Today on the program we’re scavenging in Amsterdam with Jay and Ryanne. Plus, a bonus appearance but the one and only Macdocman, as he discovers how the scavenger life works and marvels at the details.
We moved into a new apartment last month, my partner and I, in a beautiful and lively neighborhood of Amsterdam. Strangely enough on our second day in the house, as we unpacked the massive pile of boxes, a loud discussion burst out in front of our building, which included a good amount of crying by at least one female. When I looked outside to see the source of the noise, two police cars had pulled up and officers slowly put on blue surgical gloves as they tried to calm down the young woman. They seemed in no hurry to enter the building, but when they finally did I could hear their footsteps just above my head. Within minutes they thumped down the stairs and were back outside. More civilians arrived, these men and women would also join the vigil outside. An hour or two went by. A city medical examiner arrived, solemnly greeted the people, and continued up the stairs, again the action going on just above our bedroom. Hours later, in the middle of the night, a large funeral car with a team of two formally dressed individuals is outside. I’m awoken from my brief sleep to the sound of thunderous footsteps and struggling in the narrow Dutch stairwell. I peer through the keyhole just as large objects thump against the door. 3 or 4 men are struggling with a human body. The final piece of the story, the upstairs neighbor had passed away in his own bed.
For the next week(s) as family members arrived and I listened to the faint sounds of suffering and commiserating, those famous topics of death and how quickly life can change or even end rattled around in my over active brain. Here’s a man who lived alone, older but not old, loved by friends and family, yet isolated in his home in many ways. It is a common reality, in both cities and rural areas. It happens.
Twice a week in this neighborhood they have large garbage night. All month, twice a week, I’ve watched as pieces of a man’s life are painstakingly carried out to the garbage pickup spot. Trash bags. Bits of furniture. Worn carpets. “Unfortunately, my father was a hoarder,” one of his children tells me as she passes me in the stairwell carrying more trash bags. I recognize her as the daughter who stood outside all those hours when the discovery was made. She tries to laugh about it, but the sorrow and pain leaks out as she gives up on a smile.
Each night after the trash is put out, things get quiet upstairs, as family members go home. Then another kind of ritual begins, they come by car, scooter, truck, bike and on foot, to sort through the garbage pile. These are the scavengers, professionals, amateurs, random passer-by’s that see these things and decide to take them home. I watch from my window as they each show up. They scour the piles, feeling the bags, finding sets of things, occasionally accidentally dropping something that makes an attention grabbing crash. Sometimes there are 4 people surrounding the pile yet no one looks at each other, they focus on the pile and the possibility of finding what is treasure to them. By morning there are mostly only scraps and shards of broken things left. Pieces of what were once a person’s life, are sorted and transported all over the city.
It has been one month since the death of the man upstairs. A truck came to take away whatever was deemed of value for the family. His children have worked themselves to exhaustion cleaning the place. There is no more noise upstairs. Soon the landlord will come and paint, renew, whatever is needed to prepare the place for new people. Within a month new human(s) will live their lives upstairs from me. Occasionally they might throw out a large piece of furniture. A scavenger will have it loaded into a van within minutes. Life just goes on.
On February 11th, 2015 my friend Raja Oueis passed away at the age of 27. I was lucky enough to meet Raja at hacker camp (OHM) in 2013. We spent several happy days exploring that crazy carnival of creativity, an event that we always looked back on with fondness. Not long after we were able to meet again, in Amsterdam and at the Hacker congress in Hamburg. Each in person meeting would be a joyous occasion for eating, laughing, thinking out loud and plotting future hanging out oppertunities. It seemed only right, I think for both of us, that we did meet and become friends. One of those classic cases of someone you feel like you always knew from the first moment you speak.
Sadly over the past year, as Raja fought a daunting battle against cancer, our communication would be limited to short conversations online. I convinced myself that there would be time, that despite everything, we would get to sit and talk and drink chai and discuss matters of the heart one last time. Just as it felt meant to be that we would become friends, naturally fate would allow us one more chance to talk til the wee hours of the morning. But time ran out on us. My ticket to Beirut reads March and Raja’s ticket to another dimension seems to have been set for February.
