Saturday, December 30, 2006

End Of An Era

One of America's best record stores -- hell, one of the world's best record stores -- will close on Sept. 30, 2007. Village Music, in Mill Valley, California, has fallen victim to the high price of doing business in Marin County, and proprietor John Goddard has decided to sell off his stock, as well as the mind-boggling array of memorabilia which covers his walls.

Actually, it's not just the expense. As John notes in a press release I got the day after I got my annual (and treasured) Christmas card from him, this year's featuring a photo of Little Jimmy Scott and Ruth Brown standing in front of the shop, "While the deciding factor in this decision has been the rent levels necessary to maintain a business in Mill Valley, this is only one of several reasons I've reached this decision. Basically -- it's time. I've had a great time here for a great many years. The things I've learned, the people I've met, and the ways in which my musical horizons have expanded (and, on some levels, solidified) have been probably the major focus of my life for 40 years. It has been, for the most part, wonderful."

I'll say. When I moved to California to work at Rolling Stone, it was my great good luck to rent an apartment in Sausalito, the town which lies at the other end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Not on the tourist side, but on the side overlooking the Bay where the fishing fleet (what was left of it), the houseboat community, and the residents' shopping district on Caledonia Avenue were. My place had a stunning view of Mt. Tamalpais, at the foot of which Mill Valley sits.

Naturally, being in the business I was in, I got loads and loads of records, many of which I didn't want. Just as I was about to be choked out of my home, one of the record reviewers I worked with mentioned a place where I could unload them, just a few miles away. That place was Village Music. John's policy was simple: you got credit, or you could take cash. He bought stuff for half what he sold it for. New albums in the store were $3.88, three for $10. Used albums went from a dime to quite a lot of money if they were rare enough. And there were lots and lots of albums.

Not only that, John knew a lot about most of them. He seemed to treasure American musical history more than anyone I'd met to that point, and he was evangelical about the stuff he liked. "You've never heard that? Take that home today!" But John, I've only got $16 credit, and I've got this other stuff... And out would come one of the mysterious pieces of paper that lived in and around the cash register. "Okay, now you owe me." And accounts would, inevitably, get settled. But this music wasn't just something that lived on round pieces of vinyl for John. He had an unbelievable network of people alerting him to out-of-the-way clubs and concerts and churches where the people who'd recorded those records were playing. You'd get a telephone call if you were among the lucky inner circle: "Mighty Clouds of Joy, Tuesday evening, church in Oakland. Interested?" "Ernest Tubb is playing in Morgan City tonight. It's kind of a haul, but I'm going." And, of course, if you heard of something, you'd call him. I was plugged into the zydeco circuit and always passed that news along.

Eventually, his knowledge and his stash of records increased to where expansion was inevitable. One night, I cooked a big pot of gumbo at his house and we drove it to the store, where a number of people waited with sledgehammers and a case of beer to knock down one of the walls. He'd acquired a lease on the store next door, and was going to double his space. It took about a week for that to fill up, but it did relieve the congestion somewhat. Nor were these just record collectors with the sledgehammers. John's clientele included a great number of people for whom access to the information in the grooves he sold was a matter of vital interest: professional musicians. And, this being Marin County and the '70s, the great majority of them could be filed under "rock stars." It wasn't at all unusual to be shopping with Mike Bloomfield, Nick Gravenites, Marty Balin, Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, or Maria Muldaur. I'm still pissed off at Bloomfield, whom I met when we both reached for the same Barbara Lynn album at the same time. "I need this," he said. But I saw it first! "Well, I'm Mike Bloomfield and you're not and I need this." We eventually became friendly, but that was also the only copy of that album I ever had a chance to own. I still haven't heard it. And, just as with the live music, these people passed on the knowledge they got: one day I walked in on a warm spring day and the most beautiful acoustic guitar music was playing. I asked what it was and he said "Slack key. Ry Cooder found a bunch of it in Hawaii and brought some back for me. I don't have any for sale, but I've got some ordered. Want me to save you some when it comes in? It's expensive..." It was, but it was worth it.

The knowledge that performers existed who didn't perform in California got John to thinking, and this led him to start throwing his famous parties. There was a bar at the other end of town called the Sweetwater where a lot of the local musicians hung out and sometimes performed, and John started renting it twice a year for private invitation-only parties. One was for the store's birthday in September, and the other was a Christmas party. Customers clamored to perform, and were nearly always routinely turned down; John had an iron-clad idea of who he wanted every time. Sometimes, of course, this meant building a backup band, so there was never any trouble finding musicians for that. But other times, the performers brought their own bands. The parties would be catered by barbeque joints or some of John's customers in the food business, and there'd be a cash bar.

John sought out performers down on their luck, performers who he felt should have wider exposure, and he cannily invited people who could improve their fortunes to these parties. Within weeks of a story appearing in the Village Voice about the all-but-forgotten jazz vocalist Little Jimmy Scott playing rat-holes in Newark, he was on the stage at the Sweetwater astonishing a crowd that had never heard of him. Six months later, his first Warner Bros. album appeared to a swarm of enthusiastic, I-didn't-know-he-was-still-alive reviews. The Christmas parties always featured Charles Brown, who, before Michael Jackson appeared on the scene, had the best-selling single by a black artist ever, "Merry Christmas, Baby," recorded in 1947, and selling seasonally every year thereafter. Mr. Brown hadn't been such a good businessman, and when he made his first Sweetwater appearance, he was eking out a living in Oakland teaching piano lessons. He, too, was amazed that this crowd knew him, and played one after another of his hits. Finally, he said "A very long time ago, we recorded a song that's been very good to us ever since. It's called 'Merry Christmas, Baby.' Would you like to hear it?" The crowd roared. Mr. Brown faked a double take. "Really? You do?" Pandemonium. His career saw an uptick, too, not long afterwards.

Not that contemporary performers were neglected. There was always something good to drink there, but I swear I wasn't hallucinating when I saw Elvis Costello backed by Commander Cody, James Burton, Jerry Garcia, Sammy Hagar, Austin de Lone, "Teenage" Steve Douglas, and one or two others I'm spacing on at the moment. The audience was just as diverse. Carlos Santana and John Lee Hooker always shared a table, and I saw one show from a seat at the bar, where I was between Tanita Tikaram and Pearl Harbor -- babe city!

The main thing, though, was that John has never thought of music as a product. Records, yes. Music, no. He's always been a fan, which is why he nearly passed out the first time B.B. King (a major record collector himself) or Cab Calloway walked into the store. I can't speculate on what he'll do next, but I bet he'll be doing something to do with his passionate love of American roots music.

As for me, I'm hoping I can get there once more before the place closes, and maybe even treat myself to a souvenir. The real souvenir -- the word is, of course, the French verb "to remember" -- is the education I got in that store and through knowing John Goddard all these years. You can't put a dollar figure on that, but if you want, we can figure out a way to do it with credit.

Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown, R.I.P.

I suppose it wasn't a total surprise to wake up this morning and read that James Brown had left the building. He was, after all, 73 years old, and when you advertise yourself as the hardest working man in show business, you, well, you work hard at it. And there was never any doubt that James worked hard.

I got to see him up close once, in one of those random moments that happen when you least expect them. My friend TV Tom used to be the publicist for the Parliament-Funkadelic organization in their heyday, around 1977-78, which meant that there were several James Brown alumni on the bus: bassist Bootsy Collins, who fronted his own amazing band which included his brother Catfish (who'd played alongside Bootsy in the Brown band), saxophonist Maceo Parker, and trombonist Fred Wesley. Bootsy was always grateful for the protection the man he called "Mr. Brown" had given him as a young, green, but phenomenally gifted 16-year-old bass player, on the road with the "Sex Machine"-era Brown band. Catfish, Maceo, and Fred, however, would just give you the evil eye if you asked them about "Mr. Brown."

Anyway, Tom and I had flown in from the East Coast, since I was doing a story on the band and, with Tom, would follow them from Savannah, Georgia to Washington D.C. over the course of four or five days. We'd flown non-stop from L.A. to Atlanta, and were going to get some tiny plane to cover the last leg, but the weather coming in had been very unpleasant, and I'm a fearful flyer at the best of times. (Almost Famous wouldn't be made for years, but I am so there during that airplane scene.) Tom and I looked at the map, saw how close Savannah was, and decided to blow off the flight and pick up a rental car instead. We were going to have to do this anyway, and the chances were better that Atlanta would have a "floater," a car not assigned to a pool, and, thus, not subject to dropoff charges. And hey, it was the record company's money.

So we approached the Avis counter, which was next to the Hertz counter and maybe one or two others. As we were standing in line, Tom gripped my arm. "Don't look, but that's James Brown standing over there in the Hertz line!" So I casually rolled my eyes, and there he was. He was very short, very black, and had ridiculous hair. James Brown, all right.

Our line moved pretty quickly, and it became evident, the closer we got to the counter, that the black guy at the next counter was working for James Brown, because the dialogue was repetitive. Clerk: "I'm sorry, sir, but the card's not going through." Guy: "I'm certain there's some mistake. We always use you people. The name is Brown, James Brown." Clerk: "Yes, that's the name I show, but the card's not going through." Guy: "Could you please try again?" Clerk: "Yes, sir. Let's give it a minute." And there would be some more business, and the card wouldn't go through. "Do you suppose we should go vouch for him?" Tom wondered, more idly than asking a serious question. "Naaah, it's the card that's the problem, not the Godfather."

Our business took a while, because we insisted on a floater, and civilians aren't supposed to know about them. And we got to hear that dialogue several more times. The guy was just not going to give up. I think Tom was on the verge of taking his card over and putting it down for the beleaguered star when the clerk said "Well, how about that? It came up fine this time! I don't know what the problem was, but it's solved now." At this point, James hustled up to the counter and said "It's the car we always have reserved for us. The Lincoln. The purple Lincoln." Tom made a face and tried not to laugh.

