Saturday, September 30, 2006

Apartment Quest Berlin: A Few Bits Of Advice

A couple of weeks ago, a reader of this blog contacted me about finding an apartment here. His girlfriend has a grant, he's coming with her, they're going to live here until next summer. So far, so straightforward. They want to live in the east, naturally, since it's Hip! Edgy! Berlin! and to tell the truth, if I were in the same position, I would, too. This narrows down the possibilities, because apartments are slightly harder to find on this side of town, but not by very much.

It occurs to me that there may be one or two of you out there in blog-reading land who are entertaining similar fantasies, and so I thought I'd take a few minutes to say some things that people here would find incredibly obvious and elementary, but might be less so especially to residents of the U.S. So, in no particular order:

* In Europe, the first floor is the second floor. In other words, you have the ground floor, and above it the first floor, then the second floor, and so on. It took me a couple of years to internalize this.

* What you're renting is a box. It is empty, although the chances are the kitchen will have a stove and a very rudimentary refrigerator of the type Americans call "dorm-size" because it can just accommodate a six-pack and what's left of last night's pizza. (It should also be noted that American pizzas are bigger than European ones). Oh, and there'll be a toilet and a shower and/or bath in the bathroom. Everything else, you're going to have to provide yourself. There are no closets. You'll have to buy a clothes cabinet to hang your clothes in. That wire sticking out of the ceiling? You'll turn off the electricity at the fuse-box and install a light fixture and a ceiling lamp, if you want one. Otherwise, you can get floor lamps like I did. You'll provide your own rugs or do without. In other words, a lot of the stuff that's already there in an American apartment rental isn't in a European one.

* The electricity may be on, and the heat almost certainly will be. If you're very, very lucky you'll have a gas stove and the gas will also be on. The cable for the TV will also be on. You'll need to get all of this stuff in your name immediately. The telephone will not be on, and after prostrating yourself to Satan, ie, Deutsche Telekom, you'll wait a couple of weeks for that, which may be one reason so many people have given up on land-lines here. Also: check to see if the rent is "warm" or "cold." If it's the latter, the utility bills aren't included. Also check what the "Nebenskosten," the yearly maintenance fees, for cleaning the stairwells and other services, come to.

* You can't get a bank account without an address. You can't get an address without a bank account, unless you find a landlord who doesn't want money. These people are usually identified by a thin glowing toroid hovering several inches above their heads, I'm told. Having had my first address given to me free, I never had to wrestle with this, so I can't advise you here.

* The absolute best way to find an apartment used to be -- and may still be -- to head down to Zoo Station on a Saturday night and offer sexual services to...wait a minute, I mean pick up a copy of the Berliner Morgenpost's Sunday edition when it arrives from the printer. Throw out all of it except the Immobilien pages, find the area of town you want to move to, and start trying to figure out the abbreviations. Don't worry about calling the numbers you find at any time of night or day; nobody else does, and do you want to miss the apartment of a lifetime? And don't worry about the person renting the apartment speaking English. You can be assured they don't.

* You will notice that some -- most -- ads contain the word "Makler." This means broker, and it also means that you'll be parting with at least one month's rent for the honor of renting from this person. Often the Makler conducts a "Besichtigung," which is a cattle-call for all the people who have called expressing interest in the same apartment. Walking down the streets of Berlin on a Friday night, you sometimes come to these groups of people, gathered into clumps of two or three, each clump eyeing the other clumps suspiciously, the odd single person looking paranoid. These people are all competing for the same place, and the wily Makler, who is showing up late to show it to them, almost certainly has two or three other apartments in the building for those who want to strike deals or have lost out on the (invariably bargain-priced, to provoke an on-the-spot auction and attract the suckers who'll bid on the other available apartments) place that's been advertised. The way to avoid Maklers is to look for the word "privat." That way you're dealing with the owner directly.

* Another couple of words to look out for are "Untermieter" and "Nachmieter." An Untermieter is a sub-letter, and subletting is a very popular activity in a place which, the 100,000-plus vacancies currently on the market notwithstanding, still remembers the days when it could take, conservatively speaking, a year to find an apartment. You'd get a place. You'd meet a girl. You'd move in with her or she'd move in with you. One of you sublets the unused apartment. That's how I -- and many other people I knew -- got their first apartments here. A word of caution, though: make sure the sublet is legal. Many rental contracts specifically forbid subletting, which doesn't stop most people, because for the most part nobody concerned cares as long as the rent is paid. Nor does this stop people from offering sublets which are illegal and not telling the poor renter. One more strip of paper goes on the mailbox, which is already collecting mail for a half-dozen past tenants, you add "bei So-and-So" to your address and it's cool. Unless, as happened to me, your mailman is a stickler for rules, his ponytail and John Lennon glasses being just a disguise for a rigid, rules-for-their-own-sake kinda guy. The eviction notice comes quickly and is enforced by various police. But hey, that's the kind of thing that only happens to me.

* Now, a Nachmieter is something else entirely, and it's a much friendlier situation. If you can't serve out your lease, you may offer it to someone else. Of course, the landlord has to approve, but because this is Germany, it has to be complicated. By law, you have to offer the lease to three people, of which the landlord will pick one. This is the only way the lease can be transferred. I happen to be the Nachmieter in the apartment I've been in here for almost ten years, and the way we handled the situation was this. The woman who lived here before me had inherited a pile of money and bought a gorgeous house elsewhere in the city as a tax dodge. She put an ad in the Morgenpost -- see above -- for a Nachmieter and I called her. Turned out she knew who I was because she worked for an American wire service here and she decided the landlord would like me, so she arranged for two of her friends who had no intention of moving out of their own apartments to apply before me. Then I met with the landlord, and the next thing you know I was out of my postman-informer situation and in here. Just remember: applying for Nachmieter status doesn't mean you'll get it. But it does mean the rent won't go up as a result of your moving in.

