Daniel Roth had waited a week before returning to the Czar Bar. He brought two workmates with him, for support, perhaps, but after they saw that they had come all that way just to sit in a squat bar with uncomfortable stools and a depressing lack of women, they left.
Boris, another Russian who lived in the same squat as Andrei and Olga, was working that night. Before long, Chris walked in, unshaven and unwashed. He walked past Daniel, not seeing him, and sat on the end seat, next to where Boris was leaning. They spoke a little, and Chris ordered a beer before seeing Daniel and ordering three vodkas.
“No, no fucking vodka ! Fucked me up, last time.”
Chris kept the smile to himself.
“Really ? How so ?”
Daniel didn’t answer, but hesitated a question of his own.
“I hope I, er didn’t do . . . anything too . . . I hope I wasn’t out of order, last week. Had a bit too much. Hadn’t eaten and it was a har . . . “
Chris waved it away and invited him over.
“All right, but no fucking vodka!”
“Enough, already, no vodka. Wimp!”
“You what ?”
“Just saying, one minute it’s all, ‘I’ll pick you up with one finger and throw you through the window’, the next it’s, ‘oh, please, no vodka’.”
Daniel looked at Chris without blinking and Chris began thinking he may have overstepped the mark.
Daniel then turned to Boris,
Predictably, these were the first of many. Chris was getting acclimatized and Boris drank without any apparent effect whatsoever.
Daniel, on his fifth vodka, kept apologising for his behaviour and Chris did nothing to allay his fears that he had behaved appallingly. Finally, more to stop Daniel repeat himself, he told him that nothing had happened. Daniel had sung, shouted, screamed, but so had everybody else.
“You’re just doing the ‘Newman Shuffle’,” he explained. “People come in here the first time, drink too much vodka and have a melt down. Then they come back, heads down, shuffle in to face the music. Bet that’s how you walked in, all hunched over.”
“But you don’t realise; this is the Czar Bar. Everyone freaks out, it’s expected, it’s almost the law. And if you really do make scandal, so what ? The next night, it’ll be somebody else, and your indiscretion will be forgotten.”
“Ah, you like big words, hey ? What are you ? Fucking student ?”
“Not any more. But I ain’t the one walking ’round with fucking Emily Zola.”
Daniel laughed and ordered more vodkas, Chris smiling at how quickly he had slipped into the pattern of Czar Bar life. Chris’ comical attempt at Cockney could not pass without comment,
“No need to start dropping your accent. This ain’t England.”
Chris, as being the senior in terms of Berlin life, expounded,
“No, this is Berlin. Just be yourself. Or be who you want to be.”
That last sentence stuck with Daniel.
Before the night descended into vodka madness, Daniel was asking about places to go. He always seemed to go to the same bars in Wedding, with his workmates, and most of these were not so far removed from the East End pubs he has left behind. Picking up on this piece of personal history,
“Ah, gangsters, rippers and wide-boys; the charming myths about the East End,” said Chris.
“The only charming myth about the East End is the myth that the East End is charming.”
Chris liked that turn of phrase and commended Daniel on it, then enquired about his academic background, as Chris still had some vague thoughts about switching from Physics to Literature.
“No, Mate, left school with a boot up the arse and fuck all else. Always read, though. Just couldn’t see why I had to listen to some deadbeat dickhead, when I could learn much more from Tolstoy or Dickens or Shakespeare. I can add and subtract and all that bollocks, but I don’t need Calculus, so fuck Maths. Geography, I know the capitals and rivers and mountains, if not, I’ll look them up, or fucking go there. Chemistry, I know good speed from shit, so that’s covered. History ? I’ll go to a museum or read a book of my own choice, not have some fucking Marxist ideology shoved down my throat. Games ? P.E. ? Fuck that, stand around with your dick frozen off so some old perv can get his jollies looking at you ? It’s the East End, we know how to fucking run. Physics ? Fuck that . . . “
Chris laughed, adding,
“Fuck Physics. Actually . . . I did.”
As for going to new places, Chris had a suggestion. Arizona Al was playing another gig in Mitte on Saturday, and both he and Richard were going, out of obligation. Daniel was invited and Chris wrote down the instructions and made a suggestion where to meet. He also wrote Richard’s phone number down.
Daniel thanked him with a vodka, and was introduced to new people as the bar filled up.
Several hours later, Daniel Roth was shaken awake at Hönow station.
It wasn’t just that Stefan wanted to be a conductor; he wanted to be a great conductor.
While other boys had pictures of German football teams or American movie starlets on their walls, Stefan had carefully cut-out photos of Toscanini, Böhm, Furtwängler & Claudio Abbado.
All his studies were focused towards this irresistible aim, augmented by lessons in composition. Rounding out his education, he played both cello and piano, and was reasonably knowledgeable about most instruments of the orchestra.
In the last year of music college, Stefan, for his final exam, was given a selection of pieces from which to choose. He smiled at the first piece on the list: Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto’.
Stefan had an affinity with Twentieth Century music, and the cello, so what could be better ? Not only would he pass, for that wasn’t in question, but he would excel, win first prize and be offered further studies with a master and get offered a small, yet prestigious appointment.
The reality was somewhat different.
Stefan didn’t win the first prize; he wasn’t even mentioned for a commendation. He passed, but without merit. One examiner concluded that his conducting was ‘workman-like’. The orchestra knew when to start and when to stop, but those parametres notwithstanding, they did what they wanted, ignorant or indifferent to the increasingly desperate swirls of the baton.
The general consensus was that he lacked colour and command. And presence. No amount of teaching could impart that. He could acquit himself adequately in a minor regional, that is to say, amateur orchestra, but no sign of future greatness was detected. That was the official verdict, and Stefan, sensitive and withdrawn, lacked the temperament to go against his teachers. They had spoken, he had acquiesced.
By the spring of 1995, Stefan had envisioned having an apartment in Charlottenburg and a pied a terre in Mitte, of being the youngest conductor of the world’s finest orchestras, and signed to a prestigious record label.
By the spring of 1995, Stefan was sharing a small flat in Kreuzberg with a boyhood friend from Heidelberg. The conducting was never going to happen, nor was he even going to play in the most modest of orchestras. Over the coming months, he failed every audition, while he couldn’t get anyone interested in even looking at his compositions. Finally, by his own estimation, getting as low as a musician could go, he would advertise his services as piano teacher.
However, he also made a commitment to perform whenever and wherever, be it pianist, cellist or, “Even the damn viola.” As such, and cellists being rare among the squat bars and underground art centres, Stefan had been invited to play at several events, approaching each performance with professionalism and vigour, despite the inexplicable nonsense he had to endure. He mostly received bemused apathy, occasionally laughter.
Stefan had to rethink his future, entirely. It had to be in music, for he had no training or passion for anything else, and he knew he had something to offer. He just didn’t know what, or how to access it.
