Wednesday, April 25, 2007

April Crumbers

One of the true joys of living in Berlin is the upbeat, positive attitude that is constantly being forced on us lucky inhabitants. A few years ago, there was the memorable academic get-together called The Power of Negation, which was such a groovy time that it had its own program of death-metal bands. Last year, the big art show -- sold out, lines, extended because of popular demand, the whole bit -- was called Melancholie. This year's just opened at the Hamburger Bahnhof and the Medical History Museum at Charité, and it's called Schmerz, thoughtfully subtitled by its curators in English: Pain.

I guess the art part is at the Bahnhof (whose central collection, particularly the Beuys, is painful enough), and the actual infliction-of-pain-and-relief-therefrom part (I hope that last part's included) is at the Medical History Museum, a place I've yet to see. They're walking distance from each other, across a bridge that was an important German-German checkpoint while the Wall was still up (the Hamburger Bahnhof, being smack up against the border, was maintained, but rarely used: I saw the awful Garland Jeffreys there once, surrounded by a display of vintage airplanes someone had rented the space for), and the path is lined with little poster-kiosks donated by one of the sponsors, Wall Advertising, each of which shows a picture of someone in pain or a means of inflicting pain.

Yup, I guess springtime's in the air in Berlin, all right!

* * *

In line with the theme of pain, commercial forces are making themselves felt, too. All over town, billboards showing athletes in pain have gone up: woman collapsing into the arms of friends, guys writhing on the ground -- all courtesy of Reebok. They're not claiming their sneakers will keep you from hurting, just urging a little moderation on the exercise front, with their Go Run Easy campaign.

Living, as I do, in a neighborhood in which you can sometimes actually see people exercising -- a far more uncommon sight than it is in the States -- I have yet to see anyone pushing it much past an amble, let alone collapsing from torn ligaments or whatever. That said, there's one thing every German jogger considers essential: the proper costume. Back when I lived on the edge of the Tiergarten, I used to exercise walk (just cardio-vascular stuff, nothing fancy) there, and would get the blackest looks of contempt from Germans who'd trot by, clad in hundreds of dollars worth of lycra, spandex, Gore-Tex, Nike, and so on. I had the temerity to wear normal sweat pants and a t-shirt or sweatshirt, depending on the weather. These days, an inspection of the contents of my iPod would, I guess, be another mandatory test -- although I don't own one and hope never to, but that's another discussion entirely.

* * *

Just about a year ago I wondered about the building on the corner of Torstr. and Prenzlauer Allee, and, thanks to my great network of readers, had the answer almost immediately. Given the ghosts and other Burden of History appurtenances inherent to it, this article (also sent in by an observant reader) ought to make your skin crawl. The thing is, what evidence is there that there's any demand whatever for something like what these Brits have planned for the building? The last real-estate bubble I lived through, in late-'70s/early '80s Austin, featured a couple of joints like this, but they went bust practically before they opened (although not before robbing Austin's great painter/poster artist Guy Juke of about six years' worth of paintings, in one case). My prediction: despite the noises they're making right now, the new owners will quietly change their plans and it'll become mixed-use office and residential space. Meanwhile, just cleaning up the pigeon poop is going to be a major project.

* * *

And on the neighborhood restaurant beat, two additions. Bandol on Torstr. has opened, looking very, very authentically French. However, it's going to be a long, long time before I set foot in there. For one thing, the menu is only available in chalk, written on the walls. This means that you have to actually be inside the place to figure out what's on the menu at any given time. Not that they actually want you in there; there's a huge, thick reservation book prominently placed at the entrance, something I've never seen in a Berlin restaurant -- or one in my neighborhood, at any rate, and the minute you approach, you start to get the fish-eye from the guys working there. From what I've gleaned walking past the place, which I do nearly every day, the prices will run around €40-50 a person, with wine (no wine list in evidence, although presumably once you're seated you get one). It seems to be doing well late at night with a bunch of West Berlin-looking folks, the sort one used to see around Grolmannstr. in the old days. And, given that the first main dish I saw written on the wall there was a cassoulet made of fish, I'm not in a particular rush to go there even if I do stumble upon the money. Fish??

But I hope they never get a website, because I get about 35 hits a week from people looking for them.

The neighborhood's other addition is as light and airy as Bandol is dark and crowded. Alpenstueck (no prissy umlauts for them!) opened in a hurry on the corner of Gartenstr. and Schröderstr., hardly a high-traffic area, in a space that was first a jolly DDR chess-club bar which was rudely turfed out to make room for a succession of eye-blindingly awful art galleries, the last of which lasted something like three years, and caused me to dub it the Gallery of Mildly Talented High School Students. I'm not sure what's going on at Alpenstueck, which is austerely undecorated and offers chairs that look like they were lifted from a high-school cafeteria. They're not taking any chances by offering southern German food, although I do like the fact that the kitchen seems to be open to the dining room, which is very unusual in this country (although maybe there's a law against it, knowing the German food-phobias). Dunno if I'll ever be in the mood for it, with Honigmond so close at hand, and the sourish middle-aged crowd it draws not looking like the most congenial company.

