18th November 2020
Part One. Berlin. September 1993
Chris couldn’t wait to take Richard to his local bar, Cafe Kinski, and to show him how he was already a part of this underground community. They left the house and walked for two or three minutes until Chris stopped Richard outside what appeared to be a closed store front. Chris pointed up. Perched on the top corner of the first floor, looking down on them, was a metal sculpture of a man wearing a hat, fingers pointing outwards. Although the creation was obviously comprised of scrap metal and junk, the figure seemed not only animated, but actually smiling.
“That’s from Shoulder. Maybe he’ll be in, later.”
“Ah, that would be nice.”
Cafe Kinski was one of the more up-market squat bars, especially by Rigaer Strasse standards. There were two sections, a deep room that ended up at the bar, and the main room which had a pool table. There were round tables throughout, with various, non-matching chairs. All tables had candles in bottles, heavy ashtrays and multiple stains and chips. Hanging from the ceiling was a video beamer and another beamer projected an image of the actor Klaus Kinski onto a wall near the bar. Chris was right, it was nothing like an English pub, more like a student bar at university, an observation Richard made shortly after entering.
“Only without the self-righteousness and high bullshit factor,” replied Chris.
The building was all squatted. On the ground floor was the bar, which occupied a former shop space and next to it, another closed shop that was boarded up and awaiting repair. There were four floors of houses above, all occupied, all squated. Three or four of the squatters ran the bar. The system was that whoever was working went to the stores in the afternoon to buy beer in crates, spirits and whatever else they thought would sell. Then they would clean the bar, rarely more than a token sweep and clearing away of ashtrays and bottles, a pretence of cleaning the toilets, and then open around ten o’clock. They closed when the last customer left, or simply when they felt like it.
Chris led Richard straight to the bar and opened his arms, smiling at the barman, who was equally enthusiastic.
“Hi, Silvio, wie gehts (‘how are you ?’). This is my friend Richard, from London.”
“Ah, Ja, hello. Welcome to Berlin. Beer ?”
“Ja,” answered Chris, “naturlische.”
Silvio was slighter taller than them, with short frizzy hair tucked under a John Lennon cap, leather jacket over a T-shirt with German text and old dark jeans, dusty and worn. He also had a permanent smile.
They spoke about Richard’s first impressions of Berlin and had a shot of Jim Beam. Richard got his money out, totally happy to pay so little for so much.
“No,” said Silvio, firmly, hand out, “first we drink, then you pay.”
Around eleven, the bar began getting busier, the music became louder and Chris suggested they move away from the high bar stools to a nearby table.
“Look at this … eleven-fifteen and people are only just starting to go out drinking.”
“What a life, and I’m being serious. I could get to like it.”
“What have you got back home ? Really ? Shit job, high rent, eleven o’clock closing. When you can afford to drink in pubs, which is never.”
“Can’t argue with that. I decided to postpone college for another year. With you out of the way, I may actually have a chance to save up some cash. Which, of course, I’ll blow by coming over here. Do you realise, that if we drink enough, I’ll actually save money by coming to Berlin, rather than going out drinking in London ?”
“Let’s put it to the test. More beers.”
After Chris had returned with fresh beers, pausing for a little chat with a large man with long hair sitting at the bar, Richard thought it best to get some answers before the night got much older.
“What was the emergency, then ?”
“Oh, that, yeah, really scared the crap out of me.” Chris went into detail about his first week, staying with Marina, then Claudia, before getting this flat. “What hadn’t been explained to me was that in addition to the month’s rent, I had to throw her a bung. Rents are so cheap in Berlin, but there aren’t that many empty flats, so it’s a seller’s market. If you have a flat to rent, you see who’s got the most cash, and rent it to them, for a one-off payment. Totally illegal, totally universal. But the landlady …”
“Mrs … Holtzengraff ?”
“Right, she knew Marina, somehow, and has a shop near Claudia, so they worked out a deal. Only thing was, they didn’t tell me.”
“Maybe they did, but there was so much to take in, it must have slipped my mind. Until a week later. I’m all alone, got a bit of a hang-over, night before, I’d met Shoulder actually, anyway, thump on the door, and before I can answer, she’s barged in, with her minder, a real beefy bastard, and she’s screaming at me in German. Now, I understand nothing and I’m there in my boxer shorts and grungy T-shirt, kind of vulnerable, hoping my old John Thomas doesn’t slip out, and I’m just saying that I’ll check with Marina or Claudia.”