But, for the moment, it was impossible for him to think. His dream had been shattered.
Though he was pretty immune to odours, Jake sometimes found it necessary to open the door and air out the bar while they were setting up.
The day had shown the first signs of a summer that promised to be warm and loving, a reward for surviving the harsh unrelenting Berlin winter.
Jake was sweeping in the back, by the stage, and Chris was behind the bar, stacking empty beer bottles in crates and getting tonight’s beer ready, when four builders walked in, the first asking in a north-English accent,
“You open, Mate ?” then sitting down before getting an answer.
Chris looked over at Jake who nodded.
“Sure. What can I get you ?” he asked, stressing his own Midlands accent.
“Fuck me, another one,” said the second man in his thick Irish brogue.
“Lot of us about, Paddy,” answered the third man, a thin, wiry Brummie with flecks of white paint in his hair.
“What’ve ya got, Mate ?” asked the fourth man, Daniel Roth.
Chris brought up a selection of bottles; Becks, Flensburger, Veltins and the Czech Staropramen.
“Give us a Becks. What d’you fuckers want ?” asked the Northerner.
“Do you not have no Guinness ? Fuck me. Go on, then, I’ll have to have a Flensburger, won’t I,” from the Irishman. The Brummie also chose a Becks and Daniel took a Staropramen.
“Look at that poncey twat, always gotta be different,” was the Northerner’s reaction to Daniel’s order.
They joked around insulting each other for a couple of rounds, then decided to leave.
The Northerner came back from the toilet, laughing,
“You oughtter see what it’s got writ in there: ‘Where is your Vortex ?’ (1) Too fucking right. I’ve been in some shite-holes in my time but this … Ah, no offence, Mate.”
Chris waved the insult away, suddenly remembering exactly why he had left England.
After they left, Jake was about to close the door, when he stopped and picked up a book that was on the floor. He held it out to Chris,
“No, not mine. Sure as hell ain’t gonna belong to those thick-as-shit navies.”
Just then, Daniel came back in, looking for his book.
“Emile. It’s Emile, not Emily. And I wouldn’t insult builders, if I were you,” he said, looking at Chris, who was starting to lose the colour in his face, ”because those guys will pick you up with one hand and throw you against that back wall, there. Yeah, the book’s mine. We’re not all troglodytes, you know ? You can ‘ave it when I’m finished, all right ?”
“Yeah. Yeah, thanks.”
“You closing up then ?” Daniel asked.
Jake laughed, dispelling the tension and explained the opening hours. Daniel laughed.
“Well, maybe I’ll shoot by, later. Yeah, I know those guys are as thick as shit, but, they’re my mates, right ? And that ‘Vortex’ … Wyndham Lewis ?”
Chris nodded. He had written it one drunken night, inspired by a lecture from Melanie about how the cranes of the Baustelles (building sites) resembled Vorticist paintings. Jake had never noticed the graffiti.
But then Jake woke up a little,
“Hey, I wouldn’t insult builders if I were you.”
“Yeah, but the good thing is half the time they don’t even know they’re being insulted.” Daniel laughed at his own comment, realising the amount of truth in it. “Right then. See ya later.”
Later was still very early, just after ten o’clock and the bar was almost empty. Daniel sat on the first stool, by the door, and took another Czech beer. Chris looked at Jake and by mutual consent, agreed it was vodka time, though for Jake, it was always vodka time.
Chris poured one for Daniel, as a way of burying the hatchet. They talked about what they were doing in Berlin, where they came from and how much better life was here. Chris asked him where he lived,
“Wedding,” replied Daniel. This was an industrial Bezirk north of the centre, not renowned for its beauty. Not renowned for anything in fact.
“It must have been the only place in the West where people actually jumped The Wall into East Berlin,” he joked of his new neighbourhood.
Daniel was very impressed by both Chris and Jake living in squats and running the bar. But he began to be less impressed by the people that slowly started coming in, all neighbours and locals.
One such was Robert, a wild, crazy-looking German who sat next to him and proclaimed, without apparent cause or reason,
“Shit on a stick!”
The phrase was repeated endlessly throughout the night. Another large, almost obese customer nursed a solitary beer for hours and engaged in an animated conversation with himself. Squatters brought their dogs in and they snarled and barked, making their owners bark and snarl even louder than their pets in a vain attempt to make them stop. Jake barked louder than anyone, when he saw a dog about to defecate.
Then there was Peter. He was the father of the bar, a man in his mid fifties, with long yet stylish white hair and beard. He was very tall and looked as if he could have been a movie star in far distant days. He had travelled, was possibly an ex-sailor, and had been in Berlin longer than anyone could remember. He took a beer, then rested against a wall, observing proceedings. His only contribution was to raise his bottle to his lips and blow sharply, creating a shrill, resonating note, said note descending in pitch as he drank the beer.
Chris kept an eye on Daniel. He wasn’t looking quite so at home now.
Then the French arrived.
Johan had a group of friends who had either been in the army with him, or had come over to enjoy a cheaper, freer life.
They bounded in, Johan, Claude and several others, singing and shouting, Johan screaming out for vodka. Chris included Daniel in the communal drinking, despite his protests,
“I’ve got to fucking work, tomorrow. Fucking . . . OK, but last one.”
“Oh, you’ll be OK.” Chris winked at Jake.
By the time Richard arrived, desperately in need of alcohol, Daniel was swaying, smiling, singing, screaming. He was totally Czar-bared,
“Fuck you and your dry wall !”
“Eh, Jake, fucking hell, ‘ho is this man ?” asked Johan amused.
“Shit on a stick !” from Robert
“What’s wrong with continental breakfast ?” screamed out Peter, defying anyone to supply an answer.
Daniel, recalled back to life, laughed at Peter’s question and repeated it. Several times. It was at that point that Chris introduced him to Richard.
Picking up seamlessly on Chris’ lead, Richard insisted that the new friendship be cemented with a vodka. Daniel burst into song.
The whole bar, inspired by the French, took a vodka, Daniel almost drinking his shot before the communal toast and being restrained by Robert,
“Shit on your vodka!”
The madness continued. Daniel, in moments of lucidity, threatening to leave and get the last U-Bahn (long since gone) but he was now having longer periods of silence, head drooping, dropping, drooling, until he finally lay his head on the bar and slept.
Chris, who had been abstaining from the vodkas, had triumphed and he celebrated his victory by throwing crumpled cigarette boxes and old lemon peel at Daniel’s head, much to the amusement of Johan, bewilderment of Richard and apathy of everybody else.
After three-thirty, the bar began getting a little quieter, having been visited by a policemen who stood in the door and told them to keep the music down.
Another wonderful thing about Berlin. Here was a totally illegal bar in a squatted building and all the Police do is ask them to turn down the music. Having said that, a request from a German Policeman is pretty much an order, and was complied with. For a time..
