The North Sea is not to be confused with the Atlantic Ocean, especially if you are Dutch. The Dutch can get a bit testy if you refer to the Noordzee as the ocean. Not only will you get stern look, but you may even get a chuckle. When I was a young child, my family spent a few years living in Springs, New York, which is located at the far tip of Long Island—just a stone’s throw from Montauk. We could cut through the forest that backed up against our yard and be at a small harbor, smelling the salty air of the Atlantic, in just a few minutes. Some weekend mornings we would drive to the lighthouse and pick from what appeared to be acres of mussels. They were so plentiful on the beach that their shells would crack and snap under our rubber boots. Gazing into the grayness of the Atlantic, I would try to see all the way to England, although my step-father would gently remind me that if I could see that far I would most likely see Spain, France, or Holland. The damned curvature of the ocean always prevented my owl-like vision from seeing the other side of the world.
Holland is below sea level, but the Dutch have used their centuries of expertise and ingenious determination to carve a complex series of dikes and canals into the ocean. Water is ever present in the minds of the Dutch. The ocean can be threatening in terms of rising water, storms, and global warming, but it also provides life and income. The Dutch made their mark in trading—Holland has been a hub of international trading since the 1300s—and they are surgical in terms of practicality and efficiency; they do not tolerate fools lightly. I met my wife Merijn at Used Kids. She was a young Dutch woman with the characteristics of most Dutch women; that is, she was staggeringly beautiful. She was tall and mysterious, with close-cropped blonde hair and a hushed voice that was a cross between Marilyn Monroe breathily singing “Happy Birthday” and IngridBergman. She was prone to blushing whenever I cracked a joked, gently pushing whatever compact disc she bought. She came into the shop roughly three days a week, always when I was there. Soon I was openly flirting with her. I was recently divorced and trying out one-night stands as if they were cups of coffee, floundering is too kind of a word. . Some of my co-workers shook their heads at me when she was in, never failing to mention that she was out of my league. In fact, she was out of everybody’s league in Columbus, Ohio. Luckily, talking to women was never an issue for me because I realized that a way to a woman’s secrets is through her laughter. It also helped that I have never known when to shut up. I made Merijn laugh every time I saw her.
One afternoon she came in with a tall curly-haired man with stark blue eyes that were reminiscent of hers. They laughed and spoke a strange hockery-guttural language. They had an intimacy that suggested that they were a couple. But when they got to the counter, she eyed me and him and then me again, as if pointing me out with her eyes. I smiled at her and she blushed like a school girl caught with a note in her hands. Within a few weeks, determination set in. Talking to my friend Candace, I mentioned, “I think I’m in love with this foreign woman.”
Candace smiled. “Is she kinda tall and blonde?”
Feeling my heart quicken, I said, “Yes, she is.”
“She likes you. I’m in class with her. She said there is this guy at the record store who is very handsome and funny and she keeps going back.”
Eyeing her, I asked, “Are you sure that’s me?”
Laughing, Candace said, “Of course.” A few nights later, Candace pointed her out to me at a crowded Larry’s. By the next week, I had her phone number and was invited into her window of the Dutch world.
After getting through the initial trepidation of new lovers—when one explores each other’s past history of lovers, matching up against the past, measuring the ability to hold onto brand new love as if it were shiny pearl to be polished and cared for—I found out that the tall curly-haired gentleman was Merijn’s Dutch friend Edo Visser, who was also going to graduate school at Ohio State. He was a gentle man who was full of pensive yet easy laughter and an almost childlike amazement about the world. He would gently laugh at the baffling ways of Americans, who could be so quick to do the absurd, choosing illogical avenues that were so contrary to the Dutch philosophy.
Edo was student of Paul Nini’s, the leader of the band Log, whose Kiwi sounds I adored and whose members all looked as if they owned homes, made regular car payments and knew their way around a New York Times crossword puzzle. Paul taught design at Ohio State, and Edo was blown away when I showed him Log’s CD that had come out on Anyway. In a sense, this helped Edo understand that everything in the world is local, everything is small and interconnected. Soon he was accompanying me and Merijn to shows, where he was exposed to the world of underground music.
Edo was fascinated by the life I lived, including the bands and the art I was submerged in. He was interested in the fact that, like so many of my acquaintances, I had dropped out of college but was well read. We wrote and tried in our own ways to live lives of creation and evolution. He was taken aback by the amount of alcohol we consumed—he had never had a drink of alcohol in his life, nor did he eat meat or talk derisively about others. It was as if we were bugs in a glass jar for him, and his eyes would grow large as he ventured into our world. He came into the store at least once a week, usually spending about an hour combing through the $3 CD bin. He could only afford cheap CDs on his meager grad-student salary. He would pick music based on the artwork, hoping that would be reflected by the music inside.