Thankfully, though it is hardly enough, during those happy days camping among some of the kindest and most creative people on the planet, we turned on a microphone and together with many friends and strangers, talked about what we were experiencing and why it was special to us. In this podcast I’ll revisit those moments with Raja. Though his voice is one of many in these recordings, his wonderful answers mean even more to me now. I wish we had left the recorder on for so many more hours and days. But thats not how it works, I suppose. Nevertheless, I consider myself lucky to have known him and I’m pleased to be able to share this little tiny piece of such a larger than life human being.
If there is one word to describe the tone of this website over the past 2 or 3 years I would choose the word “less”. Less writing. Less podcasts. Less photos. Less activity. Less experimentation. Without knowing exactly why or when it started, I seem to have gotten busy elsewhere. Offline life? Perhaps. Work life? Often. Somewhere along the line, my little corner of the internet that is now well over 13 years old, was no longer my obsession or even my canvas. And while that may be a good thing, to focus one’s energy elsewhere on new projects. It has also at times felt like an outlet that was missing from my life and my work. A void that would surely get filled somehow over time, but I do wonder if any of it matched the magic that once was right here in this space you are reading.
An unlikely source to trigger me back into writing: Roger Ebert. If you don’t know who that is, because of course I realize the world is larger than the United States or its sometimes global cultural tentacles, Ebert was a very prolific American film critic who reviewed films for the Chicago Sun-Times for an incredible number of years. In his career he saw and reviewed thousands upon thousands of films and got many accolades for his writing. He is credited for making cinema for accessible for regular people, and shedding light on emerging talent when others would not.
Of course I had no idea about this. I had never stopped to think about who this man could be and what he was doing. As a child growing up in 1980’s and 90’s New Jersey, Siskel and Ebert were seemingly always on TV reviewing films. But I never remember wanting to watch these two verbose intellectuals in what looked like the most boring theater possible talking about films like they were on display at a museum. I think my brother and I would simply change the channel and move on, in search of something entertaining like Abbot & Costello or Cartoons! (cartoons of course, trumped everything) As I got older, of course, Ebert’s name was always there. On television, in the newspaper, on the cover of the VHS tape at the rental place.. hell .. even the movie posters on the street… it just seemed standard that his name would be there. Sometime in the 2000’s, despite that fact that I was no longer living in the US, I did take notice when Gene Siskel’s name disappeared from its traditional place under the movie title. I heard he died suddenly and I remember thinking how odd the world seemed where there would no longer be Siskel and Ebert giving thumbs up for something. But sure enough Ebert continued, his name would pop-up reviewing a film and again just like when I was a kid, I would simply move on.
Then yesterday I watched “Life Itself”, a documentary about Roger Ebert’s life and above all… his passion for it. Some would perhaps say it is a film about his love of the movies and the changes he lived through, but for me, it was really about how much he loved everything in life; films – of course, but also friends and family – such a deep love and strong bonds that endure even at his darkest moments as his body deteriorates and he prepares for the end. This film, which I watched just out of curiosity and expecting nothing in particular, shook the core of my being. Perhaps because I remembered that child who never took notice of this person. Later, the adult, who just kept on presuming there was nothing there to be discovered or to learn about. He was right there all along, via his fantastic words, and somehow I didn’t look. Until he was gone. Until this documentary came along.
How could a documentary about a famous movie critic teach me or move me to such a degree? I think it is because I finally saw what I been blind to for so many years. That this film critic, this imperfect not-so-nice man, was in fact a fantastic guide and curious observer of the world we live in. He didn’t just observe, he put it to words, and those words had tremendous power and wisdom. The kind that you rarely come across even if you are on the look out for them. He loved how the cinema could show us hopes, aspirations, dreams, fears, or just help us share this journey called life. His journey was both a beautiful one and a particular difficult one, especially in his final years, but the daunting disease he faced was also something beautiful. Even in so much pain and under such difficult circumstances, I found it impossible to ignore the intense beauty that was this man’s existence.
A documentary alone is probably not enough to really talk like you know someone. But I’ll take that risk. As someone who writes, speaks into a mic, teaches, observes, and travels to many corners of this world, right there on my screen I found another teacher and it turns out he had been there all my life, ready if I’d ever take notice.