Monday, August 29, 2005

A Day At the Races

What better way to spend a 72-degree sunny day than to go out into the countryside among lush green fields and ancient trees? Especially when you might make a little money doing it.

One of the first things I discovered when I moved here was that there was a racetrack here, in the town of Hoppegarten, which was accessible by public transportation, a 45-minute S-Bahn ride away. (Actually, there are a couple of race-tracks, but the rest of them feature harness racing, which doesn't really count). I'd been initiated into horse racing by my friend Bob in California, who argued that it was the cheapest professional sport going, with admission to the track there being something like three bucks (yesterday was €5), and I was sort of amused by his description of the horses as "athletes." But he was right: non-humans can be athletes, too, and it didn't take me long to appreciate the way horse and jockey worked together towards achieving the goal of crossing the finish-line. Plus, I usually made a little money.

When I first started going to the Hoppegarten, everyone I knew here recoiled at the idea of joining me. There were plenty of excuses: there were unsavory people at the track; it was too far into the East; it was boring. So I went alone. It didn't take me long to figure some stuff out about Hoppegarten. First, it was a very old track: it's owned and operated by a racing club called Union 1867, which was, no doubt, when it was founded. (In fact, the German government issued a stamp commemorating the place's 125th anniversary). Second, yeah, it did have some of that East German tack about it, but that was charming, I thought. Third, the best horses in Europe most assuredly do not race here. In fact, picking a horse is next to impossible most of the time, at least with any degree of assurance.

It was a minimal investment of time, usually on a Sunday afternoon, and quite relaxing. The walk to the grounds is down a cobblestoned street lined with huge trees (although the street has now been paved, which is new since last year), and I remember my first time going there, for a fall race, the trees' leaves all shades of red and orange, and the teenaged girls who tend the horses were leading them down the street after the race I'd just missed, steam coming off the horses' backs. Once you get to the track, you've got a huge field planted in grass, surrounded by trees. There's a tribune to sit in, but the lowest-priced tickets don't allow this: you have to stand on the grass, which is usually quite pleasant. I found it quite easy to get a place right by the finish-line, the place where the adrenaline is the highest. You don't get to see much of the race anyway from ground level, so you might as well see the best part.

Behind the tribune are the betting stalls and the concessions. When I first went there, the concessions were all locals, with their fish sandwiches and various kinds of sausages, and I'd almost always get a Thüringer Bratwurst grilled over a charcoal fire. There were little bars selling nothing but beer, and one of the bartenders was, like so many Germans, an avid mushroom hunter. He'd put up his finds -- either Steinpilze (porcini) or mixed mushrooms (with a lot of Steinpilze mixed in) -- in ugly grey paper bags and sell them. I'd buy one on the way out and go home and make mushroom pesto for dinner. Over the years, though, the concessions have changed to be more like German fast-food everywhere. There still isn't a Döner Kebap stand, but there are now limp frozen french-fries, bad pizza, and lots of soft-drinks at the bars, which also now feature national beers (although this year Hasseröder, an absolutely undrinkable East German beer seems to be the main one). But there are still some local entrepreneurs: a stand featuring rabbit specialties -- stew and roulades -- was doing a brisk business yesterday.

The betting has been somewhat upgraded from the days when you had to use a pencil to mark an IBM card, which was then fed into a machine labelled SWEDISH COMPUTER, which recorded your bet. Touch-screen betting still hasn't come to Hoppegarten, but the big machine with the clacking relays inside the main tribune building is silent at last. A bar-coded slip comes out after you hand in your paper with the bets, and that's what you redeem with if you win. Minimum bet is one Euro, too, so it's kind of affordable fun.

The racing form, available at the door (or the day before at a very few press outlets) is a newspaper called Sports Woche, which covers all the non-harness racing in Germany. Looking over the statistics on each horse, you quickly see how futile it is to try to predict results. Often the best way to bet is to narrow the field down to three or four possibilities, and then head over to the paddock and watch the horses being led around, checking for kidney sweat (often the sign of over-exercise), and seeing if any of the horses are notably on dope. (I shared a ride on the S-Bahn with a posse of Irish construction workers some years back, and they told me they'd have a hot tip for me at the racetrack. A few races into the day, they found me and pointed out a real long-shot of Irish origin. "That's the horse; your money's guaranteed on that one," they said. In the paddock, the horse was wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth, bucking until it kicked in one of the inner fences, after which it broke free of its leader, and leapt fences, heading off to who knows where. Unless the dope's worn off, he's probably approaching Russia by now.)

After that, place your bets and see what happens.

Yesterday was a day of notably mediocre horses -- it was even billed as a "Mittelstand Renntag" on the ticket. But, like I said, the day was gorgeous, and my friend the dancer was eager to go out there, which was nice, so we got there about 3 in the afternoon, in time for the 4th race. The 5th race featured a horse called German Dancer, whose numbers actually looked good, although the horse stood about a head taller than the others in the race, which was odd. Naturally, we had to pick that one, but she blew it in the stretch (or else the jockey just decided to hell with it, having been forced into a bad position in the final pack). I didn't get lucky until the 7th, when a 4-year-old called Statulik (by Statuesque out of Goofalik -- Goofalik??) returned €6.80 on my two-Euro bet. Which put me about even for the day, not counting the pretzel I'd bought or the door charge or the purchase of Sport Woche or the S-Bahn ticket out and back. Which made it a pretty good day, especially considering the fact that I hadn't been out all year.