“So what happened ?”
“She knew she was getting nowhere, and I’m waving my rent slip at her, and I’m getting nowhere, so she leaves, slams the door and I can hear her all down the stairs. She called me an English cunt.”
“I don’t know. I’d lay money on it, though. Anyway, I go to work … “
“Yeah, what do you do exactly ?”
“Paint cartoons, but I’ll just finish this story, then we can move on to Claudia the Cat, who I see later that day. I tell her what happened and then she explains that Fr Holzkopf, that’s Wood-head, wanted her five hundred Marks. Which I didn’t have.”
“But then it all worked out … ?”
“Thanks to Marina. She’s taken care of everything. She told Queen Bitch that I’ve just moved here, and so I could pay an extra Hundred Marks a months for five months. Here’s to Marina. Let’s go have another drink with Silvio. Silvio ! Jim Beams, three …”
They were the last to leave, making Silvio more intoxicated that he would have preferred to be in the process. As the night had been fairly quiet, they had moved back to the stools in front of the bar and made Silvio join in with their every round. Most people greeted Chris and he introduced them all to Richard, including the large man to whom he had spoken earlier. He was Russian, and his main feature was a prominent gap in between his front teeth, to which Chris drew Richard’s attention.
“Look at that ! Isn’t it magnificent. ‘Mind the gap!’ ” The chap, henceforth known as ‘Gaptooth’ smiled good naturedly, and displayed his dental disposition on demand.
The next thing Richard knew, he was on the floor of the flat, in a burrowed sleeping bag, with a vague recollection of staggering home, singing ‘Fall On Me’ by R.E.M., the two of them somehow managing the three-part harmonies. He looked up, saw Chris totally crashed on the couch, and decided to try to go back to sleep.
Some hours later, he woke again, to the sound of Chris lighting the first cigarette of the day. Richard sat up and they said their ‘Good mornings’, Chris throwing the packet of West over to him.
“Oh, not sure I can, not first thing. Pretty rough, these.”
“Yeah, real eastern. Pure propaganda. Call it ‘West’ and make it gross, thus associating all things western with nausea and death. Very subtle. How do you feel ?”
“Not too bad. I’ll be better after a sh …”
“You going to say ‘shower’ or ‘shit’ ? “
“Either. But … so what do you do for … ?”
“Ablutions ? As best I can. Oh, one more thing … no hot water in the kitchen.”
“So we boil pots ?”
“Yes. If I had any. I’ve got a kind of large mug come small saucepan and the kettle. You’ve seen the toilet ?”
“Yeah, I meant to ask about that … what’s the situation. I mean … it’s kind of … a ledge ?”
“The plateau. Don’t mention that in the tourist brochures. It’s for examination of … you know.”
“No, I really don’t.”
“Haha. You will.”
Chris had to go to work later that day to pick up some wages and give in his proposed schedule for the next days, so Richard went with him, catching the Strassebahn from Bersarinplatz up to where it terminated, all along Danziger Strasse and past the main intersection with Prenzlauer Berg’s Schonhauser Allee. From there, it was a short walk along a deserted Bernauer Strasse, turning off into some side streets to get to the studio.
They walked to the staff room, where Chris made two coffees and said hello to two or three people. Everyone was very casual and relaxed, dressed unlike anything Richard imagined office staff would wear. There was a mixture of accents, but all conversations were in English. Suddenly, Chris’ face lit up.
A girl of medium height in a loose fitting top and tight jeans shuffled into the room.
“Claudia ! Hey !”
“Oh, hello. I thought you were having a friend over ?”
“I am … he’s over there. Richard, this is Claudia.”
She barely glanced over before focusing on Chris, making some small talk and in-jokes about work.
“You know Simon, don’t you ?” She pointed to a tall, well-built young man sitting opposite, who had been speaking with a slight upper-class accent to some of the other staff. He looked up, raised a hand and carried on talking. Richard picked up on the relationship between Claudia and Chris; Chris would try to make jokes, make her laugh, and she would talk down to him, like a slightly simple sibling. He chose to keep this realisation to himself.
After Chris had collected his money and wrote out his schedule, they left and walked to the nearest U Bahn and from there to Alex, where they again walked around, drank a bit, then drank a bit more.
