Toby Quinn’s Online Corona Novel
We Ferrymen of the Fourth Dimension
Tomorrow’s the big day folks, the day that an honest-to-goodness Dutch princess will be presenting me with a golden compass for providing the people of her kingdom with “a sense of direction in these troubled times”.
Have I been working on my acceptance speech? Uhm…
And have I determined the position I will be taking in the subsequent mini-colloquium on Literature and Morality? Uhm… what was the theme again?
Here it is, on the official invitation that I received the other day:
Is it enough for literature to show us who and what we are, or should literature make us better people, too?
Something about the question has been bugging me all along. It’s not the preposterous idea that I should make my readers better people. That I can laugh off. It’s the presumption hidden in the bit before the comma. Why should my novels even show my readers who and what they are? What if they don’t?
Maybe we should go back to why I became a writer in the first place, a question I’ve been asked dozens of times in interviews.
Heck, I don’t know, I might say with a coquettish shrug of the shoulders. It keeps me busy.
At which point many an interviewer will become cross with me. C’mon Toby, you can do better than that!
But can I? Must I? What if my answer is not as trivial as it sounds?
Maybe we should go back even further, to our prehistoric ancestors. Imagine them sitting around a fire after having chased a rival tribe out of their neck of the woods. They’ve just gorged themselves on the bison that the boys brought back from the hunt the other day. They’re feeling safe, happy and content.
Until an awkward new feeling creeps up on them and they all stare at each other.
“Umpf!” one of them grunts, which roughly translates to: so what do we do now?
To help their tribe across the existential void, here’s where the first story-tellers stepped in, the first entertainers.
The word “entertain” comes from the French “entretenir”, tenir meaning “to hold”, and entre meaning “between”. That’s essentially what these first story-tellers did: they held their fellow tribe members’ attention between the moments that they had something better to do.
Times may have changed, but Time has not. The existential void looms large as ever, and people still rely on us writers and other entertainers to help them across. Our vessels may vary, a creaky rowboat in Full o’ Bull’s case, a great big ocean liner in mine, but the goal is always the same: to transport our readers from point in time A to point in time B. It’s that simple.
And yet at the same time, it’s not that simple. Time is one of the toughest dimensions to navigate. It’s hard enough for each of us individually to stay focussed on what we do, let alone to hold other peoples’ attention for any significant length of time, to keep everybody aboard, in other words. So why this lofty moralism, why this extra demand to educate or even enlighten our passengers along the way? C’mon guys, lighten up. Cut us poor ferrymen a little slack!
Who knows, maybe some of my readers will come across an occasional passage that teaches them something about who and what they are, or even makes them “better” people. If so, good for them, but let’s just call that a happy accident, or collateral damage, if you will.
Speaking of getting from A to B, Linda tells me that a lot of my fans have been wondering what else I’ve been up to all this time here in Amsterdam, that is, when I’m not working on this novel.
The question is all the more relevant considering my reputation as “the fastest pen east of the Mississippi”. How long does it take me to write one of these installments? Half an afternoon at most. If we look at how often they’ve been coming out and do the math, adding twenty minutes per installment for research and another five to ten for finding a couple of nice pictures or audio fragments, the writing of this novel accounts for a measly three to four hours of activity per month!
In the mean time, sure, I’ve been having fun annoying my host, one of the leitmotifs of this novel. But there is only so much piss that you can take out of a person, even out of someone like Full o’ Bull. And besides, annoying a person isn’t something you can actively do all day.
As for life outside this apartment, I’ve mentioned popping out to buy champagne once or twice, and appearing on Dutch television, oh, maybe about a dozen times since arriving here in Amsterdam last year. Let’s see now… if we include the limo rides there and back, that takes care of another three to four hours per month.
That still leaves vast oceans of time unaccounted for.
Normally I’d say that it’s nobody’s business what we ferrymen do in our free time, just so long as we get our passengers safely from A to B. But in this particular case, I’m not only writing the novel, but also one of its main characters, meaning that the credibility of the entire story is at stake. How can a fun-loving guy like Toby Quinn possibly spend so much time cooped up in an apartment with a couple old enough to be his parents and not go stark raving mad?
Without going into too much detail, let me reassure you that even under these difficult circumstances, I haven’t lost faith in the Holy Trinity – by which I don’t mean the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, as those of you who have read my novel F.U.N. will know, but the Holy Trinity of modern day hedonism: sex and drugs and rock & roll.
