KEYS TO THE CITY
I: A New Career In A New Town
II: Dream Life
III: Paintings As Prayers
IV: Late Summer Evening
Rose Crowned Evenings
Moments Of Pure Ashtray
The Personalised Circus
Blind Children On Western Streets
Lucifer Says He Won't See Me
Swans On The Surface
Girl Smoking On Balcony
Stained Glass Window
The Insurance Was WILD
The Sea's Smile
Van Gogh's Lights
The Disappointed Prince
A Night At The Circus
Chekhov In Kreuzberg
A Stolen Dress
Two Contract Killers Get Arrested
My Uncle Dick
Death In The Cafe
Performing To The Curtain
Getting Past The Curtain
Living With Samuel Beckett:
An Anti Essay
HE WAS SENT TO BERLIN IN 2013
L had been shown a photo of someone he had to find, which upon viewing, had then promptly been destroyed. They had thrown the photo into the flames and L watched the face burn beyond recognition. Then they all nodded and arrangements were made for his journey from London to Berlin.
S, Seymour and Terrence had outlined the plan to L.
L was to ‘find him, and if not, then at the very least, be him.’ As to what that meant, L wasn’t sure, but he agreed nevertheless, for his own various reasons of course.
Several disguises were discussed. Consider L’s age. Twenty, relatively young, still even a boy. In need of a disguise, however.
L could be an artist type, Seymour said.
A struggling artist type, Terrence added with a chuckle.
He shall find him and find us whatever gold is lurking in that depraved shithole of an underworld, S concluded, quite magnanimously.
Phrases were repeated in a smoke filled office, somewhere south of London.
The year is 2013. The conversations would be interrupted by S’s angry fits of coughing, the playful ringtones of Seymour and Terrence’s phones, the hesitant questions asked by L.
It’s a parachute mission boy, S said, on more than one occasion. Once you’ve crash-landed you can’t use that parachute to fly back. No ties to us until the finished line. Your country loves you and doesn’t know you anymore.
In truth L felt overwhelmed and intimidated by the ambiguity of what he was supposed to achieve, though on an instinctive level, there were actually no doubts in his mind as to whether he should actually do this mission: L believed this was something he was born to do, and he didn’t just think this because of what they had told him (for they had reiterated over and over again that L was simply perfect for the job – they had specifically used the word, perfect), he truly felt that he was destined to find this person and if not, then ultimately become him, and whatever happened afterwards, well, at least he’d have done something of purpose. At least he would have tested the very nature of destiny itself.
L was made to believe in destiny. Perhaps this was what it was and indeed still is all about.
And another thing:
I cannot stress enough how important it is that they never find out why you’re there, S had said in the final meeting. But you have to let the town know you’re there – that’s the only way you’ll find someone like him.
So indeed the mission was a paradox, for how could L keep a low profile whilst simultaneously attracting enough attention to find who he was looking for? And who was he looking for? No name or address was provided, just a capital city teaming with more than five million people. And what did this person look like?
You’ll know him when you see him. Have faith, and be smart. Take your drawing of the photograph with you wherever you go. Courage! Never forget. The people of Berlin can and will help you, if you look in the right places.
What are the right places?
An angry coughing fit, then a voice of reason:
It could be a nightclub, it could be a petrol station for all I know.
S’s concluding thoughts to L were the following:
While this mission may be paradoxical in nature, once the initial leap of faith is taken, once you successfully manage to walk it’s existential tightrope, all will become clear, so much so that the real mission itself will reveal itself to be something else entirely.
Thus, L left for Berlin, and from here can we trace his new career in a new town.
HOSTELS: L'S FIRST DAYS AND NIGHTS
During L’s first weeks, he stayed in hostels, which meant that the nature of this time initially had a very stop-start element to it. Nevertheless, upon arrival, he began learning things about the city. He walked and walked for hours, marvelling at its industrial beauty, how it seemed be in a perpetual state of growth. He walked and walked, and felt that with each footstep, each new street explored, a new part of him was becoming part of the fabric of the city.
His hostel of choice, when rooms were available, was called East Of Eden, located in the eastern part of Kreuzberg, overlooking the canal near the Möckernbrücke. The building was fairly old, with a certain quaint and perhaps even gothic feel to it, maybe due to how it looked right out on to the dark water of the canal.
Upon arrival at the hostel, L was immediately warmly welcomed by Rick, the resident barkeeper and go-to guy of the hostel. He hugged L like an old returning friend, though they of course had never met. Rick had that camaraderie with all the guests, having the ability to make everyone feel that he, Rick the hostel barkeeper, was being that extra friendly for you only. Nevertheless some positivity made L feel more relaxed in his new surroundings. The other hostels he had stayed in had been devoid of personality, where customers of Europe slept in Berlin’s modern industrial looking buildings that called themselves hostels; rooms were shared, but people, young and old, kept to themselves or made light conversation about the wifi, the lockers, the cleaners. L would try to spend as little time as possible in the rooms, feeling more at home amongst the Friedrichshain roads and streets, gazing in and occasionally frequenting the bistro cafes, the crêperies, the punk bars, even the clubs (though L would immediately feel out of place and bored by the wordless music that anaesthetised everyone). East Of Eden felt immediately different: it was a welcoming refuge from the outside world’s flux and disconnected noise and chaos, and until L found his own place, he would try to make this his temporary home. And Rick was so very friendly, though L knew very little about him, save that he was Australian, that he flirted a lot with his Greek colleague Marta (L would find himself longingly entranced by her pretty Latin features and mildly entertained by their playfully camouflaged show of interest in one another, and in fact, L suspected that they were already involved with one another), that Rick also loved Weissbier, which he insisted L drink, no matter what time it was, and indeed L would sometimes protest (he needed breakfast first!), but more often than not gave in and with each sip hoped to impress his first new friend in Berlin.
