You’ve seen them standing around, listless, shiftless, feckless. To me, the lone Asians standing against the walls on every other block in Friedrichshain (and later in Prenzlauer Berg) stuck out like sore thumbs the first few times I saw them. I was thinking to myself ‘now what the fuck is THAT guy doing standing there against that wall every time I walk by—without a grocery store behind him or a cigarette in his mouth to keep him occupied?’
Then I saw The Exchange: a middle-aged mullet sauntered up, looked the Asian up and down. The Asian shot glances up and down the street (DRUG DEAL! I thought) and proceeded to produce a small yellow packet of cigarettes. Money slid from palm to palm and the yellow cigarettes slid into the pocket of the mullet. I don’t know the significance of the yellow packets of cigarettes (Asian brand?), but I quickly figured out that What Was Going Down was the sale of cut rate, no tax, non-German-government-sanctioned ciggies. What we in the States refer to as ‘bootlegging.’
The Yellow Cigarette Man disappears whenever a cop car rolls past. I’ve seen the guy standing there one minute—then vanish. I’m going to assume he’s clinging to the bottom of the mini van parked to the left. We had the same Yellow Cigarette Man on our green, leafy, breeder-ridden, P’Berg street for months. He was around 60 years old, with the kind of weathered face seen only on Himalayan Sherpas. He was there 6 days a week (heh. NOTHING runs on Sundays in Germany.), 12 months a year. When the weather turned to ice the Yellow Cigarette Man was still standing there alone, with only his parka-ensconced face and the warm glow of Capitalism to keep him alive.
Then one day the Yellow Cigarette Man was gone. I had gotten used to seeing him on my daily dog walks and/or shopping hauls. I checked under the mini vans on the street: nothing. I was starting to worry that the mullets wouldn’t be sucking cheap fags on street corners in Berlin any longer. Or that the Actual Man had applied his merciless Jack Boot to the ass of our friendly neighborhood alternative business executive.
Then the Yellow Cigarette Woman appeared one fine spring day. Just as the first leaves of spring sprung from the buds on the old P’Berg tree branches and the newest babes of welfare pushed their way out of the white trash wombs, she appeared. ‘HALLO!’ she said, smiling at each passerby. A young, 20-something Asian girl had replaced the leather-faced Sherpa to which I had grown accustomed. Maybe the Old Yellow Cigarette Man wasn’t fast enough to evade the ever-prowling Police Eye, or maybe he could no longer cling to the bottom of neighborhood mini van.
Now there is a regularly changing cast of Cigarette People on our street. They no longer sell the yellow packets of cigarettes—my last stolen glance spied a different colored packet. There is only ever one cig peddler at a time, either a young woman or a young man, both Asian. I’ve never been there when there was a changing of the guard. One day there is the young HALLO! woman, the next day a young man. I’ve watched them pull entire cartons of cigarettes out of the most unlikely of places—from under moped rain covers, and even those long, narrow sidewalk street gratings you see near building walls. Hell, once I even saw one of them prize a carton off the bottom of the mini van parked on the street.