by Jon Dorschner
Gerald’s parents, Fred and Linda, both taught in international schools. They moved all over the world and Gerald always moved with them. Fred and Linda met at the University of Pennsylvania, where both attended graduate school. They earned PhDs in English Literature, but did not opt for a university teaching job.
Instead, they applied to teach at an international school. These schools are found all over the world. They provide an American curriculum to children of American diplomats, businessmen, and other expatriates. The teachers are often special people. They tend to not be careerists or driven. Instead, they are up for adventure and like living overseas. They occupy the lower rungs of the expatriate community and do not enjoy the same status as diplomats and representatives of multinational corporations. Denied access to the cocktail circuit, many “go native” and hang out with the “local nationals.” Some diplomats look down on them as being vaguely bohemian and unhinged.
In this regard, Fred, Linda and Gerald mirrored Lawrence Durrell and his remarkable family. Durrell, the famous novelist and author of “The Alexandria Quartet,” was born in India to “Anglo Indian” parents. After his father died of a brain hemorrhage, they moved back to Bournemouth. Lawrence found living in England “stifling,” and convinced his widowed mother to move the family to the Greek Island of Corfu in the Mediterranean Sea. Lawrence pursued his writing career and although he never attended university, joined the British Foreign Service. He served as a cultural attaché all over the world, but was particularly fond of the Mediterranean. Oddly enough, although Lawrence was a British diplomat and was nominated for both the Brooker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature, the British government denied him British citizenship because of his Indian birth and “Anglo Indian” heritage.
Gerald, like Lawrence Durrell and his remarkable siblings, was incredibly bright and precocious. He was clearly off of the charts when it came to intelligence. Like Durrell, he was an autodidact who did not need to go to school to learn. He found the classroom setting boring. Other kids were always far behind him and could not comprehend what he was thinking about. Gerald was always thinking and always reading, and absorbed life. His international life was ideal for him. It allowed him to learn about the world firsthand, interact with its people, and be immersed in its places.
The school counselors tested Gerald and confirmed him to be exceptional. They contemplated advancing him up a grade or two, but quickly realized he was already having problems relating to his fellow students. What would happen, they wondered, if they pushed him one or two grades ahead? How would older kids react? Eventually, they simply left Gerald where he was.
Fred and Linda were well aware that their only child was special. Being PhDs, they wanted Gerald to be a famous academic and teach in at Oxford, the Sorbonne, or an Ivy League University. Although Fred and Linda were not paid all that much, they started putting money away as soon as he was born, so they could send him to any school in the world. As it turned out, they did not need to worry about paying for Gerald’s college expenses.
Gerald attended the Amsterdam International School in the Netherlands, where his parents were well-loved teachers in the English Department. He was in the International Baccalaureate Program, which boasted of a college level curriculum. IB graduates were hot properties and were given several years of college credit when they applied to American universities.
Not only was Gerald a brilliant IB student, his SAT scores were in the top .001 percentile of all American students. College recruiters quickly determined that they had to have Gerald on their campuses and started a bidding war to get him. The phone at Fred and Linda’s apartment was always ringing, as recruiter after recruiter called to entice Gerald into their program. The mailbox was always full of mail from every conceivable college and university. Many prestigious academic institutions in the United States and other countries offered Gerald full scholarships.
However, things did not work out as Fred and Linda had planned. Gerald moved to Amsterdam from Malaysia after finishing his Middle School years at the Kuala Lumpur International School. He attended the Amsterdam International School for all of his high school years. Gerald fell in love with Amsterdam. He cultivated a deep and special relationship with the city, and was particularly enamored with Amsterdamse Bos Park.
The Amsterdam Tourist Authority published a detailed brochure describing the city attractions. Its section on public parks said this about the Amsterdamse Bos Park:
This woodland park is the largest recreational area in Amsterdam. Lying about 4 meters below sea level and laid out in 1930s in a project to reduce unemployment. Today, the marshy areas around Nieuwe Meer are nature reserves. A stretch of water called the Bosbaan flows through the park, and is the venue for rowing competitions in the season. At the west end of water is the Bosmuseum which exhibits on natural and social history of the park, there are also temporary exhibitions. The Amsterdamse Bos is a home to about 150 variants of foreign and native trees and colorful collection of birds. Entertainment includes shallow swimming pools, a pancake house, a goat farm. If you want to hire a canoe or pedal boat, head for the large lake called Grote Vijver.
