Kreuzberg is the Williamsburg of Berlin, and Cecil had told me that on the southeast edges it’s like Bushwick. Linda gave me a couple of recommendations too, but it wasn’t until I sat in the cafe and heard the guy next to me speaking American English and asked him for some tips and he wrote on my map where the really cool bars are that I felt excited to explore, and seize and pillage the night and come to unfamiliar circumstances, that aren’t just new but unique, through active seeking, an area that was really underground.
Berlin is really big, like too big to walk. It took half an hour to get to Kreuzberg on the subway, and the fare is 2.30 euro, and the system is based on honor so blackriding is easy but stressful, since the fine is 40 euro. My options were: keep going from cafe to cafe, to bar to bar trying to get into some weird adventures, or, explore and have dinner, then take the subway home and write at St. Oberholtz in the evening. It was too early to choose, but exploring was part of both plans so I walked along the canal to a park recommended by the expat from Texas, Jesse, and sat reading Walden for half an hour.
The swans in the canal were streaked with brown and the trash cans were overflowing. The sparrows behind me would not shut up and the guy sitting next to me was smoking and the wind blew his ash onto my sweatshirt. The sun wasn’t that strong, either, so I got up to walk to the Bushwick of Berlin.
I figured it wouldn’t be that rough. But I was shocked to see old people sitting in cafes, young couples pushing strollers and well kept trees. The bars Jesse recommended were down the street from a daycare service. There were thousands of small children in the park across the street. Babies! Riding in the bike seats their once-hip, now-too-far-along-in-life-to-not-have-a-profession-parents bought especially for them. Where are the projects? The black people? The scornful looks from proud hipsters?
I found a place with 2.50 pizza on Mondays and Tuesdays, which buoyed my mood. Then I went to the bars Jesse had suggested, but they were closed because it was still too early. So I bought a beer at the Turkish Mart. It was five o’clock. I walked around the corner to find a good place to drink it and sat on a main street, where Turkish girls in pink shawls walked past. When I finished feeling cool, drinking and reading on a stoop, I walked back to the bars, which were just opening.
A guy with dreds and his girlfriend were smoking a joint outside and the bartendress put down her work to serve me. I was still unsure if I should have a drink or head home. I asked her, because that’s what I do when I can’t make up my mind, even though I probably know deep down what I want– I have competing voices arguing, “One beer deep– it’s not too late to call it a day and head back to the hostel to write.”
“But you’re well-rested. You should just drink a few beers and try to make some friends. You’re already in the neighborhood. It’s too far to come back to later tonight. And plus you got her up.”
All this going on while she said, “Your choice.” She was one of those unblinking Aryan Germans, who love order and propriety and are quick to reprimand those who don’t follow suit, and worst of all, who still pride themselves on their open-mindedness. I had to order something. So I got another beer and sat and wished it were night already, and thought about how after two beers writing becomes difficult. But if you’re not going home to write later, you might as well write now. There’s nothing else to do. I asked for a sheet of paper after spotting on the counter a Newsletter pad, beautiful lined paper that I figured I should ask to take a leaf of as I held it in my hands about to rip it, but something held me back, perhaps it was her, her staunch propriety, so that when I asked and was denied and handed instead a frustratingly small Pilsner Urquell branded post-it, I was so mad I wrote a poem:
Alone in Berlin
Yellow vans in front of wrapped heads./Seeds hang from leafless trees over a stingy Nazi bartender./Mothers push babies through weed-smoke./Girls with half-shaved heads sit in uncomfortable/Green velvet couches and dirty plastic chairs./ We’d be in the West if the Wall still stood./You choose where to go,/But it’s still too early./Yet isn’t this what you wanted?
When I finished my beer I decided to see where my feet would take me. North, not to the subway. I strolled up a street, envied the camaraderie and rapidity of two skateboarders, and walked on a dirt path instead of the paved one over the canal and into the park. I should feel good, I said. There’s no reason to be upset. Birds flew over my head. I stood and walked through the park, through the sunset, sunglasses on, watching the people sitting on concrete blocks, in the grass, drinking beer, being homeless and hip.