It seemed like a good time to leave, since it was after 6, but after we left, we walked up Goetheallee, the street that borders the track (as opposed to the one that heads to the S-Bahn) and checked out the crumbling old villas with attached horse-barns that line the street. An old hotel which was seemingly in use the last time I wandered up that way now has broken windows and is obviously empty, which is a shame. One of the villas is in the process of being condo-ized, and I suspect any of the empty ones could be snapped up for a quarter-million, house, barns, and grounds all included. "It wouldn't be such a bad place if you were a writer," the dancer (who's writing a novel, remember) mused as we walked along. "But all this luxury, and the only place to buy your food is Aldi!" Which, sadly, is part and parcel of living in the east.

The perfect coda would have been a nice sunset dyeing the buildings around Alexanderplatz a deep orange as we headed back into town, but it's not that time of year yet, so we had to settle for listening to two Japanese students who'd also been at the track dissect the day's races in Japanese.

Two more races this year; one in September, and one in October. I sure hope I can make both of them. I haven't been able to find a race-track near Montpellier, so I'd better enjoy this, one of the few really enjoyable things about Berlin, while I have the chance.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Sommerloch, Part 8

Okay, I realize classical music is in crisis. I realize that the problem of bringing younger audiences in the door is perplexing. But I'm not sure that smoking pot at the opera is the answer.

Especially the ones I've seen: a four-hour extravaganza on Palestrina by a late-19th-Century composer whose name eludes me; a deeply eccentric production of an 18th Century opera with a classic theme, in which at one point various people danced with long fluorescent bulbs; and the entire history of the Jews, from Moses to the Nazis, in Kurt Weill's Der Weg des Versprechens one evening down in Chemnitz. The last scene of that one, with the Nazis breaking into the synagogue and dragging away the people who'd been sheltering there woulda been a, like, total bummer, man!

On the other hand, with the exception of a guy I knew who was a lighting designer and, thus, had to go there when they hired him, I've never known anyone to attend the Neuköllner Oper.


The election campaign slogs on. The SPD, currently in power, has been putting up billboards that say "We're for XXXX, what are the others for?" with XXXX, of course, being replaced by an issue. Finally, the CDU, the right-wing opposition, has struck back with a billboard spotted near Potsdamer Platz yesterday that said "1000 jobs a day, every day, lost! That's what the red-green coalition stands for!" Ummm, actually not, or at least not in their published statements. You kind of expect the German electorate to be smarter than that.

That's not the only stumble the CDU has made of late: according to this excellent roundup of positions, they want to raise, not income taxes, but the VAT, or, in other words, the sales tax. What are they thinking? Raising the income tax, especially on the higher brackets, makes sense because it brings in revenue from those who can afford it. Raising the VAT puts the burden on everyone, especially the poor -- and there are, as we know, an increasing number of them in Germany -- who nonetheless have to buy costly items from time to time.

A lot of people are talking like a CDU government is inevitable. I may be the only person I know who doesn't believe it is -- and I don't read the papers obsessively, nor can I vote. But at least it'll be over in a couple of weeks and if I were able to vote, the Babypartei Deutschland, whose posters I saw last week, and who turn out to be an art move, might well get my write-in vote. After all, you don't expect babies to act like adults.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Sommerloch, Part 7

I walked down to Potsdamer Platz today, since it was nice and warm, and bought myself a dozen bagels at Salomon Bagels, not because they're really all that good, but because I chipped one of my false teeth on some Berlin bread the other morning and I'm tired of that. Plus, a little variety's always good. As I got to the corner of Leipziger Str. and Wilhelmstr., I saw a welter of construction going on, and noticed yet another hole in the ground. This one, though, was where Tresor had stood.

I missed most of the dance mania of the immediate post-Wall years, mostly because I was too old. Just over 40 was old enough to get barred by the huge Turkish guards at E-Werk or Tresor, and it was only when I was on the guest-list, because Mark Reeder of MFS Records had put me on the list to see Paul van Dyk, who was his biggest star, although hardly the star he is today, that I got in. Because of dance politics, those shows were mostly at Tresor.

Like E-Werk diagonally across the street, Tresor was as much about the space it was in as about the music that was played there. E-Werk was a huge, disused electric generation station with some of its machinery still in place. Tresor, on the other hand, was a modest door in the side of a building which led to two rooms, a small one upstairs and a much larger one downstairs. It had been either a bank or a department store -- I've heard both stories, although I lean towards the department store one -- before the war, and had been bombed to the ground because the building across the street, which now houses some German federal agency or other, had been the Luftwaffe headquarters. As with most bombed buildings, the worst of the rubble was cleared away by the East Germans and the lot was left empty. When, after the Wall opened, brave souls began investigating this former government district around Potsdamer Platz, they chanced on this space with the big iron doors and the room with the many, many cubby-holes (you can see this in the image at the top of the Tresor website), they squatted it, and, eventually, became legal tenants.

The E-Werk crowd became the organizers of the Love Parade. Dmitri at Tresor had the idea for a label, and today there are tons of signature Berlin hard-techno records out on the club's imprint, distributed through Mute in London. Tresor has become a moveable feast, and I understand Dmitri has signed on to renting another industrial space, this one -- ironically -- another electric generating station. I know some of the folks involved in this project, so I'll let you know if/when something develops there, but in the meantime, I found myself heaving a big nostalgic sigh as I watched the bricks and pieces of twisted metal being scooped up by the machines digging the foundation for something that's going to be known as Leipziger 4, yet another development of new office space and trendy shopping which will remain vacant for years. Tresor had passed its sell-by date anyway, being mostly an attraction for what passes here for B&Ts (bridge-and-tunnel people), kids from the Brandenburg hinterlands who came in to gape at each other, take too much E, and dance all night.


