Amsterdam - Cutting the Techno-Onion

being an Enquiry into Direction and a Sojourn on Amsterdam's Low-Friction Transport Network


Sam Garrett

All stones here were brought here. Lacking proper support, all stones brought here will sink. Bring enough stones here and let them sink; sooner or later you will have a dam. You might want to call that "Amsterdam". Why not? They did.

It was late and it was raining outside. Someone in the back room of the café was bopping out a scat number, a capella, yowling and growling like an animal in heat. It sounded like a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. The evening may have taken an early turn towards black beer and something Tipp was recommending as `Bengali temple ball', but I was still hip enough to appreciate good music when I heard it. In fact, I had pretty much the whole bar swinging along with `April in Paris' before I realized it was the barman's cat.

"Have you told them about cutting the onion?" The music had stopped and Tipp was suddenly there, back from the john or wherever he'd been, looming up behind me, risen from the plumbery depths and bigger than ever. His convex reflection in the brass rail around the bar made him look two hundred feet tall.

"It's up to you. No one's gonna do it for you. Quarter and slice an onion. Make them look at it. Before you know it... presto chango!"

I guess I'd been whining to Tipp about my problem, which was relatives, visiting American relatives to be exact. Back home they could navigate across sweeps of high desert by the smell of wild garlic alone, but here, in a town not much bigger than their daughter's high school parking lot, their sense of direction had been thrown for a loop, compass needles spinning wildly at the heart of an experiential hurricane. And they were clinging to me, hating their helplessness all the while but gratefully saying nothing, the way drowning people will cling to a bloated horse.

Tipp was only trying to help. Tipp was also, as that oblique old Dutch saying goes, `as stoned as a shrimp'. But he had a point. The gull's-eye view of Amsterdam, the rings of split oak, the metropolis as onion, quartered and sliced, these were the kinds of true-life models my family needed to help them find their way around. Their mistake, the mistake tourists make from Nova Scotia to Mauritius, was a hopeful one, but it was up to me to shatter their illusions; no one had ever run a straightedge across this place and `laid it out'.

Downtown Manhattan, London or Paris may contain more crushing mass, but they also contain the comfort of a rectilinear brand of logic. Amsterdam offers no such solace. Ultimately, the Bowery, the City and Les Halles can all be navigated by means of cautious tacking manoeuvres, by following streets and turning corners in ever-widening rectangles. I know, for I have lost my way in all of them; yet none of those trials ever brought down the dark night of the soul which descends on the traveller lost in Amsterdam's lower rings. It is a desperate man who first realizes that following his nose has not only failed to take him from point A to point B, but that doing so has - with the same inflexible Euclidean force - cost him a perfectly good afternoon and taken him absolutely nowhere.

It may sound vaguely infernal, but there's nothing so strange about it when you realize that, for the first six hundred years of its life, Amsterdam grew the way a mollusk grows, ring by ring. And the old city still has something of the tide pool about it. Big-eyed tourists washed into its inner circles are preyed upon by rock-dwellers with night vision. Strange creatures appear to feed, lunging from the fissures between buildings, and disappear again without warning. Street markets in the rain are a hum and bubble of hunger, where eels are slapped into slime-covered crates and hooded housewives scuttle up, bumping their broad backs together, to take their pick.

It is a strange place, this bend in the river, this half-ring of concentric ripples still reverberating from the plunk in a thirteenth-century pool. Yet what other city balances so well on so many cutting edges, teetering between propriety and insane chaos, boredom and hyperventilation, the chic and the chichi, between drowning and dry land? Tipp was right: it was my town and I was in it up to my ears. If I wanted my family off my back, I had no choice but to help impose sense on the insensible. I would wrest direction from the mussel's rings. I would cut for them the techno-onion.


Heroin and the cloud hit the neighborhood about the same time that spring. They were strange weeks, razzias in other parts of town had flushed out entire home industries and suddenly the open-air market up the street was covered in fast-eyed young men in bomber jackets and Cubs caps. Smack and coke were moving faster than the cucumbers, and the hungry ones were breaking into cars with the nonchalance of a secretary tearing open a bag of party nuts. Radios ripped out by the roots, speakers gouged from door panels with impunity.

