It was never expected to find myself working in Amsterdam’s despicably infamous district of sex and despair just three weeks into my Netherlands stay. When you need cash, you’ll do anything for it, and the red light district is ripe for opportunity, a magnet for the world’s most respectable gents and innocent ladies; these were my excitable customers. Wielding only a wink and the promise of a good night, my responsibility was to give them a proper Amsterdam experience. What was the job that left me feeling sweaty, violated and covered in other peoples saliva every night? A promoter, for one of Amsterdam’s pub crawls, which, dare I say it, was a rather fun one at that. But promotions, as anyone who has had the misfortune of dabbling in, can be a crueler mistress than those found in darkest of Amsterdam’s alleys, where even the red lights don’t shine.
Work began in the afternoon, and somewhere between a boozy headache and a cigarette, charisma was channeled. Like my peers, I got good at spotting the good targets. Sports shoes? No deal, they’re Dutchies. A wolfpack of lads in bold jackets idling across the tram tracks with a glint of marvel in their eyes? Bingo. Approaching with a sly grin, I’d leave them with a flyer and some genuine well wishes from one traveller to another and hope upon hopes that they would show up that night, gifting me my precious commission for another McBacon/Chilli Chicken hybrid from the omnipresent yellow arches.
On the days when, well quite frankly, we couldn’t muster much strength to equip a smile and fight for our pocket change, simply strolling the streets of Amsterdam’s centre was a charm. This strange personal ownership of the alleys and bricks grew with the familiarity of trodding them day after day until you quietly concur with the tourism slogan ‘I Amsterdam’, before punching yourself in the nose for letting such a biggity thought pollute your mind.
But then again, there is that grand view you get the first time you step out of Amsterdam’s central station, the bustle of the trams and bikes and vast legions of foreign voices sliding through each other underneath century old monolith hotels while the harbour kisses the stone below. Or the first time you realise, as you stroll the city’s infinite canals, that night has sparkled the crisp air and the fairytale land you see before you, the elegantly rustic bikes piled against rows of intimate pastel townhouses all leaning, competing, for a view of the warm tugsten glow of the canal, is for the moment, home.
And the pub crawl, while the most soul destroying, health crippling, energy looting job I have ever held, really wasn’t so bad. For starters, everybody was in it together, like one big incestous family laughing at eachothers B.O. The crawlers were almost all from Australia, the UK, or Canada, and loved to hate the gig, but nonetheless found themselves raving past the close of their shift most nights, living a free party in one of the planets most popular tourist destinations. The tourists who crawled with us, well they definitely kept it interesting. Every night I would accept a wet spray from another boozed up life-lover telling me I had the best job in the world. I can see his point, in the same way that a rollercoaster attendant has the best job in the world. They get to ride the coaster for free and give that thrill to a new group of enthusiastic babblers every day. But the thing is, when you ride the coaster everyday, you learn it’s highs and lows, the parts that make you sick, and it loses it’s charm, so you’d rather just not bother with the highs if it means you can skip the lows. But you’re still fucked, cause someone has to clean the vomit off the seats.
I guess the double whammy to my time on the pub crawl, the dual sword that made it both the incredibly interesting and rabidly vile chapter that is was, was Grandma. Grandma, the sweet German lady with a devils tongue, was my saviour. With nowhere to stay in Amsterdam, I, like so many pub crawlers before me, ended up on her living room floor, sharing it with some of my fellow crawlers and only having to deal with a daily dose of Grandma’s absurd lectures and hilarious abuse in return. The ground rules were simultaneously crystal clear and as ambiguous as threesome etiquette. Can’t use the power sockets. Got it. 7min showers max. Easy. No cooking in the kitchen. Only paying €7 a night, fine by me. Sit in Grandmas chair where she’s invited me to sit countless times before. Well now I’m a filthy English pig.
When I first moved in, Grandma loved me. She gave me chocolate, her piss-taking was light and always ended in ‘darling’, and I could effectively ignore her irrelevant ramblings in the middle of the night by pulling the blankets over my head with no thought of offending her. All due respect to the woman, she used to run a bed and breakfast that was listed in the Lonely Planet, is well known and respected in the local community, and clearly has a kind heart. But in her elder years, as I met her, the onset of some kind of dementia formed a startling fusion with her outspoken personality, which led to some bewildering conversations. Vladimir Putin’s daughter living in Holland was a common topic point, usually while you were desperately trying to clasp at the last hour of sleep through the streaming morning sun as your afternoon shift loomed. Another was the reminder several times daily for a week that the cleaner was coming on Tuesday; this was important because we could not be seen and therefore at home, our existence in her quarters depended on us being discrete. I asked her to repeat herself once, and she told me, completely consumed with rage, to go and fuck my mother.
