“The sixties ended in 1969 with gruesome murders on East First Street. Drug-related, I suppose heroin?”
I’d almost forgotten about that. Yes, and it was advertised as the end of the Hippy Revolution, at least that’s how the news reached me. I was not in New York.
Wasn’t there a song by the Velvet Underground that was a paean to heroin? Waiting for My Man? Yes, I can hear the reedy voice of Lou Reed now. It all looked so glamorous from afar. Andy Warhol’s Factory, wasn’t that on Union Square? And the bar they hung out at? Max’s Kansas City?
I ask him if that’s not sort of the end of New York’s Summer of Love. He nods. “Isn’t hindsight great?”
History does start out as hindsight, I suppose.
I have taken him to a coffee-shop, Dutch for cannabis dispensary, around the corner from the Witte de Withstraat, a Rotterdam street that had been saved from drug pushers by the city introducing art galleries, the cutting-edge kind, but which has slowly transmogrified into a trendy street of cafés and restaurants. I stand outside with his suitcase on wheels – it’s purple and a kind of molded plastic – while he goes in; seems there’s this city regulation prohibiting bringing bags inside? Anyway, he doesn’t need my help.
I tell him about the street where we’re now sitting. We’re outside on a sidewalk terrace. He took two last tokes of his joint and then stubbed it out and put it in his pocket when I told him you can’t smoke a joint sitting here. “A cigarette?” I nod yes, and we laugh.
He asks me where the art galleries have gone. I reply that they are not all gone, a lame response.
He looks pensive and then as if about to make some point. And then he doesn’t.
So, I pick up the baton, fill the silence. I ask him if that event, the murders, was the end of American Counter-Culture. He shakes his head.
“Some may have thought so; I don’t. It didn’t end until Reagan, and even then, it still has embers. You know that many American states have legalized marijuana, right?”
I do. I see his point.
“Let’s not forget the Gay Liberation scene. Stonewall. That was also 1969.”
Année érotique, I say. We have our French bond. He smiles at that. “So, the Counter-culture persisted through the 1970s into the 1980s, despite Reagan, until AIDS hit and hit hard. The start of the wipe-out.”
“New York is dead. You didn’t realize that? Oh, you’ve been fooled by the Wall-Street mummification job. Very slick. To the untrained eye, or, I should say, the inexperienced eye. The eye that lived through Warhol and the Soho gallery scene? The Pyramid Club. Not fooled.”
A tall, young, skinny waiter arrives. I start to order in Dutch. The kid puts on a hangdog face: “Sorry, I’m trying to learn but…” I ask him where he’s from. “Poland.” Of course. I repeat and ask him if there are dark Belgian beers on tap. He nods yes and cites one. I trust him and order two.
“What a world! Here we are in the Netherland’s second largest city, and the waiter can’t speak Dutch. But you did say that this city is now pretty international.” I admit, with a grin, that I did. And, of course, post-Covid, there’s a labor shortage. He nods. “Yes, true in most of the Western world.” I suppose he just means Europe and the US – Canada, too, probably. I don’t bother checking; I haven’t heard of the last place he mentioned.
Pyramid Club? I ask him to explain. “There was this small dive, a club, on Avenue A across from Tompkins Square Park. 1980s? The scene was often called New Wave. A bit confusing but, whatever. The kids involved didn’t have the Nouvelle Vague fresh in their minds. Anyway, a hangout for Keith Haring from time to time. Klaus Nomi would perform there.” I can see the heavily grease-painted moon face of Nomi singing in counter tenor, dressed in black and white, a black bowtie. I haven’t thought of him in many years. But that’s why I’ve got Bill seated here, a bit stoned, prodding him to tell all, reminisce, relive the memories and so bring those days back to life. He lived them; I didn’t. “So, yeah, New York is dead.”
Klaus Nomi certainly is. One of the many wiped out by AIDS. I ask whether it wasn’t really AIDS that murdered the city. He shakes his head. “Republicans.” And then he bursts out laughing. It’s contagious. I laugh too. And yet there’s nothing funny about Republicans, not really.
Our laughter dies out. I say that very thing.