But I'll tell you one thing: as we walked with our keys to the car we'd rented, we passed James Brown and the guy in the hall, and neither Tom nor I was brave enough to open our mouths and say a thing. Short, black, ridiculous hair, but the man had one powerful aura around him.


Actually, in the middle of writing that, I remembered the time I didn't meet James Brown. In the early '70s, John Goddard of Village Music, arguably America's greatest record store, bought a warehouse full of King Records, and I discovered, through him, a goldmine of American music. I bought dozens of them, and one thing they all had in common was the address: 1540 Brewster Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio. I became obsessed with King and its amazing hillbilly and R&B artists, although I didn't bother to pick up any of the albums John stocked by the man who had saved the company's life in the late '50s by being the only person on the label to have substantial hits: James Brown.

A lucky gig found me working in Chicago and picking up a nice check for it, so I arranged (back in the days of "triangle fares," which let you add on a destination to a round-trip ticket for a negligible amount) to visit friends living near Dayton, Ohio. And, I reasoned, while I was there, I could drive to Cincinnati and visit 1540 Brewster.

Which, of course, I did. And found nothing. Well, not literally nothing, but the huge space was empty except for a little lady behind a desk. John had asked me to find any memorabilia, particularly photos, but also press releases, point-of-sale material, anything they might have, and, if there was a lot of it, to call him collect so he could arrange to pay for it and have it shipped. Naturally, I asked her about that first. "Oh, we got rid of all of that. Just threw it out. We saved some of the more important stuff, though." Oh? I brightened up. "Like Steve Lawrence's first contract. Did you know he started with us?" I almost passed out. Threw it out???

Just at this moment a string-bean with an explosion of orange hair walked into the room, obviously back from lunch, asking if he'd had any messages. "No, but there's this young man who's come asking about King. Maybe you folks have something he's interested in?" "Sure," the guy said, and said "Come with me." We walked down a hall, and he stuck a key in a door labelled James Brown Enterprises.

Even with that warning, I wasn't prepared for what I saw. The room froze as I walked in, and the redhead said "It's okay, he's with me." He then introduced himself as James Brown's road manager. (Note for historians: I remember his last name as Jaffee, although I note that Alan Leeds was Brown's tour director at this time. Anyone out there can straighten this out?)

He showed me to a seat, and everyone went back to what they'd been doing. In the case of the couple over at the next desk, that was (him) counting $20 bills into an attache case and (her) languidly puffing on a cigarette. This action was even more noticeable than it might have been because of the very short skirt she was wearing and the huge emerald that had been pierced into her left nostril.

"Those people out there," the roadie said, "they don't care about anything! We were the only asset they had, and now James is with Polygram, and they had to give James Brown Enterprises all his files but the rest of it? Pfffft! They don't have any idea what they've got, they don't know what to do with it, and it's driving everyone crazy. All I can say is, it's great your friend got all those albums, because if they weren't pressed on such cheap plastic, they'd probably already have recycled them, too. Sorry, I'd like to help, but..." and he shrugged.

As a naive white kid in my mid-20s, I was freaked out enough by the scene around me, so I thanked him, shook his hand, and went back to my car. The last I saw of 1540 Brewster was in my rear-view mirror.

The good news, incidentally, is that a lot of the King tapes and acetates were, in fact, saved, and are being sorted through by people who do know what they're doing. The bad news is, the people who own the label still don't have a clue. But James Brown's legacy is safe, thanks to the aforementioned Alan Leeds.

The very bad news, though, is that his legacy is now at an end. Thanks for everything, Godfather.

Another Odd Berlin Christmas Story

Had my third annual Christmas dinner at the dancer's last night -- kabocha squash soup followed by an excellent wild-hare ragout -- followed by a troll through German television looking at Christmas stuff (and a remarkable documentary about people who escaped over the Berlin Wall -- or tried to -- on what must've been the Burden of History Channel, since what's that got to do with Christmas?) but, alas, nothing on the way home to match the delightful aftermath of our first annual dinner, which I recounted here.

Actually, this Christmas had a weird edge to it. Saturday, walking to stock up at the store (Berlin doesn't open again until Wednesday morning), I heard rapid footsteps approaching me from behind. My New York instincts took over, and I looked over my shoulder to see a little guy in a green hooded windbreaker, arms filled with boxes of awful Glühwein, running like crazy. His face was flushed, and he had a full beard, which, as he passed me, made me think of a garden troll, since he had his hood up. I heard more footsteps, and saw a skinny young guy running after him. It was too late for me to do anything, and I'm not sure I would have if I could have, because the situation looked pretty ambiguous. At Bergstr., the little guy hung a right, and the skinny guy passed me, panting audibly. (New Year's resolution for you, dude: it involves cigarettes). As I turned left, I saw the skinny guy, almost doubled-over, grab a cell phone and make a call. I guess it was just a larcenous wino and maybe a guy from the store where he stole the wine, but it was an odd sight.

Not to mention that last night, getting out of the U-Bahn by the dancer's, there was what appeared to be a flaming cocktail parasol burning brightly on the platform and some Arab-looking guys walking away from it. I took the wrong exit, which was fortunate, because by the time I got to where I saw the exit I should have taken, it was awash with police cars and vans, and cops interrogating a large crowd of these same Arab-looking guys, who might have been rousted out of the Internet cafe on the corner. Guess this year was Crimesmas.

But I did have a story for today in readiness, something that happened to me about ten years ago. It doesn't make me look particularly smart, for the most part, but it does have a weird ending.

I was walking to the store, along the same route as Saturday, when a white van pulled up and the passenger-side window rolled down. A youngish guy asked me, in German, if I needed speakers. Well, it just so happened I did, since the ones I'd cobbled out of a defunct stereo system a friend had given me had crapped out. One didn't work at all, and the other was iffy. What luck! But...what was going on?

The guy started speaking rapid-fire German, and I asked him to slow down because my German wasn't that good. "English?" he asked, and I said sure. "Wow, that's good; we're from Holland and our German's not so hot either. Listen, we've been working on a club here in town, setting up the sound system, and this guy's not sparing anything; it's a great system, and he's paid a lot for it. Anyway, we ordered the equipment, and somehow they shipped us double the number of speakers we needed, so we're making a little extra Christmas money on this job and we're selling them super-cheap. These are great speakers: look at this." He pulled a loose-leaf notebook out from somewhere and showed me an article from some high-end stereo magazine I'd never heard of. The speakers he had had come in third, just beneath two brands I'd heard of. Interesting!

"Look, every penny we make on this deal is free money, so we're not going to rip you off," he said. "We'll sell them to you for DM 200 a pair. Hey, you have any friends who need speakers?" In fact, I did. I'd been bitching about mine going out while I was at the radio station where I worked, and one of the guys there said he'd just blown one of his and didn't know if it'd be cheaper to get it fixed or just buy new ones. "So why not buy two pairs and sell him the other? That way, you make money on the deal, too."

I looked at them, and the address on the boxes was a company in South Carolina. But I wasn't sure. They might have been stolen, for one thing, but by Dutch guys with their own van? That didn't seem plausible. But the facts were the facts: I had some extra money, I needed speakers because mine were dead, and here was an opportunity. So they drove me to my bank around the corner and, at my insistence, stayed in the van while I hit the cash machine. We drove back to my place, I paid them, and they helped me unload the speakers into my front door. I asked for a receipt, since it was a professional expense, and got one, with an address in far north Berlin on it. "Just remember," the guy said, "if for any reason you're dissatisfied, just bring them back, opened or not, and we'll refund 100% of your money." could I lose?

After I got back from my trip to the store -- I still had to eat, after all -- I hooked them up. They sounded okay, but I was suddenly feeling weird about the whole thing. There was one person I knew who'd have the skinny on these things, a guy in Austin who had sold high-end stuff to unimaginably wealthy Texans, so I fired off an e-mail to him. Almost immediately, he wrote back. "Were the guys who sold you this in a white van?" he asked. How bizarre, I thought. How could he know that? I said yes, and he sent me back a URL for something called the White Van Speaker Scam. From looking at it, it seemed like I was the only person in the world who didn't know about this. I'd let my greed and my desire to get my stereo working again -- and, let's face it, my wanting to buy myself a Christmas present, since nobody else was going to -- cloud my better judgement. I felt like a moron.

So I packed the speaker back up, and looked at the receipt, then checked the map. It was in Wittenau, which was a long ways away, and I'd have to take a cab, but I was going to do it. The next morning, I hailed a cab, and the driver let me load all four speakers into the car. About DM 20 later, I was at an industrial park of some sort out in the middle of nowhere. It took some doing, but we found the "suite" listed on the receipt -- by now, the cabbie had gotten into it and was hoping I'd get my revenge on the scamsters. Anyway, I knocked on the door, and guy opened it and said "We're holding a meeting. We're not open." I responded in English and told him that I had a receipt in my pocket that said I'd get a 100% refund within three days, and I was returning the speakers. "You're returning them?" he said, amazed. "You're the first person who's ever done that!" Yeah, well, I was returning them. We hauled them into the space, and sure enough, there was one of the guys who'd sold them to me, dressed in a suit, standing in front of a blackboard with diagrams labelled in English: "Sales Talk," "Customer Satisfaction," stuff like that. "You're not returning the speakers?" he said. "What was wrong? Were they defective? We'll replace them." No, I said, I just got a better deal. He goggled. "You did? Where?" Ah, I lied, my little secret.

At that point, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a couple of bills. Just a couple, but high-denomination. "Man, this is all the money that's in the place. You're going to leave us penniless." Like, by then, I cared. It was exactly enough, and I thanked him and left. The cabbie was still there, although I'd paid him. "You got your money back?" he said. "Great! I'll drive you to the U-Bahn for free. It's good to see that sometimes you can stand up to the gangsters and win!"

