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.

1 comment:

  1. Yay! A new blog post. BTW, I'm using my Firefox right now, although this morning I had some problems. So I guess IE isn't the only one that has issues.

    Love the descriptions of the Berliners, especially the two women (??) who seemed quite brave, in view of the somewhat hostile children who frolicked nearby.