Nonfiction by Jeffrey McDaniel
July 29th, 1993
an excerpt from 4,000 a.m.
On the crowded afternoon train from Paris to Amsterdam. Suitcases and canvas bags crammed into the overhead baggage rack. Backpacks pressed between knees. I’m squashed in a three-seat row with two scruffy-looking Europeans guys, in their early twenties. They ask if I have any deodorant. I’ve been traveling solo for over a week. I yank out a can of aerosol from my duffel bag, which they promptly spray into their armpits. They don’t even bother to lift their t-shirts, just blast the fumigation into the cotton. An older woman bristles. They’re getting off on being loud and offensive. Their names are Donal and Crispin. They’re coming from Spain. There’s something almost vaudevillian about their energy—opening their mouths extra wide to talk and breathing all over the place. They say they’re planning to get stoned and sleep in a park in Amsterdam. As we get off the train, I tell them “I’m staying in a cheap hotel. It’s like forty bucks. Why don’t you guys just crash with me?” They agree. We head straight to a hash bar. The waiter gives us a typed-up menu, with different kinds of weed, like Sensimilla and Skunk and Thai Stick and Space Cakes and Hash Brownies. I’m used to weed being illegal, so I am simultaneously giddy and disoriented as I place my order. With big glass windows looking out to the street and clean formica tables, the place is more like a coffee shop than any bar I’ve been in. I’ve smoked a lot of weed in my life—at least once a day, usually four or five times a day, for ten years straight, but nothing I’ve toked in the States has prepped me for the brilliance churning through my lungs. After a couple hits, I feel like I’m on acid, like a cranked-up carnie is tweaking the knobs of my perception. “This shit’s good,” I mumble. Then “man, her tits are nice” about some girl walking by the window. Ah, the universal her. The her I always refer to. The way every woman I ever slept with was her. The way every woman I ever lust after on the street is her. That ever elusive her. That mountain of hers. That avalanche of hers I’m buried under.
We keep puffing in the hash bar and soon we’re laughing like old friends. We drift outside onto the main drag. My mind melts like an egg oozed into a skillet. Tourists traipse by. Locals weave through on bicycles, their wheels attached to some invisible pulley system. Shop owners smile in storefronts. But there’s a secret under the surface. The merchants on the main drag are sending subliminal signals to these two European strays I’ve picked up, who are secretly plotting to rob me. The shop owners lean out of their doorways and communicate through a subtle language of gestures, consisting of blinks, half-smiles, and facial twitches. The people of Amsterdam are so used to smoking this utterly potent weed that they are operating on a whole different wavelength. They are able to converse on the level of spiders. They can surf in each other’s brain waves. They can talk with each other right in front of me, and they don’t think I can pick up on it. I’m not fluent in their secret language, but, because I have smoked so much pot cumulatively, I can pick-up snippets of the conversation. Donal and Crispin are leading me through the main strip like an American prisoner, and every local knows they will take me back to my hotel room and rob me in my sleep. I have sucker written on my forehead in dog whistle ink. Donal and Crispin aren’t their real names. They’re famous in these parts for this sort of thing. They cheat a new visitor a couple times each week. They ride the trains and befriend people, careful not to ask for anything at first. They gain the person’s trust, and then boom. But what can I do now? The bow is bent. I can’t un-invite them to stay in my room; that would be too weird. I can’t confront them. I don’t have enough evidence. We pass a sign for the Van Gogh Museum. Whatever happened to that guy’s ear anyway? Is it in there, in the lobby, in some giant glass case, on a pedestal, underneath a spotlight, floating in a vase filled with formaldehyde, like the petal of some human flower? Hello, I would shout toward the whorls, Can you hear me? Maybe it contains a sound of its own, like a seashell, some echo of the ocean that rose and crashed in Vincent’s brain.
