19th May 2021
Part Six. Berlin. February 1995
Jake was born in Iowa and spent his life in the Mid-West, living first in Illinois, then trying his luck in Wisconsin, in Ohio and finally in Michigan.
He had played in bands, more in garages than on stages, deciding he’d be better off as a solo performer, then changing his bachelor life for that of married man, before his wife decided that she’d be better off, back as a solo performer.
As he had disclosed, without exaggeration or embellishment, he had been working in the fast food sector at the time his wife informed him, by proxy, that his services were no longer required.
What he didn’t say, and what would have made a dramatic and popular coda to his story was the fact that after his young supervisor requested he get back to work, Jake went over to him, picked him up and attempted to deep fry his head. He was deterred by some tall Black co-workers, who later wondered why the hell they had stepped in to save the skinny white guy’s arse.
Jake, predicting that this wasn’t the path to career advancement, left the building. He felt finished in the US and, after taking care of his legal formalities, and totally disregarding other responsibilities, decided to check out his family’s east European roots.
With just one backpack, one guitar and limited funds, he landed in Krakow, in post-Communist Poland.
By busking for tourists, Jake was able to survive, and also to imbibe as much as he liked, due to the incredibly low prices of alcohol. He moved onto Prague, with its large American ex-pat community and found various jobs, helping in bars, shops, being a guide (‘making up most of the facts for fat tourists who didn’t care, anyway’) until he heard that Berlin, just a five-hour train ride away, was even cheaper, with squat houses, and more possibilities.
In 1991, Jake arrived with some names and addresses. He found a number of bars in Friedrichshain and played for drinks. He made most money by playing Neil Young’s ‘Rockin in the Free World’ by The Wall for the remaining American GIs.
The Czar Bar was then a strictly Russian affair, and one vodka-soaked night there was a Slavic stand off when one Russian man accused another of sleeping with his girlfriend, causing a defiant denial and indignation, despite it all being true and everybody knowing it, most people even seeing it, as it had occurred in a dark corner of the bar. The immediate problem was that the two men were supposed to be working together.
As this clearly was not a good idea, Jake, who happened to be there, offered to take over. That night, the Russian cuckold helped himself to his own vodka and sat sulking, sporadically bursting out curses and threats in Russian.
Veterans of the Czar Bar point out that this was the only time that Jake could have been referred to as ‘the sober one’.
Nearly four years later, Jake’s world had shrunk to the bar, the beer shop, Burger King on Karl Marx Allee and his squat flat, next door to the bar.
It was at said flat that Chris arrived at around five in the evening.
He knocked. And a second time. It wasn’t until the fifth knock, when he was on the verge of leaving, that there were rumblings inside, rumblings that morphed into noises that metamorphosed into curses. The door opened and two bulging, red eyes appeared in a forest of facial hair. The hat was, as usual, on, at some impossible angle.
Jake inquired what Chris wanted, then grumbled and mumbled and opened the door to let him in and shuffled back to his room, scratching and pulling at his ripped unholy long johns.
Chris had lived on Rigaer Str, had drunk in all manner of squat bars, and met drunks and junkies on the streets, the streets full of shit and vomit, piss-stained and encrusted with frozen mucus, but nothing had prepared him for Jake’s flat.
There was no furnishings to speak of; all walls were bare, as were all the floors, which had several boards missing. There was little light as it was dark out, and most of the windows were either boarded up after being broken, or had too much stuff piled in from of them. Single bulbs hung like condemned men from noose-like wires.
But most of all, it was the smell. It appeared as if Jake had kept every bit of garbage, and had maybe gone out and collected more. It was piled up against doors, pouring out of rooms, covering the floor. There were cartons, bottles, cans, wrappings, ring-pulls, fast food boxes (grease-streaked and discoloured), papers, flyers, adverts, letters, and a whole, miscellaneous section that defied description.
Chris was rooted to the spot. He didn’t feel safe moving, it was surely a health hazard just breathing.
Jake called out something to the effect that he’d be ready in a minute. Sure enough, he reeled out of his room (from which Chris turned his face), swayed forward, putting on his thick, leather coat and checking his wallet.
“Yeah, Micha and Serge were out, or they’d have let you in.”
Chris couldn’t believe that two other people shared the space.
Jake went down the steps and opened the back door to the bar. The fug hit Chris immediately. Old beer, old stale sweat and tobacco smoke rushed out like a deranged Jinn, one with severe body odour to boot.
Jake was immune, and opened the storage room, taking out the trolley and loading it with empty crates and making a quick inventory. There was a note left for him; Andrei and Olga, who had worked the previous night, had run out of vodka, and borrowed a bottle of his.