Two days later, the guy who buys my used CDs showed up at my house. I told him the story, and even he had heard about the White Van Speaker Scam! "If you want good speakers, though, I know where you can get JBL studio monitors for 1/3 their normal price." Oh, yeah? "Sure," he said, and named a huge electronics chain. "They price them cheap to get you in there and hope you buy more stuff. But this price is only for 24 hours." And a couple of hours later, I had a new pair of excellent speakers, made by a firm I'd heard of, set up and working in my house. I'm still using them, in fact.

Remember, this was ten years ago. Today, all you have to do is Google "white van speaker" and you get a handful of pages. I'm still very grateful to the guy in Texas for making the connection. Not to mention the righteous cabbie and the honest scammer.

Ho ho ho, as they say.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Early Christmas Present?

I just came back from a brisk walk, stockpiling coffee before our coming 4-day weekend (after Saturday, nothing will be open until Wednesday morning, at which point there'll be nothing in the shops because they won't have re-stocked yet), and on my way back up Friedrichstr., almost to Torstr., I saw that a new business had opened in a bad-luck location that's been a half-dozen things in the past few years. This one, though, might make it.

Its predecessor was a store called Come In, which sold, uh, jewelry and stuff, just another un-thought-out business waiting to get pounded into the ground, which happened in due time. The new joint has just as cute a name: Yum Mee. Irritating as that is, it both advertises what's for sale and shows off the horrid Orientalism which holds forth here in those two words. However, what it sells (in part) could be a godsend to the 'hood: bánh mi. Half the menu is regular baguette sandwiches, the other half a somewhat timid approach to this classic Vietnamese snack.

My own introduction to bánh mi came in Honolulu, whence I'd gone to do a story on Hawaiian music, which is a much harder assignment than you'd think. Still, I had a motivated researcher in the person of my friend Margaret, who'd moved there with her new husband, Rollo Banks, one of America's leading tattoo artists. (Please note this was before every idiot teenager in the world had a tattoo. Rollo had inherited the designs of Sailor Jerry, and was still poking them out at China Sea Tattoo on Army Street in Honolulu's Chinatown.) The day I'd arrived in Honolulu, I'd done something very smart: not fought the jetlag. This was Margaret's idea: "If you wake up at 6 and go to bed at 10, you'll be keeping local time, and you'll never see the tourists." She was right.

One morning, then, Rollo offered to take me on a tour of Chinatown at 6 in the morning, and I of course jumped at the opportunity. They tell tourists Chinatown is dangerous, and if you're asked, you should echo that opinion. It's not, of course, true, but Chinatown is sleazy -- or it was back in 1990. at any rate. Rollo was an inspired guide to the sleaze, too; we went to a dime-a-dance place where there was a live orchestra of Filipinos. The drummer -- and I can swear to this, having stood right next to him -- was asleep, keeping perfect time (all he needed to do was whack the snare), and picking a scab on his neck in his sleep. On the periphery of the dance-floor were little booths where the dance-hall girls -- Okinawans, Rollo said -- gave blow-jobs for five bucks. There was an antique shop (and why was this open at 6am?) where I bet someone who knew his Chinese or Japanese stuff might well uncover a bargain: it looked like the stock hadn't been added to since about 1920. Various closed bars were passed and their legends commented upon, and then we went to the wholesale fish market, where multi-ton tuna were being wheeled in straight off the boat while the sushi chefs from the best hotels in the state swarmed over them bidding on the choicest bits. Outside the fish market was a fruit and vegetable market, and Rollo bought a perfectly ripe mango, whereupon he pulled out his knife, stabbed it, and started carving it with careful in-and-out motions. He withdrew the knife, wiped the blade on his jeans and popped the mango open, its flesh falling apart into discrete bite-sized chunks, much to the admiration of the young Vietnamese woman who'd sold it to him. "I learned that trick from a teenaged whore in Bangkok," he said, and she turned a very unusual color.

We ended the tour in a Vietnamese coffee-shop whose name I carefully wrote down, only to discover later that the two words meant "coffee shop" in Vietnamese. And there, for breakfast, I had a paté, shredded daikon, shredded green chile, homemade mayonnaise, cilantro, shredded carrot and lettuce bánh mi on a perfect baguette, with two cups of that rocket-fuel Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk to wake me up. By the time we got back to Army Street, there was a line in front of China Sea that led around the block. "Oh, hell," Rollo sighed. "Fleet's in."

Anyway, with that kind of intro to bánh mi, no wonder I've been waiting for them to show up here. I doubt Yum Mee will be that good, but I'm also intending to head down there tomorrow at lunchtime.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Once Upon A Time

Today, partially goaded by a blitz of recent postering, I headed to Berlin's brand-new DDR Museum, located in a truly odd underground bunker beneath the Radisson SAS Hotel on Karl-Liebknecht Str., with a branch of the Spree River separating it from the Berliner Dom. It's a brand-new, wired kind of bunker, though, with a flat-screen displaying the museum's logo to catch the eye of anyone who might be walking alongside the Spree in the rain these days. (A noodle restaurant a little further along had tables set for about 150 people and was completely empty).

It's an odd place. To call the lighting "muted" would be an understatement. It's not quite gloomy, but it sort of forces the eyes towards the exhibits, not all of which are on eye-level. Some of its displays aren't very intuitive, either: I walked in and saw a very good model of the Berlin Wall, with all of its between-the-wall barriers and security devices, and wanted to know more. It wasn't until I'd spent some time in the museum that I noted that these bars fixed onto the wall with captions on them were actually handles for various drawers and cabinets which contained exhibits, so I had to head back and check the one by the Wall model. It's a good way to conserve space, but it can also block aisles and cause congestion.

But what's even odder is that it doesn't really seem to take a stand on the DDR -- which I admire. (For you Americans, DDR stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the name given to the East German nation. The museum has it as GDR, German Democratic Republic, in the captions, but I've always preferred the German abbreviation). It may be a bit naive to assert, as they do, that "the DDR never knew misery and poverty," since that sure wasn't the case if you lived outside a handful of cities which were kept (relatively) well-provisioned by the central government, but they give equal treatment to the upside and the downside. There's a Stasi secret-police listening-post in an obscure corner as well as an exquisitely fitted-out model apartment, its TV showing a nice sample-reel of DDR TV shows, and all of its cabinets and drawers filled with artifacts and consumer goods. One wall of the kitchen has some great old DDR cartoons dealing with women's place in the daily life of the country, and the bookshop has a DDR cookbook for the very brave. There's also a couple of exhibits about resistance to the regime, from the rather apolitical punks to the "environmental" magazine (really part of a nationwide movement centered in Leipzig) that was secretly printed in the basement of the Zionist movement's office. The sports section has a drawer which opens to show one box of anabolic steroids, the killer drug which the nation's sports officials used to try to bring their athletes to Olympic glory, but backfired into cancers and weird gender-altering problems.

One particularly educational exhibit is a Trabant automobile, which you can wedge yourself into if you're so inclined, with an unsentimental account of the problems of ownership (mechanics were apt to ask, if you brought yours in, whether you'd brought the parts; they were apparently very difficult to obtain). There's also an unusually large part of the museum given over to the FKK (nude beach) movement. Was the DDR really so big on nudism?

All in all, it's an odd thing to see this impeccably preserved collection of artifacts so lovingly assembled, and then to step outside, gaze slightly to your left, and see the skeleton of the soon-to-vanish Palast der Republik, the DDR's main administrative building, in its last throes of demolition. And to walk back home, musing on the things you didn't see: the DDR and foreigners, the DDR and minority groups (including Jews), the DDR army... In some ways it's a counterweight to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. In others, it's yet another odd statement of the Burden of History.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Expat Magazines: What I've Learned

Since I realized the other day that I've already made one of my New Year's resolutions -- not to get involved in any more magazine startups -- and since the morass of comments on those last two posts got into this area, I thought it might be time to expound my basic theory of how to do an English-language magazine in another country.

The following is based on my experience here in Europe, specifically -- although not totally -- in Berlin. There might be other variables which would make this advice not as applicable in the Far East or South America, I don't know. But this is what I've learned in the past decade.

Earlier, even: when I first moved here in 1993, Checkpoint magazine was already publishing. Co-funded by Zitty, Time Out, and some private funds, it had been running for about a year when I first approached it. It wasn't very successful for a number of reasons, not least of which was appalling art direction. Eventually, Time Out pulled out, and Zitty took it over, forming a new subsidiary of their company to do so. Since the old name was owned by the previous entity, a new one had to be found, and, casting about for suggestions, I liked one from a friend, Metropolis. True, this was also claimed by an American architecture magazine, but doing our title search (something every magazine should do...hello, ExBerliner!) we discovered it hadn't been registered in Germany, so we were clear to use it as long as it didn't look like we were putting out an architecture magazine. It didn't.

Zitty proved to be an unreliable partner, to say the least. They'd withdraw or hold back funds, and they'd "suspend publication" for a couple of months at a time -- once, most disastrously, over the three summer months, the very time when Berlin got most of its English-language tourist trade, and thus, a perfect opportunity for advertisers. In late 1996, though, they'd convinced Metropolis' editor, Kevin Cote, to join Zitty as editor-in-chief, and he handed the magazine over to me. I made a couple of changes: the magazine became free, thereby freeing it from having to compete for space with newsstands which hated to display non-Turkish and non-Russian foreign-language publications; and editorial focus was redirected from tourists, never a stable market, to residents.

Having taken our editor, though, Zitty lost all interest in the magazine, and killed it after two issues. Oh, excuse me, "suspended publication." Weirdly, the two issues I'd put out, with the free distribution network still in its infancy, made money, something the magazine had never done in its earlier incarnations. I was plenty angry about the "suspension," and announced that the next editorial meeting would take place as scheduled, with an eye towards continuing English-language magazine publication in Berlin. Out of this grew a project known as the Berlin Information Group (BIG), one of whose elements was a newsprint magazine called b. The other elements, and the story of how and why it failed, aren't part of what I'm focusing on, though.