We check into a little hotel, forty-five bucks a night. It’s almost dark. We smoke another bowl. Donal and Crispin are ready for sleep. Or so they say. They probably just want to get the lights off so they can cut to the chase and rob me. But nothing I have is valuable anyway. Let them take my stuff if they want it. I’m not tired. I’m going out.
I nomad the streets, negotiate the canals, and stumble onto the fabled red light district: groups of tourists, heading down an alley, pointing and smiling at windows. I’ve never been with a prostitute, but if Baudelaire could do it, why can’t I? Physically attractive women, in lingerie and face paint, stand in slender glass rooms, not much bigger than phone booths. Maybe “stand” isn’t the best word. Sure, they’re on two feet, but they aren’t exactly stationary. They’re swaying, like some invisible breeze is hitting them, a breeze that keeps their fragrant leaves in motion, making them roll their hips like slow-motion dice. These women are way more attractive than the streetwalkers I’ve seen in the U.S. They look straight from the pages of Penthouse. But it’s one thing to masturbate to a photograph, a representation of a person, and another thing altogether to encounter that person, breathing in real-life. I have to find the right woman, if I’m going to do this. I try to feel the vibe of each girl through the glass as I wander the narrow walkways. I don’t want the woman to think I’m just another scumbag. I want her to know that I’m different, that I’m a poet, that this is my first time, and just an experiment, something I’m doing for the sake of Experience, that I’m not exploiting them. Just an experiment, I tell myself.
I light a cigarette and walk quicker. I’m a little scared that it won’t work out, that I’ll get in there, pull down my pants and my penis will take one look at the prostitute and say, Hell, no. This isn’t in my contract. I don’t know who she is. We’ve never been introduced. I haven’t heard anything about her. I don’t even know her name. And then I will start arguing, right there in front of the night-time lady.
Packs of men stroll through the alleyways, looking at the human goods. I imagine another version of the red light district, where women prowl around in groups, saying oh, look at that one, pointing at a loin-cloth clad man in a glass cage, saying show us your package, and then blowing him off by saying oh, no he’s too small, or his teeth are too big, or but look at all that chest hair; he looks like a gorilla. What would women say about me if I were in there, sporting a loincloth. I wouldn’t want to be all exposed like that, forced to prance around in a silk teddy, the pimp coming around every couple hours and telling me to stop drinking so much beer, to do some sit-ups, to take my out-of-shape ass onto the treadmill and start burning off the fudge stored up around my waist. Each night I’d have to hide the true canvas of my face under globs of paint, wanting to scream out, but I’m a poet, my true beauty is inside, as the women entered, two per hour, with booze and weed on their breath, hiking up their denim skirts, saying I want to watch you suck it in some language I didn’t understand. As I lowered my face to a stoned middle-aged woman’s out-in-the-world-all-day genitals, she’d softly grab a clump of my hair and grind my face deeper into her nethers, making it hard for me to breathe. She’d dig her chipped nails into my neck, call me her man-bitch, as I looked up to her and lied, mmm, you taste so good, baby. Taste so sweet it ought to be outlawed. My hands cupping the plumpness of her fifty-three year old ass, closing my eyes and pretending I’m on some factory line and assembling a mindless object with my tongue, hoping I can make her cum like this, so she won’t make me fuck her. And then hearing her say, now get up here and fuck me, man bitch. And me climbing up and pushing myself in, closing my eyes and pretending that I’m a machine, drilling for oil. And her saying, open your eyes, man-bitch. I want to look at you as I fuck you. And then a thought exploding into my head: she, my female john, looks just like the third-grade teacher who used to pick on me in front of the class. I’d try to close my nostrils, as I smelled the fettuccini alfredo she had for dinner, and the pot smoke and red wine on her breath. And I’d stare at her, focus so intensely on some aspect of her face, like her left nostril, till it felt like I was staring into a distant galaxy, as her chubby paws clapped my ass cheeks. And then she’d finally finish, and I’d be released. I’d wash my face out in the sink, brush her from my teeth, as she stumbled out to high-five her friends, who’d been waiting noisily outside the door, puffing cigarettes, my jaw sore, wishing there was some sort of splint I could wear for this carpal tunnel syndrome of the face. And then I’d have maybe ten minutes to smoke a cigarette, make a phone call to my girlfriend, tell her that I loved her, then back into the glass cage and wiggling my hips again, telling myself that the money is good, the money is so, so good.
