Simple Twists of Fate

Then, lo and behold, there she was. I seized the day.

On my second Sunday, and last full day, in Stockholm, the Volvo hoods outside the Mornington were covered with snow and the streets were icy. I quickly moved through the breakfast area so that others awaiting tables could take mine. As I finished my coffee in the lobby, I sat beside what I took to be two parents and their son. They were speaking Swedish animatedly and laughing heartily. Then I heard the twenty-something son sing, “Lay lady lay.” I could not resist.

“Are you Dylan fans?”

61The father looked at me, did a brief double take, and asked, “Are you the guy who got wet eyes after you read ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’?” (Like Sonja Sidorow, a beautiful Swedish Russian who taught herself to speak English listening to Dylan and recognized me by the reindeer sausage in the Haymarket the night before, he had watched Ann’s documentary.) And I, prone to shed man tears both on and off camera, mumbled something like, “That’s right. I’m a man with no alibi. [Dylan’s “Brownsville Girl”].” Clearly being well versed in his Dylan, the bearded man laughed even more heartily than he had with his family. In fact, and in the first of a number of Bob-related twists of fate throughout the day, it turned out that my fellow lobbyist knew his Dylan lyrics better than I know mine—and almost as well as Pelle knows his. This particular Swedish “Dylan man” was none other than Dr. Eddie Weitzberg, a bit of a celebrity in Dylan fan circles for reasons I will discuss below. But before doing so, I should add that I assumed correctly: he was with his wife Maritza, a singer whose latest album is Just Like Greta, and their son Bernard who, in addition to doing a convincing country Dylan, knows quite a bit about Detroit music and electronica.

Eddie is a professor of anesthesiology and intensive care medicine at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute. He was also a bit of a phenomenon in Dylan fan circles two years ago when he and his research colleagues began sneaking Dylan lyrics into their scientific writings. Eddie and four other researchers began their competition to see who will have written the most articles with Dylan quotes before retirement. The prize will be lunch at the Solna restaurant Jons Jacob. Weitzberg and Jon Lundberg, a fellow professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at KI (as the Karolinska Institute is known) started it all almost two decades ago with their article in Nature Medicine titled “Nitric Oxide and Inflammation: The Answer is Blowing in the Wind.” Jonas Fisen wrote “Eph Receptors: Tangled Up in Two” in Cell Cycle in 2010, which was followed in 2011 by Weitzberg and Jonas Frisen’s “Dietary Nitrate: A Slow Train Coming” in The Journal of Physiology. And so it continues.

We speculated upon and deferred to Dylan’s possible reasons for not being in Stockholm, compared notes on Izzy Young’s attendance of the Banquet, and applauded Patti Smith’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” I asked the family Weitzberg to hold up the morning paper for a picture. Bernard, every bit the joker his father is, quipped, “We look like we’re in a hostage situation.” Maritza clearly knows too much to argue or to judge and told me about the time she mistakenly telephoned Dylan because one of his Malibu neighbors gave her Bob’s home number. We exchanged cards and, in best Bob fashion, wished one another good luck.

For not the first—or last—time during the week, I felt like a character in a Chagall painting or a Mark Helprin story, floating a bit above the city.

I went out the slowly revolving door onto Nybrogatan toward the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace, passed Johanna’s pastry shop and the gypsy in front of our neighborhood Hemkop grocery, and then crossed over in front of the temporary Saluhall where Ann and I had eaten dinner a few nights earlier (it was doing temporary duty while the original 1888 structure was under renovation). The Christmas trees were covered in snow and the spot where the Swedish Salvation Army Band had played was deserted. I went up to Hedvig Eleonora, the Lutheran church where Ingmar Bergman’s father served as vicar and chaplain to the Swedish royal court. Constructed in 1737 and covered in snow, it struck me as more from Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel than from my life as I had known it before this week. For not the first—or last—time during the week, I felt like a character in a Chagall painting or a Mark Helprin story, floating a bit above the city.