He was soon a participant in our world a bystander in a world filled with music and hilarity, where every night was a chance at making a mark on world. He was a witness to the fragility and emotional ineptitude of a small swath of artists and musicians in Columbus at that time. He became friendly with our all of our friends, attending the wild parties of Jenny Mae and sometimes sitting in the corner booth of BW-3 with Ron House, Jerry Wick, and myself as five-o’clock rolled around. As we tempered the day with vases of alcohol, Edo would sip his coke and then shuffle off to his house.
One evening I decided to make Edo dinner. I was living with Ted Hattemer and our pack of dogs. Edo sat in the kitchen as I made vegetarian chili, and as I prepared to cut up the green peppers, he offered to show a secret method to slice them. I called him off, wanting to do the work myself. I was insistent. He made some flaky, stuffed hors d’oeuvres with filo dough and cheese. Later that night, he talked to Merijn as I swayed in front of a stage while Two Dollar Guitar sang about a dead friend. What is so odd about that mundane experience in the kitchen is that every time I handle a green pepper, I think of Edo. And in some way I yearn for him to show me the secret of slicing a pepper. It is the small reminders of friendship that bound into my thoughts, in the same way, every time I’m on the corner of Summit and Hudson Streets in Columbus, I think of Jerry Wick.
The Dutch are emotionally reserved. Plunging into a relationship can seem like a violation of ethical concerns to them. While this can be frustrating, upon deeper reflection it makes sense. One must keep one’s sense when living under the ocean and being dependent on the trading of goods for survival. Edo never spoke of his family with the exception of his sister, who he appeared to adore. There seemed to be an extra layer of emotional veneer about him as he said, “I don’t drink. People in my family did and that was enough for me.” But he never judged me about my own intake of alcohol, and when my voice would rise in a burst of emotional turmoil towards some dissatisfaction with Merijn, Edo would turn heel and leave.
Edo adored Jenny Mae. He was amazed that someone whose life was in such chaos could make such touching and delicate music. He was respectful, hesitant, and curious about her outspoken, ramshackle mannerisms. She could easily crack a joke about blowjobs and stinky balls and, in the next breath, play a song as heart wrenching as “Ho’ Bitch.”
One night we traveled over to Jenny’s, whose tiny green house sat directly behind two bars in the middle of a gravel parking lot. Her house was hidden from the neighborhood—as if it had been erected only for outsiders—parked in an alley with only tiny stones and broken glass for a yard. She had decided to have a party. In her own way, every night was a party. There were times when she would invite Merijn and me over, saying she was having a party, and it would be only us and her husband. “Where’s the party Jenny?” I would ask, annoyed that we had dropped our plans for her “party.” After about ten times of this, Merijn would say, “I’m not going to any more of Jenny’s parties unless it is a real party. This is madness.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell anyone,” she would say nonchalantly, taking a pull from a wine bottle. When she did have a party, she invited her friends—usually only a handful of people she identified with, including other musician types who stood on the outskirts of the mainstream, never wanting to put a toe into the flowing river of conformity.
That night, we arrived to a half-full house. The Shannon brothers, Tom and Dave, who made up 2/3 of the Cheater Slicks, were there, along with Jerry Wick, Ted Hattemer and his future wife Julie, and some of Jenny’s band mates. Later, Ron House showed up with Mark Eitzel of American Music Club. Jenny was dressed in a thrift store evening gown with long, fake diamond pearls hanging deep into her formidable cleavage and her husband, Dave, was wearing a black suit. There was a small waterfall in her living room that she had dragged from a dumpster and her walls were adorned with black-and-white photos that she had ripped from old Life magazines and her own paintings of odd looking women with large heads and thin bodies. Edo was impressed. He turned to me and said, “Wow, she is really some artist-type person. I always got the impression she was just a drunkard.” Later, as she turned on her fog machine, smoke rolled from her basement practice space and the cocaine she snorted in the bedroom lit a fire in her belly. The drunken absurdist Jenny took over, with her new record blaring from the speakers all the while. I asked Edo that night if he would do the artwork for the record.
Edo took his design work seriously; he was smart and deliberate in his work. He was careful and respectful of Jenny’s idea for the cover of Don’t Wait up For Me. I told him that I had never liked her idea for the cover of There’s A Bar Around the Corner…Assholes. This time, I wanted something that displayed the emotion of the music. He did a fine job. I then asked him to do the artwork for a record I had been trying to assemble for nearly eight years. I Stayed up All Night Listening to Records was intended to capture songwriters in their own element, without any assistance from others. The guidelines were that the song, the instruments, and the recording had to be done by each performer solo. For the most part this ended up being true, with the exception of a few recordings that people did in a studio. I asked a lot of musicians I greatly admired. Most were from Columbus, but I also asked several who I had come into contact with and respected. I asked too many musicians, and when I got to the studio to assemble the record I had to keep several artists who had submitted stuff off the final record. Two of the most notable deletions were Tim Easton and Paul K., who contributed a live band recording.