Fuck, I can’t do this, I think. I turn to head back to the hotel, when I notice a blonde, pretty in a prom queen sort of way. She fixes her gaze on me, pinning me to the air. I enter the glass cage and follow her through a door, into a back room where there’s a bed and a sink and soft blue lights muting the white walls. It feels temperate and clean, somewhat sterile. I’ve been told that a fuck and suck costs seventy Gilders, roughly thirty-five bucks, but the prom queen wants to negotiate. She says that since I’ve been smoking pot, she’s just gonna do the suck part, for the same price. Her English is all broken up and accented in way that makes me think she isn’t Dutch. Maybe Eastern European. The last thing I want to do is barter. I just nod my head. I’m feeling ok, and I just want this whole thing to work out. I psyche myself up, remembering I haven’t had an orgasm in over six days, which is a month and a half in dog years. When the thought of losing my erection pops up, I usher the thought out the rear window of my head. I lean back, allow her to ease my pants down. Before even touching my genitals, she pulls out a condom and opens it. She slips on the hoodie and begins to suck my mostly flaccid penis through the sheer plastic, squeezing the base of my shaft between her thumb and forefinger. I’m tempted to yell out, by George, it’s working, but I don’t want to break this good feeling. I reach my hand down and rub one of her boobs, pretending I’m back on the high school basketball team, and it’s after one of those big Friday night games, and I’ve hit the winning shot, and my reward is the first pick of the opposing team’s cheerleaders, and now I’m in an empty room, in a rich person’s house, getting blown by the hottest cheerleader. Ah, the spoils of victory. And then I blast, and it feels delicious. I’m a volcano conscious of its eruption, and I quiver there on the bed. And already she’s up and brushing her teeth. And I think of how crappy the condom must taste, how her lips haven’t even touched me. And the dream is over. And I float out, really proud of myself, happy that it worked out. I have both confessed and enacted my sins.
I go back to the hotel room. Donal and Crispin are asleep in one of the double beds. I know if I just lie in the empty double bed and close my eyes that I will probably dissolve into sleep. But I’m Sean Moore, concocted in the middle of the night, and this is Amsterdam. Excess is built into me, coiled around the very letters that make up my name. I go into the bathroom, smoke a big European-style joint, mixing pot and tobacco. What I’ve just accomplished—my big victory, the winning shot, the cheerleader—throbs in my head. The thought is so intoxicating, I have to yank out my pleasure right there and re-live the experience mentally, need to relish those luscious cheerleader breasts again, this time, armed with my memory, in the fortress of my imagination.
Afterwards I take a quick shower. It’s getting late, a voice warns in my head. Fuck that, says another—the boner has been bent, make from the shaft. I slip on my boots and hustle back to the Red Light district. It’s after 2 a.m. Most of the glass cages are boarded up for the night. And damn, my private Pamela Anderson is gone. I veer through the red light alleyways like a madman. No more groups of good-feeling tourists, laughing to each other. No more illusion of camaraderie—just me and my sickness marching through the cobblestone streets, trying to assess my dwindling choices. All the prettiest girls have gone home. Finally I locate one who looks like Amber Lynn, a porno star from the eighties. I step closer to the glass to investigate. I don’t like her vibe—she looks too gung-ho and coked-up. I keep trolling for another twenty minutes, up and down the little passageways, then, out of options, I return to the Amber Lynn prototype.