The evening was spent in Cafe Kinski, with Philipp working. This time, the atmosphere was different, Philipp being quiet and withdrawn almost to the point of autism, choosing not to make eye contact or any banter with most customers, just filling the drink orders and barking out the price.
It was a busier night, louder music, as Philipp was very fond of Rage Against The Machine, especially played loud. A heated pool game was also in progress.
Once again, they were among the last to leave, but as Philipp tended to close early, they regrettably found themselves vaguely sober, and so decided to walk around.
The post-beer hunger kicked in so, after they crossed Karl Marx Allee, Chris showed Richard a small Imbiss that was opened most of the night, and sold turkish pizza and pizza slices for a Mark or two. The radio was always on, playing what may well have been the exact same song on a permanent maddening loop, a high tempo, Turkish-disco-sounding instrumental. Chris began moving to it, with a rather peculiar belly dance thrown in. The staff just ignored him and carried on turning over the kebab meat and spooning oil over the salads, a vain attempt to make them look freshish.
On the way home, eating turkish pizzas, which were circles of dough, covered in spices and herbs, rolled up and wrapped in foil so as to be eaten by hand, Richard observed,
“You dance like that in London, you’d get you face smashed in.”
“I danced like that in London, I’d deserve to have my face smashed in. But no complaints here, hey, and what have they got to complain about ? Didn’t see them wearing a hair net. As for their fingers, no telling where they’re been. Nowhere near soap, that’s for sure.”
As they got back to Rigaer Strasse, they heard music coming from the squat bar on the opposite corner to the flat. They decided to go in.
The bar had no given name, and was just known by the address, Rigaer 13. It was reached by a side door, and then down a short flight of steps. This bar was simply a square, plain room with an improvised bar area, frequented mainly by punks. Chris vaguely knew the barman and ordered two beers.
They got a table and smoked, several times being asked for cigarettes by other patrons. After another beer, they decided that it was time to leave, Chris working the next afternoon.
Both of them had been a little concerned over the visit, for while they had worked together and socialised, they had never shared a room for longer than a night, and the limited amenities could have strained things further. However, with Chris’ enthusiasm for Berlin and his interest in showing it to Richard, and Richard’s easy-going nature and willingness to be impressed, the time passed quickly and without problem.
The only entertainment in the flat was an old radio-cassette. which was either tuned to American Forces Network or the BBC World Service, along with a small collection of tapes, some of which Chris had brought with him: Dylan’s ‘Self Portrait’ and ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ by Nanci Griffith being the most frequently played.
The lack of central heating wasn’t such an issue until the last days of the visit, when the temperature seemed to drop overnight.
The washing took some time, but even that was cause for laughter, not complaint. Richard tended to wash in the afternoons, when Chris would be at work, and it could take up to an hour, boiling the kettle enough times, blending it with the right amount of cold water, especially when washing the hair and not wanting to either burn or freeze the head. This was, of course, done by candlelight as the kitchen had no lighting of any sort and the toilet sink was too little to be of any practical purpose.
On Richard’s penultimate day, they went for brunch at Marina’s. Richard was totally enamoured by the charming lady, who corresponded not in the least with his mental image, picturing her as possessing long blonde hair, possibly braided. At the same time, he was repulsed by Ross, who didn’t seem to want them there, and kept asking what time they planned on leaving.
Mercifully, Ross had to go to work, and the atmosphere lightened considerably, with Chris singing along to all the songs that Marina now had chance to play.
They left late afternoon, as Marina had to get ready. She’d gotten a job at a bar-restaurant, again knowing the owner through some convoluted connection.
Back in Friedrichshain, they went to a local Spar store, bought some food and beer. Richard felt a little embarrassed as the drove a trolley loaded with victuals and bottles, while everyone else had hand-baskets containing three or four sad items. Richard passed one shelf, which had bunches of root vegetables wrapped together by elastic bands, all of them looking wrinkled and tired and pitiful.
That night was spent, naturally, in Cafe Kinski, where Richard told Silvio he’d be back soon. He had an idea of Berlin, saw how Chris lived and planned to return.
He had travelled around on his own, while Chris worked, and knew the U-Bahn system, could buy a cheap snack at an Imbiss and had picked up a few words of German.
There were two other people he met on his last two nights; a sculptor called Shoulder and a monster called Steffi.