Most of the French gone, the bar started to wind down. Richard was able to speak about his day, or rather his shift. He had worked with a new chef who was incredibly lazy, and some new bar staff who were incredibly boring. The novelty of being a Spüler had long worn off. But before Richard could complain further, Daniel woke up and staggered out of the door, no doubt determined to get the last U-Bahn.
Chris let out a celebratory cheer,
“Excuse me ?”
“Ah, never mind. Vodka ! Jake ? Vodka ?”
Jake stared uncomprehending. Wobbling around in the confined space behind the bar, he demanded of Chris,
“Do you have to ask ?”
The three drank and talked about the exit of Daniel.
“It’s amazing,” began Richard, “ people come in here, upright, homo erectus, sit at the bar, drink, drink again, and then, after the passage of time, they crawl out on all fours, to lie in a ball on the pavement, like single-cell pond life. It’s like watching evolution in reverse.”
His observation resulted in more vodka.
Richard left several hours later, making the mistake of going by S-Bahn. It involved a longer walk to the station, including a lengthy walk along the covered, elevated tunnel of Storkower Strasse, but was only a ten minute journey. The disadvantage was that if one slept, one was liable to find oneself in some distant suburb.
Richard woke up at Adlershof and took some time to adjust. He jumped off. Not only had he gone all the way to the northern terminus, he had come back on the same train and was now in south – east Berlin. The TV Tower, which should always be on his left, travelling home, was way off and to his right.
He knew that he didn’t have enough time to get home, get adequate sleep and return to work feeling anything close to well.
He worked yet another shift with a killer hangover.
However, it was more than Daniel Roth did. He didn’t make it into work. He had gotten on the first U-Bahn, but unfortunately the wrong one. He fell onto the train from Alexanderplatz, and was woken up by the guard at Hönow, in the east, the very distant east.
Chris, meanwhile, got his wages from Jake and merely had to fumble his way to the next door and up some stairs, where he fell into a deep and trouble free sleep.
(1) Vortex is the name of a household cleaning product in the UK
“Ironic, isn’t it ?” asked Chris. “All that time Monika asked, told, me to move, now, after I dumped her, I’m leaving this flat.”
Richard was going to question some of the points, namely about Chris dumping Monika, but let it slide. He was helping Chris pack up, and trying to contain his excitement about having his own flat.
“After all, we can’t live together forever,” said Chris.
“Like Laurel and Hardy. Besides, they’d be no room for a horse in here. Be fun trying.”
“Think of the mess. You need to think things through.”
Richard laughed. They sorted out the books, not by ownership, but by who had read what.
Richard kept ‘The Soft Machine’ by William Burroughs and Chris took the short stories by Kafka. After devouring ‘The Trial’, Richard had toured the English language bookshops and second-hand stores for more of his work. They had collected a good sample of literature from these moments of serendipity. Chris eyed the library and exclaimed,
“Fucking hell. Just look at these titles: ‘Bleak House’. ‘Dead Souls’.”
Richard continued the list
“’Heart of Darkness’,’The End Of The Affair’, ‘The Plague’.”
“’Slaughterhouse 5′, ‘Death In The afternoon’”
“’Life Is Elsewhere’, ‘Memoirs From The House Of The Dead’, ‘Critique Of Pure Reason’. Hhmmm . . . must be your one.”
“Well I don’t want it.”
“Sure ? Could get you a lot of points, walking around museums, holding it ?”
Chris thought about museums full of impressionable young female students. He grabbed the book.
They walked to the U-Bahn station, Richard to go to work, Chris to get the adjacent S-Bahn to Storkower Strasse.
Some of the Czar Bar locals had asked Chris why he hadn’t move into a squat, especially as he was now an honourary squatter by dint of working in the Czar Bar. Jake’s squat became the model for how he imagined all such flats to look, but it was Johan who gave him a different perspective, as he too was a squatter, yet always managed to appear clean and respectable. At least by comparison.
The houses either side of the Czar Bar were squatted. There was an organized community with meetings, rules and (Chris later discovered) endless plenums and interminable meetings. Rooms were allocated to newcomers only after careful consultation. Free vodkas were a persuasive argument.
One night Johan was drinking and Chris working, when some men walked in and sat with Johan. They were Josef and Klaus, two men who had been living in the squat the longest and were the men to see about moving in. Johan told them about Chris needing a place to stay, how he had to go all the way back to Prenzlauer Berg after a whole night’s work (all of four S-Bahn stops) and, assisted by the aforementioned free vodka, they agreed to hold a plenum.
This word would come to haunt Chris, as every time there was a decision to made about absolutely anything … anything … someone would raise their hand and shout ‘plenum’, and everyone would have to gather around and hear the merits of whatever piece of nonsense was being discussed. But this first time, it gave him a chance of moving in, moving on.
Johan lived in Rigaer 77, and had a room in the Hinter Hof. The 77 squat also ran a bar of its own, the Temple du Merde, but it opened just on special occasions, and as the entrance was nothing more than a thin, rusted iron door, most people were oblivious of its existence.
It was in this building, not Jake’s, to the other side, into which Chris moved. He had a small room in the left-hand side of the Hof. The ground floor had ateliers, for the artists, and there was a constant coming and going and banging and shouting and screaming and smoking and drinking and generally a whole lot of nothing being accomplished, while a whole world of plans were being made.
Chris had the use of a kitchen, and there was a toilet on the floor below, but there was no bathroom. Yes, he was back in Rigaer Str.
Richard was eager to get home, to what was now his own flat.
Chris hadn’t always managed to pay his share of the rent, but as it was so cheap, it wasn’t a problem and anyway Chris had allowed Richard many nights of drinking, either free or, at most, a nominal charge.
Now he sat, listening to music and reading. He could sleep when he wanted and not worry about waking up, or being woken up by Chris.
It was quiet. Peaceful. Somewhat boring.
He was both tired, after work, but mentally active and knew that he wouldn’t be able to sleep. Chris wasn’t working tonight, that he knew, but he would certainly be in the Czar Bar. And maybe Olga would be there.
He put his shoes and coat back on and headed to the bar.
Richard was happy to see Chris sitting at the end of the bar in Biberkopf. Happy, but not surprised. The previous Saturday, it had been Chris’ idea to go to some clubs in Mitte. The reason given was to have a break from the Czar Bar, but Richard knew that Chris was hoping to see Monika.
They had gone to several bars and clubs around Rosenthaler Platz but had just watched other people dance, rather than join in. Going out clubbing was going to be very different without the Gang.
Chris took an immediate dislike to a girl from New Zealand, whom he found loud and brash and not entirely pretty. She was dancing with a German theatre student (they surmised) who was wearing a white polo neck tucked into white jeans, held up with black braces. Chris took an instant dislike to him too.
The dreaded twosome began dancing, acting out some scenario that had her pretending to slap him, and him turning away in agony, with mechanical movements.
