Friday

Part Four of ‘The Golden Years’

There was something special about Friday.

Coal_Merchant
People lining up at an Amsterdam coal-merchant in the early 1950’s

Somehow people seemed to be brisker, more energetic; as if the idea of the coming weekend brightened them up. The coal-seller who plied his trade in the basement under our apartment would be whistling merrily while he was filling paper bags with coal and firewood.
Boys_StreetfootballThe teachers  would be smiling at each other and tolerate a little more than usual. If somebody had brought a ball along we would all troop onto a postage-stamp sized piece of grass during the break and play soccer. Well, we called it soccer but I doubt if anyone would have recognized it as such. The only definite resemblance with the original game were the ‘goals’, marked by heaps of sweaters and jackets. Of course there was no referee and there was no limit to the team size,  I even doubt if there were teams at all. The game was just a mad melee of boys scrambling after a ball, in summer in a gradually thickening cloud of dust and in winter sliding on the mud. One day, when there were more ‘players’ than usual, there was a kind of mass pile-up and I found myself sitting at the edge of the ‘field’, looking at the crowd that was frantically kicking and scrambling for a ball that was lodged between my legs…

Friday was the day for the ‘getting cleaned up’ ritual. After a whole week of dabbing my face in the morning with ice-cold water from the kitchen tap, it was time to get rinsed more properly. A couple of big pans full of water were put on the gas ring and while they heated up, the wash-tub was brought in. It was put on the floor in front of the pot-bellied stove, the sole means of heating our small apartment. The boiling water was poured into the tub and cold water added until the temperature was right.

Woning_3Then I stepped in, under the critical eye of my mother who admonished me not to splash too much. Once I was sitting down, she would take a bar of “Lux” soap, dip it in the water and lather me. I loved the smell of that soap, so totally different from the course soap we had in the kitchen. But it apparently was a luxury, because my mother always put it away immediately. The bath lasted maybe ten minutes, (fifteen if I had to wash my hair too) and then I had to get out of the tub and dry myself  in front of that trusty stove.

Friday was also the last full working day of the week. Tomorrow would be payday and the cupboard in our house would be nearly bare. My mother would always be struggling for money at the end of the week. She would react very irritatedly if I had the temerity to ask if there was something else for supper, apart from a sandwich covered with a questionable kind of powdered Swiss cheese that came from a yellow and blue cardboard can and had the locker-room odor of old sweaty socks. Not daring to protest any further, I ate the sandwich – coated with margarine of course. I remember the harsh, rather sour taste of that powdered cheese all too well. It did nothing to appease my hunger; on the contrary, it set my stomach rumbling in anticipation of more solid food. But that was not in the cards; the best I could expect was a cup of warm milk in which some kind of cocoa had been mixed. It tasted rather nice and it was one of the things that came out of those mysterious packages from Canada.

By half past eight it was time for bed and I would try to ignore my still rumbling stomach and think of tomorrow. Because tomorrow the weekend would start…

— To Be Continued —

Winter – in Amsterdam in the 1950’s

Leidseplein_SnowAfter days of high winds and heavy rain the thermometer finally started dropping. The rain did not cease, it slowly turned into sleet, nasty flurries of ice cold crystals that clung for a moment to your face, then melted and ran down your clothes, soaking you to the skin if you had to be out for any amount of time.
Clouds pregnant with snow came down until the city was blanketed with a grey twilight that seemed to take away all color, replacing it by white and black and a few half-tones. Finally the real snow came, first as incidental flocks between the rain and the sleet but gradually replacing them until the air was filled with swirling, dancing white flocks that seemed to come down in slanted lines out of the south-west.
People were shuffling on the sidewalks, trying to get home as soon as they could. The headlights of motorcars were dimmed by the layer of snow that built up on them, their windscreen wipers barely able to cope. Streetcars packed with harried passengers trundled on, their windows coated over with  condensation.
And the cyclists had to cope, covered with a layer of snow and half blinded by the flakes that incessantly hit their faces, their eyes…

 

The Attic

Part Three of “The Golden Years”

Mickey stumbled up the four pairs of stairs and sat down panting against one of the coal bins that lined the sides of what we called ‘the attic’. It was not really a room, merely a six by eight foot space that had a window to allow access to the hoisting beam. All Amsterdam buildings had one, their stairs far too narrow to manipulate furniture up or down. But seen from afar, it seemed that the poorer quarters of the city had an endless mass of ready-made gallows waiting for the eruption of a bloody revolution.