At East Of Eden, L would meet a puzzling cast of characters of whom he knew he would never see again, and in years to come, he knew he would barely even remember anything about them – they would be as blurred as the vaguely painted faces of a Toulouse Latrec painting (L was toying with the idea of posing as a painter, and had already started doing his research, remembering S’s suggestion of having a disguise as a ‘struggling artist’). There was the middle aged Canadian woman who he shared a six person dorm with for a few nights, who was very friendly, with a distinctively warm and inviting husky voice. She asked him the usual questions, but in a mature way, a person well practiced in the simple class of having manners and also one of those people who give off a warm and controlled aura by their own inner peace, so immersed and excited are they by their travels, almost as if the act of travel was their very own invention, an aura that made L feel lonely, in all honesty. To her inquiries, L showed her his drawing of the photo of the person he was looking for, to which she said in a low voice, ‘you’re a very talented illustrator,’ and then as an after thought, and with a slight smirk, ‘you should meet my daughter.’ This Canadian lady had a habit of standing by the window and gazing thoughtfully at the city lights, the traffic, the trains scuttling above the canal, the stars shining luminously with the onset of warmer nights, the lady smiling so warmly L could almost feel it, wanting to reach out and let her know he could feel it. Then she would fully undress in front of the whole town, revealing bronzed skin and lightly wrinkled skin that L felt went well with the lampshade shadow, and then she would put her nightgown on and read her book, within seconds returning to be a picture of maternal elegance. L would try not to watch her too much and instead he’d pretend to be absorbed in his own book, or he’d stare at his self made photo, or consult his map of Berlin, and take notes thoughtfully, but perhaps also pointlessly, for it was dark and what was he really doing here, and when would he have his own place, and get on with his work, and life, and so on, and so on, and then he’d indulge in strange fantasies…of meeting a rich German girl whose family would pay his way in Berlin, where perhaps he could abandon his obviously impossible task and live well, and be loved, and understood, and try to understand the world around him…
Other guests who shared his dorm included an old man from Libya with tubes in his nose. This Libyan man walked around with a breathing apparatus machine and had to be led around by his son. L said hello and then his son insisted that his father needed rest. Once by the vending machine downstairs, L made small talk with the son, who spoke excellent English. L contemplated showing him the photo but thought better of it, it just didn’t seem right. Then feeling confused at his current situation, L would go out for a while and hurl himself at a dozen city streets in a bid to ‘make contacts’ (why not start work now? It could all help). Yet S had set him up with no one.
There was no ‘Berlin connection’, no clues, save ‘the underworld’ and no contact from now on with S, Seymour or Terrence. So L, despite still in need of properly settling in and securing a room, decided that work in some form, might as well be attempted. During these late night expeditions and evacuations from the hostel, L would wander the cobblestone streets of the surrounding neighbourhood, passing Greek Tavernas, Currywurst stands, lunatics shouting things by the train station entrance, expat musicians busking earnestly; he’d enter empty Arabic bars by mistake, or he’d reside anonymously in the corner of the one or two hiving bars filled with the artier young crowds, L himself feeling shy and devoid of things to say (besides the totally uninteresting fact that he’d just arrived in Berlin). Ultimately these trips proved demoralising and would result in L listlessly ordering late night food, listening to any conversation in his vicinity (out of faint hope for any leads regarding to his mission, but also, if L was honest with himself, out of loneliness and sheer boredom). At the very best, perhaps he would exchange a couple of pleasantries with American tourists similarly lost and looking for somewhere ‘cool’ to hang out. L would come back later and the sick man from Libya would be snoring impossibly loudly due to his illness, his son scrolling through his glowing smartphone screen, no doubt playing a game of some sort, sometimes even having quiet conversations with someone in the dark. The Canadian mother would be asleep, wrapped up in her duvet, and his mind would wander and twist and doubt it all and long for tomorrow’s new dawn that he could already see creeping across the city’s noticeably bereft skyline.
When feeling low, and if the bar was still open, for it was actually open till fairly late, L would sometimes walk downstairs and pass the time with Rick. He’d say things to the barman like, ‘I just want to get started out here,’ to which Rick would reply, ‘it will happen man, it always happens man! It’s Berlin,’ and then they’d drink a Weissbier together, and L would listen to Rick and Marta’s pleasant and humorously meaningless interactions with one another, a sort of late night light flirtatious comedy show. Marta would notice L sometimes staring out into the distance, and she would smile sweetly, stroke his cheek and tell him not to worry so much, that he was just young.
On L’s last morning at East Of Eden, L shared a final coffee with Rick at the bar. The hostel was in full swing, people checking in and out, but the bar itself was relatively quiet, save for a few guests quietly having brunch by the sofa. Before L too finally checked out, he decided to open up to Rick about why he was in Berlin. Why did he do this? Perhaps it was an impulsive last shot in the dark before he walked back out into a world of strangers.
He told Rick that he was looking for someone.
‘Aren’t we all mate?’ Rick said with a grin, and L laughed, and then, after adding one spoon of sugar to his coffee, he then looked at Rick seriously and said,
‘No, Rick, I mean I’m really looking for someone. There’s someone in this city that I’ve been sent to find.’
Rick returned L’s serious stare with one of his own. Was the Australian alarmed? Perhaps. He was most certainly perplexed, and even started frowning.
‘L, I feel for ya buddy. I wish I could help, but I’m just a barman working at a hostel. And I don’t know what you’re on about.’
Then he laughed quite mechanically and pressed the steamer button on the bar’s coffee machine, the hiss of boiling water pouring out into his cup immediately halting the conversation, drowning out any possible attempt by L to explain things further.
Whilst Rick messed around and made noises with the coffee machine, L somewhat cautiously took out his drawing of the photograph and carefully placed it on the bar counter.
‘This is who I’m looking for,’ L said, when all was quiet at the bar again.
Rick sort of chuckled and took a glance at the picture.
‘This is him,’ Rick said to L, as he stared intently and indeed impenetrably at the photo for a few moments. With the photo still in his hands, he then said, ‘And what’s this all about? Who is he?’
