Friday, January 11, 2002


[A text from the deep-storage archives]
A crowd is gathered near the front steps of the city administrative building at Kleistpark, a revolving light dyes the scene blue in flashes, it looks like a demonstration of sorts, something about the war in Afghanistan and the German soldiers who are to be sent as part of a UN troop. At one edge of the crowd stands a group of policemen, gathered around what appears to a life sized Santa Claus sculpture holding a branch in one hand. But then someone shouts "Ruhe, wir drehen!" [quiet, we’re shooting], the Nicholas figure begins to move, the policemen to apprehend him. A lady in a fur coat standing beside the police van into which St. Nick is about to be loaded begins a speech to the old man standing next to her, audible only to her and the microphone. People with briefcases push through the policemen to enter the office building, the rest of us disappear into the park with our bags of groceries.

Thursday, January 10, 2002

The Turkish Market

[A text from the deep-storage archives]

The slanting pallets of fruit and vegetables are ranged around the edge of the sidewalk all along the perimeter of the shop, it is freezing cold and people are pushing past on their way to the bus stop, walking their dogs, pushing baby strollers, smoking. It is so cold one wonders whether the oranges haven't become sorbet. But the market is secretly an interior: When I walk past on the sidewalk, one of the vociferous salesmen immediately begins addressing me, not only a pitch ("Bitte schön, bitte schön") but already a conversation. To step under the range of the awning—which is extended only in rainy weather, but even on sunny days exists as a potential delineator of space—is to come inside. He weighs my persimmon and tells me "Pay over there," pointing to the end of the alley of foodstuffs as though the cash register were located not where it is (inside the shop proper, separated from this street space by a door kept ajar in all weathers) but within this same space that is neither inside nor out. Inside, the young man behind the deli counter feeds me sample olives off his slotted spoon, each time grinning over at someone beyond my range of vision as if this feeding of olives is somehow illicit—because I am a woman? because he is encouraging me to eat during the daylight hours of Ramadan? Most of the bags of prepackaged food are labeled only in Turkish—an outsider is an outsider, fremd bleibt fremd.

Wednesday, January 9, 2002

Ordnung muss sein

[A text from the deep-storage archives]

My apartment building doesn't have a superintendent, but when I moved in my landlady told me to watch out for the guy who thinks he's the Hausmeister. But I can't figure out which one of my neighbors she meant: so far, three of them have stopped me on the staircase to comment on my behavior. First it was the old woman who tends the patch of gray bushes in the courtyard that passes as a garden. She asked me to stop putting my garbage in the wrong dumpster. At first I thought she was concerned that I didn't understand the building's recycling rules, but then it turned out that the tenants from the left-hand wing of the building are supposed to put their trash in the left-hand dumpster, etc. "I've seen you use the wrong dumpster several times!" I continue to use the wrong dumpster, in the hope that she's watching me out the window. Then there was the old man with the very straight back who stopped me on the stairs to ask my name, apartment number, landlady, length of stay. I pass him in the hall at least once a week, and he never smiles. Just today another one of the building's old men passed me as I was unlocking the courtyard door to bring out the trash. Coming back in, I was careful to double-lock the door behind me because I could sense him still standing there half a flight up, listening for the key and then there he was, all cardigan and houseslippers, wanting to know why I always slam the door behind me when I go in and out. "Because it's fun!" I tell him, "Have a nice day!" The door to the courtyard is kept double locked at all times, the door to the street only at night (after 8 p.m., according to the home-made sign affixed to the door)—so you can't get out of the building without a key. If there's a fire, all the superintendants will go up in smoke.

Tuesday, January 8, 2002

The Cobbler

[A text from the deep-storage archives]

There's a shoe repair business on the ground floor of the building next door. The shop window is partly obscured by a faded banner reading "Sonderangebot" and filled with shelves of dusty, unwanted objects: decades-old shoes, a child's backpack, cheap plastic toys. I have a simple repair job that needs doing, replacing a buckle on a bag, and decide to give the cobbler a try. He's a middle-aged Russian with a heavy accent who sits all day in his shop watching television. Rarely are there customers. The large TV set stands in front of the window, which is why his face is usually turned toward the street when I glance in on my way past. Often, other men from the neighborhood congregate in his shop for a chat—he's got plenty of chairs and, apparently, the means to make tea. The TV shows soap operas and disco music. He does an awful job on the repair, punching asymmetrical holes for the buckle and inadvertently slicing through part of one strap, but nonetheless demands DM 50 for his services. When I protest, we get into a long conversation, in the course of which he admits that he isn't a cobbler at all, he was trained as a hairdresser but wound up somehow acquiring a shoe repair business. Slowly, clumsily, he repairs the damage. Every time I pass him in the street, he grins at me and asks after the buckle.