For Berliners Only: Yesterday, a friend alerted me to the coming of BerlinPages, a new website and virtual community for Berliners. I think it's a good idea, although there isn't much up there yet, and, like any virtual community, it could benefit from an infusion of intelligent people, and since we all know that's the only kind of people who read this blog, you might think of going over there to check it out. This is very much like something I had hoped to do long ago with the Berlin Information Group, whose website hasn't changed in years, and which, I'm told, is for sale. If you look at it, you can see why; the greedy bastards who maneuvered me out of the organization I had helped build never did figure out how to get rich on the Internet, and it's pretty obvious that they never had a clue.


Speaking of virtual communities and sites for sale, The Well, the world's oldest online community, is currently for sale, as its current owner, Salon, is currently losing weight in an attempt to become profitable.

I keep telling my fellow expats what a great deal The Well is, what a great way to keep up with world events, learn about the cyberscape from the very people who invented it, and converse with some of the smartest people in the world. Its Europe conference is worth it alone, and I find the Media and Music conferences also very worthwhile. It's worth ten bucks a month, which is what it costs (and which serves to keep out some of the idiots who latch on to things like Orkut), and I think it'd be worth whatever the current asking price is for the right buyer, too. Not that I know the asking price or the right buyer.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Fresh Air ran my piece on Mott the Hoople on Monday, and the response has been tremendous -- more e-mail than for anything else I've done all year. That band really touched a nerve, and I guess it still does.

What got me thinking about doing the piece in the first place was seeing Ian Hunter and his band at SXSW this year. Alejandro Escovedo hosted one of the free outdoor shows SXSW always runs, and when Hunter became available, he insisted that he headline. Al, too, is a fan, you see, and it was very cool seeing him bound on stage to sing along with one or two of the songs.

I managed to wheedle a backstage pass, and it didn't take me long to find the tent where Ian and Trudi, who he's been married to for decades, were standing around, Ian casually sipping good champagne. It was great to hook up with them, and that was part of what got me thinking about the radio piece.

The other was the realization, sometime after the fact, that that concert took place almost 35 years to the day after I'd first heard Mott the Hoople,
the first Mott the Hoople album
. How on earth do I know this? Easy.

It was March 10, 1970, and me and one very frightened beagle in a wooden box had just flown to San Francisco International Airport so that I could go to work at Rolling Stone. (If I'd been smarter, I'd have been scared, too.) We were met there by Gretchen Horton, who was secretary and surrogate mom to editor/publisher Jann Wenner, and in no time we were in her VW van, rolling up the highway to San Franciso, and her house, where dog and luggage would be stashed while I went to meet the boss. To add to the experience, she had KSAN, the legendary (at the time) underground FM station on, and it was playing loads of great stuff.

As I remember, she lived on Potrero Hill, and as we were almost at her house, a track came on the radio that silenced both of us. It was Dylan. Now, you have to remember that at this point, Bob Dylan had retreated into serious hermit mode. What little the fans had heard from him was vastly different than the stuff with which he'd made his reputation, and yet nobody had interviewed him or had the slightest idea what was going on in his life. This, of course, sparked rumors, and one of the things Rolling Stone was about was sifting the truth from the idle speculation. Not that they had a clue there, either.

So hearing this previously-unheard track on the radio was breaking news. A few minutes in, I suddenly realized I knew the song: it was "Crossroads," by the Sir Douglas Quintet, a Texas band that was currently resident in San Francisco. What was Dylan doing singing that?

Well, obviously, he wasn't: it was a track from that first Mott album, and that was what the DJ announced, but not before Gretchen had circled the block something like eight times waiting for the damn song to be over. "Obviously, you're going to have to review this one," she said as we finally parked in her driveway and started unloading the van. And I believe I did, too.

Not long after that, Mott came to town. Stephen and Julie were a couple who lived just up the hill from me in Sausalito, and she worked in Rolling Stone's accounting department and Stephen did some part-time work there and worked as a waiter at various restaurants, most notably a not-so-good Mexican one on Polk St. called El Gallo, the rest of the time. Julie insisted that bands on the road sometimes wanted a home-cooked meal and the chance to hang out, so somehow we got the message to Mott the Hoople, and I remember Ian, Mick Ralphs, Verdon Allen (Phally), and road manager Stan Tippins showing up at Stephen and Julie's house, and a good time being had by all. Stephen was a guitar player, as was I, sorta, and after dinner, the guitars came out. The songs we "jammed" on were two: "Wooden Ships" by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and "Sloth," by Fairport Convention. I don't remember particularly pulling off any great solos, but at least I can say that I once or twice jammed with Mick Ralphs, future guitar god of Bad Company.

Yeah, once or twice: in the years to come, the band would let us know when they were hitting San Francisco, and we'd get together at Stephen and Julie's for a quiet evening of food, talk, and guitar strumming. "I like this," I remember Hunter saying. "This is the kind of thing we'd like to do more. I mean, we're not the kind of band that pulls a lot of birds on the road." ("Or at home," someone muttered. I blame Tippins.)

After the band's two triumphant Columbia albums, Hunter left the group, and I don't remember his coming back through San Francisco the rest of the time I lived there. I moved to Austin in 1979, and he did, I remember, come through there once or twice, although I don't remember seeing him: my concert-going was often dictated by the powers-that-be at the newspaper.

But the show I saw this March was great: full of energy -- he's got a fine young band, with some veterans of some of my favorites, including the Bongos -- and with some great new songs. Hunter's still doing it.

Although, according to his website, not at the moment. He's laid up with back problems, and had to cancel his July and August tour dates. Hope he enjoyed the show. It was the least I could do to pay him back for all the great times he's given me.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sommerloch, Part 6

News flash: Germans eat dirt!