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The Reindeer of Moonrise Kingdom were covered in fresh snow and not illuminated. Even though my local sources told me that the changing of the guard was “nothing extraordinary,” Rick Steves had put it only slightly below Skansen and the Vasa Museum, on a par with City Hall, and above the Nobel and Abba Museums. As he described it, “[t]he performance is fresh and spirited, because the soldiers are visiting Stockholm just like you—and it’s a chance for young soldiers all over Sweden in every branch of the service to show their stuff in the big city.” More enticing to me was the poetic fact that the first track on Dylan’s Street Legal is “Changing of the Guards,” a song that I have loved since I first heard it in concert in Austin and that Patti Smith, in her white t-shirt with the peace symbol and clapping on the one count, hypnotically covered in another lifetime. I introduced Pelle to it on Monday night when I arrived and we had played it for Lars during our oyster and champagne tailgate party the night before. It was our theme song for the week: Gentlemen, he said/I don’t need your organization I’ve shined your shoes/I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards/But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination/Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards//Peace will come [in our sing-along, while I was dancing with on-screen Patti, we hit this line with brio]/With tranquility and splendor on the wheels of fire/But will bring us no rewards when her false idols fall/And cruel death surrenders its pale ghost retreating/Between the King and the Queen of Swords.

I stood in the snow, three rows deep, and watched the soldiers show their stuff. While I waited for peace to come, I took a few pictures and was particularly proud of one in which a young soldier holds a terrific blue banner of a white reindeer with red hooves and horns. It was the kind of banner I could get behind or under. The King and Queen of Swords, like Dylan the night before, were not there in body. But, like the night before, I felt them there in spirit.

65My next stop was the English Bookshop in Gamla Stan. I had either finished or given away all of my reading material for the long trip back and had a hankering for Michael Chabon’s new novel Moonglow, in large part because he would be in Austin reading and signing on Tuesday and we had a ticket to see him. I knew it was a long shot that I would find a copy in Stockholm. But I had grown fond of Gamla Stan, had a few hours on my hands, and wanted to see what might come my way. The first thing that came my way was the news that the Bookshop had relocated to Sodermalm, and I must confess to feeling a bit un-dude upon hearing this. I had been in that part of town looking for Izzy Young a few days earlier, and now the shadows were falling along with the snow. Nonetheless, I stayed the course and was rewarded with a window display of books about Dylan surrounding a vase of tulips. It was a street shrine that served no other purpose than to celebrate the Laureate. When I did arrive at the English Bookshop, which had flyers about a Dylan tribute featuring six musicians the night before, I had to wait longer than I wanted to wait because there was only one clerk and she was very patient with her clientele. I repressed the Pee Wee Herman in the basement of the Alamo eye roll. The stock of American contemporary fiction was very thin. But, as was miraculously meant to be, there was one paperback edition—a British one, at that—of Moonglow, just for me. I almost knocked over a fellow browser to get it. My book procured and running behind my planned itin, I caught a cab to the Grand Hotel.

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According to Top 10 Stockholm, the Grand is “Sweden’s top five-star hotel.” I knew that from reading Burton Feldman’s The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige and from watching Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson, and Elke Sommer carry on supposedly therein. I had passed it repeatedly during the week and was saving this moment for a martini in the Cadier Bar. The lobby was at least five-star, with one of those Christmas trees that such lobbies have. I definitely wasn’t in the Mornington any more. One of the uniformed hotel staff pointed me toward the Cadier, saying ever so professionally, “Up the stairs and to the right, sir.”

I was going as directed when a room with a sign reading Nobel Desk caught my eye. Bent over, in a long overcoat, with long grey hair flowing free, and talking to one of the women behind the desk, was someone who could have only been Patti Smith. It is crucial for me to share that “finding Patti” had become a running joke/mild obsession that I shared with my editors and loved ones back home as well as my new loved ones in Stockholm. Then, lo and behold, there she was. I seized the day.

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Our conversation was short and sweet.

“Thank you for last night’s Hard Rain. It was so moving.”

“Thank you. But I’m still a bit embarrassed.”

“No, no. It was, well….beautiful. And I love M Train [Patti’s most recent book].”

“Thank you. I love your coat.”

“Could I get a few pictures?”

“Sure.”

