Monday, May 28, 2007

Requiem For Mickey D

Saturday night I was invited to dinner at the dancer's house, way down in Tempelhof, and after the thunderstorms cleared, I started walking. It's only about three miles, and economics dictated shank's mare. This meant walking over to Friedrichstr. and then walking the entire length of the street, which is usually fascinating, because after Checkpoint Charlie it turns into a fairly tawdry, largely Turkish/Arab neighborhood, a part of Berlin the tourists don't see. That culminates in a really seedy housing project at Hallesches Tor, after which you cross over onto Mehringdamm, and into the old Kreuzberg 61.

Anyway, I'd no sooner started out than I got a rude shock. The McDonald's on Friedrichstr. was gone. A sign for some GastroImmo firm announced it was for rent.

Although I'd never patronized the place, the McDonald's was a landmark. Visitors coming to my place via the U-Bahn would always get the same instructions: "Okay, take the U-Bahn to Oranienburger Tor station" -- and then I'd have to spell Oranienburger, of course, down to the last letter, as if there were lots of similar stations on the line -- "and walk in the direction the train was moving and go up the stairs. Okay, now, look left and you'll see a McDonald's, so you know you're in the right place. But you walk right, towards the pizza place..."

That pizza place had been a Burger King, locked in the usual corporate war against McDonald's, but it probably lost the battle because the word got out that its upstairs bathrooms were ideal places to shoot up, and the local junkies took full advantage. (This came to light, pardon the pun, when it was announced that they'd installed black light in the bathrooms, which supposedly made it very difficult to shoot up. Why this was supposed to be so I can't say.) Then it was dozens of other things before falling into the hands of the pizza guys. But McDonald's was always buzzing. It always is in Europe: no other symbol of what makes American pop culture so desirable seems to come close. Maybe if someone would take the time and trouble to learn how to make a good hamburger on this continent this wouldn't be the case.

(Oh, and this is the place to mention that the place with the great hamburgers I wrote about some time ago, Hazelwood, on Choriner Str., has lost the chef who designed the menu, taken a swift turn towards the Deutsch, and is no longer hamburger heaven in Berlin. The chef says she's going to have another project soon, and meanwhile your indefatigable BerlinBites team is investigating several rumors of better burgers. Stay tuned.)

The thing I noticed about McDonald's is that it's a status symbol for teenagers. A Big Mac is a good deal more expensive than a Döner Kebap (€3.70 versus around €2), and that, along with your fashionable clothing, helps identify you and your posse as the cool kids you are. In Europe, that's who McDonald's seemed to be marketing to, too: in America, it seems to be younger kids, but here, the promotions were all about hit CD compilations and iTunes downloads.

So, is this changing? Or is all the construction in the immediate vicinity driving customers away? Why did McDonald's close at what would seem to me to be a perfect location -- especially given that it had traffic all the time? Did one too many Germans see Supersize Me? Do they even supersize in German McDonald's?

I mean, other than having a familiar place vanish, it's no big deal for me: I haven't eaten at McDonald's since the '70s, when one opened up on Market Street in San Francisco, the first non-freestanding McDonald's in America. At the time, I was writing for a brand new magazine called Mother Jones, whose offices were immediately above, and whose elevator was one of the slowest I've encountered outside the Communist world. (Soviet elevators are a whole 'nother tirade.) The exhaust from the McDonald's fries leaked into the vestibule, where you waited and waited for the elevator to make its mammoth three-story descent, and a certain amount of the grill odor did, too. It was like standing in the middle of a Big Mac and fries, and, like the doughnut bakery that vented directly into two (unusable) rooms in an apartment I rented in college, the smell permeated my memory to such an extent that I can taste McDonald's fries (or doughnuts) just by closing my eyes and concentrating for a couple of seconds. Plus, of course, until I moved here, there were always much better burgers to be had when I wanted them.

This leaves the pizza place, Dada Falafel (run by Iraqi refugees from Saddam), and, of course, the great YumMee bánh mi sandwich joint (now serving pho!) as the only fast-food alternatives in that vicinity. But it doesn't make the mystery of why McDonald's would vanish overnight from such a plum location any clearer.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Surviving On Crumbs

Well, I'm still here. I guess that's the good news.

