Business Boy – Funeral of Reint Koning

Reint Koning, master of the Viking Club, would often nod to me in greeting – nothing more and nothing less – when I entered the bar as a roaming pastor for an hour or so. About two years ago, on one of my rounds on the fifth floor of AMC Hospital in the same function, my eye suddenly spotted his name. I knocked. Reint looked up cordially and… nodded. There was a gentleman sitting beside his bed. They were speaking English. I gave them both a hand and withdrew again.

The following week, I asked him: “How is it that you can speak such proper English?” “Well, you know,” Reint began, “I didn’t learn that in Ter Apel, the village on the eastern edge of Groningen where I was born, in those days one of the poorest regions in the Netherlands. Most of the men there worked as labourers in an outdated factory. My father, who had been bedridden with asthma during the war years, had no choice but to work in a dusty, noisy machine hall to support us. The numbing effects of alcohol were not unfamiliar to people in that part of the country. And that was also my future! “I was only about fourteen when I realised: this is not where I belong, not with my spirit and not with my body.”

Reint escaped from the monotony of a village without work, without lust, without imagination and without adventure. In those days, a village boy of fourteen could come across as rather mature. The phenomenon of an endless youth through continual schooling was hardly known in Ter Apel. Upon arriving in the Randstad,[1] he found his first job in a brickworks in IJmuiden. The nearby city of Amsterdam, mysterious, had a magnetic attraction for him.

“On one of the first weekend nights, I was trying to sleep in a doorway on the Singel when a man came up and started talking to me. He was a real gentleman, probably upper class and definitely dressed very elegantly,” Reint said. “He spoke English, which I could hardly understand in those days…”

What did Reint have to offer? Hardly any schooling and no culture to speak of. Without schooling, without culture, a young man can sometimes be more interesting: as yet unstyled, untamed, not “sophisticated” as it were, completely “natural”, with all the directness, the straightforwardness that intellectuals generally miss already from their childhood.[2] What else did Reint have to offer? A fresh-looking mug, caressing if rather roguish visual organs, sniffing olfactory organs, succulent and resilient sexual organs. What more does one need in that line of work… That is how Reint entered the world of the “bizniz” boys.

After several days he had found a haven: the D.O.K., that basement club on the Singel,[3] practically bordering on the sanctuary of De Krijtberg.[4] In those days, the inimitable C.O.C.[5] was still off limits for boys under 21, besides being suffused with a rather intellectual atmosphere.

The D.O.K. of that era had a reputation that stretched well across the ocean. As Christmas drew near, airplanes full of Americans would begin to land in Amsterdam. Window dressers – perhaps even those from De Bijenkorf[6] – would transform the long and broad basement space into a dream castle. In that festive space, the boy from Ter Apel paraded and danced in a dinner jacket or other tailored clothes and footwear. He was a first-class bizniz player. And he knew it, too. He did it to perfection. Reint lived like a Greek god. It was as if the gods had made him: with his beautiful body, his beautiful clothes. Never needing to doll himself up. Sometimes with an American-style crew cut. A couple of hundred dollars, more or less, was usually no object for the Americans. And when they asked for Reint, people just kept raising their bid.

On his sickbed, just a few years[7] before he left us, Reint mused, “Oh, I played the prince. And I really was one, too. But still, I often had to fight off an oppressive feeling of loneliness.” “Johnny”, he once told someone his age, “I’m up against the wall! It doesn’t matter how much you earn, if there is no one who really touches your heart, you’re left with nothing. How often have I longed like a child to have a good cry on someone’s shoulder. But that’s not what the customers are after.” Were they all so insensitive? “Oh no, I wouldn’t say that,” Reint told me. “I once had a famous singer as a customer. He gave me a ticket for the next evening’s performance in the Concertgebouw. I arrived in my dinner jacket, neatly pressed. It was as if I were completely at home there. Every so often one gentleman or another, wedding ring and all, would say that I had helped save his marriage thanks to the diversion. And sometimes I would even believe that a little.”