“Look the fuck at that. Robot dancing. Fucking hell, what is this, nineteen seventy-four ?”
“Do you think,” asked Richard, trying to salvage the evening, “that in some parallel universe, there are robots who go out, get lubricated, and start people dancing ?”
“Yes. I’m sure that’s exactly what happens.”
Richard felt his joke deserved better than that, but he knew the underlying cause. Chris was devastated over losing Monika. Considering the way the break up happened, there was little chance of a reconciliation.
Just over an hour after leaving the Mitte club, they were back in the Czar Bar, agreeing that they belonged here, with the squatters, punks, hard-core alcoholics, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, not with the would-be beautiful people and Euro Disco.
Having worked there with Jake, Chris was now well known and accepted. He knew nearly everyone by name, and gave Richard the low-down, who was worth knowing, who was best to avoid.
Tonight, it was Andrei and Olga working. Andrei resembled a Viking marauder, more than a Slav, with long blonde hair and a long blonde beard. He wasn’t especially tall, but made up for it by having an amazing girth. He was, quite simply, not a man to mess with. Occasionally some idiot with suicidal tendencies would venture his luck, but it was a short-lived enterprise. With Andrei it was one strike and you’re out. His girlfriend, Olga, was tall and slim, with blonde hair and a majestic bearing, looking like a Russian princess (Revolution notwithstanding). It was painfully easy to fall in love with her. So, of course, Richard did.
Apart from her beauty, she possessed two talents, highly prized. One was that she made the best Bloody Marys . . . ever. It was a remarkable sight to see giant, unwashed, street-fighting men sipping her concoction through a delicate straw.
The second talent was her voice. She would accompany herself on guitar, simple but effective picking, and out of her thin frame came the voice of an angel. An angel, however, with a distinct liking for tequila.
As there was barely a night without someone coming in with a guitar and playing, whether they were requested to or not, and as Olga loved the attention, so deserved, she often gave an impromptu concert .
This night, however, there was a little tension between her and her boyfriend. Richard sensed this, but Chris, drinking quickly and encouraging Richard to do same, was too busy with his own problems.
Then Jake arrived, making all attempts at conversation useless. He bombarded Chris and Richard with a detailed account of the awful food he had just eaten at a late night Imbiss. When he left to use the toilet, Chris said,
“What a fucking voice. Like a foghorn.”
“Yeah, Foghorn Leghorn.”
This unexpected, though remarkably apt comment, together with the beers and vodka, put them into a laughing fit, that continued as Jake returned. He naturally was curious as to the cause. Richard was in the mood for mischief.
“We were speaking about favourite cartoon characters. I used to love Foghorn Leghorn, but we can’t remember his catchphrase.”
Jake stepped up, puffing out his chest and strutting around,
“I say I saw a, saw a, I say, I saw a chicken”
It was too much. Richard was having difficulty breathing and Chris all but fell off his chair. Jake took this as a positive sign, and continued, with appropriate chicken and rooster movements.
Olga was looking at Richard and laughing, knowing he was the instigator.
“Hey, Olga gets it.”
“No, she’s from Moscow, she doesn’t know what the fuck a Foghorn Leghorn is,” Chris argued.
But after that, memories became hazy; there were snatches of Jake strutting around the bar, greeting bemused newcomers with the catchphrase and ordering drinks in the galline manner.
Richard woke up some time Sunday afternoon, having no idea how they had arrived home. He got into a panic and checked his possessions. Travel ticket, watch, wallet, even some money left. All was well with the world and what wasn’t could wait.
The next day Chris was at Richard’s work, joking with the bar staff. Matias was making the bar, a moustachioed bodybuilder type, who had a hands-on policy with regards to the female staff. Ully was being her pleasant self, obviously not too concerned with making large tips and a new girl, Jolande, was also working. Richard described her as that rarest of creatures, a German with a sense of humour.
Seeing that Chris was a friend of Richard’s, she made some jokes with him, and hid his beer when he went into the kitchen to say, “Hi,” to the chef.
Unfortunately, she was the world’s worst at keeping a joke, and couldn’t help bursting out laughing after only a few seconds. But she earned points for the effort.
Later, as she walked into the kitchen, Chris heard a high-pitch shriek, and saw Jolande running out, chased by Richard who, by the position of his hands, had just grabbed her sides.
“What are you doing to her ?” laughed Chris.
“Tickling her, of course,” was the reply, as natural as possible.
After Richard’s shift, they sat and drank together, Jolande joining them as she ate her meal. Chris appeared happy and relaxed, but was clearly looking more cheerful than he actually felt.
By tacit agreement, they took the night buses to the Czar Bar.
Micha and Serge had the bar, and they tended to close relatively early. They didn’t exactly draw the crowds either, playing continuous Death Metal. Though they changed the CD’s periodically, the noise remained the same.
Walking along Rigaer Str, in the early hours, the outdoor lamp of The Czar Bar was usually the only beacon, though hardly of hope, as there may well have hung a sign above the door, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter’. No one here gets out sober.
They opened the door, pushed aside the curtain and found two bar stools easily. The bar was mainly empty, the few drinkers dispersed to all corners.
After ordering two Becks and two vodkas, Chris got straight to the point.
“I have to win Monika back.”
He was expecting an evening of planning and scheming. He wasn’t prepared for Richard’s answer,
It almost knocked Chris off his stool. When he finally spoke, it was defensive,
“I thought you liked Monika ?”
“I did. Do. But you and her together . . . I don’t think so.”
“Wow. Like . . . shit ! You mean it ?”
“Oh, yeah. Lovely girl, and you’re . . . OK, I suppose, but the two of you ? How many fights did you have ? How many times did you break up and get back together ? How many times did you come to me and ask what the fuck to do ?”
“You want individual figures or a combined total ?”
“C’mon. Every time you had to pay rent, it was problems.”
Chris knew only too well, as he had to walk to the flat of Ute’s friend, thus remaining in indirect contact with his ex-girlfriend.
“I know, it was a constant pain. And the work. When I left the Noodle Nuthouse, you hugged me, she almost cut my balls off. She wanted me to stay a Spüler. And then she hated that I was only a Spüler. Frauen !”
“What we need . . . is a new drink. The shots are gonna act too quickly.”
“I don’t think these bastards carry Pimms.”
“What we need is . . . “ Richard looked at the unimpressive, shabby collection of bottles. “Tequila. Tequila ? What goes with tequila ?”
“Cactus-smelling vomit. Wouldn’t mind a Run ‘n’ Coke.”
“Can’t see rum. Or Coke.”
“We’re gonna have to stick to beer and vodka, aren’t we ?”
“Looks like it,” agreed Richard.
There was a thud on the back door, then some keys desperate to find the lock. The door opened and something could be heard dragging itself in. Micha and Serge turned to each other and exchanged curses in Russian.