* Furniture is the least of your worries, which is why I find it bizarre that the folks I referred to at the start of this post are insisting on renting a furnished apartment. Who wants to be responsible for someone else's furniture? Who wants to live with what someone else finds attractive? But those considerations pale against the fact that there aren't any furnished apartments anywhere you'd want to live in this city. People throw out nearly-new furniture every day in Berlin -- I'm currently eyeing a nice clothes-cupboard one of my neighbors has out, although I'm not sure if it's for the taking or not, but it'd make a nice replacement for the falling-apart one I have in the bedroom. People give away furniture in the classifieds and on Craigslist. People sell beautiful pieces of antique furniture for fifty bucks. In large part, this is because people are getting the hell out of here. But you can also buy an apartment's worth of new furniture at Ikea and they'll deliver it for a flat fee of €40. There's no reason to rent a furnished apartment in Berlin.

* Remember, too, that apartments are small. You may see ads for big ones, but there are restrictions a lot of the time on how few people are allowed to live in an apartment. If you're a single person, you may or may not be allowed a huge place. Best to check with the owner and see what the restrictions are. I have a couple of friends who bought an apartment and have a ghost roommate because the two of them wouldn't have been allowed to own the place by themselves. (And no, they can't have a baby because they're both guys. Although, come to think of it, they could adopt).

I'd advise against moving here period, but I know that's not going to stop anyone who'd heard the Hip! Edgy! chant of the media and the perfectly real statistic that it's by far the cheapest city in Western Europe to live in. Mind you, you get what you pay for, but it takes a while to realize that.

And finally, no. I don't know of any four-room, sunny, parquet-floor, quiet apartments in Prenzlauer Berg for around €400 warm, so don't ask.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Few More Thoughts On Service

When last we saw the saga of my laptop, I'd rescued it from drug-addled service personnel who refused to touch it and made another call to Apple, who assured me that if I'd pay the labor (€100) they'd buy the logic board (€500).

Naturally, I had to wait until I had that kind of change, so it wasn't until today that I could try the next on the list of service places on Apple's very short list. It took me a while to find them (but boy am I collecting odd corners of town), and when I did, the whole transaction was very short. The guy snapped open the laptop, read the serial number, and handed the machine back to me. "No," was what he said. Unlike at the last place, nobody spoke English, but I figured out that he'd not found the serial number on some website, and, thus, no claim to the contrary would let him accept the thing for repair.

"Typical," I said. "Yes, typical Apple," the guy said. "No, typical German," I said, and stomped out.

Some 40 minutes on hold after I'd walked home from the shop later, I talked to a guy at Apple who was astonished to find that the first time I'd called, the guy had mis-typed the serial number. He was so embarrassed that his boss called me back to say that Apple would eat the labor, too.

But there's an underlying problem here. Why would I walk into a place and say Apple had agreed to repair my computer if it wasn't true? It's all too easy to disprove, as I found out. The guy checks, and the number's not there. But I insisted to him that I had case numbers and incident numbers that proved I was right. Nope: didn't want to look at them.

When I related this to the guy at Apple, he said -- as I thought he would -- "They have a number they can call, and they should call that number." This was such a simple screw-up that it could have been spotted. Apple had my name, my serial number (except for one figure of it), and all the rest. But it would have been too much trouble.

Here's the deal with service in Germany. Anyone who's in the position to fix something has been through a training program. Doesn't matter if it's your car, your washing-machine, or your computer. They're certified, and have framed certificates to prove it. This means they're better than you are, because if you knew how to fix it you wouldn't bring it to someone else, you'd fix it yourself, wouldn't you? This means, to the service guy, that he's inherently better than you, at least in one area, and he's going to let you know that. Because he's German, he also believes there's only one way to do something, and that's the way he's been taught. You couldn't possibly know enough about it to have an alternative suggestion.

This Grand Magus mindset is what kept Deutsche Telekom from offering real internet service to its customers for years, until they realized, too late, that a lot of those customers had read stuff in magazines and knew at least as much as Deutsche Telekom did, and they wanted on, goddammit. That mindset is why my ID that gets me hooked up to their broadband service is 36 letters and numbers long and the password that goes with it is 128. I'm not supposed to know that it's just as likely I could be ed at t-online with "puffball" as a password.

Plus, of course, there's the "customer is always wrong" mindset which goes with any retail or service business in this country. Just by walking in the door, you're disrupting the pleasant tedium of the day. Life without you would be so much easier, so much calmer, so much more enjoyable. Enough days without you and there's the holy grail of retirement. That, not helping people, not providing a service, is what labor is for.

Just remember that if you ever need to get anything done in Germany.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Another Year, Another PopKomm

Right from the start, it gave signs of German efficiency. The e-mail alerting me to my registration was addressed "Dear Ward," and my badge, when printed out, noted I was from AUS, which I presume means Australia. Fortunately, I was in no danger of being mistaken for an Australian, since pretty much 100% of my time was spent at the SXSW stand, answering bone-headed questions to deflect them from the management folks, who had actual important business to transact.

Once I had my badge, I was also given a wristband, which I assumed was for entry into showcases. Since I had no intention whatever of subjecting myself to the barrage of mediocrity that is Euro-rock, I slipped it into my back pocket. Nope. Came the first day, I wasn't allowed into the hall until the sweet, innocent-looking girl at the door had attached it. Sweet and innocent-looking she may have been, but clearly her day-job is bondage; over the next three days, unable to take it off, I developed a mild skin rash, and it got slimy when I showered. Not to mention the pain.