Then I walked up Oppelner Strasse and saw an open door leading into a photo gallery, an exhibition. Three young women sat talking across from a skinny young man in a black pea coat and horn-rimmed glasses. The show was called Nackt, or Naked, and there were closeups of body parts, a very intimate photo of a newborn grasping a thumb, hipsters standing topless, and the cover photo of skinned cows, which I soon learned was shot by Anna-Maria. When I approached the sitting group and asked who shot what, the tall fair woman with dark hair and red lipstick (Anna-Maria) stood and handed me the show’s flyer. I asked the others if they were photographers and one nodded and the man asked me where I’m from and I said Brooklyn and he invited me to sit.
I sat between him and Anna-Maria and soon the girls went to the store for Prosecco and Anna-Maria was rolling a joint and when the glasses were poured and I didn’t have one, Francois handed me his and cheersed me with his beer.
This was what I had wanted. Even though it was a fairly banal Tuesday night, it was fresh, maybe because I’m a foreigner, maybe because it was nice to see how people five thousand miles away from Bushwick do the exact same things we do, which yes, may also be banal, but are pure and joyous too.
The space was a converted butcher shop, built up by the guy living there who was letting the students use it for their show. We listened to hip-hop and I left to buy beer. I asked which I should buy and Anna-Maria told me about one with a star and a red and white design. At the store I didn’t see any like that so I just bought two types of Berliner beer. When I returned Anna-Maria said she didn’t like pilsner and Francois said he’d take the one with the white label, which Anna-Maria had also taken and was clearly the better of the two. I didn’t feel too bad, but it was evident these hipsters took their beer seriously.
At ten we had to leave because the guy who owned the place was going to bed. We walked around the corner, Francois and I still drinking our newly opened beers, and brought them into the bar, as long as we hid them. I’m used to New York bars, where bringing outside drinks in is absolutely forbidden. But when I saw Francois openly glugging his, I realized it was kosher– as long as we bought another after we finished. We played foosball and Anna-Maria rolled another and walked around with it between her two fingers, the golden zipper of her skirt flashing on her lower back.
Francois wanted to dance but we were the only ones so I sat and watched the takeoff German Star Wars cartoon being projected onto the screen. Francois and I talked about poetry and sociability, because he happens to be a poet, has been writing for ten years and yet is very modest; doesn’t think he’s any better than the poets who are unpublished or who stash away their writings for years until after they’re dead; he’s aware that his poetry could have been published because of the people he knows; he was discovered when he was 17 by the Paris literati, who are literally looking for new genius every two months; and so he just writes and teaches French and lives here on a meager salary that still allows him to eat and drink and live as he likes, despite his father’s disapproval.
When I came back from the bathroom, Anna-Maria’s crossed foot was pointed at him. But Francois is French and romantic and Anna-Maria is Bavarian and reserved. I leaned back to watch. After touching her hair, Francois asked if she was wearing high heels. She was not, she’s 190 cm with high heels and they stood to see who was taller. Francois, but who knows, Anna-Maria may not have been standing up straight. “I would fancy this girl if she were wearing high heels,” he said. I couldn’t stop laughing. “She is submissive.”
“You don’t know that.” she said, and cupped her breasts. “Not yet.”
“She is playsome, this girl, but I like to play too.” And this went on, with Anna-Maria glancing at me sidelong after her wry retorts, until she finally stood to leave and told me to come to the finassage of the show, whereby Francois too rose since he had work at 8 and left on her heels, but not with her, because he was saying goodbye to the two other women. I wondered if he was going to run to catch up to her to try to go home with her, then thought about how it didn’t make much difference to me.
I bummed a cigarette from Antje, one of the women sitting at the bar, and sat smoking, finishing my kolsch, watching the projected films in a kind of haze. Then it dawned on me: I’m in Berlin. In a hip bar. After making friends. With people in the scene. Who invited me to an event tomorrow night.
I came. I sought. I tasted the underground.