After some uncomfortable sounds, resembling a man being tossed from side to side in the corridors of a ship in a heavy storm, Jake appeared, somehow remaining upright in the entrance between vestibule and bar. He saw Chris and Richard and greeted them, hugging Chris from behind, but forgetting to let go.
Serge spoke in German, Jake answered and then stopped, as if suspended. He remained like this for some minutes, as the Russians started to close the bar, packing up the crates and chasing the drinkers out.
Richard began to leave, but Chris stopped him.
More talk between The Russians and Jake, then they left, shaking their heads and muttering. Jake screamed after them, half German, half English,
“Kein angst, alles klar (don’t worry, it’s all right) I’ll lock up. Ich habe der Schlüssel (I have the key.) You go to bed.” Then he turned to his two guests,
“You two guys need a drink ? ‘Cause I might have something in back. Don’t know, have to check. Have to check.”
Yet Jake remained standing and Chris had to lead him to the store room. Once inside, he made a series of pleasantly surprised sounds and returned, armed with beer bottles and a half bottle of Stolichnaya.
The remainder of the night was spent with Chris speaking about Monika, Richard speaking about Olga and Jake just speaking.
When Richard began working that night, he still had a hangover, which gradually faded, thanks to the endless coffees he drank. By the time his shift was over, he was in the mood for a drink, and, as luck would have it, Chris was helping Jake in the Czar Bar that night.
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.
In an early story, Franz Kafka wrote about two men crossing the Charles Bridge in the early hours of a Bohemian winter night. The acquaintance stops the narrator in front of the statue of Saint Ludmila, to point out the limitless tenderness with which the artist had endowed the hands of a small angel to the Saint’s left. This acquaintance knew hands, for, that very evening, he had taken the hands of a pretty housemaid and kissed them . . . once, maybe twice, maybe more.
Kafka himself had ‘long, ethereal fingers’ which he employed when talking, giving shape to his words. And when tuberculous of the larynx made anything but hoarse whispers impossible, it was the hands, again, that were his means of communications, writing notes to his friends and to his last and perhaps only true love, Dora Diamant.
And the first thing he said to her was, ‘Such gentle hands and such bloody work.’
It was Friday 13th July 1923, in the kitchen of a children’s holiday camp in Müritz, North Germany.
Dora had already noticed the tall man on the beach and had followed him into town, unable to fight the mysterious attraction he held for her.
When he finally noticed her, she was hard at work, scaling fish in the kitchen where she was a volunteer helper. Yet his comments, as well as his acute sense of the suffering of others, and of his ability to offer comfort, put her at ease. Yes, her hands were bloody, but he noticed how gentle they were.
He returned every evening for the next three weeks and they spoke about their past lives and, more importantly, their future.
Dora lived in Berlin and despite his travels, Kafka had never managed to break away from the claws of his native Prague. Dora provided the strength he needed to do it.
She found them an apartment in the Steglitz area, more countryside than European metropolis, and they planned to attend college then emigrate to Palestine, ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ to work the land. Or Dora could cook and Kafka work as waiter in their own restaurant. All the optimist, hope-filled talk of love.
But winter was coming.
The German economy was in an appalling state, massive inflation raising prices weekly. Kafka desperately writing home and waiting for his pension money. His health had made early retirement necessary. The landlady objected to his burning lights at night as he wrote. Dora merely went out and bought an oil lamp. Still the landlady objected, objected, he felt, to his very existence.
Dora found a new place, not so far away and took care of the moving.
To amuse themselves, they read, told stories, made plans and Kafka used his hands to make shadows on the wall.
They had little money, little food or heating, the streets of Berlin were becoming increasingly violent and uncertain, and his illness was getting worse and worse.
It was the happiest time of his life.
Historical note: Dr Kafka is now referred to a Czech writer, but at the time of his birth, the Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the state religion was Catholicism, the official language was German. The Czechs saw their language suppressed, as was their Protestant religion. Dr Kafka was a German-speaking Jew, and this sense of alienation is easy to detect in his writing.
Jake poured four shots and made the introductions. The newcomer was Johan, a Frenchman who had served in the army in the north west of Berlin and stayed on. After the first round of vodkas and a second, for luck, Johan began,
“I thought, yeah, nice day, I cycle to work, I borrow Claude’s bike. I have to go and show a new man what to do, right ? This new man, my God he is how ? Less than useless, then I leave and see the fucking rain, Man. So I get the U-Bahn. Fucking hell, the U-Bahn, weird people. Then I get on the U5 at Alex and go to the special section for bikes and I stand the bike and fix my hair and I can feel someone looking at me, so I turn and it’s a woman, Man, fucking beautiful, do you understand Jake ?”
Jake was leaning on the bar, hat over eyes and nodding.
“No. You don’t. I mean she was . . . ah, Man, like really beautiful. OK, so I look at her, she looks away, but then she looks back at me. Now, I look away. But I look back. And we do this for two stops. And then we look at each other at the same time, and she smiled at me, Man, and I know, I know, you know ?”
“Yeah,” Jake again.
“But then I’m thinking, fucking hell, don’t get off at Weberweise, no go on, go on. And she stays. And now we are looking at each other and smiling and you know, then comes Rathaus and we’re both on and I think, this is it, I just have to get off with her and (here Johan made a long kissing noise). But then I think, oh no, fucking hell, Man, no, no. I have Claude’s bike and he needs it back tonight. So we get to Samariter Strasse and I have to get off. So I give her this look, like, hey, baby, sorry, come on, another time, OK. And I get off and the doors close and you know what she did ? She make with this (here Johan stuck up a middle finger) and make a face like this (here Johan made a very good impression of a shrew). Women. Fucking hell.”
“I think that calls for another round. Jake, if you’d be so kind,” offered Chris, who then proceeded to tell his story, editing and embellishing as he saw fit, tailoring it to the needs of his audience.
Not to be left out, Richard, made loquacious by vodka, told an abridged version of his pointless pursuit of Lorelei.
Jake shuffled back from serving other customers, as business had started to pick up and selected a new CD. He felt that the night had a Nick Cave vibe to it, and played ‘The Weeping Song’.
“Who needs a vodka ?” All hands up. Jake poured, then started to tell his story. As he was about to start, A large German shouted out his order and Jake screamed back in fluent German. The German raised his hand in apology and waited.
“You think you got it bad, I’ll tell you a story. It’s my thirtieth birthday, and I’m working in a McDonald’s in Michigan. Some arsehole in a suit comes in and asks for me, then hands me some papers, ‘You’ve been served’. My wife was divorcing me. Then the manager who was half my age with a squeaky voice and squeaky acne calls me over and tells me not to waste time, and to get back to work. Someone had taken a McShit in the crapper and it had blocked the pipes.”
Jake went over to serve the German and the three contemplated the just-told tale. Johan sucked in his cheeks and proclaimed Jake the winner. The prize, unsurprisingly, was a vodka.
“Yeah, it was the squeaky acne that got my vote,” declared Richard.