L found himself feeling slightly on edge having to finally confide in someone any further as to why he was out here, and didn’t really know where to begin. ‘Well, I was hoping you could tell me, Rick, ‘ he began, in a faux confident tone that then descended into one far more anxious and lost sounding. ‘You seem to know a lot of people in this town. Well at least you must have – met a lot of people, that is. I don’t know who he is, but I have a feeling people in this town may know of him, or that, well, perhaps certain people know of him. Maybe he’s a singer, an actor, I don’t know, maybe even an artist.’ By this point, minute pools of perspiration had started to break out on L’s forehead and he felt himself colouring in confusion, or perhaps even fear, for a certain uneasiness hung about the place as he started speaking about the picture; Rick stood there listening, half distractedly, half intensely, L wasn’t sure, only sure that Rick was watching L’s every word with his eyes and seemingly familiar with it all…or perhaps L was just paranoid and damn tired and needed to finally move into that place of his own, which he would, as of today – that poor sick man coughing last night, I mean, how could one ever get any sleep with all that noise? He longed for a bed of his own. He longed for peaceful and progressive work, productivity, and normality, all of it.
‘An artiste even,’ Rick then said with a smile, and L smiled too, perhaps a little forcefully. Their corresponding smiles then started to strain, for just a fraction of a moment, and then L realised in an instant that Rick was just utterly confused and not really sure what L was on about, or who even L really was (indeed, who am I, when we stop to think about it?) and he breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Take it easy young lad, young L!’ Rick said playfully, and tapped him on the shoulder. L chuckled nervously and nodded.
‘I know, I just need some sleep.’
‘You need a Weissbier, that’s what you need,’ Rick said with a grin.
Rick handed him back his picture.
‘And why is it a drawing? Have you got a photo, or better yet, a name? I don’t get it. You’re working for someone right?’
A brief flicker of self-preservation returned to L, or perhaps a lighter dose of paranoia, something that he felt was in his interests to always keep with him. You see, Rick meant well, but why was he now asking all these questions? Was he working for anyone, Rick had even asked. What was L supposed to say that? Just give the whole game away? Yes, Rick meant well but didn’t need to know everything. Or rather, L didn’t need to be talking too much about these kind of details. He remembered S’s rallying cry of not letting anyone know why he was there, or where he had come from, or who had sent him, take your pick of which maze to head into, of what dense labyrinth to delve blindly down. What was the final destination? A contemporary abyss, or a road to the underground promised land? L fiddled with his coffee and spilt some of it on the bar. Then L simply shook his head, and opted for simplicity, and said quietly and somewhat sympathetically that he just needed to find this person, that it was important for him.
Rick nodded, then disinterestedly served a customer and L took his drawing back from the bar. He sat there on his stool uncomfortably and watched as Rick then selected some form of obnoxiously upbeat house music and lost himself in the rhythm of the triviality of his tasks behind the bar. In a fit of desperation, L then started saying, do you have any suggestions? Perhaps a place where people hang out? An underground type place I figured? Maybe he’s a criminal for all I know. I just…don’t know anyone. But does he not, he looks like someone, no?…of an artistic temperament, maybe a singer, an actor. Oh I don’t know. L’s voice wavered and quivered by the end and he suddenly felt rather hopeless. He was talking too much and it was obvious that it was starting to get on Rick’s nerves. Why couldn’t L just let poor old Rick get on with his job? After this coffee he’d be done with hostels for good and could begin his real persona, rather than this desperate boy bloodthirsty for information. He was actually ready to leave his coffee and evacuate the building, head bowed in his own imagined disgrace, when Rick said, almost as a challenge,
‘Why don’t you go down to Kotti? Maybe someone there knows about your ‘underground man’?’
Rick was by now feigning to be very busy. ‘Kotti’s Kottbosser Tor. It’s in Kreuzberg. It’s probably the most fucked up area of Berlin. A heroin spot, police, hipsters, expats, gangs, criminals, junkies, you name it. I do love it though. Everyone loves Kotti. I’d go there mate. There you could at least experience some of the real Berlin, and who knows, maybe some crazy guy might con you into thinking he knows the guy in your picture! Haha I’m joking, give it a try. Everyone passes through Kotti at some point in their time out here in Berlin, that’s for sure. It all leads to Kotti – there you go, there’s the start of your book. You should write a book L, about a man…looking for a picture of a man…haha I’m just messing.’
L nodded and listened in awe. He then chuckled. ‘Yeah, sure. Hey, you said, ‘the real Berlin’. What’s that?’
‘Well real Berliners don’t hang out in hostels now do they? Just Aussies like me!’ Rick chuckled, and the warmth returned to his smile, and L felt sad to be leaving the hostel all of the sudden. Nevertheless he finished his coffee promptly and within minutes was on the street heading to Kotti, the awkward final encounter with Rick all but now a distant memory.
KOTTI: IT STARTS TO MAKE SENSE FOR L
Upon arrival at Kotti, L was under no illusions that if anyone knew something about his photo, or drawing, it would be someone here, or at least someone who was somehow connected here. ‘Don’t rush it though’, L told myself. This would just be a scouting operation, for how foolish would it be if he were to blow his cover within weeks?
L, somewhat in a trance, explored the area around Oranienstr, which in itself was a mini metropolis of signs and cultures. Everywhere were signs for burgers, currywurst, Thai, Vietnamese, Fish, Doner, Fallafel, and there were strangely empty Internet cafes and sheesha bars where Turkish men proudly sat outside and observed the street. There were also many arty cafes of a hipster inclination amongst all this, where young freelancers and artists sat immaculately dressed in either in all-in-black minimalist attire, or downright provocative clothing more akin to costumes: at times, L wasn’t quite sure where to look, or where to stop.