Not only that, they pay for it. I was at a joint birthday party for a couple I know last night whose kid has been sick, and at one point, her mother stirred some brown stuff into some water and the little girl drank it. "What's that?" one of the Americans asked. "Heilerde," she was told; "healing dirt." What? I said.

But there it was, a brown box full of...dirt! "Oh," I was told by a psychotherapist who was there, "it's very good! It's particularly good for an upset stomach." I dipped a finger in and tasted some. Dirt. Sandy dirt, but dirt.

I guess it's possible that some dirt somewhere contains enough basic chemical that it does, indeed, fight acid stomach, but this sort of early 20th-century packaging and breathless description of its magic powers was enough to get my skepticism up. Somehow, I think I can stay healthy without eating dirt.


Biscuit update: It's now been revealed that Randy "Biscuit" Turner died of causes related to untreated Hepatitis C, and the details aren't pretty, so I'll not repeat them here. There's also some evidence that his siblings aren't the monsters some of the people on the Yahoo group I've been reading made them out to be, and that some care to preserve his body of work will be taken, especially since the siblings apparently attended last night's wake-cum-gallery-opening of his one-man show in Austin, and were undoubtedly confronted by a wave of affection for their departed brother. I'm cautiously optimistic that this will turn out for the best, and if, as has been suggested, a non-profit to preserve his work is formed, I'll let you know here.

Meanwhile, tributes continue to pour in on the Yahoo list, and one of them recalled something about Biscuit I'd forgotten, but which brought a smile to my face when I read it. There was a point where he was wearing his hair in good old punk spikes, but had shaved a bit in the center of the front of his head. There, he affixed a little blue toy car. At the time, he was working at a Kinko's near the University of Texas campus, and I do remember running into him when he was coiffed like this. "Oh, don't worry," he told me. "I glued it down real good." Unlike spikes, this seems never to have caught on.


Prof Dr Dr update: He's fine, if bored, and in a Swiss hospital. He called me this morning to tell me so, and mentioned the lifestyle changes he's going to have to make, which are as you'd figure they'd be. Close call, but he'll be okay.

Friday, August 19, 2005

No, Not Biscuit!

The other day, the Prof Dr Dr called from Switzerland to tell me he had been experiencing crushing chest pains for over 24 hours. I yelled at him until he agreed to go to the hospital. The next morning, a friend of his called me to pass on his thanks for talking him into it: tests showed he'd had a heart attack. This was sobering news; he may be a Prof Dr Dr, but he's a good ten years younger than me.

But it got worse this morning, with the news that Randy "Biscuit" Turner had been found dead in his house. According to the obit in the Austin daily, it's not being investigated as a suspicious death. What's really awful is that he was found by Marc Savlov, the writer who'd just profiled him for the Austin Chronicle, who called the cops from his cell phone and then had to undergo questioning. I have to say, the Chronicle did a great job with the cover shot.

I last saw Biscuit in March as I was going back to my hotel from the Austin Convention Center during SXSW. A skinny, tall guy in a duster, complete with leather helmet and goggles had just started a scooter (which matched the duster's color), and he said "Hey, Ed!" I didn't recognize him, but he said "It's Biscuit!" We talked for a while, and he told me about an art show that was going on that he was in, up by my hotel. For some reason I didn't get to see it, which is a shame, not only for the obvious sentimental reasons, but because the illustrations in the Chronicle story are so delightful. I hadn't seen any of his visual art in a while, and I really like this stuff.

The reason I didn't recognize him in March was that he was emaciated, drawn out, and his skin was blotchy, with lighter and darker patches. This worried me at the time, because I found myself wondering if he might be HIV-positive and had contracted some secondary infection. What I didn't know was that he had adult-onset diabetes, and, according to some friends of his, one of whom also has the condition, he clammed up recently when asked what medication he was taking.

The Biscuit I remember was the roly-poly, effervescent man about town. I wasn't really into the hardcore scene that came on in Austin after the first stirrings of punk died down, but it was hard not to be into Biscuit if you talked to him for five minutes. He was one of those genuine Texas eccentrics, who was born out in the middle of nowhere, doted on by a mother who, by all accounts, is just as weird as he was, and who hightailed it to Austin in the '70s just as fast as he could, on the blind faith that there were others like him there. There weren't, of course, but there were other weirdos, and that was just fine by him. The Big Boys were just another art project for him, at first, and I'm sure he never intended to be a revolutionary.

But the band toured, and thanks to Tim Kerr, they got interested in funk, and that's what set them apart from all the other three-chord wonders out there. They recorded sporadically, but their live shows were legendary -- and influential: they inspired loads of other bands. But Biscuit quit the band after a bad night at Liberty Lunch, the sadly-vanished club in downtown Austin. Some young nazis had shown up -- there are bunches of them in some of the outlying towns near Austin, and they have their own punk bands -- and they'd started a fight. Biscuit yelled from the stage to have them thrown out, and it happened. "I was horrified," he told me afterwards. "I'd become an authority figure, something I swore I'd never do." He retired to his house to make art.

