Writings & Whatnot by Rob Hill
19 Feb 2015Posted by on
We were taking an awful chance, going out in public that day. But I was going stir crazy in that confined apartment and needed a respite. Holly tried to talk me out of it but she understood how claustrophobic I had become. We counted on the vastness of the city to keep us anonymous, strolling along the rainslick streets, inhaling the heavy air like it was a precious commodity. I almost felt normal again. We headed down to the edge of the park where I could look out over something green and alive for a change. Then, all too soon, we turned back.
We passed a couple leaning against the wall of an insurance building, arguing over something ridiculous, like whether to take the subway or a taxi to wherever they were headed. I felt a twinge of envy. They could yell their heads off and not care who saw them at it. I remembered that sense of freedom, the kind you take for granted until it slips away.
Holly tugged my arm. I looked in the direction she indicated. A gaunt woman with solemn eyes, her dark hair pulled into a rigid bun, held a strange box close to her chest. It took me a moment to realize it was a camera. She had been taking a photograph of the quarrelers and we had stepped into the shot.
Without hesitation I strode over to confront the woman. “I’m going to have to ask you for that film.”
She looked startled. It occurred to me that she was accustomed to being an observer and didn’t know how to react when the attention shifted onto her.
“I said I want that film,” menace creeping into my tone.
She shook her head firmly. She was frightened but determined. With a swipe I grabbed the box out of her hands. She fought back but I shoved her away and she fell against the curb. I couldn’t figure out the mechanism to open the back panel. Angrily I smashed the camera against the pavement. It was sturdily built and didn’t break easily, but I can be persuasive when necessary. I pulled the spool of film from the wreckage and shoved it into my overcoat pocket. The woman looked at me like I had thrown her newborn from a high window but she had sense enough not to make a move.
Holly and I hurried along the sidewalk. We had to get away before the cops were summoned. We turned at the end of the block and soon were safely back in our building.
“We can’t take any more chances like that,” Holly said. “From now on you don’t leave this apartment. Anything you need I’ll bring back here.”
I nodded, glancing around at the stifling walls that once again were to hold me captive. It had seemed so easy at the time. But now, nearly six weeks since my funeral, I felt my sanity fraying. No amount of grift was worth this anguish.
9 Feb 2015Posted by on
My short story “Nightfiends” was featured in Akashic Books’ “Mondays are Murder” series.
13 Jan 2015Posted by on
My lunchbreak was nearly up. I was slouching on some short concrete steps behind my warehouse where I usually went to get away from the racket inside. I fed a pinch of sourdough bread to a streetwise pigeon that kept pestering me. It nabbed a beakful and absconded into the brooding Beethoven sky. Across the street was a construction site. Someone had the chutzpah to tear down a grand old brownstone where I think a former mayor once lived. Down the street a scrawny kid with a reverse mullet was skateboarding off a loading dock with a success rate of about forty percent. He handled spills well and seemed impervious to pain. I shooed away an insect that seemed intent on gaining entrance to my ear canal.
The woman coming along the beaten pavement wore leather pants with purple sneakers and the camera slung around her neck made her look like a tourist gone astray. Greystreaked hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. Heavy eyebrows. As she stepped over the rubblestrewn sidewalk her long neck jerked spastically like some kind of awkward flightless bird. I watched curiously as she approached a grey brick wall and took its picture, concentrating on a big blank spot. Ordinarily I mind my own business, but something about her behavior grabbed me firmly by the attention.
“If you don’t mind my asking, what exactly are you taking a photo of?”
“This is a special camera,” she replied in a chalk voice. “I’m taking a photo of what will soon be there.”
“What will be there?”
She squinted through her viewfinder. “Looks like a mural of a skeleton cradling an atom bomb.”
I couldn’t think of a good reply so I just nodded amiably and went back to finish off my sandwich. She took a few more photos and then wandered along. I tossed my lunchbag away and returned to work, soon forgetting about the whole thing.
A week later as I showed up for work early in the morning I noticed someone during the night had drawn some artwork on the grey brick wall across the street. It looked like a skeleton cradling an atom bomb.
Anyhow, I thought that was kind of weird.
13 Jan 2015Posted by on
They occupied space, the two of them. He lay on the couch with his legs casually crossed, a magazine spread across the upper thigh, his back propped up by a fringed pillow. She sat at the table, a matrix of playing cards arranged before her. Both looked many years older than they were. One bulb was dead in the ceiling fixture. The wallpaper drooped. The fireplace crackled. The shadows danced without enthusiasm. It was a mild winter day and the sky was the color of liquid handsoap.
“Soon I will be dead,” he thought. “And may as well never have existed.”
“I forgot what it was like to love him,” she thought with a discreet glance in his direction. “Did I ever?”
“I’ve spent my whole life asking the wrong questions,” he thought. “All my answers are useless.” He pretended to read the magazine in his lap, turning the page when he sensed he had lingered a little too long. The article concerned woodworking, something he once thought he would enjoy. He had gone so far as to buy a set of tools and set up a workshop in the cellar before losing interest.
“This whole thing has been a terrible mistake,” she thought. “I know the exact moment when it took a wrong turn.”
She took a sip of something brown from a glass within reach. It didn’t taste good or bad. It just tasted. A branch scraped against the windowpane. Like a deformed stickfigure who wanted in from the cold. Neither of them paid it any notice.
“Tonight while she’s asleep I’m going down to my workshop and end it all,” he determined. He knew where he could get his hands on a coil of rope.
“Tonight while he’s down in his workshop and thinks I’m asleep I’m going to throw some clothes in a suitcase and sneak out the patio door and get away for good.” She knew a friend who might let her stay with her.
“Tomorrow when she finds me dead, she’ll finally understand.”
“Tomorrow when he finds me gone, he’ll finally understand.”
Something in the fireplace sparked and fizzled. Perhaps an insect had flown too close to the flame.
“Do you think it’s too hot in here?” he asked her, his voice creakier than he remembered it being.