The two big changes at Metropolis remain essential to the success of a magazine like this today. And yes, I mean magazine. Webpages are great, blogs are great, but even though you can read the web on your cell phone on the U-Bahn, do you really want to? I'm still convinced that a well-designed magazine with great graphics is a fine thing, portable, browsable, and, if it's free, disposable without guilt. (You do recycle, don't you?)

Making the magazine free puts a larger burden on the ad staff to get ads (and another burden on the editorial staff not to go all advertorial, which seems a temptation too many yield to these days), but it also means you can target your distribution points far more precisely, and hit your readers where they actually exist. I remember seeing Checkpoint in U-Bahn kiosks, forced upon them by the Zitty distribution guy. Nobody looked twice at them. If you try to sell the magazine at your distribution points -- English-language cinemas, bookstores, video rentals, bars, restaurants, etc. -- you're asking each merchant to keep track of each copy sold and segregate the proceeds from his own intake. Fahgeddaboudit. Running a business is hard enough without that kind of headache. Free is free. And free means a huge number of them get picked up and a huge percentage of them get read. Work out the economics of the advertising -- we actually had people approaching us at b towards the end of our three-month run, so anxious were they to reach our readership -- and keep it free.

The second point, though, is far more subtle, and the one we had the hardest time making the few prospective investors understand. Locals, approached with our projections, would trot out the figures from the Ausländerbehörde and tell us there were only 35,000 Americans in Berlin, only X hundred Australians, New Zealanders, and an unknown number of British people and Irish people. There was, they said with a certain amount of Schadenfreude, no way we could make money with those kind of numbers. Which, as far as it went, was true. With so few residents forming a base, we would only enjoy a small increase when the tourism figures -- not so hot in those days, better now -- were added on. Then we would hear the German investor's mantra: Wo ist der Sicherheit? Where is the security? As if investing were a 100% secure proposition anyway. Ask those poor people who lost their shirts on Deutsche Telekom.

But that figure -- for the sake of argument, let's say it's 60,000 -- is only a start. There are two more readerships, as I learned at Metropolis and as the BIG project got underway. The second readership is people whose native language isn't English, but whose English is better than their German: Indians, Japanese, even some Europeans like Scandinavians, Dutch, and French. These people live and work here, too, and they're happy to have help understanding what's going on. I estimated their numbers at around half the core readership's. The third readership is the most nebulous -- and, potentially, populous -- of all: those native German-speakers whose desire to improve their English (not to mention see their home from a totally different viewpoint than the German media presents) would drive them to seek out such a publication. This may be just a data-point, but when I put an ad in Metropolis looking for a new apartment, with an office phone number on it, I got twelve calls, nine of which were from Germans who apologized for their bad English as soon as we started talking. That seemed telling to me: I expected to hear from the expat community with offers they'd picked up on the jungle telegraph. There is no way to research this number in advance, but it's there, and once you're in business, you encounter it repeatedly.

The other thing to remember about all three segments of the readership is that it's demographically diverse. If you want to focus on the hip! edgy! college kids on junior year abroad, be my guest, but you're not going to make any money. Consider the executives at Anglo-American companies here on contracts of a couple of years. Consider the academic and diplomatic communities. Consider the older people who've washed up here because of everything from the military to DAAD. Consider those Germans who became Anglophiles or Americanophiles during the occupation. We heard from every one of these groups and more as we tried to make b a reality. They haven't gone away, and they're not being served.

Of course, one advantage we had back in '96 was that Deutsche Telekom was making access to the Internet almost impossible, so any kind of online presence was a nice fantasy (and one we were planning for), but nothing we could do much about right at the moment. Today, the online presence and the print presence would have to be complementary to each other, and the success of the enterprise would come out of the synergy.

But like I said, I'm walking away from all of this. I'd mostly walked away from it at the beginning of this year, when I helped someone start a project in France. My advice was all ignored, with the result that the magazine is mostly aimed at retired British people, which is a shame, since the constituency is much larger. I've had it: I'm going to concentrate on book projects (since magazines are a losing proposition for writers) and try to make as much money as I can as quickly as I can so I can get out of here as soon as I can. I don't exactly feel like I've wasted my time on this, and I'm glad I learned what I did. But this is a risk-averse society that's hostile to entrepreneurship, and just a bit more so when that entrepreneurship comes from an outsider. Someone else can beat their head against that particular wall. Good luck.

Monday, December 11, 2006

So Why Not Another One?

I got an e-mail yesterday from a friend who read my post on that ridiculous New York Times story, and he had an interesting point:

"Figured the Times piece would detonate you. Would you say it was accurate as of, say, early 90s, but the economic collapse has made it outdated? Or was it ever true? Certainly Berlin has had that image since, say, a few years before the U2 Zoo album. Seems time for a counter-hype travel article puncturing the outdated image yet celebrating what, if anything, is there to enjoy."

And he's right. Much as I don't enjoy living here any more, I do have an affection for Berlin, and newcomers and visitors often take my famous walking tour of the central city, which starts at my house and ends up two blocks away at Berti Brecht's grave, if they last that long. In fact, that's what I was doing yesterday when this guy's e-mail came. When I put myself in the mind of someone who's seeing this city for the first time, I know there are a lot of things I'd recommend they do.

So for this proposed counter-hype story, some notes:

Stop ringing the hip! edgy! Berlin! bell. Sorry, it was like that ten or more years ago, but the coming of the government in 2000 and the attendant real-estate hype all but killed that Berlin. It used to be possible to set up an illegal club in some disused space, sell beer out of iced tin tubs, with a sound system and some minimal lighting, maybe some odd art from one of your friends, and have a little party a couple of times a week, the location spreading among the cognoscenti by word of mouth. But the disused spaces became objects of speculation and as the speculators displaced not only the club spaces, but the working spaces and living spaces for artists, those artists and the hangers-on and scenemakers moved on. I'm absolutely positive there are still illegal clubs, and little scenes here and there, but nothing like there were in the mid-90s and earlier. And, of course, there's the annoying fact that if you write about them in the media they get busted.

Instead, consider that just your normal everyday bar scene seems weird enough for the American readership, and that some of the most "authentic" experiences can be had in places hipsters either don't notice or take for granted. Stories are everywhere. Try to find some of them out. For instance, there's a rather nondescript restaurant/bar towards the top of Friedrichstr. I've walked past for years, the Bärenklause, I think it's called. Just the other day, I found out it was a secret meeting-place for a bunch of anti-Nazi workers who passed on information to the Allies during the war. The place up on the corner by my place, Honigmond, was a gathering-place for dissidents in the DDR. And the Kellerrestaurant am Brecht-Haus a couple of blocks away was, in fact, Brecht's basement (the house is a museum upstairs), and the food there is hardly innovative, but usually top-notch. Of course, being able to identify a schnitzel is sort of a basic requirement for being able to appreciate these sorts of places.

Nazis and Jews: that's what people come here to see. So give it to them! Look, it's a basic statement of fact: people don't come to Berlin to eat or to shop (especially the latter), so what's left? History. And the history that's here is pretty much all recent, which is to say Industrial Revolution and later. I can see taking a pass on the Jewish Museum, but what kind of travel writer are you if you can't find a new spin on the exhibition inside the New Synagogue or point out one of the many Nazi air-raid bunkers around town? Am I the only person who still notices the bullet-holes from the street-fighting as World War II came to a close here? How about fashioning some clever statement based on the fact that the deportation monument and Christian Boltanski's The Missing House are across the street from each other, or walking up to Koppenplatz and checking out that sculpture in the park of the table with the tipped-over chair, another comment on the deportations, as, of course, are the Klopfenstein brass memorials. Do you suppose the hip! edgy! writers even see these things? And there's even a humorous take on this stuff, if you want it: how awful Berlin bagels are, and how truly vile the food at the Beth Cafe, run by the local temple, is. I thought it was just supposed to be more authentic until I met an old man there who'd grown up Jewish in Berlin and escaped to Toronto in 1939. "My mother cooked Berlin Jewish food, and it didn't look like this, I tell you! What are these people palming off on us?"

Besides the Nazis and the Jews, of course, there's also the Communists. Although the Wall Documentation Center on Bernauer Str. is pretty incomprehensible to a non-German-reader (and who wants to read all those documents, anyway?), the Wall walk from Nordbahnhof to Mauerpark is lined with those trilingual plexiglass signs about the Bernauer Str. death-strip. There are two Stasi museums, apparently, and the new Museum of the DDR. And, on a lighter note, there's lots of DDR crap for sale in Ostalgia stores and flea markets.

Mista Issyvoo, he dead. And so is the world inhabited by David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Stop looking for it: it's not there. Instead of trying to force your own preconceptions on the city, why not look at what's actually there? Surely there's enough to say about the real Berlin that would attract a reader here. It's got more green space than any other city in Europe, per square mile. In the summer, that means tons and tons of lawn, forest, park. Places to sunbathe, walk, feed ducks, let the kids run around, or just read a newspaper under the sun. Go to a Wochenmarkt, where more and more organic stuff is beginning to show up, and where you can also buy some pretty neat non-food items a lot of the time. Take a few of the river cruises and figure out which ones are best. Is this stuff corny? Hay-ull yes! Is it fun? You bet!

And when the sun's not shining -- 89% of the time -- the continuing reshuffling of the museums here has presented some great opportunities for culture-vulturing. I'll be the first to admit I've been remiss in checking them out in recent years, and with the Bode Museum now re-opened, just a few blocks from my house, I'm totally embarrassed that I don't have a clue what's in there these days. But the city's current poverty notwithstanding, the Prussians were some acquisitive bastards, and the city's holdings reflect three centuries of a royal family that grabbed what they could and commissioned the rest.