My own favorite memory of him comes from the weekend before I moved here to Germany. A woman I knew from SXSW was marrying her long-time boyfriend, and they wanted a ceremony, but hated the idea of getting a minister. I mentioned that I was a Universal Life minister, thanks to the quick application of a couple of bucks and a letter to California after I'd read about the church in the underground press sometime in the '60s, and that I was, therefore, allowed to preside over a legal wedding. I'd done it once before, in fact. They thought this was a brilliant solution, because they wanted Biscuit to do the ceremony, but he wasn't legal. So I signed the paperwork, said a few words, and then Biscuit got up and delivered a speech that put tears in everyone's eyes. He said it must be scary for the parents and their friends to come to this warehouse space where all these punk kids played, and to mingle with these cultural oddballs, but the reason they'd come was that two of these punk-rockers had actually fallen in love and decided to get married to each other -- how square! How beautiful! How normal! So maybe we all had more in common than we thought! It was a virtuoso performance, made all the better after he cornered me afterwards and said "Man, I was wingin' it up there!" But he'd taken flight anyway.

Of course, you couldn't keep him off the stage, and he had a succession of other bands in recent years. Apparently he'd just come back from a tour of Japan with one of them, which is an intriguing image: Biscuit in front of a Japanese audience. He also had an art show opening in Austin this weekend at a gallery, which is probably what kick-started the Chron story. That and the fact that it's mid-August.

Right now, his friends are wondering what will become of his art. He never sold anything, preferring to stash it in his house in South Austin. Nobody knows if he had a will, and nobody wants his siblings getting at the stuff. In fact, that's another point of tension: apparently Biscuit was the only one of the kids who took any care of his mother, and his friends are also worried about her. I'm reading the e-mails as they come in, and hoping this all turns out okay. Bad enough to lose Biscuit, but for his legacy to disappear would be horrifying.

Randy "Biscuit" Turner, 1946-2005. R.I.P.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Correctocrumbs In Sommerlochland

One problem with the stated purpose of these posts -- to write, edit, and publish them in 60 minutes -- is that sometimes I get distracted while chasing down links and so on. That certainly happened last time, and I wondered why I had this vague sense that there was something missing until this morning, at breakfast, when I found a blue flyer. Then I remembered: the story of my wanderings through town on Saturday were going to end with my getting to Hackescher Markt, where a new organic market sets up on Saturdays. I'd wanted to wander through this for some time, and finally got my chance, although the pickings were slim: there's just not that much grown around here, and there was nothing I wanted. I was, however, cognizant of a large woman seated behind a tiny old typewriter, busily typing something. A number of young women were circulating through the crowd handing out blue leaflets describing a project called Wenn Ich Kanzler Wäre (If I Were Chancellor), which turns out to be a spinoff of Sheryl Oring's I Wish To Say project. I'd seen Oring's Writer's Block project displayed in a number of storefronts on Friedrichstr. when she first moved here to be an artist in residence at the Jewish Museum and couldn't help but be impressed, of course.

Having no fantasies of being Chancellor, though, I passed up my chance to immortalize my thoughts in this medium. Anyway, that, as much as anything, is what the blog's for, right?


I also mentioned that I'd seen a little table with some NPD guys sitting at it by the Atomic Clock in Alexanderplatz, and mused that I thought they'd been banned. Frisco Mike was onto that like a shot, probably because he'd just published an excellent piece in Salon about them. In fact, I was partially right: they had been banned for a short while, as he notes in the article.

I don't think it takes anything away from this fine piece of journalism when I say it also is one of the reasons I'm so anxous to get out of here. No,not because these boneheads have a prayer of taking over, but because this is the only kind of story you can sell to the U.S. media from this benighted city. Americans want nazis and Jews, and nothing else. They honestly don't care or see any difference between Schröder and Merkel, or care about the new left-wing party, or any of that. They just want their fears and prejudices confirmed: ooooh! The nazis are rising again! Well, they're not, the tiny victory for the NPD that Michael notes notwithstanding. But Americans don't get to read about anything else.


One thing I really, really regret about the crash of my computer a few months ago (besides the loss of hundreds of e-mail addresses) is that all the photos I'd taken of Berlin graffiti went with it. Not only the sprayed and painted stuff, but also the amazing paper graffiti and the now mostly vandalized works of the great naive painter Nike. There is, however, a DVD on the subject just out which I saw in a store recently, and this morning I left the house to see, posted on a pole in the alley by my house, an invitation to a group exhibition starting Sept. 1 over in Friedrichshain that looked interesting. There was a URL attached, but the show itself, Schattendasein, isn't there yet.

I'm wondering if it has something to do with a couple of quickly-vanished pieces of paper graffiti I saw about a month ago. The artist painted a wide black stripe across the sidewalk from the curb, ran it a few inches up the wall, and then attached his piece, a black silhouette. I only saw two, and one had been ripped to shreds before I even got to see what it was. The other was a guy with a top-hat, who may have been a chimney-sweep (seeing one is considered good luck here), and it was gone in 48 hours -- the stripe, too.

Anyway, I'll try to make it over there to see what's up. Watch this space.


Incidentally, according to the statistics I gather for this blog, I now have a couple of regular readers in Israel. I find this both cool and puzzling. I also have a reader in New Zealand, but I know who you are, young lady! (Send me the URL if you're still doing your blog).

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sommerloch, Part 5

Saturday wasn't exactly the nicest day yet this year, but at least it wasn't raining, which is good, because I was out of coffee, and so I headed down to Galleries Lafayette to get some. Lest this seem a mind-boggling extravagance, I should add that the Malongo boutique there sells the best, and pretty much the cheapest, whole-bean coffee in town. It may no longer be the cheapest, what with the explosion of Starbucks-style coffee shops around town, most notably Balzac and Einstein, but I figure €11 for 750g -- 250g each of Columbia Supremo, Cuban, and Malabar Monsoon -- is an affordable bit of luxury. Especially if you've ever tasted the stuff they sell in the supermarkets here. Even more especially if you've had to deal with me before I get my two cups down in the morning.