As always, there was a bag, and as always, it was devoid of goodies with any use, unless you consider an orange-flavored Chupa Chups lollipop to have a use. It did have a schedule of events, but this year, no book of registrants. It had been replaced by a Windows-only CD-ROM, showing how technologically sophisticated PopKomm had gotten. Two minutes inside the right computer and you've got a very nicely filtered list of people to spam to. I can't wait.

Did I mention the bone-headed questions? Ah, yes, I see I did. Here's my favorite. A giant of a guy in an appalling jacket walks up, and announces "I am Rossiyan boblisher. I look for boblishing bartners." Then he stares at me. "You are interested?" Well, I explain, we're not publishers, we're an event. "Ewent," he says. "You are not interested in Rossiya." No, I said patiently, we're like PopKomm, only larger, older, and in Texas. "Taixes," he says. You could come and find partners at our event, because we have a trade-show like this, and lots and lots of people in the music business from all over the world come -- not many from Russia, so you have a big advantage. He has this stunned-deer expression on his face. "So. You are not interested in Rossiya." Whatever, dude. He takes a brochure and walks away.

Which I wish he hadn't done. The charming folks at British Airways had lost the suitcase full of brochures, sales information, photographs, banners, and all the other stuff we were supposed to have at the stand. Our Festival Director spent lots of time on the phone trying to get them to give him some idea of when it would arrive. It was on "the next flight" from Tuesday evening until Friday morning, when it actually arrived. Too bad we were planning to be out of there by 4 that afternoon. So we were a little short of information, graphics, and the like, for the uninitiated, the vast majority of whom, thank whatever deities look over such things, were a great deal smarter than our Russian friend.

One great thing about this year's SXSW stand is that now all submissions of music for the music festival are done online. You go to the SXSW website, upload your music samples, your press kit, your application, pay your fees, and that's it. Given the amount of trash we've thrown away on previous Fridays, it was a sheer joy to say "We don't want your CDs." I came back with exactly one, from a gorgeous Norwegian woman whose artists, the Festival Director assured me, were the best-kept secret in Scandinavia. We shall see. He had also urged a CD on me last year by Deerhoof, a band with out-of-tune instruments and girlfriend vocals (the vocalist is in the band because she's someone's girlfriend -- thanks, Tim, for coining this term so many years ago, and too bad it never caught on) that was excruciating.

So most of the time I was just standing there -- PopKomm's trade show isn't the best-attended on earth, and it's far smaller than it was when the event was in Cologne, I think -- watching the passing parade, thin as it was. In my head, I was writing a fashion critique, because these days there's so little originality in the music for sale at events like this that how its vendors and creators represent themselves is more interesting.

The worst fashion trend of the year -- and it's not limited to PopKomm at all -- is the faux-Americanoid t-shirt, pre-washed and pre-distressed so that the silk-screen's already flaking off when you buy it, pretending to be from some camp, tavern, gas station, bowling alley, or something in the '60s or '70s. What's annoying about them is that there's always a detail fudged, so there won't be a lawsuit, and that makes the damn thing scream fake. Fortunately, as the weather cools, these won't be practical to wear as outer garments. I blame Abercrombie-Fitch, who I think started this stupid trend.

Not that there weren't a couple of clever t-shirts there. By a couple, I mean just that: one guy ran by with a shirt saying "Hangover" in perfect Heinecken script, while another guy, who looked like a German lawyer, had one saying "Malt Whiskey" in script that exactly mimicked Walt Disney's signature.

But for the most part, the participants were drab. Tattoos...lord, where to start with the tattoos? If you have expensive tattoos, you don't expose them to the sun because they fade and the outlines blur and you wind up with a couple thousand bucks' worth of blotch. And if you're going to invest that much money in tattoos, for heaven's sake have a plan. When you walk around with your arms and legs (and, presumably, other regions you're not showing us) covered wtih a patchwork of different styles and artists' work, you're what the tattoo artists call (not, mind you, to your face) a potato. And there were a lot of potatoes walking around.

Standing around like I was doing, you get to watch people's faces, their attention to what's around them. Sometimes you want to yell at them. Hey, you! Listen, dude, you guys have walked past here three times, and I've got to tell you, your girlfriend is a lot smarter and a lot harder than you are. In five years, she's going to be on her way to a big-time law career and you're going to be sitting in a bar going "Ummm, what happened?" And you, lady: listen, I'm not a pedophile, but is your 13-year-old daughter -- the one you had when you were 35 -- sitting at home naked? Because clearly you're wearing her clothing. Yes, it's that obvious. Go home and change and people might take you seriously. And while we're on the subject, sir, you're German, not Afro-American, and yet you've got several hundred dollars' worth of hip-hop clothing on. This is something you're ill-advised to do as your 30s wear on, let alone at your age, which I estimate to be over 45. Plus, you're German. You just look stupid in them. Go home and change into some floor-length pants. And much as I don't get the shaved-head look, well in evidence at PopKomm, of course, the short hair with a tiny rat-tail in the back is about as silly as you can get.

I only got to wander around the trade-fair once, and wasn't terribly impressed. But then, I wasn't in the market for much that was going on. One really bright spot was seeing a guy I knew when he'd just given up his gig driving a bus in East Berlin and who is now a huge star in the dance-music world, Paul van Dyk. Not only did he remember me, he even brought his wife by and introduced her. There are a few nice folks in this business. Plus, he's now got a real interesting business going, something called Vonyc, a "radio and download station for advanced electronic music," which he demonstrated to me. I'll have to listen -- the business model is smart, but for me the music's the thing -- but I've always admired Paul's work, even though I long became too old to get into the clubs where he performs himself.