So you see, there's a lot of stuff these stories miss in their headlong rush to perpetuate a long-dead stereotype, stuff that could be made attractive to the crowd they're writing for. There's another problem, though, which lies in the last sentence of my friend's e-mail, a sentence I purposely left out:

"But who would run it?"

Indeed. I can't think of a single travel magazine aimed at people who travel the way I and the vast majority of people I know travel: not so much "budget" as not spending unnecessary money; not so much "adventure" as guided by a curiosity about out-of-the-way places; not so much voyeuristic as open to learning something about where we are on the earth, knowledge which can come from every one of our senses, as well as our intellect. Me, I've given up hope that such a magazine will ever appear. For one thing, where would you get advertising for it? Not from the big cruise lines. Not from the huge resort chains. Not from luxury jewelers. Nor, more than likely, from Cadillac Escalade and other high-end SUV makers.

So you're not going to read the story about the real Berlin -- or the real Paris or the real Kyoto. Instead, you're stuck with people who don't know a sausage from a schnitzel and think salads can be plump. And who, incredibly enough, still get to write for the New York Times.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Not Another One!

Okay, I now have a theory that some higher-up at the New York Times is heavily invested in some Berlin real estate he can't unload. That's the only explanation for the deluge of travel-section articles on hip! edgy! new! East! Berlin! the paper has carried this year. This is, what? The fourth, at least.

That link will be good for a week, and I'm including it instead of the usual text-only link so you can enjoy the video that goes with it, which manages to mispronounce just about every single place-name it utters, including Reichstag, and identifies a Wurst as a Schnitzel. That the Grey Lady thinks it's news that the eastern part of the city is where the action is, and, worse, that it would print such twaddle as "Bullet-scarred buildings are metamorphosing from squatters’ homes, to artists’ studios, and then to retail showrooms. Gray Communist alleys are laboratories for trendy bars, restaurants and galleries. And, like the city itself, Berliners continue to reinvent themselves as cultural vanguards, pushing the boundaries of art, fashion and design" in 2006 is mind-boggling.

The city's economic deterioration is only touched upon once, in wondering who can afford €300 shirts, and the article never wonders how many of the revelers in the hip! edgy! nighttime are residents instead of, say, Americans enjoying a cheap year in Europe. But then, I guess it's reassuring for Americans to come to Europe to hang out with other Americans. That's what reinvigorated Prague, after all.

Finally, with the exception of M. Vuong's, which I haven't been able to get into since he moved to Neue Schönhauser Allee from Gipsstr., I would be very wary of their food recommendations. I've downed many a good beer at Altes Europa (although I guess now it's been "discovered"), but I would never even think of touching the food there.

Come to think of it, though, there's three more Sunday papers left to squeeze in a trip through Berlin's Christmas markets. This may not be the last article this year. Or maybe it is: there's nothing particularly hip! and edgy! about Christmas markets. Maybe that's one reason I like 'em!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Which, I guess, is what you'd call things larger than crumbs...


First, of course, there's the story of the Burden of History Santas. Now that these despicable objects have all been destroyed, it's safe to direct you to the Spiegel Online story about them. Make sure you enlarge the photo there so you can see the offending gesture.

This paranoia about the "Hitler salute" is omnipresent. I was on the upper level of a double-decker bus one time when a bunch of high-school boys thundered up the stairs and took some seats. They had just left a group of friends outside, and as the bus pulled away, one of the kids nudged another one and said "Hey, he's waving at you." The second kid raised his arm to wave, and suddenly blushed bright red as his friend slapped his arm down.

From this cautionary Christmas tale, I'd assume that pointing at the Star of Bethlehem on the part of shepherds or Magi isn't depicted in German Christmas ornaments. I'll be on the lookout when I make my customary tour of the Christmas markets some weekend in the near future. Can't be too safe!


While lamenting the disappearance of things I like here, it's, um, fair and balanced to point out the disappearance of things I've always hated, and on a recent walk to Alexanderplatz, I noted that the pedestrian subway, a large, DDR-era tiled collection of underground tunnels connecting various parts of Alex, had been paved over. True, it was the best way to get out of the rain, and a huge gallery for graffiti artists, but it was also the realm of the worst street musician ever, a flutist with one of those mephistophelean beards who played over orchestral tracks on a boom-box. I don't think I have ever heard a musician play with less feeling, not to mention that his cassette seemed to contain only three tunes, which, excepting that Brandenburg Concerto movement, I've utterly forgotten.

Street musicians here have to be licensed, and I've been told that the licenses, which are issued at some preposterous hour of the morning like 6:30, are controlled by the Russian mob, which sends a few guys down to pick them all up and then doles them out to musicians, mostly Russian, who agree to their terms. One of those terms, apparently, is learning scams: some friends of mine once had a restaurant, and a friendly, funny guitarist would show up from time to time to entertain. Then he'd take all his small change and ask for a beer and the favor of converting his handfuls of coins into larger currency. Oddly, the restaurant kept coming up short at the cash register at 3 am, when it closed, and finally my friends made the connection and banned him. The police later confirmed that this was a very common scam with these musicians.

Of course, the other thing about pedestrian subways, common around the world as far as I can tell, is that they serve as late night urinals for the terminally inebriated, and on a warm summer day the one at Alex exuded a strong odor unless the cleaning crews, who also worked on the graffiti, had made their monthly appearance. The only positive aspect of this I can think of is that the flutist had to inhale the miasma in gasps as he thundered through the goddam Brandenburg.

Now, access to Alex is via surface, which means you have to stand in the rain waiting for the light to change. A small price to pay, given everything.


Thanks to Brent for this (translated) article from the Süddeutsche Zeitung, confirming what the local tabloid headlines have been screaming all week: THE HAUPTBAHNHOF MUST BE COMPLETELY REBUILT! Not true, of course, as you'll read, but within the story is confirmation of something I've been saying here (and to anyone who'll listen) about the attitude of Germany's former monopolies (Deutsche Post, Deutsche Telekom, and, here, Deutsche Bahn) towards the public at large.

What the article doesn't mention specifically is that the platform-length issue isn't just a matter of esthetics. The east-west trains board outdoors, on the top level, and one of the "savings" DB instituted as they revised the architect's original plans was to shorten not the platform, but the roof covering that platform. In thus saving a bit of money, they forgot that the high-speed ICE trains that pull into Berlin are really long, because they often split in two at a later destination. Several cars of these trains (and, thus, the passengers waiting to board) are thus exposed to the elements because the roof isn't long enough, and the biggest irony is that these very cars are usually the first class ones, so you've just paid a premium to stand in the rain waiting to board. It's true that the ticket envelopes and route-guides inside the trains often have ads for cold remedies, but this is a rather cruel way of drumming up business for them, I think.

I also wonder if the vaulted ceilings that may be part of the rebuilding, if it happens, will make the lower levels of the station any lighter. For all its glass and high-tech appurtenances, the Hauptbahnhof is one of the gloomiest places I've ever been in, a shopping mall in a cave.

It's also worth noting the prose style of the article, which I think is accurately translated. This is what readers of Germany's "better" papers (and this one is considered the best) have to slog through in order to get their information. No wonder so many people read the tabloids.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Few Crumbs Won't Hurt

The neighborhood loses another landmark. It used to be that on a nice summer's day, the best extreme people-watching used to be the sidewalk tables outside of C Matto, the restaurant/bar formerly known as Cibo Matto on Rosenthaler Str. This outpost of hip was owned and operated by the people who had the popular Kreuzberg bar, Bar, and the place next door to it, known for good burgers. It could be that the band Cibo Matto forced the name change, but that didn't stop the more colorful Japanese tourists from flocking there, nor the wildest-(un)dressed inhabitants of Mitte. But on a visit to the Wochenmarkt at Hackescher Markt today, I was walking back home and noticed that C Matto's windows had a garish paper covering all the windows, announcing the imminent opening of a "China Food" restaurant. Just what we need! More brown slime on noodles! I don't know if this is indicative of a decline in fortune for the Bar folk, Mitte's declining hipness, Rosenthaler Str.'s rising rents, or what. Now if you want really terrible "Asian fusion" food, you can go across the street to Mitte's worst restaurant (with the best design), Pan Asia. But don't.

* * *

Another sight on the walk was next door to Kunst Werk on Auguststr. Workmen have taken over part of the vacant lot next door, where some luxury construction project has been stalled for at least five years after a hole was dug for it, and, on the strip of land immediately adjoining KW, they are assembling a very old, weathered cottage. I figure it's either art or some Christmas shop -- or both -- but it's weird to see something that looks like it's on the verge of falling down being built instead of torn down.

* * *

I used to think that the worst name for any product ever was the line of children's bicycles built by PUKY, with which German toddlers endanger sidewalk users daily. That's changed, though, now that an Italian firm has set up over at the supidmarket selling stoves (which look wonderful -- if you have gas, which very few people here do any more) and refrigerators in colors that are guaranteed to make you eat less. Its name, emblazoned across the front of each refrigerator in inch-high chrome letters, is SMEG.

Incidentally, there really is a city in Albania called Puke, which, ironically enough, is supposed to be a delightful place.

* * *

Finally, thanks to Karen for finding me the Zyliss parsley mill on Click, click, and it'll be here tomorrow or thereabouts. (Well, maybe: I bought the dancer a birthday present, and Amazon decided it had been delivered, although she never saw it. Amazon, however, can't be contacted about this, so I'm out 15 Euros.) Thing is, that was money that could have gone to a Berlin retailer. Oh, well.

And as for the ultimate yuppie cooking item, Ben found that. Designer vitamin C?

Monday, November 27, 2006


I blame Bowleserised. She posted the results of her taking the Classic Dames Test, which determines which classic movie star you are. She also noted that they had something called the Dating Persona Test, and I clicked that instead.