Friedrichstr. seemed to be packed with Spanish tourists. I think there must be some sort of exchange program for all the Berliners who get inflicted on Majorca and the Costa Brava. But they were jamming into Gal Laf, and I had my work cut out just getting to the basement to the food department. And now, I'm almost sorry I did. They've doubled it in size, which didn't surprise me because it was underway the last time I went in, but what they've added is a huge refrigerated section with, basically, high-end French supermarket food in it. Need a pate en croute? Five or six to choose from! Five different kinds of olive spread? No problem! Many, many soft-drinks in strange but appealing combinations of fruits and flavorings, all three Euros or more per 33 cl. bottle? A wall of 'em! Damn, it was like being in a museum.

Anyway, clutching the coffee (and, okay, a bottle of walnut oil and some sort of turkey cutlet stuffed with mushrooms and cheese), I staggered out, thinking that the venerable food floor at Berlin's overrated KaDeWe must be wondering how they could catch up, I headed towards Alexanderplatz for another essential, but impossible to find in my neighborhood, cornerstone of my cuisine: Parmesan cheese. ("Zu exotisch," the cheese lady at the store told me once when I asked).

Inadvertantly, I'd chosen the wrong way to get there, and decided to cut down to Unter den Linden through what looked like yet another street-fair -- virtually unavoidable at this time of year. Well, not just any street-fair: it was the dreaded Gauklerfest. I doubt there's been a juggler seen at one of these affairs in years, but what was once a celebration of Berlin's street performers has turned into yet another excuse to set up row after row of bratwurst stands, bars, and knick-knack vendors. It would have cost me €2.50 to walk the block to Unter den Linden, and I would have had to put up with the caterwauling of some idiot with an electronic keyboard while I did it, so I took the long way around.

I wonder if the Russian Mob has taken Gauklerfest over, since they control all the street performers -- the legal ones, anyway. In order to perform in the street, you have to get a license, and as I understand it, the office is open for about an hour starting at 6:30 in the morning. You go in, pay your fee, and get a little yellow piece of paper that allows you to perform in any legal space in subway terminals, underground walkways, parks, and so on, for 24 hours. In theory, it's a great idea. In practice, a couple of guys go in and buy several hundred of them apiece, and then dole them out to performers who are willing to kick back a cut of their earnings. In addition to the license, you can get an education in short-changing techniques, always helpful for when you go into a bar with a hatful of change and ask if you can turn it into a few bills. And it does, also, explain why the majority of the street performers here are singing Russian folk songs.

At the fabulous Atomic Clock in Alexanderplatz, there was a bunch of action: a lot of kids dressed in red holding signs, a bunch of cops, and, at a little card table, some people from the NPD, Germany's furthest-right party, which I thought had been banned. Weirdly, though, the kids in red weren't, uh, Red. They were apparently promoting a new fragrance by Puma. The cops must've been there solely to observe the Faschos.

That was the highlight of the second half of the day. I went into Kaufhof and bought not just the Parmesan, but also another not-in-my-neighborhood delight, a steak, which was on sale. They're renovating Kaufhof in an interesting way, building a new shell around it while the old store continues to operate. This will remove yet another reminder of Alexanderplatz' recent commie past, since that waffle-iron exterior you can see on the webpage -- the very height of modern '70s DDR design -- will be replaced by something more 21st century. It's an interesting engineering problem, though, and I'm wondering how it'll work when they get to the last stages of the remake.


Another great Berlin club may be doomed, I hear. According to Elvis's Dad (and how cool is a German guy who names his kid Elvis?), who lives upstairs from Schokoladen, the landlord has decided the building is going to collapse, and is planning to chuck everyone out, including the club, the theater in the back, the residents of the building, and the long-time community newspaper Scheinschlag. Schokoladen really is an old chocolate shop, selling Zar chocolates back when they existed, and it's been a hangout and alternative venue for the past 15 years. Elvis's Dad tells me that the entire thing -- even the trees in the courtyard -- are protected by landmark status, and so the landlord may have a fight on his hands not only from the tenants, but also the landmarks people. The latter, however, seem to me to be, if not bribable, at least able to look the other way when the heavy machinery rolls in, particularly if big-time real estate speculation is involved. I'll keep on this one -- I walk past the place nearly every day -- and keep you informed. Nothing else to do, after all: it's Sommerloch.

Friday, August 12, 2005


Today is Kaspar's birthday. He's 12. I actually don't think I've seen him in over a decade, but I always know his birthday because it's the day I arrived in Berlin to live.

His dad was letting me rent his apartment. I'd been here in May, and had found a huge flat that a couple was subletting while they toured the wine country in France for a year. They loved me, they said bringing my dog was no problem, and they were all ready to hand over the key, but they realized they had to clear it with their landlord first. I waited by the phone for the call that would tell me when I could come by and settle things with them, after which I had about 24 hours before I had to fly back to Texas.

The call came later that evening. "We're really sorry, and really embarrassed, but our landlord told us in no uncertain terms that we couldn't sublet to a foreigner. He just wouldn't budge." I should have taken that as an omen. Instead, I realized that with a day to go, I still didn't have an apartment here. But the guy whose apartment I was staying in, my ex-girlfriend's ex-boyfriend (and business partner) was living with his girlfriend in a magnificent huge apartment, and only used this tiny little place for weekly card-games. He told me they could play cards elsewhere, and I could rent the apartrment.