By this time, all determination to leave early and sober had been left far behind. The bar was busy, Jake constantly serving and changing CD’s as the mood took him. At one stage, having run out of cleanish shot glasses, he asked Chris to go and collect some, then gave him the key to the storage room, where there was a small sink.
This was rewarded with free drinks, so Chris was pleased to help. Then Jake needed a ‘quick piss’ and Chris covered the bar. Jake pointed to the large blackboard with the range of drinks and prices. Chris enjoyed being behind the bar, as opposed to under it, he quipped, so much that he stayed there and helped out Jake for the rest of the night. And Jake, knowing about him needing work, offered him work for the whole of his next shift, the following Wednesday.
Thus, within a day and a half of jumping out of a pasta restaurant window, Chris had landed on his feet, helping out in an east Berlin squat bar.
“Only in Berlin,” he enthused.
“The beat goes on, Berlin goes on. And not a bad way to get a job. Just turn up at the site, get absolutely vodka drunk . . . ”
“And get offered a position,” concluded Chris, as they shook hands. Then he made an executive decision. It was time for more vodka.
Despite his naivety, when he woke up and saw that Chris’ bed was empty, Richard knew what had happened.
He felt uncomfortable, not to mention a little jealous. Once again, everyone else was hooking up, making connections, getting off. Everyone was making love, while he was merely making notes. Even New Year’s Eve, in clubs full of drunken girls, half on them on ‘E’, the kissing drug, he ended up crashing on Arizona Al’s floor. This wasn’t exactly the life he had envisioned for himself.
But there was little time for self pity as, shortly after he had washed and made his first coffee, there was a knock at the door, a knock that indicated it was Monika.
He let her in, and she was so apologetic, asking him to forgive her, and it wasn’t fair that he should have to suffer. She came for business, armed with fresh croissants and a pile of newspapers.
“We look through these until we find Chris a job, OK ? He is in the bath ?”
“No, he is, er . . . out. But he should be back soon. Would you like coffee ?”
They sat in the kitchen and that, reflecting back, was the mistake that lead to Armageddon.
Had they sat in the main room, Chris would have seen them and spoken accordingly. Instead, he saw an empty room, but heard movement in the kitchen.
“Ah, what a night. Unbelievable. So refreshing to have some good old, down and dirty sex. Hot AND heavy. And not have to beg for it, either.”
Richard physically felt his heart stop.
The time between Chris saying those fatal words and realising that Monika was there, hardly more than two or three seconds, seemed endless.
Chris stood in the doorway, attracted by the smell of fresh coffee and croissants but the sight of Monika was so unexpected that he stood there, frozen, petrified.
Richard swept past him, grabbed a book, some money and his coat, and was out of the house and down the stairs before Chris could fully comprehend the extent of the situation.
That the relationship was over was a given. Just how much suffering she was going to inflict was the only variable.
Richard went to The Anker, but the cute waitress wasn’t working, so after a quick coffee, he moved on, further along Stargarder Strasse, past the Imbiss with the deep fried cauliflower, to another bar with a cute waitress who was working, but didn’t appear to recognize him at all. But, by now, Richard saw this as standard procedure.
He read some, looked around, checked his watch and came to the conclusion that he would have to stay out of the house all day. He could hardly phone and ask if it were safe to come home. Then what would Monika think of him ? How awkward would it be when they met again which, Berlin being more like a large town than a big city, they were bound to do.
He walked around for a bit, then decided to see a movie but even the earliest was hours away.
He tried calling on Arizona Al, but no answer and Berlin in February is not usually ideal for strolling aimlessly around. In the end he decided to get an U-Bahn to Alex, then take a long S-Bahn journey. It would keep him warm and kill time.
And that is how he spent his Sunday. It was a stroll in the park compared to Chris’ and Monika’s.
Monika’s first reaction was sheer shock. She sat, not believing what she had heard, softly repeating it. When she stood up, it was with defiance and she stood in front of Chris, just looking at him. Then, spontaneously, she hit him, with all her force, a punch to his chest. It appeared to surprise both of them. Then she hit him again, and was about to punch him a third time, when he caught her hand. She made a scream and he let go and they backed away, Monika cursing in German. She picked up her things and left.
Chris let out a sigh of relief. It could have gone much worse.
Then Monika returned, banging on the door and he had to let her in.
The fight was now really about to start.
She fired questions at him, shouting, spitting in his face with anger and frustration. She brought up all she had done for him, all he hadn’t done for her and kept asking, over and over, to describe in detail his night, what ‘down and dirty sex’ was, how to do it, and wanted to know about each and every time they had made love, how it had been, what was it she had been doing wrong.
She was relentless and Chris, with an almighty hangover was in no condition to argue. He also couldn’t help smiling, partly from still being drunk, partly from fear which, naturally, didn’t help the situation.
He tried to calm her by suggesting some tea, but she picked up a cup and threw it, and it caught Chris on the cheek.
That act subdued her and brought the initial hysteria to a close.
Chris made drinks in silence, not feeling like smiling so much, now. Monika paced up and down.
She then demanded to know all about the girl and Chris found himself making up a story, how he had seen her a few times and she was a nurse, who lived with her parents, rather than the truth, that he had only met her the night before, as he had simulated oral sex with Arizona Al on stage at a club called The Monkey’s Arse.
After came the subject of their sex life, and what did he mean by having to ‘beg’ for it ?
Then a list of all the sacrifices she had made, up to and including that very morning, as she was prepared to give up her free day to help him find a new job.
Just when Chris though she had calmed down, the anger and hatred returned and he instinctively covered his face, making her laugh.
“What a man, what a fucking little man you are. How could I waste such time on a fucking Smurf like you. Arschloch !”
Monika began looking around the room, collecting things of hers, cursing all the time and throwing things around.
“Ja, you just sit there like a fucking mouse.”
She went into the bathroom and Chris was glad of the momentary peace, even thinking about leaving the flat, and cursing the fact that he was too high up to jump out of this kitchen window, an action that had precipitated the whole scene.
It would be nearly an hour before she left, more tears and accusations, shouting and punching. Chris wondered where the hell Richard was.
“Well, you Arschloch, I’m going, why don’t you go to your filthy squat bar and pick up another fucking, dirty whore-cunt ?”
Several hours later, in a filthy Czar Bar, Chris looked around, but there were no women, dirty or otherwise.
“Hey, Man, thanks for coming with me,” he said to Richard as they sat on the end stools, further from the door, in front of the annex with the store room and toilet.
“No problem. Could use a drink.”
“Mustn’t overdo it, though. One, still got a hangover from last night. Two, shell shock from the Monika. It’s like having the bends. Three, work tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Gotta find me a job and that is gonna be work.”
Seeing Chris’ sense of humour return, Richard ventured a joke of his own,
“Still, on the plus side, you won’t have to buy her a Valentine’s card.”