As an autodidact not particularly attracted to the classroom, Gerald spent a lot of time at the Amsterdamse Bos Park. He and his friends often skipped class and spent hours discussing philosophy and the finer points of life while lying on the grass.
Gerald had just finished reading a book called Living Well is the Best Revenge, by Calvin Tomkins.
Tomkins first published the book in 1971 and it is a classic for high school readers contemplating that big step into adulthood and wondering how to express their uniqueness and grab their autonomy. It describes the extraordinary lives of Gerald and Sara Murphy, two American expatriates and their circle of unusual friends in France during the 1920s. Residing first in Paris and then in the seaside town of Antibes, the Murphys hosted some of the most memorable artists and writers of the era, including Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Ernest Hemingway and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. In Paris Gerald Murphy first encountered Cubism. This inspired him to try his hand at painting. His career was brief, however, as he painted from 1922 to 1929, and produced only 15 works, one of which was later acclaimed as a modernist masterpiece.
After reading Living Well is the Best Revenge, Gerald became fascinated by the Lost Generation. He read book after book about the artists, writers, and poets that lived in Europe during this era. He tried to isolate what made them so admirable. He concluded that these individuals were great because they were determined to define success on their own terms. For them, success in life was not measured by conventional metrics such as, fame, wealth, and power, but by an elusive “quality of life,” based on a succession of unique and intense experiences. Life, he concluded, was an opportunity to search out these experiences. Those who did not do so, would simply lose out, trading in their chance to “live well” for empty “success.”
Gerald decided to follow in their footsteps and remain right where he was.
While lying on the grass of Amsterdamse Bos Park, his eyes wandered to a low hill flanked by tall trees and covered with thick green grass. A vision suddenly flashed before his eyes. He saw a low gazebo-like structure sprawling across the top of the low hill. It was painted white with hand-made lattice work of wooden slats on the sides. The building was fronted by a low counter. Behind it stood a man dressed in a white cook’s outfit topped with a white canvas hat. On the grill in front of him he cooked genuine American hot dogs. There were five or six small tables in front, with delicate wire chairs. Happy Hollanders sat there quietly conversing and eating hot dogs and drinking cups of strong Dutch coffee.
Gerald realized his life’s work in a flash. He would share genuine American hot dogs with the population of Amsterdam. He would call them “hipster hotdogs.” His hot dog stand would be located at this precise spot in Amsterdamse Bos Park and would serve only hot dogs and coffee. He decided to devote his life to hipster hotdogs and build a wonderful stand on that very spot.
When he got home that night, Gerald told Fred and Linda all about his vision and broke the news that he would turn down all the scholarships and not attend any university. He told them he was determined to remain in Amsterdam and bring his vision to fruition. Fred and Linda were cool about it. The three of them came up with a plan.
In May, Gerald graduated from Amsterdam International School. Graduation was held inside a huge glass conservatory in the sprawling grounds of the Amsterdam Zoological Garden. It was built to house tropical and desert plants that ordinarily would not grow in Holland’s climate. The sunlight streamed into the building through the glass walls and ceiling and framed the tall cactus plants and expansive palm trees.
There was a large space in the center of the conservatory for public events and a low stage ran along the East wall of the building. When his name was called, Gerald strolled across the stage and accepted his International Baccalaureate from the principal. He was now an official high school graduate.
While Gerald was finishing his IB program, Fred and Linda withdrew the money they had saved to send Gerald to college. They had been saving for 18 years. The money had sat in the bank all of that time. Fred and Linda had made no withdrawals, only deposits. The sum kept growing, and the interest kept compounding.
They used this money to build a hotdog stand on Gerald’s special hill in the Amsterdamse Bos Park. They had to sign all of the paperwork, as Gerald was still a minor. The Hipster Hotdog Heaven was built to Gerald’s exacting specifications. When completed, it looked exactly like the building in Gerald’s vision. Tall trees with big leaves towered over the back and the two sides. In front stood small tables with delicate wire chairs. Its low counter boasted a state of the art grill for grilling authentic American hot dogs.