And so when I got here, this guy wasn't at the airport to meet me, which was disconcerting. I waited for a couple of hours, jet-lagged out of my brain, and he still didn't show, so I grabbed a cab to his store. And he wasn't there, either. The guy behind the counter had the key, and I took it and said something sour, and he told me that the guy's girlfriend had gone into labor early, that they got to the hospital and all manner of complications had set in, that she almost died twice, but delivered the baby, that it was still touch and go, but it was pretty certain she was going to live. I felt suitably abashed. So that was Kaspar.

Moving here meant giving my dog away; the apartment was too small. I never saw him again after that August. I spent the whole time between May and August packing, selling stuff off, and trying to find someone to sublet my place. I was only going to Berlin for six months, I told myself; I might decide to stay longer, but the initial commitment was only for six months. It was my escape hatch.

Well, as you can see if you bring up those links to the right of this, that's not the way it turned out. And now I've lived here 12 years, longer than I've wanted to, unable to leave. Every working moment of every day is spent trying to raise the capital to get out of here, and it looks like the tide is very slowly turning in my favor. I lived in Austin for 13 years, the longest I've lived anywhere since I left home for college, but the big difference is that I liked Austin. I just couldn't make a living there any longer.

My anniversary always coincides with the depths of the Sommerloch, and it's usually a time when it feels like nothing's ever going to budge. I'm always out of money at this point of the year, and no one's returning phone calls. That's changed, slightly, and I also have a project to do that doesn't depend on some editor responding to me. And, some day, maybe, my agent in San Francisco will be able to sell some of my San Francisco ballroom posters, my Beatles at Candlestick Park poster, my Hunter Thompson for Sheriff poster...all of which are alleged to be worth some money. In other words, there are resources yet to draw on.

In fact, this is the best-feeling anniversary of my arrival in years. Because I think I may be celebrating Kaspar's birthday somewhere else next year. I sure hope so, anyway.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Two Election Crumbs

Had to walk up the hill today, and when I got outside, the cold air slowly got wet, mist converging into light rain after a while. Not a day I'd like to spend too much time outdoors, but I'm not trying to get elected, and the gentleman I recognized from all the SPD posters in the neighborhood was. He and some party workers had set up their gear at the Rosenthaler Platz U-Bahn stop, and were hailing people to engage in some dialogue. The poor guy: not only was the weather filthy, but when I passed by, he'd managed to find none other than the notorious 6 to talk to. It's weird how few people notice this guy until their attention is drawn to his work, but he bikes all over, drawing big 6s on things, occasionally also leaving the URL for his completely incomprehensible website. The paint he uses looks like dried vomit, and I could see the chunks in it, resting in a pot slung onto his bike's handlebars. He was haranguing the politician about something, and the poor guy looked like he wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. And who wouldn't?


Thanks to Karen, though, for passing this along. I have no idea about its satirical content, or even how to use it to produce the best satirilcal punch, but it's good and wacky, and makes as much sense as any other election commentary at the moment. Ladies and gentlemen, for your dining and voting pleasure, we present the Bundesdance.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Sommerloch, Part 4

I'd almost forgotten! But they never let you forget: Saturday, a piece of junk mail came with the magic letters SSV on it: Sommer Schlussverkauf. It's the companion to WSV (which is obviously Winterschlussverkauf), and is one of the two times a year that retailers are allowed to discount stuff deeply, to sell it off before the next season's stuff arrives.

It's not limited to Germany, as any fashionista worth her Prada will tell you, because lots of people travel to Paris (particularly in the winter) for "les soldes," which means "the sales," and is the same thing.

We'll certainly be getting the warnings now in the paper about the fly-by-nights who set up shops selling badly-made stuff and palming it off as a SSV store of some sort, except they disappear after a couple of weeks. There's already one opened up on Invalidenstr. in one of those shops that can't seem to hold a tenant, selling underwear. The poorly-inked price tags in the window are a dead giveaway.

I've never understood why the government feels it has to mandate this period, but then I've never understood German retail very well. There's supposed to be an actual economic theory behind the fact that all of the department stores in this country and Germany's top mail-order catalog (Otto) are all owned by the same company. My supermarket is owned by Metro, the company that wholesales to restaurants, although friends who owned a restaurant near me tell me milk's cheaper in the supermarket. It all results in a rather drab uniformity of the marketplace.

Not that I have a lot of huge disposable income at the moment, though. And oddly, the downturns in my income always seem to coincide with SSV and WSV, so I can't tell you if they're worth paying attention to.


Global climate change (or GLOCCH, as my friend Ray insists on calling it), though, I do pay attention to that. And we're in for another cold summer. Current forecast says between now and Friday it's not going to get much above 65 F, and there's a lot of rain in that forecast. A few weeks ago, I was kicking myself for not planting basil this summer, remembering the summer when I did plant it and found myself referring to the planters on the windowsill as Vietnam. But I did it last year and it sprouted a couple of inches high, then the cold rainy weather came and the plants dug deep roots. After that, they didn't grow any more leaves and the stems turned brown and they were dead by September.

This all has to do, I understand, with the Gulf Stream, and is why saying "global climate change" is more accurate than saying "global warming." Some places will get colder. And I just happen to be living in one.

But I discovered this afternoon that if you let the sun hit you, it's a pretty warm feeling. I'm just getting tired of only having three weeks a year of summer.


Just when you don't think they could get any worse, Telekom gets worse! I woke up this morning and found I couldn't connect with my DSL line. A friend called Telekom (I get so nervous having to talk German on the phone, especially with a company that doesn't have any English-speaking employees in customer service -- no Turks, either -- and only wants to get you off the phone), and they reported it was fine. Amazingly, they said they'd have an English-speaking tech call me, so I waited four and a half hours and nobody called. Very nervous about what was in my e-mail, I went off to the internet cafe down the street and checked. Nothing. Back 30 minutes later, I found -- of course! -- a message from the Telekom tech saying there was nothing wrong with my line.

