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Volume 1, Number 1: Reviving Amsterdam
By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston
Once upon a few decades
ago I wrote a column. A title for one could easily have been OLYMPIC
GREASY WATERMELON -- words I saw just last week, down the street
on a T-shirt at my Crunch gym. The guy wearing it was at the counter
where I show my plastic card to sign in. I used to think up zany
titles for my columns, ones that might make you want to find out
if they had any bearing on anything, thus read on. Since the column
appeared in a newspaper I could be sure someone would see it. Here
a click is involved. I'm trying to adjust. I adjust all the time,
otherwise I'd be dead by now. I go to the gym for instance even
though I can't go places on their running and biking machines. I
mingle with the biceps jocks in the pushing pulling and lifting
areas. I never walked or ran or danced on my arms, which therefore
don't mind my trying to use them this way. Sometimes when I check
in and a worker asks me if I want anything, like a towel, I say
yeah two new legs. They smile agreeably, not collusively exactly,
but patronizingly I suppose. When I was their age, God will know,
I saw the likes of me as a species apart, arrived here perhaps from
another planet fully formed in this steeped or percolated state.
An important adjustment to make as you await new legs or launch
a click column is to forget about saving the world, realizing you
will only offend people. By world of course I mean self. I start
every day at my c.s. or coffee shop, before going to work which
entails returning home. I've called it Segafredo after the first
name I gave it, before knowing that Segafredo is the coffee they
make, not its real name. Lately I just say c.s. Practically the
whole place is distressed -- the walls, floor, ceiling, bathroom
and my favorite table, a large round wooden leaning affair, its
top thick as a butcher block, with half inch crevices unevenly crossing
its scurfy surface. The bathroom is masterfully small and has a
nice mirror if you can get far enough away from it to appreciate
your dubious morning visage. The front end of the toilet lid is
all of six inches from the wall it faces -- a hastily hammered raggedy-edged
vertical stretch of graffiti-decorated plaster board. The friends
I make at the c.s. are a bit like those you meet on shipboard or
airplane. You may see them there repeatedly but not anyplace else.
If you leave the c.s. with one of them you are probably in trouble.
Not that you can't get in trouble inside too. I made a big adjustment
when I started hiding more or less at the back, in relative darkness,
at the large leaning wooden table, next to the kitchen, armed with
my newspaper, papers in general, my journal and book du jour. Just
last week, opting to sit at one of the two small round window tables
up front, I had an adventure. Two points of interest suddenly converged
-- a striking lady of years sitting at another table, and an arresting
quote in my biography of T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence is my latest love.
I fall in love with dead people -- as who does not. It isn't just
my percolated state. And I still have arms for embracing the living.
I should have used them, strengthened by Crunch machines and all,
to embrace Bertha Harris before she died last month. I may have
been making up for it at the c.s. by approaching this beautiful
picture of decrepitude, a lady of surely eighty plus, stark white
hair straggling to shoulders, a vase of flowers at one elbow, a
bleached face, a look pensive and defeated, with my quote by T.E.
Lawrence. I had just excitedly come across it. Having adjusted to
an unexciting life, this wasn't easy to handle. I almost ran the
four yards to her table. A little earlier I had introduced myself
by way of passing her and commenting on her pretty vase of flowers,
which came, she remarked impassively, from a friend's garden. Now,
breathless after four yards, I laid my book in front of her, open
to the page with the quote. She read it and said she wanted to copy
it. I gave her my penand she found a piece of paper in her bag.
The quote goes: After 70 an unearthly richness attacks most of
our elders and they become wells of satisfaction to me. Only then
one gets to like them too much and away they go and die. After
that great deed I finished reading my book and went to work. I have
something new at home -- a giant pot housing my avocado plant. The
pot blocks out one third of the light from one of our two tallish
windows facing south. By "our" I mean myself and Ingrid, who set
up this space for a click column. She designed the whole website.
My son Richard did the technology. On Ingrid's part, it's a conspiracy
of sorts. Back in 1969 long before we met she saw one of my columns
on an Amsterdam newsstand. By 1980 when we got together I was no
longer writing them and between then and now I have written books
and sundry articles in many publications. Now, as it seems, Ingrid
has revived Amsterdam, and resurrected the reason she wanted to
know me. I'm a very obliging person, during the day at least, full
of eagerness to adjust. At night I'm focused on nothing more or
better than begging every power in creation to help me sleep. When
I get up I celebrate survival with agreement. I haven't entirely
adjusted to my new pot, which my daughter Winnie brought here one
day with her son my grandson Ben, creating an astonishing replanting
scene involving hacking apart the old pot long cracked down one
whole side of it anyway and banging in a board to extend the window
shelf. Wrapping up this column replanting, I have more watermelon
news: Those three words, OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON, seen on a T-shirt
at Crunch, describe a game played by Olympic hopefuls or Crunch
trainers involving two teams standing at pool's edge poised for
a greasy watermelon to be thrown into the water whereupon they all
dive in and grapple to secure this dirigible fruit and bear it off
to the opposite team's goal. That was a good day at the gym. I might
forget sometimes to set a pile of blocks at my grand weight of 15
pounds and start pulling on the cords. One day the cords wouldn't
budge. I thought the mechanism was broken or something, and consulted
a biceps jock standing nearby. He said it was set at 100 pounds!
At the c.s., I have had worse moments but the other day, working
at the back next to the kitchen I was in for a pleasant surprise.
A woman with upswept white hair approached me on her way to the
bathroom. She was wearing a copious long white like peasant dress,
dotted all over with appliquéd flowers. I didn't recognize
her until she said she wanted to thank me for that quote. She was
the quote lady! Today she was smiling, and she inquired animatedly,
"How did you know I was over 70?" Making me sort of gape. "How old
are you in fact?" I asked her. And she came up with 71! But really
even smiling and wearing a cheerful dress she couldn't be a day
under 80. She wandered off murmuring over the quote, the "wording
of it...so unusual." The word "attacks" struck her fancy the most.
"At 70 an unearthly richness attacks our elders." I wish
I could tell Lawrence. He was still alive when I was born. I'm clicking
away. It's a new age, heading for the open seize, in publishing.
©Jill Johnston 2005;
originally published on www.jilljohnston.com.
Jill Johnston will sign
copies of her latest book, "At Sea on Land: Extreme Politics," Wednesday
at Hudson River Flowers, 541 Hudson Street in New York City, from
5:30 to 7 PM.
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