I've survived May Day, with its illiterate marchers:

These posters (above) were everywhere. Everywhere. You just have to wonder about people who'd represent themselves like that. Let alone march with a huge banner with a boner like that in it. (You may have to click the photo to get my point here). Thanks to Kean for snapping this.

* * *

I've survived Christi Himmelfahrt, the silliest-named German holiday, on the 14th, which is also "Men's Day," with men roaming the city drinking beer until they can barely stagger. This is, as you may have parsed, Ascension Day. What that has to do with men in particular I have no idea. But it's a good day to hole up inside. I had to go to Hauptbahnhof, though; I had no idea it was a holiday.

Modest suggestion, Germany: In America, you'll find signs on many businesses saying, for example, "We will be closed all day on Tuesday, December 25, Christmas Day." Now, Christmas is not only a date everyone in the U.S. recognizes, but it's one that never changes. It's always December 25. Things like Ascension Day and Whitsun (which is this weekend: stuff is closed on Monday, folks) change according to Easter, the date of which is different every year. I know courtesy isn't big around here, but if Berlin is, as it pretends, a "world city," perhaps it might actually act like one and tell those of us who practice other religions, or no religion at all, when the religious state holidays are.

Hauptbahnhof was jammed, of course, but not with as many drunks as I'd anticipated. The downstairs is still dark and gloomy, but the Diplodocus skeleton upstairs is a nice touch.

* * *

I survived the reopening of Tresor, although, of course, I didn't go. For me, Tresor will always be the basement of the bombed building it's named for, and even that turned into a bridge-and-tunnel-kid club before it closed down. Several people sent me an IHT story about Dmitri's plans for his new location. Not that he's ever asked my advice, but first I'd do something about the name. By the time he finally finds the dough to make this happen -- if he ever does -- people will have long ago forgotten what a "modem" is.

* * *

I'm surviving Spargel season.

I have to say, I don't see the attraction of white asparagus, which is what Germans invariably mean by "Spargel." It seems fairly tasteless, is often quite fibrous (not always: when my pals Ranya and Susanna had a restaurant they could make it well), and is served in such boring ways -- with ham and boiled potatoes, with schnitzel and boiled potatoes, with Béarnaise sauce dumped over it most of the time, or just plain butter -- that I tend to avoid restaurants during the season. (Well, being broke has something to do with it, too).

Fortunately, the Vietnamese guy I buy lots of vegetables from has a good supply of superb green asparagus at remarkable prices, and thanks to him I've discovered roasted asparagus, which gives it a totally different flavor, due to the caramelization of sugars I'd never guessed existed, although, in retrospect, they're certainly there. There's just so much flavor in green asparagus I'm eternally grateful it's not in such high demand around here, making it easily found and affordable for the likes of me. But, if a recent trip to the outdoor market in Hackescher Markt means anything, the Germans may be catching on. I just had to snap that label!

Fitness: yes, actual vitamins'll do that to you...

* * *

And I expect I'll survive Burger King's unsettling campaign for its new sandwich: Long Chicken. No relation -- I don't think -- to Long Pig.

Friday, May 18, 2007

And Then...

As if the weekend weren't bad enough -- and it's looking less bad as I've billed out three or four months' rent in work -- I had a real shock on Monday.

As many of you know, I've been trying to sell a book based on my adventures as an expat. By the end of last year, it had been through three agents who were awful: first there was the agent who turned out not to be one, then another who held onto it for six months without reading it and only responded when I went to New York to talk to him (a trip which, in most respects, was a total disaster), then one who thought it was a novel (among other weird tics which disqualified her).

A friend suggested a guy who was a former student of his, and I sent it to him next. Twenty-four hours later, he wrote back that it wasn't the kind of book he could sell. Fair enough; no agent knows all the markets out there. He wrote me that he'd been idly thinking of relocating to Berlin because Manhattan had gotten so expensive, and I suggested he read the blog here for some snapshots of what he'd be getting into. He wrote back and said I'd thoroughly put the kibosh on that idea. He also said he'd just had lunch with a publisher who told him he'd be willing to pay [large amount of money] for a book on [subject], and that it would be perfect for a younger version of [noted scholar].