Berlin's best pizza, too, has, whether temporarily or not I can't figure out -- new quarters for the summertime, at least. Pizzeria la Rustica, the low-priced member of the stunning Muntagnola restaurants, has moved into an S-Bahn bogen on the edge of Monbijoupark. They have more than pizza there at all times, too, so this partnership with the Ampelmann folks looks like a win-win situation. I haven't checked it out -- hell, I haven't been to La Rustica in a long time, sad to say -- but allegedly there's info here.

Oh, and one last tantalizing sight: the place next door to Kuchi, the "extreme sushi" joint on Gipsstr., which is called -- get ready... -- "Next Door To...", has stuck up four articles from a Japanese magazine showing four regional styles of ramen. It's a tiny space -- it's where M. Vuong started, in fact, all those years ago -- but it'd be nice to have another ramen joint in the 'hood.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Hip 'n' Edgy Update

I'm big enough to admit when the New York Times gets it right, and it seems that a couple of weeks ago, that's just what they did with their recent article on Brunnenstr. as the new art district of Berlin. Actually, it's one of several, and the more serious one is down on Zimmerstr. by Checkpoint Charlie where the big guns have huge spaces inside some kind of old warehouse. And I'd say there's a reason that the Times used a picture of a cute beagle instead of any of the art on display, because most of what I saw on a recent walk up the street from Rosenthaler Platz to Bernauer Str. was pretty boring. I'd say that the Brunnenstr. galleries are sort of an arts lab, where talent can be developed.

And it's kind of not fair for Peter Herrmann to have moved his exquisite gallery for African antiquities, currently showing some astonishing Ife bronzes from Nigeria, onto the block. It just makes the other galleries' daubings and scrapings look sick. Definitely worth a visit, though. (Interestingly, I've been in that building before, since it once held the Amiga recording studios, the place where all the DDR's pop acts recorded for the state label. A friend was recording a DDR dissident band called Die Vision there, as the tea-ladies cringed.)

But what's really not fair on Brunnenstr. is the blatant move by Sony to co-opt Berlin street art. A few weeks ago, I mentioned in passing that I'd noticed a lot of broken windows around town recently, one of them in the old Beate Uhse shop at the start of Brunnenstr next to the collection of greasy spoons. A little research shows why this has happened. First, we started seeing brown-paper circles that said www.dont-forget-the-game. com all over the place. When you go there, the first thing you come upon is a blog, which purports to discuss street art. Fine, but click on the photo gallery link and it gets more insidious.

It's an ad. In fact, if you go down to Brunnenstr. to the old Beate Uhse place, there's a bilingual sheet of paper posted there bragging that Sony has gotten Berlin street-artists to cooperate with them in promoting the new PlayStation Portable System (PSP) device. So we have a huge number of stencilled brown-paper women caressing huge PSPs, many of which have been defaced by street-artist 6, and everywhere you look, someone's stuck a PSP-shaped sticker with their custom design on it. Other "artists" have made PSP-shaped art which is on display around the corner on Torstr. in a fake art gallery.

Now I understand the rocks through the windows. And it's depressing to walk around and have to wonder if the latest piece of street art is, in fact, some lame-ass viral marketing campaign. I wonder how they enlisted these guys. Just handed 'em a PSP? Was money involved? I have to say, I saw one of these in action when I flew to America last month, and although the game being played was that moronic car-crash one, the graphics were extremely impressive. I wouldn't mind having one (well, if there were a game that could hold my interest for more than ten minutes, anyway, which there rarely are on these systems), but would I viral-write an article about it for one? I don't think so.

So boo to the supposed "street artists" who let themselves be pimped by Sony, hooray to the ad-busting graffiti artists who are sabotaging the campaign, and, like that car whose ads were everywhere a couple of monts ago -- what was it called again? -- may this fade from view as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, a bit of street art from Brunnenstr. that I really find impressive:

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rollo Banks, RIP

The e-mail came last night at quarter of midnight: "Rollo died two days ago from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was a few days shy of turning 65 and been in bad health for a long time." It wasn't even signed, but it didn't have to be; the sender was a long-time friend.

Rollo came into my life, and those of my friends, when he married Margaret Moser, Austin's queen of the groupies, and a talented journalist whose career I'd helped get started. Thinking back on it, I have no idea how they ever met, but they made a great couple, two larger-than-life people who'd collided and stuck together. I thought it was fate: Margaret's a large woman, and Rollo was a tattoo artist. "He must see a canvas waiting for a masterpiece," I kidded her. Actually, she replied, Rollo wasn't at all turned on by tattooed women.

To say he was a "tattoo artist," though, diminishes him in these days when every teenager has some blob of ink on his or her skin. Rollo (whose real name was Mike Malone, and who was born in Fairfax, in Marin County, suburban San Francisco) was the designated heir of Sailor Jerry, whose China Sea Tattoo was the pioneering studio in Honolulu's Chinatown. Jerry opened in the 1930s, and developed a huge number of designs in what might be called the American Classic mode: anchors, mermaids, the "battle in the sun" showing two eagles fighting in mid-flight, skulls and dice, cocktail glasses. These designs were first worked out on paper, where they were called "flash," and Jerry was astute enough to copyright them. This, of course, didn't keep lesser artists from stealing them, and counterfeit or unattributed Sailor Jerry flash is rife in the world's tattoo studios. Jerry was also something of a chemist, and developed several new colored inks that were safe. Purple, in particular, had been a problem, as I remember Rollo telling the story. There was a studio in Hong Kong that used a particularly brilliant purple, which was admired by all except for the unfortunate fact that it eventually gave you blood poisoning.

