Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The Bantus Are Back

Okay, time for something good. I got a call from Karen on Saturday saying she'd run into Latif on the street and that he and Mario were back in business. This is good news indeed.

It was Karen and her husband Michael who alerted me to the Bantu Bar, just a short distance from my house. Mario and Latif are from Portugese-speaking Africa, although I've never been sure if it's Angola or Mozambique. Could be either, though, because "Bantu" turns out to be a general term covering a large number of peoples throughout central Africa. Anyway, these two guys kept hanging around Las Cucarachas, the Mexican restaurant Karen and Michael had, and asked Michael smart questions about opening a business. Then they disappeared, and the next thing Michael knew, they were being invited to the opening of the Bantu Bar.

It was a fairly tiny place, but in a good location, where there was very little competition for a hip, young crowd. There were pictures of Malcolm X and South African travel posters and a conga drum people could beat on if they felt so moved, but the thing everyone remembers about the Bantu Bar was the peanuts. Every day I'd see Mario, the taller one, shopping at my supermarket and buying several kilos of peanuts in the shell. When you sat down at your table, the first thing that would happen would be a basket of peanuts would appear. It took a while for the fastidious Germans to learn that they wanted you to throw the shells on the floor for atmosphere or something, but people eventually caught on.

Mario and Latif were really friendly and although I never went for the expensive and ornate cocktails that were their main money-makers, I was always welcome for a couple of beers, and given its proximity to my house, it was the bar where I'd take people. I've had a few memorable evenings there, one of which got hairy as a reporter friend who had been to cover the war in the Balkans got rather hammered and started saying, over and over, "I saw bad things. I saw bad things..." It was also a good place to take out-of-towners for a dose of exotic Berlin atmosphere without going to one of those black-walled dives where permanently depressed people smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and acted like they were in absinthe comas.

Several things combined to make me stop going to the Bantu. First, a genial Scotsman took over a bar closer to my house and ran it somewhat like an English pub, which I found refreshing. Second, I was on my second try with the English-language magazine, and I'd asked a journalism professor friend in the States if he knew any students who might be interested in helping me launch the thing. Unfortunately, he did.

The guy he put me in touch with had a girlfriend in Germany he was planning to move here to be with after graduation, which was fortuitous, but he was also something of a prize student, so it looked like I was doubly blessed. He turned out to be a huge bear of a black guy with dreadlocks, which I certainly hadn't anticipated, but he had a few meetings with me, seemed smart enough, and so we started hatching a plan. I took him to the Bantu one night, gave him some research to do, and went about trying to find investors. He found a place to live through Karen and Michael, and then the horrors started. The first thing he did was to break up with his girlfriend, whom I'd met and rather liked, but she was in Bonn and locked into some program of studies that she couldn't or wouldn't transfer to one of the Berlin universities.

Anyway, this guy had noticed something about Berlin: big black guys with dreadlocks get a lot of action, or a lot of offers. And then he disappeared. He stopped paying rent at his apartment, and the next thing I knew, he'd moved up the hill from me with a small Croatian woman who, he proudly said, wanted him to be her pimp. After all, to a lot of people here, that's what black people are good at: pimping, rapping, and playing basketball. They don't even see this as racism; they've never actually been around many black people, so they take their cue from the media.

Another suggestion she made, one he actually took her up on, was to start living more naturally, eating organic foods, and not taking synthetic drugs. Including, I didn't find out until much, much later, the powerful anti-psychotics he'd been on for years.

Well, one thing led to another. He was living on Zionskirchstr., and yes, there was a church there, a great big one, with the name Zion on it, and yes, he started fixating on that and decided that he was going to take it over and preach salvation to the Germans. He'd long ago stopped thinking about the magazine, as had I, with no one to help me out with it. He'd lost the painstakingly-assembled research I'd liberated from the last magazine project. Instead, he rampaged around, drinking heavily, smoking tons of pot, hanging out with derelicts, eating meals in restaurants and walking away, and I guess this is the place to mention that Zionskirchstr. was only a few blocks from the Bantu Bar. Naturally, he started getting picked up by the police, who were no more savvy about black people than anyone else. Maybe less so.

Thus, when Mario, tall and dreadlocked, and, yes, black, would be walking to work, he'd sometimes get rousted. Cops started coming into his bar and asking him about things that this American had done, thinking he'd done them himself. And, the wacko guy himself went to the Bantu and caused a few scenes there, once accusing Mario of screwing his Croatian girlfriend. Finally, one day Mario saw me in the street and raged up to me and demanded to know who this American was, why nobody could control him, and when was he going to be jailed or deported. I told him I'd been in touch with his parents, and they were in total denial, and I was trying to avoid him myself. Mario was cool about it when he saw I was on the receiving end of a lot of this, but after that I didn't feel comfortable going to the Bantu unless I was with a bunch of other people, not even after this guy abruptly disappeared, so far for good.

Even so, I was shocked a couple of months ago when I walked by and saw the Bantu was empty. I asked Natalie, who lives around the corner and used to go there on occasion, about it, and she hadn't heard a thing. Karen asked Michael, but apparently Mario had given up his cell phone as too expensive and there was no other way he knew to reach him. I knew it wasn't them redecorating when the Miller Lite sign went up. And sure enough, a few weeks ago, the brass rod with the lace curtain hanging from it was in the window, a big Schultheiss sign outside, and some really decayed looking old Germans were hanging from the bar. "Ein ganz' normale deutsche Kneipe," Natalie reported with some surprise, but I'd already figured that out from the curtain and the Schultheiss sign.

And that's how things stood until Saturday. Karen said the place would open at 11pm, and, although I wasn't in the best of moods, I decided I had to pay them a visit. They've moved to a really great location, the basement of a building on Torstr. called the Alte Seifenfabrik (the old soap factory), not very far from the old place, very close to Rosenthaler Platz. It's being operated as a club, though, which means a live DJ, a chill room, a doorman, and art direction -- but there are peanuts! They weren't 100% ready to open (surprise!), but they did anyway, and there was a pretty good crowd. I stayed long enough to wish them well, but I only had about one Euro in my pocket, so I couldn't very well stay, even for a beer. Still, they're going to be open Thursday through Saturday nights, and I bet Thursdays are slow, so I might stop in with some folks one of these days. Give 'em some time to get started, and wish them well. After what they've been through at my hands alone, they deserve it.

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