Until then, the man across the street had a sign in the back window of his Nissan Sunny. It said: "Don't bother, this car is empty." But one morning he went outside and it was gone. Not the sign, his car. Well, the sign too. After that, some defeatists started leaving their cars unlocked day and night. No more smashed glass, no more locks jimmied out of their moldings. Another school of thought went in for alarm systems. The guy who runs the furniture store up the street had a Mercedes that started shrieking hysterically in German when anyone came within two feet of it.

But when the man from the garden supply store on the market attacked an addict with a weed-eater, things really went tense. The relative merits of Ajax hot shots and penal colonies on North Sea gas platforms were the talk of Renny's snack bar. It was the prelude to something, but nobody knew quite what. In fact, we were all just waiting for something to happen when the big black cloud blew in.

It came out of the sky over the big waterway and landed humming in a row of conifers across the street. Dust and ashes, final pollution; some of the neighbors said later they were thinking in terms of old Comecon nuclear plants burned to cinders and scattered to the wind. Eveline the frame-maker, whose yard it was, was the first to go out for a look.


The streets, alleyways and bridges around St. Olof's Chapel are among the city's oldest, the basal whorl where Amsterdam clings to the thirteenth-century wall of sand and clay thrown up along the Amstel River and the old IJ sea arm. Close to the chapel, immured now within the Golden Tulip/Barbizon hotel and its cocktail-party references to the city's past, lay Amsterdam's first public cemetery. Somewhere behind the Brut dispenser in the hotel's basement lavatory is the final resting place of solitary fishermen and stray dogs, interred there more than three hundred years before Huygens discovered the regulatory power of the pendulum, at least that long before the Dutch East India Company shackled the Spice Islands to its side.

With the pragmatism of the fisherman who casts his nets not where the water is loveliest but where the fish are most plentiful, Amsterdam has developed not as it should, but as it could. The center opened onto the world's seas, the IJ the sluice through which the florins cascaded into the tills of the burghers. And the city kept its back, rounded and fortified like the mussel's, to the jealous interference of the outside world.

The Realpolitik behind this Realarchitektur has been cursed and lauded (often in almost the same breath) by citizens and spectators alike from time immemorial. Baruch Spinoza, born in the former Jewish neighborhood downtown, once wrote to a friend that "in this flourishing republic, this city second to none, men of every nation and every sect live together in the utmost harmony; and all they bother to find out, before trusting their goods to anyone, is whether he is rich or poor and whether he is honest or a fraud."

But an anonymous Calvinist contemporary of the Rainbow Philosopher put a different spin on the story with the following verse:

"The whore on the IJ can be bought for any money;

She sails for papist, heathen, Moor and Turk,

She cares for neither God nor the dear fatherland,

She asks only for profit, only profit! Profit alone!"

From this center the old town spread out in concentric arcs, slice by slice, rising grandly to its present height during the course of several centuries before losing itself in the surrounding countryside.

And so a map of Amsterdam as it was on the eve of the Industrial Revolution is a drawing of six-hundred years of calcified growth, a human coral reef shaped by the technological and economic currents in which it grew. For Amsterdam's original shape, the quarter onion, the expanding half-moon on the IJ, was given it not by regents and draftsmen, but by hydraulic engineers and dredgers, by technicians, technocrats and douaniers. Based, first and foremost, on the world's only true low-friction transport system: water.

Here, somewhere beneath these bridges, in the black water that washes the sides of the old graves between the Oudezijds Kolk and Damrak, lies the seven-hundred-year-old seed onion, nestled up against the fundaments of the old sea dike. The time traveller need only keep this microscopic heart of the city at his back; any line he follows will then lead him through ever-expanding rings to the present.


According to an 11th century legend, popularized by the poet J.A. Alberdingck Thijm, Amsterdam was discovered by a ferryman's poodle.

"A ferryman and a knight are out in a boat. All of a sudden a storm comes up and the boat's sloshing back and forth.

