddess Amsterdam’s drizzle.
We found a newsstand just down the street from the museum that sold candy bars. They had some American classics, like Snickers and Payday, British Cadbury items, and several local chocolate bars. Butch lit up when he saw they had his childhood favorite, the Cadbury Picnic, and he insisted that he buy one for each of us. Experiencing that craving that sets upon you towards the end of a cannabis buzz, the three of us unanimously and enthusiastically agreed. It had a red wrapper with a big yellow rectangle with the word ‘PICNIC’ in bold black all caps sans-serif type (in a font that decades later I would know as ‘comic sans’), followed by a cross section view of the candy bar with peanuts exploding out of it. Our thankyous to Butch were telepathic, well at least nonverbal, as we ripped open the wrappers and bit into the nubbly things, not unlike the American Payday, but covered in milk chocolate. Our teeth bit through layers of sweet chocolate, peanuts set in chewy nougat, salty caramel embedded with puffed rice, and in the deepest interior of the thing, a crunchy biscuit like in an American Kit Kat. Stoner ambrosia indeed.
Butch suggested we smoke some more hash, and Burton and Gwendolyn were immediately on board. Loving the intense in the moment space we were all sharing, I agreed as well, (conveniently perhaps) forgetting about my critical chore of visiting the BOAC office to reserve my spot on my flight home. We continued walking in the direction of our hostel and found a mostly secluded spot out of the drizzle under a canal bridge along a walkway where the boats were tied. It smelled deliciously dank and nautical and we all sat in a row against the brick side wall of the canal. Butch pulled out the small baggie containing his little wood and metal hash pipe, Bic lighter, broken cigarettes for the tobacco portion, and the strands of the concentrated cannabis resin. He made a little nest of tobacco in the pipe bowl and then nestled in it a single broken off chunk of hashish. He lit the tobacco and it burned bright with each of his drags on the pipe, until the resiny chunk began to glow itself. We took our tokes and passed the pipe down the line, Burton on the other end reminded to take two before passing back to Gwendolyn.
We sat there, the four of us in our ponchos, communing quietly with each other and the goddess of this canal city, waiting for the new round of THC to insinuate itself into our brains and our consciousnesses that inhabited those organs. This time I was the first to giggle, my vocalization getting a similar response from all my comrades.
A conversation ensued about the boat tied up in front of us, a houseboat with round portals across the front and sides, with steps down to a door into the interior in the back. Was the metal hardware, the hoops and hooks, aluminum or stainless steel, or maybe a silvery brass? Burton and Butch, on either ends of our group, debated that one. Were the sides of the boat’s ‘house’ azure or cyan? Gwendolyn and I argued that one back and forth until Burton burst forth with, “Shut up already!”, and we all laughed. Again, no time sense when you’re stoned. We could have been under that little bridge for twenty minutes or two hours, either would have seemed plausible.
Suddenly I remembered about the BOAC office and reserving my ticket home, sighed and said, “Ohhhhh shit!”
The three of them looked at me, and Butch then remembered himself that he had suggested we visit the museum to sober up before he accompanied me on my day’s chore. His expletive, “Fuck!”, was delivered with more self-directed anger and guilt than I’d heard out of him, him failing to manage his flock. Butch reminded our other two comrades of my unfinished chore, complicated now by being very stoned again. The three of them all agreed to accompany me and help me make my reservation. Of the four of us, only Burton had a watch, and he noted that it was 3:30pm. I had the address of the BOAC office but not how late they were open. If I knew they would be open later, we could have waited to go there, but not knowing when they closed we agreed to head right over and get the task done somehow, wasted as we now were.
Luckily, it was maybe a twenty minute walk from our little bridge to the office, so we did not need to try and figure out any bus routes. When we got to the place it was open but closing soon. It was a storefront little office with a couple of agents behind a counter and a handful of people waiting in line to take care of their business. My three comrades got in line behind me. I felt that we stuck out like sore thumbs with our bright ponchos and wild hair, though Gwendolyn’s was more restrained now in its big tight bun. Other than my comrades, I tried not to look at the other people in line for any length of time for fear that they would divine that I was high. Those other people seemed not to give us too much notice, the city I guess being always full of our ilk.
When the agent finally called me up, I could feel my discomfort level spike. I recalled the anxiety I had felt when I had made the mistake of getting high in college before a play rehearsal, and how I had messed up my lines several times and the director gave me a hard time, just short I thought of figuring out I was stoned and perhaps throwing a fit or even kicking me out of the show. After that I had vowed to never do a rehearsal or go to a class high.
The agent was a twenty-something woman with short well coiffed hair and a natty blue BOAC uniform and a smart little blue cap. My three comrades, all in their ponchos like me, Butch with his two wild exploding pigtails, approached the counter and arrayed behind me.