Chris was unfortunately drinking at the time and, laughing, beer began pouring out of his nose. Jake the barman was suitably impressed and, over a round of vodkas, got to hear the story.
“Ever noticed the initials of Valentine’s Day are V.D. ? Either of you expecting any ?”
“Cards or the clap ?” asked Richard.
“No, just death threats,” answered Chris.
“Stick around here. Sunday’s normally quiet but if it gets busy, I could use a hand. Hey, we’ll see how it works out, OK ?”
Chris agreed, but shared Richard’s scepticism, as it was after Midnight and there were only two other people in there apart from them, neither of whom looked as if they were going to be running Jake off his feet.
Then the door opened, and a man known to them only by sight came in, drenched from the rain that been falling with increasing ferocity all evening.
He stood there, hair soaked, dripping, rain falling off his jacket, jeans, gloves, nose.
“Hey, Mr Jake,” he called out in a heavy French accent, “Vodka. Hey, you two, too. Hey, Salut, come on, have a vodka with me. Women, fucking hell, Man. Have I got a story to tell . . . “
Arizona Al had been at the club since late afternoon, setting up, sound checking, greeting acquaintances, sippin’ beer but mostly just hanging around and waiting.
The door to the club had been locked. Someone turned up, but didn’t have the key. He went to call a friend who should have the key. He returned after fifteen minutes, unable to reach him.
Other people came and went, all trying the door, surprised that it wouldn’t open under their special handle-turning techniques.
One fellow artist arrived, with acoustic guitar strapped to his back. He resembled the actor Willem Dafoe in ‘Platoon’, even wearing a white headband in the same manner of the actor in that film. He smiled, (he also had an impossibly wide mouth), tried the door and asked when it would be open.
“Yo ! Bryan ! Get yer arse over here,” Arizona called to a man who had just walked into the Hof from the street.
Bryan was medium height and stocky, and walked with real determination, as if he were always on a life or death mission.
Bryan looked at the door, wondering why no one had bothered to open it. He keep shaking it, until Willem Dafoe told him that he thought it was locked. Bryan had a very round face and hair that stuck out at all angles. His normal expression was one of complete shock at whatever was happening.
Bryan therefore appeared completely shocked at finding the door locked.
Two young men arrived, pushing a trolley loaded with beer crates, and there were sundry cries in German, but no key.
Then an American girl arrived, wearing a floral dress underneath a heavy army coat, and long red leather boots. She knew most of the people that were waiting outside as, by now, quite a crowd had built up. Willem Dafoe took out his guitar and strummed some chords, one or two men moved closer and moved their heads in rhythm. Another began singing, but it was a different song in a different key.
Finally Horst arrived, taking his time crossing the Hof, walking with a swagger, clearly stoned. He also tried the door, then stood back, smiling to himself, thinking. “Ahhh.” He mumbled something in German, causing some curses, some laughter. Melissa, the American, translated. He had forgotten the key.
Within twenty minutes, the door was opened and the musicians and technicians and hangers-on and friends, and friends of friends and a few drunks, began pouring in.
A van backed into the Hof, people jumped out, shouting and laughing, and from the back doors, various amplifiers and boxes of cables were carried inside, Bryan seeming to be everywhere but doing nothing.
Arizona got his alloted time to soundcheck. Tonight he had decided to do what he called his ‘unplugged’ set, by which he meant just playing electric guitar and singing. Then he saw Jacques, Melissa’s French Canadian boyfriend, and called him over.
Jacques was a very pleasant chap, tall and cumbersome, with enormous feet that always found things to bump into and knock over, as if possessed by a will of their own, a pair of unruly dogs, forever going off chasing cats and rabbits.
They conferred and it was decided that Jacques would accompany him on one or two songs. They had done some stuff together before, Arizona singing, while Jacques intoned as counterpoint.
Arizona was shooed off stage as Willem Dafoe had to run through his list and the soundman had to change the levels for his acoustic guitar and adjust the mike stand, as Willem was barely five foot two on tiptoes.
People carried full beer crates in and empty ones out, Horst slumped at the bar, taking instructions from his staff. Melissa liaised between artists, walking around with pen and paper, trying to work out a schedule that meet with approval, a thankless task, as half the bands wanted to go on last, the other half preferring first.
Bryan appeared, and helped out Melissa with the indisputable assertion that they couldn’t all go on last, and after proclaiming this piece of sage wisdom, promptly found another problem to solve. Or create.
Typically, the gig was nowhere near ready by the advertised opening time, and several people had entered the bar, walking past the admission desk that no one was working. Some staff suggested they should all be thrown out, some said they should stay, but pay, some said they should stay, not pay, but not be allowed to buy drinks, some one else, quite possibly Bryan, suggested they should pay, and then be made to leave. In all events, nothing happened and because of this, most of them left, anyway.
Melissa, pleading, like an over-eager actress of the Method school, appealed to the room, that someone needs to be on the door. This led to discussions as to who’s turn it was, who wanted to do it and then, when a volunteer was found, no one knew where the cash box was. There wouldn’t be enough change for the bar and the door, as the entrance was an inconvenient three Marks, and everyone would be paying with five-Mark coins.
The obvious suggestion was to raise the entrance to five Marks, but this was vetoed. Bryan thought that anyone who had the exact change should get in free, but failed to see the flaw in his solution.
By now more people were coming in, as no one had closed the door.
It was at this point that Richard and Chris arrived, not noticing the desk or even knowing about the admission fee.
They saw Arizona Al in a crowd of people, and went up to him to say Hi, then left him to ‘get his shit together’, as Chris put it, and planted themselves at the bar, where they intended to stay all night.
The subject of Monika naturally dominated the conversation and Chris, despite the bravado and carefree attitude, was really scared that he had lost her. He opened up to Richard that there had been conversations about work and getting more settled in Berlin, maybe going on a language course and getting a proper respectable job.
“What’s the probability of any of the above happening ?” asked Richard.
Chris drank quietly, and Richard was reminded of the time in London just before he was set to leave for Berlin. He was about to ask him if he had any regrets about leaving the UK, when Bryan popped up behind the bar, starred at both of them in turn, then went off to join the crowd around Arizona.
“What in the name of fuck . . . ?” began Chris, more electroshocked than recalled back to life.
“Where did that goddamn thing come from ?”
“Fucking Cheshire Cat face, out of nowhere.”
“Oh, look, he’s a friend of Al’s,” said Richard, indicating the two of them in an embrace. There was quite a crowd in the centre and both of them noticed a number of very attractive girls. Willem Dafoe was dwarfed by an icy blonde in cocktail dress, who held a Sekt glass without ever drinking from it, and maintaining an aloof distance from everyone.
Melissa was running around stressed, as the running order was still in a state of flux. To end the impasse, and making it clear it was an immense favour he was doing, Willem deigned to open proceedings.