I wrote him back and said that although I wasn't young, and I certainly wasn't [noted scholar], this was a subject I knew a lot about, and I'd welcome the opportunity to take a crack at it. In return, he e-mailed me several proposals which had resulted in advances of over a million dollars for each one. That was more than we'd talked about, but hey, it was indicative of a certain level of quality. I studied them and again I thought, I can do this. So I did.

Not off the top of my head, of course. I bought several books, big ones, and read them. I pored over documents, and confidentially sought help from people I knew and trusted. They, in turn, made very helpful suggestions. I did more research, watching films and talking to others. And I started to write.

It took two and a half months, but at last I had something which, although I felt it needed work, I couldn't improve upon without some professional feedback. It was 35 pages long, detailed, filled with data, scrupulously researched. On February 15 of this year, I sent it off to him. He replied immediately: he had a pile of stuff to go through, and it would take him probably a week to get back to me. No problem, I said; I wanted his undivided attention.

Just before I went to SXSW, at the beginning of March, I was at a bookstore and there, prominently displayed, was a book on the same subject. I didn't have the money to buy it, but I did thumb through it to see what was in it. As I'd suspected, it was very much the predictable approach, dull and unremarkable. I jotted down the author's name and when I got home I fired off an e-mail to the agent, telling him the book existed, and how mine was different -- and, I believed, superior -- to this one. He asked how he could get hold of me in America, and that was that.

I didn't hear from him the entire time I was in the States. When I got back, I wrote him -- it was now the end of March -- asking him when I could expect to hear from him. He said he'd read the proposal and get back to me. At the beginning of April, I asked him again if he'd read it and he said "I PROMISE to read it this weekend."

A couple of weeks later, I got an e-mail from him asking if I'd heard of this other book. I reminded him I'd sent him an e-mail at the beginning of March. He replied that he was at the London Book Fair and his brain wasn't working. I figured I'd wait til he got back and then write him again.

The London Book Fair ended on April 18. I waited and waited, meanwhile doing other work to pay what bills I could and keep my own brain active. Finally, I decided it was time to move. On Monday of this week, I wrote and said look, it's time to get this thing going. I'm losing momentum, I'm getting new ideas all the time, and I want to get to work. He wrote back almost immediately, saying he'd decided the other book would do for the moment and he'd lost interest in the project and wasn't going to pursue it.

Without even so much as reading my proposal. The one he'd encouraged. The one I spent two and a half months on and waited another three months for him to read.

Almost six months of my life, in other words, down the drain.

There's nothing I can do about this. What he did was wrong, what he did was unethical, but I have no recourse whatever. And, in a profession based on trust, so much for his "PROMISE."

I spent the next couple of days feeling like I'd been kicked by a horse. I'd already given up on the expat book after yet another agent I'd sent it to said he didn't understand what it was -- but wasn't interested in my explaining it. I began rewriting the proposal based on what I'd learned from the other project and then just gave up. I'd spent over two years on it, and was sick of it.

But now I'm without a book project, and magazine work really isn't happening. As I've said before, none of the writers I know have any work. It's nothing personal except as it affects me personally.

Yes, I own the mammoth book proposal. Yes, I have the names of other agents. Before I send it out again, though, I'm going to have to get that other book, read it, and develop a counter-argument on why mine is better. I'm not even sure I really want to do it at this point; it's not a particularly pleasant subject, and it would entail my maintaining a presence in Berlin part-time.

Some week, huh?

Sunday, May 13, 2007


The old woman left her apartment, looking about her as she always did for danger, her mouth screwed into a rictus of anger. In her right hand she clutched an envelope. In it, the culmination of six years' agitation rested, folded in thirds. She grabbed the handrail with her left hand and gingerly let herself down the three stairs to where the postboxes were. Reaching up on tiptoe, she slipped the envelope into the box with the hated name on it. At last! Soon the foreigner would be gone.

As for the foreigner, he was doing what he'd been doing all week: waiting. Waiting to hear if any of the seven publications he'd pitched on the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, to which he'd been invited by its publicist, had responded. Waiting to hear from a literary agent to whom he'd pitched a book three months ago. Waiting for money to arrive into his American and German bank accounts so he could buy some food, which was running out. Waiting for it to stop raining. Waiting to see if the guy who bought his used CDs was going to come.