A woman in a white fur coat and a matching hat kindly snapped three. The one I like best is the one in which I choose to remember that Patti and I are sharing a laugh at an inside joke.

I went to the Cadier, took my time with one of the great martinis in my beautiful martini-drinking life, and thought about Wu wei. In Chinese, it is literally “non-doing,” an important concept of Taoism connected with natural action and the cultivation of a mental state in which our actions are quiet effortlessly in alignment with the flow of life. My more Western, less-chill personal translation goes something like this: unsuccessfully obsessing, finally letting go, and the object of desire suddenly appears. (I first knowingly experienced this at Disneyland in 1993 when I wanted my kids to see Mickey Mouse, as I had as a kid, and he showed up far beyond the eleventh hour. It happened, but only after I had let go.) After I told the bartender my story and settled my bill, I walked out of the Grand, lit the cigar Gunter had given me a few days earlier, and went home via the river and past the marble lions in winter.

img_3086As I am prone to do, I missed a turn. In keeping with all that had already happened during the day, it was just another “right mistake,” as baseball Buddha Yogi Berra once put it. I made my way past NK (Nordiska Kompaniet), the city’s five-star department store established in 1902 that was drawing as big a crowd as the changing of the guard with its amazing Christmas windows of animated dollhouse art. I passed the illuminated Moonrise Kingdom Reindeer and, for the final time this time in Stockholm, rubbed the 37 degree Celsius-belly of the statue of actress Margaretha Krook right outside Dramaten at the foot of Nybrogatan. I finished packing my bags, showered and shaved, and then floated across Nybrogatan to a bistro dinner that included a scallop on a half shell, lingonberries, a cheese plate, and the music of the spheres.

When I landed in Austin, the TSA official asked me if my trip had been “business or pleasure,” and I responded “love.”

I was far too excited to sleep. The cab arrived in the early morning snow. I learned that Dylan had just announced concerts in Stockholm on April 1 and 2. As I alternated between listening to Leonard Cohen on my headphones and reading Moonglow’s beautiful sentences under the airplane lamp, I occasionally dozed off. I dreamt of returning, perhaps even forever. When I landed in Austin, the TSA official asked me if my trip had been “business or pleasure,” and I responded “love.” He kept his demeanor, probably thinking “I give these jokers two choices and every now and then one of them takes the third,”.paused a beat, then another, looked again at my passport and then at me, and said, “Welcome home, David.”

12 thoughts on “Simple Twists of Fate”

  1. Pablo says:

    Awesome sauce, #9, bravo. What a week, what tales, what luck and love!

  2. David Gaines
    David Gaines says:

    Yes, dude. It was beyond belief. Thanks for being with me. Looking forward to your tales of you-know-what Bruges. I’ll check with Patti to see if she will be passing through. P.S. No one I ran with drank Aquavit. Go figure. To quote Bogart in “Casablanca”: “I guess I was misinformed.”

  3. sidorowlapington says:

    A true Stockholm story and Nobelhistory of 2016 and beautiful poetry. Thanks to you Mr. Gaines.
    Sonja your friend in Stockholm

    1. David Gaines
      David Gaines says:

      Sonja: Thanks so much for your kind words. Meeting you was a tremendous gift this holiday season. Keep on keepin’ on. David

  4. Patrick Veerkamp says:

    Saving the best for last (well maybe not THE last)
    .

    1. David Gaines
      David Gaines says:

      So kind of you, comrade. See you soon–and with more to share. Abrazos, D

  5. Edward L. Kain says:

    🙂 P.S. 🙂

    1. David Gaines
      David Gaines says:

      Thanks, Ed. Looking forward to your return. Cheers, David

  6. cpsikora says:

    Just breathtaking! What a great day; another glorious, wonderful, serendipitously awesome day! Swathes of solitude interlaced with slivers of conviviality in delightful harmony.

  7. David Gaines
    David Gaines says:

    Girl! You should be writing one of these. Just about how you see and feel the world. Thanks for all your support along my way(s). Love, David

  8. Bill Stott says:

    Amazing. Like from another planet. Thanks! Merry Christmas. And love always, Bill

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