He walked on stage to the applause of the organisers and fellow artists, and complete indifference of everyone else. Until, that is, the icy blonde joined him. She took up position at the back of the stage, and, with a disparaging look at the Mike stand, made a willing young man adjust it up to her height, and bring it the necessary inches closer to her mouth, rather than have to walk towards it.
She was pure class.
Willem Dafoe began playing. The first song was a slow ballad of no apparent melody. He would hit a chord, then sing, following it by a gentle up-down strum and lots of moaning. He hit another chord, thought about hitting another, but hung his hand in the air and turned his head to the side, before letting it fall across the strings. Meanwhile, the icy blonde was making some kind of droning background noise.
The ‘song’ finished some minutes later. The solitary voice of Melissa could be heard, saying,
Then the other performers clapped, some worried that the opening act had set too high a standard.
The second song had a different title, but was pretty much the same, from tunelessness to theatricality to Melissa’s not so convincing appraisal.
When the third number started, showing no indication of variance, Chris turned to Richard and, appropriating the famous line from the movie ‘Jaws’, said,
“We’re gonna need a bigger bar.” Then he raised his hand to get the barman’s attention, “Alcohol !”
A woman singer songwriter was next, listenable for a song or two, but she also outstayed her welcome. After she finished, a section of the crowd left, and this pattern was repeated for each subsequent act. Friends came to lend support, then, duty done, made a beeline for the door. Quickly.
“When the fuck’s that cunt on ?” asked Chris, his tolerance worn away by ineptitude.
“Look, there he is again. What the fuck is he doing ? I mean, really ! What the fuck is he doing ?”
Richard was referring to Bryan who was criss-crossing the room, appearing behind the mixing desk, the bar, the stage and all points in-between. Now he was standing in the centre of the room, was wasn’t very full, shouting to the mixing desk. The man behind the desk did nothing, the volume of the between-set music changed not an iota, but Bryan was happy, giving the thumbs-up sign.
“Oh, thank fuck, he’s going on,” said Chris, seeing Arizona getting up on stage and plugging in his guitar.
The house music cut abruptly, Arizona introduced himself and made some comments as the sound level rose and fell and fed-back. Bryan naturally appeared and shouted.
When the last of the feedback had faded, Arizona began and played a mid tempo number, jiving around as he played. Richard and Chris were both happily surprised as it was quite good. After the song, while people were still clapping, Arizona announced that it was a cover, of a little known American band from Phoenix. The next songs were his own but failed to elicit the same response, or, by the fourth number, any response, bar Richard and Chris at the bar.
Chris lent over,
“This is terrible. He’s dying up there.”
“I know. Now what the fuck’s happening ?”
Jacques plodded on-stage, unknown to Arizona, who had his back to him, and when he turned around to face the audience, was nearly knocked over. Chris covered his face with his hands and let out a moan, that everyone heard.
They performed two numbers. In the first, Jacques merely stood in the back, and made some backing vocals, repeating key lines of the lyrics. In the second, the two engaged in a kind of comedy routine for introduction, about what to do in Berlin, and Jacques suggesting they go to the Thursday Bar, a well known alternative music venue bar, also in south Prenzlauer Berg, but Arizona said that they couldn’t go there, causing Jacques to inquire why not and being told by Arizona that today was Saturday and therefore . . . not open.
“I’ve gotta do something. This is worse than I imagined.”
Richard had no idea what Chris was planning, and at that point, neither had Chris, but something had to be done, and a far, far better thing than what they were being subjected to now.
Jacques left the stage and there was an assumption that the set was over, so there was a ripple of applause, but that immediately died when Arizona began a new number. Richard felt Chris push past him and walk towards the stage, then vanish.
Arizona began playing, when suddenly, at the very back of the stage, Richard could see Chris, moving from left to right in profile, in measured, theatrical steps, pausing before each new stride.
Arizona was unaware.
Chris turned, froze, then began walking in the same mechanical manner towards the singer.
Arizona was sensing an increase in audience interest, so began dancing a bit as he played. As Chris copied his motions, in his own singular style, the crowd clapped and laughed, inspiring Arizona to cut loose and skip around. Everyone was at least looking at the stage, and mostly smiling, except Bryan who looked completely bewildered, not to say shocked.
That’s when Arizona noticed Chris, but, like a true professional, carried on playing. Chris then stood in front of Arizona and sank to his knees, making gestures towards Arizona’s guitar that in his naivety, Richard at first failed to comprehend. Then he thought back to watching Bowie with Mick Ronson on guitar, Jim Morrison with Robbie Krieger, and understood.
It had certainly livened up the performance, and people assumed it was all part of the act. Chris was more than happy to stand on stage with Arizona Al and take the applause.
Later, at a table, Arizona told of his initial thoughts on seeing Chris coming towards him,
“You know, what with the lights and shit, and my eyesight being bad, I couldn’t see who or what it was, then when you began pulling that faggot Ziggy Stardust shit, I thought, OK, motherfucker, you wanna play, I’ll play, suck on this, arsehole!”
There were several people around them, including Melissa and Jacques, Bryan and a couple of German girls who had stumbled in, attracted by the noise.
“Yeah, thinking of adding some Nirvana covers to my set, couldn’t do it before because everyone was doing it, but, you know, it’ll be a year since Kurt blew himself away, time’s ripe. But I don’t wanna play the obvious ones, you know, thought I’d go for some cuts of the last album, as that was the direction he was going in.”
“Good idea,” agreed Richard. “What songs ?”
“’Numb’, ‘Black-Shaped Box’. You know ?”
Neither Richard nor Chris had the heart (shaped box) to correct him. Not that it mattered either way to the two girls. They sat down when Melissa and Jacques left and began speaking in English.
Richard thought that here were two girls and two guys without girlfriends, but the girls were quite blatant in their interest for the performers, the performers only, whose stage antics had obviously made quite an impression.
Feeling tired, and like a third-wheel, as usual, Richard decided to leave, telling Chris he’ll see him later, and congratulating Arizona on a great gig.
The girls suggested Jägermeister shots, a German digestif spirit. This was followed by more beers and more shots and before long, Arizona and Chris were enjoying the time honoured tradition of the rock ‘n’ roll groupie.
Arizona was the first to leave, with his new friend, while Chris was determined to drink more Jägermeister, furious that no one had told him before about this wonderful new drink.
After some more shots and beers, he too went back with his first fan.
They got a taxi on Invalidenstrasse and kissed all the way, the driver, working weekend nights in Berlin, quite used to it.
Chris followed the girl into her apartment building, up the stairs in the Vor Haus (front house) and went inside with her. She left him in her kitchen as she went to the bathroom and told him to help himself to a drink. He found some wine, but no corkscrew, and walked into the hall to ask her where one may be found. He passed a door, slightly ajar and did a double take and refocus as, through the gap, he could see a topless Arizona Al, sitting up in bed, smoking, and staring back at him.