Sunday, August 30, 2009

Seat Nazis

I had no idea the Seat Nazis existed. I knew about Soup Nazis, mind you; Jerry Seinfeld and Co. sat me down for 30 minutes and explained that one to me quite clearly. You stand in the line; you don’t ask questions, you have your soup order ready before you get to the front of the line. When your turn has come, the Soup Nazi screams at you to step forward, eyes forward, order your soup. You do. You have no choice.

So, fumbling around with my movie ticket in Berlin as usual, I wonder if it will be the same as in Prague: the queue, the surly ticket salesmonkey, the language problems, the usual. You give them the money and they decide where you sit. Or you decide--if you want to grab them by the neck and twist their screens and their necks to do your bidding. Even after doing the Twist, I still fuck it up. Every single mother fucking time. I can’t do this European cinema seat thing. No, really, it’s completely ridiculous to anyone with a half a brain (as I have). I like to pay and sit in the seat of my choice as all God fearin’, freedom lovin’, rootin’ tootin’, red neckin’ Americans do.

The seat that was assigned to me was already taken. As usual. Apparently, I am supposed to skulk up to the offending bastard and say ‘Entschuldigen, getten sie aus mein sitzplatzt, schweinhund.’ But I am not a Deutschbag. So I don’t say it. I usually just sit in another seat in the vicinity of my originally-assigned seat. Which is all fine and dandy, no blood, no foul…until the Seat Nazi comes in. And suddenly I’m in THEIR seat. They stuff their ticket stub in your face. You fumble for yours. You throw a ticket block, already knowing that you are in THEIR seat and THEY know it. So you have to play the dumb auslander, which pleases them to no end. Or just try to explain it. In this case, the number of the seat was not lit up or posted in shiny letters. It was sewn into the dark red plush fabric in slightly darker red thread. On the seat back, directly behind my back. Imagine my confusion.

‘What? Huh? Oh! You paid for THIS EXACT SEAT, huh? Like, Oh. My. God. I am SUCH an idiot. Mea Culpa. But somebody is already in my officially-assigned seat and I don’t want to have to stand up and walk over there and displace them, looking like a fucking Deutschebag in the process.’

The teenage couple stood hovering over me. The GIRL goose stepped forward, blonde hair and blue eyes flashing in the half light. She looked like Julie Delpy’s cheery, cheeky Hitler Jugend character in ‘Europa, Europa.’ ‘Ja, gut. Zo. Zo you vill shtand up und valk over there, ja.’ It wasn’t a question. It was an order. From the blonde haired, blue eyed member of the Neue Hitler Jugend. I imagine that to certain guys this could be a turn on. Perhaps to sad, lily livered milksops. I can see why the skinny, quivering teen boy had his girlfriend to speak for him in these awkward cases. He was the effeminate, emasculated German Moby male to his girlfriend’s Strong Deutsche Frau. It was a rather pathetic display, a teenage German girl barking orders at a middle aged American man. But what could I do? I was certainly not going to stand up and bitch slap his girlfriend, nossir. I am not a cad. So I stood up, flashed Blondie a condescending smile and did exactly as she told me. She plopped down in my warm seat and gave me the kind of dismissive wave reserved for the blondest members of the Master Race. Cunt.

So I had to push some people over a seat or two. I apologized. I showed them my ticket. They saw me get shifted down by Blondie. They knew I was in the wrong seat and needed my original seat. So they moved. Shit rolls downhill. But as I sat down, the middle-aged German man to my right—the same man who moved his jacket off my seat to let me sit—told me the secret: ‘yes, there are normal people and there are the Seat Nazis.’

‘Yes, I believe I just met one. But she is so young,’ I said, loud enough for the whole row to hear. ‘I can’t believe that young people here are so fucking anal retentive. She should have a Mohawk and a head full of chemicals for Chrissakes.’ As I sat there chewing the fat with the good-humored German gent, I thought about how I really would have no gripe if the cinema was full. Sure, you want yer goddamn pre-planned seat so you don’t have to crane your neck in the front row or the side seats. But every single time the Seat Nazi has pounced on me in the past, the cinema was at half capacity at best. So if someone can’t be flexible enough to forgive the foreigner’s faux pas and find a seat directly in front of or directly behind their originally-assigned seat, this is the hallmark of a Seat Nazi. It is the absolute NEED to flash the party badge (ticket) and send someone to the concentration camp (another seat).