You might think that of the three constituents of the trinity, rock and roll will have been the hardest to come by, given that bands, suitable venues and crowds are its main ingredients, none of which have been available during the pandemic.
Here’s where being famous comes in handy. As Louis XIV might have said, had he been alive today: “Le rock ’n roll, c’est moi!” As a literary star, I create my own rock and roll vibe wherever I go, and, if there’s no place to go, such as during this lockdown, wherever I am.
Even in the best of times, it’s a more sedate kind of stardom, to be sure, football stadiums bursting at the seams with hysterical fans downsized to university auditoriums not quite filled to capacity with politely applauding intellectuals, a high-rise of sound equipment with which to let one’s wailing guitar reign supreme over the raucous multitudes shrunken to a single malfunctioning microphone to fend off an old lady at the back yammering “Louder! We can’t hear you!”, but it’s stardom all the same, meaning that Newton’s – and even Einstein’s – laws of gravity still apply.
You all saw how three heavenly bodies began to orbit around me at the Booga Ball, drawing ever closer, until finally, in the bed at the Amstel Hotel, the forces of attraction became so strong that they curved the very space around me.
Okay, Mr. Rock Star, so three sweet ladies took good care of you on your first night here in Amsterdam, bravo, but how much satisfaction have you been getting since the lockdown?
To keep me virtual company during my long and lonely Amsterdam nights, some concerned fans have been sending me more than just text messages. I appreciate the gesture – the gestures, I should say – but l can reassure everybody that although the nights here have indeed been long, especially in winter and at this northerly latitude, they haven’t necessarily been lonely.
It so happens that I’ve kept in touch with two of the three Booga Ball babes, on an individual basis, mind you, if for no other reason than the average bed not being as accommodating as the one in the Amstel Hotel. The third, the quiet one who kept exchanging meaningful smiles with me on the night of the ball, has taken a rain check on getting better acquainted. She wants to keep her contacts to a minimum so that she can carry on visiting her 88-year-old grandmother, who still lives independently. Fair enough. You can’t be too careful with this pesky virus.
As for arranging romantic rendezvous with the other two, there have been some minor hurdles to overcome, such as ex-boyfriends who weren’t as ex as originally indicated, oftentimes reducing the window of opportunity to the one I’m peering through right this moment, as I stop to ponder what to write next – not that I ever ponder for long, of course, being the fastest pen east of the Mississippi.
Once Full o’Bull and his wife have gone to bed, three light raps on the glass will be the signal for me to slide open the window and lend the daring damsel a helping hand as she climbs through and jumps down into my arms.
With the master bedroom here in the basement, worse yet, right behind a far from soundproof wall – you can sometimes hear Full o’ Bull snoring – we lovers must engage in our activities with a certain delicacy, our smothered sighs and stifled giggles bringing back memories of my teenage years, when I’d clamber up the rain-pipe of the Franklin residence to sneak into my sweetheart Lizzy’s bedroom.
Old people tend to be light sleepers. The looks I sometimes got from Full o’Bull and his wife the following day seemed to suggest that an even further reduction of decibels was called for. On one such morning, Full o’Bull was in the kitchen feeding his sourdough starter – behold yet another hobby cook jumping onto the bread-baking bandwagon during this pandemic, so no surprises there! I felt the time was ripe to play the “I know that you know” card by casually tapping not one but two cups of espresso from the coffee machine.
Sure enough, he didn’t seem overly surprised.
“Look Toby, I don’t mean to be a wet blanket, but we are in the middle of a pandemic. So I hope you and your lady visitor realize that you aren’t just putting your own health at risk.”
“Guilty as charged,” I acknowledged. “If it’s any comfort to you, my lady visitors are well-informed and sensible college students. We’re all keeping close tabs on any coughs, runny noses or loss of taste and smell.”
Now he did arch an eyebrow. “Visitors plural?”
“Only two, actually. And never at the same time. They’re…”
“Never mind. I don’t want to know. Just don’t overdo it. Okay?”
With that, a new status quo had been established. Though not exactly thrilled with these nocturnal comings and goings, my hosts tolerated them nonetheless. And when one of the girls invited me to her parents’ cottage in the Dutch contryside, Full o’ Bull’s relief to be rid of me for a couple of days outweighed any anxieties he might have that I’d come home with the virus.
Call me reckless if you wish, but nobody in this household has fallen ill thus far. Besides, have any of us been on our best behavior this past year? Or on our worst for that matter? I don’t know, folks. Rather than being a matter of black-and-white, living by the lockdown rules seems to come with fifty shades of irresponsibility.