GoudsbloemstraatI unearthed my hidden treasures from behind my parent’s coal-bin; four cardboard model sailing ships that I had  patiently glued together and an old cigar-box filled with dummy men made out of cotton pipe cleaners and wrapped with various colors of knitting wool. I had given the ‘Spaniards’ red and yellow, the ‘French’ blue and red and the ‘British’ just plain blue. The ‘Dutch’ were all black as they were the privateers, the raiders that pried on all the other sailing vessels. The advantage was that you could bend and form those little figures into all shapes that fitted the cardboard ‘ships’; standing at the wheel, brandishing swords at the rail or clinging to the spars and the masts. 

With a small piece of chalk stolen from school, we outlined the ‘coasts’ and the ‘island’ on the bare floor boards and used an old shoebox as the island’s ‘fortress’ from which the marauding privateers would set sail. The toss of a coin decided who would be ‘Dutch’, the other party could be any nationality as long as it was Spanish, French or British. The loser had to sail first, the ‘Dutch’ being the raiders.

Boys_Playing_1We played for hours in that place, never winning or losing and re-adjusting the battle to what we liked, with the rain pattering on the roof and the light gradually growing dimmer and dimmer. We were in a fairly frantic battle around the ‘island’ when my mother’s head suddenly popped up from the stairwell.
“Having fun?” she asked and we both dropped the pieces of coal we had used as gun shells.
“Yes mom”, I answered.
“Well, it’s getting dark; Mickey has to go home and we’ll eat as soon as dad is in.”
And with those words she disappeared down the stairs.
The two of us were sitting dumbfounded. The spirit of battle was all gone and it was really getting too dark to see clearly. With a sigh, I started to collect the discarded puppets and put them back in the old cigar box.

Woning_2A smell that made my mouth water hit me when I entered our apartment. I loved the way mom cooked sauerkraut, mixed with briefly fried spare-ribs and mashed potatoes. My stomach rumbled; I had eaten nothing since those rolls at the market. But there was nothing to snack on in the house so I had to wait until my stepdad came in.

“Did you do your homework?” she asked.
“Not yet” I replied; my teacher had insisted on giving me additional exercises to be done at home.
“Then go and do it before your dad comes home!”
I sat down under the single large lamp suspended on a chain over the dinner table that occupied most of the floorspace of our living room; the stove, a cupboard and an easy chair took up the rest. For a while I worked on my chores. Then the noise of the street door and heavy footsteps coming up the stairs announced the arrival of my stepdad. The door opened and he stepped in, dripping wet from his bike ride. I immediately sensed he was in a bad mood and grabbed my school things and scurried away from the table.
“What’s he doing?” he asked gruffly as he hung his soaked overcoat on a peg outside and closed the door it with a bang.
“He’s got some extra work for school; there’ll be a test to see what kind of school he can go to later”, answered my mother.
“All bloody nonsense”, he growled as he sat down in the easy chair. “He has to learn how to read and write and do some sums. Then he can go and work for a living just like I do.”
“But maybe he–”
“Shut up! Everybody in our family has worked with his hands! He’ll do the same!”
“But he has to–”
“I know; he has to go somewhere else some time. So let them send him to a trade school; he won’t be a bricklayer but maybe he can be a plumber. They earn good money.”
“But maybe he–”
“I don’t want him to go to one of those fancy high schools; all they teach is capitalist nonsense.”

