Saturday, July 31, 2004

Church Pollution

At 5:10 this morning, something jerked me awake. An undulating, roaring noise filled the room, and as I slid into consciousness, I got it: that party was still going on.

At 1, when I'd gone to bed, it was loud, but back in the back of the apartment, in my bedroom, it wasn't so bad that I couldn't fall asleep, and I did. But suddenly it was back with a vengeance. People were yelling AOUGGGH and WOOOOO, the music was so loud you couldn't tell what it was, and there was an echo to the whole thing that told me why the cops hadn't come.

It was the church.

There's a church two doors down from me, Golgothakirche, of the Evangelical (ie, Lutheran) sort. Attached to it is a Konvikt, or seminary (pedantic note: it was this word which caused me to toss my Langenscheidt dictionary in favor of the choice of all German/English translators, the Pons, since Langenscheidt didn't have it). The Konvikt is the local headquarters of the ESG, or Evangelical Student Congregation, and I assume it was they who were having the party. Usually the church distributes flyers around the neighborhood announcing they're going to do this, but this time they apparently couldn't be bothered. And who is going to call the cops on a bunch of kids studying to be pastors?

Hell, I would. But then, I'm particularly cynical about the ESG and have been ever since a couple of summers ago, when the Golgothakirche became ground zero for Ecumenical Church Week. This event drew both Catholic and Protestant church workers and their organizations to Berlin for seven days of meetings and parties. And boy, nobody parties like church folks. We're talking seriously wholesome here, people. The nadir came with the closing party for ESG, where these kids -- it sounded like thousands of them, but I know it's just the brick walls of the courtyard in which the party was held echoing -- started singing songs like "Blowin' In The Wind." Fuelled by alcohol (one thing I can say about the church here is it's not puritanical about kids drinking beer or wine, although Golgothakirche is also where the AA meetings in my neighborhood are held), and inspired by the fact that they all seem to be in church choirs, they began to spontaneously harmonize. Each vocal range -- tenor, alto, etc. -- seemed to have a different idea of how to do the arrangement, though, and while this might seem pleasingly harmolodic (was going to insert a link to Ornette Coleman's, but the page hasn't been updated in a couple of years -- someone tell him!), it was sheer chaos and horror. Didn't stop 'em from doing it until almost 4am, though.

You'd search long and hard here in beautiful downtown Berlin to find anyone of any age who deals with the church except in the most superficial way, though. Most of the kids who live at the Konvikt -- and 100% of the participants in the Ecumenical Church Weeks -- are lost-looking souls obviously from rural locations and terrified to be in the Big Bad City. I see them scurrying home from the library or part-time jobs, casting their heads fearfully about, impatient to reach the security of the huge brick womb. As for the church itself, it doesn't attract much of a congregation, as far as I can tell. In fact, around Christmas they had a special program for kids of some sort, and a lot of the local parents took their kids there, and it was noticeable that there were people at the church. Of course, on Sunday morning, they still ring the bells lustily at 9:20, 9:40, 9:50 and noon, presumably just to remind us they're still there.

But the church has plenty of money. You see, one of the things about Germany that Americans find very weird is that there isn't a separation between church and state. Taxpayers pay 10% per year in Kirchensteuer, or church tax. You can indicate Protestant, Catholic, or (as of the past few years) Jewish, and the money goes to the administration of the particular church. (Protestant pretty much means Evangelical Lutheran, incidentally, although there's a Methodist church near me).

And here's the really insidious thing: if you grew up here, you were probably raised in one or another church, so you have to go to court to get out of paying church tax. And the way you do that is to prove you don't go to church. Which seems to me to be one of those "when did you stop beating your wife" kind of situtations. Thus, most people don't bother.

So, neighbors, that was your tax dollars at work, the whooping and the bad music and the noise that kept us up all night.

Oh, and the recycling of the bottles. That was 6:25 am. Any wonder I'm in a bad mood this morning?

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Some Good News

Just got an e-mail from Haus Schwarzenberg, and it says:


Ganz kurz: Bei der heutigen dritten Runde im
um den Besitz Rosenthaler Straße 39 erfolgte der Zuschlag bei
2,695 Millionen Euro zugunsten der WBM und der
Stiftung Deutsche Klassenlotterie.

Die Kampagne "Für die Zukunft sehe ich Schwarzenberg!"
darf mit diesem Ergebnis als ein Erfolg angesehen werden.

Der Erhalt des Hauses Schwarzenberg und
die nun anstehende Weiterentwicklung des Projektes
werden ein Zugewinn für diese unsere Stadt Berlin sein.

Wir bedanken uns von ganzem Herzen und mit allem
Überschwang bei denen, die uns geholfen haben,
dieses Ziel zu erreichen.

Heinrich Dubel
Haus Schwarzenberg Berlin
Zentrum für Geschichte, Kultur und Kunst

Briefly, for those of you who don't read German, this says that the Haus Schwarzenberg, in conjunction with the WBM (a city-run affordable-housing progam) and the Lottery, raised €2,695,000 and bought the property. They thank everyone for their support, and that'll include any readers of this blog who went and signed their petition.

Plus, it's suddenly turned sunny and warm and it looks like it's going to stay that way through at least the end of the weekend.

Sauerkraut on hold. At least for the moment.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

News Of The Hood

Just a couple of quickies, but one is pretty damn important: tomorrow Haus Schwarzenberg goes on the block for the third time. I'm embarrassed to say I've had this sitting on my hard drive since Sunday:

Dear Friends, Supporters, Fans & Rest:

Like you probably know we - the haus schwarzenberg - will be auctioned
again on the 29th of July and the future of the house and of us will
depend on the outcome of this auction. To support us now once more in
the last days before that date, you can still help us by signing our
, by making a donation, by posting
our matter, by linking our websites, by consuming in our shop, visiting
the institutions in our house, writing articles etc..

more news after the auction.

christian, jee-un, lopez, sheen


Now, I realize this hasn't made the international news, but to those of us who live in my neighborhood, this is of vital importance. In fact, my last story for the Wall Street Journal Europe was about just this situation. Haus Schwarzenberg has a long and interesting history. There, a man named Otto Weidt saved the lives of over 40 Jews during World War II by employing them, a couple at a time, in what was ostensibly a workshop for blind and deaf people, making brooms. The SS left him alone, so they never noticed how well these blind and deaf people saw and heard, let alone that they might have looked a bit Jewish (something SS officers seemed able to tell better than anyone, of course). Weidt even had a little double wall where people could hide, but most importantly, he had connections in Switzerland, and that's where the Jews went.

After the War, the descendants of the people Weidt had rescued bought the property, which was a group of dilapidated buildings, and if I read the documents the Schwarzenberg rescue committee put together correctly, it was never actually part of East Berlin, although it was situated there. At any rate, once the city reunited, artists started migrating to the neighborhood because it had a lot of these sorts of groups of buildings, one of which was Haus Schwarzenberg. One of Berlin's first ISPs was there, a couple of great illegal private clubs, a gallery/work space for Japanese artists that was a magnet for visitors from Japan, and an art cinema that was one of the only places in the East showing original-language films. Weidt's old workshop is now a satellite of The Jewish Museum.

There were, as I said, a lot of these spaces, and yet the relentless march of real estate killed them off one by one. Today, they've been replaced by the endless high-end retail malls people built in anticipation of a boom in high-end visitors and residents that's never materialized. One woman I know with a studio at Schwarzenberg stops in to the Rosenhof next door every morning to do her makeup with samples at the high-end makeup store. She's sure they know she's scamming them, but they're happy to have someone in the shop.

Now, there's a guy in Hamburg who has made a practice of finding Jewish families who've come into property in the former East Germany and stirring up dissent in them, which dissent leads him to gaining control of the sale of the property, paying off the part of the family who've sided with him, and then flipping the property after making some superficial repairs. This guy has his bloody handprints all over the area surrounding Schwarzenberg, and he's managed to drive a wedge into the Weidt descendants' group. Twice, they've tried to auction Schwarzenberg, and twice an angel who's promised to beat this guy out has managed to cause a no sale. The angel, as far as I know, is pledged to outbid this rapacious guy, but emotions are running high.

All I know is, Schwarzenberg and its like were the reason I was so happy to move to this neighborhood 7 1/2 years ago, and one of the reasons I find it so depressing that they've been chased away by this boom that never happened. (Hell, at least if these new places aimed at yuppies, they'd be stylish, but they seem to be aimed at frumpy rich housewives from Bonn).

There's not much I can do these days to help, except wish the best to the Schwarzenberg crew and hope things turn out okay. Given the history of this city in recent years, that's hoping for a lot.


Not that there's no art in the 'hood these days. I noticed a small show of Cartier-Bresson photos on Auguststr. as I walked down it today on my way back from a friend's office (he's got a fax machine there I use occasionally), which will be interesting to check out after I see the one at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. And then I ran into Hannes, of the dna Gallery (formerly the Aktionsgalerie), standing out in front of his place talking to someone (and shame, Hannes, you really should have a website!) who turned out to be Armin Khadr of the Khadr Gallery, which, although you'd never know it from the website, has just closed a wonderful show of large-scale photos by Chuck Ramirez from San Antonio, which are eerie color shots of meals which have (mostly) been devoured. The show went down on Saturday but it was still hanging, and although this is the August drought in the art (and other) worlds already, it was good to see one more gallerist trying to make it on the street that's defeated so many of their colleagues.

Damn that Chuck Rodriguez. Now I want tamales!

Monday, July 26, 2004


I shouldn't just mention the Kentucky Fried Chicken thing without discussing it, because here, I think, we have an interesting insight into Europe in general, and Germany in particular.