China Sea prospered because of its location: sailors love tattoos, and Honolulu is mid-point for the Pacific Fleet. Sailors on leave get drunk, drunk sailors get tattoos. Sailor Jerry did great work, and his fame spread. How young Rollo came to apprentice with him I'm not sure, but I do know that his first experience with humans (as opposed to potatoes, which is what tattoo artists traditionally learn on, leading to the disparaging description of someone who'll let you ink anything on them as a "potato") was inking people's names on them. This was something the "local boys" liked, and Rollo quickly came to loathe: "They'd ask me, 'Hey, boy, you got plenny many alphabet?' which was their way of letting me know they had one of those incredibly long Hawaiian names." He also made them write the name down, every time. "I now how to spell Jim, but if you write it wrong, that's your responsibility, not mine." And in this respect, he'd tell a story about a tattoo artist he'd known in England who'd had a particularly inebriated young man come into his shop demanding to be tattooed -- in really big, black, thick letters -- with the name of his new idol, an American pop star who'd just taken England by storm, and whose name sounded odd to the artist, who'd never heard of him. He made him repeat it several times, but wasn't sure how to spell it. Finally the customer passed out, and the artist, thinking he had it, went to work. The young man woke up to see his brand-new tattoo, huge block letters praising ELVES.

Stories: the pit is full of them. Rollo used to encourage me to try to sell a book of tattoo artists' stories. Thanks to him, I spent a lot of time around some of America's greatest tattoo artists, and he was right: besides a steady hand and a flair for color, it seems that having the genes for being a natural raconteur was part of the package. Since tattooing is an incredibly slow practice, talking to the customer is part of the service, and given how colorful the customers were before tattooing became a teenage fad, you got great stories back in exchange.

Sailor Jerry passed China Sea Tattoo on to Rollo, who himself eventually took on protegés. Over the years, Rollo got plenty of tattoos himself, a whole body suit, as they're called, mostly in classical Japanese style, from what I could see. Unlike today's exhibitionists, Rollo kept his tattoos covered, because, like Rembrandt drawings, they fade with exposure to light. Nowadays, in the summer, I'll see some kid with thousands of dollars' worth of work on him running around with his shirt off, and remember Rollo talking about how that not only faded the colors, but smeared the black outlines, turning the work into one huge multicolored blotch in just a few years. Rollo had too much respect for the masters who'd worked on him, one of whom, Horiochi, was considered Japan's greatest master, the latest in a centuries-old lineage.

And although the American Classic designs (not only on people, but as flash, which people buy and trade for good money) paid the bills, Rollo also paid attention to the Japanese masters. After he moved to Austin to be with Margaret, he set up shop near the Austin Chronicle offices, and that drew musicians and other scenesters to the little house with the China Sea shingle out front. Among the people drawn there was a local eccentric who owned Atomic City, a shop selling Japanese monster-movie figurines and other Japanese pop culture artifacts. The guy's name was Jim, but everyone in town knew him as the Royal Hawaiian Prince, or Prince, for short. He swore he was what his name said, a member of the Hawaiian royal family, although that seemed really unlikely. But he was flamboyant, and had some tattoos, and wanted Rollo to create a masterpiece on him. Rollo rose to the challenge, and admirably: over a year in the making, Prince's back-piece was the culmination of everything Rollo had learned about classical Japanese tattoo art -- with a twist. It showed Godzilla destroying Tokyo as airplanes swirled around him. Waves in the style of Hokusai broke behind Godzilla, exquisitely stylized flames leapt from the broken skyscrapers, and tiny people writhed in the monster's hands. In the bottom left corner, three Japanese characters spelled Go Ji Ra. When it was finished, Prince, Rollo, Margaret, and I went to the National Tattoo Convention, held that year in New Orleans, and, as I reported in the Wall Street Journal, they took home a prize.

Austin loved Rollo, who did a number of covers for the Chronicle, particularly for Chinese New Year, and Rollo loved Austin. I cooked for several Thanksgiving parties at Rollo and Margaret's house, and I remember one where Rollo, rather sozzled, yelled my name. "Ward! I want you to know something. There are people who I just know are going to get tattoos. There are people who are thinking about it, and might do it and might not. And then there are people who, if they're going to get tattooed, they wouldn't come to me, they'd go to some art faggot like Don Ed Hardy [Rollo's purported arch-rival, master of the classic Japanese style, with a Master's degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, who'd been written up in several high art magazines]. Now, you, you'd probably go to Hardy if you were gonna do it. But I don't think you're ever going to get a tattoo. And I just want you to know that that's ALL RIGHT WITH ME! I got enough work! I don't have to tattoo everyone in the world. So it's okay that you're not going to get a tattoo." And he was right: if I was ever going to consider it, I probably would have gone to Hardy -- Rollo, I believe, had. But he was also right: as much as I was fascinated with the world of tattoo artists, thanks to the entrée Rollo had given me, I wasn't going to be anybody's potato.