As soon as I enter the glass cage, I know it’s a mistake. I should just run out, let her keep the money, but that would be thirty-five dollars swirling down the drain. She leads me into a room that is lit too brightly, like a middle school classroom. She’s wearing a leopard-print bandana and some sort of spandex, jungle negligee. And she has all this scary glitter make-up on. And loud heavy metal music blares in the background. And Penis, where the fuck are you? I want to yell, time for a third go around, as she pulls down my pants and slides the condom on. She does her part. She sucks and slurps loudly, enthusiastically even, but my penis will not respond. He doesn’t come out of his shell and rise to the occasion. If anything he shrinks, as if her mouth is filled with fifty-degree lake water, making him shrivel. I rifle through my brain pit, where I keep all my pornographic fantasies, but the tracking is off, each mental tape unravels the moment I push play. The harder I try to get hard, the softer I become. And, of course, she notices. How couldn’t she? The evidence is right there, in her mouth. For a moment, I wish I were a woman, so I could just fake an orgasm and run home, with my panties balled-up in my hand. If I were a woman, I could pretend to enjoy it, moaning oh yeah, but my limp truth is undeniable. Finally she lifts her face, stares at my penis in his plastic wrapper, like a boneless slab of chicken. “I tried,” she laughs. This is exactly why I’ve never gone to a prostitute before. I grab my clothes and stumble onto the street, the shame dripping off me. I’ve broken off another little piece of my soul and given it away forever. You see, when you sell your soul, you don’t sell it all at once. You lose it a little at a time. It’s like you’re born with $100,000 worth of soul in your spiritual bank account, and you can only withdraw $500 worth of soul on any given day. Only after many spiritual transactions does the shrinkage even become noticeable, and then only to others, never to yourself. It’s not like there are spiritual bank account statements, letting you know how much you have left, letting you know how close you are to hitting zero. It’s like driving through the desert with a broken fuel gauge.
Back in the hotel room, lemony light spills from the bathroom, onto the muscular sleeping calves of Donal and Crispin poking out from spare blankets. What kind of warped devise in my brain got activated by the weed and convinced me they were gonna rob me? Where do the drugs end and I begin?
On the overnight sleeper from Amsterdam to Berlin, from the top bunk, I push my knapsack down onto the floor of my six-person sleeping compartment. There’s a couple hundred dollars worth of hash inside. That way, if a German border agent barges in, I can deny it’s mine. I’ve wrapped the hash in plastic to block the smell. Still I’m nervous about transporting drugs across the German border. The guards who come in to stamp passports carry themselves like soldiers.
I wake the next morning when the train rumbles into the Berlin train station, my first time ever on German soil. Maybe I’ve been prejudiced subconsciously by the way Germans have been portrayed as ruthless Nazis in TV shows like Wonder Woman, or maybe it’s the reality of the Holocaust, but, either way, when I exit the train, a chill rumbles through me. We’ve gone to war with these people, I think. And not only that—we’ve beaten them.
In a restaurant for breakfast, the waitress speaks so quick and harsh it feels like she’s yelling at me, or maybe it’s just the abrasive beauty of the German language. The very idea of Berlin both freaks me out and astonishes me, how the city has been literally separated by a wall. The subway that the West Berlin people use everyday actually goes underneath East German soil, but it doesn’t stop there anymore. The East German authorities filled in the subway entrances with cement. I feel like maybe I’ve done that in my brain somehow; that there’s a pure part of me and an impure part. And the train of my thought never stops in the pure part anymore.
West Berlin feels like the Upper West Side: lots of well-dressed business-people and Yuppie restaurants, with Yuppie prices. But East Berlin is like an urban version of The Land of the Lost: desolate, with wide deserted boulevards, and large emotionless gray buildings. But then someone tells you about a party and you hop in a taxi, emerge on an empty street and enter what looks like an abandoned six-story building, with a “club” on the third floor and another “club” on the fifth floor, with debris and no electricity on the first, second, fourth, and sixth floors. It’s like a bunch of hip kids have stumbled onto this forgotten city and are throwing really cool parties in the aftermath. It reminds me of the our old house on Spruce Street. This may be the coolest city in the world.
