S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “The Ex-Pat,” Park talks about living in Port Townsend and past trips to Amsterdam with friend Sean.
I was driving home this morning when four deer crossed in front of me. They’re the rats of Port Townsend: there’s thousands of them and they stroll around like they own the place. (A pair downtown even uses the crosswalks!) Fat, healthy cows shepherding their young from field to garden, mowing down all in their path.
A local posted a petition online a few years back, suggesting we thin the herd. I signed on immediately, as did several hundred other people, and for a while we were carrying the day.
Then the Old Hippies heard about it and soon there was an online counter petition that generated thousands of signatures. They’re more ubiquitous than the deer in these parts and that’s okay, I knew that when I moved here and figured if I had to spend my twilight years in the company of others it might as well be the Peace & Love crowd. (At least you can leave your door unlocked.)
I looked like them in the Sixties and Seventies myself, but that was more about camouflage than solidarity. In the meanwhile those local deer act like runway models, moseying across the roads at glacial speeds. To accommodate them the townspeople stop their cars (the speed limit is only twenty-five, anyway, so you hardly notice) and wait for them to pass.
Why? This makes zero sense to me. When I honk at deer it not only clears the road but does them a favor, too, as maybe next time they’ll move their lazy asses! (Not that the same tactic’s ever worked on humans.)
But we’re at the end of the rainbow here, and impatience is a no-no. When I slowed to a crawl this morning, gave that group of four a tap on the horn they dispersed quickly.
Then I saw an Old Hippie couple (obvious by their ponytails, tie-dyed shirts and shocked expressions) on the side of the road. There was no other traffic around, so I stopped and rolled down the window.
“How dare you honk at those deer!?” gasped the woman, her fists knotted in rage.
“Asshole!” yelled her partner.
“What is it with you characters and honking at deer?” I asked, genuinely perplexed. “What’s the problem exactly?”
Ma looked at me like I was a moron. “It upsets them!” she said. “It offends their sensibilities!”
“That’s right!” chimed in Pa. “Remember: they were here first!”
“Yeah?” I laughed. “Well, so were the Indians. You gonna give ’em your house?”
That shut ’em up long enough for me to drive away. I’m sure they and their busybody compatriots mean well (and make the world a far better place than I do), but they’re also why it’s easy to shelter-in-place here.
Well, along with occasional calls from friends. I got one yesterday from my old buddy Sean in Amsterdam. He’s an English transplant (originally from Ireland) who’s lived there for years, and he put me up ten different times in the Nineties.
Trips that (given the amount I spent on pot seeds) I couldn’t have afforded otherwise. Sean’s the older brother of my friend Colin, who I met when he and his pal Quinn visited the U.S. in ’69. They landed in New York City, hitchhiked as far as Pennsylvania before buying an unregistered, twenty-five-dollar Corvair (Unsafe At Any Speed) and drove it cross country.
Neither of them had a driver’s license, either, but they made it to northern California before rolling it on a mountain road. Crawled out relatively unscathed, wandered up the highway and stopped at the first place they came to, a grocery store in Clipper Mills.
Which, as Fate would have it, was owned by Ned Gumbo’s parents. They normally didn’t leave him alone in there (not with all the liquor on the shelves), but they had something to do that day so Ned was manning the register when the Englishmen stumbled through the door.
As Gumbo explained it later: “They were drunk and bloody and I might have thrown them out except I mistook Colin for Mick Jagger.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I took ’em in the back to sniff amyl nitrate, of course, bust their drug cherry.”
Ned and I are hopeless Anglophiles, and those two characters (who he brought to his 1506 Burlingame Avenue hideout for the balance of their stay) were the quintessential Irish rummies. This meant they fit in seamlessly and Colin and I, in particular, quickly became close. (I still count he and his brother among my favorite people in the world.) Much of this was our fondness for the written word (he went on to a long career as an editor in London), but mostly it was the fine madness we generated together.
There was a lot of drinking and psychedelics involved, of course, and I never spent more time with a person and remember less of it.
There was a lot of drinking and psychedelics involved, of course, and I never spent more time with a person and remember less of it. I was working in a box plant across the Bay that summer, so only returned to Burlingame for the weekends. By then I’d been sober for five days and felt I was owed a lunatic binge.
It was a rare Monday when I’d wake in the dingy San Leandro motel where I lived, recall how I got there or what I’d done since Friday. All I was sure of, in fact, was Colin had been there every step of the way. (They’re loyal bastards, those Brits.)
So a half century later, when we exchange e-mails and he says: “Remember when we were thrown out of the Pink Ostrich that time?”; or “How about when I drank that beer full of cigarette butts?” I only pretend to know what he’s talking about.