“I’m comfortable,” she replied and, flipping over the last card, won her round of Solitaire.
14 Dec 2014Posted by on
The rain came fast and heavy, like buckets of water emptied onto a cardboard cutout city. I huddled beneath a battered awning outside a vacuum cleaner repair shop, waiting for it to let up. I had begun to worry I might be spending the night there. The weather report had distinctly said clear skies all day. Someone down at the TV station was going to have a lot of questions to answer. I watched a newspaper sailboat rush along the curbside torrent and vanish down a storm drain.
The evening had turned so dark I could scarcely make out the row of buildings across the street. If not for the familiar neon glow of a hotel vacancy sign I wouldn’t be sure what I was looking at. Then, escaping from the grey miasma, came a gaunt shape making its way across the intersection. I couldn’t figure out what it was at first—a giant flailing thing, like a monstrous drunken bird. Then as it drew closer I recognized that it was a man struggling violently with his umbrella. The umbrella was clearly interested in going in a different direction as its owner. But the man refused to give in. He grasped the shaft with both hands and tugged, gritting his teeth. He looked like a man unaccustomed to not getting his way.
The water in the street was up to his ankles. He stubbornly plodded through, causing wild splashes in all directions. His clothes were thoroughly soaked. It would have been a comical sight were the sky not such a menacing shade and had he not the disconcerted expression of one who has put his faith entirely in the weather report and is unable to process what possibly could have gone wrong. His frustration he channeled into grappling with his umbrella.
What happened next is, well, I got the impression the umbrella was fed up with this foolishness. Like a predator striking, it snapped down the edges of its brim, clasping the man’s upper torso in its metal skeletal frame. The unfortunate man let out a screech. I stared in shock as the umbrella gobbled him right up until there was nothing left of him. Then, freed of its deadweight, the umbrella was lifted up by the wind and soared into the sky and away from my view, leaving not a trace of the man behind save for a single black waterlogged shoe lying on its side, its laces worming out as if clinging to the wet earth.
3 Oct 2014Posted by on
German isn’t ordinarily the most soothing of tongues, an earthy cocktail of saliva and sawtoothed edges. But the tone of the feminine voice that poured out from the airplane intercom as we were flying somewhere over Cork sounded as gentle as waterlilies afloat on a pond. I assumed she was giving a courteous flight status update or weather report. But then she repeated the message in English. “Ladies and gentleman, if there’s a doctor on board the plane please signal one of the flight attendants. Thank you.” I glanced down at the tray of chicken I had only taken a few bites of before pushing it aside with distaste, remembering how in the movie Airplane! it was the fish that had KOed most of the passengers and crew. Eight hours wedged into an airplane seat, legs twitchy, head throbbing, my torso covered with a blue fuzzy blanket that smelled like synthetic body odor. To keep myself distracted I watched movies intended for IMAX on the tiny screen embedded in the seat ahead of me. Somehow, despite the discomfort, I managed to get some sleep.
A long queue formed at the airport customs booth in a space clearly not designed for it. No questions asked. Stamped and sent on my way. Not everyone had it so easy. The man with the cowboy hat and the abundantly-stickered guitar case slung across his shoulder had a lot of explaining to do. Soon I was heading into Berlin aboard the U-Bahn, exchanging glances with a Nico lookalike across the aisle. The trains are boxy and yellow, and look precisely how I would imagine German trains to look in a sixties spy film. Tucked in my wallet was a seven-day train pass, which no one had asked to see and there had been no turnstiles to swipe it through before boarding. Public transportation on the honor system in the United States, I mused, would be a money-hemorrhaging operation.
I emerged into the grey daylight and made my way past a series of casinos and Indian restaurants to my silverblue postmodern hotel, which looked like it was assembled from scraps from a decommissioned submarine. I unpacked and set about exploring the city. The sky was mulling over the possibility of raining. Having skipped breakfast on the plane, my first priority was locating food. I found a vendor hawking currywurst, a staple of Berlin streetfood—sausage doused in ketchup and curry powder. The ketchup is a little tangier than its American cousin, otherwise it tasted pretty much like I expected it would.
My plan was to get most of the touristy spots out of the way and then move on to more esoteric sights. With its alluring name, the Topography of Terror was first on my list. It turned out to be one long remnant of wall adorned with photos and enlarged newspaper clippings of various Nazi shenanigans. I was captivated by a surreal photo of a classroom full of students wearing gasmasks. Up the road was Checkpoint Charlie, the iconic gateway between the East and West during the Cold War. A McDonald’s loomed prominently in the background as some kind of ideological middle finger. A Turkish woman approached, asked if I spoke English and seemed so grateful to learn I did. I assumed she wanted directions or something but instead she handed me a card saying she and her three children had been stranded in Berlin for the past few years and were trying to raise enough money to escape. I handed her a pocketful of change.
Many of the infamous Nazi bookburnings were held at Bebelplatz, a benign-looking plaza flanked by construction. A beflowered square of glass in the pavement served as some kind of memorial, but the sun, which had finally decided to poke its head out, reflected harshly in the pane, making it impossible to see what lie underneath. I dodged the crowds at Brandenburg Gate and passed the Hotel Adlon, where Michael Jackson infamously dangled one of his kids over a balcony like some kind of neo-pagan sacrifice. An intimidating queue to visit the dome of the Reichstag stretched down the block. Hard to believe the stately building, now restored, sat out much of the twentieth century as a ruin. I walked the length of the Tiergarten and huffed to the top of the Victory Column, which I recognized from a memorable scene in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire. It was built to celebrate the nation’s victory in the Danish-Prussian War of 1864, but by the time construction finished they had dragged themselves through a few more skirmishes and tacked those onto the celebration as well. The view from here was predictably spectacular. The most prominent features in the Berlin skyline were a television tower called the Fernsehturm, which looked like a grape impaled on a knitting needle, and a robot army of yellow construction cranes. Seventy years after getting the bejeezus bombed out of it, the city was still being rebuilt.