Eventually, Rollo and Margaret put their heads together. China Sea wasn't doing all that well in Austin (this was, as I said, well before the fad began) and the home shop on Army Street in Honolulu's Chinatown needed shaping up. The couple moved to Hawaii, and Margaret got a job with a firm which produced those freebie tourist magazines which clog up free space in hotel lobbies down there. It wasn't very demanding work, but it paid well enough, and she loved Hawaii. I pitched a story on traditional Hawaiian music to an airline magazine, and they bit. Margaret set up the hotel and rental car end, and offered to research where I could find slack-key guitarists and falsetto singers. It was a week filled with adventures off the Hawaiian tourist trail, as I interviewed the Samoan-Hawaiian slide guitarist Tau Moe about his 40-year tour which had only recently ended, found Hank Williams' former steel guitarist Jerry Byrd teaching in a small music store in a corner of Honolulu, visited a high-end ukulele factory, and, in fact, managed to do everything except find a slack-key gig, although Margaret ransacked the local media for clues.

One of the most magical days, though, came towards the end of the trip. Rollo had wanted to show me around Chinatown, as much to dispel the guidebooks' characterization of the neighborhood as insanely dangerous as anything else. So I met him at 6:30 one morning and we toured the place. There was the all-night dancehall, where a motley orchestra played sleazy music and you could really rent an Okinawan girl for 50 cents per dance, although the real attraction was the little pavilions off to one side where the same girl would give you a blow-job for considerably more. I remember the orchestra's drummer was sound asleep, although still playing with one hand, while the other picked a scab behind his ear. We went to a strange antiques/curiosa store, filled with dusty Chinese stuff, open, for some reason, at that odd hour. We met a Samoan lawyer who'd just come back from burying another of his brothers whom his father had shot in an ongoing dispute about some land. And, finally, we visited the wholesale market, where they were wheeling in tuna for the inspection of the local sushi chefs. (Actually, I've already mentioned this trip in my post about bánh mi a couple of months ago). When we got back to the shop, there was a line down the block because the fleet was in. I don't know what I did for the next few hours, but Margaret had, at long last, found a gig, by the amazing slack-key guitarist and singer Ledward Ka'apana at a locals-only club, where we sat for a couple of hours mesmerized by his voice and by the table full of lesbians next to us who were well-versed in traditional hand-hula and were performing for each other -- and their mother, this being Mother's Day. The only reason we left was that Margaret realized she had both sets of house keys, and Rollo was trapped at the shop, unable to close and go home. By the time we got there, he was exhausted and he quickly chased everyone out of the studio and shut it. As he got in my rental car, he handed something to Margaret. "Put this in your purse," he said. "I got no way to carry it." It was his wallet, so stuffed with $20 bills that it was bursting its seams and incapable of folding. Fleet's in.

Margaret and Rollo didn't last. She came back to Austin and got her old job at the Chronicle back, and the grapevine had it that Rollo had started using other kinds of needles. Another wife apparently helped him get clean, but I lost track of him after I moved to Berlin. But I remember the stories and the characters he'd introduced me to, and always felt a lot of affection for him for doing that.

When I was back in the States last month, I noticed a lot of kids wearing t-shirts with Sailor Jerry flash on them. The words "Sailor Jerry" and "China Sea" were on the shirts, and I thought, hey, great! Rollo's licensed the flash now that tattoos are so popular, so maybe he's making some money. I don't know if he was or not, or what the details of the deal might have been, but whatever happened, it apparently wasn't enough to keep the darkness away.

I can only hope that he's gone somewhere where the colors never fade, there's always a cold beer at hand, and there's always someone to listen to the stories and tell some more. And the fleet comes in only when you need the cash.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Happy Ending (Pretty Much)

And so it came to pass that a consortium of Berlin bloggers purchased Jim's Adlon gift-certificate for the full price. I took possession of the cash on Sunday.

And then I did an incredibly stupid thing: I put it, and some money I had in my pocket, in the bank.

Monday I got up, wrote a transfer-slip to the Obergerichtsvollsieher, and took it to the bank. On a whim, I checked my balance. The €220 I'd deposited twelve hours before had turned into €150 and change.

I hiked back home, picked up the receipt for the deposit, and went back to the bank. €74 and change had been taken out that morning, the woman told me. A few more clicks on her computer disclosed the culprit: Deutsche Telekom.

I have no idea how this happened. I have never authorized them to do this. I'm not completely sure how they got my account number, although it's been the same since before I moved here (I got it when I did a short-lived "Letter From America" for the late Radio For You station here).

So I was still short.

Fortunately, this morning, a notoriously undependable magazine I write for deposited $300 in my American account, so in a few minutes, I'm removing more than enough to pay this guy when he shows up on Thursday. I'm not taking any more chances.

And today I picked up three hours' proofreading work on a newsletter and brochure from a German sausage-seasoning company. Not what I want to be doing with my time, but it's work.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

My Mistake

There are times when things are so bad that I think the worst mistake I ever made was moving to Germany in 1993. But then I reflect that, for a while, at least, I had a very exciting life as a writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe who got to travel all over the place and write about art and culture. I also had a radio show which I really enjoyed, as did my many listeners, some of whom still remember it seven years later.