Oranienstr was indeed a long road flooded with action and with surprisingly tall buildings and, back then, refugee camps that bordered the platz. The locals were drinking beer for breakfast and L saw several students and artists smoking things besides cigarettes in the morning. Then, amongst all the almost deafening noise of traffic, music and the very streets themselves, something happened to him: L stared up at the street and suddenly felt very positive about his mission; in fact, never would he feel so sure that he would find what he was looking for, then in that moment. L decided that he should take it easy, that this town was more or less a game, and there were simply rules (and showing Australian barmen drawings of someone you were looking for wasn’t one of them). L would have to work his way through the underground. He saw a sign for a solo performance that was taking place in Neukölln in a Hungarian bar that very night and felt compelled to go there. It was all connected. L wrote down the details frantically and with a manic sense of excitement. Cars tooted their horns and someone yelled at him to get out the way of the cycle lanes. Somehow it was all making sense, somehow, despite no real evidence, L felt that certain dots were connecting with each other.
L went deeper into the Kotti area. Proud little bicycles hogged the lanes – to L, everyone seemed to be acting like precocious kids. He saw all the closed punk bars and imagined everyone sitting out on the curbs in the summer drinking till sunrise, making plans, for the day after tomorrow. Then L saw a cameraman that seemed to simply be filming ‘Berlin’ or the street, and he expertly avoided his face being caught on camera, for despite his excitement, he also felt somewhat uneasy, or perhaps the adrenaline of the mission and the reality of it was catching up with him, after being somewhat bogged down in hostels. L then quickened his step as he walked through the Zentrum housing estate, which was quite remarkable in its garishly brutal design. Around were dozens of street types all puffing on cigarettes, both on the ground and staring out the window of their 10 story apartments, hundreds of balconies all with deranged TV ariels sticking out like knife traps.
He then discovered a tiny fish restaurant amongst all this and had his best meal of the trip so far, a fresh salmon soup with a loaf of bread for four euros, whist homeless people and drug addicts circled by like limping spiders, some even approaching him whilst he ate and thrusting out their hands for coins, at which L shook his head nervously.
After his meal, L crossed the street and felt that he’d seen enough. As he made his way through the square by the station, there were protests going on. All he could hear and make out were megaphones, Turks, Arabs and Germans complaining about the state of Berlin or society in general. He saw the word gentrification with a deathly skull attached to it on one huge banner. He then noticed the polizei cars parked nearby but felt no fear for their presence: clearly he had nothing to worry about from them with all this going on, and this was only eleven in the morning. A couple of gruesome looking hobos nearly bumped into him, and he stared briefly at their rubber faces and dull leather jackets, and the brown bottles of beer they clutched resolutely. L was under no illusions that the place was rife with hard drugs and criminal activity and tried his best not stare at the gutters. He made his way past the fruit and veg markets, the dealers and gangsters cracking jokes and smoking their thin cigars, mumbling incoherent things to him as they did so, and he walked past all this noise and mayhem, and he made his way down Kottbosser Damm, attracted by what seemed to be a bridge in the distance, and it was here that he landed in Neukölln , and where his work truly began.
WESER: L DRINKS MEZCAL IN THE AFTERNOON WITH TITO
After dropping his bags at his new sublet apartment on Stuttgarter Str, (the ten minutes or so he spent there such a blur of relief and new beginnings that by the time he left his new place he couldn’t realy remember what it looked like), L immediately began exploring the streets of Neukölln on foot for several hours.
He found his new surroundings fascinating and felt a mysterious sense of deja-vu. He was almost certain that the person he was looking for had also walked these exact same streets; how long ago he wasn’t sure. He could even have been walking them that very same day for all L knew.
It was by now late afternoon, and L headed into a bar in Weserstr, which on first glance, was ran by somewhat of an eccentric albeit endearing Mexican family. There was a slightly elderly lady, an old man who sat in the back nearly asleep, and then two sons, Tito and Pablo, who energetically moved around the organising things at the bar, squeezing lemon juice, preparing syrup for cocktails, and cleaning ashtrays. As the sky grew dark, the two elderly people, who L presumed to be Tito and Pablo’s parents, nodded at L fondly as a farewell and then spoke in thick Mexican to their sons, and then they kissed their sons and nodded once more at L again.
Tito seemed to be the man in charge. He was perhaps in his early thirties, fairly thick set, had a small pony tail and several tattoos all over his arms. People would walk by on the street and call out his name and say, ‘Hey Tito’, or ‘Hey Pablo’ and they would both say, ‘wassup!’ and then turn the hip hop music even louder, nodding their heads incessantly. Clearly they were local neighbourhood favourites and L was certain that they knew many people around this town, perhaps even the man in his photograph,
Soon Pablo left and the bar was empty save for L and Tito. L sat at the bar and attempted to make small talk, perhaps remarking on the weather. It did not matter; after opening his mouth, Tito became a huge fan of L and proceeded to become fast friends with him. He liked L’s London accent and insisted they drink a shot of Mezcal for London. Tito drummed his hands incessantly on the bar table and his eyes darted about in a frenzy of such restlessness that L figured may not have been natural. Yet Tito was friendly and constantly laughing. Then they also drank a shot because it was soon to be Friday night. L blurted out that he was looking for someone, though not timidly as he had done with Rick, this time actually even quite brazenly, and Tito didn’t flinch or change his smile, and seemed naturally interested.
‘Who that be then?”
‘This guy,’ L said and handed him over the picture.
Tito stared at it whilst bopping his head to the music and then, tapping on the bar counter said, ‘come back tomorrow. My bookkeeper comes back from his holiday and probably knows him.’
L couldn’t believe his luck. ‘Really!’ he almost yelled, unable to hide his excitement, and Tito winked and poured another Mezcal.
By the time L stumbled out of Tito’s bar, he felt full of energy. He had drank four shots of mescal and three beers within a space of an hour and half, and felt blind with confidence. He proceeded to make his way to the concert he had seen advertised at the Hungarian bar, back when he had been blindly wandering the streets of Kotti like a newly arrived refugee – it had been some hours ago but to L it felt like months already – blame it on the shots and beer, but now L felt like a citizen of Berlin, and not just a hostel guest. He even could feel his senses instinctively scouring the streets and all peoples before him, taking information efficiently and with the assurance that things were progressing. You could even say that he walked with a loose drunken happiness, convinced fate was propelling him to early success with his mission, a mission though that now would be somewhat tragic if completed so early, what with such fun out here to be had. Perhaps he’d drag it out a bit. L liked Berlin.