“No. There’s really nothing funny at all about Republicans, certainly not in our lifetimes. Same is true of the Tories. I told you I’m planning on moving, leaving London, didn’t I?” Bill has bitched and complained about Brexit, but I didn’t know it had reached the plan stage. “Yes. Could I move here?” He sees the look of shock on my face. “Just joking. No, I was thinking of somewhere in France. You know that David Hockney lives in Normandy now. The press claims he’s a Brexiteer. I’d say they’re lying or he’s having a laugh at their expense, giving them the good story they crave so they can get clicks. I mean, Normandy? But, no, I’m not thinking of Normandy. I’m thinking of Biarritz.”
Biarritz? I don’t know what to say next. Too many questions pop into my head. Can he afford that? How rich is he after all? He’s never mentioned Biarritz before. Has he even been there?
I’ve known Bill aka William (he prefers William for the alliteration) Willis just about all my adult life. He moved from the Peace Corps to a similar NGO, and then went to work for the UN. He lived some of the sixties and all of the seventies and half the eighties in New York City. He followed some UN body to London. I know he has a prestigious job title. His parents died recently. He was an only child. No doubt he inherited everything. I don’t think they had multi-millions, but then I don’t know. They were New England Yankees, tried and true, and as such had retired to Saint Petersburg, Florida. Close-lipped about money. Now that I think of it, Bill never talks much about money except when excoriating the billionaire class that straddles the planet like a horde of anteaters. I can hear him say: “More billionaires are American than any other nationality. America now has one of the highest levels of poverty in the Western world.” This is the sort of statement he makes, likes to make, but then what is his field of expertise? Something economics. Okay.
I ask him if he’s been to Biarritz. He laughs.
The Polish waiter arrives and puts our beers down on the table. I reach for my pinpas bank card. That skinny face breaks into a triumphant smile. Why? The expression on my face triggers an explanation. Oh, because he has this new version of the machine right in his pocket? He pulls it out and then rather proudly types in the amount. I touch the card to the screen of the machine, and bingo!
“Thirsty.” Bill grabs his beer, toasts me before I can raise my glass, and takes a long sip. “Oh, this is delicious. You’ve always had great taste in food.” Not that beer is exactly food, but I nod, smile, graciously accept his complement, and then I take a sip myself. Oh, it is good! Shame. I have no idea what the kid told me it was called.
So, Biarritz, I repeat. “No. No, but I’m going there in a couple of weeks. Are you coming to Paris with me next week?” I can’t on such short notice. How many times do I have to explain that? He sees the look on my face. “I know. But we’ve never been in Paris together at the same time in donkey’s years. Now, that would be another trigger for the old memory bank.” Indeed.
He looks like he’s getting more and more stoned. Cumulative effect. I should have shared the joint with him, but I wasn’t in the mood. I would be in the mood to meet up with him or go to Paris with him, but… Such is life, I say to him.
“If I like Biarritz, I’ll buy something there, and then I’ll move there.” Just like that, I say? “Yes. Why not.” I think, but don’t say, money. “I can afford it.” He is expressionless as he says this. He reaches for the beer and takes another good drink of it. He is thirsty. It’s the grass.
Right off the Eurostar, he surprised me by the request to immediately buy a joint. The Witte de Withstraat isn’t far from the Central Station. Other than an initial wow as we stepped out of the cantilevered roof of the five-year-old station, he walked and looked at all the new architecture and the bustling feel on the street but only talked about the death of New York and then of London.
And here we are.
“You know, have you seriously contemplated it? The whole of the USA may soon be dead, not just New York City.” He sees the second look of shock on my face. He’s playing me like a fiddle. “Same perpetrators.” Republicans, I say, like the good straight man I am with him. “You don’t have those here, do you?” Not exactly, no, I reply. But the Right is not nonexistent here in the Netherlands, I point out. He nods sagely; he knows this. He’s more into politics than I am. “I will feel better, safer living in an EU country.” I nod. I know what he means.
I take a nice sip of my beer.
“Before it died, New York City was truly amazing…” he sits back in his chair, a storyteller’s smile spreads across his face, and he starts.
