Monday, August 3, 2009

Cities and Sin


Amsterdam and Las Vegas are to me, the same city. Amsterdam is more beautiful, of course. And if you are a 15th Century author with a manuscript that just screams excommunication, you can get your work published only in the Netherlandian metropolis. Though I think we all know who wins the Tom Jones comparison. Yeah, these are serious differences. But the sins. The sins of these cities are wasted on me, even as they call my name and ask me to get clear on what I am.

A while back, on a dark clear night, I hit the streets of Vegas on foot. From the outskirts, this is a quiet place under a large sky. But even from a distance, one gets the feeling that something is happening up ahead. There are lights that seem to never die, beacons for the adventurous. As I approached the style, I could hear music and voices. There is some golden distance where sounds stop feeling ghostly and begin to feel definite. Sometimes it is a mental distance, like what the hell was that? Oh, wait, it’s voices from downstairs. And sometimes it is a physical distance, like when one comes around a building or over a hill and that indistinct hum becomes a well-formed cacophany. (Just once I want to walk toward something and never cross that point. Though I wonder if I would keep walking.) And this is how it was with me. I heard the style and then I was upon it. A hotel connected to a casino. Cars out front. People carrying bags and babies toward the sliding glass entrance. Within it, the casino was riding out. Endless blackjack tables. A spot off in the cut with cats playing poker. A live band covering old hits in front of a packed dance floor.

I watched suave hands flip and slide playing cards. Chips exchanged hands. Expressions of enjoyment or disappointment or desperation graced each face. Sometimes all at once. I watched and though I was tempted, I could not join that dance. It does look like fun. But it also looks endless.

Homies often ask me why it is that I don’t drink. I usually say that I have a masochistic willingness to be sober. This is true to some extent. But I also have trouble envisioning its end. My cultural surroundings indicate a complicated relationship to alcohol. We think it is awesome, but drunk people kill people with their cars a lot. It can take the edge off a rough day but it is also the first term in many abusive relationships. Some cats rock it well and others really, really don’t. Maybe I am the kind of cat that doesn’t want to entertain the possibility of a question mark fate by taking a sip in leisure. Maybe I have already had some kind of insight into that fate.

The possibly corrosive substance that is wealth conditioned on chance seems equally dangerous. As does the seduction of the idea that, really, one can control elements of the game through research and practice. But this is the point where it becomes a matter of lifestyle. And I am sure many fall away before they uncover the meaning of the poker face. So I just watch. I meditate on the temptation, deny it and then I leave. I am some kind of voyeur of vices. Which makes Amsterdam a kind of paradise for me.

I rolled up in the town after midnight on a weekday. In just a few hours I had to return to the airport and complete the last leg of my journey to Uganda. Plenty of time to explore a new place. I rocked the exit from the Central train station and beheld an orgasm of architecture. Massive old churches and state buildings adorned with the kind of detail that would make you want to firebomb a strip mall. Major streets were also waterfronts, since a lake ran through the city on some Venice styles. The moonlight and the lights of the city reflected off its calm surface. Cars and taxis made their way down cobblestone roads. As did motorcycles, which took every chance they could to accelerate around traffic. But motor vehicles were far outnumbered by bicycles. There were thousands of them. In massive bicycle lots. Chained to lamp poles. Leaned up against walls in alleyways. This was a city for pedestrians, it seemed.

On the way to find snacks I heard mad languages. Dutch. French. Spanish. And English, which everyone seemed to be able to also speak. This place was NYC diverse and infinitely more beautiful. I ate snacks and wandered, following the ghostly murmur of the crowd. On every corner there was a coffee shop. And each one I could not enter for fear of a contact high. So I walked on, snacking on sweet pastries as I went. I knew that eventually I would pass through the fabled red light district. But I didn’t know what that meant until I came upon a window outlined by neon lights. Then I understood very well.

The alleyway glowed red from the lights that framed each glass door. A door that wasn’t curtained revealed a bedroom or a hallway and a woman who was the absolute embodiment of a very old masculine ideal. They looked out at the passing crowd and summoned people to their doors with unsettling gestures of invitation. It occurred to me that, really, there are two myths of the eternal feminine. There is the nurturing, man-needing, passive, emotional figure and then there is this, the completely available satisfier of masculine desire. Both are a kind of existential prison. The former will get you married to a super traditional dude and the latter will get you paid by a super traditional dude. Or anybody, really.

The end of the red light district was not the end of pastry-based snacks, so I ate more and kept strolling. Eventually, against all sense, I ran into some people I knew from Tampa. We walked the city until it was clear that it could offer us nothing more in the way of reflections on gender roles or delicious food items. It was late, after all. The Van Gogh museum was closed and the fantastical parks my friends spoke of were simply too far away. So I made my way back to the train station. I had another eight hours of flight ahead of me. On the way there I passed a Yamaha XJR 1300. It is a street bike sporting an oldish design that was quite beautiful. They don’t sell them in the States. Its tires, along with all of those on the bikes I had inspected since I stepped into the city, were worn to the edges. There was good riding to be had here. So much temptation, I thought.

Many hours later, I landed in Uganda.

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