He bought himself a beer from the Späti. Indeed, that’s what everyone seemed to doing out here, no matter what the time, so L did the same and drank in the street with perhaps even a swagger in his stride, excitedly heading to Zone, the name of the Hungarian bar with the live concert he had seen advertised earlier in Kotti that day.
As he left the neon lit hub of Weserstr, the streets grew more dimly lit and empty, save for kids hustling around, setting off firecrackers. The roads now changed from hiving noisy avenues to dark lanes that seemed to all look the same. L found himself walking blindly along a continuous procession of gambling halls, casinos and Turkish bars and internet cafes, with men earnestly working inside, chatting loudly amongst themselves or playing cards. Beggars would walk by and confront L quite desperately for money, and they looked in terrible states but he felt wary of getting his money out around there and getting involved with these people, for L had the notion that everyone seemed to be watching or connected somehow, that the gangsters knew the junkies, and the store owners knew the gangsters, and so on, that least being his thinking. He felt like he was in the less ridiculous and quieter backstage of Kotti, but Neukölln’s darker edges, whilst not as garish, carried with them a lulling sense of foreboding decay just as precarious to any newcomes straying from the confines of their hostel.
Soon L found Zone, which had no sign or name written by the entrance, but it was obvious that this was the place L had been searching for. Upon entrance, Zone initially seemed to disappointedly be just a well lit bar, and L saw no sign of a concert about to take place. L was languidly greeted by a couple of Italian artsy looking guys all dressed in black, who said it was ten euros entrance. L paid the money somewhat confusedly, and they stamped his hand with a ticket with those superior grins and nods.
The bar seemed relatively empty and L walked around, almost alone in this small room that claimed to be a bar, and glanced back at the Italian boys for a confirmation of some sort. Then of course he realised that all the action and music was coming from what must have been a basement or cellar, which now when L concentrated, was clearly concealed through a misplaced cupboard trapdoor. One of the Italian guys grinned and said, ‘downstairs man.’ And L nodded, feeling a rush as he crept through the trap door and headed down the metallic dirty stairs, saying thank you to the Italians, smiling as he imagined himself suavely showing them his drawing later, and heading underground to conflicting sounds of noise and order.
He arrived in what seemed to be a narrow though long basement of different rooms and chambers. It was dimly lit save for neon signs that advertised rooms or places that turned out to be falsely labelled, such as ‘conference room’ or ‘staff only.’ In one room people were playing Ping-Pong, in another, a middle-aged man was singing in an American cowboy accent. He was surrounded by a dozen or so revellers. L listened, and quickly gathered that the man in the cowboy hat was singing a song about Berlin. With a heavy southern drawl, he’d croon, ‘First we take Manhattan, than we take Berlin’, the rest L couldn’t make out, though he presumed it was a cover, seeing as a couple of people were warmly singing a long or nodding with impressed familiarity.
Then L had to pass through another corridor that divided itself into two sections. First there was a dark room where L could distantly make out that people were openly caressing each other, one of two even going beyond that, whilst others that L passed were talking to each other in broken English accents with wide eyed animation, huddled together in secret. L then proceeded to a second and much larger room, and was confronted by what seemed to be a 70’s porn film, or at least a projector showing an old movie with a man and a woman listlessly and almost mechanically doing one another over and over again, and in this room, as the movie played, thirty or so more or less naked people were sitting and watching with what appeared to L to be bored petulance, rolling cigarettes and laughing occasionally. ‘Do you still believe in sex?’ Someone, his eyes wide eyed and almost rolling, blurted at L, and a couple of the onlookers laughed. Then he said, ‘Do you still believe in fucking?’ L ignored the man and walked on. He didn’t understand what was going on: everything ‘seemed’ to be something it wasn’t, almost on purpose. ‘Fucking is love,’ the man was saying with a slur, and by now some of the onlookers were trying to get him to be quiet. L then asked the nearest person where the Hungarian concert was taking place, and the person pointed to a door with a ‘fire escape’ sign on it but with ‘fire’ crossed out.
L walked through the ‘Escape’ door, and after walking down a lowly lit corridor for about a minute, soon found that it was as if he was now in a whole different place, even wilder in design and aesthetic than the basement labyrinth he had just navigated through.
Suddenly the ceilings grew to almost preposterous heights, and a band was playing on a stage in the distance. L studied his surroundings and could only liken it to an underground airport hanger, or some sort of abandoned military airbase, almost turned upside down and taken over by mayhem. The hall was filled with perhaps more than five hundred people, maybe a thousand, of varying ages, simultaneously watching the show, partying, posing, but most distinctly, at least as far as L was concerned, by simply being there, these people were all part of an even bigger show.
ESCAPE FROM BERLIN: L MEETS CAGEY
Somewhat bewildered, L headed to the bar to order a drink.
‘What’s the name of the band?’ L asked, to which the barmaid stared at him and then served someone else.
‘They’re called Escape From Berlin,’ the man next to L said, somewhat mischievously, and then burst out laughing.
L laughed too, confused.
‘But they’re from Brooklyn or some shit!’ he added, incredulously. ‘Maybe they’re telling us that we all need to escape from Berlin! Har har har!’
‘I’m Cagey’, the man said, and offered out his hand. ‘Don’t worry about her,’ he said, motioning with his eyes to the barmaid, ‘it’s a German thing…har har har!’
He then glanced around mischievously again to see if anyone had heard and then murmured to L, ‘I don’t care, it’s the truth, Germans, you know, they’re like that…’
L nodded, trying to keep up. Cagey was dressed in a wild flowered sixties style shirt and had a punk leather jacket on that looked as if it had seen a few hard living winters. He had dyed black hair that was slightly receding which he combed back every now and then with his hands. L reckoned he must have been at least forty years old.
