THERE’S BLACKING OUT…AND then there’s blacking out in Amsterdam.
I remember waking up on the park bench outside my hostel in the freezing cold. It’s early morning, and something smells funny. I rub my nose and I feel wetness. I look at my fingers and there’s semi-frozen blood on them.
I sit up and every sinew in my body strains in protest. The morning commute bustle is already beginning to sound. I yawn and the steam from my mouth looks solid enough to slice.
Instinctively I feel around for my backpack. It isn’t there. Wait, it isn’t there?!
I leap off the bench and frantically look around. My backpack, the backpack that just happened to contain my entire life at that point — including but not limited to my passport, my wallet, and several gorgeously rolled joints stuffed with the finest Dutch grass — is gone. I dig in my pockets and dump the damp contents onto the park bench.
an American dime
a squashed but unwrapped condom
a packet of gum
many broken cigarettes (plus a handful of loose tobacco)
a cell phone
Cell phone! I snap it open and the screen flickers to life. There’s one bar of battery life left.
I walk into my hostel. The same lady who checked me in three nights before is at the desk. I approach her and she looks up from her magazine.
“Backpack left gone night,” my words literally trip and fall flat on the way out of my mouth. Oh man, I’m still stoned. She scrunches her face at me, and then goes back to her reading. “You checked out yesterday,” she says.
End of discussion, apparently.
Back outside, I take several deep breaths of the winter chill and brace myself for the shit-eating phone call I now have to make. What time is it in California? I dial home.
A couple rings, then:
Mom (cheerful): Justin! Where in Europe are you now? Are you having fun?
Me: Hey, Mama.
Mom (instantly knows): What’s wrong? You sound upset.
Me: I screwed up, I’m sor-
BEEEP! The phone dies with a sad wail of defeat.
Me (shakes fist at sky): AW SHIT!
Random Passerby (muttering to herself): Klootzak.
A hangover is beginning to sink over me like a wet blanket of regret. I need coffee. Or food. Maybe both. Definitely both. And then I will reassess.
As I walk onto the thoroughfare, shielding my eyes from the glare of dawn, I can feel more stares than usual. I realize I must still have blood on my face. My legs are cold. I look down. There’s a giant tear in my jeans, right over my left thigh, which is now winking at the Dutch public as I stumble down the street. I try to pull my Oxford sweatshirt down over the gaping hole, but it’s too small.
The street is really crowded now, and a noise starts to blare exponentially louder in my ears. I look around, trying to figure out what it is, when…ZOOOM! A massive tram whizzes past me, missing me by about a foot and spinning me around. I plant my foot right into an icy puddle. As I regain my composure, I hear snickers passing by me, and I know exactly what they’re thinking: Another dumb American kid gets too fucked up in Amsterdam.
The funny thing is, I predicted this would happen. Or at least, I joked it would. After studying abroad at Oxford during the fall of 2007, the plan was always to hit up the party capitals of Europe. “And I bet you I’m gonna black out and lose my passport in Amsterdam!” Did you know that I’m a comedian?
But by the time we embarked, I had fallen in love with the city of Oxford, and it was hard to leave. Between the cobblestone streets, the gorgeous architecture, the farmers’ markets and the random wells, wherever I strolled, the theme song to Harry Potter looped on repeat in my head.
The first night I moved into my dorm room at University College — which happened to be directly under the one that once belonged to C.S. Lewis — I explored the town by myself and wandered into a pub called The Bear that was 600 years older than the United States. As I sipped on ale, wondering why it was room temperature and flat, the barman told me about all the famous noblemen that had been assassinated there. When I joked that I should “pour one out for the homies,” he cringed.
About halfway through our program, I met an Irishman named Paddy, and I swear to God that was actually his name. He went to another one of Oxford’s many colleges, and he had a gleaming white smile with big teeth that were endearingly crooked.
We kept bumping into each other at local Tesco’s deli section, and I didn’t realize he had been hitting on me until he finally asked me out for a drink. He was the first person to ever earnestly pursue me like a gentleman, and when we finally kissed, his big teeth scraped against my lips and sent tingles down my spine. For two months we slept in each other’s beds.
He was fresh on my mind as we boarded the airbus to our first destination, ironically his homeland. Our goodbye the night before had been rushed and mostly physical, neither of us daring to lend weight to what we had beyond an autumn fling.
So in Dublin I drowned my sorrows in pintfuls of Guinness. There’s nothing quite like authentic, Ireland-brewed Guinness. I could’ve bathed in the stuff. Rich, frothy, creamy, chocolaty, soul-warming really, Lady Guinness hugged me to her bosom and made everything better. On our last night there, we went to a gay club called the Georg and I danced with fit lads and tried not to think about Paddy, and my sweat reeked of hops.
