by David Small
You don’t really know how serious the situation is until the guy runs headfirst into an oncoming tram.
I’ve never been hit by a moving tram, but I assume it would knock you down and run over you. The driver must have hit the breaks as best she could but you really can’t stop those things without warning. This guy—this kid, really—just bounces off of it like he tried to shoulder through a door in a police raid. Somehow he manages to stay on his feet. He backs up and stables himself to try again. That’s when I grab him.
Ten minutes earlier I was on the train home from work finishing a guided meditation exercise on my iPhone. I’m working on mindfulness and being here now.
It’s Friday around 7pm and Amsterdam Central Station is crowded. Outside I see people watching a young couple fighting, perhaps wondering if they should get involved, gauging the seriousness of the situation. The girl pleads to her boyfriend in a language I don't recognize. It looks like she’s pulling away from him, trying to escape, but it’s the opposite. She is trying not to let him go, and she fails.
He runs off across the tracks that run in front of the station. Ten tram lines run through there all day.
The girl starts after him but at that moment it’s too dangerous to cross. She looks at me desperately. “Please help me!” she says. I don't know why she picks me when so many others are there. Someone asks what he’s on. She says they just smoked marijuana.
He is a heavyset guy in his twenties, maybe 50 pounds bigger than me. I try talking to him but he doesn't even know I’m there. I pull him away from the tracks and onto the sidewalk as other trams barely miss us, but I can’t restrain him. The drivers ring their warning bells. He hits the first tram head on and with full intention. I grab him but he breaks free and runs for another, lining up his approach to charge like a bull.
I violently wrestle him off the tracks, which puts us together in the bus lane, where giant red buses pass at speed. The drivers honk. There’s nowhere for them to swerve to avoid us; the path is only as wide as a bus. And here I am, six-foot-one and skinny trying to muscle a drugged-up linebacker to his own safety. He escapes my grip for a moment and runs into the side of a passing bus.
Crowds form but nobody helps us. Nobody reacts. Like this isn’t real. Like this kid isn’t going to kill himself today. I yell at them to call the police. Someone says they don’t know the number. I don’t either.
I’ve got my arm around his waist and I grip his wrist or his hand. I decide the safest place for this kid is on the ground so I try to take him down with that police trick you see on TV where they twist the arm behind the bad guy’s back. It doesn't work. He’s too powerful and I don't know what the hell I’m doing.
I feel another body against mine and together we overpower him. We pull him to the sidewalk and try to calm him down. We try to explain that he’s going to die if he doesn't listen to us. “I’m already dead,” he says. I tell him he’s okay. That we’re his friends and he’s safe and alive. Look at the sky. It’s a nice day, I tell him, but he continues to struggle.
Another man appears. He’s very calm and wears glasses. He stands in front of him, makes eye contact. He sticks to the facts and gets the kid talking.
“What happened today?” the man asks.
“I died today,” the kid says.
“No,” says the man. “You’re alive.”
“I’m not dead?” he asks. “You promise?”
“You’re in Amsterdam. You’re alive. Let’s sit down and talk over there on the curb.”
“I don't want to go over there,” the kid says.
“It’s not safe for you here,” the man says. “You could hurt yourself.”
“If I go with you, will everything be okay?” he asks.
“Yes. Let’s just sit down and talk.”
We all sit together on the curb. Not convinced he won’t jump up and make another run for the busses or go jump in the canal, I keep my grip on him. He’s squeezing my hand. He smiles a demonic smile, like Private Pyle in the bathroom scene from Full Metal Jacket before he shoots the Drill Sergeant and himself.
This kid was clearly on something harder than marijuana. Many visitors to Amsterdam have stories of getting too high or doing bad drugs, or the wrong drugs. In 2014, three tourists died from snorting heroin they’d thought was cocaine. The government posted signs everywhere warning tourists of bad drugs and established drug-testing stations where you can still bring anything to be tested for purity and safety, no questions asked.
The police show up after what seems like a really long time considering we’re at one of the most trafficked train stations in Europe and there’s been an increased police presence (with machine guns) since the terrorist attacks last week in Brussels.
A cop strolls over to us, his hands tucked casually under his bulletproof vest. He must see this every day. I let go of the kid’s hand, give him a gentle shoulder squeeze and walk away. I find my bike and cycle home to join my neighbors on their terrace out back. They’re grilling burgers and drinking beer. It’s almost 8pm and thanks to the time change the sun hasn’t even set yet.
We held a moment of silence at work after the terrorist attacks in Brussels last week, just like we did after the Paris attacks in November. Living so close, I hear stories of people who were near the attacks or were at the same location hours or days before. Everyone has family or friends who live nearby, who heard the explosions and the gunshots, who saw people running down the street crying. They make phone calls to ensure everyone they know is okay. Odds are they’re fine. Odds are they didn't happen to be in that particular place at that particular time. I don't mean to bum everyone out. It's just that lots of people back home have asked me how people react here with terrorist attacks so close by. Mostly, people don't talk much about it.
Brussels is close to Amsterdam, closer than Seattle is to Portland. Yet it's still not close enough to feel entirely real, like it's just something you see on the TV and not something that's changing people's lives forever because of something that has nothing to do with them. Meanwhile life goes on here and everywhere else. Except for that moment, when we all stand in silence out of respect for the dead and wonder when we’ll be standing here again for this same purpose.
One Saturday morning in February, my friend and I watched as a hundred or so riot police with assault rifles, horses, and armored vans assembled around City Hall, which is across the canal from my apartment. It was a beautiful sunny day and we’d planned to take the train south to Carnival, a huge annual festival where everyone wears crazy costumes, dances and drinks excessively. We needed outfits so we headed to the vintage clothing store around the corner.
We rode our bikes through the police lines and entered a plaza where two hundred people were gathered. A woman spoke over a PA about something, but I couldn't understand her message—something about coming here by choice or not by choice. I figured the protest was about immigration, but all the signs were in Dutch so we didn't know.
Vendors at the Waterlooplein market sold knock-off products, produce and second-hand (stolen) bikes. As I locked our bikes to a pole outside the vintage store, we heard the first explosion. It was loud and chilling and felt very real. The police moved routinely toward the noise. Nobody else reacted. There was no stampede. No screaming. It must have been a noise bomb meant to scare people.
Then another bang. Nobody seemed too concerned or maybe, like us, they just didn't know what to do. I figured we were safer in the store, so we went inside. Street vendors went back to selling, we looked for costumes, and life continued like it was a normal day. No need to overreact. Another bomb went off when we were in the store. Just noise, no damage. Nobody got hurt. It’s a strange feeling, wondering if this is serious, if this is it. When do you decide to run like hell?
Turns out it was a Pegida rally. Pegida is the anti-Islam group that doesn't want migrants in Europe. I’m happy to report there were more anti-Pegida protestors surrounding the rally than there were participants.
The police blocked our route back home. A cop told me they’d found a possible explosive device, so we had to bike around through the center.
We ate lunch by the window, watching the riot police separate and contain the fascists and anti-fascists. There was nothing on TV about the rally or the fake bombs. So we’d reacted accordingly by not reacting at all. Everyone decided there was no real danger, that everything was okay despite what clearly sounded like bombs, and we were right. At the risk of sounding dramatic, it’s impossible not to wonder, though, when is it time to take the situation seriously? When do you react? At what moment is it clear that somebody had better push that kid off the tracks and that everything is suddenly not okay?