Archive for July 5th, 2008

-23 June 1997
I met Jürgen, from Germany, in New York this week. Half Polish. Half Czech. We look very similar. We talked for hours. Drank beer. Smoked.

It had been unusually hot in New York that week and when I arrived at the apartment it was obvious that no one had been there for days. Everything was in its place and it was as if the tightness created by the heat had simply forced everything in the apartment to remain exactly as it was. Still. Suffocated.

Too hot to remain inside, I turned on the air conditioning, unpacked, changed clothes and walked to a bar on 7th Avenue. Heat radiated up from the pavement, out from the brick buildings and at six p.m, from above as well.

The humidity was present even in the air conditioned bar. Sweat formed on the beer bottle as the bartender uncapped it. Cold beer tastes good when its humid. I changed a five dollar bill for singles and put a couple bucks in the juke box then returned to my bar stool and ordered another.

Behind me in the back of the bar sat a man who looked quite similar to me and I noticed him while I was at the juke box. We had the same haircut, the same mustache, similarly shaped nose and eyes and about the same build. He sat alone as well, drinking a beer at a small square table.

When I looked at him he looked back. His face showed no emotion. He didn’t move and he didn’t say anything – he just looked at me each time I looked at him. The resemblance was uncanny.

I ordered another beer and walked back to his table. I introduced myself. I told him that I thought it was quite interesting that we looked enough a like to be mistaken for twins. He told me that he had thought the same thing. I hadn’t expected to hear an accent. He told me that he was German. Visiting New York for the first time. I told him that I was German on my father’s side.
“And on your mother’s side?” he asked.
“Polish and Czech.”

He told me that he lived in Wiesbaden and I knew of Wiesbaden because of the military base. A friend from high school had been stationed there.
“Were you in Berlin when the wall came down?” From the television in Salt Lake I watched the night that the wall came down and called my friend Roger, half suggesting that we fly to Berlin in the morning and half hoping that he’d say yes.

Jürgen hadn’t been in Berlin that night. He had worked all night, then went straight to bed in the morning when he arrived home. When he awoke that afternoon, he listened to reports on the radio of the night’s events.
“When people heard that the wall had come down, many went to Berlin but I did not.”

The wall had come down eight years prior but I remembered it as if it were yesterday – never imagining that I’d see such a thing. Now I found myself in New York talking to a German who had thought the same thing. I ordered more beer and we continued talking. I was fascinated. Hours passed.

-27 July 1997
I arrived in Frankfurt on schedule despite leaving New York ninety minutes late. Jürgen met me as planned and we took the train from the airport to Wiesbaden. Jürgen is from East Germany. So the story he told me about the wall coming down had more impact than ever. While he was watching it on TV, he was also about to feel the impact of it. He showed me pictures of his life in the East, with a story of his first boyfriend who went on vacation to Czechoslovakia, then to Austria and then into West Germany. I had forgotten about that specific migration, but remember seeing the pictures of the huge numbers of people taking that route from East to West. These events happened as the Soviet Union began to collapse, the problems in Czechoslovakia began and immediately prior to the wall coming down. While I was startled by watching the news, Jürgen was was startled by his friends doing it.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were from the East?”
“It’s not that important,” he told me. “And some people are not so happy about us being here now.”
“Being where now?”
“Living in the West. They think we’ve come to take their jobs.”

Jürgen had been a solider in the GDR. He used to march against fascism along the wall as part of his military duty. He told me that he hated having to do that. Because a medical excuse was the only way to be excused, he poured a pot of boiling water on his feet once and claimed that it was an accident.

-01 September 1997
Berlin. Came to see the Gate and the East. Princess Dianna was killed yesterday. The result of a car accident in Paris. We went to a couple of East-Berlin bars last night. We were at a small bar with tables outside. A quiet neighborhood. A quiet bar. It was as if everyone there, and there were only a few, were “waiting”. Waiting for something. The neighborhood seemed to be waiting. It had been waiting since it was built. And now it was waiting again for help. Money and repairs. It may come in time. But so much is needed and I can’t imagine the work ever being completed.

For several months Jürgen and I traveled back and forth to see one another. Each time I arrived in Frankfurt he was waiting for me. We traveled to Berlin together. Stayed with some of his friends from the East. We attended a party hosted by East German artists – we arrived by taxi, walked a block and then turned the corner.

We visited his parents who lived in a small town an hour north of Berlin. They lived in one of the prefabricated concrete apartment blocks that had been erected away from the center of the original village. Jürgen took me past the apartment where he used to live. Past the butcher shop and the bakery where people used to line up early in the morning for whatever might be available. It was one of the benefits of working the night shift he told me.
“I could get in line early in the morning if I needed to.”

When we traveled to New York it was in Business Class and Jürgen was wide-eyed and attentive. A week after our visit to the Brandenburg Gate we passed under it again, this time in Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace. We stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel in a two-room suite that was larger than his West German apartment.
“I can’t believe this”, he’d say over and over.

Jürgen’s inability to state an opinion began to bother me. It wasn’t a matter of linguistic differences – he spoke English well. Russian too. His lack of opinion combined with seldom starting a discussion meant that I was doing all the talking. He would ask what I wanted for breakfast or lunch, or whether or not I liked certain kinds of bread. He would ask about my friends in New York and Salt Lake City and what I did while I was at home, but he didn’t inquired about things that weren’t concrete. He seemed to have no opinion at all.

Years have passed and Jürgen is doing well. He’s adjusted to life in the west. We had dinner together in 2002 and he told me that he was considering renting out his condo and buying a small farm in the Czech Republic. Last year he sent me photographs from his month-long bicycle tour of Prussia. He still refers to the Soviet names on maps.

01 July 2008
The film I ordered from the library is in.

From a friend I heard about the German film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) – a film about the constant surveillance of East German citizens by the STASI. The tapping of phone lines. The bugging of apartments. The opening of mail. Constant watching.

I recognized parts of Berlin from the film, particularly Karl Marx Alle, along which is built long rows of Stalinist “wedding cake” apartments. A scene in the film in which the characters sit in a bar – so very much like the bar Jürgen and I sat it in Berlin. Stark. Bare. Waiting. The eeriness of East Berlin’s empty streets – even eight years after the wall had come down.

I’d forgotten that typewriters in the GDR had to be registered to their owners. I’d forgotten that artists were essentially employed by the State and monitored for subversive activity. I’d forgotten that following reunification citizens were allowed to read the reports that were kept on them by the STASI.

Eleven years later I now realized why Jürgen didn’t ask questions or start conversations. And why the taxi didn’t take us directly to the address.

03 July 2008
FBI may start profiling.
Under likely changes, agents wouldn’t need evidence to investigate.
Headlines from the Associated Press.

A generic voice stated that the person I was calling was unavailable. Jürgen’s voice had always answered. When I rang his mobile phone the call went directly to voice mail. The same thing happened each time I called for the past couple months. It happened again last night.

At 1:17 a.m. my phone rang. It was Jürgen. He had just come home from work – still working a late shift. We talked for fifteen minutes. I asked him if he’d seen Das Leben der Anderen.
“Yes. And you have too?”
“Yes,” I told him. “I found it fascinating.”
“It is interesting.” He said only those three words about the film.

He said he’ll come for a visit in October after he returns from another bicycle ride through Prussia.


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