After supper I finished off my homework and by eight I went to bed. After putting the hot water bottle between the sheets my mother kissed me and tucked me in. She switched off the single lightbulb and closed the door and I pressed my feet against the radiating heat of the stone bottle in that thick old sock. As I snuggled down, I thought about my stepdad’s words. Becoming a plumber? I’d seen one at work one day, opening up a sewer to unblock it and repair some pipes and the sight and the smell had been enough. But what else would there be for a boy like me? Carpenter? I loved the smell of wood and the way you could work it. Or maybe I could be an electrician? Electricity was a mystery in our house. The few times my stepdad had tried to fix something had all ended in disaster; fuses blown and hands scorched by sudden angry blue sparks. I thought a little bit about it and decided better not – he would be angry that I knew things he didn’t.  

As I slowly drifted into sleep I decided to wait for the weekend and ask my granddad. Surely he could help me; granddad always knew things and gave straight answers that I could understand. …

***

— To Be Continued — 

Winter in the old town

Winter_1A wonderful silence has descended over the old town.
All sounds are muted; the incessant rushing hum of wheels on tarmac from the main streets has vanished, replaced by an awesome, reverent silence, only broken by the crunching of my footsteps on the gradually thickening layer of pure white snow. The old town is transformed into a picture postcard image in which mere humans have no place. Only the timeless, ageless shapes of the buildings, the bridges, the streets remain, converted into a stark, severe beauty that no human hand can ever touch.
Slowly, I make my way home through a lovely town on a dark winter’s night, its pristine layer of snow only disturbed by my footsteps, my breath converted into  little clouds of  freezing air, my soul communing with the spirits of winter.

 

The School

Part 2 of “The Golden Years’

Having watched Mom disappear around the corner I turned around with a sigh and made my way to school. It was only two blocks down the street and as I walked past the derelict building, I fished the sticky pieces of bread out of my trouser pockets and threw them into the gaping maw of what once had been its basement.

“Hey Robby”, a familiar voice cried and I stopped in my tracks.
It was Mickey, my best friend and I waited as he came hobbling up to me. Some nasty childhood disease had left him with a crippled right leg. He was not exactly lame but his leg didn’t work too well either so I always stayed close to him. Together we had beaten up all jerks stupid enough to joke about his leg. By now there were no more sneers, I thought grimly.
“Dumping your bread again?” he said with a knowing look in his eyes and I just grunted.
“Don’t! Keep it for the afternoon; let’s throw it to the gulls!”
“Too late”, I grinned as I showed my empty pockets.

IJ_Pont_3One of our nastier little games was to board the ferry behind the Central Station. We would go to the upper deck and toss pieces of bread to the gulls. After two or three pieces, a whole screaming flock would be hovering over the slowly moving vessel, its deck packed with cyclists and pedestrians and the odd car.
We would throw more pieces of bread to the gulls and each time they swooped down to catch them, they would squirt shit on everyone below them.

Our school was one of those stately, 19th century buildings that had been built all over town after the education laws had been passed. Its three gables and its austere lines gave the building a stern and almost forbidding aura, as if the architect had wanted to emphasize that education was a serious business. It had a number of high-ceilinged classrooms, all with three high windows divided into a multitude of rectangular panes. Even in winter they gave us plenty of daylight, but cold air came rolling down from them like an invisible waterfall that made us shiver as it penetrated our thin clothes. In the opposite corner stood a large, coal burning stove and when fired up, it radiated enough heat to slowly cook the unfortunate souls sitting next to it.
The classroom had twelve wooden desks, each one seating two pupils. We were facing the teacher’s table, raised on a small platform in front of a large blackboard. A large map of Holland and a few pictures of the Alps decorated the white-washed walls and that was all there was to see in this most basic of classrooms.

School_2We thronged through the echoing hall with its white-washed stairwells and hung our coats on a row of pegs just outside the classroom door. We noisily hurried to our desks, eleven boys and eight girls, and moments after the concierge rang the newly installed electric bell, our teacher came in. He was a rather short, thickset man in a rumpled brown suit who always wore a dark brown fedora that seemed to be glued to his head. He slammed the table with a ruler and the lessons began.

It was an easy morning; we started off with some writing, then some geography and before we knew it the bell rang for the mid-morning break. We all rushed out into the schoolyard, a place paved with concrete tiles and hemmed in between the school building and the fence of the marshalling yard. Actually it was not a fence at all but a long line of discarded railway sleepers set upright and pointed at the top. It looked like a fortification and I guess a tank would hardly have made a dent in it.
But we could run around in that yard and do all the kind of silly things that young boys do; climb the fence (until the teacher saw it), play tag or just buzz around and pinch the girls to make them squeal.