“How can I help you?” she asked, pleasant enough but with what I thought was a very aristocratic British accent, scanning all four of our faces and then focusing her attention on mine. I stumbled over my words but finally composed myself and said that I wanted to reserve my flight home from London on December 11th. I was conscious of not wanting to stare at her for fear she might realize that I was stoned. Butch nodded at the agent as if vouching for me. She looked at him quizzically.
Looking at me again she queried, “May I see your ticket please?” a bit too officiously, which caused my anxiety to rise even further.
I suddenly couldn’t remember if I had my ticket with me, and looked at her dumbfounded for what felt like a long time, mumbling “umm”, until it suddenly struck me that my ticket was in my money belt with all my travelers checks, passport, rail pass, and other important documents, strapped around my waist and tucked in my pants. Damn, I thought, if only I had gotten that ticket out before she called me up to the counter, now I have to untuck my shirt and reach into the front of my pants to get it.
“Just a sec, I need to dig it out”, I said and turned from her, fiddling under my poncho to untuck my shirt and reach down towards my crotch to pull up the money belt pouch.
Butch tried his best to cover for me, saying to the agent that it was cold rainy out there and that we were at the end of a long day. The agent nodded and smiled, a bit stiffly, I thought perhaps discomforted by Butch’s unorthodox visage, wild hair and all, plus maybe not affording him that white privilege we’d been talking about. My hands under my poncho, I successfully pulled the pouch of the money belt up out of my pants and unzipped it, but I couldn’t by feel alone figure out which piece of paper in the pouch was my plane ticket. I did not want to pull up my poncho to see because then she could see as well with my untucked shirt pulled up and the belt against my bare stomach. So I decided to pull everything out of the pouch – passport, railpass, student identity card, hostel card, travelers checks, Dutch paper money – and put the handful on the counter, including hopefully the ticket, which turned out was at the bottom because I had not accessed it since after I arrived ten weeks ago.
My hand shook a little as I fumbled with all the contents of the pouch and I glanced up at her and she fired a direct question at me, her eyes on mine.
“Are you okay?”, which in my altered state, sounded more like, “Are you high?”, and I was nearly in a panic.
“No”, I said, answering the question I feared rather than the one she actually asked. Then immediately, my mistake hit me and I quickly tried to recover.
“I mean yes… I’m okay”, and I nodded my head vigorously to try and reinforce that that was the actual answer, feeling like if she hasn’t figured out by now that I was high she must think something was really wrong with me.
Gwendolyn came to my rescue again, with her hair all bunned up, the most respectable looking of the four of us at this point. She looked at the agent and spoke.
“We’ve all had a long day, please bear with us!” which caused the agent to focus on her, another young attractive white woman, smile and nod, lessening my anxiety several levels. Gwendolyn continued, slyly putting the agent off guard.
“I like the way you’ve done your hair, it’s a very sophisticated look!”
The young woman blushed, but seemed to appreciate the compliment, nervously starting to fuss with her hair.
I finally found my ticket and slid it forward. The agent took it and still a bit flustered now herself, in her most practiced voice said, “Just a moment please!” It seemed like forever she was punching at her keyboard, waiting for a response, then punching buttons again.
The agent returned and looked at me, which made me anxious again. She asked for my identification. I stared at all the money, pieces of paper, plastic, plastic laminated paper, and the other critical documents arrayed on the counter, the former contents of the pouch of my money belt. I was used to, back home, giving my drivers license as ID, but here, was that what she wanted?
After a moment of my hesitation, the agent gently tapped her light blue painted fingernail on my passport, and then drew her finger away, like she was giving me a hint what the right answer was.
I felt stupid, and said, “Of course, my passport, I’m sorry!” and pushed it forward toward her.
She took it with another practiced, “Just a moment please!” and went back to her keyboard again. I looked at Gwendolyn who was standing next to me now, rolling her eyes sympathetically.
Finally I heard the printer clunk and buzz, spitting out my confirmed reservation. The agent handed me back my passport and set this new document, that all this fuss had been about, in front of me on the counter, next to the pile of contents from my money belt. Again falling into a practiced patter, her manicured finger delicately pointed out each bit of information on my reservation. I nodded like I was following, but I was really fixated on her beautifully painted fingernail, the same shade of light blue as her uniform. Finally she stopped talking and I looked up at her nervously and said thank you. I grabbed all my other documents on the counter along with my new reservation and moved away, thinking to myself that this was something else I would never do again high.
Sitting now in one of the line of chairs across the room from the counter, finally out of the line of fire, I took a deep breath and exhaled it. With only my comrades around me now, I lifted my poncho and then my shirt and replaced my passport, my reservation and all my other money and documents into the pouch of my money belt and slid it down inside the front of my pants. I felt like I had just been through a surgical procedure and was now reunited with my friends in the recovery room.