“There was this play they put on, basically to fuck the establishment, I think: Dionysus in Sixty-nine. All the actors were nude. At one point they crawled all over each other in a kind of pile. There was audience participation in that the actors were mostly in the audience. And you could take off your clothes and join in. Can you fucking believe it? It was in a kind of garage downtown. This was super shocking back then. Porn was still illegal, although it was on sale in Times Square. Nudity was verboten. There were audience members who returned again and again. It was loosely based on Euripides’ The Bacchae. Performance art. In a garage. And then The New York Times raved over it! Weird, right? I went. I could see the point. I loved that they were smashing up the puritanical rules, you know, Republican bullshit. Of course, the Democrats were in power. The Vietnam War was heating up big time.”
My turn. Ah, yes. Vietnam. How many million killed on both sides? He nods. Nowadays, good global trading partners.
“The first war America lost. Big time.” I murmur Nixon. That makes him burst out laughing. It’s contagious; I laugh too. Nixon. Seems so quaint, I say. He nods. I toast him with my beer and take a long sip. I’ve become a big fan of Belgian beer, I tell him. He grins and nods, “I can see why.”
“This is the sweet life you got over here.” He looks up and down the street. Most of the buildings on this end date from before the German bombardment in 1940. They’re a mix of styles, some even aping old-Dutch step gables. Further down, it’s 1950s Dutch, with Bauhaus influences to it. I find the architecture on this end funky, oddly ornate, an odd style mix, native to turn-of-the-century Rotterdam, I always think but am not sure. Pale red brick, sometimes reddish-brown brick, with white stone trimming around windows, doorways; sometimes the whole street level is this white stone façade. The street is heavily tree lined, leafy and nowadays virtually car free. There’s a cozy feel, cafés one after the other, a lot of them those bruin cafés inside, dark brown woodwork, ceilings yellow with old tobacco smoke. Bikes. Pedestrians. There are islands of tables and chairs, terraces constructed where cars used to park, a change which took off with Covid. There are no more parked cars. People in general are smiling on this street; the street says party. I can see he notices that, the smiles; I am looking at the street action through his eyes without turning around. “London is nothing like this now. It’s all about money and real estate. Or was.” He looks abruptly satanic, as if he’s laying a curse on London. Strong feelings then. But I suppose that’s what you need when you make a big move, change cities or countries. I’ve been there. You have to almost hate where you are.
“They died within a month of each other, did I tell you? I did. So, I had to go fly over to Saint Petersburg myself to sort out the condo. I thought, hey, I can take time off, go to the beach. No. It was December. They died before Christmas. It was too cold to go to the beach. They had neighbors, nosey ones who insisted on being around and ‘helping’ me. Fucking old Republicans. One old bitch swooned over Trump. MAGA tee-shirt over sagging tits.” His eyes roll; I laugh. He’s dressed all in black: black jeans, black tee-shirt under a black cotton shirt, and over that a shiny silk-looking black bomber jacket. He was easy to spot getting off the Eurostar, what with the purple suitcase.
I ask him, out of the blue, if he’s retired from the UN. He nods, “When I got back from Florida.” I think he had moved to London, or accepted the transfer there, maybe even sought out the transfer there, because of the gay sex clubs in London. He would tell me their names. One was called The Hoist. I chuckle and ask him if he still went to The Hoist. “I’ve outgrown piss,” he says and then looks at his beer. He raises it to the light, “Beautiful color,” and then takes a small sip. “The Hoist closed in 2016. They had a bastard of a doorman. But I’d stopped going there by then. Again, too much piss for my taste.”
I want to change the subject. I ask him if he went to Max’s Kansas City in its heyday. “Yes. Well, yes and no, because they never let me into the backroom, which was where Andy held court.” He says “Andy” as if he knew him, which I know he did not. “You know the stories. Well, his Factory was pretty much upstairs. I thought it was boring until I went there one night and watched the parade of celebs heading to the backroom. But I’m no groupie. As I said, they didn’t let me in the back, so I only went there, like, three, maybe four times. I confess I’m no artist. The place was cliquish. Ask me about Studio 54.”