“See how fucking clueless they are ? It’s the Czar Bar for fuck’s sake and they had no vodka.”
Chris was starting to think that this may not be the best idea he’d ever had. Drinking in the bar was one thing, actually working there . . .
Jake took Chris to the beer store, around the next corner. He barked in German, placing his order.
“Wednesday, probably not too busy, it’ll be a slow start but’ll pick up by four, five . . . yeah, better make it an extra case of Becks, two bottles of Tequila, gimme a bottle of that whisky as well, six, no, sev, er, eight vodkas, yeah, nine. Nine. That’ll be us covered, hahahaaha.”
Chris knew that Jake wasn’t joking, and that Jake would certainly have consumed at least one bottle of vodka himself, before the night was over, maybe before the bar had even opened.
While Jake began setting up, Chris gave it a cursory sweep, made sure the toilet was at least presentable (i.e. flushed) and collected last nights ashtrays and bottles, putting the empties in Andrei’s crates.
The first beers were already opened as Jake gave Chris some beginners’ tips. This solely consisted of not allowing any credit, because the creditor and debtor would both be too drunk to remember it the next day.
Then they went to Burger King and Jake told him stories of cleaning toilets in McDonalds and they both agreed that the burgers they were eating were some of the best they’d ever had.
It was way after one o’clock when Richard arrived, straight from work, to celebrate Chris’ new job. The very first stool, by the door, was empty, so he took it and gave Chris his shoulder bag to put behind the bar. Before they could have any conversation, Jake, on his umpteenth vodka, came over and extended his hand, booming out above Tom Waits,
“Hey, Richard, what brings you here ?”
“The night bus,” he replied, but only Chris found that amusing.
Jake found it an excuse for a vodka.
Chris was doing well, collecting glasses and bottles and serving the customers immediately. He got into some conversations with people he had previously only known by sight, many of them living in one of the squatted houses either side of the bar.
After returning from the toilet, Richard saw his seat taken by a woman, but as the next one became free, he sat there and they began talking. Then drinking. Having a friend and flatmate as barman was having benefits. Richard had yet to pay for anything and when he offered, Chris just shot him a wink and, with a wink, poured him another shot. His new friend also enjoyed this privilege. Then Richard began a kissing thing, Chris discreetly moving away down the bar, casting an approving eye from time to time.
Jake, however, was proving less fun to work with than to drink with. He allowed Chris to choose the music, then changed it every time, before the first track had finished. He gave instructions, repeated them, then got into a bad mood for no apparent reason and returned to a good mood, hugging Chris, equally without obvious cause.
Richard was kissing and stroking his friend, only for her to say that she had a boyfriend (he resisted the urge to call Chris over and make some reference to the perennial boyfriend problem) but was tempted to go home with him, yet everytime he appeared to have won her over, she pulled back. He didn’t press her, but just thought he better kiss her while he has the chance. So he did.
As Jake forecast, the bar was crowded by four o’clock. The Czar Bar, as Chris later surmised, is where all drunks and punks and skunks end up. When other bars spew out their customers, they end up here. Especially when Jake is working.
Richard gave a last kiss to his friend, as she had to leave. He never did find out her name. He never did see her again.
Chris introduced him to several new people and three or four times, there were communal vodka sessions, where everyone around the bar had a shot of vodka. Then came the business of finding out who was paying for it.
Richard saw Johan again, this time with a small and very pretty blonde girl with glasses, and all three, along with Chris and Jake took a shot. The girl was Veronica, Johan’s new girlfriend.
Eventually, the bar began closing. Richard had spent some time asleep on the counter and several people around the bar were being woken up and kicked out.
All locked up, Jake opened three fresh beers, as if he were ready to start all over, played one of his favourite Neil Young CD’s and sorted out the money. He was pleased; it had been a busy night. He handed Chris two fifty Mark notes.
“It’ll be more on weekends. Gotta get more girls in here, because if we have girls, we’ll get more men.”
They made some drunken suggestions, then fatigue overtook them. Richard knew he had to work that evening and would still be hungover.
Chris and Richard left and were hit by the unforgiving morning light which momentarily blinded them, making them squint.
Staggering wildly around the street, Chris recommending that they take the U-Bahn, because it stopped at Alex, then the U2, which terminated just one station past their’s at Vintastr. should they fall asleep.
At Alex, both of them indeed asleep, they were woken by some of the other passengers and, heading to the U2 line, they found a croissant shop and bought several pastry items, as they smelt so damn good.
When Richard woke up around three-fifteen, he found several bags of half-eaten, cold stodge in the kitchen. He put on coffee and went to wash.
Chris was still sleeping. He was out.