Onward we pounced upon Barcelona, where I drank absinthe for the first time (it didn’t do anything) and ate paella that reminded me that wonderful food does exist outside of the United Kingdom. I ended up spending the last two nights with a local Spanish boy named Mario who had just the right amount of silky black chest hair; it was fun to pet and it tickled my cheeks at night.
The morning we were supposed to be leaving for Amsterdam, I woke up late and panicked in Mario’s bedroom, until he plopped me onto the back seat of his scooter and took me to the airport. I perched precariously onto the square inch of padding that was supposed to be the passenger seat and wrapped my arms around him as the city streaked by us in colorful blurs. It was very Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. I stared after him for a long time when he dropped me off, until his dark wavy hair was only a speck on the horizon.
At this point, the girls I had been travelling with were getting sick of my shenanigans. I’m sure I thought it was because I was drowning in musky Europeans and they were not, but in retrospect it was probably stressful that I was always disappearing into the night. After we boarded the plane at the last minute, we agreed to part ways in Amsterdam. “But not before we get really, really fucked up together,” I made them promise. They rolled their eyes and agreed.
I sit in a small restaurant with a half- decent view of the Amstel River, wondering why I just spent half my remaining money on breakfast. I pick at the last few crumbs of pastry, wishing there was more, and begin to defrag my memories of the past 24 hours in Amsterdam. I search my pockets again and find a brochure tucked away in my back pocket.
Van Gogh Museum. Oh, right.
I have a flashback to yesterday that feels like a fever dream: I’m walking from painting to painting in the gallery, and tears are pouring hot down my face as I watch an artist descend into madness through increasingly troubled brushstrokes. I vaguely hear one of the girls tell me it’s time to go, but I just stare at his self-portrait and wonder exactly how long it takes to cut off one’s own ear. Halfway through the amputation, did he have a “What the Fuck Am I Doing” moment?
I can’t quite remember what happened next, except that I briefly return to reality in the worst place possible: the secret annex where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis. They actually have a recording of an actress pretending to be her playing on a loop as she reads the most depressing excerpts from her diary. If you are going to truly indulge in Amsterdam vice, only visit the Anne Frank Museum when sober, unless you want to have a bad trip with time-traveling capability.
And after that. What happened after that? Alcohol happens, joints happen, merry wandering happens. Our crew is getting along for the first time, maybe because it would be the last time. I vaguely remember us stumbling into a tiny museum under an old hippie’s flat, where he had constructed a miniature village made entirely of crystals and naturally phosphorescent minerals. He had done so much acid in his life that the psychedelics had become a part of his system. He sprinkles glowing dust onto a crystal, his eyes twinkling at the beauty he created, as we sit in the black light. “A little bit of dust, a little bit of mineral,” he chants. He calls his little underground world Electric Ladyland.
At some point after this, I part ways with the girls, right after we split a massive pot brownie. Called the “White Widow,” it’s frosted with white chocolate and has bitter chunks of hash in it — and that’s the last I remember for a while. Evening begins to set in, and I’m vaguely aware that I am now in the seedier parts of the city because I suddenly hear the names of drugs being whispered to me by gruff voices.
Amsterdam does seedy very well. Dealers will just stroll past you and mutter what goods they have. “E… Coke… X… Hash…” They will walk right by you, and I suppose the idea is to follow them into a dark alley for the transaction.
There’s only one more memory left. I find myself leaning against a wall, sipping beer from a bottle. Just chill, I tell myself, because even then I realize I’ve finally overdone it. It’s dark now, and it’s getting cold. This is the last time I remember having my backpack.
I’m staring into someone’s living room, and suddenly a woman clad in black lingerie appears in the full-length window. Why is she staring at me like that? She begins to beckon at me as she teases at the strap of her bra. She has an eerie red aura about her.
Red. The realization slams into me like a tram. I’m in the Red Light District. The entire building is dotted with displays, where women of all shapes, ages, and colors are displayed like meat in a butcher shop.
And the men around me. The men walk up and down the street, their eyes darting from girl to girl, taking in this buffet. I walk slowly up the street and the square blocks of beautiful writhing women makes me think of a Broadway number, specifically “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago.
Leave it to a gay guy.
And the rest of the night — including the all-too-crucial part where I lose my backpack, bloody my nose, and rip open my jean crotch — is a missing chapter of my life.
It is now around noon, and I walk around the city, reflecting about how badly my European joy ride has crashed. Mostly I wish I hadn’t called my mom, since the phone had died in the middle of my sorrowful apology, and she probably is assuming I’m in an Italian prison and panicking accordingly.
Around this time, I suddenly think of Paddy and I realize how much I miss him. I should’ve called him instead, just to hear his voice. I try not to cry, and I wonder if he’s at Tesco deli right now, and staring at the curry chicken baps and missing me.
Since parting from Oxford, I had been drinking and smoking more than I ever had.
