Wednesday, November 10, 2004

It Was 15 Years Ago Today...

Well, yesterday, actually, but I didn't find out until too late. Or, rather, I knew, somewhere in the lizard part of my brain, but it never surfaced. It wasn't until I read the BBC News headline that I remembered: Nov. 9 was the day the Wall opened up.

And so, like everyone else who lives here, I get to tell my true story about the Wall's end. I missed it.

That year, 1989, like the year before, I was in Berlin at the end of October for the Berlin Independence Days music conference, which was held this time in the House of World Cultures, an imposing structure in the Tiergarten (Berlin's Central Park) not ten minutes' walk from the Brandenburg Gate, and, thus, the Wall. And, for the first time, there were attendees from the DDR, most notably from DT64, the rather daring "youth radio station" in East Berlin, and Junge Welt, a newspaper for young people. Even weirder, some of them spoke English, and I remember one of them saying "Next year, we'll have this on our side of town." You're awfully optimistic, I replied. "Not optimistic. Right."

Wrong. We had it in the same place the next year, and it wasn't until the next year that it was held in the House of Soviet Science and Culture on Friedrichstr.

But I was aware, vaguely, of reports from Dresden and Leipzig that said that there were huge protests in the wake of Gorbachev's visit. I ignored them; the Communists were good at crushing this sort of thing, and anyway, things had liberalized a little recently, and that was shocking enough in and of itself.

One thing I was going to do was to stay in Berlin afterwards to celebrate my birthday on Nov. 2 and try to figure out what was going on with my supposed girlfriend. A party was arranged at the Pinguin, at that time all my friends' bar of choice, and the back room was set aside for it. It was, as I remember (and I don't remember much, thanks), a very successful party, with indoor fireworks at one point in the evening, a great chocolate cake that tasted wonderful despite an odd shape, higher on one side than on the other, and all my oddball friends (who, come to think of it, rarely needed an excuse to go to the Pinguin). I can't even remember if my girlfriend was there. Probably not.

I'm also not sure how I spent the next few days, although I know I didn't jump right on a plane. But early on the morning of the 8th, I took a cab up to Tegel and started the trip back to Austin.

Now back in those days, West Berlin was an island surrounded by the DDR. This meant a number of things in terms of getting there. For one thing, the city wasn't part of Germany: it was a city jointly administered by four occupying powers, the U.S., Britain, France, and Russia. Thus, West German things -- like mail from your draft board, which was delivered by a separate postal system owned by the army -- weren't allowed in. That meant that all those handy flights on Lufthansa from the States had to land elsewhere, so you'd fly to Frankfurt and then change to a U.S. or British carrier for the short flight to Berlin.

It was also the same way leaving, so I got on my plane, flew to Frankfurt and...found that my connection to Dallas, which was coming in from Bucharest, was nine hours late due to an equipment malfunction. There was nothing to do but wait. It was cold, so the idea of going into Frankfurt and looking around didn't appeal (there's virtually nothing there anyway), and I exhausted the airport's diversions in almost no time. There was a dimly-lit long-stay lounge for people with similar problems, and I remember a Nigerian guy collapsing in a heap into one of the chairs and opening his briefcase, from which a large and very healthy cockroach sprung and headed off to explore Germany. I read and read and was soon out of stuff to read. Nine hours passes slowly enough in a plane, but time almost seemed to have stopped at the Frankfurt airport.

Then the plane came in, we finally boarded, and we headed off to New York. By the time we got there, it was late in the day, and there were no more planes out to Dallas, so we were issued vouchers for meals and a hotel room, and sent to a hotel at JFK. I remember a bunch of Russians, who were definitely novelty items in those days, eager to get to Brooklyn, which, they determined after looking at a map, wasn't that far away. After checking in, they decided to walk, at about 10pm. I advised them against it, but they were sure they would have a fine time. I may have been one of the last people to see them alive, for all I knew.

The next day, the 9th, was similarly plagued with problems. It had snowed, a freak snowstorm, and there were conflicting reports of whether or not we'd be able to land in Dallas. By mid-afternoon, the snow seemed to have burned off, but, as it developed when we got to Dallas, there was still the question of whether we'd be able to land in Austin. That, too, eventually got settled, and I remember it was dark when I got home. I'd suspended the newspaper delivery while I was gone, and it was due to start up the next day. I was tired, glad to be home, trying to figure out what was going on with my girlfriend, eager to see what had come in the mail, what was on the answering machine...and before long the exhaustion hit me and I crashed.