There are other times when I think the worst mistake I ever made was loaning a great deal of money to a friend who has still not paid me back, and who may never do so. But neither of us could have forseen that the sure thing would be cancelled when some people flew planes into the World Trade Center. I mean, what civilian could have predicted that?

But two years ago I made a mistake which has finally caught up with me, and which has cancelled any remaining affection I may have had for living in Germany. It's a mistake anyone living here might make, so let me explain.

When I was whizzing around Europe for the Journal, I nearly always took the train. My territory was central Europe and Scandinavia, so it made sense: one day going there, one day reporting the story, one day back -- and the story would inevitably get written subconsciously on that return journey. So it made sense for me to obtain a Bahn Card, the discount card you can buy from Deutsche Bahn. Back then, there was only one kind of Bahn Card: it gave you 50% off of every ticket, and it had a Rail Plus supplement, which gave you half off of tickets on rail lines in a number of other countries. It wasn't cheap, but, as I once realized, one round-trip ticket to Copenhagen paid for it.

I bought one in 2004, but that was around when the work started to fall off spectacularly. My editor at the Journal had been replaced, and suddenly I wasn't getting any work at all from them. Or, for that matter, from anyone else, at least not the kind of work that required me to travel. I missed travelling -- I still do. But when 2005 came around, I realized I had better uses for what little money I had than a Bahn Card.

Nonetheless, although I hadn't ordered one or renewed it on the website as I'd usually done, one came in the mail. Then Deutsche Bahn tried taking the money out of my bank account, but failed, because there wasn't enough. They sent me a notice. I replied that I didn't want the card and wasn't going to pay for it or use it. And that, I thought, was the end of it.

I didn't pay for it, and I didn't use it. At the end of April, 2006, I got a stern warning from them ordering me to pay them. I wrote back and repeated that I had not requested the card, and had not used it. And that, I thought, was the end of it yet again.

It wasn't. Shortly thereafter I started getting bills from lawyers. The €64 Bahn Card debt was now encumbered with legal fees, fees for, as far as I could tell, writing me a letter. And they were big fees, too. Now, I'd gotten letters like this before from mysterious phone companies who thought I owed them money. I ignored them, and they went away. That's what I decided to do with these letters.

Big mistake. In October, they told me I owed €116.42. In November, it was suddenly €169.70. In December, it was €185.67. On December 7, I was found guilty of indebtedness by a court in Baden-Baden and a judgement was mailed to me in a jaundice-colored yellow envelope.

Now, in America, this would be a black spot on your credit record. My credit here is already terrible. For one thing, I am considered very unstable because I don't have a regularly occurring income. I live in a country where nobody is self-employed, where if you don't draw a regular salary, there's only one bank (the one I use, of course) which will allow you an account. (I once knew a guy who was hired on a freelance basis to come to Germany to teach corporate communications to a major bank. After he was ordered to close his account with them because he wasn't making regular deposits, he asked his clients what kind of message they thought they were sending. They shrugged and told him to go to another bank. He had plenty of clients in the States, so he just up and left instead.)

So I didn't think anything more of this until last week. That was when I got a letter from an Obergerichtsvollzieher, one of those words whose individual components you have to look up in the dictionary, but which eventually revealed itself to be "high court bailiff." I mentioned this to someone and was told "You are in terrible trouble. You're going to have to hide your computer and all your CDs. You're going to have to empty out your apartment. They have the right to seize everything you own in payment of the debt -- and they will. They can take your bed. They can take your silverware. They have unlimited license." I thought this was paranoia.

It's not.

They really can do all of these things. No matter if the value of the goods seized is many times the value of the debt. They will do it because they can. Can they deprive you of your means of making a living? In the United States, the law is very clear about this: you can't impound a violinist's violin, or a mechanic's tools. But in Germany, you can.

A couple of friends rushed over to help. They perused the letters, made notes, hemmed and hawed. "You know," one of them mused, "when it comes to stuff like this, Kafka was a documentarian." No kidding.

Making it worse was the fact that it was Easter weekend. One of my friends wrote a letter for me to send to the bailiff explaining things. I had a copy of the letter to Deutsche Bahn. I faxed both to the bailiff, and got ready to call him during office hours. Or should I say hour: he is available for one hour, two days a week. And my last chance for any mercy was to reach him on Tuesday.

It took thirty minutes, but I got him on the phone. Miraculously, he spoke a little English, enough to tell me that there was nothing he could do to mitigate my guilty sentence and that all I could do was pay him before April 19. Oh, and the price, which now included his fee, which was nowhere in any of the paperwork in my hands, was now €225.

A couple of weeks ago, when I got back from Texas, I found yet another note that the postal customs people had seized yet another package of the CDs people send me for review. I've taken to letting them send them back, because in most cases it'll be yet another singer-songwriter I'll wind up tossing after a couple of tracks, and the Postzollamt is way the hell down in Wilmersdorf. But this was from a label that puts out stuff I like, so I schlepped down there to rescue it. I was confronted with a sign stating that, due to a lack of personnel, waiting times had increased significantly, and that after registering, I was to wait in the new, utterly undecorated, waiting room next door. Which I did, for over an hour, a fourfold increase in their previous record. When I finally had my name called, the woman with the package asked me to open it. I told her (and pointed out on the customs label, which never does any good) that these were promotional items, that I was a journalist, and so on. She grabbed one of the CDs and pointed to the bar-code. "This has to be blacked out so that this item can't be sold!" she yelled. I told her I wasn't the one who'd sent it. "You tell them that they have to do this!" She seemed genuinely angry. Or maybe it was just the stress of working somewhere where you knew everyone you met hated you.