Not to rat on my hosts or anything, but they haven’t been beyond reproach either. On a number of occasions, they invited a few too many guests over for dinner, and last summer, no sooner had the Dutch government eased the reins ever so slightly, at the same time pleading with its citizens to limit travel as much as possible, or Full o’Bull and his wife threw some stuff into their car and took off to Normandy for a two-week vacation.
Although Dutch epidemologists have linked the second wave to the young party crowd returning from Mediterranean beach resorts, meaning that Full o’ Bull and his wife cannot be held personally accountable, we could argue that their relaxed – or even lax – attitude towards travel did contribute to the bedding through which the virus was once again able to flow freely all across Europe.
Viewed in this light, maybe I’ve been the good boy all along, staying put here in Amsterdam and confining all activities to the bubble that I share with my two belles. That having been said, a slightly darker shade of irresponsibility beckons. Just the other day, the third girl called to tell me that her granny – now 89 – had received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Maybe we could get together some time soon?
But whatever happens next, folks, there is no need to worry about me, at least not as far as sex or rock and roll are concerned. What about drugs?
What about them? I mean, c’mon guys, this is Amsterdam, famous for its so-called coffee shops where you can order the hash or weed that you want from a menu, and for its smart shops, if you’re more into legal (!) psychedelic drugs. Even during the most stringent phase of the first lockdown, the coffee shops were allowed to stay open for take-away orders. Can you believe it? How mind-blowingly open-minded can a government be?
Here’s the thing though. I hate to disappoint all the potheads, pill-poppers, and psychonauts among my readers, but I’m not a big user. Never have been. Even in my student days, it was mostly booze and only a bit of weed, an occasional snort, maybe a sampling of one or two of the the designer drugs that were coming out around that time. But never much and nothing spectacular.
In all the time that I’ve been stranded here in the land of the lotus-eaters, I have yet to set foot in either type of shop. But although I won’t go actively looking for drugs, that doesn’t mean I’ll turn them down if they’re offered to me. And here I have some good news for you after all, for which I didn’t even have to cross the street, thanks to a different type of virus that was already ravaging European city centers before the outbreak of Covid-19, the virus commonly referred to as Airbnb.
Back in the good old days, the party animals that flocked to Amsterdam were constrained to low budget hotels and youth hostels. Now, because of Airbnb, they’ve infected private apartments in the choicest parts of town, not only keeping the neighbors awake at night, but also depriving the city’s own population of affordable places to live, ultra short-term rentals being much more lucrative for property owners than long-term ones.
Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdown have dealt tourism a devastating blow, resulting in a sharp decrease of Airbnb infections as well, to the relief of many tourist-weary locals. Interestingly, though, when a rare case does occur, it tends to be more severe.
Think of all the things that make Amsterdam a major tourist attraction. Now take away Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Anne Frank. Ban all glass boat tours through the canals. Shut down all cafés and restaurants. Oh, and dim the red lights in the naughty part of town. Allow hotels to stay open and watch the dispirited owners shut them down after all, now that the city has almost nothing left to offer and with travel restrictions keeping almost everybody away anyhow.
That leaves only one type of die-hard tourist willing to come to this city, for only one specific purpose: to do drugs! And only one place for those drugs to be enjoyed: in an Airbnb apartment, such as the one right next door to Full o’ Bull!
Now Full o’Bull and his wife have a lovely balcony overlooking their own garden and the rest of the inner courtyard. There’s only one problem: the Airbnb-apartment next door is similarly blessed, and the acoustics out back rival those of Amsterdam’s world-famous music hall the Concertgebouw.
To give you an idea, here’s what I recorded one late summer evening:
They had seemed nice enough when I chatted with them out front, four philosophy students from Hannover, Germany, so I had seen no harm in accepting their invitation to join them for a smoke on their balcony.
Little did I suspect that the buzz I’d get off of their excellent weed would be more than killed by the dullness of their company. I don’t think I’ve ever met four more boring people in my life. Technically, I wasn’t even lying when I politely excused myself halfway through my joint (we all had our own because of Covid), gesturing that I couldn’t take any more.
I swear, they spent the entire week on the balcony, morning, day and night, smoking pot, giggling and guffawing like a double Beavis and Butthead and taking turns breaking into coughing fits. Full o’ Bull and his wife and some of the other neighbors took turns reminding them to please keep it down… and maybe to reduce their weed intake just a tad, because so much smoke was coming in through the windows.