There we sat, 2 middle aged men, one German, one American, discussing ‘these crazy kids nowadays.’ I thought it was backward somehow; don’t the youth of today complain about the rigid, conservative Nazi old people? I imagine a Seat Nazi has no age. It could be anyone with a low self esteem, somehow desperate to cling to any chance to grab a bit of ‘power.’ I was reminded of a quote from ‘The Office:’

“Wow. That is the least amount of power I’ve ever seen go to someone’s head.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009



The Conspiracy is complete. It has achieved total and unequivocal dominion over my existence. I now just accept it with a wry smile and a slap to the forehead. The Conspiracy has followed me everywhere I have ever lived in the past 15 years. Whenever I move into a new apartment, within 1 week the construction starts just outside my window. At 7am to 6pm, every single fuckin’ day. Even on weekends.

It’s true that I have lived in some of the worst former Communist Eastern European urban shitholes ever devised. But still. You would think that I would have numbers on my side at some point. I mean, they are not reconstructing every single flat in the city at the same time, are they? No, Dunkin’, just yours. Yes, they have been rebuilding Eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain, but why do they need to drive the iron rivets home just outside my window?

Case in point: my current flat. A sublet, as usual, my 2nd this year. Why sublet? A) Because German realtors offer flats that are completely empty, no fridge, no oven, no stove, no kitchen sink. Not even a single light fixture. For 600 euros a month you get a roof, doors, windows and a crapper. Like prison, only without bars and much more expensive. B) Because German bureaucracy is idiotic. The worst I have ever seen. I used to think that nobody could possibly conceive of a more deliberately retarded system than the Czechs. I was wrong. The Germans sit around devising new bureaucracy daily. Just to piss me off. These Deutschbags sit around devising new bureaucracy and circle jerking. So, while we’re waiting for Gunter and Dieter to answer our fucking emails about available flats (and awaiting the ludicrous shit storm of paperwork to follow any offer), we sublet. (deep breath).

‘Geez, Dunkin’, you’re much more grumpy and cynical than usual,’ you might say. Well, I haven’t slept much this summer. I was almost getting used to the pounding jackhammers, the shouts and screams of the workers (or maybe the workers were merely talking and German ALWAYS sounds like barbaric screams) and the heavy drilling on the property next door. It is a vacant lot that will host a new fancy shmancy building which will house the latest batch of yuppies who will soon be shat out of the ass of Corporate America, England, etc. onto the streets of Friedrichshain.

Construction progress has been slow. With the amount of noise they have generated over the last 3 months, you would think they would have the foundation laid and at least the 1st floor erected. Nossir. In 3 months, this small 300 metre lot has got a thin layer of iron mesh on the ground. They dug the whole lot up and filled it in with dirt again about 12 times. I guess the masons, concrete pourers and bricklayers are all busy filling out their paperwork before they can begin. As you can tell, I know just about zilch about construction work (amusing, since I should be an expert by now if I had bothered to look out my windows over the last 15 years). But they brought in some crude noisemaking machines I didn’t know existed. I’ve seen my share of Caterpillars, John Deers, dump trucks, scoopers, bulldozers, steam rollers and cranes. But they brought in something from another planet. It was a tall, twisted mass of steel with a giant central cylinder with a tank for a base. It looked like an oil drilling rig had fucked a panzer tank and the bitch-on-treaded-wheels gave birth to the ungodly progeny right under my window. I still don’t know what the Evil Beast was devised for, other than to accentuate my personal construction conspiracy and to punctuate my occasional hangover. Every day at 7 am on the nose the Beast went to work. BOOM!!! Thump-thump, BOOM!!!! (repeated for 9 hours with a 1 hour lunch break). The cylinder churned and thumped for a month.

Then one day, just like that, the Beast was gone. But another noise began in its wake. It was familiar, the sounds of the workers in the dawn getting ready to wreak havoc on my beauty sleep (and if you’ve seen me, I need ALL I can get). By the end of the day, a scaffold had been erected in front of my building and my windows were covered in plastic. It’s as if the agents of the Construction Conspiracy were gloating at the surveillance tapes of my misery and decided to up the ante. Fifteen years of metal fire and brimstone right next door weren’t enough: there was something in German on a piece of paper stuck on the wall downstairs. I managed to pull a few words out of it. It said not to open our windows for 2 weeks. There would be construction.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Meet the Berliners

Christiane is the social butterfly of our Friedrichshain kiez. She knows everybody—and if she doesn’t—she gets to know them. She slowly glides into the bar, the park or the Turkish kebab shop and disarms you with her style and ease. She is a well-preserved 60ish sort with a vintage movie star style all her own and a smooth, contagious élan. When I first saw her in the late winter, she walked into the room wearing a black sleeveless dress and a black velvet hat with a jeweled hatpin. She had black arm coverings from wrist to elbow, the kind of thing a jazz singer from the 20s or 30s might wear. She always has a cocktail in her hand but she is never drunk. She is a Lady.