The thing is, I don't pretend I'm doing anything but selling a product some friends of mine make. I'm not chasing a lost youth or "getting down with the kids" or any of that. There comes a time when you have to define your relationship to pop music, and an awful lot of Peter Pans seem to be wandering around the music business at events like PopKomm. It was, in short, more than a little depressing. But I did my job: I kept the numbskulls from the crew, chatted with some old friends I only see at events like this, and, Friday night, joined everyone at my favorite Italian restaurant for a typically fantastic meal, and at the end of the evening said good-bye to the folks as they got into a cab. PopKomm was over until next year, although next year, if I'm living in France as I desperately hope I will be, I may not be there.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

That Time Again

I may very well be absent here until Saturday, because PopKomm is here again, and as I type I'm waiting to hear from the SXSW crew to show up so we can head over to the ICC and start building up our stand. Since I'm the guy who gets to stand there and explain that no, we're not a record company; no, we don't want your CD just at the moment; no we can't book your band, while the other folks are doing business, I'll be out of pocket until the circus leaves town on Saturday. Meanwhile Berlin's clubs are filled to bursting with bands -- the only time of the year this happens, actually; hell, you'd think there was a music scene here if this was the only time you ever showed up in this city -- and I will, most likely, see exactly none of them.

But you can bet I'll post a PopKomm post-mortem.

A Very Short Tale Of Love In Berlin

This story was recalled during the course of a correspondence I had yesterday, and I thought it might be worth repeating, if only to explain how a magnificent specimen such as myself has managed to remain single during the majority of my 13-year stretch here.

An old friend told me this story. There was this couple she knew, they'd been together for years. One Sunday, the woman walks in and says she's found another guy and she's leaving. The man is devastated. Wrecked. His life has been shattered. But she's as good as her word: Monday morning she's packed and a cab's waiting outside.

Naturally, after all those years of living together, you don't get everything in a quick pack like that, so she had to call him later Monday and ask him if he'd mind looking for this and that. Did it again Tuesday night, too, another few things she'd forgotten. He could just put them in a box and call a cab to deliver it. And here was her new address.

So this guy's dealing with the fact that not only is this woman out of his life and enjoying herself just a couple of U-Bahn stops away, the very thought of which makes him miserable, but she's calling him every day. Mail needs to be forwarded: did the stuff from the insurance company come? Don't forget to water the plants in the kitchen; you were never very good at that, but I'd hate to see them die, and there's no room for them here.

Friday she calls and...invites him over to dinner on Saturday night.

He went.

My friend pre-emptively protested that this story was true, but by the time I heard it I already knew it had to be.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Indian Summer Crumber

I cannot believe how wonderful it is outside, so I'm going to keep today's miscellanea short, and then head out to buy some coffee, which you can actually buy on Sundays. I still miss the Malongo boutique at Galleries Lafayette, but the quick-and-dirty solution is one bag of Starbuck's Gold Coast Blend and one of Balzac's House Blend mixed together. Not what I'd make if I had access to a decent selection of varietals, but hey, this is World City Berlin, and there's no place to buy 'em.

First off, a couple of technical notes. With Marie's help from far-off New Jersey, I managed to learn how to make various adjustments in the blog, and will be adding several new blog-links in the near future. I also learned how to modify my statistics thingy there at the bottom of the page and now I can see how people get here and where they go afterwards. This is totally useless information, for the most part, but I hope to use it to dazzle potential publishers for my book when I head to New York in about a month.


The Pope is back in town. No, not the guy who put his beslippered foot in his mouth in re Islam the other day, but the Pope of Mope, Berlin's unluckiest guy. Only a couple of days after returning here, he managed to get his arm broken by a gang of bicycle theives who operate around the Kaffee Burger on Torstr., ripping off the bikes of the hip and trendy while they're inside doing whatever it is hip and trendy people do. It's his belief that these guys operate out of the Döner Kebap place on the corner, the one that was a sort of DDR-moderne-themed bar that never made it, Luxe. Since I refuse to ride a bike -- I'd much rather walk -- and since Kaffee Burger's walking distance for me, and since I'm not hip and trendy, and the one time I was at Kaffee Burger I had to leave almost immediately to find a couple of molecules of oxygen, I'm just passing this along for the edification and delectation of such of my readers who might bike down there, emerge mildly intoxicated, and find themselves suddenly at the mercy of the Nachtbus.

It's also worth noting that the poor Pope is the first person I've known or heard of among my circle of friends and acquaintences, male or female, who has been the victim of physical assault in the 13 years I've been in Berlin. That's what I mean by unlucky, but it's also a fairly remarkable statement for a city of this size over that amount of time.


He also passed on yet another Hip! Edgy! Berlin! story, this one from the New York Observer, whatever that is. I actually sat down with this Galapagos guy for two hours and tried to let him know what happens when foreigners come here and try to start businesses, but from the looks of this article, he must have thought I was a crank. That said, he really, really needs to learn something about this city, because besides the insanity of trying to start a business here, he was looking in districts like Neukölln (yes, David Bowie named a song after it; big deal, it's a ghetto) and Hohenschönhausen, where nobody but nobody would go. As a friend who's put on events in the latter part of town observed, people from West Berlin refuse to ride trams (why? But I believe her) and nobody's going to spend close to an hour getting someplace they can't get in and out of, especially late at night. Hell, the tram to my neighborhood from the LSD District in Prenzlauer Berg (that's Lychner, Schönhauser, Danziger, the border streets to the district where every third person seems to be an American) shuts down at midnight.

But he's in love. He came here for a couple of weeks, let various trust-fund artists walk him through their favorite Szene-kneipen, and now he thinks he knows Berlin. I've seen this movie before. I know he doesn't have very deep pockets, so I wish him luck.


Bike thieves are one thing, terrorist plots are another. One of the local tabloids the other day had a screamer headline: the Berlin Police had disrupted a terrorist plot to kill thousands of people at ... a Nena concert! This was presumably the concert I saw advertised at the Hauptbahnhof, which would be behind the station on the banks of the Spree river. According to the tabloid, a ship filled with explosives would come down the river and go off, killing all aboard and loads of concert-goers, and, presumably Nena und Band.