One of the first things I ever saw in Europe was a KFC store next to a Pizza Hut store. When you go to Bruges (Brugge) in Belgium, and you're driving, as I was, you have to park in an underground garage outside of the historic center and walk down a narrow street (with loudspeakers playing the Manhattans on that particular day, which was fine with me, if a bit incongruous) until you went through the old city walls. And there, on that street, there was a KFC and a Pizza Hut. I went into the Tourist Information Center for the routine I'm-writing-a-travel-article speech, and after I'd made contact, I asked the lady who in the world ate at Pizza Hut. "Americans, I guess," she said. And you know, she was probably right. After all, the Italian diaspora has deposited pizzerias on just about every streetcorner in Europe.

Now, I'm not going to defend KFC. In fact, I haven't had any since at least 1970, when I remember some friends getting a bunch of it and I bit into a leg, whose tasty coating came off, revealing a smell of cooked, rotten chicken that nauseated me. But I do consider fried chicken to be a glory of American cuisine, and try to get some every time I'm back there. (Of course, I could also make it here, since there's no impossible-to-get ingredient involved). And, like the hamburger, another basic signature American food, fried chicken got exported by a rapacious multinational, in this case Heublein, Inc., who bought Harlan Sanders out years ago.

It caught on like crazy. Everywhere you go in Europe these days, KFC is there. It's second only to le Mac Do in Paris in its ubiquity, and the former communist East is well taken care of.

But not in Germany. And therein lies my point.

Germans eat very little chicken as it is: this is a monoculture, meat-wise and that meat is pork. I have lived over stores with meat markets that carried no beef or chicken -- and this was no specialty shop, it was an Edeka Markt, a huge German franchise. I soon discovered another market in my neighborhood, a Bolle (which chain has disappeared), but it, too, didn't carry chicken, although I could at least get ground beef there.

But the streets of Berlin are loaded with chickens. They revolve in a glass-sided rotisserie in the window of every Turkish Döner Kebap shop, and a half-chicken is a very typical lunch or dinner, given how cheap they are. They're also usually rubbed down with a salt-MSG mixture that will stimulate a mighty thirst for beer, which the Kebap shop is always happy to provide at a nice markup, and they're the greasiest chickens I've ever had. Now, whether the Turks got the chicken from the Germans or vice-versa I can't say. I can say that here in Berlin there's a magnificent place called Henne (which means, of course, hen) that makes the Platonic ideal of the Halbe Hänchen, served with either potato salad or cabbage salad. It pretends it's just a bar with a bit of food for sale (and it's true, there's almost nothing else on the menu), but I've never known any other bar that takes reservations so you can have a snack to help you drink more beer. Henne's chicken is raised in Bavaria by the owner's brother, and fed on milk, the menu claims. Above the bar there's a letter from JFK saying how sorry he was to have missed dinner there after his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech at Rathaus Schöneberg.

So it's not like Germans don't eat chicken at all.

But they sure don't eat KFC. I mentioned in my last post how I met the manager of the KFC on Budapester Str. near the Europa Center here in Berlin as he peered into the on-vacation dry cleaner's place. I didn't socialize with him or hang out with him, but I was aware he was around, sort of vaguely. Then one day the lampposts in the neighborhood sprouted signs in English: "Moving back to America. Selling furniture, books, appliances." Okay, I could use some books, so I went to the address noted there and there was the KFC guy. Why are you moving, I asked him. "I got fired." That sounded odd. "Yeah, I wasn't making any money. People don't come into the store. We go hours without a customer. I've worked for KFC all over Europe and now they think I've lost it, so I have to go back for more training. I don't need more training, I need customers."

Folks, this guy was down. But when I thought about it, I realized I'd been all over the city, seen Pizza Huts, Burger Kings and McDonalds, and never once seen a KFC. In fact, next time I was around the Europa Center, I made a point to go look. It was, as he'd said, there, and the employees did indeed look Malaysian, as he'd said they were. But it was spotless and empty. And the reason for this is simple.

There's only one way to make chicken. And that ain't it.

You think I'm kidding? When I first moved here, I was in the wonderful Arminius Halle, an old-time market hall near my house that had stands run by various vendors of cheese, vegetables, meat, exotica (a Greek store, an Italian store, an "Asia" store), and the occasional shoe repair or used-book stall. There was one sausage-maker I liked to get stuff at, and one time I was waiting in line when I saw something that looked like slab bacon. Now, Germans don't make bacon; it's just not part of their culture. So when I got to the head of the line, I pointed at this stuff and asked the lady if she could slice some up for me, very thin. "No," was the curt reply. Why not? "Because we don't do that." Go home, foreign scum.

It's one of the things that holds this country back: there's only one way to do something, and innovation is bad. Wo ist die Sicherheit? Where's the security in doing something no one's ever done before? You don't know, do you? So why risk it?

Fry chicken? No, you rotisserie-grill it. Anyway, you don't want to eat much of it because it's not pork.

Having said this, it's also my observation that it's a rare European country that's very culinarily adventuresome. The Dutch, in fact, stand out for this: it's routine to find Indonesian stuff in their shops, among other things, and they seem very open to new ideas. Maybe this is because it's rare to find a Dutch person who'll stick up for Dutch food.

Do I expect to find it any more tolerant if I move to France? No, I don't. But I do know they like to invent new dishes, and that although a given individual there might believe there's only one way to do something, by and large the society would see that as folly. Is France any more open to innovation in business and technology? It appears that way, but I don't want to get my hopes up. But I do know that pork's not the only thing on the menu.

Friday, July 23, 2004


Not even big enough to qualify as nibbles.


Berlinbites got a really nice mention in the Philadelphia Inquirer last Saturday. Thanks to the mighty Dan Rubin!


I am completely and totally intimidated by Alex Ross' blog, The Rest Is Noise. Not only is he the fine young classical music critic for the New Yorker whose essay on listening to classical and popular music in that magazine a few months ago was such a breath of fresh air, but he does the hyperlinking thing with breathtaking virtuosity. Maybe some day I'll be that good. Might mean spending most of my day surfing the web, though, and I'm not at all sure I want to do that. Anyway, great stuff over there.


Speaking of fresh air, and Fresh Air, as Dan did, most of you know that's a program on National Public Radio to which I've been contributing for 18 years. You can hear my stuff on the web, though, by going to their website, doing a search for my name, and navigating through to my piece of the show. The recent one on the Ray Charles rehearsal tape from 1953 is particularly nice, because my producer, Phyllis Myers, did a stunning job on it.

Sacred Urlaub

Possibly the most important phrase a newcomer to Germany should learn (after "Noch ein Bier, bitte") is "Wir machen Urlaub." It will explain so much.

Yeah, it means "We're on vacation," but that phrase alone is so freighted with meaning, goes so close to the core of what life itself is about over here, that somehow it means more than what it says. The Germans even have two words for vacation: Urlaub and Ferien, and as yet nobody's ever been able to explain to me what the difference is. (It's also worth noting, in this context, that there are also two words for Saturday, Samstag and Sonnabend, for some reason). But Urlaub is the word you see most commonly .

The importance of Urlaub also shines a bright light on the German work ethic, such as it is. Americans settling in at desk jobs here are shocked when they discover that you can't reach anyone in an office before noon on Monday or after 1 on Friday afternoon. Well, you can, but it'll just be one harried secretary, the lowest person on the office totem pole. They're also shocked at the number of three- and four-day weekends throughout the year, particularly around Easter and Christmas. And they talk in hushed tones about the six weeks of vacation Germans take. How do they get anything done?

Well, I'll defend those six weeks. It's actually something I like about the culture over here. You'll also find it in other European countries, and it's a good thing. When I was a kid, my dad got exactly one week of vacation for many years. On Saturday morning of that week, we'd load up the car and zoom off to Vermont, which took all day. The Sunday of the following week, we'd zoom back. If the purpose of a vacation is to relax and make you a better worker, I don't see how that would be possible. Two days of rain in there and you're completely screwed. Two weeks' vacation was better, but still not enough.

And it's not like anyone I know often takes all those six weeks in one lump, either. Most people seem to take three weeks in the summer and three in the winter, which, if they have kids, is congruent with the school calendar: the winter holiday at school, which comes between Christmas and Easter, usually sees them off skiing, the summer one (kids here get a much shorter summer vacation, and have only recently gotten out of school) often at the beach or in a vacation home they own or rent. The pacing seems very sane to me.

Germans, as I probably don't have to remind anyone who lives in a touristed area, are also inveterate travellers. I remember one guy, when I first moved here, told me his mother had asked him to ask me where a good new place to go for vacation might be; she was getting bored with Sierra Leone. "Sierra Leone?" I said, baffled. "Holger, they're fighting a civil war there!" "I know, and she's finding it most inconvenient." Dang. I bet. But with these nice chunks of time at their disposal, Germans happily leap time-zones to far-flung corners of the world and immerse themselves in cultures and pursuits the average American would shy away from. And this, too, I find very healthy. After all, how many Americans even know where Sierra Leone is? C'mon: which continent, for starters?

But, of course, not everyone can afford such an elaborate vacation these days, or indulge themselves in one every year. (Okay, it's in Africa. West coast. See it? Good. I recommended Gambia, and she pronounced it "boring." No idea where she wound up.) Sometimes the planning is just too exhausting, sometimes you're just uninspired. But you by god take a vacation. As much as anything else, it's a societal obligation.

This all came to me yesterday because an American friend was sending me e-mails about this and that and late in the afternoon, I noticed that his .sig file, in addition to his business address and phone number, bore the words "We'll be on vacation from August 2 until August 22, open again on Monday, August 23." Since I knew he and his wife were planning a big trip to the States in mid-September, I thought this was a bit much, so I wrote and asked him what was up. "Oh, my wife's making me take the vacation." But what'll you do? "Oh, I'll be here." So...why is this a vacation? But I already knew the answer: it's been declared one, and, thus, that's what it is.