I’ve always been a relatively tame person, and even in college I tended to be the designated driver. I think my travel mates had been surprised to see my descent into a stereotypical American slut backpacking through the Old World.
Now as I write this, I know that I was heartbroken for the first time and just didn’t know it. This was a new pain, one that I hadn’t ever experienced before, and I didn’t recognize it for what it was. As a gay man, I’d only purely sexual WeHo encounters with other men. Paddy was my first love. I just hadn’t recognized it at this point.
So instead, I think of his sweet face and the way he nibbled at everything, and I decide that this gnawing feeling must be horniness. And I note to myself that I haven’t explored the gay district yet.
And that’s when I get an idea. I’ll do what any enterprising young gay American would do in this situation.
I’ll find me a daddy.
A gay bar in Amsterdam called The Cockring. A few patrons sit scattered about, but it is after lunch rush and before happy hour so it’s mostly deserted. A bearish bartender wipes the counter. An older gentleman sips at a beer and reads from a book. His name is Gillis.
Enter a young man named Justin, barely 21. He’s disheveled and bleary-eyed, and there are still traces of dried blood on his face, which he tried to unsuccessfully scrub away in a public bathroom. He walks to the bar and sits down, and orders the cheapest beer. He’s down to the last of his money.
Gillis looks him up and down and makes a motion at the bartender, who nods knowingly. He pushes the Euros back at Justin and wordlessly points his head at the gentleman. Justin glances over, somewhat surprised. That was easy.
Justin (taking a sip): Thank you, I appreciate it.
Justin: Canadian. Do you speak English? “Canadian” is a white lie, but one that
Justin relied heavily upon while studying abroad during the Bush era.
Gillis: Yes, of course.
Justin nods and takes another gulp. He taps his feet on his stool, and looks over at Gillis again, expectantly, but the older man has returned to his book.
Justin (clears throat): I’m Justin.
Gillis (looks up again): Gillis. There’s blood on your face, Justin.
Justin scrubs at his face with his hands, wincing in pain when his fingers bump against his tender nose. He does his best to look pitiful. Gillis takes the bait.
Gillis: Do you need a place to clean up? I live down the street.
Justin pauses a second, wondering if he’s making the right decision. Then he nods his head, furiously.
Once we get to his apartment, he pours me tea and lets me wash up. I sit down on his couch and I think he’s about to start the seduction process, but I can’t help myself and I burst into tears. He sits next to me wordlessly for a long time — and even rubs my back awkwardly trying to comfort me — but he finally just lets me fall asleep.
I wake up early the next day, and I can hear him snoring in his bedroom. I gather myself and write him a quick note (“Thank you for your kindness, I’ll never forget it”), and I quietly sneak out of his place.
Gillis lives on the top floor of an apartment complex in the gay neighborhood of Amsterdam, and as I walk down the stairs, the door of the apartment several floors beneath his opens, and a beautiful man in his 30s pops out to grab his mail. He catches sight of me, and thinking I’m doing a walk of shame, flashes a mischievous grin at me.
I smile back, but then I say, “It’s not what you think, dude.”
His eyes raise a bit, and he replies back, in music-to-my-ears American English, “You’re a long way from home, dude.”
And that’s how I meet Robert, an ex-pat, who happened to work for the American Embassy in Amsterdam.
And they say God doesn’t love the gays.
I think back about Europe as a strange collision of woeful stupidity and life-saving serendipity. Robert pulled some strings and within a couple days I was back in the air headed to Heathrow Airport in London, a fresh passport in my new fanny pack.
But those last few days in Amsterdam were deliriously fun: Robert showed me the hidden parts of the city, like the best damn chips you’ll ever eat drenched in mayo, the local parks that were beginning to be blanketed in snow, the coffee shops with the best grass. I slept in his bed, but I didn’t sleep with him. For the first time in my life, I felt camaraderie with a gay man that wasn’t reduced to a sexual encounter. I found a community in another part of the world that looked out for me as one of their own.
That’s the thing about being gay, isn’t it? It transcends race, color, gender, class, location, and age. It’s a community that’s bridged by more than sexual desire. Gay men from different worlds can cross paths and instantly see bits of themselves in each other.
My mother is waiting for me at the airport, having flown to London the moment she suspected something was wrong. She barely scolds me when I run into her arms, despite the fact that she knew that my irresponsible ass had landed both of us in shivering cold London.
As we wait for a flight back to California, she asks me how I managed to obtain a passport during holiday when the Embassies are closed. I wonder then if I should just tell her everything: I bounced from one swarthy European man to another until I happened to find an all-American stud that miraculously happened to work for the fucking Embassy. Also, I’m gay!
But that is a conversation for another day. I wouldn’t be able to do it justice, nor be able to explain how it felt like a greater force guided me through the darker parts of ancient cities, and how I found comfort in the arms of strange men.
So I just hug her again and tell her that angels looked out for me.