Butch plopped down next to me, and putting his hand on my shoulder said, with the requisite deadpan for sarcasm, “Piece of cake!” I spit out a laugh and I could feel the anxiety release from my shoulders and the rest of my body. My three comrades all laughed as well, happy I hadn’t died on the operating table.
We headed back out of the BOAC office in the general direction of our hostel. It had gotten dark and it felt like the middle of the night to me but it was barely past five. I was happy just to feel the cold drizzle on my face, enjoy all the lights of the city now transitioning to evening time, and push one foot in front of the other in the direction that Butch was leading.
Still feeling responsible for my distressful encounter, Butch insisted on buying me dinner. He led the three of us to a little unpretentious diner in the basement of a building near our hostel and ordered kibbeling and fried potatoes, the Dutch equivalent of Britain’s fish and chips. We dipped the deep fried bits of fish into a warm creamy garlic sauce which was delicious, doubly so given how stoned we were. As we ate we rehashed (ha ha ha) all the moments of our long day together. The quivering clinking bottles at the Heineken brewery. Van Gogh’s work, including all his obsessive self portraits. Butch’s killer hashish. My near meltdown in the BOAC office, the agent’s meticulously coiffed jet black hair without a single strand out of place, and her dazzling pale blue fingernails matching her natty uniform, including that “jaunty little cap”, as Gwendolyn said in a mock English accent.
In the middle of everything a new John Lennon song I had not heard before, ‘Mind Games’, came on the radio over the speakers in the diner. I immediately recognized his voice, and the lyrics were clear, even on the first hear. As I continued to listen to my comrades talk, my mind wandered with the phrases in the song…
We’re playing those mind games together
Pushing the barriers planting seeds
Playing the mind guerrilla
Chanting the mantra peace on earth
We all been playing those mind games forever
Some kinda druid dudes lifting the veil
Doing the mind guerrilla
Some call it magic the search for the grail
I had not heard the phrase ‘mind games’ before. It tantalized my own intoxicated mind with possible meanings, the idea of playing such games in the interior of one’s thoughts and consciousness, together with someone else, suggested a very cerebral sort of intimacy that excited me. My libido’s perspective was something akin to, I don’t just want to have sex with your body, I want to have sex with your mind too. That definitely would be moving the needle of what it meant to connect with other fellow humans, and defining a new level of intimacy that could exist between us. Not ‘mind fuck’ in the pejorative sense, but instead an invitation to enter the other person’s thoughts and give and get pleasure from the friction of the interaction of those thoughts until both parties had achieved some cerebral sort of ‘orgasm’.
And it didn’t strike me, until the second use of the word in the verse, that he was of course referring to ‘guerilla’, the stealthy insurgent, and not ‘gorilla’. What it might mean to behave like a ‘mind guerilla’, a cerebral insurgent in other people’s minds, shaking up thought as usual, challenging the established order of knowledge and societal expectations. Or even an insurgent in one’s own mind, a tantalizing possibility indeed.
So keep on playing those mind games together
Faith in the future out of the now
You just can’t beat on those mind guerrillas
Absolute elsewhere in the stones of your mind
Yeah we’re playing those mind games forever
Projecting our images in space and in time
The lyrics of this verse were deliciously incomprehensible for the most part but still individual words or phrases struck deep chords in me. ‘Absolute elsewhere in the stones of your mind’, making no rational sense but still sending my buzzed mind off on tangents every which way. We would somehow commit ourselves to reinventing our species through a campaign of insurgency in our own and each other’s minds, in an ‘intercourse’ that was as sexual as it was cerebral. Tangents where those stones were and impediment. Other tangents where they were like your pearls of wisdom.
Yes is the answer and you know that for sure
Yes is surrender
You gotta let it, you gotta let it go
I knew that for sure. Did I know that for sure? Surrender and say yes to everything. Everything that is has a purpose. But how do you continue the mind insurgency if you are always surrendering? Don’t the most successful insurgents never surrender?
So keep on playing those mind games together
Doing the ritual dance in the sun
Millions of mind guerrillas
Putting their soul power to the karmic wheel
Keep on playing those mind games forever
Raising the spirit of peace and love
The ritual dance in the sun. Shining a light on everything, making all transparent. No conceits, no hiding, intellectual nudity. Millions of my age cohort challenging the existing order of our parents, fighting our insurgency of peace and love and transparency.
Later on that evening, lying on my bunk in my sleeping bag, finally sober once more, I revisited those thoughts triggered by Lennon’s song, finding them a bit hyperbolic and perhaps naive in the light of a now more rational unintoxicated mind.