Under questioning, he admitted that he really didn't intend to stop working, although it's true that, with so much of Europe on vacation, it's hard to get much done in July and August (the Sommerloch I referred to a couple of posts ago). But he has American clients, and they're sure not going to stop existing. The compromise is, he won't be working as much, and he and his wife are working on a travel book, which they contracted to do a couple of months ago, and that involves vacation-like activities undertaken for professional reasons, the lucky bastards.

But it's definitely Urlaub time. One guy I know has gone to America for several weeks with his German girlfriend, her first trip. Another American is in the countryside with his German wife, restoring a barn in her home village. I called Dr. Joe yesterday on a social matter and got his machine with his American accent intoning the words "Der Arzt macht Urlaub bis der neunte August." I have friends coming to Paris next week, and would dearly love to figure out a way to go see them, but it would involve my begging a night on my friend Gérard's couch, and he's in Spain. The signs are going up in shop windows, Urlaub is upon us.

Actually, that reminds me of one of my favorite Urlaub stories. My second apartment here was a dump on Blissestr., named after the cowardly German officer who abandoned the city to the French and fled dressed as a woman. I didn't know anyone in the neighborhood, which was as far from being cool or interesting as any I've found around here. A few doors away was a dry-cleaning and laundry shop, and one day the "Wir machen Urlaub" sign appeared in their window, announcing that they were taking the full three weeks. Boy, I thought, that happened fast. Apparently that thought wasn't mine alone: there was a guy with his face up to the window, peering into the dark interior and saying, in loud American-accented English, "God damn it!" I asked him what was wrong. "Those are my shirts in there! I need them for work! I was sick yesterday and I didn't make it here to pick them up. They never put up a sign!"

He turned out to be the manager of Berlin's only Kentucky Fried Chicken store, but KFC is another tale laden with cultural baggage, and it'll have to wait for another day.

Much as I'd like to close by saying "Ich mache Urlaub," it ain't so. Doesn't mean I wouldn't welcome a trip out of town, though. will come, I'm sure.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004


Hey, do you suppose the first item in a collection of these nibbles should be called the Nibble Bloggin' Lead? Or is that too German a joke? (Prof Dr Dr should be along any minute to shoot me for that one).


One goal I meant to write about yesterday completely slipped my mind, as they are wont to do when I finally sit down to write something here. But it, like much else, came out of the conversation with Dr. Joe last week -- or was it the week before? At any rate, he suggested that if I'm serious about moving to France, I should probably get my French back into working order by signing up for a French course at one of the local Volkshochschule. He also suggested that this would be a good way to meet some actual French people, who, he said, are just as homesick and tired of this place as I seem to be. This is an entirely wonderful idea, because I hauled back a load of BDs (bandes dessinées, the French not-quite-comic books) from Texas in March and find that I'm having a fairly easy time reading them this time around, but there are real basic things that elude me; things I actually know, but can't remember. Writing this down here, of course, helps me to remember it later, and now I have to find out when the Volkshochschule's next round of courses start, how much they cost (not much, as I remember) and if the level I want to take is going to be available in any of the schools around my neighborhood.


I just reached in my pocket and pulled out my change, and saw something encouraging. Of course, that there was change was encouraging in and of itself, but there was more than that: of the ten coins, three are from other countries. There's an Italian 50-cent piece, an Austrian 10-cent and a Greek 10-cent, the first Greek coin I've seen. (The rest, of course, are the same old German ones).

One of the hard things to deal with about Berlin is that, for all of its reputation as an important European city, no one ever comes here. The tourism here is about 80% German, I seem to remember, hugely disproportionate to other major European cities. Families come here to wait in line to climb into the dome of the Reichstag, maybe visit the Zoo or catch a classical concert, and then leave. When I first started working on English-language magazines here, it was hard to convince the folks in charge that aiming a magazine at English-speaking tourists here was stupid: there were none, for starters. There were the usual college-kid backpackers who'd stop for a couple nights' clubbing on their way to Prague, of course, and the occasional middle-aged American Jewish couple here to see if they could find that apartment that Grandma used to talk about (and, given the excellent documentation of Jewish life here, they usually can). But compared to Paris or Barcelona or even Munich, this wasn't much of a tourist destination for the English-speaking world.

But the Euro gives you an insight. Since, unlike the bills, all the coins have different reverses but the same face, you can see where they're from. I don't need to buy French Euros to go to France; I just spend my German ones and probably get French ones back in change. This is what the French family ahead of me in line at Mr. Pilan's market yesterday were doing, and it was here that I got one of those foreign coins. But in the past couple of days, I've also gotten Spanish and Dutch coins in change here.

This makes me wonder: are we at last getting foreign visitors? Or is it just that the coins are beginning to dilute away from the main stream of their home countries? The preponderance of German coins also reflects the fact that Germany mints far more Euro coins than most other countries (hello, Luxembourg!), but I'd like to think that, for these next couple of weeks, anyway, Berlin's inexplicably become attractive to foreigners.


Speaking of English-language magazines, I don't want anyone to get the idea that there isn't one here. There is. It's just barely a magazine, and the people who run it seem particularly clueless, as a glance at the cover of their current issue amply demonstrates. No, you don't aim a magazine at tourists, but you also don't take the two main tourist-attracting months off, either. But then, what can you expect from people who named their magazine The Berliner without noticing that there were already two other magazines (one a football fanzine published by a British guy, the other a mysterious art project with heavy funding which appears two or three times a year) with that name? That's why they call the magazine the Ex Berliner -- because it used to be The Berliner, geddit?

Last time I checked, they announced that they didn't have a target audience in mind, and it shows. Of course, they also started off as a free magazine (good idea: it got lots of exposure and there was almost always a pile to be found at the video rental store or in bars or in record stores) and now charges two Euros (bad idea: newsstands here don't give space to foreign-language periodicals except a few Russian and Turkish ones, so now they have to set up racks, which cost money, and convince places to sell it for them, which very, very few are willing to do, obviously).

Fortunately for them, there's enough young writing talent here that they can fill a thin monthly issue, so they no longer have to rely on the same old syndicated features (News of the Weird, Straight Dope) all the weeklies in America fill their pages with, and yes, I'll confess I wrote something for the June music issue because the music editor is a friend and promised to pay me out of his own pocket if they didn't (they did), but it remains a youth project. Given the number of professionals and diplomatic corps, not to mention all manner of over-30s here, you'd think they'd realize that by broadening their demographic and thereby getting a wider spectrum of advertisers, they'd make more money. But, like so much else here, it's a half-assed project.

Not to mention the name seems like an invitation to leave town. I accept!

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Goals 'n' Holes

Right at the moment, I have two numbers stuck in my head. €3000 and €30,000.

The first represents what it would take to get me back on my feet. One article in the right magazine could do it. With some of it I'd pay off some more of my rent, but some would go towards paying my expenses to do one of a couple of stories I have in mind to do, which expenses would, of course, be paid back by the magazine that would print it. This is the bind a lot of writers find themselves in: you have to lay out money in order to do stories, but you never have any to lay out. You always get it back, but it just takes a while.

There being so few stories I see happening here in Berlin that would be of any interest to any magazine I can conceive writing for, I'd have to travel. I don't mind this at all: I have a discount card for Deutsche Bahn, and their trains get you there comfortably (mostly) and on time (mostly). There's also been an eruption of low-cost airlines for those journeys that are just too far to endure on the train, and I've found a great website that takes all the pain out of nabbing those super-cheap fares. (Thanks to Taxi Joe for that website, too!)

All I need is the money and the green light from someone. I've got one pitch out there, to cover this year's Ars Electronica festival , which I'm determined to do for a number of reasons, not least that my friend Carl Stone is going to be performing there, and I want to do a story on him, too.

So you see how this stuff snowballs?

Now the larger figure, €30,000, is the big kahuna. It's probably too big, but it represents what it would take to get me moved and settled elsewhere, which, after all, is my big goal at the moment. And I'm factoring in at least one disaster, as well as a sumptuous dinner for my friend John , who's agreed to drive the truck loaded with my crap to wherever I go. The figure represents paying back all the debts I've incurred over the past few years due to the implosion of my writing career, research into a place to move (currently leading the pack is a place I've never been, but which comes highly recommended, Montpellier -- and if you can get that damn webcam on that site to work, send me an e-mail and tell me how you did it), make the decision, rent a place there, purchase things that need to be purchased (European apartments usually come with nothing whatever in them, so I'm thinking stove and washing machine and stuff), and be ready to plug and play.

Nor is this an absurd figure to consider, even as I sit here, ten months behind in my rent and with only a couple tiny gigs coming up. It could easily be achieved with a book advance, and it doesn't even need to come in one lump. The research alone is going to take time, since making a mistake could be costly and crazy-making, and I don't need to be made any crazier than I am at the moment, thanks. But I'm determined to find some agent who's willing to hear some of my ideas, who's also willing to get me some magazine work at first while I whack out some brilliant proposals, and who won't dismiss ideas out of hand. There's gotta be one out there somewhere. And I'm not a totally unknown commodity, either.

The big factor working against this, though is Sommerloch. That translates as "summer-hole," and it's in full force already. Europe shuts down in the summertime; I tried to buy some sausage to make Cajun food out of the other day, and the vendor is closed until September. Someone on Orkut chased down a web-based German dealer of Croatian wines after I expressed curiosity about the Plava Malec grape which is supposed to be identical to zinfandel, but they're closed, too. Nearly all of the few people I still know in Berlin are on vacation until at least the end of this month, and I'm also, I'm sure, going to have to be dealing with people's vacations in the U.S., particularly in the publishing business? What agent is going to be working in August? Don't be ridiculous. And the chances of my finding someone in the next two weeks are...well, just a bit thin.