Sex for money, I was thinking as I listened, always sounds so ambiguous! But not as shocking as the forced sex, the stolen or snatched sex that evidently takes place – and on no small scale – between fathers and their little daughters or between brothers and their sisters or little brothers… Of course the one need not justify the other, but still.

Every conversation with Reint in the hospital ended with a refrain: “My mother never despised me. She has been dead for nearly fourteen years now. She is actually the only person I’ve every truly loved. When I see you here in the hospital, I sometimes get the feeling a little like my mother is back.”

A few friends claimed: “With his good looks and the carnal fantasies that he managed arouse and satisfy, Reint easily earned two or three hundred thousand that he didn’t squander.” “That’s another thing I learned from my mother,” he told me himself.

Using that nest egg, as well as capital belonging to his associate, Ed, the young man began fulfilling his dream: to purchase a bar, a disco, not far from the MacDonald Bar and the D.O.K., perhaps the starting signal for what was to be a rapid emergence of gay bars in the then still dimly lit Reguliersdwarsstraat. The Viking – that would be the name! – belonged, also on the inside, to the category of dark venues. It filled up. It was also a welcoming place for boys of colour hoping to escape for a while from their repressive home environment. In those years I would often come across an American ex-rabbi, Arthur, on the first floor, who would sit for hours playing chess and lending an unselfish ear to young men who were not only out to stoke their bodies, but also looking for a bit of wisdom and warmth for their hearts.

The Viking ended up bringing not fulfilment but rather tragedy to Reint Koning’s life. He did not manage to put that ideally situated bar on the map. On the contrary. Unfortunately, the Viking – the place in which he had invested all his pride and dreams for the future – gradually turned into a fiasco. First of all, the well-endowed ‘bizniz boy’ evidently lacked any real aptitude for management, for maintaining an overview of things, and for policy. And even when the help of a manager was called in, Reint – trained as he was in the game of playing the master for his ‘clients’ – still wanted to be the boss and so clipped the wings of both the manager and his lawyer associate: Ed.

Then, all too quickly, Reint fell into the abyss of two dangers. Reint hauled in a system of coke dealing in which he himself played a considerable role. The police became curious, and customers generally don’t like the police. The place was crawling with German money boys who wanted money not only for their services, but sometimes even without their services. Customers began to feel insecure, especially for what they had in their pockets.

Reint’s spirit, perhaps also driven by the coke, gradually underwent an as yet unprecedented desensitisation, degeneration and dehumanisation. A friend remarked: “In fact, it all began with the death of his mother” – the one who never despised him. That automatic pilot from Ter Apel passed away in 1975.

In that process of degeneration, the worst thing that could happen to a bar owner overcame Reint: his feeling for the customer began to dull. When things became tense at the bar, he had nothing more of the patience and the tact and diplomacy that are practically second nature to true hospitality-industry types. A couple of times he even brought a menacing German shepherd downstairs with him to intimidate the troublemakers.

Perhaps even more than the failing management, it was the orgies, the wild sex binges that Reint initiated – where the lust was apt to turn into flat-out disorder and fatigue, if not revulsion – that were chiefly responsible for undermining the atmosphere at the Viking. To the average customer, and certainly those in the up-and-coming Reguliersdwarsstraat, the bar’s reputation turned out to be objectionable. People started to avoid the formerly so fresh-looking Reint.

The once so proud young man experienced the fiasco as a powerlessness that paralysed his deepest being.  “I felt like a leper sometimes,” he confessed to me in AMC Hospital, with a mixture of rage and endearing regret.

Did he have a sense, or a presentiment, while the Viking was collapsing around him, that in addition to his name and honour even his very blood could be tarnished? Perhaps he did. A number of his customers already showed the telltale signs. Kees ten Bles, for example, the willowy weekend waiter who could neither read nor write.

“Actually I’ve always missed having a boyfriend,” said Reint. “Suspicion and distrust haunted me, time after time. The only person I never distrusted was my mother. She never despised me,” he would repeat time and again, as a sort of refrain.