Waiting isn't something you have to spend a lot of brainpower on, though, so when he heard the sound of somebody sticking something into his postbox he at first thought the mail had come. Not that, in these days of e-mail, anything of interest ever showed up in the mail, but you never know. More likely, it was yet another pizza menu. When he'd first visited Berlin, back in 1988, pizza delivery had just been instituted. He remembered his girlfriend's about-to-be-ex-boyfriend exulting about it. "The pizza was horrible!" he'd said. "But they bring it to you!"

He cracked the door, looking for the crone, who'd appeared in the middle of the previous night, awakening him with her door-slamming. She wasn't there, so he rummaged for his key and unlocked the box. He knew what was in the envelope without opening it, but he opened it anyway as soon as he was back in the apartment. It was as he'd feared:

"At the moment, you are eleven months in arrears on your rent: €5,547.41. You also owe maintenance costs for 2006 in the amount of €783.57. Total is €6,330.98. Please remit, within ten days of the date on this message, €3,809.43." (This amount is just over $5000 at today's rate). The date was May 10.

He knew what to do from past experience. The first thing to do was not, under any circumstances, to panic. The next thing to do was to get back to work.


Which, admittedly, was easier said than done. But I've got two more radio bits to write, and, once that's done, I can voice them and bill enough to pay off two months' rent. I'd been planning to do that already. One is as good as done: Swamp Dogg, that elemental force of nature whose early recordings -- including a blues he'd made on a disc-cutter at the age of 11 with his mother playing drums -- I'd listened to the night before. The other is a matter of listening to a CD and knocking the elements together.

The bad news was, the Fes thing was now officially down the drain. Of the seven editors I'd written, only one had responded, saying he'd get back to me, and he hadn't. (Another checked in last night, and said no). But in order to pay two months' rent, I'd have to use the minimal money I'd have had to spend for food in Morocco. Possibly this was for the better. I'd wanted to see the place -- hell, even Marie hasn't been to Fes! -- but to tell the truth the bill looked kind of anemic this year. Of course, it was more than just losing a trip to an exotic location; I was really hoping to make contact with a new outlet for my work which I could develop and thus be able to increase my earnings. This may yet happen, though.

The other bad news was that I'm not at all sure what I should do at this point, from the legal side. If I can only pay off a thousand Euros by the end of the month, does that mean the landlord (who's, to his credit, been very reluctant to do this and was no doubt pushed by others) will now instigate legal proceedings? If so, should I just hoard the money against the eviction? Or, if a judgement is found against me, does this mean dealing with the bailiff again? Probably so. At any rate, it's the weekend, and there isn't a thing I can do about any of it right at the moment.

Which makes the injunction against panicking all the more sensible.

Another thought occurred to me, too. This is the start of the season in which the students in the centre historique of Montpellier start to leave and vacancies of affordable apartments start. They'll be gone until late August. Maybe this situation can be turned to good effect in getting me out of here: find an accommodation with the landlord and leave by a given date.

Of course, all of this hinges on work to pay for it all, and that's the sticky part. There just doesn't seem to be any. And the weird behavior of the dollar versus the Euro makes budgeting of even a minimal sort very tricky.

What I'd really like is some good, meaningful, involving work, of course. I'd hate to think that it's all gone forever, and that, at the age of 58, I'm going to be forced to find another way to make a living. Plus, of course, the mental stimulation that working brings means that the creative functions start up again, and I get more ideas, which lead to more work, and so on and so on. Sitting here writing e-mails -- and blog posts -- is hardly the highest and best use of my time and talents, after all.

Unfortunately, if things take a legal turn here, it'll eat up time I could be spending doing what work I get. That will mean a reduction in the theoretical amount I'd earn which I'd need for the move. And I also realize that if I do move I'm going to need a financial cushion to smooth things out until I get used to the costs and rhythms of a new place.

This isn't going to be easy. Or, I suspect, fun.

But, whatever it is, it's going to happen. And the first thing to remember is, don't panic.