So it's business as usual around here: trying desperately to find enough work to stay alive, while keeping uppermost in my mind the necessity of forging ahead. And trying not to panic about it. And succeeding. Most of the time.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Watching Patti

I first met Lenny Kaye in 1969, when Rolling Stone bit on my idea for a piece on acappella music, something I'd heard a lot about but never heard. But someone there knew this guy in New Jersey who was into it, and he was interested in co-writing the piece, so I called him on the phone. "Where are you? Ohio? Okay, I'll see you in a couple of days." And sure enough, he borrowed his family's station wagon and appeared at my apartment, a tall, skinny guy with glasses and long, stringy hair -- and a pile of albums. We spent the next couple of days hovering around my tiny Royal portable typewriter, banging out the story, and figuring a way to shoehorn its focus -- the new Persuasions album Frank Zappa was releasing on Bizarre -- into it while making sure that the forgotten, mostly Italian-American masters of the form got their due, too.

We stayed in some sort of sporadic touch, and at one point he was in California visiting his childhood friend Chuck, who'd been a regular dancer on American Bandstand ("I was a disciplinary problem so my parents sent me to military school, and that uniform got me onto the show. You got lots of pussy in the cloakroom, too: those girls were hot.") and had been in the Peace Corps in Jamaica and was the only person except myself who seemed to know anything about reggae. But I didn't really know what Lenny was really up to until 1974, when Patti Smith, a poet I knew by reputation and the fact that, like me, she wrote for Creem magazine, booked a "reading" upstairs at Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley. Lenny was playing loud, free-form guitar next to her, and she had this amazing version of "Gloria" (the Van Morrison one, not the Cadillacs one, as Lenny was always careful to point out) where it seemed like the two of them were going to catch fire before it was over. Apparently they'd been doing this act around the St. Mark's Poetry Center in New York, and she was going to put out a 45 at some point.

Even back then, Patti was solicitous of her fans, and I certainly became one that evening at Rather Ripped. The next time they appeared there, they had a pianist she called "DNV" (Richard Sohl), and it was just as intense. The act soon graduated to the clubs, and there were even more additions to the band. I remember taking a copy of her book Witt to the Longbranch for an autograph. Curiously, she inscribed it "To Ed Ward, in whom the soul of Hank Williams lives." I have to admit, I found that pretty unperceptive for a poet.

I'd stayed in touch with Chuck, who was a photographer, and a pretty good one, although one with personality quirks that made a shoot potentially fraught with peril, and every time the Patti Smith Band, now Arista recording artists, came through to play Winterland, we were there -- Lenny put us on the guest list. The band just got bigger and bigger, and it was great to see someone you'd known, someone who was a decent human being with a real love for rock and roll and the ability to express it, doing so well. (Lenny had already made a name for himself before Patti, of course, by convincing Elektra Records to put out the now-legendary and hugely influential double-album compliation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts of the First Psychedelic Era, a collection of garage band singles which was a touchstone for kids who weren't convinced by "progressive" rock, and whose title was even prophetic, since there seems to have been a second psychedelic era by now. Still, Lenny hadn't made much money off of it, having just been paid a fee to compile and annotate the thing).

Somewhere around the time of the Radio Ethiopia album, though, something happened. Chuck chased down the road manager easily enough on the day of the Winterland gig, but he told Chuck "Lenny says that if Ed and Chuck want to see the show, they can buy tickets like any other fan." I was shocked, but Chuck was shocked and enraged. Not seeing a show was no big thing, really, although the rock star attitude was something new. Chuck, who was subject to immense fits of anger, was apoplectic for weeks.

After that, I moved to Texas and Lenny and I lost touch. Patti married and retired and lost her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and, well, things just moved in a different direction for everyone. But that wasn't the end of the story.

The summer after I moved here, the Patti Smith Band was booked at the Tempodrom, a circus tent in the Tiergarten on the banks of the Spree River. Patti had come out of retirement, and although I hadn't heard the album, people were saying it was great. And Lenny, possibly the only person on earth who can mediate between what Patti Smith wants and what a musician can do about it, was still in the band, of course. I tried desperately to get ahold of him, to no avail. I even gave a business card to a DJ I knew who was going backstage to interview them before the show, and asked him to give it to Lenny. I'd been here almost a year, and was pretty lonely for contact with Americans.

What was really strange about that show was that I stayed for the whole thing, rooted to the spot, mesmerized. Working at a daily paper in Austin, I'd had to go out four or five nights a week, and it got to be like work. I still routinely walk out of concerts or club gigs after an hour or so, especially if I'm there alone, as I was that evening. Describing the show, it doesn't sound like it should have been all that good: Patti's teenaged son played "Smoke on the Water," her long-ago ex-boyfriend Tom Verlaine was there, looking perplexed, sitting on a chair and trying to play lead lines from time to time, but it was a magical evening. I regretted not being able to tell Lenny so.

And that's what I was thinking the next day as I walked from my apartment near the Tiergarten into East Berlin to go to work at Checkpoint, the English-language magazine. As I got near the office, on Linienstr., I noticed a white car. Just at that moment, the door opened and a tall, skinny guy got out. "Hi, Lenny." And it was just like the most natural thing in the world, that he happened to be there with a guy he'd grown up with who lives here now, and had driven with this guy and his teenage kids to this obscure street a couple of miles from his house. We had a nice long talk, and the whole thing sealed that concert as one of the best I've ever seen, for reasons that, as I said, I can't even articulate.

I've seen them twice since then. Last year, at an outdoor show on Museum Island, which was pretty shambolic: Patti gave a stern lecture on nutrition that went on and on, and there were a bunch of mid-30s lesbians who hung around after the show mewling "Patti, Patti" as if they'd lost their mother. She had to come out and talk them down briefly. But Lenny was there, in a good mood, and it was nice seeing him again.

Last night, they played the Columbiahalle, down by Tempelhof Airport, the Nazi-built behemoth the city is intent on closing as an airport (although the structure, which was until recently the world's largest single building, bigger even than the Pentagon, is a protected landmark). I've only seen jazz in the Columbiahalle, and was surprised at how good the sound was for electric music, because for acoustic music it sucks. The band was great, although some of Patti's newer material is pretty rote-sounding, and I felt the overly-literal images projected by the light show were almost hectoring. But towards the end, they dug into some of the older material like "Dancing Barefoot," Lenny leaned back in fine rock-star mode, and the show ended like any good rock show should: with the fans yelling deleriously even after the encore.

I went to the side of the stage to say hi to Lenny, but he came out very distracted, searching the crowd for someone, and only briefly saying hello. The guards chased us out, anyway, and as I walked out of the hall I reflected that it was good that I don't have to do this for a living much any more, and that the value for me was, in the end, seeing someone I admired and respected still earning a living doing something he does very well and still enjoys.

Thanks for the guest list, Lenny!

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Sauerkrautin' With Dr. Joe

Been meaning to get back here, but I've had actual work, and, worse, money coming in that had to be spent on stuff like food and phone bills and so on. Errands like that eat up you blogging time.

So does going to the doctor. That's a rather famous moment for new arrivals here: they make an appointment, show up a bit early and wait. And wait. And wait. Because no matter what you've heard about German promptness -- the textbook I used when I was trying to learn the language had cultural sidebars, and one said to show up 15 minutes early to make a good impression -- it ain't so, not at the doctor's office. This is because they often just have office hours -- first come, first served, and if you're dying, well, you can wait just like everyone else.

Even though my doctor is an American, he works in a practice with a bunch of German doctors, and I guess he does see some German patients, too. And please note that I'm not disparaging German medicine by having an American doctor; it's just that when it comes to something as crucial as medical advice, I want it in English.

But I was out of blood pressure medicine (there are no refillable prescriptions in this country), had been for a week, and now Dr. Joe was asking me to come in. "I haven't seen you in a while," he said, and I guess he was right. I'm the kind who stays out of the doctor's office unless there's something wrong, which separates me from the Germans, who go to the doctor on any pretext whatever. So I made an appointment and went in on Thursday.

Naturally, I was late. The new ring S-Bahn around Berlin is a wonder, a real time-saver, and once you get the hang of it, it's the best way to get to a lot of places. Trouble is, you're never going to get the hang of it from the signs in the stations, so I jumped right on a train and discovered immediately I'd gone the wrong direction. The great thing about the ring is it's like an express train: lots of space between the stations, all of which are transfer points. That's the bad thing, too: I was way out of the way by the time I started back in the other direction, towards the west.

But this was to my advantage. I had no sooner gotten to his door than Dr. Joe burst out, looking for me and nearly colliding with me, which didn't do my blood pressure any good. He invited me in, and immediately started complaining. He'd been sold this device for billing time on house calls -- yes, doctors here still make house calls, believe it or not -- and the company that sold it to him gave him a cable that was incompatible with his Mac. They even admitted it was the wrong cable, and, after much complaining, sent a technician out to swap them. But not only are they still looking for the money for what they clearly and in writing admitted was a bad cable, they've already turned the payment over to a collection agency. Meanwhile, the bad cable managed to erase a whole quarter's worth of billing. So you can see why he's pissed.