I do. “You could get in if you wore the clone outfit.” Black leather motorcycle jacket, maybe leather jeans or blue jeans, plaid shirt or wife-beater, construction boots, buzzcut hair, mustache. I say this; he nods. “I would go around once a month. It was easy. I had that Upper East Side flat, remember? UN housing?” He laughs at that one. But I know the UN human resources helped find him an apartment and guaranteed the rent, so it was something pretty posh for sixties and seventies New York. Which gives me pause: I’ve seen with my own eyes that this dichotomy in Manhattan is long gone. Even the slum apartments that artists of all shapes and sizes over decades past would live in now cost a fortune to rent. “I had the clone outfit. I spent my weekends downtown. Village. Anvil. Mineshaft. Going to Studio, at first, meant foregoing sex. But that soon changed.” To his wide smile and glowing eyes, I add that he helped make that happen. He nods serenely like a buddha. “Crime. Muggings. I was always glad to retreat to East Thirty-fifth Street.” I remember. He had one whole floor of a brownstone. The guy downstairs only had half a floor, was an airline steward, and sold cocaine out of his apartment when he was not flying. I relate that: He laughs. “Sexy devil. One of the first AIDS victims. I had sex with him a few times. Miracle I didn’t catch the Plague.” You are a vampire and are immune, I say. He relishes that and takes a big sip of his beer. His glass is half empty now. I take a sip in a feeble attempt to keep up. I figure this beer is eight percent alcohol. I can handle it, but I’m not stoned. Is he slouching a bit in his chair? As if he reads my mind, he straightens up. “Every other week I was going to somebody’s memorial. The City closed the Saint Mark’s Baths. That was a death knell. Studio closed in 1980 when the boys got hit with tax evasion. It reopened, but it wasn’t the same. That’s when I discovered the Pyramid Club.” He’s looking so wistful. Did he hang out there? “The neighborhood was still fucking dangerous, but taxis would take you there. Yuppies were replacing Hippies,” he quips. I nod and grin. Yuppies. I haven’t heard that term for a long while. And then I realize why: It’s redundant. The world is now either yuppie or wannabe yuppie. I say that to Bill, and he grins and nods.
“Few people even have any memory of a world with different values. Think of all the people born after 1980. We’re dinosaurs.” I just let that float free in the air. Am I as Americano-centric as Bill? I know that this city in which I live is a combination of yuppie values and social-democrat values. But, of course, he’s been living in London. And Reagan and Thatcher were soulmates. I just let that pop out.
“Yes, you’re right. I shouldn’t have asked for a transfer to London, he says in hindsight.” He chortles at his self-reference. He’s funny when he chortles; it makes him seem fat, which he is not. I chuckle: Does that sound less fat? “You know why I moved to London.” I suppose he means sex. “Sex.” Okay, I knew that. He’s smiling ear-to-ear. He’s sat back triumphantly in his chair. He takes up the beer and toasts me. Luckily, he just takes a small sip. I have to eventually get him home. He’s staying overnight at my place. Tomorrow, he takes the Thalys to Paris. “I should have moved to Amsterdam. But there was nothing UN on offer there. I did think about it. And then we’d have been kinda neighbors.” I try to mask my horror at that idea. He shakes his head, “Don’t worry.” I tell him I’m not worried. He just grins back. Actually, would I have minded him living in Amsterdam? No, not really. It might have been fun: Bill’s as crash pad. “I think you want to talk about things that really have happened, though. Or at least I do.” I nod but am not sure why. This is his trip. Spur of the moment: He WhatsApped me just yesterday at around noontime. I scrambled in my mind – things like cleaning the apartment? – but then replied, Sure. It was only after he’d received that, that he said he would be on the next day’s Eurostar. And then, reading my mind as usual, he added that he’d only be staying overnight and not to kill myself by cleaning the place up. I replied with a 🙀. And then came the announcement of the Thalys next day to Paris, and an endless back and forth about traveling with him, that he’d pay for my ticket, that he needed to show me something in Paris, none of which worked. I couldn’t. I had work. I wasn’t retired like he was. And finally he backed off.