What these incidents drove home for me was that there are two Germanies. One is occupied by the people who are my friends and my friends' friends and husbands and wives, the ones I met when I had the (German) girlfriend who led to my moving here, the ones I hung out with when I did move, the ones I've worked with and for. Then there are the ones who run the place, obsessed with a perverted, rigid, narrow need for "Ordnung," which translates directly as "order," but is much, much more. Ordnung is conformity; Ordnung is submission; Ordnung is the petty regulations that don't let you recycle glass on Sunday, that make all onions the same size; Ordnung is why I've stopped listening to music, because I have to use headphones after 10pm no matter what, or my neighbors next door will call the police. Not because they're disturbed by it. No: because they can.

Thinking about Ordnung leads to a lot of other places I'm not going to go right now, mostly because it's a nice day and I'm trying very hard not to slip down the slope of depression that is almost inevitable when I think of what I could be doing with that €225 I'm going to be parting with soon. I've already been for a long walk (my CD player stopped working, so I went to Alexanderplatz to price a new one: looks like about €60 goes out the window on that one) and although my landlord's mother (one of the Ordnung Germans if there ever was one, as the bitter gurn that suffices for her face makes clear) is here, so far I've avoided contact with her. If the checks come in on time, I'll have the money in time for the bailiff, and -- in one of those too-good-to-be-true coincidences -- there's even a possibility that Jim's Mistake will pay for My Mistake in part.

But I'm very, very tired of Ordnung, and very, very tired of living here. I gave a lot to this city, and I never got a whole hell of a lot back. It's time to move on, to somewhere with just a little bit less Ordnung and a lot more capacity for fun.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Jim's Mistake

In 1970, I lived in Sausalito, which is the town that's at the other end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Despite what the town is now, back then there were still little enclaves of funk, and my apartment, needless to say, was one of them. It was set on a steep hill, so that although it was technically a basement, there was still a nice view of Richardson Bay, the fishing fleet (yes, there was still a fishing fleet), and Mt. Tamalpais.

One person I'd always inevitably get to know would be my mailman, because back then I was inundated with free records, and, less frequently, books. The records would come sometimes in outrageous boxes with promo trinkets in them, the books were always heavy, and so there was always a lot of mail at my house. At one point, my mailman was a jolly young guy with wire-framed glasses, who seemed too smart to be in this for a career -- you saw a lot of folks like that working in the Post Office in those days. This one's name was Jim, and sometimes he'd stop to chat for a moment. Nice guy.

But one day he showed up and announced that he was quitting. "Yup. I've saved up enough money and me and my girlfriend are going to do something we've always wanted to do: go to Africa." Now, this was a surprise, especially since Jim was white (and I presumed his girlfriend was, too). There was something of a vogue for middle-class black Americans to visit Africa back then, but you didn't get many white tourists from the States. It was also a surprise because I'd gotten a book in the mail called Bright Continent, by Susan Blumenthal, an American woman who'd done the same thing and published a guidebook to sub-Saharan Africa. Remember, this was in the days before Lonely Planet and so on -- it was 1974 or so, and books like this just didn't exist. I'd taken a look in it and gotten hooked; it was not only useful as a guide, but it was fun to read.

So I mentioned this to Jim, and he said sure, he'd love to look at it. "Take it with you," I suggested. "Bring it back when you get back."

And he did. It remains one of my treasures: beat up, bookmarked with odd bus tickets and harissa-can labels, annotated with corrections and amplifications. I've never been to sub-Saharan (or super-Saharan, for that matter) Africa, but I've got a book that has.

I'm not sure what happened next, but I lost track of Jim and eventually moved to Texas.

Fast forward.

Last year, I heard from Jim again. He'd found this blog, and was bemoaning the fact that he'd been in Berlin some months earlier, and hadn't known I was here. He was in Portland, Oregon now, selling real estate and hoping to find something else to do, but loving Oregon and hoping I could visit. Well, that was sort of out of the question, but it sure was good to hear from him, and yes, it was too bad that he hadn't known I was here. But, I said in my e-mail back to him, I had a friend in Eugene, Oregon, who constantly fantasized about moving to Portland but didn't seem to be doing anything about it. Not only that, I figured Jim would like this guy and maybe he could kick his butt gently enough so that he'd move and realize his dream while putting a couple of bucks in Jim's pocket.

And that's just what happened: Brett and his wife Carole had dinner with Jim one evening when they were in town for some musical event and Jim wound up showing them a place that they wound up buying. Everybody's happy: Brett's doing a lot more good work and is much happier being out of the decaying hippie/university surroundings he was in, Carole's doing fine with her artwork and other innumerable projects, and Jim's got a couple of people he likes to hang out with.