Now all Gerald needed was a chef. He had just the right person in mind. Shortly after his arrival in Amsterdam, Gerald had met and befriended Sleepy Lewis. Sleepy was the real deal. He was a genuine jazz guy from way back. He was born and raised in Harlem, not Harlem in the Netherlands, but Harlem in New York City, which used to be New Amsterdam in any case. Sleepy played the trumpet and had come to Europe decades before to play jazz and had never left. Amsterdam fit him like a glove.
When not playing the trumpet, Sleepy loved to cook. He cooked the meanest soul food imaginable. He was also in desperate need of a day job. He was losing his lip and finding it more and more difficult to play good riffs on the trumpet. He was starting to realize that his trumpet playing days were coming to an end.
Like most jazz musicians, Dizzy lived from one day to the next (actually, one night to the next). He had never put money away for retirement and was at loose ends. Gerald figured Dizzy was the guy to run Hipster Hotdog Heaven. It worked out for the best for both Gerald and Dizzy. Gerald was the front man and manager, while Dizzy stayed behind the counter grilling hot dogs and serving coffee.
The customers loved Dizzy because he was a fountainhead of legend and myth. He could tell you details about every jazz person that had ever lived, and it seemed that he knew all of them personally. The Dutch customers who flocked to Hipster Hotdog Heaven were naturally attuned to all things jazz and could listen to Dizzy talk all day long.
Children stopped by on their way home from school to grab a hot dog. They began to pester Dizzy for candy. Gerald agreed to stock a small candy counter off to the left side of the counter. It was based on the honor system. Kids grabbed any candy they wanted, grabbed Sleepy’s attention and gave him their money. No children ever stole candy from Hipster Hotdog Heaven.
Young lovers walking arm in arm through the park stopped at Hipster Hotdog Heaven for a bite and a cup of coffee. They finished their hot dogs and lingered over a coffee and stared dreamily into each other’s eyes.
But the biggest customers were intellectuals of all kinds. They liked the ambiance. Gerald never kicked any off them out. They could buy coffee and sit together and discuss philosophy and the finer points of life for as long as they wanted. In this they replicated the experience of Gerald and his high school friends who had done the same thing while lying on the grass back when there was no Hipster Hotdog Heaven in Amsterdamse Bos Park.
Hipster Hotdog Heaven was open long into the night. Electric light bulbs strung above the tables bathed them in a soft glow. Cool breezes rustled the leaves on the tall trees over the heads of the customers. For the intellectuals it was like living Earnest Hemingway’s A Cool Well Lighted Place.
Eventually, Fred and Linda’s contract at the Amsterdam International School came to an end. They then decided that perhaps it was time to enter academia after all. They realized that they had both invested a lot of time and energy getting PhDs and no one needed a PhD to teach high school classes at an international school. Fred and Linda concluded that must have earned PhDs because in their heart of hearts they really wanted to teach college.
A little liberal arts college took both of them on as tenured faculty. It was an ultra-liberal bastion set in a bucolic college town. Founded in the mid 19th Century by radical abolitionists, it had remained true to its principals ever since. The college had never taken any guff from anyone. It endured lots of persecution during the McCarthy witch hunt and later, when “patriotic conservatives” swept the nation during and after the Reagan years. The English Department liked Fred and Linda as soon as they met and offered them jobs on the spot. Al though Fred and Linda were “just” high school teachers and had never taught a class at the university level, the college hired them anyway.
The college English Department attended an international conference in Amsterdam. They presented their research on how to craft an English Curriculum that would truly engage their students and motivate them to think seriously.
When the conference was over and before the faculty members got into their taxis and headed to the Schipol Airport to catch their flight back home, Fred and Linda took them to the Amsterdamse Bos Park to enjoy a hotdog and a cup of coffee at Hipster Hotdog Heaven. They all fell in love with the place and felt immediately at home.
Fred and Linda were the proudest parents in the world.