And, as it turned out, there wasn't. I suddenly remembered there was a fellow American with some tech expertise and a Mac just up the hill, so I called him and he reminded me that DSL modems sometimes have to be reset, which I'd read somewhere but though was only for cable modems. You just turn them off, turn them back on, wait 15 minutes or so, and try again. (You also have to restart your computer, which he neglected to tell me, probably because he thought it was obvious). Thanks, Aaron!

What I want to know is why nobody at Deutsche Telekom could be bothered to ask if I'd tried this.

But then, they just want to get you off the phone.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Sommerloch, Part 3

In which we continue with the trivia of summer in Berlin...

I've just been push-polled! I was sitting here about 5:30 this afternoon, minding my own business, and the phone rang. "Hello, can you answer a few questions?" Maybe; I'm working at the moment. "Ah. These will just be quick questions." Okay. Never mind that I do everything I can to wreck these things because of the assumptions they have: I love to say I read 8-10 magazines a month -- which I do -- and then not check a single one of the (German) ones they list. Hey, folks, you're not alone here, you know!

"What is your age?" I told her. "Are you retired, or -- wait, you said you were working. Do you work for someone or are you independent?" Independent. "What's your profession?" Journalist. "And your income?" Varies (to put it mildly). "Are you happy with the amount you pay in taxes?" Whoa! That's a push if I ever heard one. I told her I was American, and that was that. She must've been disappointed: she'd reached someone the right age, living in the East, self-employed... Exactly the target audience.

What's going on here, of course, is the upcoming election, barely a month away. One of the big issues is that the CSU/CDU, who are currently the front-runners, have pretty much admitted they're going to have to raise taxes in order to put the economy back on the rails. Poetic justice, of course: if they hadn't bungled the Wiedervereinigung, the unification, so badly, if Helmut "I am not bribeable" Kohl (yes, he actually said that the other day) hadn't run an administration filled with bribe-takers and influence-peddlers, if the economic transition had been handled carefully, this might not be necessary.

But, like, whatever, right? I mean, I can't vote because I'm not a full-blooded German of German ancestry. I still wonder about the thousands of Turks around me, three generations strong by now, who've been disenfranchised since they got off the plane 40-odd years ago. Now that the chances of their homeland coming into the EU are bleak indeed, one wonders if they wish they could vote. (Great article by William Pfaff in the New York Review of Books analyzing this so-called "EU constitutional crisis," incidentally).

But, whatever. It's Sommerloch.


I realize that "German men's fashion" is an oxymoron, but the stuff they can sell to 20-something working class men in my neighborhood continues to boggle me. I just saw a guy, on my way to the store, walking with his girlfriend. He had on sand-colored wide-wale corduroy long shorts which came to below his knees. But an arc from the upper thighs to just above his ass had been cut out and a hunk of camo-printed cloth sewn in there. I think somewhere there's a cabal of German-haters who design these things, but that just has to be the ugliest thing I've seen anybody wearing in some months.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Sommerloch, Part 2

Well, Berlin's still here. Even though, since it's now August, fewer and fewer of my neighbors are. You can even find a place to park on my street if you want. That's deserted.

One set of neighbors I won't miss much is White Trash Fast Food, "Berlin's hippest club," which vacated its premises on the corner over the weekend. While their being there did bring some interesting paper graffiti to the 'hood, the crowds waiting to be allowed in -- or not -- brought beer-bottles, which they routinely disposed of in the traditional manner, by dropping them on the sidewalk and breaking them. People leaving the club around 4 or 5 am would also sometimes avail themselves of the traditional Berlin roar, something young guys here seem to like to do when it's late at night and they're drunk.

There sure was a lot of stuff in there: they hired a huge van and it made dozens of trips, hauling off the furniture, the decorations, the liquor, and all -- even the signs. The Chinese pagoda roof over the front door is still there, a relic of when it was the ultra-shady Kaiser des Chinas restaurant that no one ever went into and whose owners vanished so quickly that there were still dishes with ingredients measured out in them when Wally and his crew took over, but everything else is gone. The only proof that it was ever there is the front door glass, smashed by some drunk who wasn't allowed in, I suppose.

As I've said, I took extreme exception to their definition of "white trash" since it seemed to mean American working-class (something a lot of the rich-kid American bohos who come here have in common, a disdain for the common man), so I'm not going to miss their noise or their esthetic.

Even these ladies are beginning to vanish, pasted up one night on a nearby building.

They're not real pretty, but I'll miss 'em.


I've recently joined Flickr, like a (literal) million other people, and will be posting more photos as soon as I get the chance. As it is, however, there is a complete selection of the photos I took on my recent trip to France over here, for those who are interested.


While we're on a "there goes the neighborhood" kick, there was the recent story about how Michael Jackson is going to move here. I'll admit, I spent some time wondering how someone who's as reclusive as he is and used to a huge parcel of land where he can build his fantasy-world is going to fit into a city as dirty and congested as this one. Where on earth does he think he's going to live? Given his penchant for covering his face when he goes to places like Africa and India, how's he going to cope with the filth in the streets?

And is he a vegetarian? Or will he want to decorate his house with some of these?

(Thanks to Frisco Mike for both links!)


But it's Sommerloch now, and, like I said, pretty quiet. There were huge fireworks last night, though, and I wonder if it was because it was Swiss Independence Day? Surely there aren't that many Swiss people here...

Time to get out with the camera, I guess, and shoot some of the strange stuff I want to write about. Watch this space.