Then L glanced at the band, Escape From Berlin, which consisted of four people. They were made up of an immediately striking and beautiful female singer, and to her left, another woman wearing reading glasses, earnestly playing synths. To the singer’s right was a man with round sunglasses, covered in tattoos, working on a laptop, and behind her was an effeminate young man playing drums with an ironic smile, but it was the singer L concentrated on, almost staring in a trance, and temporarily even forgetting where he was.
She had short dyed red hair cut in what seemed to be a ‘retro’ style from the sixties, complete with an almost provocatively styled fringe, and she wore shiny silver trousers, with matching boots, and a leopard print shirt that swung loosely around her as she moved. As not much of a musical connoisseur, (L preferred films), he couldn’t understand much about her music, (her vocals and indeed all of the music being played was almost completely drenched in reverb) but it somehow reminded him aesthetically of Blade Runner, one of L’s favourites, so L decided that he loved it; that he loved her; and it was clear that the people in the club also loved her; and he loved them too; and they all floated in a trance to her voice that sounded almost as if they were coming from out of space.
L snapped out of his trance to find the Cagey character grinning at L knowingly.
‘She’s gotcha!’ He said, and L laughed.
‘What’s her name?’
Cagey puffed on his elaborately designed electronic cigarette.
‘She’s called Anita. Anita Haag.’
‘I’m L,’ L said.
‘Nice to meet ya, L. How do you spell that? Is it like the French pronoun, or is it just a letter?’
‘I believe it’s just a letter,’ L said innocently.
‘That’s cool,’ Cagey said, nodding and thoughtfully smoking his electronic cigarette.
‘What ya doing in town kid?’ He asked, stroking back his hair.
‘Oh you know,’ L said, swigging his beer and trying to blend in. ‘I just got here, from London.’
‘And ya picked a good time for it too. Man I love Berlin in the summer, Berlin in the spring…It’s a brilliant place when the sun’s out. I come from South Dakota, so we go back there every winter. Berlin winters…you don’t wanna know man, wait till you have your first.’
Cagey then gestured at Escape From Berlin and said, ‘I played bass on the original recording of this track. It’s like her hit, or ‘their hit’ should I say – don’t want to belittle the band now eh! Har har! Yeah Anita’s great. She used to do sweet folky stuff, real trippy stuff with French lyrics and shit. You should have seen her three or four years back. A real virginial princess, you know? You like princesses? (L laughed) Yeah..,and then she fell in love with Ricky – you met Ricky yet? No? Ricky Joyless. He’s probably here tonight (At least I saw some of his cronies, hangin’ out back). Yeah, now she’s a bit of a wreck. I mean, she looks great, she sings great, but… - and she’s a great…person , don’t get me wrong (seriously, one of the most warm hearted people you’ll ever meet). But yeah, I dunno, even the music. She’s a bit fucked up, you know? I mean so am I, we’re all a bit fucked up (Cagey ordered a drink in a strange German accent to the barmaid that made L chuckle to himself), but there’s like a death…thing about her now. Big into drugs, (hey, I dabble, but Anita’s with the wrong people, that’s for sure). Mainly Ricky’s fault, (but keep that between us – even though everyone know’s it). He’s trouble if I ever saw it.’
‘Oh yeah? How so?’
Cagey’s face suddenly changed and he looked around and then said, in a dramatic, conspiratorial tone: ‘There’s something going on.’
‘What’s going on?’
Cagey looked around again, disagreed with himself a few times, and then said, ‘okay,’ and began talking in an excited tone.
‘It’s hard to make sense of it, to understand it. And it’s weird how musicians now are getting caught up in this kind of… all right let me start again, har har har! Excuse me. So there’s people going missing, and guys walking around asking about people. Ricky’s made friends with the wrong people and owes them big. Like I’m talking big fucking money. Something about favours. And a lost guy, boy (artist or some sort), who disappeared, and yeah, whoever finds him, there’s a ransom being set up or something. But that’s just one kinda…dimension to the sheer labrynthian (is that a word?) underground maze that runs out here. I mean, kid, look around this place (L looked around). Do you think this is all for show? You think it’s just hipsters from New York and London who run the new Berlin culture, the clubs and bars and endless new shit that the city is more or less spitting out everyday? Certain people that we’ll never really get to even see are arriving en masse and yeah, they see the cash, and sure, they don’t care if they have to stain it with blood, you know what I mean? Stain it with this modern fucked up system, a way of thinking, not even blood, though sure that’s connected. Blood and dust, that’s all you’ll find in this underworld, L. This scene. Most of it’s already stained with blood, so what’s the difference! har har har! But hey, there’s enough blood and dust that can be found in any wall of Berlin that goes back lifetimes before you and I stumbled off the plane, you know what I mean? The real people behind all this you don’t know, I don’t know, no one knows, but some people do know, or, there’s rumours. The odd name. Faces. Then they disappear with the dust, with the blood. The people you do see are gangsters, dealers, musicians, sometimes people who are all three of these things at the same time! Like charracters in a play, puppets on a string. Har har! Or the old guard. Cos it’s just old German fucks, old Berliner dudes, and everyone knows they don’t have that much money, maybe some of the wise cats who bought property back in the nineties do (now look at them). People used to say, there’s no money in Berlin. No economy. That’s changing faster than Anita’s next powerchord, believe you me! I heard there’s a guy who owns half of Friedrichschain and half of the most famous clubs in Berlin, and by association, the world. It’s a monopoly board out here kid, disguised as a playground. Simply being a musician in this town aint like it is in the old days, but that’s another topic and the lord knows there’s enough rants about social media going on tonight all over the goddam continent by drunker and more cynical fucks than me (but hey, I actually like social media! Har har!). There’s just a lot of angles. You got all kinds of new people walking these streets and sizing it up, it’s like a secret war going on, that aint even kicked off yet, but don’t worry, it will, and soon too. I mean imminently. That’s why I’m moving to Athens, man. ”
Cagey paused for a moment, then nodded, and then said, almost embarrassedly, ‘sorry, that all got away from me a bit at the end there,’ and then cracked up in laughter once more. L pretended to calmly take all this information in.