This is why I love the tabloids. I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

But they can. And do. I heard a great story once about a freelancer who lucked into an interview with one of Germany's biggest idols, Tina Turner. Realizing he had an exclusive, he sold it to the highest bidder, the national tabloid Bild. They read it, didn't think it was too terribly exciting, and made up their own interview and signed his name to it. Tina Turner read it, flipped out, and sued. Bild coolly informed her that the writer wasn't on staff, but was a freelancer, so they couldn't take responsibility. So she sued him. He is no longer a journalist. Which, on some days, I consider a happy ending to the story, except for the lawyer's fees.


Thanks to the opening of the TeaRoom Berlin, to which I'll post a link if they ever get their website up, I'm in Prenzlauer Berg more often than usual, and the other day, walking down Metzer Str. towards Kollwitzstr., I saw green spiny things on the sidewalk, and, because I'm that kind of person, I gave one a kick. A bunch of little nuts flew out of it, and I realized that this wasn't a chestnut (which are all over the place), but, rather hazlenuts. I looked them up when I got home and sure enough, they come packed four to the pod. It just never occurred to me that they'd grow wild, but then I realized that that's stupid: there are those ubiquitous chestnuts, after all, and my friend Natalie once worked with a woman who had a couple of walnut trees. Once I made it known that I had uses for walnuts, I wound up with five or ten kilos of them.

So yes: Berlin is nut country. Especially in the fall. And the advent of another fall was the message those little hazelnuts were sending.

Which reminds me: time to go buy that coffee before it cools off out there.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Hair-Raising Question

Now listen all you people, especially you girls

As Marvin Gaye calls the congregation to order, I have a very serious question for the ladies out there, particularly the German ladies, but really nationality is secondary to gender here, because I need some information only you can provide me with.

Right. Take a look at the gentleman below, whose picture is tied to every single lamppost in my neighborhood, since he's running for some local office on the CDU ticket. Never mind that he hasn't a chance in hell, just check out the picture.

Now, just what is your reaction to him as a sex object?

a) "Ohhhh, I am so consumed by lust!"
b) "Dang, he makes that ugly guy over to the right on this blog look like Paul Newman."
c) "Enh. I'm a lesbian."

If you answered c you're encouraged to stick around and contribute to the theoretical discussion, especially if you're Belledame222 or of a similarly cranky disposition.

But if you answered a, I have a question.


Now, actually, what's weird about this particular photo is that if you look at it closely, you'll see he's actually just cut his hair way short, and it's greying. But on the campaign photos -- and I've looked carefully -- he's been Photoshopped to a skin-smooth shave. And the reason for this is obvious: to increase his appeal, to glamorize his image. Plus, there's a threat involved, because the other posters he's put up in the past couple of days don't have his image on them, but, instead, three promises: More work, more art, more children. The "more work" is what every politician's offering in a city with 20% unemployment, and the "more art" implies he'll loosen the purse-strings for the starving cultural budget here, but I'm really worried about that last one. Is he planning to do this all by himself? And if so, is this why he's presenting himself looking like this, Photoshop or no?

From what I've been able to tell, this particular concept of male beauty is indigenous to Germany. I'm not talking about skinheads; they have their own costume, their own rituals, their own look. No, I'm talking about professional men, artists, intellectuals, people in or aspiring to the higher economic and social reaches. I've noticed this for years around here. And does it work? Boy, does it ever: you go to some event, look around for the most beautiful woman there, and dollars to doughnuts she'll soon float into the orbit of a suit with a pink knob on top of it and just go all limp.

Now, okay, there's a certain amount of jealousy at work here. I was doomed from the beginning. My dad and every one of his brothers was hit by male pattern baldness, and, starting in my late 20s just like the textbooks say, so was I. I have this fantasy of discovering our ancestral home in Devonshire, where we settled as Normans and changed from Oeuvrards to Wards, walking into the pub, and having it go quiet as they do when an outsider walks in, and dozens of similar hairlines all craning around to see who the intruder is. Naturally, the minute I take off my hat, they're all eager to know who I am.

But the thing is, I don't think my hair looks bad. Well, it does now; I'm in need of a haircut, and I'll get one as soon as I visit the States next month. But in general, given my genes, I like to think it makes me look distinguished, maybe even smart, like the hair evaporated due to the intensity of the thought occurring directly underneath it. And then there's that belief among African-American women that it's proof of extra virility (not completely a legend, since testosterone does play a part in balding, which is why you see so very few naturally bald women).

Still: do you suppose it would help my utterly moribund social life if I just took a razor to what little remains? I mean, I could buy a black scarf and a yellow sweater and go out on Halloween as a #2 pencil. Were I to do the Mr. Clean (Mr. Proper here in Germany), would the fräuleins flock around, all seeking to know my mystery? Would I be able to stand looking in a mirror, though, without feeling queasy?

I really don't know. It's possibly the most unfathomable of all the German cultural mysteries, and one I'll probably never solve. But I do know this: the image this politician immediately brought to my mind: the Martian Popping Thing.

Can I get a wi-iit-ness?

Thanks, Marvin.

Friday, September 08, 2006

How I Got The Posters

I've been trying to sell off my old Avalon Ballroom posters for a year and a half. I don't really want to see them go, of course, but part of being broke is hacking off pieces of your flesh and offering them to the highest bidder. Anyway, my pal Nels, who's a laywer as well as a poster artist, is a member of a poster-collectors' club, and he's undertaken to make the sales for me. The rarer items went pretty quickly, but then things got stuck. He's offering them still, via Craigslist and maybe even eBay, and with a big meeting of the poster club coming up, he asked me to write an article for their newsletter about how I came to get them.