"The thing I don't get," he said, "is why they'd want to incur such ill will from a customer." Ah, but I understand: it's all part of a German business tradition in which the customer is always wrong. The customer is the jerk who walks into my store so I can't have an eight-hour coffee break. The customer seems to think it's my responsibility that he buys the right item. The customer expects me to understand the subtle differences between the various similar things I sell. Yes, there's a German word for customer service -- Kundendienst -- but I have no idea what it's supposed to mean, because it sure doesn't have much to do with what it means in English.

The thing is, we noted as we got from the specific to the general, that it has to do with the way people perceive their jobs here. You do your job as outlined by the boss, you don't ask questions or try to find a better way to do it, and you don't appreciate being asked anything that's outside your job description. The boss has his boss, too, and he's just as stiff. Eventually, you reach the top, where a couple of very wealthy guys run the company pretty much the way it's always been run. After all, that works, doesn't it? Individual initiative is frowned upon as a betrayal of the hierarchy. "This is absolutely amazing to me," Dr. Joe said. "I grew up in Rochester, New York, which is, of course, Eastman Kodak, and they were famous for having suggestion boxes. If an employee put an idea in there that was adopted, why, they rewarded him with stock!" (Of course no one here would understand that because no one here except the insurance companies owns stock: if you make a bunch of money the last thing you do is invest it when you could buy a boat, a bigger car, or a fancier vacation.)

This always reminds me of a speech I read about in the International Herald Tribune one day, given by the outgoing head of the European Bank, in which he was talking about the difference between the U.S. and Europe. He lamented the kind of rigid thinking that frowns on and stifles innovation and individualism, and noted that Europe, under its present culture, would never produce a Bill Gates, because no young European would ever dare drop out of a university just because he thought he had a good idea and wanted to pursue it. He'd stay in college, go for the graduate degree, take a job in some large firm, and...eventually someone else would discover the good idea. Because, after all, who am I to think I'm smarter than my teachers, than the men who have always run the big firms? There's a guaranteed path to the top, so why bother to step off of it?

Of course, I'm bitter because I tried to start a company here myself, and kept running into people who had money but asked "Wo ist die Sicherheit?" -- "Where's the security?" -- when it came to investing. They thought it was pushy to start something from scratch. And it involved risk, and no one wants that.

Anyway, it was time to roll up my sleeve so Dr. Joe could take my blood pressure. I tried to tell him that taking my blood pressure wouldn't do much good since I'd been off the meds for a week and had just had two strong cups of coffee, not to mention that the conversation we were having had made my blood boil, but we did it, I flunked (of course) and I got my meds.

There's more to this story, too, but it came after Dr. Joe said "Not to get personal, but you're a single guy..." and the conversation turned to German women. I'd go into that, too, but I went to pay my bar tab yesterday (see the post headlined "Walk" for the context there -- and thanks, B, for helping me with that, although Daniel did point out you were responsible for a bunch of it yourself!), and found out some things I'd rather not have found out. And this is Sauerkraut, not Bitterkraut, so at this point, dear reader, we draw the curtains as I assure you I'll write that piece sometime, just not today.

And I'll definitely try to check in again sooner than later. Here, let me make an appointment...

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Weekend Without Love

No, not me. Think of The Children!

It's the second weekend of July, which around Berlin means only one thing: Love Parade Weekend! Except, for the first time since 1989, it isn't happening.

Americans probably just stare blankly when they hear the words Love Parade, which has always amazed me. How could an event which brings a couple of million people into the streets of one of the world's most famous cities be completely blanked out by the U.S. media? And yet, it was, for the most part, for its entire 15-year existence.

The Love Parade started with 350 techno devotees organized by the DJ Dr. Motte parading down the Kurfürstendamm (Ku'damm), the big shopping street of West Berlin. With East Berlin having just opened up, a number of clubs sprung up in places of dubious or uncertain legality: Tresor in the basement of a bombed-out department store, E-Werk in an abandoned power plant, and others that never became as famous. This was the perfect home for Berlin's new adopted dance music, techno, which had originated a couple of years earlier in Detroit but had failed to catch on both there and in London. Berliners loved the stark, industrial sound (and, having spent time in both places, I think it's easy to see how the cityscapes are similar), and with so much abandoned industrial real-estate to inhabit, it was a movement waiting to happen. Almost immediately, Berlin began to generate its own techno stars: Motte, Tanith, Paul van Dyk, Westbam. All had differing ideas as to what the music was about and how to make it work, and this factionalism could make for an interesting night out: there were so many possibilities that you could hit several clubs and have several different experiences .

The factionalism was friendly, though, and it all came together for the Love Parade, advertised as a political demonstration in favor of peace, love, and pancakes. (This was the only way they could get a permit for it, since freeform demonstrations of joy don't have a section in the local code of laws). Out of town DJs began to trickle in to play parties in spaces especially created for the event, and the hip dance communities in other countries began to take note of the event. Before long, the 350 had increased to 35,000.

My first Love Parade was 1994, when some friends and I watched it from an apartment on the Ku'damm and then went in search of the good parties later that night. The one we found was at the Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauer Berg, and, a sign of how this had grown, it cost DM 50 to get into. (€1 = DM 2, pretty much). If, that is, you could get in: the guy taking the money didn't want to let me in because I was too old and my friend had to yell at him that I was an internationally famous music critic who wrote for the New York Times (not strictly true at the time, but hey...) and that letting me in could only do good things for them. The guy didn't like it, but he took my money. We had a great time, and at about 7 am we headed to another party at a wonderfully garish East German swimming pool in Pankow, only to find that one, which had featured Sven Väth and Paul van Dyk, packing up. Paul was still there, and we told him he was a wimp, but he was more limp than wimp: he'd clearly turned in an exhausting show.

The next year, Camel had a float in the parade, and they also had booths outside Tresor, which I found ominous. MTV, too, was already on board, as was their German competition, Viva (co-owned at the time by the music convention PopKomm and a consortium of major labels in Germany, although it was recently sold to Viacom). Clubs from all over Europe had floats, which were getting more and more ornate, and dancers were piled on dancers. The Ku'damm eventually gave way to another route: from Ernst-Reuter-Platz through the Tiergarten (Berlin's central park, which starts at the Zoo and ends at the Brandenburg Gate). This created some problems: the numbers had now grown into the hundreds of thousands, with people coming in from all over the world, and the environmental impact on the park, which, like it or not, was turned into the world's largest outdoor pissoir, was considerable. There were parties of widely varying quality all over town, even in districts that were totally dead the rest of the year, and those tended to have the ones with the C- and D-list DJs. The commercialization was utterly out of control: the CDU (the conservative party) had a float, there was one from an insurance company, and big commercial radio stations were much in evidence, even though they hardly ever played the sort of music the Love Parade celebrated.

I finally got my chance to ride a float in 1998, I believe it was. I was working at JazzRadio, and one of our irrepressible DJs, Armin Engel, who had a world music show, got the idea to put some African drummers and Swedish DJs onto a truck that we'd sponsor. Given the millions people like the cigarette and liquor companies put into their floats, we managed to do ours for a whopping DM 3500, which was less than anyone had ever done one for but more than we could afford, but the bill was underwritten by our new owner, a rich British twit who'd wind up sinking the station within a couple of years. In fact, he rode a short way with us, and then, ashen, bailed into the crowd.

And what a crowd it was! This was the year it peaked, with estimates going as high as 2,500,000 people in attendance. I'm telling you that you cannot possibly imagine this number until you've seen it. It took us nine or ten hours to make it to the finish, a distance that can be driven in fifteen minutes in moderate traffic. The crowning moment for me, riding on the truck, was when we got to the Grosse Stern, the huge traffic circle that goes around the Siegessäule, the Victory Column, atop which rests the golden statue of Nike made famous in Wim Wenders' unwatchable but much-loved film Wings of Desire. The entire area was as packed as physically possible with bodies, an MTV pavillion on the pediment of the column blasted out music, and the only place without people was the physical area inhabited by the trucks themselves, moving along in ultra-low gear as dancers as far as you could see writhed to whichever rhythms they were picking up at the time. Even if the number was the low-ball 750,000, it was inconceivable. When we finally ended, on a side-street by the Brandenburg Gate, I jogged to the Potsdamer Platz S-Bahn station, and, a few stops later, was back here, utterly and totally depleted.

The experience also cured me of the Love Parade forever. It was painfully obvious, as we inched through the mass, that the vast majority of these kids were just that: kids, young teenagers in from the provinces because it was the cool thing to do. The Love Parade had long since stopped being cool, and E-Werk, its spiritual headquarters, had recently closed, although, the company based there that managed the event was raking in millions from t-shirts, licensing the logo to the "official" parties, and an annual CD of the featured performers that regularly hit the charts. It had also long been impossible to get into the parties, no matter how much money you had, unless you'd obtained a VIP pass. Then it became impossible to get in even with one. The whole thing was getting to be like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Oktoberfest in Munich: the sort of thing that the natives leave town for. I avoided the Love Parade from then on.

Interestingly, in the past couple of years, the numbers have been declining. Last year's saw the organizers claiming 750,000, which had been the low figure just five years earlier. The true number was probably around half that, according to my sources. And the Monday after the Love Parade, I found myself in Zoo Station early in the morning for the nine-hour ride to Paris, and it was like walking into a zombie movie. Someone should have just photographed the teenage wreckage on display for an anti-Ecstasy poster. The kids oozed the aftermath of a desperate attempt to convince themselves that they'd had fun.