‘Ricky Joyless,’ he said with a wry smile.
‘Yeah, Ricky,’ Cagey said, puffing on his electronic cigarette. ‘If he aint here tonight, then he’ll be here another night and I’m sure you’ll quickly work out that he aint simply just a hip musician dude from Australia.’
‘And he drinks like a fish!’ Cagey said, almost as a joke. ‘Don’t go drinking with him kid, I did and ended up nearly losing a tooth.”
“That’s a long story, but let’s just say it was something to do with a disagreement over ‘grunge’).’ He dragged on his electronic cigarette passionately now, seeming to be once more flabbergasted about the incident he just spoke off.
‘And they’re no longer together? What does he do?’ L asked.
Cagey drank his beer. ‘He’s like, the main man around here, you know, a real rockstar dude. What an asshole, har har! I think he even owns a stake in this club. Bit of a gangster too. Bit of a nasty piece of work in general. The great ones always are though, right? I mean look at the Stones. Anyway, are they still together? Who, the Stones? Har har har! Yes they are, I saw them last month in Munich. I’m fooling around. Ricky and Anita. Yeah I believe they were engaged. I think they’re back together again. They’re always like that. On and off, on and off. I’ve had relationships like that. They’re tough to leave. They’re a real ‘it’ couple though, you know what I mean? Aint that fucking horrible! Har har har!’ Cagey thought for a moment. ‘Anyway, it’s their business, I shouldn’t be telling you about this, but hey, most people around here hang off their every word. Especially Ricky, he kinda run things around here. I’m just a tourist,’ Cagey said, winking, ‘I have my good time then get the fuck out of here and go back to South Dakota, with my wife and kid.’
L listened and throughout Cagey’s stories watched the band, or more specifically, he watched Anita.
‘How do you know about this place anyway?’ Cagey asked, then added, ‘if you don’t mind me asking, that is.’
L couldn’t think of an answer and decided to be honest and said, ‘I saw a poster for a concert in a Hungarian bar in Kotti, and ended up here.’
Cagey cracked up with more ‘har har har’s’. ‘No way ! You Hungarian?’
‘No,’ L said.
Cagey nodded. ‘Please lead me to this Hungarian bar though, that sounds great! Hungarians huh? Now they’re a handful. But they’re great. I had a Hungarian ex one, a real, real…a handful let’s say, Har Har Har! But that fire,’ Cagey said, moving his hands around and widening his eyes. ‘It’s great for sex.’
Then they both laughed and Cagey said, ‘Anyway, it’s great. It’s great that you made it over here anyway. Welcome to Berlin. (then in a heavy German accent) Herzlich willkommen, as if any locals are gonna tell you that! Har har har!’
‘Yeah, this place is like nothing I’ve seen.’
‘I love it,’ Cagey said. ‘I use to live here. Used to sleep by the big fireplace.’ Cagey then blinked a few times, and said, ‘you know the big fireplace?’
L hadn’t seen it but nodded somewhat reassuringly.
Then they watched the band for a moment.
‘She is incredible, though,’ L said wistfully.
Cagey cracked up. ‘Tell me something I don’t know man! Yeah she’s a real trip, that’s for sure.’
‘You know her personally?’
Cagey thought for a moment, and then said, ‘Yeah, sure. We party together (when Ricky’s not around), har har har! He goes on tour a lot, she’s like, she’s like a sister, you know? A younger sister. I could be her father, man.’
Cagey continued. ‘But I never tell my wife I’m going to her gigs, ‘cos she knows what Anita’s like too. Heck, I never tell my wife anything anymore, har har har!’
‘You make music too?’ Cagey then asked.
‘No, I’m just a fan. I appreciate music. I appreciate artists,’ L said, simply and honestly.
‘Ah, right on.’
‘What about you?’
‘Yeah, in various bands and projects. Play bass, drums, guitar. Sometimes all at the same time! Man I should be drunker than this. My wife’s got the kid and they’re at her father’s. What do you want, L? I’m buying.’
‘I don’t mind, a beer?’
“Na come on, what would you like? Something special?”
L smiled. ‘Well, I was in a bar earlier, and this guy, Tito, he gave me loads of Mezcal, you ever had that? It’s like Tequila, but-’
‘Ah Tito! And his crazy brother Paolo. Yeah I know those guys (fucking maniacs I’ll tell you that!). But yeah Mezkal, sure. That stuff’ll get you going, that’s for sure. Why don’t we have one now?’
Cagey and L drank the Mezcal and then watched the rest of the band closer from the audience. By now L knew he was drunk. He knew talking to Cagey had been revelatory and that business about people disappearing, about a ransom, and about someone lost was very interesting information indeed, so he consciously stored it in his brain and felt the best policy was to keep up this happy go lucky act and go further down the rabbit hole. Cagey was endearing, if not a loose cannon and someone who spoke a lot; what was true and what were the words of a rambling man from Texas, L couldn’t safely say. It was all a muddle, yet L was certain he was in the right place, and among the right people. The mission could be over within a week. L felt like celebrating. Tomorrow he would meet Tito’s book keeper, who would no doubt confirm Cagey’s ramblings and then (most likely at a price) lead him to wherever the man in the photograph lived. L moved his head in rhythm to the industrial spaced out music, and watched Anita provocatively incite the crowd by strolling by the edge of the stage, and grinning madly at each corner of the front row. And L was not feeling out of his depth in the slightest, which was strange and was perhaps the most intoxicating part of the night for him. Normally, in nightclubs in and with people like Cagey, L would have felt completely out of place, yet something about tonight had changed in him. He looked around and felt that everyone around him accepted him for who he was. And why would they not? Like them, he had come to Berlin with a goal, a mission, and here he was gloriously losing himself with them, joining their ranks and channelling their own desire, which seemed to be a strong and concerted will to procrastinate, effortlessly, darkly and impossibly, throwing all their practical aims and projects onto a tightrope, a rope bridge that could and hopefully would fall down with everyone and everything into the depths that they all danced above. As the music played, he heard a thought in his mind ask himself, Who am I? and no thought answered back: he positively didn’t know. ‘You’re here on behalf of S to find him.’ He sipped his beer. ‘And if not, be him’. L chuckled at this and as he longingly stared at Anita, he felt himself falling through a soft, elegantly arranged spider’s web, and some nilhilistic part of him embraced this web, and it seemed to spread L on all fours, impatient for the ceremony to begin. Essentially, L was drunk and lost in Zone, but he strangely decided he didn’t mind what would happen in Berlin, with his life, with his work, at least, for the time being.