Here's what I wound up with:

You embody the German principle of Konstantzusammenschaft, which is best described in English (without using the obscure English word "sammenschaft") as "eternal togethermanship".
The Loverboy
Random Gentle Love Master (RGLMm)

    Well-liked. Well-established. You are The Loverboy. Loverboys thrive in committed, steady relationships--as opposed to, say, Playboys, who want sex without too much attachment.

    You've had many relationships and nearly all of them have been successful. You're a nice guy, you know the ropes, and even if you can be a little hasty with decisions, most girls think of you as a total catch. Your hastiness comes off as spontaneity most of the time anyhow, making you especially popular in your circle of friends, too.

Your exact opposite:
The Billy Goat

Deliberate Brutal Sex Dreamer
    You know not to make the typical Loverboy mistake of choosing someone who appreciates your good humor and popularity, but who offers nothing in return. You belong with someone outgoing, independent, and creative. Otherwise, you'll get bored. And then instead of surprising her with flowers or a practical joke, you'll surprise her by leaving.


CONSIDER: The Window Shopper, The Peach

So if most girls think of me as a total catch, where are they?

I can think of three possibilities: my age (not much I can do about that, but it doesn't seem to put some women off), my looks (ditto), or my poverty (which I hope I can do something about...but am I interested in a woman who walks into the room singing "First I Look At the Purse?"

Oh, and there's a fourth possibility: German women. I have a theory about them, but this isn't the time or place to expound it. Unfortunately, though, I'm surrounded by them. That, too, I hope I can do something about before long.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Chopping Parsley

This shouldn't be hard, I thought. What had happened was that my parsley chopper, or, more accurately, herb mill, had broken. It was to be expected; it was a couple of years old, made of plastic, and had performed admirably. These things happen.

I had never really known I'd wanted one until I had dinner at a friend's house some years back. She'd been preparing to move away from Berlin, and had been going over her kitchen, which was a mess, looking for stuff to pack. In the process, she discovered that her mother had given her two herb mills, made by Mouli, a French company with a long pedigree of excellence. The down-side of all Mouli products, though, was that they were made from some cheap metal which inevitably sooner or later bent or broke; I'd gone through a dozen Mouli graters, the definitive Parmesan cheese tool, in my time.

So I took it home and discovered that one of my least-favorite kitchen chores, chopping parsley, had gone from a five-minute task to a 30-second task. Excellent! But eventually, that cheap metal caught up with me; the parsley stems had bent a couple of the choppers and they wouldn't pass through the slots, so I had to get another.

The new one was much like the earlier one, but it was plastic. The way this tool works is that it has two parts, the body, which holds a bay for the herbs with a number of parallel slots through which the chopped herbs pass, and a wheel with a crank and an axle on which some thin blades are mounted, which, when turned, force the herbs through the slots while mincing them. The plastic turned out to be more durable, a technological improvement.

But I'm lazy. When I pull parsley leaves from the stems, I always think of my Arab-American friend Jim, who I knew in Texas. Jim came from Michigan, where there are a lot of Arab-Americans (he was, more specifically, Lebanese-American), and he fell in love with Jessica, a girl from Taylor, Texas, thereby uniting two of his favorite things, girls and barbeque, since Taylor is home to the great Louie Mueller, and was once home to another world-class barbeque chef, Vencil Mares. Jim was another world-class barbequer, just a talent he discovered he had, and I don't think any commercial barbeque joint has ever come up with anything like the briskets he used to cook.

But marrying into his family meant pleasing a lot of old Arab-American women who wanted to be certain the new bride could cook traditional dishes, and Jessica was asked to make tabbouleh, the classic cracked-wheat-and-parsley salad, in order to win their approval of the wedding. "Not one stem from the parsley in the tabbouleh, young lady!" was how Jim's grandmother put it. "Boy," she said later, "I was really sweating this, but I passed." Parsley stems are tough, and they get caught in your teeth, and although I wouldn't forbid my grandson from getting married for such a trivial thing, the fact is it's not just your teeth they can get caught in, it's also the teeth of the Mouli herb mill. That's what wrecked the metal one, and, a few years later, it's what wrecked the plastic one, too. I always reminded myself I was trying to please Jim's grandmother, but sometimes you get rushed, or you get lazy. Like I said, these things happen.

So a couple of weeks ago, I decided it was time to replace it. The plastic herb mill had been made by Zyliss, a superb Swiss maker of cooking equipment, well engineered and inexpensive; I'd used the Zyliss Blitzhacker to chop stuff for years, as much amused by its name as I was pleased with its performance. The herb mill, I've discovered from poking around that website, is the model 1400.

I'd gotten it at Galleries Lafayette, which always had a good range of Zyliss stuff, so one day I walked down there to get another. To my surprise, their whole cooking-utensil section had shrunk to one tiny display of mostly expensive stuff, and a whole lot of high-end Laguiole corkscrews. I shrugged; it was a nice day, and surely the big Kaufhof department store in Alexanderplatz would have one; they'd always had a good selection of Zyliss stuff. So I walked to Alexanderplatz.

The Kaufhof there had been a big department store with another name during the division of the city. I remember going there on my first trip to East Berlin, and the guy who was showing me around depleted some of the 25 East Marks you had to buy before they'd let you in on a fake hand-grenade, which was apparently used in some kind of high-school grenade-tossing competition. He used it later as a paperweight. Until recently, Kaufhof had had its original hideous East German facade, a kind of gridwork with no windows, but then a multi-year facelift happened, where they actually enlarged the store while keeping it open all the time, an interesting engineering feat.

More room, you'd think, would mean more stuff. So I was astonished to find that even though more square feet were available in the cooking-supplies section, Zyliss products weren't. At all. Now, for those of you who aren't aware of this, a lot of retail involves companies buying space. This happens a lot in groceries, where you pay the grocery chain for preferential placement where your product is more easily seen by shoppers, but it also happens in department stores, where your brand can buy square footage. Somehow, Kaufhof is all pots and pans and knives now, with gadgets, like herb mills, pushed to the side. They still have gadgets, but not as wide a selection as before. Furthermore, with Zyliss gone, in the gadget department that meant no herb mills.

This was something of a crisis. Americans may have trouble believing this, but here in Berlin there just aren't any stores which sell cooking stuff. You need a gadget, you could be out of luck; I went through this earlier this year with the amazing vegetable peeler I'd picked up in a store in Paris: I looked at it and realized that it was absolutely perfect, and so it proved to be: it never jams, it zips through potatoes and carrots and everything else with ease, and it fits in the hand so ergonomically that it's a joy to use. I wound up having to correspond with the company and then buying it online from Meilleur du Chef. (I notice they, too, don't have the Zyliss one, just a metal one, which looks too much like my first one).

The reason for this is very simple: if it's not meant for making German food, it's going to be very hard to find. The stuff you need to prepare German meals are available in any supermarket, although you can buy better-quality examples at places like Kaufhof. Now, you'd think that the yuppification of Berlin would override this, particularly in such a yuppified neighborhood as Prenzlauer Berg. And, in fact, there is a cooking store in Prenzlauer Berg, and I went there the other day to see what they had. All too typically, the woman running the store was on the phone gossiping with a friend when I got there, so instead of asking for help, I walked around, looking for my herb mill. This place is an object lesson in the German attitude towards cooking: lots of expensive pots and pans, lots of expensive knives, a selection of Laguiole corkscrews in a locked glass vitrine -- in short, lots of expensive stuff you can display in your home, whether you actually use it or not, to advertise the fact that you've got money and an interest in food. I made the circuit of the store three times before I could figure out where in the hell the herb mill -- which I knew had to be there somewhere -- was, and I finally located it displayed among a range of the most expensive kitchen utensils you can buy in Germany, gleaming stainless steel items that you can buy for 1/3 to 1/2 the price anywhere else. And yes, it €18, or at least twice what a Zyliss would cost. In the great German service tradition, the woman never got off the phone during the entire 15 minutes I was there. All I can tell you is that some guy she knows is going to be surprised by divorce papers soon. Oh, and I can also tell you I'm not going back there. But you probably figured that out.

But I want to get back to that first sentence in that last paragraph. Is it bad that "if it's not meant for making German food, it's going to be very hard to find?" See, this is something I've been thinking about when it comes to moving to France: culinary traditions are traditions because people keep them going through the generations. Great culinary traditions are perpetuated by people who are notoriously uncurious about other great culinary traditions. Most French towns are like Henry Ford and the Model T: you can have any kind of food you want in the restaurants as long as it's French. I remember reading an anecdote in the New Yorker by a guy who was living in Rome with his two young sons. One night, just for variety, they went to a Chinese restaurant in their neighborhood. To their surprise, the waiter was Italian. The father asked him what was good on the menu, and the waiter drew himself up and said "You don't think I eat here, do you?" No, of course not.

Nor should I assume that even though it's not particularly to my taste a lot of the time, German cooking isn't a great culinary tradition. I would love to hear someone defend the local brand of cooking, which is hardly as sophisticated as the cuisines of Swabia or Bavaria (and they're not really all that sophisticated), but I'm willing to concede the point. This is, after all, about taste.

But Berlin is a Big City, or so we're told. (It's large, I'll grant you that). Furthermore, it's got some world-class Italian restaurants because Germans are inveterate vacationers (sure: they get six weeks' vacation!) and a lot of the younger generation (ie, my age or younger -- I mean in the grand scheme of things) took to vacationing in Northern Italy, where they discovered the food and wine were to their liking. Thus, the yuppie food-gadget store has pasta machines and ravioli trays, and we can assume those Laguioles are opening at least as many Barolos and Chianti Classicos as they are Qualitätswein mit Predikat. At least nominally, in other words, Berlin is tentatively multicultural in the kitchen. Not that they'll be embracing the likes of Eric Gower any time soon (which is a shame). But, dammit, most of the time I'm mincing parsley, it's for Italian food.