“But what I’ve been trying to figure out recently… for over a month now… I don’t know why I didn’t ask myself the question before that; it’s so obvious… and that is: They take over; they get the city; they price just about everyone who is not a Wall Street wage-slave or lackey thereof out of Manhattan; they create the vicious circle of hopscotching from one slummy part of Manhattan to another in search of an affordable rent, all the while sort of gentrifying and skyrocketing the neighborhood’s rent and…” He stops to catch his breath, more in a dramatic way than for a physical need. “So, now Manhattan is basically unaffordable except for their own people and/or wage slaves. What next? What is the ultimate goal? Why do they want this massive control? Okay, control for control’s sake. And I suppose someone as old as Murdoch was terrified by the demands and possibilities of the Counter Culture, not to mention the revolt against the Draft and the ole Military-Industrial Complex. But that’s all long gone. Reagan solved that for them. And, who would have thought that the Draft was a democratic check-and-balance? They did, because they agreed to end the Draft. You scratched your head at the time and thought that maybe they’d gone over to the Good Side, but no. Armed forces would now become, more or less, mercenaries. Such a fun term: professional armed forces. The good and interesting thing there is that, you know, when the Roman Empire did this, it was the beginning of the end. But I digress.” He grins, grins broadly. His conversations, which are mostly monologues, are always full of digressions. That’s partly what makes listening to him fun. He leans forward to grab his beer and takes a chug. He’s almost emptied the glass. Is he going to want another one? Will I then have to help him to stand up and then lead him, slipping-and-sliding, to the bus stop?
“Times Square is now a Disneyland version of itself. It doesn’t even harken back to its glorious musical-comedy days of the late fifties, or before that to the thirties and forties. No. It’s pedestrianized.” He bursts out laughing. “So, what is this Manhattan they hath wrought? Restaurant dinners that cost most people’s monthly salary, which creates bling-bling exclusivity?” His eyes widen, closing in on bug-eyed. “That’s it, too, bling-bling. Because I know that old money does not go to these restaurants; they give dinner parties for their friends and relatives. They will hire an exceptionally talented young chef as caterer, and thus become patrons.” He then stops, stops dead, and, as if just waking up to the real world, starts watching the street, the people passing, the physical architecture of the street; he even looks up at the trees. It’s early fall; the leaves are still green.
I wonder if it’s dawned on him that what he’s just said about old money could very well be wishful thinking and bullshit? His parents certainly did nothing of the kind. He once told me that they worshipped the god frugality.
“I’ve become aware that when old money is in control of a place, it performs a careful balancing act between preservation and innovation to prevent economic stagnation.” No, nothing has dawned on him. “In its own way, it creates a kind of egalitarian utopia, but removed as gods on Olympus. And very discrete. Have you been to Biarritz?” He’s already asked me that. “Come to Paris with me. Okay, not tomorrow, okay, come when you can get free. Come and we’ll go and discover Biarritz together.” His face is now so bright and eager, years have slipped away from his face: He is again that goofy and optimistic kid that attracted us all to him. I put on my best “I’ll think about it” face. And then I do think about it. Actually, it sounds fantastic. I could use a vacation. So, I say: I’ll think about it, seriously.
He becomes triumphant. His face says, I’ve won. Okay, in a way it is true. “I’ve booked one night at Le Meurice. And then I’ll move down the rue de Rivoli to the Crillon. I’m curious. It will only take twenty-four hours to check out how bling-bling owners have changed the place.” I’m a bit stunned: Did he ever stay or know these hotels in the days before they were bought up by multinational chains? They were never cheap. Did he have a secret life? I want to ask but don’t. This would be considered by him to be in very bad taste. It might even destroy our friendship. Whatever he might have been in the past, though, he’s not being shy about letting it be known to me that he quite suddenly has a virtual endless supply of money.
I haven’t expected this. I never even came close to suspecting. I perforce now look at William (Bill) Willis sitting across from me in a new light. And I can see that he can see that I’ve just had an epiphany and understood who he now was. A fleeting look of acknowledgement crosses his face. His eyes move away from me, me as part and parcel of the environment around him, and down to the nearly empty glass of beer. He freezes. He is contemplating possibilities, which are a mystery to me, and he is calculating. He then eyes me: “What plans did you have for dinner? Can I invite you to the best restaurant in Rotterdam?” He pauses, “That is, can we get a table on such short notice at the best place?” I have no idea; I tell him I have no idea. I run through the list of possibilities in my mind. I have a first choice, one that we can walk to. I pull out my smartphone. I’ll have to actually call; you can’t do a same-day reservation online, can you?