I like happy endings, myself, but there's more. To thank me for sending him customers, Jim sent me a gift. It's a €200 gift certificate redeemable at the restaurant Quarré or the "gourmet restaurant" Lorenz Adlon at the Hotel Adlon. It expires on April 19 and cannot be renewed.

And when I saw it, my heart sank. I knew he meant well, and yet the Adlon pretty much represents a huge hunk of what I don't like about this city. It's got a horrible reputation as a place to stay: I once helped an editor for Conde Nast Traveller research a story on Berlin, and he was staying there, went for a walk, and was refused re-entry because he wasn't wearing a jacket. He finally convinced the doorman to accompany him to the front desk, where they conceded that he was, indeed, a guest. Then there was the young African woman who was fired for wearing her hair in an "unconventional" style, albeit one traditional to her people -- and hardly outrageous. The stories go on and on; the high-end travellers I know avoid the place.

The idea that I could get into one of their restaurants without a jacket and tie, too, is ludicrous. That's not the way I dresss, nor is it the way you have to dress in most restaurants here. One nice thing about Berlin is that, outside of government circles, anyway, it's very informal. I don't want to eat where the Bonners eat anyway, so they can have their jackets and ties.

Jim was, understandably, distressed that I was upset by this gift. Why, he said, he'd been to the Adlon and it didn't seem like that kind of place. And couldn't I borrow a jacket and tie? (Answer: no. From whom? Nobody I know has one either!)

I've tried not thinking about this for a while, but it occurred to me recently that the clock was ticking on this gift, so I took it down the other day and saw the date. I honestly don't know what to do. I don't think they check ID when you cash it in, so maybe I should sell it. But I don't know anyone who'd want to buy it, either. Should I hit Craigslist? Just let it expire quietly in its folder here by my desk? It's only eight days away.

Some day, I hope, I'll visit Portland. I also hope I'll have enough money to take Jim out to dinner and explain the cultural nuance behind all of this. Meanwhile, I've got a white elephant with a Quadriga on it making me feel guilty.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


The other day, I made a hasty decision to leave the S-Bahn at the Wedding station due to an expired ticket, and figured that, since it was almost a nice day, I'd just walk home. Reaching the former East-West border, I was gratified to see that one of my favorite bits of unknown Berlin was still intact. The last time I was around it, the sidewalk was under construction, and I figured that, being unauthorized, this delightful installation was probably long gone.

But no. And since it's Easter weekend, I went back to shoot it today.

This little fellow is set in the pavement just beyond this familiar marker:

In fact, that's why he's there. He and his brothers and sisters decorate a swath of sidewalk where Chausseestr. meets Liesenstr. -- a pretty obscure corner of town occupied by not much:

This patch of earth was a no-man's land. Now, as all Berliners know, and few outside of town do, there were two Walls. There was the big, thick one with the rounded bits stuck on top, and, some dozens of meters away, there was a thinner one with less fortification. Inbetween was no-man's land, with a path down its middle. This area was filled with all manner of impediments, with the aim of making an escape over the thin wall, across the bare area, and over the big wall to West Berlin, impossible. As we know, it was pretty effective, and it not only sealed Berliners out, but it sealed the no-man's land in.

And that's where the rabbits come in. I remember my first visit to Berlin in 1988, and climbing one of those observation towers at the edge of the Tiergarten, from which I could see the area which had once held Potsdamer Platz, the lonely scrap of a once-grand hotel the sole witness to what had stood there before the War. Inbetween, dust, rocks, scraggly shrubs and weeds, and rabbits. Lots of rabbits.

Given that I saw the Wall as a symbol of terror, as a structure which had added immeasurably to world tensions, as a (literally) concrete representation of the Communist Threat back then, it was unnerving to look over it and see...cute.

"Oh, yeah," said one of the friends who were showing me around, "they got in there somehow, and since there's nothing to threaten them, they, well, they did what rabbits do."

The Berlin Wall. And lots of rabbits. Apparently they were everywhere.

It's not that there were no threats, though. There were trip-wires attached to automatic firing devices. Hip hop hip trip, KABOOM. One less bunny.

And what about the guard dogs who patrolled with the guards? They must not have had a lot of fun: if they caught a skinny East German trying to defect, they had to give him to the humans. And since Germans love dogs -- even the brutal youth who were conscripted for guard duty on this extremely unpopular assignment must have loved dogs, being German -- who could begrudge faithful Odin a rabbit now and again?

Mmmmm! Bunny sushi!

And that's how the rabbits got in the sidewalk. After discovering them for the first time, I mentioned them to a friend who told me that an artist -- an American woman, as I remember -- had installed them in memory of the rabbits who used to live between the Walls, and who, of course, vanished as soon as the Wall was dismantled. When I first saw them, they were a bright coppery color, but as you can see, they've tarnished. There's no signature, no tag, no nothing. Just rabbits. (And just today, this friend said she had no knowledge of the rabbits or the artist, so my information may not be correct, although it's what I remember from four or five years ago). I love that this group exists in a place almost nobody has any reason to visit, on the edge of a garbage-strewn lot, on the corner of a street nobody lives on.

Not that Liesenstr. is without interest: maybe nobody lives there, but there are a bunch of graveyards, one of which has a French chapel, a French war memorial for soldiers who died in defense of the "King of Paris," and the gravestone of Theodor Fontane. I once collected some big pieces of Wall in this graveyard, and still have them in storage in Texas.

