Thursday, July 14, 2005

193. Berlin

They sealed the train past Helmstedt,
nobody on, nobody off,
and when the Vopos came on board
just outside Berlin
(Volkspolizei; people's police)
these arrogant surly bastards
came storming into the compartment
like the drug squad, like the old SS:
ahh, these unlovely Germans,
preserved, in aspic, only in the East,
long after the ruin of Hitler.

"Papiere, Ausweis, Passport" bellowed
these louts, weighed down with pistols,
passport stamps, and barely contained hostility;
we were supposed to rise from our seats,
cringing and submissive, thinking
this way we could prevent them
from tearing apart our luggage, but they
do that anyway. Gobshites. Pardon the Irish.
A very tense, anger-filled fifteen
minutes later, you roll into West Berlin,
to the enclave of "freedom": Zoo Station.

In Cold War days this city was seriously weird,
slashed in half by the excrescence of the Wall.
The Wall: Die Mauer: flowers and graffiti,
flowers for the the ones who didn't make it
and graffiti for the cunts who shot them.
I was 17 on my first visit, made the mistake
of leaving the subway on an empty platform;
well, not quite empty, there were two of us,
me and the guy with the machine gun,
hammer and sickle on his helmet, the wait
for the next train took two hundred years.

On the Ku'Damm and at Ka-De-We
the consumer West was at its best,
lights and music, jittery signals of possible pleasure;
at times the whores in leather minis, of all sexes
and then some, hard to tell apart,
would rasp at you in the hard city argot
"Na, Liebchen ... sag' mal, was moecht's Du?"
"Garnichts, gute Nacht!", a cheese-eating grin,
then pounding the bright stony pavements,
past the Imbiss stalls, the smells of Curry-Wurst:
Zoo Station? This whole place is a zoo.

One should never lightly contemplate
a visit to the East, and I will tell you why:
it involves a visit to the bank, or casual contact
with one of the shady unshaven characters
flashing rolls of bills on street corners.
You get a five, maybe six-to-one exchange
on Ostmark for your (real) Westmark money,
which you stuff into your socks, or up
your ... whatever makes you feel secure,
then you step off the train at Friedrichstrasse
and march up to Checkpoint Charlie.

The GIs wave you through (no skin off their ass)
and, not feeling so great, you approach the real border
between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Here we go. Once you enter that door
("You are now leaving the American Sector")
they have you by the balls, you pass
into Their World. What's going to happen here?
First, you wait. Then you show your passport,
and the blond young jerk inspects it for five whole minutes,
I kid you not, flicking his gooseberry eyes
from the photo to your face, from your face to the photo.

Then they move you along to another room
where they tear your luggage apart, empty
your bags completely, inspect the seams,
leave you then to gather up the mess;
today, thank God, they are not interested in socks,
a good thing, because, although we all know
money is shit, we don't really want
to admit the real-life stink of corruption.
Finished? No way, Jose. Another careful
passport check: photo, face; photo face,
then the barrier clicks, you're through!

Through, perhaps, but through to what?
God, it's all so grey and empty.
They force you to change 25 DM (one-to-one)
so with the money in my socks, I am now
a cruising unit, a man with money to burn.
My steps lead me to the nearest restaurant
(brain and belly in perfect synchronisation)
and, after a quick visit to the bathroom
to liberate all those crumpled rolls of banknotes,
have the best meal in two months of hardass travelling.
Say what you like, I don't care.

Replete, burping politely, ever so slightly,
I walk down to Unter den Linden
and view the Brandenburg Gate
for the second time, but now from the other side.
You can see the West through the arches,
the golden Siegessauele, the Tierpark, my God!
It seems a million miles away.
And it is. Sharp right to the Museuminsel;
so how did these people end up with the heart of the city?
Well, they did, and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon,
Nefertiti's bust, reside under their control.

Alexanderplatz. Das altes Rathaus.
Time for a beer ( I have to, have to
spend this money! There is nothing, nothing to buy!)
So I walk down the steps and get directed to a table
with four other guys; they do this all the time,
there is no such thing as choosing your own space,
there is no such thing as choice, period.
These guys are all strangers to each other
but they go silent, anyway, at my approach;
a few cautious greetings, veiled assessment,
then I toss the pack of Marlboro on the table.

Holy shit!! Their eyes bug out on stalks:
Western cigarettes!! This guy has Western cigarettes!
Therefore (you can hear, almost see the gears clunking in) ...
this guy is from the West!!!! A pregnant pause.
Eyes start flicking from one to another,
is it OK to talk to this guy? can I trust you,
are you an informer, will you turn me in?
I keep politely silent, waiting to see
what, if anything, will come of this.
The silence lasts a full two minutes.
One guy clears his throat, decides to jump in.

That was one of the best nights of my life
(didn't hurt I had all that funny money to burn)
and we all got deliriously happily smashed
with only one bad moment, when a new arrival
looked set to be joining our disorderly table:
immediate shutdown; immediate tension.
The guy moved on and the relief was palpable.
I want to go to Paris, they whispered,
I want to go to London or to Rome --
I am sick and bloody tired of holidays
in Poland or Rumania. Bugger the Russians.

The last thing to report, dear patient reader,
is the insidious Cinderella Rule, whereby
day visitors from the West, capitalist running
dogs, the Unenlightened, whatever they
may choose (have chosen) to call us,
must cross the border before midnight
or face execution, fines or imprisonment.
Picture this, because it happened, a platoon
of beaming beery East Germans, bellowing out
Irish songs (without any need for words),
making sure yours truly got safely across.
Yes, this really happened, back in 1989 -- not when I was 17 which was my first visit a long time before that. I've been to Berlin about 5-6 times and it is a seriously weird place, even now that the Wall is gone. David Bowie can tell you more about it than I can. Zoo Station and environs is still not for Mom and Pop from Minnesota. As for the lads, I don't know what happened, but I have every reason to believe that those visits to Paris, London and Rome did, in the end, work out. They were all promising to have a pint in Dublin, as well. Sure, why not!