After my first trip to Amsterdam in 1990, when I stayed in a fifteenth century hotel (with a five-foot long bed frame), Sean called me in Portland, introduced himself as Colin’s older brother and insisted I stay with him the next time I visited.
I was apprehensive about it, knowing he’d only heard about the drunken me and I’d been sober for decades by then, but a free flop in Amsterdam? When I was too old for hostels and the cheapest hotels were eighty bucks a night?
When I returned that fall I went straight from the train station to Sean’s apartment. He greeted me effusively, ushered me down the hall to my room. Swung open the door to reveal a ratty mattress on a concrete floor. The walls were bare and there was no bedding, chairs or lamps, not even a light bulb.
Finally! I’d had to cross the Atlantic to find him but here was a kindred spirit, a guy who was as indifferent to furnishings as I was. He apologized for it (“I’m sure I can find you a blanket somewhere, or at least a towel”), but he felt like a brother from another mother to me.
He proved an entertaining host in more ways than one over the years. For openers he had a cultured English accent and a deep, sonorous voice, so often read at local radio stations. Mostly, though, he worked at a Dutch language school. It was his job to visit the hotel rooms of visiting businessmen or diplomats, tutor their wives while they were out for the day.
Or service them, anyway. Being a proper English fellow he’d never cop to it (any more than Prince Andrew has), but he’d come home smelling like a whorehouse and would often receive Thank You! cards with foreign postmarks.
He rounded out this bon vivant persona with his briefcase. He lugged it everywhere and at first I assumed (as he insisted) that it was filled with language texts and the like. Then I’d hear a faint clinking sound and one day, when he was in another room, I took a peek inside, saw it was full of English Ale bottles. (There were papers in there, too, but only to keep the bottles from banging together.)
This raised him further in my estimation, even as the mere mention of such things flustered him. Of all the rummies I’d met since I quit boozing, in fact, Sean was the one I most wished I could have drank with.
Instead I accompanied him to taverns occasionally but it wasn’t the same on pot, space cake or ’shrooms. (Or all three at once, which was often the case.) Mostly it reminded me of flying to London in ’91 to visit his brother. We spent the first couple days with his family but on the third night he took me to his local pub. The place was jammed and I was introduced to a sloppy chorus of cheers.
They’d heard the stories of the younger me, too. Then I walked to the bar and ordered a 7-Up.
The place went quiet. “Your American friend’s become a teetotaler then?” someone asked.
“That’s right!” declared Colin. “He was a terrible drunk when I knew him in ’69, but he’s been sober for twenty years now!”
It took a moment, but finally his mates exploded in jeers:
“A member of ‘Assholes Anonymous’ are you now!?”
“Oh, look at me!?” slurred one rummy, spreading his arms wide and trembling. “I’ve got a disease!”
Damn! I thought. Why’d I wait so long to visit Europe? I like their attitude here.
Sean could certainly hold his liquor (as long as he didn’t mix it with pot, especially my killer Boregon bud), and—as befit a gentleman and a sportsman—he was mostly unflappable.
Only boorishness ruffled him. He enjoyed running marathons, for instance, but was horrified that (like many Northern Europeans), the Dutch were pushy in crowds.
“My gawd, Wilson,” he’d tell me afterwards, his arms covered in bruises, “it was like roller derby out there. We’d be running along and I’d no sooner apologize to one of those blokes for something than they’d elbow me out of the way! Unconscionable behavior!”
The last time I saw him was 2001. He’d been laid off from his tutor’s job at the time (too much sowing of the seed, I suspect) and was collecting the Dutch equivalent of unemployment benefits. To pick up extra cash he was cleaning houses with our friend Rosie.
This was as ludicrous as handing a bucket and mop to me: it wouldn’t be good for anybody. When I reminded Rosie of this she said she’d handled it, that they only cleaned canal houses and it was Sean’s job to vacuum the carpets.
“Even Schwartz (as she liked to call him) can do that,” she said.
I was dubious, and if I hadn’t had better things to do (i.e. wander from one coffeeshop to another, testing their wares) I might have checked up on him myself (he did, after all, still take that briefcase every morning).
Turns out he only lasted a month, anyway. That’s how long it took Rosie to figure out that when she was on one floor he’d head to another, plug in the vacuum, turn it on, then plop down to read so it sounded like he was working.
“I finally snuck a peek one day,” she told me, “and there was Schwartz, lookin’ like King George on his throne. He was vaguely irritated by the noise I’m sure, but doing quite well otherwise, thank you very much, with his cricket magazine and bottle of ale.”
When I mentioned this to Sean later he claimed he’d been laid off “due to lack of work.”
“You mean your own, right?” I said.
“Good God, man!” he huffed. “The Dutch are like the Germans: all they do is clean! What do they need me for?”