I knocked it off this afternoon, and thought, hey, I should stick this on the blog. So I will.

Naturally, if I were writing this for a more "serious" outlet, I'd flesh out the story much more, drop a few more names maybe, contextualize a lot of stuff, and so on. But for now, here's what I did. Many years ago, in a far distant land...


In December, 1966, I was an 18-year-old Antioch college student, on their work-study program, finishing up a job in the Christmas card department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the week between Christmas and New Year's. I'd decided to delay my return to school and try to find another job because I'd recently acquired a girlfriend with a fascinating family, and wanted to explore all the cool stuff I was discovering both in her circle and in and around New York City.

But Christmas cards are seasonal, and the job was about to end until next season. My "assistant" was a painter several years older than me, and we'd gotten to be good friends. Meanwhile, my girlfriend wanted to see Judy Collins, who was about to play Town Hall, so I went to buy some tickets to celebrate the end of my employment. The painter thought that as long as I was going to be in town, he'd cook dinner for us, after which we could go see the show. It was already shaping up to be a fine evening when I got to the box office and found a woman I'd worked with a couple of years earlier behind the glass. She was delighted to see me, we talked for a while, and then she sold me some up-close tickets in the press section for the price of a couple of bottom-of-the-line nosebleed seats.

No surprise that it turned out to be a memorable evening, then, but not in the way I'd expected. The dinner was great, some hash was smoked, and we caught a cab downtown to the show. Manhattan in winter was like a movie, and then we were in the concert hall, about six rows from the stage. Tom Rush opened the show, and captivated everyone with a song by some songwriter he'd just discovered named Joni Mitchell, as well as his usual repertoire. The lights came up, and I became aware of a nervous, skinny guy behind me urgently looking around the crowd. He had a manila envelope with a stack of mimeographed magazines in it, and I realized I'd just read about him in Howard Smith's column in the Village Voice, where Smith had started the item by saying "Behind a door in the Village, an 18-year-old ego burns."

"Hey," I said to the guy, "Are you Paul Williams?" "Yeah, why do you want to know?" "Oh, I read about you in the Voice and I thought this Crawdaddy! magazine idea sounded interesting." He stared at me. "You want one?" I took it. "I have something you might like to look at," I continued. "My girlfriend's father got ahold of galleys for a book Bob Dylan has written, which Macmillan's going to publish this spring." He glared at me. "If Bob Dylan had a book coming out, I'd know about it!" he snapped. "Well, he does, and she's got the galleys." "I really do," she said. "It's called Tarantula. You ought to believe him." Paul snatched back the copy of the magazine, with Howlin' Wolf's photograph on the cover, and scrawled an address on 6th Avenue. "Come see me with it. I'm there most of the time."

My Lower East Side apartment had been robbed, and although they got nothing of value (some dirty laundry an ex-roommate wanted me to mail to him, a typewriter that I hated), it was a power move, the neighborhood amphetamine junkies serving notice that they were in our territory. Realizing this, I'd moved out, back to my parents' house in suburban New York. On weekends (my girlfriend was still in high school) I'd go to Princeton to visit her and her family, who seemed to understand what I was up to better than my own family. I was looking for another job, because I had to have one in order not to go back to college -- I was still protected by the 2-S student draft deferment -- and so the Monday after the concert, I took the precious envelope with the Tarantula galleys in it, schlepped to a couple of employment agencies and took typing tests and filled out forms, and then showed up at the Crawdaddy! offices about 3 in the afternoon.

The offices were in a building over a Greek diner (now a pizza place) right at the entrance to the W. 4th Street subway on 6th Avenue, on the second floor in a tiny apartment whose bathtub was filled with bundled magazines. Two IBM Executive electric typewriters stood on a table. Paul snatched the envelope from my hands, sat down and started reading. Another guy, with curly hair, introduced himself as Tim Jurgens, and we talked while Paul read. Finally he looked up and said "I can't believe it! It's the real thing! You have to let me borrow this." "Sorry," I said, "it's not mine to lend." "But you've got to! I've got to show this to Paul Rothschild!" Now, there was a name I recognized: he produced records for Elektra, the legendary folk label which had, among others, Tom Rush and Judy Collins. "Look, here's what I'll do. Let me have this overnight and I'll go to Elektra and make a copy. Then you can take it back to New Jersey. Call your girlfriend and ask her if it's okay." So I did. She was nervous, but if it was just overnight, it was okay. Anyway, we'd both read it (or, rather, she'd read all of it and I'd read bits -- she'd also read Finnegan's Wake, so gibberish was second nature to her) and agreed it was pretty lame. Suddenly Paul had another idea. "Can you type?" Sure I could type: that's all I'd been doing at the employment agencies, so I said so. "Whaddya think, Tim?" Tim shrugged. I had a job.

A month later, we'd moved the office upstairs after putting out the first New York-based issue of Crawdaddy!, with a cover designed by my girlfriend's famous graphic designer dad and an excerpt from an unpublished book by some madman named Richard Meltzer. (The graphic designer, after reading it, took it to his friend Dick Higgins, who had a small avant-garde press in New York, and suddenly Richard had a book out). The new offices were a lot more spacious, having previously been the showroom and offices of Fretted Instruments, the folk instrument shop and instruction studio. I worked there during the week, and spent my weekends in Princeton with my new family.

One day, my girlfriend's father asked me if I'd like to go to San Francisco. "Sure!" I said. Paul had been there the previous year, and he couldn't stop talking about it. "That's good. You're a college student, but you're not in college, so you're free to travel on the half-price fares. I want you to meet some people." So I wound up one afternoon at a cocktail party on the Upper East Side in a multi-story house with a Louise Nevelson sculpture in the living room talking to people who were involved with a magazine called Aspen. Aspen was a little different: it came in a box. Each article was on a different kind of paper, or done as a little book, or as a poster. My girlfriend's father was art-directing the next issue, and they wanted a story about the hippies in San Francisco. I was introduced to a short, dark guy named Steve Schapiro, who worked for Life magazine. He was going to be the photographer. I was handed an envelope with a phenomenal amount of money -- $175, round-trip airfare at half-price -- to get me to San Francisco. I bought a ticket.

