Detroit, February 13, 2004
It's Friday the 13th, a perfect day to be back in the Motor City after three months in the Netherlands and getting ready to hit the road in the USA for the next three months. Tomorrow it's Valentine's Day, and I'll get to celebrate this happy occasion with my wife Penny and spend some quality time with my daughter Sunny and my little granddaughter, Beyonce.
Next week I'll catch the Amtrak train called the City of New Orleans to join the Mardi Gras festivities in the Crescent City and visit with my daughter Celia, second-line with Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias on Carnival Day, and get with my daughter Chonita to celebrate her 8th official Leap Day birthday.
Then it's back on the train from New Orleans to Memphis and on to Little Rock for the very first time, looking forward to meeting my new readers and reuniting with my new friend Dotty Oliver, fearless publisher of this intrepid journal. I hooked up with Dotty and her travelling companion Laurence Hall at the 420 Café in Amsterdam late one Saturday night last December, and the three of us quickly grew thick as thieves.
It's easy for Americans in Amsterdam to find common ground in the coffeeshops and internet cafes where marijuana and hashish are freely smoked and important human connections are made. Quite simply, we come there to witness and enjoy the essential civility of a social order that allows for the desire of its citizens and their visitors to get high and explore their individuality without fear of official interference.
Since the late 1980s the epitome of the American experience in Amsterdam is the annual Cannabis Cup celebration organized by High Times magazine and held during Thanksgiving week. The Cannabis Cup is a week-long blow-out centered on a formal competition among the seed companies of Holland and the coffeeshops of Amsterdam to be recognized for the excellence of their produce and the superiority of their service, attended by hundreds of American marijuana fanciers and their counterparts in the Netherlands and throughout the world.
Suddenly free from the strictures of American society and the pervasive terrorism of the War on Drugs, these liberated pilgrims flow through the ancient streets of Amsterdam from coffeeshop to coffeeshop, pausing only to sample the distinctive strains offered at each stop. A vast cannabis exposition, speeches, lectures and workshops fill up the daytime hours, and dance-concerts featuring top American alt-pop stars and underground bands are staged at the Milkweg club each night. The whole thing peaks on Thanksgiving night with a gala presentation of the Cannabis Cup awards.
My love affair with Amsterdam began when Steve Hager of High Times graciously invited me to preside over the 1998 festivities as High Priest of the Cannabis Cup, and I've returned every November since. As a confirmed life-long marijuana smoker since my first joint in 1962, I've served three years in prison for possession of marijuana and I've lived my entire adult life under threat of imminent apprehension, prosecution and further imprisonment just because I like to get high on this innocuous herb.
But in Amsterdam this evil atmosphere disappears without a trace, and all of a sudden one finds oneself in a social setting where nobody even cares if you want to get high. What's more, you can stop by a coffeshop and cop grams of top-grade smoke right over the counter, sit down and roll up a joint or stuff a pipe and smoke it to your heart's content. Nobody cares! You're free to get as high as you like, and you can carry your stash with you when you leave the shop with never a worry about being stopped and frisked by the coppers.
For the American pot smoker, this uncomplicated experience creates a tremendous sense of liberation and personal freedom. All the problems so long encountered in the United States are dissolved in a single stroke, and all the pressures associated with drug use here in the Homeland just melt away for the entire duration of your stay. You can relax and be yourself, completely free from the fear of slipping up and inadvertently revealing the criminal nature of your preferred recreational activity.
Then there's the considerable physical charm of the city itself. Everywhere I went in Amsterdam I was struck by the architectural beauty and utilitarian logic of the urban construct and the way it works to serve the basic needs of the populace. A highly efficient public transportation system moves people effortlessly around town by tram (streetcar), bus and subway. Streets and public plazas are named for poets and painters and philosophers, and museums, concert houses and cultural institutions abound.
Dutch social polity also seems just so well and intelligently ordered, although-like white people everywhere-the natives have a difficult time adjusting to the recent influx of darker-skinned people from Turkey, Morocco, and the former Dutch colonies of Surinam, Indonesia and the Antilles. But when social problems crop up, the citizenry generally seeks to devise solutions that balance the contrasting needs of the contesting parties.
Perhaps most pertinent in this connection is the Dutch response to the emergence in the 1960s and '70s of a new generation of young people determined to get high on whatever substances would get them off, with a special emphasis on marijuana and hashish. Unlike the United States, where the same phenomenon resulted in the ruthless and incomprehensible War on Drugs which has raged for more than 40 years now, the government of the Netherlands determined that the recreational drug user posed no threat to the social order per se and effectively decriminalized individual drug use of any kind.
Simply put, the user of recreational drugs is not subject to arrest for getting high. While the sale and distribution of opiates and stimulants remains highly illegal, smokers of marijuana and hashish are allowed to obtain their favorite substances right over the counter at the ubiquitous coffeeshops and cannabis cafes that thrive all over town. Seeds and sprouts are available for sale to those who wish to grow their own, and there are "smart shops" that cater to the psychedelic explorers among us by offering a wide variety of consciousness-expanding plants and chemicals.
Another great thing about Holland is that very few people are armed. As a devout urbanite I've learned to negotiate a dangerous social construct populated by heavily armed citizens and even more murderously equipped authorities whose constant presence serves to intensify and exacerbate the terrorism of everyday life in the increasingly cruel and heartless society we inhabit here. But in Holland not even the police on the street carry guns, and only the most deadly serious professional criminals are equipped with weapons of individual destruction.
There's a whole lot to be said for an unarmed citizenry, and it's amazing to see how easy life can be absent the presence of a pistol in every other pocket. Another crippling layer of physical and psychic armor is soon stripped away, and things begin to look brighter and brighter by the day. Even the fear of being misunderstood by the natives is dissipated when one finds that Dutch schools teach the English language from grades K through 12, and most of the people one encounters can converse quite fluently in our own tongue.
In short, the more time I spent in Holland the more comfortable I felt, and as I followed on Dutch TV the fraudulent 2000 election returns and the horrifying triumph of the Bush putsch, the contrast between the ugliness of American life and the beauty of the Amsterdam experience grew sharper and sharper. For the first time in all my years as an American I began to wonder what it would be like to leave the States behind and seek to establish residency in this wondrous place.
It would take another three years for this innocent surmise to turn into an actual plan of repatriation, but in the Spring of 2003 I closed out my life in New Orleans, gave away my furniture, delivered all my recording tapes and personal files to my archive at the University of Michigan, moved my wife to Detroit to look after her aging mother, and went on the road for the next six months to try to earn enough money to make my move. By November 21st I was in Amsterdam, looking for a way to make a living in Europe and bring my wife over to join me.
I'd like to close this installment with a poem I composed for her in Amsterdam to commemorate our first 24 years together. It's called "criss cross":
#30 "criss cross"
for penny, on our 15th wedding anniversary
ever since that night
at cobb's corner
in 1979, when i saw you criss-
crossing the floor, your perfect ass a-
swing & a-sway, oh
it was love
at first sight, & i've stayed that way
through all the crazy changes
we managed to endure, criss-
crossing in & out
of each other's lives, splitting up
& coming back together
so many times, until we were joined
as husband & wife at last
on that bright first day of 1989-
& 15 years later, i still love you
more every day, & i'll keep on loving you
as long as i have life
& if I have to be so far a-
way from you
on this lucky day, i'm out here criss-
crossing the ocean to find
a place where i can bring you
to live out our days together, baby,
oh yeah-happily ever after
(amsterdam december 26, 2003/ 's-graveland january 3, 2004/ rotterdam january 7, 2004)
(c) 2004 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.