Yesterday we met Christiane at the new neighborhood bar across the street. We knew it was a new bar because of the sudden late night noise drifting through our windows in the wee hours of the night. Nobody was inside the bar because it was one of those rare recent summer nights where it wasn’t dumping rain or clammy cold. Sitting on the bench outside was Christiane, some flowers in a vase, a leather case with cigarettes and lighter and the ubiquitous cocktail. Her usual vintage Jazz Singer outfit had morphed into the summer version: White crocheted hat worn askew, minor hatpin with no jewelry, turquoise dress and arm coverings. My girlfriend and I are both taken by Christiane and her genteel charms. We take a seat across the bench outside the bar. Drinks arrive and she starts The Pitch. Christiane likes to announce the various social causes she is involved with, and then, when she sure you are following what she is saying, nicely asks how you can help her with her cause. Sometimes it is a pitch for money, other times it is an invitation to a neighborhood event. We like to attend the local events and bring booze and/or food. Money is a different story. So it is in Berlin.

After a few beers, various locals started to join us at the table; a few recognizable faces from the local taverns and cafes, the usual suspects. Then The Bomb dropped. ‘HallO-oh,’ said the thin man in the women’s makeup and the high heel shoes, ‘I’m Inga, the tranny from the house across the street,’ (s)he said. Inga immediately bypassed my nervously-outstretched handshake and went straight for my girl. ‘I love the way you dress, girlfriend.’ My honey bunny gave a nervous smile and thanks. I had to wait for the handshake. I was irrelevant for a moment. The girls had to chat.

Later summer sun means kids in the streets at 8 or 9pm. Now that I’m older, I really hate kids. They piss me off with their energy, their jokes and their spastic monkey dances—especially when I’m trying to have a drink and meet the Berliners. I imagine they pissed Inga off slightly more that night. I can’t follow the German language, but I can follow the taunting. It’s the same everywhere. There were the childish caterwauls by the oldest boy in the group. It was clear that he was taunting Inga. The other children, all aged 5 to 10, joined in the group taunting. (S)he said something in German about the children hounding her up and down the street. It was said matter-of-factly. Inga must get that all the time. Christiane defended the children, saying that they were from conservative families who didn’t understand that a man could love men or a woman could love women. ‘But this is Berlin,’ I ventured, ‘surely Inga is not the only unusual person on the street.’ I looked at the kids and smiled at the irony. They were mostly Middle-Eastern looking, probably Turkish. I imagined they could have been picked on as well by some of the blonder, bluer-eyed kids at school.

The older spastic prepubescent kid on the bike did several shouting strafing runs on his bike. I don’t know what he shouted, but I’m sure of the meaning and intent. Inga went inside the bar. Soon the barman came out and chased the kid away. I like how barmen protect their patrons. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that our table is safe while drinking in the fold.

Inga got a new pair of shoes. They were badly wrapped in a paper bag adorned with colorful string, hearts and fake pearls. (S)he said ‘It’s not even my birthday!’ After picking at the wrapping with scrawny fingers for a spell, (s)he asked one of the stronger women to help her. The wrapping finally came off and there was a pair of very used, very abused black leather high heel shoes. The sides were worn and torn and neglected. They were probably the most pathetic gift I have ever seen. But Inga’s eyes lit up. ‘My new shoes! I love them! I will try them on, now. Pardon me, but I must go inside. A lady never takes her shoes off in public.’ And so they don’t. After a spell, (s)he shimmied out of the pub on those worn shoes. (S)he worked them like have never seen old, tired shoes get worked before. Everyone had to take turns complimenting Inga on her new shoes.

A young German kid of about 23 joined the table. He was light, airy, and gregarious. An effeminate man in the de facto Berliner army-clothes-cum-Anarchist garb sat across from him. I figured I had stumbled into Gay Night at the Local Pub. That’s okay. I had my girlfriend at my side as a human shield. The young kid asked what I do. I said I’m a photographer, blah blah blah, the usual chat. I usually mention that I’m a professional photographer only after people ply me with questions. I used to announce it proudly straightaway, but it seems that every time I do that in Berlin, people ask me to take pictures for them. For free. Anyway, I gave him my card because he asked, then apologized in advance for the lack of Berlin pics on my Berlin site. I said I was trying to change that. He looked like he was going to jump out of his seat. ‘You need more Berlin pics? Well, I have this theatre group, you see, and we have no money (of course), and we would be happy if you could take pics of us at rehearsal, at shows, and all the way up the primrose path until we are no longer idle dreamers and posers and we at last take our turn in the limelight up in the clouds with the gods of the arts and finally, oh, finally, we eat and drink the Bacchanalian eat/drink/pukefest we are destined for. And you are invited. Don’t you feel lucky to have met me?’ I said yes.