The day I was going to leave, I was wrestling my suitcase out of the office when the door to the apartment next door opened up. We didn't really know who lived there, although Paul said it smelled like an opium den (like he should've talked about dope-smells!), but this guy looked amiable enough. "Hi," he said. "I'm Travis. Where ya off to?" "San Francisco." "Got a place to stay?" Damn, I hadn't thought about that, I'd been so eager to go. "Hey, that's okay. Can you remember an address? 1836 Pine. It's the old Dog house. I'm sure they can find you somewhere. It's early out there right now, but I'll call 'em later, and when you land, just take a cab to 1836 Pine."

So I did, and entered an alternate dimension. I hadn't quite understood what Travis had said, but these, indeed, were the folks who had founded the Family Dog, with which I was already familiar. Luria Castell was the earth mother, and there was another woman, a singer, named Lin Hughes, who played her 12-string guitar a lot. There was a resident astrologer/magician, and various other people who came and went. One resident was a guy from Detroit named Larry Miller, who wasn't around. I slept in his bed, in a closet. The group in the house, who called themselves the Mystic Research Foundation, had split with Chet Helms, who still operated the Family Dog, which they'd founded together. There didn't seem to be much bad blood between them, although there were dark mutterings about "selling out" and "going commercial," but mostly everyone seemed concerned about the new society they were building, the groovy possibilities ahead, and they were most gracious about introducing me around as the guy from the magazine in New York who was writing about them.

Naturally, rock politics being what they are, I was introduced to Chet Helms -- but not to that spawn of Satan Bill Graham, who was trying to ruin everything for everyone, although it had to be admitted his dances were pretty cool, too. And so, after interviewing the Cohen brothers at the Psychedelic Shop, and the editor of the San Francisco Oracle, and a couple of Diggers (who of course denied being Diggers), I went to the offices of the Family Dog and talked to Helms, who spoke in a voice so quiet it was hard to believe he was in such an important position. At the end of our talk, he asked me if I liked posters. Sure, I told him, and, after signing me up on the mailing list for post cards announcing each week's dance (and signing up my girlfriend, too -- why not?), he gave me one of each of the posters up to that date. I rolled them up, put them in a tube, and, I believe, checked them with my luggage when I flew back.

I have a lot of memories about that visit: watching (and recording on the newfangled cartridge tape recorder -- cassettes, they were called -- that someone had given me to use) Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin from the vantage point of the light-show booth at the Avalon; meeting her a couple of days later as I walked with Luria down Haight Streeet, and Janis being so happy I'd liked her that she jumped out of the car and kissed me on my cheek; becoming so entranced by San Francisco that I vowed I'd move there some day; buying a koto-like stringed instrument from China called a cheng for practically nothing at Cost Plus; flying back impatient to tell Paul all about it -- and, of course, to tell my girlfriend about the new society that we'd be bringing our kids up in some day.

Of course, there were disappointments ahead. For one thing, the Aspen people dragged their feet, and my long article got reduced to a couple of quotes from Alan Cohen on a poster of an abstract photo Steve Schapiro had shot at the Avalon, an evening that had clearly made a deep impression on him. For another, nobody could stand my Janis Joplin recordings -- she didn't sound like anything on the radio! Most immediately and worst of all, I got back to the Crawdaddy! offices late at night after the cross-country flight to find some woman I'd never seen working there who initially refused to let me stay in my own bed, but relented on the grounds that she'd have to ask Paul -- who had gone on the road somewhere -- who I was, and if I wasn't who I said I was she'd call the cops. I quit the next day, and got ready to go back to school.

But man, with that roll of posters, my dorm room was going to be the coolest one on campus!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Computer Followup

Oh, and in that last post I made reference to picking up my computer. The guy called early enough this morning (after having been given explicit instructions not to call before 11: I do business with America, so I get to stay up late and sleep late) that I wasn't sure what he was saying, other than I could go pick it up. Fine, I thought; that was fast enough. Maybe I judged them too harshly.

Nope. I had to walk down there this time (the U-Bahn which services that part of town is down until Dec. 21), but I didn't mind because it was a very nice day and I didn't have anything else to do. When I got there, though, I was right back where I'd started. "My computer's ready?" I said. "Ready," said a guy, "but not repaired." Huh? "Your case number doesn't exist. You can't expect us to repair it for free, can you, and we need authorization from Apple." I thought I'd gone over this on the phone with them the day after I'd dropped it off. The guy was angry. "Don't leave with that until you initial this form which says we didn't repair it," he warned me. Then he delivered a tirade in German that was much too fast for me to follow. He glared at me with his steel-grey eyes and I suddenly noticed the pupils were like pin-points. I was getting the creeps.

The form initialed, I walked home. Only an hour each way, but I was now shaking with anger, so I called Apple's hotline again.

The guy there was completely shocked by my story, especially when I told him about the guy who'd called my machine "shit."

I now have another place to take it, although it's going to cost me €100, which isn't particularly good news, since I don't have €100 and can't say when I'll have that to spare, and I'm trying to get to New York in mid-October for a couple of important meetings.

But I have the computer back, and I have complete instructions for getting the repair done.

OmniLab, however, is being de-listed by Apple as a recommended repair shop. I'll take my victories where I can get 'em.

The S Word And The Hoodies

You can always tell when the CDU (the Christian Democratic Union, currently, if barely, the ruling party, who might also be called "the conservatives") are getting their butts beaten. They haul out the S word: Sicherheit. It means "security" or "safety."