And, at the end of Liesenstr., where it stops at Gartenstr., there are two rotten railroad bridges and, recently stripped of its protective coating of vegetation, a rather large remnant of the Wall:

And, at night, rabbits. Maybe.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Last Crumbs From The Trip

The highlight of my SXSW this year was getting to interview Joe Boyd, the legendary record producer, on-stage as part of the panels program. I do wish he'd read less from his book (hey, it was on sale right there in the Convention Center; whet the audience's appetite so they'll buy!) and given me more time to ask him about stuff that wasn't in the book (and about his next one, which'll cover his years as a world music pioneer), but it was an enjoyable time, and he mentioned that he'd be in San Francisco at the same time I was in Marin, so we agreed to hook up at Village Music, the great and soon-to-be-defunct record store.

Which we did, on Tuesday morning. Showing remarkable self-control, Joe only bought a small stack of records and arranged to have them shipped to his house in London. Then, in one of those remarkable coincidences that happen all the time at Village Music, in walked an old friend of his, the woman who'd given him the biggest hit of his career, Maria Muldaur! She scampered back to her house to get him an advance copy of her new record, and Joe and I went for some coffee at a nearby shop. She met us there, and I got to snap a pic:

After we went our separate ways, I sped over to Berkeley to meet my friend Jaan for lunch at the remarkable Vik's Chaat Corner, a place I'd heard about but never gone to. It's basically a South Indian snack bar, and I was numbed into indecision by the choice. I finally settled on Bel Puri for myself, a dish I'd read about in countless Indian novels.

Described in the takeaway menu I picked up as "Crisp puffed rice mixed with onions, cilantro and potatoes with tamarind, mint, and garlic chutnies," it wasn't as exciting as it sounds, as perhaps the photo hints. Jaan, though, went for the Dahi Batata Puri, which rocked:

The description on the menu is "crisp puffed puris stuffed with potatoes and garbanzos covered with spices, yoghurt, and tamarind chutney," and it was one of those great South Indian things that balances a whole lot of different disparate elements perfectly. Afterwards, we hit the grocery store next door, and I marvelled at how much fresher the spices in there were than the ones at the Indian markets here. I also picked up a couple of those tiny Indian regional cookbooks (I'm a sucker for them, always have been) and once I decode them (ingredients often have Hindi names, but I'm getting better at them) I see some great meals in my future.

* * *

Probably the best discovery at SXSW was that Bobby Patterson, a legendary Dallas soul singer, is alive and performing. He was on the Ponderosa Stomp showcase, but went on at 1:30, which is too late for me, but the Stomp also had a day party on 6th St., so I made it over for that. The man is in top form, he had a great little band, and his between-song comments, delivered in rapid-fire surrealistic jive, made me want to hear his radio show. I managed to get a few performance shots, one of which even came out!

My old pal John T. Davis took two pix of me and Bobby afterwards, but I forgot to show him where the zoom button was, so I'll spare you those. It doesn't look, from the current Ponderosa listing, as if Patterson's playing this year's show, which is a shame, but I have to say, the lineup is, with the exception of the previously-unknown-to-me Jay Chevalier (a man with no discernable talent except for irritating the audience), absolutely incredible. If I were going to be in New Orleans on May 2 (and I'm not), I'd be there!

Another great singer and songwriter who won't be Stomping closed out SXSW for me: a rare performance by the enigmatic Swamp Dogg, who, I'm glad to say, is still in rare form. He's got a new album out, Resurrection, which I haven't listened to yet, but at least one of the songs, "They Crowned An Idiot King," is as angry as the Swamp Dogg of old. "It's 1970 and he's mad again," enthused Art Fein, who's been pushing the Swamp Dogg cause for years. I'll be doing a Fresh Air piece on him shortly. Swamp, I mean, not Art.

* * *

There were other highlights, musical, culinary, and social, and as always SXSW was overwhelming enough that I was glad for the week after so I could come down and do something else, even if that something else was an almost equally frantic trip to California. Everywhere I went, people asked me the same questions, so I felt like passing out a FAQ card:

* I thought you were moving to France. So did I; I'd anticipated selling my book proposal, but the woman who helped me develop it misrepresented herself as an agent. She wasn't, so I fired her. I'm now on my fifth agent, and he told me just before I left that he doesn't get it, either.

* So what's keeping you from moving? At the moment, €12,441.57, which, at today's Euro-Dollar exchange rate, is $16,569.65. That figure includes paying back debts, paying all my back rent, getting a new apartment in France, moving, and buying a new washing machine and couch.

* That doesn't seem like a whole lot. I hear you on Fresh Air. Don't you have any other work? Actually, no. Most editors no longer even answer queries. There's almost no work out there that I can see. That's why I'm trying to sell the book.

* Yeah, I know what you mean. I lost a lot of work this year, too. Thank heavens my wife has a job. Thank heavens you have a wife. With a job. Wouldn't mind having one of those myself.

Okay, it's Monday, New York's almost awake. Time to start moving that book forward again. One thing the past few days of being back here brought to my attention is that I don't want to be here any more. Thus, better start dealing with the cure.