He watches as I speak to someone at the restaurant. Yes, a table for two. Eight o’clock. Perfect. “You speak Dutch.” I laugh and explain that it’s my own kind of Dutch. He frowns in momentary confusion and then gives me a short laugh, which was what I was aiming for. “So, don’t tell me anything about the restaurant. I want to be surprised.” I agree. He looks beyond me again, sizing up the traffic, mostly pedestrian. “This place, I mean this city, has changed enormously since you moved here. How did that happen?” I tell him that it was technocrats and city planners. “Ah, social democracy.” He is beaming. I think that’s the first time I’ve heard him use that term. I nod. I nod, because that is how the transformation of the city all came about. People like to laugh about bureaucrats, but… He nods sagely as I say that. Did he always think that way? He has always voted Democrat. I always thought that this was to spite his parents more than anything of great politic depth.
“But there are what are known as the ‘City Fathers.’ I think that’s how Biarritz is run. Basques, most likely, aligned with some old money. Although there are Russian oligarchs with property there, bling is discouraged, right?” I nod to be cordial, but I have no idea. I now see that this is the basis of his interest. “I’ve been watching things about Biarritz on YouTube. There’s no marina where the assholes can park their gross yachts like in Saint-Tropez.” I nod, because we’ve all seen those Saint-Tropez pics. It’s no secret. I say maybe it’s the bling capital. “No, what about Dubai? The poison has spread all over the place where it can take root.” I mumble taxes. He turns thoughtful and then somber; taxes is not a subject he wishes to discuss. “What time is dinner? I’m getting seriously hungry.” He grins. I tell him. Did I think he’d understood my Dutch? How silly of me. “Is there food here? Cocktail snacks? Maybe we should order something.” He spies a plasticized menu card on its side in a metal holder and grabs it. He frowns as he reads and then looks up. “What is frikandel? I remember bitterballen. I remember burning my mouth when I bit down.” He laughs for me. I remember. I was there. I’d done the same thing in the past. But I’ve gotten used to them and I tell them they can be quite good with a beer. My glass is still a third full. He smiles at my glass. “I could get another one and pour some of it in your glass?” He’s taken to ending statements in a question? When did he pick that up? Is that a trendy London thing now?
He spots the waiter and raises his hand. The guy sees and smiles. Bill just points to his empty glass, and the kid nods and disappears into the back. “So, what is frikandel?” I tell him I’m not sure what’s in them. Ground meat stuff, parts, maybe, in the shape of a rolling-pin, and fried of course. Bitterballen are fried balls, but with a gooey ragout mixture inside that is the source of the problem. Crisp on the outside, you bite in and molten lava spurts out. He laughs at that. “Yes. Well, what else is there?” I take the menu from him and look. I run down the list. Ah, maybe he’d like the aged Dutch cheese plate. I read it out loud. His face lights up. “That sounds great.” The waiter arrives with Bill’s beer. I order the cheese.
I watch as Bill carefully pours some of his into mine so that we each have the same amount of beer. He doesn’t spill a drop. “Cheers!” I raise my newly filled glass to his. “À nos amours!” I laugh: Whose love life is he talking about? I ask him if he’s seeing someone. “Nope. But always hopeful, that’s why the toast. What about you?” I shake my head. “Then more reason for you to join me in Paris and then go with me to Biarritz. You’re free as a bird.” I explain comically that I do have a job. He shrugs. And he’s right: I can take time off. How does he know this? Well, he doesn’t really. I have lots of unused vacation time coming. But I’m not going to cede to him quite yet. In any case, I can’t join him on his Thalys tomorrow. That would be not enough notice.
Funny, I suppose he still does speak French. He used to, of course. But when was the last time he was in Paris? No idea. And then, reading my mind as usual, he tells me. “I went just before the Covid lockdown stuff. I got out and back to London by the skin of my teeth.” I bet there’s a story there. He sits back and takes a nice sip of his beer. I perk up, ready to listen to his tale. His eyes look a bit glazed, but I suppose that’s the joint. Come on, Bill, regale me! I know France had a severe lockdown. The UK’s was also harsh. Ours was much less so. I really don’t have any Covid horror stories myself. Except, that there was a night curfew for a while, so we had to give dinner parties at lunchtime. There I am telling him all this, filling the gap, waiting for him to tell his tale. No one I knew got seriously sick. A couple did get it but a mild case that lasted only a few days. I was spared. But I must have told him all that before. We all WhatsApped like crazy in the Covid days. And I talked to him a couple of times as well, but not video.