Anita’s concert was winding down. Cagey tapped L on the shoulder and said, ‘hey, you have any speed?’
To this L replied casually, ‘not on me tonight man,’ and Cagey laughed and patted him on the back and L laughed too. They nevertheless went to the bathroom and in the urinals spoke more about Anita.
‘Anita is, is incredible,’ L said.
Cagey laughed. ‘Yeah I know, you said that when I met ya! Hey I say we go hang out with her. I’ll introduce you if you like.’
‘That would be awesome,’ L said, feeling suddenly nervous.
Cagey fooled around in front of the mirror, slapping water onto his face and cracking up about something. He then put on an Elvis rockabilly voice and said, ‘you ready cats?’ L stared at himself in the mirror too. In the neon light he couldn’t really make out anything but he seemed to have a nonchalant glint in his eye that surprised him. ‘Ready’, L said.
L MEETS ANITA HAAG
Cagey and L then returned to their place at the bar, where Anita was now residing with a fur coat that made her look like an exotic bird.
She turned around and upon seeing Cagey and L, smiled warmly and said, ‘Cagey! How are you my darling,’ kissing him on each cheek and then pinching him on the nose.
‘I’m doin’, Cagey said. ‘How are you? That was a great show by the way. Hey this is L.’
‘Thank you my darling,’ she then turned to L, and accepted L’s hand as if it were a precious stone. She pretended to be shy as she shook it, and in a low voice said, ‘Hi L. How do you do?’
‘I’m doin’ too. Great show, you’re a real, great, great performer. I thought it was great. Incredible, even.’
She smiled and her eyes narrowed mischievously. Up close, L found her almost devastating: she was suddenly a lot more fragile. There was an almost child like vulnerability that took refuge behind flashy gestures and that sing-song voice she used in conversation.
‘Why thank you, L’, she was saying, ‘But if it’s one thing I’ve learnt in this town, it’s that we’re all performing one way or another…Do you perform L? And are you performing now?’
L just nodded as Anita held his eye contact. He broke it and felt very out of his depth.
‘L likes Mezkal,’ Cagey blurted out, then did his laugh.
‘Is this true, L?’
L smiled embarrassedly. ‘As of today, like your music, I’m an avid fan of Mezcal.’
Anita then pinched L gently on the nose and then said to Cagey, whilst still smiling at L, ‘Oh, isn’t he sweet? You’re like a lost new puppy in town, am I right Cage?’
Cagey cracked up, and L laughed too, bizarrely nodding. Cagey then took a swig of beer and nonchalantly said, ‘he’s a charming guy, what are you gonna do?’
‘What are we gonna do L?’ Anita said.
By now Anita’s effortless flirting and teasing with L had made him colour with embarrassment, so he said, ‘I say we drink Mezcal.’
Cagey laughed. So did Anita.
‘That’s just what I was thinking,’ Cagey said and Anita smiled at L one last time, in that cat like trance way of hers.
‘Hows tricks?’ Cagey asked her, as he ordered the drinks.
Anita stole a moment to check her makeup. ‘Tricks? I thought you said how’s Ricky? Better ask him, not me.’
‘You guys aint talking?’
‘You know Rick?’ L asked, thinking of his Australian barkeeper friend at the hostel, though neither responded, and then L heard Anita say, in a sudden sad and faraway tone, ‘Not good, just not good.’
Then the shots arrived. Anita said ‘yayyy’ like a sweet child and then whispered something in Cagey’s ear, which Cagey said, ‘Na I don’t have anything either, but we can sort that out,’ and then raised his eyebrows mischievously with a grin.
Then Cagey lifted his glass,, and Anita and L followed, and Cagey simply said, ‘the night is young’, and they all downed the Mezcal. Cagey then went to make a phone call.
Anita then said into L’s ear, ‘Come on, let’s find somewhere to sit. We need to talk,’ and then she took L by the hand and they found a quiet booth, which had an old looking black leather sofa and a coffee table with an Oriental design. A broken looking piano resided in the corner.
They sat closely together, and Anita stared at L expectantly, her head resting on her hands. Then suddenly she smiled to herself, as if she had been here before and knew what would happen next.
‘So, what’s the story L. That’s a strange name too. I wish I could simply be called by a letter.’
‘I arrived here a few weeks ago,’ L began. He then said, ‘I’m like an alien whose crashlanded, I know nothing,’ adopting a bizarre act quite unfamiliar to him, perhaps to appeal to Antia’s ambiguous, wilder, artistic side. It seemed to work, she smiled, in a trance.
‘What a nice London accent you have L.’
‘Thanks... Where are you from?’
Anita’s smile evaporated, and she then spoke in a bored monotone, as if she was reciting a list.
‘Brooklyn. Moved here four years ago. I’m a rock n roll singer, L, how dreadful does that sound? And I make money! I have a booking agent, and I have tens of thousands of followers, who like photos of me in restaurants. This is what I have become. It’s awful. I’m awful. I just came back from tour. Tour life. Horrid. It’s awful. We were in Austria, Serbia, Poland, and even in Croatia of all places. Bla bla bla, boring.’
She lit a cigarette. ‘I suppose you make music too? Everyone makes music in this town these days, I’m sick of it.’ Anita smoked petulantly for a moment, having somehow briefly upset herself, and then within seconds, the lazy cat smile returned and L didn’t know what to say. He decided to just look at her, which she found amusing.
‘You know there’s something familiar about you, L. I haven’t quite worked you out, but don’t you worry, I will.’