In fact, I'd forgotten about the Love Parade after the February announcement that it wasn't going to happen this year because the funds couldn't be found. What reminded me was last Saturday, when I heard a godawful noise coming from the street. Inbetween cold rain-showers, I walked a block to Torstr., and there was a bedraggled, tiny procession of pickup trucks with DJ booths mounted on them, politial slogans on dirty bedsheets bedecking their sides, and the most pathetic bunch of drab-clad kids I'd seen in a long time -- or, that is, since the previous weekend, when I'd stumbled on a bunch of punks at Rosenthaler Platz with squeegees trying to wash car windshields, anyway -- dancing behind them. A sign on one truck informed me that this was the Fuck Parade, which was one of the competitors that sprung up some years back (another was the Hate Parade, for punk-rockers, but unfortunately some of the participants took this a little too literally, and, being Nazis, caused the event to be banned). The Fuck Parade was supposedly for anti-fascist anarchists, but the music was dull and the kids disspirited, their dancing utterly unconvincing. I went back into the house as the heavens unleashed some more icy rain.

This week, though, I saw a number of posters go up for what would ordinarily have been Love Parade events, with big-name DJs who had undoubtedly been booked, like the venues, a year in advance. One event was called Love Suxx, another the Glove Parade. I saw an unusual number of chic Japanese 20-somethings in the street yesterday as I ran around doing errands, so I guess the tourists are here. And last night, there was a lot of noise in the neighborhood, someone beating arhythmically on a conga drum, the sounds of amplified music coming across when the wind blew just right. So I guess someone's partying out there. Not me, though. I still have a lot of curiosity about the music involved, but the event, I think, committed suicide a long time ago.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004


Just a quick note because I've gotten e-mails of concern: the power will continue to function after tomorrow. I'm exhausted today, but I'll be back. Thanks to all for your concern. There's gotta be a better way of making a living!

Tuesday, July 06, 2004


Great start to the week as the guy from the electric company -- not my pal Lutz, whom I wrote about earlier, unfortunately, but another guy with such a thick Berlinisch accent I could barely understand him, and a rough no-bullshit demeanor -- showed up first thing yesterday morning and presented me with a demand for €368.26, which includes a fee of €42.55 for his visit. This all has to be paid before 8am on Thursday or they'll shut off my power. I know they'll do this because no sooner had I sat down with my morning coffee and started trying to puzzle this out than the doorbell rang again and the guy was back. "This has nothing to do with you," he said, "but do you know Mosig on the third floor? Is he ever around?" I'm not sure whether Mosig is the hawk-faced looking guy with the really bad toupee or the gangly 40-ish surfer dude. But one of the first rules of Berlin is never tell the bastards anything, so I said I had no idea. "Do you have a key to the cellar? I have to shut him off if he's not going to answer his door." I told the guy I didn't -- a lie -- and referred him to the Hausmeister across the way. Another lucky thing: I can't pronounce the odd Slavic name our Hausmeister has, nor do I know his first name (although we're on first-name terms).

Now, as I sat last night, reading by an electric light-bulb, I realized that if the power goes, so does my ability to cook, wash, read, and use the computer. Clearly, I cannot do without electricity. But the guy had just picked a bad time to come see me: It was still 4th of July weekend in America, and although I've got more than enough on the way to pay the electric bill (as well as to hack away a bit at my 10-months-overdue rent), I won't be able to reach anyone in the States for another couple of hours, and today is almost gone. This leaves me with Wednesday, tomorrow, to get all of this done: maybe find a little money somewhere, negotiate with the power company (which involves a long, long hike, but at least, unlike the phone company, you can negotiate with them), and -- oh, yes -- I have a couple of articles due.

What I find really amusing is the reaction of some of the people I know in the States. They simply can't believe that I'm losing my electricity. I've had a couple of e-mail exchanges with one friend who blithely ignores it in his suggestions for things I can do. Others just dismiss it with a brusque "Oh, you're not going to lose your electricity!" Well...tell that to this guy who was at my door this morning. What they mean is, I can't believe a guy who I hear on NPR and who writes for all these magazines (although I can't remember which ones, exactly) and who I've been reading for years isn't able to pay his bills. But the NPR work is, like all my work, not steady. I provide what I provide on demand, and sometimes the demand slows down.

And sometimes it's just bad luck: I did a piece of work in May for a local magazine here. They've finally gotten to the billing process, and it's a couple of hundred Euros. But...they want a tax number. I don't have a tax number because I'm not eligible for one. Oh, but there's some new ruling, and the woman has to talk to this one guy (and he'll confirm what I said), but he's been sick at home for the past ten days and they don't know when he's coming back in.

And there's another thing: you Americans! You continue to deal with these paper checks! You actually put them in the mail! I'm looking, right now, at a check that would go a long ways towards solving the most immediate problems I have, except for two things: it's in dollars, and my bank won't accept paper checks. So I don't know whether to frame this or try to cook it, because that's the other thing that's going on: as of tonight's rather meager dinner, I'm going to be completely out of food, too.

There's money coming in. If I can only hold on for another 48 hours, get this snafu with the power company straightened out, and maybe bum ten bucks off someone, this'll turn out okay.

But constantly having to deal with this stuff just takes energy away from what I'd rather be doing. Which is writing my way out of this city.

Monday, July 05, 2004


Normally on Sundays I just lounge around the house, doing a little maintenance work on the piles of stuff that always threaten to take over the apartment, and almost always doing some laundry. But by 4 yesterday afternoon, I had two loads of laundry drying on the rack (no one here uses clothes dryers; they're thought to be environmentally insensitive) and there was no denying the warmish sun outdoors. I was out of bottled water, and, although I only had a little over a Euro to my name, I decided to walk down to the Pilan Markt, a Turkish store that's actually, in some ways, better than my neighborhood supermarket.

Once there, though, I realized that what I wanted cost more than I had on hand. This isn't the case at the regular supermarket, but Mr. Pilan knows that in exchange for the convenience being a family-run business offers, he can charge a bit more. And normally I would have been fine with that.

Anyway, I walked back out, and started home, and the sun felt good on my back, so I decided to keep walking. It was one of those days that seems cold unless you've got the sun on you, and then it's pretty nice. Anyway, I walked down Torstr. for a while, and then I got to Rosenthaler Platz and decided to walk that long block, so I turned left. This put me on Brunnenstr., with its miscellaneous businesses all closed for Sunday. There's everything from a Beate Uhse sex shop to the darkest, dingiest supermarket in the neighborhood to the usual Vietnamese crap stores with their gaudy plastic clocks and knockoff bomber jackets to a couple of bad art galleries to a tiny bar that I swear only holds about six people.

When I got to the end of the block, I thought, hmm, this is silly. So I decided to turn left again and head towards home. Now I was on Invalidenstr., and the sun was still shining, and once again, the businesses -- pharmacies, a wine shop, a florist, a tea shop -- were closed. Once past the market-hall, which basically contains a large supermarket where I do most of my shopping, and which was, of course, also closed, I was on my familiar route back home from the store.

Except that these days, I make a detour. I'm not proud of this, because it bespeaks cowardice. In the winter, I try to make the shortest point-to-point routes anywhere I go, because the bitter cold blowing in off the Russian plains is painful to walk in. The route to the store inevitably takes me past the bar, Jarman, I mentioned some posts ago. This is presided over by a dour Scotsman named Daniel Jarman (yes, cousin to the late filmmaker Derek, and a childhood friend of his), who's also an artist and a cook. But a complex series of events earlier this year means I no longer like to walk by and wave at him as I was used to doing, let alone go in for a beer, when I can afford one.

Okay, not so complex: I met a woman there. Things progressed pretty quickly, and it was a bright spot in this otherwise dark existence I've been leading. Smart, articulate, good English, born in East Berlin, lived a block away from me, had wildly varied interests...I felt pretty lucky. Just before Easter, things hit a new high, but she was off to the Czech border with her family for a long Easter weekend. When she got back, she was going to be working at Jarman on weekends so Daniel could visit his girlfriend in Poland.

Something happened. I'm not sure what. She stopped talking to me, stopped communicating with me, and was icy cold to me when I dropped in on my way to the store if the place was otherwise empty -- which it often was. At one point, she went to Dubai for a ten-day vacation. In May, I went to the open house the American Voices Abroad held (see yesterday's post), and dropped into Jarman with a friend for a beer afterwards. The woman was there, engrossed in conversation with a guy at the window table where Daniel sits when he's waiting for customers. My friend and I sat at the bar and ordered beers. Daniel dropped a bar mat in front of me that said Irish Castle Dubai on it and cocked his eyebrow. The woman continued to ignore me.

Attempts at communication with her since then have failed, and I had half a conversation with Daniel last month in which I told him I wasn't going to be by for a while because I didn't feel welcome. I also meant to tell him I'd pay my bar bill, but he scuttled off into the back of the place on some pretext and didn't seem to hear me.

So I've been taking the long way around, which doesn't feel good.

And yesterday, before I realized it, I was there at the top of Gartenstr. wondering if I should turn down it and go home. The sun felt good. Daniel apparently thought so, too, because he was sitting at one of the tables outside the bar in the sunshine, reading a paper. At the moment I noticed, he looked up, saw me, and waved. I waved, too, and thought, what the hell, I'll keep walking. So I kept on walking down Invalidenstr.

Then I remembered reading that there was a good restaurant disguised as a bar at a very obscure location nearby, and, thinking I'd seen it during one of my aimless walks through the neighborhood -- much like this was turning out to be -- I thought, hell, I'll go look for it. So I walked down to the big intersection and turned right. Now I was on Chausseestr., which is mostly abandoned factory buildings. Some of these, I've heard, have good clubs in them on weekends, illegal, of course, and you have to go with someone who's known there, but if you look at the buildings, you can see little clues of where the entrances might be. The buildings themselves are all falling apart, and there are fences around them, breached in some places. Pretty bleak, but so are the few remaining residential buildings.