On the train back to Praha, I sit in a small cabin with a pale-skinned girl. I’m not sure where she’s from. She has brown thimbles of cold water for eyes, and they move very deliberately in her head. She makes no extraneous body movements. The skin on her face tells me she’s in her twenties, but her eyes look older. I strike up a conversation. She’s from Dresden. I’ve never met an East German before. Her English is surprisingly good. Her accent is more formal and British somehow than the West Germans I’ve been meeting in Prague.
“So how do you feel about the wall coming down?” I ask. I guess I expect her to say she’s happy to be free.
“Many young people are excited, but to tell you the truth, I don’t like it,” she says, measuring her words like spoonfuls of salt. “There was a degree of security before. Everyone was guaranteed a job. We had no such thing as unemployment.” She stares out the window at farmland flashing by.
“That’s wild. I hadn’t thought of it that way,” I say. I guess I assumed her opinions would match up with all young Czechs I’ve been meeting in Prague, who despised the Russians—and their mandatory Russian language classes at school. They’d talk in robotic, drone voices to show their teachers that they were speaking Russians against their will. “But you’ll do well,” I say. “You’re obviously smart. And you speak perfect English.” I feel embarrassed instantaneously—as if English is the only language one needs to know, and her mastery of it is a guarantee for success in life. Am I really that different from the typical, arrogant American, I suddenly wonder? Isn’t every conversation I’ve had had in Europe this whole summer conducted in English? Isn’t the magic carpet I’m floating on through Europe knitted out of strips of the big, juicy American dollar?
“It’s not myself I’m worried about,” she says. “It’s the older people. People in their fifties, like my father. He’s worked hard for thirty years. Suppose he gets ‘laid off’? He must then compete for a job. But that concept is alien to us. You know, things were not so bad for us before. We had it pretty good. Better than most Russians even. And now the people from West Germany will come in here, and they will take us over. I don’t know why people just assume capitalism will be good.”
“And you live in Dresden?”
“Yes,” she replies. Her dark eyes narrow, as she looks out the window at the trees parading by in a blur. “Have you ever been?” She says the word been like she’s taking a bite out of something.
“No, I’ve seen its name on a map. Is it a nice place?”
“It used to be one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe.” She stares out the window.
She turns and aims her eyes at me. “It got destroyed during the war.”
“Wow, the war.” Sometimes when I don’t know what to say, I’ll instinctively talk around a subject, in vague clumsy language and use words like wow.
She looks into her palm, as if there’s a tiny lake there with something floating, then stares back at me, her pupils dark as rifle tips. “Can I ask you something?” I nod. “Why did you bomb Dresden? There were no war facilities, no soldiers. It was all civilians. And yet you bombed it. The night before Valentine’s Day. They were all civilians. My grandfather died there.”
“That sucks,” I say quietly.
“Why did you do it? The war was almost over. Was it to teach us a lesson?”
“I didn’t do anything,” I say. “I wasn’t even alive then. I don’t know what they were thinking.” I have no problem admitting that recent US foreign policy is screwed-up and imperialistic, especially in places like Central America and Southeast Asia, but when it come to World War II, I’ve always thought Americans were generally the good guys, excluding those two atomic bombs we dropped on Japan.
She doesn’t reply. Maybe I should tell her that it’s hard to feel sorry for Germany in the strange light of all the people they burned alive, how they were the aggressors, but that isn’t the point. If I don’t want to be synonymous with my government’s actions, then I can’t very well pin that rap on her either. She’s speaking to me as a person who’s been hurt, who lost someone dear to her. She didn’t have a grandfather’s lap to sit on. She had a photograph, a story, and a very sad grandmother, especially on Valentines Day. At least, I had one grandfather, for twelve years.
Jeffrey McDaniel is the author 5 books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press). He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.