So I'm stuck. At some point I'm probably going to head off to the giant KaDeWe department store to see if they've got this thing, but since they're now owned by the same gigantic concern which owns Kaufhof (and three other major department-store chains in Germany), I'm not too sanguine about having any success. Maybe fate will allow me a short trip to Amsterdam or Paris or Montpellier in the near future, places where I'm certain I'll find what I want. Meanwhile. I'm mincing parsley with the excellent knife I bought in Kyoto five years ago. It's a great knife, but the task is still a pain in the ass.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Happily Do Again: Last night I participated in something called the Black Market for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge, which is continuing tonight at the Hebbel Theater 1 (HAU). I'm not quite sure what this is supposed to be, but the setup was that the audience area of the theater was filled with tables, each of which had an electrical outlet and a light. "Experts," who had been recruited to prepare a half-hour talk on a topic, were seated at the tables, and attendees could buy a one-on-one session with them for three Euros.

I prepared a little talk called "American Music in Black and White: It's Not That Simple," which was intended to demonstrate that the division between "black music" and "white music" in America has always been a very porous membrane. I actually gave this as a 90-minute lecture at the University of Delaware some years back, and it went over well, with musical examples from John Work's field recordings of very old black dance music which sounds identical to "old timey" country music, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys playing "White Heat," and a discussion of how "Matchbox Blues" got from Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927 to the Beatles in 1963 (via Carl Perkins, whose recording I discovered I don't have in my library anywhere). I also played some Jimmie Rodgers and would like to have had time to play a Charlie Pride (or, better yet, Stoney Edwards) tune. As it was, both of my clients (or whatever you'd call them) were flabbergasted by the photo I showed them of Charlie Pride and Dolly Parton together. (Wonder how they'd have reacted to the picture of Dolly with the Village People Chuck Krall sent me last week?)

With only 30 minutes, and music selections to play, it was quite a challenge, but both the clients really got into it and seemed to have picked up a lot of ideas. I'm just sorry they didn't ask me to do both nights -- after all, I'd gone and burned a CD and put together a photo gallery, and my second presentation was way better than the first, so I was just getting into the groove. Getting a 25-Euro honorarium didn't hurt, either; it bought me a couple of more days before things get bad again, and maybe in the interim some of the money I'm owed will finally make it to the bank.


Congratulations to Gordon W, of Imbiss W fame! In a strangely short article in the New York Times, he got not only the top mention, but a photo of people eating at his joint on a much warmer day than today. Not bad for a former roadie for the late Bismillah Khan!

I've known Gordon for a decade, first and foremost as the proprietor of the Scharfness Institut ("scharf" in German usually indicates heat, but can also mean there's garlic somewhere near), which devoted itself to hunting down chile pepper-infused cooking in a city dedicated to blandness. He found some wonderful places, although they rarely lasted very long, and he also became involved in a couple of restaurants where he didn't last very long. Finally, he opened his own place, based on the portable tandoori oven he used to take to parties and events, making naan bread and tandoori salmon. Now he's got the naan pizza down cold and a devoted clientele. It's meant that the Scharfness Institut is in abeyance, though, which is a shame, because we need it now more than ever.

That said, the rest of the article's sort of a bust: only two more places to buttress the contention that street food in Berlin is changing, and one of them is in a shoe store!

But street food is changing, at least on my street. I knew last night that I was going to be hungry after my gig, and I also knew I didn't have any money until I did the gig to buy anything with, so I decided it was time for the Döner for Dinner routine, since a Döner is good and cheap, if not exactly health food. With the Turkish guys in front of me having vanished suddenly and been replaced by this Toco Rouge Chinese place, that meant I had my choice of a place near Bergstr. that seemed to be a hangout for teenagers after school, or the place closer to Oranienburger Tor. I chose the former, because the latter was where, coming home at 4am after who knows what kind of debauchery, I'd witnessed a well-dressed Turkish guy with a briefcase in his hand kicking a younger Turkish guy who was on his hands and knees, pleading with him, in the ribs. Most of the time you want to discount the stories of kebap shops as fronts for crime as the usual racist clap-trap, but this was actually happening before my eyes, so I crossed the street to avoid walking past.

Then I went out and discovered that the Bergstr. place had vanished overnight, too, although there was a "for rent" sign in the window.

I'm sure the last remaining place has undergone a few changes of management -- the current bunch running it seem to be German -- but it smelled so bad when I walked past last night, even though I was hungry, that I passed it by and went to Toco Rouge. Couldn't really afford it, but it was top-notch, and they seemed to be doing good business.

Still, where am I going to go for a Döner when, every six weeks or so, the urge hits?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Diplodocus Disappears

I'm supposed to be doing something tonight. In fact, I'm supposed to be doing two somethings, but I'm not going to do either.

The first something is the opening of the One World Film Festival, a human rights film festival some friends of mine work hard for months on. If I felt like going to an event where I'd have to endure a number of formal speeches in German followed by a stridently political film about people whose lives are awful, I'd go. But I'm not really in the mood for that, although I do like the organizers and wish them well.

The second something is our usually-twice-monthly bloggers' get-together, organized by Radio Free Mike, which is a very welcome chance for me to get out of the house and talk with smart folks, something I rarely do any more because, as I've said before, most of the smart people I've known here have moved away because they can't make a living here or have stopped enjoying living here. But it turns out that my ill-advised trip to America has cost me far more than I'd anticipated, so I'm broke, carefully rationing out my last five Euros hoping they'll last the weekend even though there isn't much on the shelves or in the refrigerator any more, and I certainly can't afford a couple of beers, let alone the tram-fare.

But I'm going to do something tomorrow.

The other night, as you know if you read the post (and yeah, it's a bit dry and boring), I went to a meeting about the future of Berlin's Amerika Haus. I walked there, as I'd do whether I had tram-fare or not, because it's pretty much a straight line from my house to the Rotes Rathaus, and it's not if you take public transportation. And when I got home, I found a surprise. On the windowsill of my bathroom window, someone had perched a plastic dinosaur, about a foot long. I'm calling it a diplodocus, because I know that there's no such thing as a brontosaurus, but I'm not sure just why that is. But it was a goofy thing to see, and it cheered me up. I can't figure out who put it there, because I don't know that many people any more, and there's only one who just drops in, and he was supposed to be at the Amerika Haus meeting but had another meeting he had to go to.

So there it sat, yesterday and most of today. Although I'm very depressed about the state of my finances and the state of my life, I had this tangible evidence that someone had a sense of humor, and I liked that. In fact, it occurred to me as I walked out to do an errand this afternoon, I should probably bring old diplodocus inside and install him in my bathroom, where he'd be a bit of decoration in an otherwise undecorated room.

When I returned, my landlord's mother was just leaving on her bike, and her face screwed up in the usual rictus of disgust. It's hard to explain how unpleasant it is living somewhere where one of your neighbors feels it's her sacred duty to gurn at you every time she sees you, and how much more unpleasant it is when she's the mother of someone you owe five months' rent to, part of which you just threw away on a business trip to New York which produced absolutely nothing.

Anyway, after I got back I did some of the usual things I do when there's nothing to do: I did some laundry, and prepared way early for a presentation I'm going to be giving. I also waited for the mail, which usually doesn't come on Thursdays, for some reason, but it was true to form and didn't come. At about 4:30, after checking one last time for the mail, it occurred to me to go out and grab the dinosaur. So I did, and it was gone. The pavement was wet and smelled of disinfectant, and I knew exactly what had happened; the cleaner had come and Mrs. Ugly had ordered him to get rid of the dinosaur.

So I know what I'm doing tomorrow. I'm going dumpster diving for a diplodocus. And if anyone wants to know what I'm doing I'm going to tell them that this plastic dinosaur belongs to my non-existent girlfriend's non-existent young son, and I'd left it there so she could drop by and get it, because he's very upset that he forgot it when they came to visit. And that the harridan next door, obsessed with order for the sake of order -- because that very German trait is exactly what's happening here -- had it tossed.

And that's also the reason I'm not going out tonight. Because I'm really on the edge here. I'm disgusted with the people I'm surrounded by, people totally lacking in what I consider a sense of humor, people who value order -- with or without a reason -- above all else. I unloaded some of this on the dancer when she called to invite me to dinner on Saturday, and she went into her defense of Germany and Germans. But I didn't back down this time, or even apologize. She'd realize, if she'd ever spend some time outside this country, that people elsewhere can be much more relaxed about things and yet still live in a fully functional society -- or as fully functional as human society gets. It's possible to be a little less rigid, a little more forgiving of deviation from the usual, and still get by.

So forgive me if I pass on pompous speeches and a hectoring film in German tonight.

I will, however, miss the fellowship and the beer.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Whither Amerika Haus?

In German cities -- excuse me, make that West German cities, the Amerika Haus was something you just always assumed was there. Exactly what it was was hard to figure out: was it an adjunct of the government, a propaganda tool, a reference center for Germans needing information on the States, or what? The answer was, yes, all of the above, and doubtless, especially in Berlin, just a bit more, if you catch my drift.

The Amerika Haus here was a squat, ugly box visible from the tracks of the S-Bahn at Zoo Station, sitting on Hardenburgstr. separating Zoo's sleaze from more upper-crust offerings like a Steinway showroom and an art college. Word soon got out among expats settling here that it had a great lending-library if you could negotiate the German harridan who reigned over it, and so did the British Council just a few doors down. It also had a small auditorium to which authors and other speakers came from time to time (I once saw Paul Williams of Crawdaddy give a lecture on Bob Dylan there, pretty much the first time I'd seen him since I'd quit the magazine in 1967), and a nice exhibition space which hosted a fine show of jazz photography by William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, and William Claxton which I covered for the Wall Street Journal, and, in the process, got to interview and meet these great masters -- three of the coolest old hipsters it's ever been my pleasure to hang out with.