Gradually, I felt myself waning on Grandma’s popularity list. There was the towel situation, where after she kindly took it for laundry, it vanished, and I would have to ask her everyday for it’s whereabouts, only to be shouted at that this is not a hotel and that she’s not in the business of giving out towels, before giving me a towel. It came to a head when she knocked on the bathroom door while I was mid shower and furiously accused me of using her towel; “Sorry Grandma” the only appropriate response. Often she would bring home food for us, but the atmosphere of being treated like secret stowaways while an elderly European lady fed us food scraps, elicits thoughts of another Amsterdam resident, Anne Frank.
One morning, or likely early afternoon as we usually slept off last nights shift until late, I was woken by talk of spare ribs gifted by the butcher downstairs. However, as if Grandma was punishing me something, I was refused any while she force fed Char and Suz, two English girls also inhabiting grandma’s carpet space. It was a blatant tease, a cruel show of favouritism to reinforce her status as queen bee. She would ask them, “shall we give him some?”, while the girls chomped and she chuckled. Eventually her stern visage cracked; Grandma did have a heart, you just had to earn it. But these ribs, these devious ribs, were not as they seemed. From the microwave she pulled a monstrous, sloppy, lukewarm hunk of ribs and slapped it into my hand. Still groggy and barely awake, this was breakfast, and she was our Miss Trunchbull, forcing us to devour every inch as though we were poor refugees. The sad truth was, we were; I was living off sugar bread and Mcdonalds, and the chance for some pure protein was never going to be refused. I forced myself to devour the feast and was eventually left pondering my concerning reality, standing there in a volatile German woman’s kitchen, barely dressed or awake, mouth and fingers coated in thick orange sauce, picking slime from my teeth as radioactive pig meat churned my insides, about to hit the streets, jump giddily in front of strangers, spend the night herding them between clubs, recite my life story to every boozed up beacon of fun who asks, drink my hangover into oblivion, wobble 45 minutes back to Grandmas in falling apart hobo shoes, unsuccessfully try not to wake her, cover my head with a pillow at four in the morning to dull the captivating tale of an old property dispute, and then to repeat the cycle be woken six hours later to find her standing over me trying to have the same exact conversation
Then one morning, I screwed up. I had hung my towel out on the balcony the previous day, and, needing a shower, I quickly braved the morning chill in my underwear to grab it, aware but unconcerned that the balcony was surrounded by other apartment blocks. Hoping to avoid waking Grandma and having a bewildering conversation with a heavy head, I tried to be quick but quiet. Yet despite my ninja movements, as I skulked back inside a familiar shaky voice trailed into my semi consciousness.
She wobbled around the corner a second later and immediately asked me me what I was doing out on the balcony. I explained politely, but I could see it in her eyes, hear the wheezing in her breath: Grandma was pissed. She wasn’t happy that I had gone out there in my underwear, thinking it would draw attention to the hideaways in her house, and that everybody could get kicked out. Then she hit me with logic: “If the Arabs see you out there like that, they think it is okay to come in here and rape us!” No amount of “Sorry Grandma” would cut it this time; she told me I could have my shower, but after that, I had to leave.
And just like that, one morning, my life in Amsterdam was over. With no where else in Amsterdam to live wielding no savings and an income well below minimum wage, the magical chapter was over. I ended up getting a new job for a small TV channel a week later in a nearby city called Utrecht, which truly saved me, both financially and healthwise. And while it’s all to easy to take cheap shots at my time on a crazy old German lady’s floor, working as a pub crawl promoter in the city of sin, in so many ways, it is one of my most treasured experiences. The pub crawlers were family, the nights were a riot, the banter excellent and the location, well, my office was the streets of one of the most seductive and enchanting cities in the world. So even though my time there was less than that what €20 buys behind a red tinted window, I can definitively say, hand on nose: I Was Amsterdam.