In fact, as I turned down Schwarzkopfstr., I realized this was about the bleakest part of my whole neighborhood: the standing buildings after the war had been hastily and poorly renovated, and the new buildings were of the worst East German architecture. The old buildings almost certainly still had coal heat, which more buildings than you'd think have here. They may even have had toilets in the hall, shared by everyone on the floor, and no bath. There are no galleries here.

The bar/restaurant was there, though, and I had to give it full marks, on inspection. For one thing, it's closed Saturday. That's brave. For another, there was no sign up advertising the European Cup finals on television. There was no printed menu, either; just a drinks menu and a little sign that said, in English (sort of) "Home drinking is killing wirts business." Funny, but not translatable, really. Anyway, it wasn't due to open til 6, and it was only 5, and the Euro in my pocket had failed to reproduce, so I walked on, making a note to come back next time someone wanted to go out for a beer.

I didn't want to go further north, because it gets more into a Turkish slum with lots of tanning salons and gambling parlors, so I crossed Chausseestr. and started walking back down. I didn't want to go home, but it wasn't as warm now. Something drew me down another side street, and I found another street off of that, which turned out to be a cul-de-sac. Something was bothering me, since clearly the modest goal of finding the bar had been met. Chagrinned at being hemmed in by the street with no outlet, I walked back out onto the side street and headed back to Chausseestr.

I guess it was the cul-de-sac. I realized I was in one. As I walked back down, I realized I was going to have to pass the woman's house. And I realized that I couldn't let her own my neighborhood. I couldn't let her stop me from walking down a street. And I promised myself that when the money I have on the way now comes, although it'll mean taking food out of my mouth, I'm going to walk into Jarman and pay that bar bill. It's a matter of honor.

As I walked down her street, it got much darker. Little pellets of rain hit my back, where just an hour or so earlier the sun had warmed me. As I walked past her apartment, I looked up and realized she wasn't home anyway. But, a few minutes later, I was.

And the storm hit just a few minutes after that.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

4th of July Picnic

Because, of course, we can't call it "Nibbles" today, can we?

First, to set the scene, a little poem, found posted in Freiburg:

Jeder Bürger liest und glaubt
Das Grillen ist hier nicht erlaubt!
Die Nachbarn danken - sie wünschen auch
Frische Luft, statt Qualm und Rauch.

Now, I'm no poet, nor am I even a decent translator, but if you were shocked by the fact that grilling is illegal here, as I said in the post headlined "Protect and Serve" down there a ways, here's further proof. That they felt they should carve it into a cute wooden sign (no doubt with the old-fashioned black-letter script) is just icing on the proverbial cake. But for you non-German-speaking Ausländer, this basically says:

Every citizen reads and believes
That grilling is not allowed here!
The neighbors thank you -- they also want
Fresh air, instead of smoke and fumes

I'll remember that next time I'm in Freiburg and someone lights up a cigar next to me.


Which (grilling, not cigars) reminds me of cheeseburgers. One can, with a bit of effort, get together the makings of a good burger here, which makes the fact that you can't get one here, even in the dozens of fake "American" restaurants, even more amazing. No matter where you go, you get the same frozen patties distributed by the same wholesaler.

But this is at least partially due to the fact that Germans are terrified of ground beef. They eat raw ground pork (mixed with spices, it's called Mettwurst, and I've had it and won't knowingly touch it again, thanks) but for some reason even my otherwise rational friend Ina has said "I'll eat just about any kind of meat. Errr, except for ground beef, of course."

I have no idea where this burgerphobia came from, but I've seen it in action. Over the course of 35 years of cooking, I have finally learned a few things about making a good hamburger. It's become a favorite party trick of mine: you buy the ground beef and I'll make an appropriate amount mix with it. No, I'm not going to tell you what it is. When I first came here, I did it for my friend Susanne, who had grown up in a huge mansion on the Wannsee, a largish lake in the far southwest corner of the city. She was living in the caretaker's house now, but had access to the huge lawn, which went all the way to the shore: you could arrive at one of her parties in a small boat, and people did. The first time I made my burgers at one of her lawn parties, they were a hit, so I just assumed this was something I could impress people here with.

Now, I had another friend named Oliver, who at the time was a translator and editor, and had been an exchange student three times in America. ("Look, if you were my parents and had me as a teenager around the house, wouldn't you want to send me thousands of miles away?") He also had grill parties, and so I offered my burgers for one of them. His wife, Birgitta, called me to arrange to get the meat and cheese (cheddar is very rare here, but in the section of West Berlin where they lived, which abutted the American military compound, it was no problem). For some reason, she couldn't get it on Saturday for the Sunday party, but I didn't see that as a problem. Then I got another call from her. "I'm at the butcher shop, and he's grinding the meat fresh for me," she said, "but he says it won't last til Sunday." That's ridiculous, I told her. An exchange with the butcher in German followed. "He says I should salt it heavily." Don't do that, Birgitta! "I'm very worried!" Look, just put it in the fridge, and all will be well, I promise. But don't salt it! So I got there on Sunday, and the first thing she did was insist that I see if the meat was still good. She opened the fridge, and I swear, I didn't know you could get the inside of a refrigerator that cold without freezing everything. A tenth of a Centigrade degree more and everything in there would have been solid. Needless to say, it was fine, but she was nervous the whole time. Also needless to say, we all survived ingesting the hamburgers, since I subsequently saw every one of these people again.

Germans these days seem to be fearful people, obsessed with safety. There are frequent surveys to assess the level of fears, apparently. The order changes, but the fears remain the same: war, the return of fascism, crime, and food poisoning. Yup, food poisoning. Food poisoning is news: hardly a summer goes by without the tabloids putting, on their front pages, an article about some children's summer camp where a dozen kids have been hospitalized for food poisoning. And yeah, it happens. One friend of mine, whom I won't name, had a party and his wife made potato salad, which, for some reason, she put in the sun. The mayonnaise turned, and one of their kids came down with food poisoning. He was sick for a couple of days, but then returned to school, where, out of fear of infection, they opened a special toilet that was kept there for just such eventualities so none of the other kids would get infected.

I sometimes speculate what kind of cuisine arises from a people who fear the food they eat, and wonder at the inconsistencies I see. Here in Berlin, none of the vegetables in the supermarket (let alone at the farmer's market) are ever refrigerated. And bakeries offer sandwiches, made with butter or mayonnaise, of coldcuts or cheese, which are made up in advance and left out, often in the sun. Like I said, they eat Mettwurst (I once saw some for sale -- it's often packed in a burlap kind of bag -- called Texas Rancher Mettwurst, which puts a whole other surrealistic spin on home on the range), they eat parts of the pig in sausage, including blood, that Americans wouldn't touch (I eat this stuff myself, and I'm still alive), but they fear ground beef. Is it because the hamburger is a foreign food that they're so scared of it? McDonald's and Burger King do well here, but only with the young.

Ah, well, what do I care? What it means in the end is that ground beef is cheap. That's good enough for me.


Americans abroad do tend to go a little bonkers on the 4th of July. For years, my friend Kevin tried to organize a softball game on the unused site of the American Embassy near the Brandenburg Gate, reasoning that it was American government property, it wasn't being used, and we were American citizens and, hence, had a right to use it. "Come on," he'd say, "all we gotta do is hop the fence and..." And that was the part where I decided no. So, apparently, did a lot of other people; I don't think he ever got a game together. After September 11, of course, the security got so bizarre that it was out of the question, and now they've actually got a plan and are going ahead with building the thing.

This year, though, one definitely un-bonkers thing is happening: a concerted push to register American voters abroad. It's actually very easy: you just contact the registrar of voters in the state where you last were registered to vote and they mail you an absentee ballot. (Of course, with the huge and reasonable controversy over the hackability of electronic voting machines, more people even within the U.S. this year are talking about voting absentee -- now all we gotta do is get them to count the votes).

One of the groups spearheading the effort here is American Voices Abroad. I went to an open house they had, and found them obsessed with Robert's Rules of Order and parliamentary procedure, but if I can ever hack through the crapola, I may volunteer to man one of their voter registration tables some afternoon. What's interesting, though, is that this group exists. Back when I had my magazine project, we tried to contact every organization for Americans we could find, and except for the Democrats Abroad (and, I guess, the Republicans Abroad, although I don't see much action from them in this city) it was limited to women's clubs, the German-American Chamber of Commerce, and the Foreign Press Association. That there is a politically activist organization (and they're hardly the only one: there's also USAbroad, among others) all of a sudden is something I find quite inspiring. Apparently it's not just the foreigners who are disappointed with the current administration. And, equally important, it's seen as necessary to impress on our host countries the fact that not all of us support it.

But I don't think I'll be going to either of their demonstrations today. I'll be happy to help any expat who wants to register to vote -- just contact me at and I'll give you the details. But I'm afraid I'm just a little too disorderly for the AVA crew.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Remembering Broadside

No Depression has just assigned me an obit for their next issue on Agnes "Sis" Cunningham, who died Sunday in a nursing home at the age of 95. Besides being a notable figure in the history of American folk and protest music, she and her husband Gordon Friesen played a part in my life: they were the first to print me.

That puts me in the august category of people like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and any number of other songwriters of the early '60s, except I wasn't writing songs. Sis and Gordon ran a magazine called Broadside, which came out irregularly and was focused on the "topcial song" movement which was emerging when they started it in 1962. I think "Masters of War" was the first Dylan song to show up there, joining a mix of the awful and the evanescent, the rare immortal and the song which faded with the newsprint it was inspired by.