I wanted the artwork for I Stayed up All Night Listening to Records to pay homage to the Folkways records I had grown up with as a child. This would be hard to do, as it was only going to come out on compact disc—Revolver was not going to splurge for a double LP of mostly Midwestern songwriters. I gave Edo a copy of Dust Bowl Ballads by Woody Guthrie along with Music Time with Charity Bailey and Songs to Grow On. He came back a few weeks later with beautiful cover for the record that was humble and simple, but, most importantly, that was descriptive of the mostly simple four-track recordings.
Some of us must have a gathering around us, or just a hesitant phone call away, to bind the grimness of being together with laughter and companionship to create the joy of an unfettered existence. Others choose the solitary life, for it is more emotionally economical to sit on the sidelines of life, observing as the world lurches by. Still others settle in between the two, letting music, books, and movies be their companions when the world is too tight. Gaiety has always come easy for me. My well-worn sense of humor has cost me at times, but humor goes a long way when the core of a person is unsettled. Edo traversed a lonely path, most likely by choice. At the end of graduate school we sat in my kitchen, Edo, Merijn, and I, discussing the future as we ruffled the heads of itchy dogs and drank coffee.
My wife decided to stay in America for another year, taking a gamble on a charming man with ruffled hair, a winsome smile, and blood diluted with copious amounts of alcohol and the hopes of a job. Edo planned a trip down the west coast by locomotive, just him and the rails in pursuit of an all-American sense of adventure that could only be found in the imagination of a European boy. Taking a sip out of my “Proud to be a Democrat” cup—a defiant token against the impending impeachment of the President—I asked, “Are you are going by yourself?”
Edo, sipping his herbal tea, said, “Of course.” He continued, pulling a map from his a worn leather bag, “See, I will fly to Chicago and take a train to Seattle and then travel down to San Francisco and then I will fly home, and then fly home again.” He smiled at the double life he lived, one in Columbus and one in Holland.
Surprised, impressed, and curious, I asked, “Really, you will go across America by yourself?” The idea that one would choose to be alone without so much as a reassuring touch available was beyond my grasp. In view of his choice to travel alone, I was left with the fact that I had not spent more than a few weeks of my adult life alone. I always searched for companionship, and I was fortunate (or unfortunate) to always have it available to me.
Perhaps Edo had no one to travel with. He had mentioned that he had a lady friend in Holland for a while—an older woman in her late thirties who was married—but in the States he had no romantic partner that I was aware of. I last saw Edo two years ago, at my in-laws. He traveled down from Amsterdam and took a long walk with us in the gray flatlands of Southern Holland, past Dutch cows and miniature horses who breathed mists of air as we walked by. Edo held our daughter’s hand and pointed out the animals and spoke to her in English and Dutch. His English was blunted with age, withered by the years now spent in the Netherlands. His features had hardened a bit, his brown hair retreating and flecked with gray, but his eyes sparkled with playfulness as he charmed our three-year-old daughter. He had a gift for me, a wonderful book by Hazrat Inayat Khan, titled The Art of Being and Becoming, written in the early 20th Century, it’s Sufi philosophy jibbed well with my ever growing interest in Buddhist literature.
In a sense, he was more isolated than he was some eight years prior, living alone, as if his years in the Midwest had transformed him into a man without a land to call home. His exposure to American ways of life had transformed him, mutating his sense of society. He experienced how rigid the Dutch could be, as contrasted with Americans, but realized that there was a fine line between knowing too much and not enough. Edo went home a visitor and stayed that way.
Last year Edo moved to a small island just off the coast of the Netherlands. He was working as a designer for a boating magazine, seeking solace in the sea as waves of turmoil crashed in his head. Early in the year, I had to travel to Holland as part of a research class and contacted Edo. We made arrangements to meet up in Amsterdam, but upon my arrival he never responded to my emails. By June, his email account was closed. Sometime in August, Edo cleaned up his small apartment, making sure that his belongings were in place, and headed towards the seashore. Thinking of his family, his recently lost job, and the sensitivity that comes from being too vulnerable in one’s own skin, he walked into the ocean. What does a person think as the water swallows him whole? Did Edo fight the current or let him take him away? His sister emailed my wife earlier this month to tell us that his body had washed ashore in September.