I tailed a gothy-looking woman in leather, with Louise Brooks bangs and a Nosferatu handbag, who looked like she was probably headed towards the Bauhaus Archive. She was. I traded my driver’s license for an English language audioguide and plunged into the collection. The gallery was crammed full of models of provocative architectural designs, most of them award-winning but few, it turned out, actually built. Many of the styles reminded me of the modern home from Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle and James Mason’s Mount Rushmore hideaway in North by Northwest. I learned the artists Klee and Kandinsky had been teachers at the school, which made sense, since their work appeared to echo the Bauhaus aesthetic. Examples of design, such as Marcel Breur’s cantilevered chair, impressed upon me how styles we now take for granted were once considered visionary and controversial.
En route to Potzdamer Platz, I stopped at the Berlin Philharmonic, which looks like a Chinese emperor’s flat golden hat, where I inquired at the ticket window about an upcoming Anne-Sophie Mutter concert. Tickets turned out to be well over sixty euros, so I passed. In the wake of WWII, Potzdamer Platz was a rubblestrewn no-man’s-land, but has since been lavishly rebuilt into some kind of space-age mall. Photos are not allowed inside the Museum für Film und Fernsehen (Museum for Film and Television). I found this out when an agitated guard rushed over, sputtering in German. Clips of Metropolis and Dr Mabuse played on giant screens in a labyrinthian chamber of steel reflections. One section was devoted to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, that pinnacle of German Expressionism, including an elaborate diorama of the production stage and original poster art. Several galleries were set aside in commemoration of screen legend Marlene Dietrich, displaying her costumes, luggage, letters, and such accoutrement.
The Führerbunker, where Hitler spent his last days and eventually did himself in, is now nothing more than a parking lot distinguished by a sign. (The Führerparkplatz?) I was surprised anyone else was able to find the spot, tucked as it was behind some anonymous apartment blocks, yet a small crowd was gathered when I approached. Some dads squinted at the wording of the information sign while a scattering of kids sat on some concrete bumpers nearby looking bored. Just north of this was a field of staggered black cubes which turned out to be the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A woman passing near me described to her husband that it was like stepping into an MC Escher drawing.
I hopped a train across town to where the stately Oberbaumbrücke crosses the river Spree. Along the bridge’s walkway a bagpiper belted out a wheezy Mozart tune. I walked in circles around the neighborhood of Kreuzberg looking for a traditional German restaurant. This turned out to be the wrong part of town for that, for there were none to be found, though there was no shortage of Mexican or Middle Eastern fare. Shawarma on every corner. Eventually I located a suitable place where I hid in the back on a dark wood bench and ordered Käsespätzle and a Berliner weisse with raspberry syrup. David Bowie songs blared from the stereo. Kreuzberg reminded me vaguely of Bushwick in Brooklyn, or what the East Village must have been like in the seventies, in that it’s a landscape of decaying husks that have been reappropriated by artists. The architecture in Berlin is a strange patchwork of oppressive cubes and space age angles. Pessimism and optimism woven together in the same city blocks, with fledgling little parks rising out of industrial corners. Strange balls of fluff routinely descend from the sky looking at first glance like snow. I keep forgetting to stay off the bicycle paths which, unlike in New York, are not separated from the sidewalk by a curb. I’m surprised not to have seen any horrendous bicycle accidents, the way riders careen through the streets, weaving in and out of pedestrians. In Neukölln I saw a kid on a bike jolt to a stop inches from an old woman in a burqa. She didn’t flinch a muscle, just stood her ground and glared daggers at him.
An elderly woman on the morning train devoured Wuthering Heights in German translation like it was a scandalous bodiceripper. At last my train pass paid off when a ticket inspector wormed his way along the car, asking to see everyone’s ticket. He stared at mine for an uncomfortably long time but eventually handed it back, satisfied. Must not be a common sight, I figured, since most commuters probably use single rides or monthly passes. A young blonde woman wasn’t so lucky. The inspector followed her onto the platform and the last thing I saw was him scrutinizing her ID and copying down the information on a pad while she waited patiently but redfaced.
In the late seventies David Bowie and Iggy Pop decided it would be a good idea to move to what was the heroin capital of the world in an attempt to kick their drug addictions. They shared an apartment in Schöneberg, a sandbag-colored building exhibiting no outward signs of glam decadence. The man taking out the garbage in the small courtyard in back probably rolled his eyes at the sight of me taking photographs of this otherwise nondescript building. I know I would’ve. But I wanted to get a sense of location for Bowie’s Berlin years and this seemed like a good place to start. The skies looked up to no good and I found a kebab stand just in time to stand under the awning as a heavy rain let loose. The doner kebabs, another staple of Berlin street food, are awfully tasty (garlic sauce is the secret) but I have yet to master the art of eating them without spilling the ingredients all over my clothes.
Outside the Alexanderplatz station I encountered what could be one of the least dignified jobs in modern history, a hotdog vendor on his feet, his hotdog-making tray suspended by his shoulders and a red umbrella fixed above him in the event of inclement weather. There he stands, the embodiment of humiliation, as commuters come and go, sweeping past his pleading glances like he is a lodged rock impeding their upstream swim.
Why there is a Ramones Museum in Berlin is not a question I have the answer to, as the band seems so inseparable from the once-gritty streets of New York. From outside the museum looks like a clumsy recreation of CBGB. The front of the museum serves as a ragged coffeehouse while the punk artifacts are kept in back, through a swinging saloon door. The fellow behind the counter greeted me in hesitant German. When I replied in English he gratefully reverted to an American accent. He handed me a bottle of lemonade as part of the ticket price and I headed inside. Concert footage played from a hanging television. Wallspace and display cases were crammed with photos of the band, newspaper clippings, stage diagrams, signed frisbees, a pair of Johnny Ramone’s ripped jeans, and other punkwardly minutiae. A photograph of Dee-Dee Ramone and Sid Vicious hanging out backstage made for an interesting bridge between the American and British factions.