And suddenly I remember a story about the rabbi from Nazareth, as told by Luke.[8] May I? “One of the Pharisees (which means: the ‘Pure ones’) invited him to a meal. But a woman who was known in the town as a woman of ill repute, as a sinner, it says, had heard that he was dining in the house of the Pharisee. She sneaked in and stood weeping behind him. The woman’s tears sprinkled his feet, which she dried off with her hair. Time after time, she kissed those feet. And rubbed them with oriental perfume. When the Pharisee saw this, he mumbled to himself: ‘If this were really a man of God, he would know who this woman is who is touching him and what a bad reputation she has: after all, she is a woman of the streets.’ Then Jesus replied to the Pharisee: ‘She has shown great love today.’” He… he, too, had never despised her. On the contrary. Precisely because he was a prophet, this rebel from Nazareth had called to the high priests, and not without raising his voice: “The whores and the tax collectors will enter the kingdom of God before you”.[9]

Neither a reasoned discussion nor a confession in which everything is admitted and regretted would suit the figure of that nameless woman, that life beyond shame. More in line with that life would be a flood of tears, in utter speechlessness. Did Reint – that unschooled and often foul-mouthed street kid from Ter Apel, that debonair, seductive bizniz prince – also know the tenderness and the speechlessness of tears?

Once Reint had exhausted every possibility for treatment at AMC Hospital, he no longer wanted to return to De Bijlmer[10] – nor could he have gone back there had he wanted to. So the patient was carried off to a nursing home in the nearby town of Weesp.

Everyone at AMC Hospital was convinced that Reint would be dead within a few weeks. “I want to be buried in the village where I was born,” he had decided, “in Ter Apel, beside my mother.” From then on it was just a matter of waiting for the funeral announcement. And perhaps hoping for a lift to Ter Apel. When no announcement came, I thought: someone forgot. A pity.

Three times each year, the Dutch Red Cross organises a week’s holiday for people with AIDS at IJsselvliedt.[11] These are always a miracle of fraternising, fun and encouragement. On one such occasion I was standing in the middle of the great hall after having visited with various people for a few hours. All of a sudden who gets wheeled in, but Reint, in a wheelchair. Reint, whom I had figured was dead and buried. It startled me for a moment. Reint, who could no longer speak, looked at me: a flood of tears, inconsolable. Reint turned out to have been admitted to the “Flevohuis” nursing home a year before, and was surrounded there by excellent nurses and buddies, all coordinated by his buddy Jules. The village of Reint’s birth no longer had the same attraction.

On my first visit to him at the Flevohuis,[12] he gazed at me once again with damp eyes, and against the snowy white sheets of his bed his face seemed to reveal something of the calm of the country boy from Ter Apel. Thankful to everyone. Simply loved as a sick person. Grateful to many of you. For the “I” of this speaker is none other than the “I” of all of you.[13] All of you made him think of his mother,[14] who never despised him. Reint, who was known in the city as…, died as a blessed one. Blessed by all of you.

[1] The Randstad is the umbrella term in Dutch for the heavily urbanized west of the Netherlands, including Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague, Leiden and Rotterdam.

[2] Cf. John 9:1.

[3] The Singel is the innermost of the four main concentric canals of the historic centre of Amsterdam.

[4] De Krijtberg [‘The Chalk Mountain’] is the popular name for the Jesuit church of St Francis Xavier in the centre of Amsterdam. Van Kilsdonk was himself a Jesuit.

[5] The C.O.C. (originally: Cultuur- en Ontspanningscentrum [Centre for Culture and Leisure]) is the primary gay rights advocacy organisation in the Netherlands. Founded in 1946, it is the oldest such organisation in the world.

[6] De Bijenkorf is a renowned Dutch department store. Its flagship store is located on Dam Square in Amsterdam.

[7] Sic!

[8] Luke 7:36–50 (paraphrased).

[9] Matthew 21:31.

[10] De Bijlmer (Bijlmermeer) is a major high-rise housing estate from the 1970s located on the southern edge of Amsterdam.

[11] IJsselvliedt is a seventeenth-century country estate in Wezep.

[12] Flevohuis is a nursing home in Amsterdam.

[13] Likewise, elsewhere, Van Kilsdonk presents himself as a spokesman of a shared experience.

[14] Cf. Mark 3:33-35 and Matthew 12:50.