The next morning dawned warm, as if the freak snowstorm had never happened, and I walked out onto the lawn to get my paper. As I opened it, I saw the headline: the Berlin Wall had opened, thousands of East Berliners were surging through to take a look at the city they'd lived next door to for ages, families were being reunited, people were dancing on the Wall, etcetera etcetera. I couldn't believe what I was reading. Sure, I knew there had been protests, but...did that guy from Junge Welt know something I didn't? (Well, sure he did, but did he know for sure?)

Then, at 3 in the afternoon, the phone rang, and it was one of my friends in Berlin. "Hey, where are you, man? We're having a party!" I grumbled something, but I was already making plans to get back over there as soon as I could.

In the meanwhile, though, I almost got to be a part of the story even from thousands of miles away. Another guy called about a week later. "They're planning to have a big concert at the Brandenburg Gate," he said, "and they've asked me if I could get Z Z Top. I think you know them, right?" Well, I knew Billy Gibbons, and, more importantly, I knew how to put a formal request into the ear of their management very quickly. Which is how it had to happen: the concert was scheduled just a few days hence. I told the guy to hang on, and went to work. Gibbons was beyond enthusiastic: he grasped the historic importance immediately. But it was up to Bill Ham, their manager, to formally say yes, and Ham was out fishing somewhere. One day went by...two days went by...finally, I heard from my contact: Ham was ready to send the band, so I was to give him the contact names. And yeah, they'd fly me along just for setting it up. I was jazzed and called Berlin. "Oh, I was about to call you. Someone else came up with Joe Cocker, and he's much more popular. Sorry." Not as sorry as I was.

And I did get back soon: at the end of January, after the MIDEM conference in Cannes, France. I took a train up there as fast as I could get there from Paris, whipped out my notebook, and started to report a story I was absolutely sure I could sell: how West Berlin would change without the Wall. I knew that the subsidy-fat, anything-goes nature of West Berlin was doomed now, that money had to go into rebuilding (or in many cases, building) the infrastructure to unite the two cities, I knew that there was going to be immense culture shock (brilliantly explored by a German acolyte of Gilbert Shelton's, Gerhard Seyfried, in a graphic novel called Flucht aus Berlin, which I got as a birthday present the next year), and I knew that nothing was ever going to be the same for any of my friends there. I had an interview with a guy who'd been a dissident in East Berlin and had become such a pain in the regime's ass that they actually threw him out. I talked to lefties, barflies, and members of a band that had played tons of gigs in East Germany and had banked the Ostmarks they'd earned there in the Landesbank because you had to do something with them, only to discover that they were now going to be exchanged for Deutsche Marks one-to-one: they were rich!

It was a great story, and it taught me a valuable lesson. Don't try to upset the media's simplistic understanding of world events. After I wrote it up, I sent it all over the place, only to get the same rejection everywhere: I'd missed the story. The story was that the East Germans were ecstatic not to be Communists any more (not true, of course: many of them felt -- and still feel -- that they had an authentic culture with many valuable things they lost in unification), that the West Germans were welcoming them as long-lost brothers (instead of shunning them like the ignorant, unwashed swine most Wessis I knew took them to be), and that Berlin was the forerunner of a massive freedom movement that would sweep Eastern Europe (well, sort of true, although it was Leipzig where the action was, and I think I've blown that riff before on this blog so I won't do it here).

Nearly everything my story predicted came true: the real estate boom; the underhanded dealings around the Treuhand, the agency set up to deal with state property from the DDR; the "Mauer im Kopf" (wall in the head) attitudes on both sides; the weird tension that hung in the air as everyone waited to see what would happen next. Unfortunately, I no longer have the story: I'd bought a Xerox word-processor that recorded stories on huge 5" floppy discs, so when my last paper copy went out to its rejection grave I didn't worry. Of course, the disc drive failed, and nobody could recover anything from the discs.

It wasn't a waste of time, though, because I lived through it and still remember that trip. In a way, it was better than being there when the Wall opened up, because things were way more complex, and, therefore, more interesting. And that spring, I was back, in a rented car, ready to drive to another newly-liberated territory, Czechoslovakia. But that's another story.

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