School_1All too soon the bell summoned us inside again, this time for arithmetic, followed by history. The teacher was good at that. I loved the way he described those historical characters; he made them come alive, doing incredible things against the Spaniards, the French, the Germans…
The bell brought us all back from fighting the Spaniards during the siege of Haarlem in the late 16th century to the here and now. Class had ended and we stampeded out of the classroom, free for the rest of the day.

“Got any lunch?” Mickey asked.
“Nope; fed it to the rats”, I said as we walked down the narrow street. I could go to a neighbor for lunch but all I would get were some stale slices of white bread, plastered with margarine.
“Let’s go to the market and get something”, I suggested.

A quarter of an hour later the two of us were munching freshly baked rolls from a corner bakery  while sitting in an unused market-stall, sheltered from the slowly falling drizzle by its tarpaulin roof.
“How did you get that money?” Mickey asked; I had paid 25 cents for our lunch.
“Every week I go around and collect old newspapers”, I told him. “There’s a guy around the corner there who pays 5 cents a kilo.”
“Ahh”, said Mickey and he took another bite.
Streetmarket 1 Ten Catestraat
We looked around when we had finished the rolls but the market was not an inviting sight. Normally the market was a place of bright colors and smells of fruit and fried fish and the air filled with the cries of hawkers, selling their wares. Now, the steady drizzle made everything look grey and drab and even the hissing pressure lamps in the fishmonger’s stalls did not radiate their normal golden hue. Somehow, they gave off a harsh, metallic light that mingled with the mottled daylight and turned the silver fishes  dull grey and unappetizing. People were hurrying by, huddled under umbrellas or stooped forward with shawls around their heads, hardly glancing at two small boys sitting in that empty stall.
“Any ideas?” asked Mickey and I shook my head. Our normal domains were the market, the docks or the marshalling yard; there was always something fun to be found there. But the steady drizzle spoilt it all and mom’s warning about not getting dirty still rankled. Suddenly an idea popped up in my head.
“Let’s go and play Privateers in the attic!”
“Yeah”, shouted Mickey as he jumped down, gammy leg and all. “Let’s go!”

***

— To be continued —

 

The Golden Years – Memories of the Fifties

Part One: Waking up in November…

StNicolaaskerk_WinterWhen one gets older, one tends to reflect upon things that happened long ago. And dream of a city and a lifestyle that has vanished forever. Gently pressured by my kids, I started to write a series of short sketches and wanted to title them “Requiem for a vanished city”, to reflect my feelings of what has become of my beloved Amsterdam, a wonderful city that is now daily raped and vandalized by dirty throngs of back-packing tourists and beer-guzzling potheads.
Fortunately, common sense interfered and I now titled my cameos “The Golden Years”, Amsterdam and its native life as seen through the eyes of an eight year old boy.

I wrote the first of these short-short stories when challenged to write for 25 minutes during a meeting of the International Writers Collective. The result, when read aloud, was a stunned silence after which people said “I was there”.
So here is the first installment – and there will be more, all illustrated with contemporary photographs.

——-

The banshee wail of a distant factory siren tore me from my sleep when the world was still dark. I knew it was eight o’clock but I kept my eyes closed, pretending that I was not awake. Then the hoarse steam whistle of the nearby marine engineering works opened up and I knew I had lost again.
“Get out of bed; you’ll be late for school” shouted my mother.

The cold hit me when I slipped from under my blanket and I was shivering even before my feet touched the icy linoleum covering the floor. The single-pane window in my little room faced north-west, so it got no sun in summer and was near freezing in winter. Each night my mother would put a hot water bottle in my bed. Well, not really a hot water bottle, those were for the rich folks. Mine was one of those stone Genever jars covered with an old sock.