A scraggly busker outside the Warschauer station strummed the chords to “Take Me Home Country Roads” for the gutterpunks ensconced along the bridge, who appeared to enjoy it unironically as they hit up passersby for change. The restaurant Spatzel and Knodel wasn’t quite where my phone’s TripAdvisor map claimed it was. Despite our wealth of technology, never underestimate the importance of knowing your destination’s street address. I planted myself at a knifescarred table and ordered vinegar-soaked beef with dumplings. The table next to mine spoke English with lilting Michael Caine accents as the stereo coughed up a steady stream of reggae.
SO36, often referred to as the CBGB of Berlin, was having some kind of punk flea market when I ducked in to pay my respects. The thickly flyerplastered walls looked like they’d seen their share of vomit and blood over the years. Ended up at a subterranean lair called Madame Claude’s, where I was greeted by an ominous Twin Peaks motif at the entrance—a portrait of Laura Palmer hung above an lonely chair and floorlamp. Past this, a spiral staircase descended to a series of chambers with furniture fastened upsidedown to the ceiling. Here two DJs played snippets of music and asked those assembled to guess the artist. Since most of the music was American I figured I’d have the jump on them, but this turned out not to be the case. One particularly enthusiastic table up front pounced on the answers before I could even formulate a coherent response in my head.
Took the train out to Dahlem on the western outskirts of the city where the Brücke Museum lay hidden amid serene estates. The Brücke (“Bridge”) movement was ground zero for German Expressionism in the early 20th century, and a prime influence on Bowie during his Berlin years. On display were numerous works by the artists Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. But the bulk of the gallery’s wallspace was devoted to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, whose prints I recognized as illustrations from a Kafka novel I once owned. I imagine the museum was ordinarily a quiet and reflective place, but today I had to step around a puddle of children scribbling in crayon on the museum floor. Within walking distance was the Allied Museum, where I encountered the first assemblage of American accents I’d heard since leaving JFK airport. A bus pulled up, a crew of paunchy Americans spilled out, snapped pictures of everything in sight, squeezed back on the bus, and roared away. Escapees from a Warnemünde cruise ship was my guess. The original Checkpoint Charlie booth and an immense warplane filled the parking lot, while the inside of the museum was crammed full of military outfits, letters, field supplies, full-sized jeeps, and a reconstruction of an escape tunnel. Irving Berlin, I learned to my amusement, had been convinced to write a theme song for the Berlin airlift called “Operation Vittles.”
A long trek into the dense woods of Grunewald, or “green forest,” brought me to the Forsthaus Paulsborn, a historic lodge buried deep in the weald near a sparkling lake. I initially thought they were closed, since all the chairs in its biergarten were upturned and there appeared to be no sign of life. But as I approached I discovered not only was the massive front door unlocked but there were a few diners inside the grand hall, which had a royal hunting lodge ambience, antlers and other such hunting trophies on the walls. I took a table at the far end of the room, where Billie Holiday’s voice emanated discreetly from a corner. The menu was in German only and I had to rely on the waitress to translate. Unfortunately for me her English wasn’t very strong. And my German was useless beyond a few rudimentary gestures. Rumpsteak sounded safe but I didn’t recognize the word for the dish that came with it. All her attempts at translation drew blank looks from me. She described it as having a “long body with a hat,” which sounded beguiling so I went ahead and ordered it. Only when she set the plate before me did I realize I had been tricked into ordering asparagus. Or “spargel” as it was called here. It was monstrously large and faintly yellow in color, not the sickly green stem I’m accustomed to. Fortunately it came doused in Hollandaise sauce. An entire gravyboat of it, in fact. Even drenched in the sauce I found the rumpsteak tasted like a boiled boot. As I ate I listened to the British diners across the room carrying on with talk of Canterbury and the White Cliffs of Dover. When the waitress returned to check on my food she asked, “For you all is nice?” I attempted a phrase I had been rehearsing in my head for the last few minutes: “Die rechnung, bitte.” The check, please. “Ah, gut!” she squealed, nearly applauding my effort.
A bobhaired gamin tapdanced whimsically on the platform while waiting for the train. Not showing off, it seemed, just amusing herself to pass the time. Meanwhile a roguish gentleman caught without a train ticket figured he could make a break for it and was promptly chased down by a swarm of greenvested inspectors. As my train jolted away I watched him stumble and fall over an outstretched pair of legs, to be pounced on by his unamused pursuers. The center of my train car quickly cleared out when a reeking puddle of liquid fecal matter was discovered on the floor. As in New York, an empty train car is usually empty for a reason.
The house where Bertolt Brecht spent the last few years of his life is now a museum where his furniture and possessions are preserved for devotees of the influential playwright. Brecht occupied the second floor while his wife, Helene Weigal, lived above him on the third. They shared a common kitchen and dining area on the first. To communicate they often left notes written on index cards for each other on the stairs. His library was brimming with books, arranged by genre, which the guide assured me was in a far more organized state than Brecht had kept it, being the organized chaos type. A slew of cheap paperbacks lined the top rows of his bookshelves—Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rex Stout, and the like. Turns out he was a rabid fan of detective novels. The house is situated on what was East Berlin at the time but Brecht himself occupied a curious ideological no-man’s-land. The West suspected him of being a Communist and the East regarded him as overly decadent, which meant he was under suspicion by practically everyone but for entirely different reasons. After his death, Helene moved down to the first floor and preserved the upper rooms as an archive. Conveniently located next door, on the far side of an crumbling stone wall, is the cemetery in which Bertolt and Helene are buried. One of their cemetery-mates is the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
The Design Panoptikum, or Museum of Extraordinary Objects, is run by a lively Russian artist and photographer named Vlad Korneev. He habitually prowls through junkyards searching for oddball debris like old medical equipment and vintage cameras, which he fashions into anthropomorphised robot sculptures. His main concern, he explained to me in rapidfire speech, is the intersection of form and function. As an example he showed me a metal green pod that looked like a submarine for hamsters. But flipped upside down it became obvious it was a rather commonplace streetlamp. What looked like a fearsome medieval torture device turned out to be a Soviet grasscutter with the handle missing. An iron flower was actually the spinning part of an airplane engine. The centerpiece of the gallery was an iron lung made from leftover WWII submarine parts. Vlad told me he was eager to visit America someday and I assured him he’d have a field day poking through the rubble of Detroit.