"What's a knight like you doin' out on a ferry like this? (laughter....).

"No seriously folks, the ferryman gets down on his knees, hugs his poodle and prays: `Lord, if you save us this time, I'll erect a city at the first place my little Heinie touches ground this night.'

"The knight looks at him and says: I'll be damned if you will!" (laughter...)

Even though the boat with the poodle in it is the official seal of Amsterdam, and perches in the form of a weather vane atop the Royal Palace on the Dam, almost no one knows the legend. When I told my eleven-year-old son about the story, his only reaction was: "So that's where all the dog shit comes from."


Spookstraat, 9.10 a.m. Tipp should be coming up to the old locks on the Singel Canal. In the pocket of his NATO fatigues, along with a bus ticket, what looked like half an ounce of devastating Bengali black and a soapstone oxidation unit, is a cellular telephone. Two minutes to contact.

Our raid on the old time/space continuum, plotted on the backs of beer coasters torn in half that rainy night, demanded that my American relatives be sent off on a twenty-four-hour leisure coach tour of Brussels and Paris. They had left around noon of the day before, riding the bus off into the distance on a rolling swell of expectancy and relief.

Conditions two and three were that we leave from foreign soil and sneak up on the city as it slept. The foreign soil was no problem. Amsterdam North, on the far bank of the IJ, is only five minutes by water from downtown; in soul and being it is as antithetical to the nonchalant flair of Real Amsterdam as the Land of the Ants is to the Land of the Grasshoppers.

And so we pushed off under cover of early-morning darkness from Budget Hotel `Mimi', on the north bank of the old sea arm, taking the first ferry across in the company of sour office workers, their lunches clenched in plastic bags, the sea gulls veering around the boat, the herring stands and pimpmobiles behind the Central Station looming up out of a dirty mixture of river mist and exhaust. We entered the huge railway barns through the back doors, according to plan, synchronized our watches and promptly lost each other in the crowd. Tipp would head out the station's western doors to his inflatable Zodiac whaler, moored there between the tour boats.

We would stay networked. The first leg of my journey cut through what was indicated by a dotted line on the back of the beer coaster as `Indian Territory', so I would be travelling light and low-key, no hand-held device for me. My assignment was to head east, making regular and prudent use of public phone booths. Only a few yards away from me now, under the little iron bridge in the Spooksteeg, was my own little polyester gutbucket with two-stroke Tomos, three hp's of whining Austrian Technik. From its mooring at the corner of friend Taco's waterfront terrace, I would lay an incision across the underbelly of the city, cutting through legendary back canals littered with the phantom condoms and hypodermics that rain down from the tourist's imagination, past the inertial jejunity of the city hall cum opera house on Waterlooplein and out onto the teeming headwaters of the Amstel River.

Tipp would cross town in a westerly direction, passing under the tail muscle of the Nieuwendijk, the dirtiest street in Amsterdam, through the upmarket waters of the Brouwersgracht, `Mother of all Grand Canals', to the Haarlemmerpoort and the verge of the old towpath to Haarlem. If all went well, our wakes would merge around lunchtime in the early twentieth century, just after the rise of the Social-Democratic Workers' Party.

But for now, the Spooksteeg was the dividing line between pre- and post-Disney Zeedijk. All the ghosts moved down to this end of the winding street in the fin de siecle malaise of the late 1980's, when the cappucino-colored brick facade of Barbizon's Enchanted Castle was jackhammered in between the St. Nicolaaskerk (Serbian Orthodox services three times weekly) and St. Olof's Poort. The phone booth here stank of urine and the floor was littered with empty lighters and aluminum foil cones stamped flat. As I dialed Tipp's number, one of the ghosts came up to the booth and roared through the glass. It was his way of asking for money. What was left of his upper and lower teeth were connected by a baleen of reddish slime. Scurvy. I turned my back on him and his friends and jammed one foot up against the folding door. Let them eat oranges...


Tipp's portable unit buzzed twice. I had braced myself for the primal blast of the big Evinrude, but when he answered it was strangely quiet at the other end. Only the sound of labored breathing.