Signing up for the library remained one of those things I was going to get around to doing (hey, they were cool enough to have a copy of Rock of Ages, the book I'd co-authored), and one day a friend was raving about Alan Lomax's book The Land Where the Blues Began, and recommended I get it from the Amerika Haus library, because it was a pricey item. I went down there and discovered...all the books had been sold off the previous weekend. In fact, the place looked gutted; there was almost nothing there; a few computer terminals dedicated to study overseas for German students, some pamphlets, and that was it. I later found out that the attitude of the American government was that since we'd won the Cold War, there was no more need for an Amerika Haus, although a couple of them had opened in cities in East Germany and were being maintained for the time being.

I thought this was awfully short-sighted, since after all Berlin was one of Germany's most important cities, half of it had been isolated from all things American for fifty years, and there was an intense interest in the country on the part of Ossis I knew who could now travel or study there. At one point, trying to raise money for my English-language magazine and website project, my colleagues and I visited there to talk to some kind of "information officers," and they all wished us luck and told us the institution was broke and they were all being transferred at some point.

Amerika Haus just sat there, and my trips up and down Hardenburgstr. became rarer and rarer, so it wasn't until a couple of days ago that it came back into my life. A friend forwarded an invitation to a meeting in the Rotes Rathaus which was to be chaired by some people who wanted to turn the now-empty building into a center for cultural diplomacy. As much because I was curious about the interior of the Rathaus, Berlin's central administrative building, which dates to the 1860s, as anything else, I headed down there last night to see what was up.

The meeting started with a summary of the current situation: this past October 1, the U.S. Embassy, which had paid the lease on the building, which it was renting from the city, had stopped their €7000/month payments. The city, therefore, had decided to put it on the market -- yet another piece of real estate for the impoverished Berlin government to get rid of -- and they want €22,000/month for it. All of the Amerika Hauses in Germany had been closed, although many in the West had been taken over by something called the German-American Institute. In Munich, which had dearly loved its Amerika Haus (I attended an election-night party there in 2000 -- they had the temerity to serve Michelob!), it was taken over by the Bavarian American Center, an organization funded by the State of Bavaria which has pretty much continued the cultural program the U.S. had paid for previously. The one in Frankfurt is sitting empty, its future uncertain.

Unofficially, the City of Berlin would like to keep the building as some sort of German/American center, although it will be putting the thing up for bids at some point in the indefinite future. The group sponsoring the meeting, calling themselves The Committee Amerika Haus Berlin, coordinated by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, is hoping to gather some non-governmental agencies (NGOs) who'd like to have a central office space, have them take the upstairs offices, maybe stick in an American cafe in the old cafe space on the ground floor, and maybe even combine it with an American bookstore -- which would be the only English-language bookstore in town selling new, as opposed to used, books. The auditorium could be used for performances and lectures, and the exhibition space, too, could be used for its old purpose.

One interesting aspect of this is that "America" is being broadly defined to include at least Canada -- the guy in front of me was a representative of the government of Quebec -- and maybe the other Americas. They're also searching for European groups interested in exchanges with the Americas.

But what they're really searching for is money. They made no bones about it: Berlin is so totally broke that a porno shop or a mattress warehouse could -- at least theoretically -- rent the place tomorrow if they saw fit, as more than one speaker mentioned. (With Beate Uhse's porn mega-supermarket and museum just around the corner, I sort of doubt it'd go to porn, but I should never underestimate the stupidity of local entrepreneurs). At the moment, though, some potential sponsors and tenants have identified themselves, including Duke University, a student-exchange program called Lexia International, another one called SIT Study Abroad Berlin, and, weirdly, a magazine called Pulse Berlin, which, if I heard the fast-talking ICD guy correctly, is partially founded by Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, as well as by the ICD themselves.

It was a weird collection of people, from the pony-tailed ICD guy to the hard-bitten right-winger from the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation, but it's an intriguing proposition. As more than one person noted, Hardenburgstr. and the Zoo Station area in general is hardly a sexy address these days: Zoo Station itself is already being partially dismantled as its function as the city's central station has been taken over by the glitzy new Hauptbahnhof. But cultural input of all kinds is starving here in Berlin, and the right combination of people working together might well revitalize both the cultural scene and the ugly old box (under landmark protection, I was surprised and amused to find out) of Amerika Haus.

They're going to have to move fast; the city wants to hear something in 30 days. I signed up to stay on the story, because it's a sort of quintessentially Berlin one, even though I doubt there's anything I could do at this point. Plus, of course, every single project I've involved myself with here has either been hijacked by idiots or crushed by the conservatism of Berliners.

In fact, I may not be around to see how it ends. I ran the numbers the other night once again, and the magic figure is €12,300. That pays all the debts, rents me an apartment with a new couch and washing machine, and gets me out of here. And that's where I'm putting my energy these days.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Death In The Streets

As if life in Berlin isn't grim enough, with help from the forthcoming James Bond movie and Germany's biggest publicity-hound self-anointed artist, we get to look at corpses everywhere we turn.

Many of you may already be familiar with Gunther von Hagens, the "plastinator" who has mounted a big box-office show of human corpses (for the most part) whose flesh has been replaced by plastic, thereby preserving them indefinitely. Von Hagens partially dissects the bodies, arranges them into arty poses, and then does the "plastination." As I understand it, his "Body World" show is currently touring the United States, although oddly enough it doesn't seem to have occasioned any protests. Although, you might think, as long as it's not in bad taste, why should it?

Meanwhile, back in von Hagens' homeland, we're being socked with these posters, which show a quartet of his plastinated people sitting around a table playing cards. The posters show a scene from the upcoming James Bond film, Casino Royale, which the Bond franchise has apparently decided to remake as a serious film instead of the lighthearted, acid-soaked caprice it was in its 1967 version. But the posters aren't for the film. They're for von Hagens' "Plastinarium," which is going to open on Friday in a four-story exhibition space in the German/Polish border-town of Guben, whose previous fame was as a manufacturing center for textiles.

Now, I've got to come clean here. I have a visceral reaction to von Hagens that has nothing, really, to do with him. It's a long, complicated story which I'm saving in all its details for my book, but essentially, I had arranged to cover an art show for the Wall Street Journal Europe back when I was writing for them. It was a group show, curated by a very prestigious figure in the German art world, and, not so coincidentally, featured an artist who was part of the team working on my English language magazine/website project. Sneaking her name into print could only enhance the project's prestige, I thought (although when I saw her pieces, I realized I would have commented on them no matter who'd done them). Anyway, there was a grand opening, I had a deadline of the next day, and I was in sort of a rush. For some unknown reason, I checked my e-mail just before leaving the house, and to my horror, there was an e-mail from someone from my dimmest past, someone who had meant a lot to me, and its subject read "Good Bye." Yup, an e-suicide note.

I dashed off a "don't do it" reply, calculated the time back where this person lived, had no idea of the phone number, or if this person's spouse was around, and, breathing deeply to calm down, I decided I'd just done about as much as I could have done. So I grabbed my hat, walked a few blocks, and entered this art show. And the first thing I saw was a guy standing, naked and dissected, with his skin casually draped over his arm.

The second thing I saw was a guy dressed exactly like that overrated icon of 20th century German art, Josef Beuys if Beuys had affected an undertaker's air. People were flocking around him, and I just knew this was the artist, as indeed it was. I quickly rushed around trying to find my colleague, and, when I did, told her in a rather out-of-breath way about my e-mail and my subsequent encounter with Mr. Skin. "Oh," she said in her perky upper-class British way, "there's several more of them scattered around the show. Have you seen my pieces?" I was happy to be led to them. And she was right: not only did von Hagens have several more of his plastic people on view, he had a corner with a desk, a catalogue of stuff for sale (to medical schools and other educational institutions), and a place an assistant would help you fill out the necessary legal forms so you could sign up to get plastinated after death!

Okay, I know the function of a lot of art is to give you the kind of sensory punch that can leave you feeling off-center, but I'm not alone in feeling there's something cynical about von Hagens' approach. The Sauerkrautmeister, having apparently just discovered Ananova's ability to deliver you custom news, yesterday sent me an article from a couple of weeks ago about a priest in Guben who's protesting the Plastinarium, predictably enough, and when I told him my story (my friend, incidentally, was fine, and continues to be fine, and long may that continue), he passed on some diary musings from when von Hagen's first three-ring circus Body World show hit town in 2001. With his permission, I quote from this document:

"It’s like something from Auschwitz. Auschwitz as a theme park; the politically correct Auschwitz: the victims weren’t Jews, or even alive when it happened, so: progress.
. . .

"Why nobody seems to see this “Korper Welt” nightmare as on a continuum with the morbid experiments of Mengele and his colleagues -- it’s “educational” in the same life-cheapening way -- I can’t grasp. Leave it to Germans, who dwell in a Literalist and Mechanistic Universe of frightening coldness to strip the human body of every grace note of metaphor or mystery. Yes, the body is just a machine."

But there's something more to this story, and it's something that hasn't been adequately investigated, because it's not illegal: where von Hagens gets his corpses. He refuses to speak about it, claiming privacy issues on behalf of the dead, but the disturbing answer seems to be that they come, largely, from China. That would explain why the ones I've seen have been so short, I guess, but...where do the Chinese get them? So von Hagens is buying corpses from a country which has untold numbers of people in prison and executes them on a regular basis, where environmental strictures are so loose that people die of pollution-related causes. Far from the innate grisliness of the objects, that's something I find deeply creepy.

Of course, I guess by now some of them could've been the art-lovers signing up at that show in Berlin. But all I know is that yesterday, without really leaving my neighborhood, I walked by four posters, one of which was a big-ass billboard, all advertisting the Plastinarium. An entertaining weekend out with the kids, or a cheap holiday in other people's misery? You decide. Me, I'm counting the days til the movie opens and they put up something else.