Eerie aftermath of an accident. A police van blocked off a Kreuzberg intersection. Seated inside, a cop punched information into his laptop. Under the floodlights were a crumpled bicycle lying in the road, measuring tape draped over a white car with a crumpled fender, chalk hieroglyphs on the pavement. The sidewalk was spotted with casual gawkers. There was something oddly matter-of-fact about the entire procedure, like it was nothing more than a road crew installing a new traffic light.
There wasn’t much in the way of food open this late near my hotel, but across the street I found a pizza joint with the sign still lit. The owner and, presumably, his wife were sitting in the dark in an adjoining room. Both looked like over time they’d had the life kicked out of them. The owner rose reluctantly and came over to take my order. I glanced along the counter, surprised there were no readymade pizzas from which to dish out slices, as is typical in New York. Instead I discovered for three euros he whips up an entire pizza from scratch for you. Then with a small machete chops it into small squares to be eaten with a tiny plastic fork. I was just glad I didn’t have to eat my dinner out of a vending machine.
At every subway stop comes an announcement that sounds to my ear like “eine schwein, bitte,” which would mean, “a pig, please.” I hoped this was the case, that you were expected to bring along a pig to offer the transit officials in order to ride their train. After asking around I eventually learned the voice was saying “einsteigen, bitte,” or in essence, “all aboard,” which I suppose makes more sense. I also wondered why so many of their escalators appeared to be broken down. I started to form a negative impression of Berlin train station maintenance until eventually I realized the escalators operated by electric eye and thus sat motionless until approached.
At the end of a graffiti-splattered alley, guarded by an animatronic hybrid batfrog statue, lies the entrance to the Monsterkabinett. Myself and a small group of venturers were ushered down into the murky subterranean lair, past Hitler’s brain encased in a glass skull. What transpired down there was difficult to describe. It was as if Walt Disney hired Alejandro Jodorowsky to redesign the It’s a Small World ride and convinced Rammstein to compose the music. Through the seething smoke a dancing robot hatched an egg from its brain while another beat percussion on a skull’s tophat. Meanwhile I had to dart to one side to avoid getting pulverized by a vicious metal attack spider and a four-eyed disco beast with extending lips. The show concluded with an anti-monster spray that blew the face off a mannequin. Only when I returned to the surface did I realize I had been so taken off my guard that I had neglected to grab any photos of the unearthly steambeasts.
Down to Nollendorfplatz for a prearranged tour of the author Christopher Isherwood’s old stomping grounds. I rendezvoused with the guide, Brendan Nash, and the rest of our six-person touring crew under the clock outside the subway entrance. Isherwood lived in Berlin from 1929 until 1933, when he was pressured out of the city by the rise of the Nazis. He wrote about his dabblings with Weimar decadence in the collection known as The Berlin Stories, which were later ground up as fodder for the musical Cabaret. The iconic character of Sally Bowles was based on a woman he knew named Jean Ross. Though she has a memorable introduction in Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood later admitted he couldn’t remember how he actually met her. Located not far from his apartment, a nightclub called El Dorado was the inspiration for the fictionalized Lady Windemere, which later became the Kit Kat Club of Cabaret. The disapproving Nazis eventually shut it down and hung their swastikas in the windows. The building still stands, albeit now as a supermarket. At least a few photos of the original interior are displayed on their walls. Down the block was the site of the Scala Club, no longer standing. According to rumor Hitler was a frequent guest, an admirer of the synchronized dancing girls in military uniforms. It seems he was a fan of precision in any form. A high-end lesbian bar called Les Garcons was run by a glamorous woman named Susi Wanowski. Her lover was the dancer and actress Anita Berber, whom Nash described as the Amy Winehouse of her day. The subject of an Otto Dix portrait titled “The Dancer Anita Berber,” she was outrageous even for that notoriously decadent period. Once when a man in the audience dared to talk during her act she smashed him over the head with his own champagne bottle, then leapt on the table, lifted her skirt, and urinated on him. Antics like these didn’t do much for her popularity. Eventually she ended up in Beirut with severe drug problems, culminating in an onstage collapse. Gravely ill, she returned to Berlin where she died penniless. Her funeral was attended by a mere twelve people. Long after the war, Isherwood returned to Berlin while writing a magazine article called “Back to Berlin.” There he encountered his old landlady, whom he had fictionalized as Frau Schroeder, still living in the same building. He was shocked by the extent of damage his old neighborhood had sustained from Allied bombing raids. Nash passed around photos of rubblestrewn sites and a collapsed train station, the very station he led us back to where the tour concluded.