Here’s another balcony scene, recorded on a night in early October:
That afternoon, four Surinamese youths from a town near Rotterdam, three girls and one guy, had parked their car right in front of my window. Watching them unload, I was intrigued by the gas tanks that they were carrying into the house. Were they going scuba-diving, I wondered.
Amsterdam’s murky green canals seemed a far cry from the crystalline waters of, say, the Caribbean or the Great Barrier Reef, but on the other hand, beggars couldn’t be choosers in these days of travel restrictions.
When I was unable to contain my curiosity any longer and slid open my window to ask them what, if anything, they expected to see down there, they nearly died of laughter. The tanks didn’t contain oxygen but nitrous oxide, otherwise known as laughing gas. Why didn’t I join them on their “dive” later tonight!
I had never done laughing gas before and enjoyed the short trippy rush while it lasted. But don’t worry, folks. That’s all the description you’ll be getting. One of the most devastating side-effects of widespread recreational drug use has been the reams of unreadable prose that it has inspired. It’s easy enough to get high, but that doesn’t make us all Samuel Coleridge!
Unfortunately, my hosts had already been at it for hours and were so wasted that they were scarcely better company than the philosophy students from Hannover, so I went home after just one balloon.
Last but not least:
’t was the night before Christmas, when all throught the house, not a creature was stirring…
Though meanwhile, on the neighboring balcony:
I was enjoying a water-pipe with three guys from Saudi Arabia, along with the best and probably most expensive single malt whisky I had ever tasted.
As part of an ambitious program to open his own country up to tourism, the Crown Prince had dispatched a number of teams all across the globe to find out how the local youth enjoyed themselves and how best to persuade them to come to Saudi Arabia.
The three here on the balcony had been assigned Western Europe. Though the outbreak of Covid-19 had seriously frustrated their research, there were still a few small pockets of fun to be found here and there.
Rumors of restrictions temporarily being lifted to allow for a notoriously decadent New Year’s Eve celebration had brought them to Amsterdam. Everybody would be setting off their own fireworks and wild and willing girls would be dancing almost naked in the streets, so they had been told.
Hang on just a minute: did they say the Crown Prince? As in Mohammed Bin Salman, the guy who commissioned the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul?
The very same. My hosts didn’t seem at all fazed by my question, which they must have been getting everywhere they went on their fun-hunt through Europe. If anything, their smiles became even more polite and amicable.
With great patience, the first one enumerated the countless inroads the Crown Prince was making in liberalizing his country, allowing women to drive and whatnot. So why all the fuss over one dead “terrorist masquerading as a journalist”, as my very own president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had so aptly characterized the man in an off-the-record conversation with a reporter.
And what about the Israeli Prime Minister, the second one now took over. “Bibi” Netanyahu and his thugs from the Mossad had at least as much blood on their hands. That didn’t stop Israel from being a popular holiday destination, did it?
As for my own former president, the third was keen to point out to me, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, how many Afghan wedding parties had been cut short by his drones?
That settled the discussion, hook, line, and sinker.
Thanks guys, but I think I’ll call it a night.
The following morning, I was sleeping like a baby when I was awoken by an insistent knocking on my window. My Saudi friends had come to say goodbye. Some idiot at the embassy in The Hague had misinformed them. All New Year’s Eve parties were off here in the Netherlands. No fireworks, no large gatherings, no wild and naked girls. Nothing. They were now flying to Stokholm to try their luck there.
Waiting for the cab to take them to the airport, they had a small something for me, a parcel which they handed down to me through the window. Imagine that: three wise men of the Orient, bearing a gift on Christmas morning!
It was a Magic Mushroom Growing Kit, of the variety Golden Teacher, so called for the illuminating philsophical insights that they purportedly inspired. They had ordered it from a local smartshop, hoping to harvest and sample the mushrooms on New Year’s Eve. The first specimens were already beginning to pop up and boy, did they look otherworldy.
In the days that followed, just watching them grow and grow and GROW was a trip in itself. Because everybody in this household respects my privacy and never comes into my room, I saw no harm in leaving the kit on my desk, in plain sight.
Never say never. Remember the time at the dinner table when Full o’Bull asked me permission to go and get the issue of Science in which David Foster Wallace had trashed his debut novel The Wild Numbers? Too late, I realized what he’d see downstairs.