Now I’m seeing him for the first time in a good five years. He is looking older, his hair is a bit more salt-and-pepper but thick, though cut short as usual, so I imagine he can still score and might be really hot for some young guys, even hotties; do people still say “hotties”? I don’t ask if he’s still active, though. I’ve never been actually interested in his sex life, even though he’s told me lots about it over the years, which is probably why I’m not interested. He has tended towards overkill. But sympathetic? Mildly curious? Never bored by his stories? Yes, this is true. But I can see he is not going there…
His parents died last year but not from Covid, or he would have told me. Again, I don’t ask. I don’t need to know. I don’t want to know.
I realize that I rarely have to ask him, interrogate him, about things in his life. He has always spilled everything to me. I’m his “good listener.” So, Bill, how’s your sex life?
“So, I guess you could say…” He takes another good sip. “I’m fleeing death and I’m seeking transfiguration!” His eyes do a whoop, but he makes no sound. He’s waiting for my reaction.
I laugh. What else can I do? It’s too over-the-top. And then I’m back to thoughts of wealth: Has he now inherited so much money that he is a multi-millionaire or even billionaire? His sudden interest in Biarritz, which I never found that interesting nor did he, could be a desire to establish himself in an old-money environment. One thing Bill is not, is bling. And then I note the purple suitcase.
Purple suitcase and dressed all in black: a bit of eccentricity that wouldn’t be out of place among old money, now that I think of it. Neither of these aspects of him say bling to me.
My laugh about “death and transfiguration” may just have offended him. He’s now smirking at me.
Could he in fact have a terminal disease? Did he mean “death and transfiguration” literally? I echo back his smirk and shrug my shoulders and grab my beer. Ah, saved! He is back watching the people going by behind me now. His face is inscrutable. No clue what he’s thinking at this point. “You aren’t… you couldn’t be ill, could you?” I say this as I set down my beer. I’ve bitten the bullet. A friend needs to know the truth.
He eyes me. “Gotcha. No, my health is amazing for someone my age.” I think: He’s not that old, only maybe a decade older than myself, at the most. “I wonder if there’s a gay scene in Biarritz. I should google.” His eyes sparkle again. What a relief; I grin back at him. I can’t imagine him without an inordinate sex drive.
“Actually, I know there are very good restaurants. It’s Basque country. There’s San Sebastián a few hours away. Don’t be shocked, but I think I’m being very traditionally French in that sex is being superseded, if not replaced, by the plaisirs de la table.” This reminds me that the last time he visited me, which was maybe ten years ago, he spent much of his time in Amsterdam in the sauna. “By the way, how is that sauna in Amsterdam?” He is uncanny. I tell him it went bankrupt and closed. “How does a sauna go bankrupt? It’s the same sort of question you ask about a casino. I know it happens. Do you know the reason?” I shake my head no. “I’m told it’s all online or on apps. I know I should modernize, but I don’t like the Grindr idea. You register. And then horny or just curious guys contact you if you’re nearby. I know, I know, it’s pretty much like the old days when you went out to a cruising spot and walked up and down or sat and waited. I suppose it’s more efficient, now that I think of it. No waiting.” He sighs unexpectedly; he is experiencing nostalgia. He picks up his beer and takes a small sip as if to wet his lips, counter a dry throat, rather than really drink. I’m surprised then. The way he had started, I thought he’d be guzzling this beer down as well. But he seems generally to have drifted into a contemplative mode. And then he takes aim at me with his eyes: “I won’t go to Biarritz without you.” He sets his jaw; he looks at me hard. I smile back and take a drink of my beer; I’m way ahead of him now. I don’t like this. Who likes to be coerced? I can imagine him spending thousands in Le Meurice or in Le Crillon waiting for me to show in Paris and then travel to Biarritz with him. Well, let him.