Monday, January 7, 2002

Money and Contempt

[from the deep-storage archives]

Coins of less than 10 Pfennig in value never used to exist. One collected them unwillingly in one’s pockets, unloading them as quickly as possible in some container designated for the purpose in one’s apartment—or if possible in the apartments of one’s friends (dinner guests were always dumping out handfuls of 1-Pfennig coins on the sly). Using these coins to make a purchase in a shop was invariably seen as an insult to the salesperson. Once the writer of these lines was punished in a small grocery store in Prenzlauer Berg for returning her deposit bottles without buying new milk or water (being in the process of moving): the lady at the cash register took her time assembling the sum of 1,20 DM out of 1, 2 and 5 Pfennig coins. (A more quick-witted customer might have asked: “Haben Sie’s nicht kleiner?”) Enter the Euro. The erstwhile Groschen, a coin of small but by no means negligible worth (half a call on a pay phone in many places), has been replaced by the 5 Cent piece, a coin which is virtually nonexistent. (In 10 years, will children understand the expression “Der Groschen ist gefallen?”) If one tips, say, the attendant in a public restroom a Euro-dime plus two 5 Cent coins, it seems somehow stingy compared to the three Groschen one might otherwise have left for her, though in fact the Euro tip is worth 33% more. So now will these 5 Cent coins find their way into the same old jam jars half-full of old Pfennige no one ever remembered to bring back to the bank? The amount of money people are willing to throw away has just doubled. And who dares to tip a waitress an irregular sum? If a Milchkaffee costing 4,50 DM was once 5,00 including tip, its successor, at € 2,50 (€ 3,00 with tip by the new math) costs 17% more. (At least the 4 DM falafels at my local Imbiß have remained stable in price: “Zwei Teuro, bitte.”) So will the Euro bankrupt the Germans? My friend who drives a taxi says half his customers have responded to the change by not tipping at all (in other words, they interpret the in fact slightly jacked-up prices as already including a tip). So who likes the Euro? My local kiosk owner! When I handed him a 1 € coin the other night for a carton of milk (formerly 1,70 DM), he asked, “Ist das ein deutscher Euro oder etwa ein französischer?” Figuring something was up, I asked him whether he might happen to have a French euro coin on him. And there it was in his vest pocket, shiny and refreshingly free of the stylized Adler: the beginning of a collection.

Sunday, January 6, 2002

How To Get a Seat at the Staatsbibliothek, Haus 2 (Potsdamer Straße)

[A text from the deep-storage archives]

This is more of a problem than you might think, particularly near the end of the semester when students are writing papers, high schoolers facing their graduating exams are tearing out their hair in little whispering groups of three and four, medical students are reading picture books and tomorrow’s lawyers are pouring over the Grundgesetz in fat red volumes. The StaBi is a maze, a labyrinthine anthill, an anti-aleph—from no point in its interior is it possible to see all other points (even for angels). Hence the streams of increasingly desperate, randomly cruising readers in search of an empty seat, more and more of them as the day wears on. The hierarchy of seats is best observed in the morning hours. The first to fill up are the banks of seats along the large plate-glass windows facing Potsdamer Straße that let in the sunlight and rainclouds, followed by the single desks on the various upper balconies that also offer a window view. Only some of these desks are fitted with sockets for plugging in laptops—the experienced cruiser can size up the electric capabilities of a seat without breaking stride. And what about the seats that are located near the window but face away from it? These are worth less than the others, but more than the seats near the center of the reading room beneath the banks of fluourescent lights. One corner of the window wall is a jungle: tier after tier of potted plants, including fiddle figs. How to get a seat: come early, by 10:30 in the morning, unless you crave a window seat, in which case it’s 9:30. On crowded days, there will be no seats at all left by 11:00, and sometimes the nervous employees will decide the reading room is dangerously overcrowded and begin refusing entrance to new arrivals by mid-afternoon. Barring this, one can invariably find a place in the map reading room: just think of a reason why you absolutely have to consult one of their excellent atlases, or a map of Magdeburg, or Bordeaux, or Madagascar…

Saturday, January 5, 2002

In the Museum of Natural History

[A text from the deep-storage archives]The dinosaur skeletons lord it over a room with high ceilings and a mirror placed underneath so you can admire their ribs from the inside. In the back rooms of the museum where one isn’t ordinarily allowed to go are the exhibits for scientific study. For instance the birds. The collection begun over two hundred years ago by Alexander von Humboldt has now grown to contain a good 8000 specimens, many of them in the intriguing form “Balg”—stuffed skin. The original technique of mounting the stuffed birds on wooden stands in lifelike poses was abandoned in the course of the nineteenth century because the perching, posing, pecking birds took up too much storage space. A “Balg,” by contrast can be stored flat, wedged onto a shelf or stacked in a drawer. The “Balg” birds all have identical poses: literally stiffs, they are stretched flat with legs and beaks extended and can easily be lifted up either a stick mounted in the anus or by the beak. This way it's easy to study the feather structure, a guide explains. There are also birds preserved in baths of alcohol, pale chicks curled into a shroud of their own bleached feathers. The bird collection includes Alexander von Humboldt’s own pet parrot, mounted on a platform in a jaunty pose, though he is balding in spots from the strain of too many cameos in traveling exhbitions. His name has been forgotten, but not his favorite sentence, pronounced (legend has it) whenever coffee was served: “Viel Zucker und Milch bitte!”