"Tipp, hey Tipp, are you at the locks?"

"I'm nowhere. I'm stalled in front of the goddam station. I hit a fucking Komo."

"Hit what?"

"A garbage bag. Full of crap some German junkie threw under the bridge. I've got a prop full of PVC, shoe laces, styrofoam Big Mac packs, Christ, you name it... There was even a bra in there with the nipples cut out."

"Calm down, man. Listen, I'm at the bridge, but I'm going to take off now. I'm drawing some negative attention here. I don't want them to stone the boat before I can get away. I'll call you from city hall." As I laid the horn back in its cradle, I could hear Tipp blowing a new torrent of filth.

I banged open the door of the booth and tossed a big, shiny steel washer over the heads of the Lost Boys. As they scrambled for it, I unlocked the spiked gate to Taco's side alley and padded down to the terrace. I had just enough time to prime the Tomos and yank it to life by the time they came back. I was off down the waters of the Oudezijds Achterburgwal before they could pry loose any bricks.

The `O.Z. Achter' was once the moat around the city's eastern ramparts, but these days it's the city's erotic shopping mall. The light bulbs which the municipal services use to accentuate the span of old bridges, mellow off-white elsewhere, are red here. The bottoms of the bridges are clean, well-painted and virtuous-looking as Dad's workshop, but along the quay the Cul de Sac Bar (`Live Porno') is locked in a daisychain of sweaty brick between Amusement Hall "Buddy Buddy" and Erex Intermedia Mail Order b.v.

It wasn't until I was past Blood Street that I saw my last gray-haired managerial type sidle into the Dong Dong Bookstore, but by the time I'd reached Sludge Street the tenor of canalside housing had changed from semen stains to funky monumental. Rounding the corner of the Grimburgwal and the Oude Turfstraat I saw the old city mint rising up against a backdrop of neon ads for Samsung, Toshiba and Heineken, and then city hall, the `Stopera', squatting like a giant toad on Waterlooplein, the square where the Nazis roped off their `Judenviertel' at the final bend in the Amstel River.

I tied the boat to a railing at the base of the polished black stone monument to the Jewish resistance. Keeping a good eye on the boat, I found a booth and dialed Tipp's number. When he answered this time, the roar of the Evinrude was almost too much to bear.

There was something weirdly out-of-synch about the whole scene, about the way the wireless scream of the big outboard lost itself in the haunted quiet of the ornamental square. Despite the huge flea-market just around the corner, the only souls ever on this square are those of around 100,000 Jews who `voluntarily emigrated' from the wartime ghetto here to places like Westerbork, Belsen, Auschwitz, Sobibor. Like Spinoza, most of them had spent at least a few months of their lives in bad housing between here and the Snoekjesgracht, three blocks to the north. The Stopera is their 200-million-dollar headstone. It's as though, on this field of blood, Amsterdam's five-star architectural generals had hoped to rout the ornamental gable, the high-gloss white window frame, from the city once and for all. More historical sense might have told them what the `Waterloo' in `Waterlooplein' was all about.


"Brouwersgracht!" Tipp was screaming. "Ducks diving for cover all around me. Ad agencies. Sunken pontoon gardens. The people in the houseboats are absolutely shitless. Here's Café Het Smackzeyl, that's where I told you about the onion, right?" In complete violation of all boating ordinances, Tipp was shooting past layered history, past the homes of the Van der Hagens and Huydecopers, families who bought and sold the Indies, East and West. During its glory days, the city chose the Brouwersgracht as the tuber from which to shoot its half rings - the Canal of the Lords, the Canal of the Emperor and the Canal of the Princes -to the south and then sharply east again. It was the start of a little thing they call `Baroque city planning'.

"Tipp, how are things there?" I caught myself holding one hand over my free ear, the way anchormen do.

"Well, Dick, quiet - except for the people in houseboat fifty-two who couldn't take a little hydroplaning - and, well, prosperous. Quietly prosperous, I'd say."