I'd only been in college a few weeks in 1965 when, bored, I submitted my first piece to them. I'm not 100% sure, but it might have been a review of an Elektra album called The Singer-Songwriter Project, on which Patrick Sky, Richard Fariña, Dave Cohen (later David Blue) and a guy named Bruce Murdoch, (who disappeared immediately) were showcased. To my surprise, they printed it and asked for more, so I sent them a review of Fariña's novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. It never even occurred to me to ask about getting paid, which was good, because I think we all know what the answer would have been. Just seeing myself in print -- even if it was mimeo -- was a rush.

In January, 1966, I moved to Princeton for three months to work at a theater there, and let Sis and Gordon know I was nearby. They asked me if I'd like to do a longer story, a profile of Len Chandler, who had just released an album on Columbia, and I said yes. One bitterly cold day, I rode the train into New York, holding a portable tape recorder and a bunch of spare 3-inch reels I'd borrowed from a roommate, and met Len. I was particularly proud of myself, since Len was one of the rare Negroes in the world of folk music not doing blues, but writing songs of the struggle. He was living somewhere south of the Lower East Side, and we went to his place first to do an interview, and there I met his wife, Judy Collins' sister, who looked like Judy Collins except prettier, I thought.

Len kept looking at his watch, and at one point, he said, "Look, I have another interview to do, but you should come along with me because you might learn some more stuff, and anyway I'd like company." It turned out to be for a Russian magazine, one circulated only within Russia that was, apparently, their equivalent of Life: pictures, extended captions, the occasional article. The U.S. office was the Dakota apartment of the young couple who were its correspondents. They welcomed us warmly and we sat down on some cushions on the floor around a low table on which were various zakuski, or appetizers, and a large bottle of Stolichnaya vodka frozen sideways in a big block of ice, a silver spigot at the end of its neck. Two silver bowls held red and black caviar, and there were tiny silver shot glasses to drink the vodka out of.

I do, in fact, remember some things about this part of the evening, despite the fact that I had never had more than a sip or two of beer before in my life. I remember being shown how to spread a very thin layer of mayonnaise on the dark, slightly sweet, dense bread and then apply a dollop of caviar to it and spread it out without breaking the eggs. I remember being asked where I was going to college and seeing them nod approvingly when I said Antioch: "Yes, we know it." And I remember Len patiently explaining things they didn't want explained: that there were middle-class Negroes in America whose lives were rarely touched by the prejudice and violence that affected the poor; that he didn't feel compelled to make political points in every song he wrote; that his involvement with a division of CBS (his record label) meant that he might be able to reach a lot more people than if he was on Folkways, and that that, after all, was what he was trying to do.

I remember leaving, too, and how good it felt to launch myself with the palm of my hand off of one wall in the hall and catch myself on the other wall. "Got a little tipsy, eh?" Len asked. "Thanks for being there. Those people made me nervous." We got a cab and went downtown to Sheridan Square, to some illegal club where someone drew back a slit in the door and looked at us, and then opened up, grinning at Len. Upstairs, Ronnie Gilbert, once of the Weavers, was singing Billie Holiday songs with a combo that included Bill Lee, Spike Lee's dad, on bass. At this point, I began to fade, and I remember crashing on a couch at Len's place and then taking a train back to Princeton very early in the morning, like about 6:30. There was no hangover. I was 17.

I worked like a demon transcribing the tapes, and Gordon called and said that I should just drop off the transcripts and he'd turn it into an article. I went into New York again, and rang at their apartment. Sis answered the door and I introduced myself. She was all business. "So, what did Len have to say?" I told her some of what he'd said to the Russians, and that the best quote I had in there was about how a song should be, first and foremost, well-made, and that if it had a worthy message as a part of it, that made it even better, but a well-written love song was nothing to be ashamed of. "Hmpf," was Sis' comment on that.

Needless to say, the article never appeared.

But I stayed in touch with Broadside for a while, which is how I found myself at the apartment door that summer. I had a manuscript to hand in, and I could have mailed it, but I had a friend along from college, and she was dying to meet the Broadside folks. Her name was Bobbi Fox, and she was a round Jewish girl from Cleveland, passionate about folk music, motorcycles, and her sometime boyfriend, Bob Crumb, who sent her love letters with the most amazing drawings on them. I used to go to New York on weekends, enduring marathon drives so that I could go see my girlfriend, whom I'd met at the end of my three-month stint in Princeton, and who was still going to high school there. A bunch of us would do this, a shifting cast of characters and beat-up old cars, all of us feeling very grown up and Kerouacian.

Anyway, this trip, Bobbi was along, and before I went to Port Authority for the bus to Princeton, I went uptown with her and rang the Broadside bell. This time, Gordon appeared at the door. "I'd ask you in, but the kids are sick, and Sis has her hands full," he said. I handed him the manila envelope with the piece in it, and introduced Bobbi, who professed her love of the magazine. "So," she asked Gordon, "what do you think about Bob Dylan?" Like all of us, she was in thrall to Highway 61 Revisited and the rumors of a new album coming in a few weeks. "Hmm," said Gordon. "I guess what he's doing is okay, but I wish he'd write a good song about Vietnam." Bobbi looked up at him, eyes widening. "Oh, Mr. Friesen," she said. "They're all about Vietnam!"

The times they were a-changin'.

That was the last time I had anything to do with Broadside, although there wasn't any falling out or an ideological clash. I just got distracted by other stuff, like college and pot and my girlfriend and the fact that it was 1966 and there was an amazing amount of great music and other stuff happening all around me. That fall, I'd go to New York and wind up hooking up with a magazine that had (just) moved past mimeo: Crawdaddy!.

As for Len Chandler, he moved to Los Angeles and works in education, as far as I can tell, and he's a past director of the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase. Apparently he still believes that it's the way you write 'em as well as what they say.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Writer's Blog

Nothing yesterday because my finances were too depressing. No food again this weekend, apparently. Out of coffee, too. There's a drug addiction I'll cop to: two cups of my special blend in the morning and I'm ready to write all day.

Which is why the article by Joan Accocella in the June 14-21 issue of the New Yorker (sorry, no link) about writer's block really got to me. In fact, after I read it, the depression that had stayed with me all day after waking me up at 5am for a couple of hours' worth of anxiety attack sort of melted away.

Yeah, I've had writer's block. Back in the '70s I had it from time to time. It was mostly the result of taking on an assignment I really wasn't suited for because I needed the money. And, back in the days before fax machines, e-mail, and FedEx, boy, if you didn't get in by deadline, you were screwed.

What cured me was taking a job at a daily paper. Really, no one there cared a bit how good it was, but they needed it now, if not sooner. My problem was, I'd spent a lot of time in the '70s learning how to write well from good editors (Bob Christgau in particular), and somehow the pressure to produce combined with the editing instincts these people had instilled in me meant that what came out was, as often as not, pretty good. Oh, there would be weeks, usually in the middle of August, when school was out, no one was touring, the local bands were all played out, and it was 126 degrees outside, when I couldn't come up with an idea for a column. That got me the rebuke from one of the airhead Lifestyle editors that "If you really wanted to do this, you could." Thanks.

But ever since working there, I've been able to do it. Just jam it out. Not to say that there haven't been scary times. My second assignment for the Wall St Journal was to cover an exhibition treating Breughel's sons' art. Breughel I just about knew. The boys I didn't know. And once I saw the show, I was convinced that it was important and I had absolutely nothing to say about it. But...I wanted desperately to hold on to this connection, so I plowed my way through the incomprehensible art-critic-ese of the catalogue, stared at the plates, and finally realized something was coming. It wasn't my best piece for them by a long shot, but I was able to do it.

More commonly, I'd be writing the lead on my way back here, be it on the local subway system or on one of Deutsche Bahn's sleek white ICE trains. The fact is, in distinction to the case studies Accocella presented, I seem to want to write more as I grow older. A day like yesterday or today, when I don't write anything except e-mails -- and not too many of them -- feels like a day completely wasted, tossed away, thrown in the garbage, when I could have spent it actually doing something I love to do and getting paid for it, too.

This is why losing the Wall St Journal gig was such a tragedy. Probably no other publication in the world would print a regular 1000-word piece on some European art exhibition, oddball musician, expo, concert, museum exhibition, or whatever. The Herald Tribune could use me, but they seem too damn conservative, and space is definitely at a premium there. (Although my subscription lapsed last month because they discovered some months from 2002 where apparently my bank had bounced their draft. Too late to deal with that.)

Failing that, I have other ideas I'd like to sell various magazines, but I'm having no luck whatsoever getting to them. There was the editor who was going to make the introductions, but he vanished. What I need, as the young editor pointed out a couple of weeks ago, is a London-based agent who's hungry enough to start with magazine sales and, when I'm back on my feet, work up to books. I wrote the only non-rock-critic friend I have in London (I do not want a rock critic agent) but he hasn't written back.

Hell, I've even got something to sell, all ready and sitting here: in November, W.W. Norton is going to be putting out The Rose and the Briar, a collection of original essays on American ballads, in which I share space with Luc Sante, Joyce Carol Oates, Stanley Crouch, and David Thomas of Pere Ubu fame, among many others. I've got the essay all ready to go...somewhere. And it may be vanity, but I think it's going to attract some attention. I just hope I live long enough to see it come out. But yesterday, contributing to my depression, we writers got an e-mail urging us to call our agents and get them to work selling these essays as a great pre-release publicity move. Agent? Ah, well...

I've got a couple of other things on the hard drive, too, but most importantly, I have fresh ideas in my head. They don't come as easily when my utmost concern is whether there will be food on the table this weekend (like I said, probably not), but when I can relax, when I feel like a human being (as I did when I spent ten days in Texas this spring), ideas come bounding.

This is probably the most fruitful, most creative time I've ever lived through, and, as I've said, a lot of the stuff I write -- for a dime a word -- amazes me with its quality.

There's more where that came from. Too bad no one wants it.