To Potsdamer Platz for a tour of the legendary Hansa Studios. A truckload of notable albums have been recorded here over the years, but the two that primarily yanked my attention were David Bowie’s Heroes and Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, and these are the ones I’m most eager to hear antecdotes about. A large group had already assembled outside the studio entrance when I arrived. Our guide was Thilo Schmied, he of the demonically pointed beard. An American camera crew whom we were told were filming a documentary about David Hasselhoff trailed us into the lobby. Perhaps their intention was to make it look as though this large band of people were gathered for Hasselhoffian purposes. We headed up the majestic staircase to the Meistersaal ballroom known as Studio 2, which had once been a concert hall for chamber music and was renowned for its rich reverb. The vocal sound on U2’s “One” is a good example of this. (An aside: the legendary Krautrock producer Conny Plank was once asked to produce U2. After meeting the band he refused, claiming, “I can’t work with that singer.”) In the early days the structure was so unsound that steel nets were placed along the ceiling of the ballroom to prevent debris from dropping onto the musicians’ heads. Once during a recording session the industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten was asked to be as noisy as possible, as a building was being erected next door and the construction crew wanted to gauge how much soundproofing would be needed. The band readily complied and proceeded to drop a succession of clangorous metal objects from the ceiling. The ballroom floor may have been damaged, but the builders got the sound measurements they were looking for. Another band that recorded there extensively was Depeche Mode. Thilo showed us a photo of the band during their pre-leather days taken outside the studio, lounging on rubble wearing sandals over fluffy socks. We heard a story about a drugged-up member of Killing Joke going berserk with a fire extinguisher, causing extensive damage to a piano and the studio’s mixing board. Located down the hall from the ballroom, the former control room was now outfitted with a bar for social events. Here we stood beside the window from which Bowie had spotted two enigmatic figures (later confirmed as producer Tony Visconti and his mistress) kissing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, which had given him the idea for the lyrical imagery of “Heroes.” This was also the window through which the musicians taunted East German guards in a nearby watchtower. “What are they going to do, shoot at us?” would’ve made for memorable last words. We headed upstairs to the more modern Studio 1, which in an effort to prevent unwanted echo was designed with a complete absence of 90-degree angles. Even the ceiling slanted. The drum room had a marble ceiling, designed for that bombastic eighties drum sound once considered desirable. These days many drummers prefer to cram their sets into the smaller guitar booth for a starker effect. We all crowded in the control room where Thilo played U2’s “One” at a blistering volume so we could hear the ballroom’s natural echo on Bono’s vocals. Then he played Bowie’s “Heroes” which gave me shivers, hearing it in the very location where it was recorded.
I wandered into a Kreuzberg bar called Würgeengel, named after the Luis Bunuel film The Exterminating Angel according to a sign hanging from the restroom door. I ordered a pint of grog and sat eavesdropping on the lively table beside me discussing six-story Japanese sex emporiums stocked with used panties vending machines, which later somehow transitioned into a scandal involving China selling pandas to Denmark. Finished my drink and headed down the street to a David Lynch-themed rock club called Wild at Heart. The front of the club was crammed full of people so I wove my way to the back where I could sit in relative peace near an empty stage. It soon turned out an all-girl band called Mushi Features was making their live debut, as well as it being the guitarist’s birthday. As soon as they took the stage and struck a chord everyone at the bar surged forth as if a levee had given way. After the band finished their set of feisty punk numbers I escaped from there and found another, quieter, bar called the Mano Cafe which was honeycombed with narrow passages and chambers. A ladder led up to a loft above the entrance. Beside me at the bar a pale short-haired woman straight out of an Otto Dix portrait chatted with her friends in English about her love of old movies. By this point I’d imbibed enough to casually lean in and recount for her the story of Buster Keaton unknowingly breaking his neck while filming Sherlock Jr. She turned out to have grown up in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York. Of all the people in all of Berlin to start a conversation with I pick one from my home city. (Of all the gin joints…) I asked her and her friends what unusual things they recommend I do on my last remaining day in the city. A girl with punky peroxided hair jotted down some suggestions in my notebook, among them the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park and Tempelhofer Feld, a decommissioned airport turned into a public park. On the trainride back to my hotel an excitable girl told her friend, and unwittingly the entire train, “My boyfriend’s alway drunk. And when he’s drunk he’s really gay.”
My last proper day in Berlin and I woke to rain falling like a burst water main. People lurked in doorways and under awnings, still drunk from the night before, swigging from bottles and stumbling down subway stairs. This was not celebratory drinking. They drank like they took their drinking very seriously. They drank soberly. One brazenly pissed in a trashcan as morning commuters passed by pretending not to notice. Another nodded off with his bottle gripped in a very calloused hand, sagging in his seat, a defeated old man.
In what was once the Sovietest part of town I found myself at the bewildering intersection of Mollstrasse and Mollstrasse. I headed east along the Karl-Marx-Allee (formerly called Stalinallee until Stalin became suddenly unpopular), a wide boulevard of imposing cubic monoliths that somehow manages to appear empty even when lively with cars and shops. The Stasi Museum, tucked away down an unassuming sidestreet, is located inside the former Ministry of State Security building. There I marveled over exhibits of spy cameras hidden in neckties, logs of wood, oil barrels, watering cans, and thermoses. Rooms and furniture were preserved just as they’d been during the glory days of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Tape recorders hidden in closets, elaborate telephone systems installed into the desks as you see in spy films of the period. Children’s propagandist drawings of happy East German families. On the wall hung the “Ten Commandments of Socialist Morality,” one of which translated into “You shall protect and enhance state-owned property.” Under a glass display were confiscated teen magazines smuggled illegally into the East, with covers sporting such ideologically verboten figures as Bruce Springsteen and Magnum PI. An absorbing time capsule of Soviet life.
Hungry, I grabbed a burger from a stand called Burgermeister which was built into a converted pissoir under the elevated train. Then I hopped on the Ring, a branch of the train system that circumnavigates the city and the quickest way to reach the Templehof Airport, which was converted into a public park in 2008. The former runways were bescattered with parkgoers rollerskating, flying kites, walking dogs, racing remote control cars. Unfortunately the airport terminal building itself was gated off, still in use for God knows what. It was advertised as one of the biggest buildings in Europe when it was built. I followed the sound of an impassioned German voice coming over a loudspeaker, images of the Nuremberg Rally flashing through my head. This led me to a game of beach soccer being played in a sandpit.