"Have you got a date and a direction for us?"

"You bet I do, Dick. Heading in a westerly direction here I just got a reading on bridge number fifty-seven, corner Brouwersgracht/Korte Prinsengracht, putting us at around the middle of the seventeenth century."

"Here on Waterlooplein we're ranging anywhere from early seventeenth to abysmally late twentieth, Tipp. Time to go."

"Ten-four, Dick."

"My name's not Dick!"

I thought I heard him laugh, and then the line went dead.


Seen from five-hundred miles above water and land, the countryside around Amsterdam is bio-circuitry. From this vantage, SPOT 2 photographs the Amstel as it squirms blackly through a microscopic hatching of flooded peat pits, waterways, roads and rails. Making its pass every twenty-six days, the weather-eye sends us pictures of the river dangling umbilically from the city's core. But turn the picture upside down and -presto chango! - the graceful Amstel goes on record as it rolls into town, lithely feeds the canals and smacks into a brick wall. Seen from the surface of the canals, three meters under the level of the North Sea, there is something claustrophobic about all this water held in check; if you think about it too long, it is as though the stone and earthen walls are only a greenstick fracture away from total deluge. Perhaps that silent threat is the Amstel's revenge for its strictured dignity, for the interruptus imposed centuries ago on its fertile union with the sea. The river was not angry today, though, only calm and persistent as I cut past the locks above the Magere Brug and headed into the 20th century.

Turning off the river into the neighborhood old Amsterdammers still refer to as "Plan South", the city takes on all the diversity and charm of a mile-long picket fence. One of Holland's greatest writers, Gerard Reve, lived with his parents in this neighborhood during the war years. His first novel, De Avonden, is the quintessential settling of a man's accounts with his youth. Plan South as fictionalized by Reve is page after masterful page of deadly ennui, punctuated in invisible ink by empty streets, wasted hours and the smell of boiled cabbage.

"`Did you remember to turn off the gas fire?' she asked. `No, I don't believe I did,' his father answered, rising slowly to his feet. Frits felt as though he had a handful of dry flour in his throat that was keeping him from swallowing. `I already did that', he said, the first words coming out hoarsely. `No task too great, no job too small. We are at your service. House calls by appointment.' He twisted his face into a cheerful expression. No one said a thing."

The words of Frits Egters, his family and friends in De Avonden, fall from their mouths like ball bearings, disappearing forever in the chinks between the floorboards. Seen from the water at least, little or nothing had changed here since.

The rows of socialized brick housing thinned out, replaced on the canalside by the affluently spaced villas of doctors and lawyers, behind which the distant lights of the Olympic Stadium towered on their trellises like Martian claws. The bridges here, as in other neighborhoods roughly equidistant to the old seed onion, are decorated with sculptured paeans to progress, basalt airplanes and sledge-hammered working class heroes in bas-relief. Not surprisingly, it was neighbor boy Reve who once cut this social-realism to shreds with a single slash of the pen. These cornerstones, he said, were not so much sculpted as oozed forth by "communist pastry chefs." The moped fuel in the little red five-liter tank was running low.

The Shell tanker behind the stadium had the mixture I needed, and a pay phone. The electric clock behind the counter said it was almost noon. Holding the little red gas tank in one hand, I tried to establish radio contact with the other flank of this pincer movement around Amsterdam. There was no answer, only static.


Had the trendy boat people of the Brouwersgracht taken off after him in hot pursuit? Tacking across the choppy water of the Schinkel, I could see Tipp's poor THC-addled head being pushed under the stinking surface of the grand canal by a boathook, for the third and final time. Or maybe he had taken the Hawaii Five-O routine a bit too far, cutting a blind corner and colliding with one of the old forty-thousand-ton sand barges which ply the waterways between the New Lake and the housing developments to the west. The cold wind blowing across the fields around the stadium was tempered for a moment by the glow of an imaginary fireball.