We've got a mayoralty race happening at the moment -- elections are a little later this month -- and our current mayor, SPD's Klaus Wowereit, is heavily favored to win. "Wowi," as he's known in the City Which Always Nicknames, is handsome, gay, and doing a pretty good job. (Possibly the only thing Berlin and Paris have in common is having a gay mayor). The CDU, therefore, has to scare up some votes. And I do mean scare.

Walking down to collect my as-yet-unrepaired computer from the trolls at OmniLab today, I passed two huge billboards showing the CDU's desperation. One shows their mayoral candidate, a prissy-looking fellow, in his official campaign photo, on half the billboard, while the other half shows a sepia photo of two old folks sitting in a park while a woman coos at her baby in a baby-carriage next to them. SICHERHEIT FUR BERLIN it says. The other is worse: an old lady, in shadow, but backlit by a more powerful streetlight than exists in real life, the better so we can see her thick glasses, white hair, and shopping bag, is walking along, while two guys in hoodies*, faces unseen, follow her. ROT-ROT SCHAU WEG, it screams: "Red-Red turns a blind eye." (The reference is to the SPD/PDS coalition ruling the city council, the PDS being the reformed communists, sort of).

This reminded me instantly of the election which brought Gerhard Schröder (SPD) to power, but which Helmut Kohl (CDU) clearly felt he had heaven's mandate to win. An impossibly handsome male model in a policeman's uniform had his hand on an old lady's shoulder, his gaze adoringly on her frail form, while she looked accusingly into the camera. SICHERHEIT! SICHERHEIT! SICHERHEIT! was the caption, courtesy of the CDU. I made some inquiries, and sure enough, the polls had turned.

The hoodies poster particularly annoyed me because of an unrelated -- well, maybe unrelated -- ad campaign I've seen of late, this one by Philip Morris GmbH, the German division of the American tobacco company. It shows a guy in a fur-lined hooded jacket offering Marlboros from inside his jacket. Red letters scream, "Billig, weil geschmuggelt? NEIN! Billig, weil gefälscht!" ("Cheap because they're smuggled? NO! Cheap because they're counterfeited!")

Now, in a way, this is something which needs to be brought to the attention of a nation which smokes like the proverbial chimney, because, as the pamphlet I picked up at the shop across the street points out, these cigarettes are made from substandard tobaccos, and aren't regulated for the amount of tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide, lead, cadmium, and arsenic in them. It warns against buying cigarettes from street-sellers, at flea and street markets, on the internet, and around border areas (since a lot of counterfeits are made in Russia and sent through Poland).

But there's something disquieting about the cover shot, the guy with the hood. His moustache, for one. You can't see his eyes, but he looks...vaguely Vietnamese. Or South Asian, anyway. But this isn't our pal, funny old Chinky the Chinaman. This is the face of Organized Crime.

There was a time when Vietnamese street-smugglers selling cigarettes were all over Berlin. You'd see a guy standing around, staring at a pack of cigarettes in his hand as if he were wondering what in the world it was. But if you approached him, he could sell you a pack or a carton or two of counterfeits. A friend who bought a pack once while I was with him lit up and immediately made an awful noise and tossed the freshly-lit cigarette to the ground. "Learned my lesson," he said. The box, though, was impeccably made.

Enforcement was downright weird. I once answered my doorbell to find a gigantic woman there holding up a laminated card. "Do you have any cigarettes?" she asked. As a matter of fact, I did. "Please show them to me." I did. She pointed at the tax stamp pasted over the top. "Always look for the Bundesadler," she said, pointing at the stylized eagle which is Germany's symbol. "Good day." I've often wondered what she would have done if I'd had counterfeits. Deported me?

My second encounter with enforcement was even stranger and much worse. There was a mob of Vietnamese which operated by the exit to the U-Bahn at Friedrichstr. station by the Tränenpalast. There was a lawn by the exit (which lasted until the begging punks and their huge dogs took it over, turning it to desert), and two thick bushes grew there. One Vietnamese guy would be hanging out, and he was pretty obviously the guy to talk to. If he got an order, he'd bark something in Vietnamese and a woman, hiding behind the bushes, would haul out a plastic bag, find what the customer had ordered, and run it over to the man. Money would change hands, and that would be that.

One day, I was walking by, and all of a sudden a bunch of guys boiled out of the underground entrance, surrounded the Vietnamese guy, and started beating the crap out of him. A woman yelled "What are you doing?" and one guy showed her a police ID. "We're arresting a criminal," he said. "But do you have to use so much violence?" she yelled at him. At which point he knocked her to the ground. At that point I decided to get as far away from this scene as possible, since I had no ID at all on me, which is against the law.

Not long thereafter 35,000 Vietnamese were repatriated from Berlin after a gun-battle in a dormitory used by cigarette dealers in the Marzahn district. This was described as a crime-abatement program, since the Russian Mob was alleged to have been involved in the cigarette business, using the Vietnamese as front-persons. The Vietnamese had been here since DDR days, brought in as "guest workers" from "friendly socialist nations," the same as the Angolans and the Cubans, and, like them, scapegoated by unemployed East Germans the moment unification happened.

The Philip Morris leaflet shows a picture of the right way to buy cigarettes: a nice white guy pointing to a wall of cigarettes in what looks like a gas station shop, while the nice white lady reaches for his brand. Given that I haven't seen a Vietnamese selling cigarettes in at least five years, even in the darkest east, I'm just a bit disturbed by this leaflet's insinuations. I support the campaign, obviously, given my friend's experience. But I can deplore the method, just as I do with the CDU.

*(Interesting historical note: while hooded sweatshirts are called "hoodies," for obvious reasons, in America, here they're called Kapuziner, Capuchins, after the hooded monastic order)