Freischwimmer is a restaurant fashioned out of an old boathouse along a canal. There I had a beer and watched the ducks cruise the canal for handouts, all while trying to avoid becoming a mosquito feast. Chirpy birds landed on my table with hopeful expressions despite the fact that I had nothing to offer them. The monotonous pulse of Eurotrance, or whatever the proper terminology is, throbbed across the canalwater from an outside bar. It sounded like a clangorous old copying machine set to infinite copies. Some scraggly fiddle music would’ve been more appropriate, I thought, to go with the fishy wharf smell.
I wandered through the verdant Treptower Park in search of the Soviet War Memorial. Few things smell better than the woods after a recent rain, though I could live without the mosquitos. I never would have found the memorial on my own, set deep in the woods as it was. I was not prepared for its grand and majestic scale, and felt miniscule in comparison. Like in a science fiction movie where astronauts are exploring what they assume is a barren planet and suddenly come upon a sprawling civilization the likes of which they have never seen before. The Soviets certainly did things in a big way. The memorial was built in 1949 to commemorate the Russian soldiers killed in the Battle of Berlin. A college student meditated on a bench, twisted into a lotus position. This was an ideal spot to come contemplate your insignificant role in the mechanics of the universe. Serene and reflective. With the exception of two teenage girls playing racquetball beside a monolith.
And then the curtain came down and the show was over. Without much enthusiasm I found myself airbound for the States. During the flight I got into a conversation with the German businessman beside me who was coming to NYC for a meeting on the twenty-somethingth floor of the Empire State Building. He’d lived in Berlin since the eighties and remembered the days when Potsdamer Platz was a rubblestrewn wasteland. He very helpfully gave me recommendations for places I should’ve visited. Perhaps next time. We talked about Berlin architecture, East vs West, the ugly brutalist buildings which were so perplexingly fashionable during the sixties. He pointed out that during the air raids, many people were killed not from the bombs or fires themselves, but from suffocation in the massive firestorms caused by the buildings having been built so close together. He said post-war city planning kept this in mind and many areas, such as around Alexanderplatz, were designed to avoid this ever happening again.
After landing at JFK I was not even out of the airport when one belligerent woman screamed “fucking bitch!” to another who was moving a touch too slow for her taste. Which, really, is just New York City’s way of saying “welcome back, sojourner!”
21 Aug 2014Posted by on
I was having dinner late one evening in my chambers when I felt a most disagreeable sensation in my abdomen. My first thought was of food poisoning, but then I sensed motion, which alarmed me greatly. I leapt to my feet, knocking over my wine, and hastily unzipped my trousers. Horrified I saw a snake making its way out from my urethra, its dull red tongue flickering back and forth like fleshy jolts of electricity. I let out a choked gasp. The sensation of its scales moving against my vulnerable inner skin made me unbearably queasy on top of an indescribable pain.
I grabbed the creature just behind its head so it couldn’t retreat back inside or bite me, then I hurried out to the garden terrace to get rid of it. I didn’t want it loose in my house. I don’t know why that was my first concern. The moon was dimmed by clouds and the walls of my garden tall enough that my neighbors were unlikely to peer in on my strange activities. Still grasping the serpent by the throat, I pulled it out a little at a time, worried that if I yanked too fast I might somehow cause damage to myself. I suppressed the urge to vomit. Finally it came clear, its wriggling tail coated in a thick mucus, and I flung it to the ground where it slithered away into the shadow of a flowerbed. I crouched there on the terrace, wincing, fighting not to let my imagination have free rein. I was not ready to envision the eggs it may have left inside me.
A tremendous crumbling sound interrupted the silence. From my crouched position I glanced up and saw that my building was improbably tilting forward, and began to collapse in slow motion. More puzzled than frightened, I watched as the bricks slowly slid apart, almost gracefully, like a ballet of destruction. As if the mortar had turned to slush. It was happening so languidly that I was easily able to walk out from its path, circling my way around to the street out front where I would be safe. There I noticed the neighboring buildings too were collapsing, like time lapse footage of a flower blooming. Alarmed people evacuated their homes, some carrying children, some struggling into their clothing, others still dressed in their nightclothes, and flooded the streets as the structures around us slowly dismantled.
There were no casualties we later learned. Everyone had plenty of time to escape before the buildings collapsed into rubble. We wandered wordlessly through the destruction, hunting for valuables we could recover. Our homes were gone. It was as if the city itself had committed suicide.
14 Aug 2014Posted by on
The balloonseller lay at the foot of the craggy steps, unmoving, smoke issuing up through a fist-sized hole in his chest. A well-to-do couple out for an evening stroll rounded a corner and hurried past, visibly annoyed at having to circle around the supine figure. His chalky beard was filed to a sharp point, his mummy brown overcoat swaddled him like a candywrapper. A ruddyfaced policeman came by on a pennyfarthing, dismounted and inspected the body for signs of life. None found. The hole in the body, he noted curiously, appeared to be an exit wound, as though the body had been attacked from the inside out. Perhaps the heart had burst, he speculated. Parked at the top of the steps was the unattended balloon cart. The balloons themselves by now had all been stolen by neighborhood children. A single dull yellow balloon was caught in the branches of a nearby tree, as if intercepted while making a getaway. The policeman knew the balloonseller vaguely from his rounds in the park and was aware he had no family. It had been a long tiring day of grifters and cheats, and the policeman was in no mood for more paperwork. He took the balloonseller by the heels and, huffing, dragged him through the grass down to the water. There he dumped the body in, cursing when he splashed water on his trouserleg. Using the spine of a broken umbrella he found discarded nearby he prodded the body away from shore and watched it float downstream towards someone else’s jurisdiction. Then he returned to the balloon cart and wheeled it along the path, abandoning it in the shadows under a stone bridge where it wouldn’t be easily noticed. On returning to the steps he discovered someone had stolen the pennyfarthing in his absence. Scowling, he stormed off in the direction of the park entrance, looking for something to kick that was soft and incapable of kicking back.