I grabbed my cold clothes and hurried through my parent’s bedroom into the small, dark living room. By now it was nice and warm and I lingered a bit in front of the pot-bellied stove; my stepdad always made up its fire before he left for work in the docks.
“Hurry up; go and get washed”, ordered my mother and she shoved me into the kitchen, a very grand word for what was a six by four foot space that also held the toilet.
I opened up the tap and held my hands under the stream of ice cold water, lathered them with a bit of ‘Sunlight’ soap and rubbed them against my face. It was the same soap my mother used for doing the laundry and I hated that smell; coarse and cheap and somehow unpleasant. Summoning all my courage, I cupped my hands under the tap again, splashed water in my face and hurriedly rinsed the soap off. Gasping and with my sleep all gone, I grabbed the rough towel and as I dried myself, I silently cursed the cold and the school for which I had to get out of my warm bed.

I found a cup of tea waiting for me next to a piece of bread. A thin skim of strawberry jam failed to hide the thick layer of margarine underneath. I loathed that taste. Even then I understood why she did it; it was a leftover from the war. For five horrible years, the Germans had plundered Holland bare, stolen all foodstuffs they could lay their hands on. So there had been no milk and no butter, or even margarine. By now, it was available again and everything was smothered in it and I was screamed at if I dared to say I did not like it.
I ate those parts least covered with that sticky greasy stuff but, whenever my mother was not looking, I folded pieces together and slipped them furtively into my trouser pockets. I would dump them on my way to school, hoping that the rats in the derelict building would enjoy them.
I tasted my tea and made a face; she always put a spoonful of sugar in it because ‘it was good for me’. I wondered what good it did, as it only gave me a raging thirst. Fortunately, it had cooled down and I swallowed it in one long gulp, gagging at the nasty aftertaste of refined sugar.
“Let me have a look at you”, my mother said as I stood up.
I was wearing my school-going outfit: a pair of denim trousers, a thin checkered shirt and a knitted sweater over it. I liked the sweater; it was dark blue, with light-blue reindeer running around the lower hem. Nobody at school had a sweater like mine; theirs had all been knitted by their mothers and grandma’s and some were simply awful. But children’s clothes were scarce and expensive in post-war Holland so they had to do with them.
My sweater had come out of a box that had arrived by mail from a place far away. ‘Canada’, my granddad had said and my teacher had shown it to me in an atlas but I did not have a clue how far it was from Amsterdam.

Woning_1
Drying the laundry in winter  – Amsterdam early 1950’s

“Don’t get your pants dirty”, my mother warned sternly. “I still have to wash the other pair.”
I knew she loathed doing the laundry in that little apartment at any time, but especially in winter, when the clotheslines outside the window were useless and she had to drape the washed garments around the stove to get them dry.
“Yes mom”, I said meekly, waiting for her standard sermon that was to come. Today was Wednesday and there would be no school this afternoon.
“I won’t be home until four. See if you can spend the afternoon with someone. Don’t go playing someplace where you get dirty or I’ll tell your dad!”
“Can I go to Grandma?” I asked hopefully.
Grandma was keeping house for somebody. I thought he must be rich, because he was living in a big house with a garden all around. I loved to be with my Grandma while she was cooking there and telling a maid which rooms to clean and where to vacuum. I loved to roam around that large house, with its many rooms and its mysterious attic but it was on the south-side of town, the ’Gold Coast’ as we called it.
“No; that’s much too far; you stay around here, understood?”
“Yes mom”, I said as I put on my short duffel coat.
After topping off the stove with sufficient coals to keep it burning until she returned, she doused the few lights and we stepped out onto the dark first floor landing. She locked the door and we carefully went down the steep, narrow stairs with their tricky short steps, holding on to the rickety bannister and the greasy rope that ran all the way from the top floor to open the street door.
We stepped outside, into the cold and dark morning, the air heavy with the tang of coal-stoves and the smoke of the locomotives in the nearby marshalling yards.
“Have a nice day at school”, my mother said. She stooped to give me a quick kiss; then she hurriedly walked off and I watched her go, walking upright with quick deliberate steps, eager to catch the bus that stopped two blocks away. A slender young woman with rich dark brown hair, her brightly colored overcoat contrasting oddly with the dirty brown stone of the houses lining our narrow street.

— to be continued —