A Writer Will Go Anywhere

These are raw notes. Unedited. Unshaped. Bricks for a later construction I may or may not build. The scene is a coffee shop, but not the kind you think. This is Amsterdam.

Narrow place. Two seats in the far corner of the bar. Bar top is polished steel and dark wood burnished with the soft touch of so many elbows through the years. Old money hangs from the ceiling as part of the decoration. That was when money was colorful and decorated with Van Gogh sunflowers. Nothing at all like today’s staid euro.

The place hums and it’s barely dawn. The bartender runs the counter and the all-important playlist. Her hips move. Her leopard skin top ripples.

My avid photographer husband wants to shoot the twinkling bar lights, the filmy air, the girl in the fuzzy pink sweater and sparkly earrings drinking Coke from a straw.

In the corner, near the door, an older man sits two steps up, selling what people come for. He has a menu. It’s illuminated when he presses a button. He has a drawer that only he accesses. The sign above his head reads “Watchmeester / Officer on Duty.”

Everyone is happy here. Even the bulldog is smiling.

There’s something important in this.

There’s a jail theme going on. Mock prison bars. Al Capone’s face hangs near Bugsy Siegel’s and Jimmy “the rat” Fratianno’s. A fake machine gun is bolted to the “Keep Out!” door.

In the thirty-odd years I’ve been in and of this town, I’ve never been here. But this writer will go anywhere—especially when it’s been a sleepless night stuffed in an airplane, and it’s way too early to check in, and the coffee is good and hot, and the newness of the scene intrigues.

The lives people lead! The bartender hears it all—and so do I, or most of it, at least the bits in English. Everyone speaks English, but I hear German, French, and Dutch, as well.

A new bartender arrives.

“I’m Dali,” the 20-something says, “only without the moustache. Just a little beard.”

He’s not smoking—he wants that known right off—and it puts us on equal ground. In real life, he’s a comic.

Loose limbed, lanky, fluid in his movements, he’s wearing a bulldog shirt labeled “Crew” that some part of me covets. The customers are drawn to him. He’s good at what he does. He alone notices the beat up camera lens.

We talk about where he gets his material and how comedy takes courage. We talk about his shirt. We talk about someone named Rawlings and Dave Chappelle, and Chappelle’s break down.

“Took a break,” Dali says, which is how he prefers to think of it. “It’s a lot of pressure. It’s like living out loud. And everyone expecting you to be funny all the time.”

“Consumptie Verplicht. Drinks required,” says the sign. Another Coke to the girl with the dreamy eyes in the back.  My husband takes his photographs.  I take a note.  We wonder if we will have anything worth anything when we look back later. . .

Take enough notes, as is my habit, and watch with wonder as certain preoccupations appear over and over. Looking these over, I see at least one theme that I am drawn to (happiness, freedom) and several bits of appealing characters (Dali and the Watchmeester). The notes are where I start every morning. These will link to other notes, or stand alone in something new, or sharpen something already in progress. With notes in hand, I rarely face a blank page.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits the Bulldog coffee shop by piak; dali by geographie.

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  1. I absolutely love this. I too, love to go places to write. It really helps with inspiration. As long as you have ear plugs!

    I’m curious as to your technique. You make notes of what you see? Or the characters in real life that you see? How do you use these notes?

    • Hi Dean. Thanks for your note. My notes are a mix of what I see and what that triggers for me. For example, in the case of the Amsterdam coffee shop, I was intrigued by the “characters” in the room. What a range of people (not just the young, as you might think)! And I liked the jail house setting, which brought to mind America’s prohibition era and how that all came out (alcohol became legal and taxed; what would happen with marijuana in America?).

      If the scene intrigues me, I start with notes of what is before my eyes and then, inevitably, connections pop to mind with regard to ongoing work. I work with pencil and paper, which I’m never without. I try hard to make the legible and coherent, because I know, from practice, that if I don’t take the time to develop the thought right then and there, I may lose it.

      All my notes end up on my desk, and as I’ve said, I start there in the morning. I read them through. Some–though exciting when I wrote them–won’t have the same punch when considered in the light of a new day. Others, just won’t make sense. But some will be exactly what I need to sharpen something in progress or develop something new.

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