23 Jun 2014Posted by on
Griff often hung around the slimeways of the Combat Zone on weekends, selling narcotic chewing gum to minors and undercover cops. The cops didn’t bother to arrest him anymore, they just dished him out a ticket and moved along. Sometimes they even robbed him of his wares if it was a slow night, which always crushed his spirits. This time was no different. They stole his stash of gum and stuffed him in a nearby trash can. It took him fifteen minutes to wriggle free. He went home reeking of dead salad.
He shared a lopsided apartment with a girl named Martyr in the Bay Village, above a transvestite motorcycle bar. They used to be fairly intimate until the decay set in. Now they didn’t do much together except for the occasional night out for bowling.
Thursday she showed him the lumps in her neck. He thought they felt like eggs forming under the skin. She was unhappy about this and poked at her bowl of Rice Krispies until they grew soggy. Griff lay on the futon with his head hanging upside down off the edge and imagined what it would be like if gravity reversed and he was able to walk on the ceiling. They listened to the radiator gorging on metal birds.
“It’s cold,” Griff mentioned without much commitment.
Martyr ran her hand over the eggs in her neck. “I’m sorry I sold your jacket.”
“It’s okay. I’ll find another one.”
“I was hungry.”
There was a rheumatic candle on the coffeetable. Griff trained his thoughts on it, trying to move it telekinetically. Nothing happened. He couldn’t figure out which muscle to flex.
“I’m going out,” he said.
“You can borrow my jacket if you’d like.”
He went down to the bridge and stared at the pondwater, wondering what it would be like to abandon a capsizing ship on a cold Baltic night. The straggly accordion boy wasn’t at his post on the far side of the bridge, like some wheezing minstrel troll. Leaning over the stone rail he spotted something small and dark near the water’s edge. He left the bridge and scuffled down to the object. It was a single glove. The left hand, begrimed with dirt. He felt sorry for it. He took it down the street to a laundromat and fed it gently to a washing machine. There was a girl watching her laundry going round and round in a noisy dryer. She looked like she was gleaning her future from it. She wore a funny round hat with a bow on it. She had a lavender aura. He watched her for a little bit, then went over.
“You look like Daisy Buchanan,” he said.
She looked up at him with a rosy smile. “I don’t know who that is.”
He regarded her with wonder. “Are you sure you belong in this decade?”
They talked of sparrows and matchboxes. When his washer died, he transferred his left hand glove to the dryer next to hers. He loved the smell of laundry. It was his third favorite smell in the whole world.
They sat watching her underwear go round. All the dryer barrels rotated clockwise. When the buzzer announced her clothes were dry, she scooped them into a crayon red dufflebag and told him she had to go practice her cello. He asked if he might come along and listen. She thought about it for a moment—finger to lips and eyes heavenward—then decided it would be alright. He took the glove from the dryer, interrupting its cycle. Even though it was still a little moist, he slid it over his left hand. Then he helped carry her laundry to a tiny practice room above a discount jukebox retailer. The room was strewn with sheet music and peacock feathers. She lit a red candle and placed it in the center of the floor, then began rosining her bow. Griff slouched on a beanbag in the corner and listened to her run through a repertoire of Schubert.
Cello was his favorite symphonic instrument. The musky wooden sound made him imagine a dancing golem. It had a very sensible tonality—as though it was not prone to vanity or foolhardiness. He felt he could depend on the cello. He listened until his eyelids grew heavy and he nodded off.
She tapped him on the shoulder gently to wake him. “I finished my practice,” she told him. He rubbed his eyes, reoriented himself.
“I need to be getting home,” he said. “Martyr will wonder what happened to me.”
“You shouldn’t go back there,” she told him sadly. “Something bad will happen.”
“I know, but it’s where I live.”
He started the long walk home. It was much colder than before. He shivered, hands buried deep in pockets. The glove felt good on his left hand. He was glad he had found it. He turned up the narrow road that led home. Inside Martyr lay inert on the floor. The eggs in her neck had hatched and the newborns were nowhere to be seen.
20 Jun 2014Posted by on
She skittered across the stream of music on half-submerged rocks only she could see, a blur of swirling gypsy skirts and tossed cinnamon hair. As long as I’d known her, I still found it impossible not to admire her as she danced, a burst of color across a monochrome tableau. The room was packed nose to armpit, well over capacity, and yet her path was kept clear as though some kind of sorcery was at work.
Inevitably the music ceased and the listeners drained out of the bricklined antechamber in search of beer or cigarettes or both. The band began packing up their gear. I held her drink while she slipped into her white coat. Everyone else in the place wore black. A man with elaborately braided hair approached. I had noticed him earlier, eyeing her as she danced. He put his hand on her shoulder and steered her away from me. “I’m going to speak with her a few minutes,” he informed me. I disliked his condescension but couldn’t help but be impressed by his confidence. “That’s up to her,” I shrugged.
I found myself in a conversation with the wildhaired drummer about European folk music. I only half-listened, keeping one eye on the man who had maneuvered her towards a corner and was leaning forward, an arm at her side. She was sipping from a new glass of something greenish which he had handed her. I finished my own drink and was considering a replacement when she returned with the man trailing behind her. “He’s going to take me home,” she told me. His cavalier expression indicated that he intended to add her to his collection. “Of course he is.” I leaned in, lowering my voice. “I think he slipped something into your drink.” “I know,” she said.
She kissed me on the cheek and said she’d see me later, then turned and followed the man out. I felt a headache creeping up the stem of my brain and the drummer’s impassioned raving was of no help. I excused myself and went outside into the wintery midnight. I walked down the block past a sleepy row of brownstones to an empty playground. I sat on a swing that was too small for me and swung in a gentle but wobbling arc. The night air was frigid but I didn’t mind. It felt peaceful. I was amazed at how quiet a city of this size was capable of being. The only sounds were the creak of the swing’s chain and the electric buzz of a lone streetlamp at the edge of the playground.
A thin silhouette emerged from the darkness and headed towards me. It was her. “How’d it go?” I asked. “Wonderful,” she said, licking the blood from her canine teeth.