My mind raced to come up with a plausible story. Would he buy into them being an especially tasty variety of shitake that I had wanted to surprise him with, a belated Christmas present for in one of his risottos? After a few days, to prevent that from actually happening, I’d put on a solemn face and announce that the entire batch had been ruined by a toxic bacterial blotch. And in case he wanted to see what that looked like, I could always say that I had already disposed of them because of the foul smell they were spreading.
As it turned out, there was no need for any of this fibbery. Poor old Full o’ Bull was so fixated on DFW’s nasty review that he hadn’t even noticed the mushrooms. Or so I thought.
The joke was on me the next morning. At first I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about when he asked me with a wry smile whether I was planning a trip.
“I couldn’t help noticing those magic mushrooms when I was down in your room last night.”
Aha. So much for the shitakes. I hastened to explain that they were hand-me-downs from the Airbnb guests next door, that I was curious to watch them grow but not necessarily interested in trying them out.
Full o’Bull didn’t seem to mind all that much. In fact, the hallucinogens that I was growing in his hallowed former work space elicited a smile that can best be described as sentimental. He had tried them himself way back when, in his student days, resulting in a wonderfully mellow trip, certainly in comparison to some of the rocky experiences he had been through back in high school.
I was genuinely impressed. Maybe Full o’ Bull was more rock & roll than we’ve all been giving him credit for!
“Any tips?” I asked him. “In the event that I do try them?”
“The party animal asking the old square for advice,” he chuckled, shaking his head in disbelief. “Hell, I don’t know. They might not be as harsh and unforgiving as LSD, but we’re still talking about a potent hallucinogen, not to be taken lightly. Any anxieties or insecurities that you might have will be magnified a hundred times. That having been said, a self-confident, easy-going guy like you strikes me as the least likely candidate for a bad trip.”
“Why don’t you join me? For old time’s sake?”
“Thanks, Toby, but no thanks. What I learned the hard way back in high school is that these kinds of substances are best taken on your own, or else with people whom you feel comfortable with, whom you trust. To put it bluntly: you’re a bad enough trip as it is.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said with grin.
With a bumper crop on its way, providing way more mushrooms than any single indiviual could ever safely consume, I checked if either of the Booga Ball babes would be interested in joining me on a little excursion, but the idea of eating homegrown fungi scared them. Fair enough. And although Full o’ Bull had proven remarkably tolerant about my farming activities down in his basement, I didn’t want to push my luck by offering my produce to his children.
What I did instead, following instructions I found on the Internet, was to dry the whole batch and store them in a mason jar, which has been sitting on my desk now for the past couple of weeks, untouched.
Sorry, all you psychonauts out there, but so far, I have had no inclination to try them. None whatsoever. Like I said, getting high just isn’t high on my list. I guess I have more than enough fun as it is.
Not even tempted? Nope. Why not? I’m not chickening out, am I? Wrong question, folks! Even if I am, it would be nothing to be ashamed of. People should never be dared or bullied into taking drugs. That’s why I dropped the matter as soon as the Booga Ball babes said no. Like Full o’ Bull said, these mushrooms are a potent hallucinogen, not to be taken lightly.
Hang on… Holy crap, folks. Gazing at the jar here on my desk, I just had an epiphany. You know what has been holding me back? What has even been bugging me about these mushrooms? It’s their name: Golden Teachers.
That brings us back to the beginning of this chapter. Just like so-called serious readers won’t settle for a book simply being enjoyable and will demand that it shows them who and what they are, or even that it makes them better people, some heavy-handed party pooper out there decided that it wasn’t good enough for these mushrooms to provide an enjoyable trip. No, the user had to learn something from the experience, hence their pretentious name.
I guess that puts these mushrooms and me in the same boat. Some people just can’t accept us for what we are: humble ferrymen of the fourth dimension.
Well, I for one am going to give these fellow ferrymen of mine a break by rechristening them Golden Entertainers. If they can transport me safely from A to B, that’s good enough for me. And if I do learn something along the way, good for me, but we will regard that as a happy accident, as collateral damage if you will.
By the way, I just reached into the jar and extracted a small handful. And now I’m chewing on them, right while you are reading these very words! They’re cracker dry – exactly like the instructions on Internet wanted them – and have an intensely earthy, mushroomy flavor that might indeed work well in one of Full o’ Bull’s risottos. Now all we have to do is wait for the effects to set in, wait for the mounting wave to roll us shoreward…
(to be continued…)