But then again, maybe Tipp was jetting even now past the plastic window frames and ornamental nineteenth-century brickwork of the Marnixkade, rocketing past the huge chunks of columns and discarded gas ranges in the squatters' graveyard of the Staatsliedenbuurt neighborhood. Would he just keep going, would he finally humiliate me by his triumphant arrival here, fifteen minutes from our appointed meeting place? I took the challenge and raced against what I imagined to be Tipp's progress, or his untimely demise.

Twelve minutes later and half a mile down the waterway, at the base of a Dutch skyscape stacked up like the hairdos of the vaguely lumpen housewives of the Jordaan neighborhood, I saw a dot coming up fast. I gunned the little Tomos two-stroke under the drawbridge that links the Kinkerstraat and the Postjesweg. Startled pigeons flew out, dozens of them shitting white liquid fear and escorting me back into sunlight. Poor neurotic birds, building their nests at angles in the latticework bottom of the drawbridge, just to keep their eggs from rolling out. Eggs nobody wants anyway.

Suddenly the dot veered away, the dot I had taken to be the approaching whaler, and lifted off the water, clearing the quay and then skimming over the flat roof of the big hardware store, heading into the back neighborhood. I let up on the throttle, the little boat swung in its own wash and there, all of a sudden, was Tipp, supine on a fishermen's bench, half-hidden behind one of the old sycamores. The Zodiac was neatly moored to a tree and one of the bench's galvanized legs.

"Where you been, padnuh?", he said, swinging his calfskin Tony Lamas down off the bench. "Looks like I headed you off at the pass."

"Cut the cowboy crap, Tipp", I said, killing the engine. "Did you see that waterspout or whatever it was? Or are you too fucked up to see anything at all?"

"Big black cloud come over water. Make plenty noise. Him go zoom over white man's camp. Him go thataway!"

I left Tipp to his Lone Ranger/Tonto routine and poled the boat up to a row of bollards in front of the hardware store. When I was satisfied that my knots would hold I collected Tipp and half-dragged him, still giggling about Conestoga wagons and flaming arrows, down in the direction the cloud had gone.

From waterway level, up at the top end of the Bellamystraat, we could look down into the polder and the front gardens on the north side of the street. A crowd was gathering. Tipp insisted on doing a skin-the-cat over the railing at the edge of the old dike. While I was waiting for him to complete his salto mortale, an Opel Kadettful of Ghanian shoppers came coasting down the wrong way into the street. Their left tires scraped the far curb as though to avoid hitting me. Maybe they thought I worked for the Immigration Service. Then I realized they were trying to worm the Kadett up between the no-parking posts. It's a trick most Westerners have never mastered, calling as it does for the ability to negate space as we know it, a different sense of both physical possibility and urban usages. To say nothing of insurance premiums.

My wet deck shoes squished and squeaked on the paving stones. There were probably twenty people gathered around the one garden now, pointing, the ones at the back up on tiptoe, talking excitedly but with a peculiar kind of hush over it all. I left Tipp at the edge of the crowd and sidled up to the front. No one murmured or tried to elbow me out. It was almost like being in church. When I was at the fence I saw them, hanging from a sorely tested little conifer in Eveline the frame-maker's yard, tens of thousands of them, shimmering in movement around their queen.

Some of the workers flew into the crowd. When I turned around to see where they had gone, I saw Theo the scrap dealer nodding to the man from the garden supply store. Between them were two emaciated boys, who couldn't have been much older than twenty, just staring slack-jawed at the scene. There was old Mrs. Visser from up the street, who hates it when kids play marbles on her doorstep, and there was my cousin Billy and his wife, still clenching their plaid traveling cases but looking a lot less lost. No one seemed scared of being stung. They had come to look, and they looked as though they understood.

I turned back to the living beard of bees. The swarm had split off from the old hive, and now they wanted to make a new start here. It was as simple as that, as simple as Tipp's `presto chango'. The conifer, however, was a definite write-off.

"A hee hee hee." One of the Ghanian Free Parkers was leaning over my shoulder, giggling and shaking his head so vigorously that it seemed his little round drummer's cap would fall off. "Oh, what goes around comes around," he tittered. "Won't it be sweet in the garden today!"


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