“Sorry, I was just being dramatic. That’s how much I want you to come with me to Biarritz.” The skinny Polish guy arrives with the cheese. Bill and I both look at it in surprise. We’d forgotten we’d ordered it. I take up a cube and pop it in my mouth. It’s nicely aged. It’s pretty good. Bill is looking at me for my judgement. I tell him to try a piece, that it’s not bad. He does. “Not bad at all. I’d forgotten about aged Gouda. Is it aged Gouda?” I shrug and say I think so. And then I tell him there’s now this Rotterdam brand of cheese which looks almost orange and is very aged. The menu didn’t specify, but the cheese was not cheap. I tell Bill I think the cheese is local. He laughs: “So, where are your cows here?” I announce that Rotterdam now has tourists, lots of them, busloads. He looks genuinely surprised, missing totally my stab at humor equating cows and tourists. “I suppose it must. The arrival in the new train station is striking. You step out into a crazy world of bendy skyscrapers and stuff. Mind you, I’m not an architectural critic. But I was talking to you so much I forgot to let you know the wow factor I was feeling.” I grin with pleasure. He did talk non-stop until we reached the coffee-shop. Mostly he was telling me how great it was to be out of London, free of it, and then the list of complaints ensued. I just listened. He was, after all, the expert on all things Brit.
He is watching the street behind me. I assume there is a virtual parade of people, overwhelmingly young. “You know… well, you do know. Can you find cheap rents here still?” I’m not so sure. You certainly were able to. I tell him that and that it probably still was true, but not in the city center anymore. “I ask because of course that’s what lead to the death of New York. Manhattan was the first to go in the first half of the 1980s. Wall Street caused massive real-estate speculation. It engendered Trump, as in gave birth to.” We share a comic grimace. “Independent creative people, I mean artists and writers, fled first to Brooklyn, but that was gone in a nano-second, and then Queens. Remember Long Island City? From no-go to no-can-afford in a matter of a couple of years. Next came Red Hook. Same story. And I think that was the end of the line. There are no more independent creatives – I mean people who work most of the time on their art, even if they can be waiters and stuff like that – in New York. The city is dead. It’s kept bustling by the mega-rich who live in mega-towers. So, it’s kind of a feudal city: lords of the manor and serfs.” I haven’t been to New York in a good decade, but this seems a bit of an exaggeration. And then I realize I can’t think of any new artist or writer that lives in New York. There is still Broadway and theater. I state that.
“Sure, stuff backed by corporations. Money-making stuff. Nothing experimental.” I think there must be, but, since I can’t think of any examples, I just shrug. What’s your point, I ask him?
“My point is this is what I mean when I say New York is dead. And suddenly everyone wants to know about Warhol and his crowd and the life in New York in those days and about the gay scene before AIDS. Rents in New York back then were cheap, baby.” I point out that Biarritz is pretty expensive. “I’ll buy something. I can afford it. I’ve had a look on the internet. And Biarritz is not in the same league as New York or London or Paris, for that matter. It hasn’t been a cultural hub since Coco Chanel set up shop there during World War One.” He grins. I nod at that. But then why his obsession with the death of New York? He does have a point about the new interest. I think of Netflix: series and documentaries about New York and also London in the sixties, seventies, and even eighties. “There’s a growing feeling now that much is wrong and missing in the US, as if that’s news. I guess four years of Trump howling, and then his attempted coup, has gotten a lot of Americans, like, worried?” I nod. “Are you worried?” I shrug. “Right. Neither of us live there anymore.” A silence falls between us as we think about that: It’s a boat we share. “I’m not planning to move back to the US, are you?” I shake my head no. “We see what’s happening and we have friends and relatives who are very upset. We can hope for the best. For their sake, and, I guess, for everyone’s sake, because a rogue USA as we saw under Trump is a danger to the whole world.” I nod. I couldn’t agree more. And then silently we are taking sips of our beer. We’re about even now. It’s rush hour. The bus is going to be a bit crowded. We probably won’t get a seat. But we don’t really need one. We only have four stops to travel. On the other hand, there’s no hurry. Our dinner reservation is for eight. How do I feel about another beer? I know Bill would like one. The cheese is good, but we’re going easy on it. I picture getting Bill back to the apartment, settling him in his room, sitting down in the living room. My knee-jerk reaction would be the cocktail hour then. So, the choice is whether we extend this pitstop on the Witte de With or…
I ask him.
“Let’s go to your place. It’s the same, right? You haven’t moved without telling me?” I burst out laughing. In minutes he’s taken control. He’s summoned the waiter and paid our bill. I can’t help noticing it’s a flashy plastic gold card, a Visa card from… I can’t quite see, and then it’s tucked back in his wallet, and wallet back in his pocket. “Shall we?” He rises.