Berlin, continued, continued (Days 66, 67, 68)

7.28.2014

"I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee." — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Berlin slept in late that next morning. I, on the other hand, had city to explore.

It was Monday, day four in Berlin, and yet I still hadn't really seen much of Mitte, Berlin's historic and touristy center. And so I did a little sightseeing while the city slumbered: to a gorgeous island of museums (unlike so much of Berlin, conventionally pretty) in the middle of the Spree River, to a space-defying and awe-inspiring memorial for all those victims of war in all times and all places, to the now-quiet Brandenburg Gate and the oft-quiet Berlin War Memorial. I found a marvelous cemetery with hundreds of garden beds built atop well-maintained graves, lovely flowers and new life literally rising from the death below. I headed into the Tiergarten and located a bold, beautiful memorial to gays persecuted and killed during the Holocaust: a large stone rectangle much like the ones at the Jewish Holocaust Memorial, only larger, with a small window to peek through and a small screen inside that hollow rectangle that played a never-ending loop of person-to-person love, a black-and-white montage of same-sex couples kissing, laughing, loving, but hiding too, seeing scorn in the faces of others and retreating into the nooks and crannies of city and society for safety.

For a city that must cope with such a sordid, sorry past, the Berliners handle their memorials magnificently. Us Americans, we're all about men and horses, about riflers lurking in the depths of a manufactured Korea; even the subtle Vietnam War Memorial has a few sculpted guards with guns to sully the peace. We don't confront our evils: no national monument to slavery, no national memorial for the hundred thousand we massacred indiscriminately in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no front-and-center reparation for the terrible imprisonment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans, or the systematic genocide of millions more First Nations people. We don't want to call attention to our skeletons, just our victories, and so we litter the National Mall with false tales and pathetic propaganda, stone soldiers at the ready, but never an honest apology.

Figures don't feature prominently in the memorials of Berlin; the wounds are too fresh for a petrified procession of Jews marching down a German street. But what they can't sculpt concretely they symbolize so splendidlythose stone monoliths, those empty rooms, that zig-zagging Jewish museum arranged in the shape of a broken Star of David. It's something to behold, those many monuments (yet others disappointed terribly, I'll admit; Checkpoint Charlie had been transformed into a beach bar with a few perfunctory posters; it sold stamps for one's passport that made a mockery of the terrible trials those trapped in East Berlin withstood for decades).

***

After a long, taxing day in Mitte, I met up with Tash for dinner. With Steven gonewell on his way back to Miami, I'd hopedwe decided to check out the abandoned amusement park, which had fallen into disrepair about ten years prior when the owner was arrested for attempting to ship several million euros worth of cocaine to the States in the interior of some bumper cars. Old zoning laws mandated that the land remain an amusement park or the next fifty years, so the grounds were actually for sale by the government, at least to anyone looking to give theme park ownership a whirl.

It was a long walk to the park. Eventually we found the fence, eventually we found a hole in the bottom of the fence and crawled through. We beat back brush and trudged through mud until we hit railroad tracks, the kind that would carry a trainful of kids and patient parents from one side of the park to another. We walked along the rails, thick with weeds after a decade of neglect, and emerged alongside what remained of what we imagined to be some sort of log flume. It was gorgeous, eerie: algae-crusted waters so perfectly placid they looked like carpet you could step on, rotted tracks across which we carefully traversed the silent lake, a dark tunnel we tip-toed through with a mindful eye toward the littered ground. We emerged from the tunnel to find a giant tiger's face swallowing up a roller coaster track, one of its massive sabre teeth laying at our feet like a warped canoe. Onward we went, past mustachioed and monocled golf carts just abandoned at random in the middle of the woods, past one of those old medieval facades you might find where a theme park's ice cream and souvenirs are typically sold. We found a moss-ridden cafeteria, all broken windows and desperate vines, a decapitated swan paddleboat and a more fortunate one, still sporting a head. We heard rusty creaking, pained cries for oil, grease, anything. We followed the noise across a rotted-through bridge and a capsized Viking ship; we found an old ferris wheel towering above us, its cars swinging and sighing solemnly with the wind.

We walked in great circles, exploring at will, but always quietly, always carefully. Toward the south end of the park, I spied a portajohn about ten meters ahead, and a shiny little trailer right next to it. I stopped in my tracks, grabbed Tash by the arm, pulled us both behind a bush. "Hey, so I think there's a guard station just ahead ... let's just creep by really quietly."

I stared at the window of the trailer from around the shrub; unless a guard was staring directly out of it, the angle was in our favor. We abandoned our cover, scurried across the gravel path toward the other side ...

Shit! The guard wasn't inside the trailer; he was sitting on a chair about two meters in front of us, seat facing ever so slightly in the other direction. We stopped midway across the path, sneakers scuffing against the stones, reversed directions back toward the bush making all kinds of noise. He must have heard us.

He must have been plenty bored, too. He must have been tired of getting up from his seat, day in and day out, to chase down kids just hiking harmlessly around the ruin. He must have been giving us a break, or so I hoped, as we huddled silently behind the plant, him just a few feet around the other side. We waited ... nothing. I motioned to Tash; we scurried across again, broke out into a run once we cleared his line of sight. Safe, it seemed.

We headed back in the direction we'd come, exploring a little longer and then emerging from our hole underneath the fence at twilight as a few joggers ran by, puzzled by our sudden appearance and dirty knees. We stood, brushed off, got back onto the trail, walked back west, back to the land of the living.

***

I didn't have a hostel for the night. Tash thought she did, but had ended up booking it for the wrong night. It was slim pickings that late in the game, with the World Cup victory parade just twelve hours away. My plan was just to head back to the bunny hostel, curl up on the couch in the common room, get a little rest and hope the staff didn't disturb me. Tash liked the plan and asked if she could join. Sure, I said. We got a few drinks in the hostel bar and waited for it to get late, then we headed to the common room and stretched out on the empty couches. We closed our eyes, and we slept.

For a bit, at least. It was noisy downstairs, and the couches were leather, so we stuck to them and made all kinds of sticky smacking sounds as we turned, us-skin separating from cow-skin. Around 3AM, one of the staff came upstairs, woke us up, asked us if we were staying at the hostel. No, we admitted, but we had, and we'd be leaving early in the morning. He seemed fine with thisthat hostel was amazing!and let us rest in peace. Or as peaceful as it could be with vacuums cleaning all around you at 5AM, I suppose, but who were we to complain? At nine, he woke us again, told us that guests were starting to get up and we'd have to free up on the common room. Of course, we said. Thank you. I couldn't believe we'd slept until nine.

We were in desperate need of showers, so we headed down to the pool like the freeloaders we were and used those. Then we dressed and left for downtown, once more joining millions at the Brandenburg Gate. Again a Berlin wall had been erected, and again we were shepherded around and around the main square toward an entry point that would close down, move, close down again. Tash was determined to get inside, and I didn't care much one way or the other, but followed along for a good half-hour as we followed the crowds.

Eventually, I called it quits, told Tash I was going to find a quiet bit of park somewhere to rest. I left her looking for a way in, and meanwhile I set off looking for a way out, which was more difficult than I may have thought. The Tiergarten was west of me, actually beyond the Gate, and certainly beyond the little Berlin wall, and so I headed north and tried west, northward more and then west, and each time I turned I found myself still following that damned fence. People lined the streetsmillions, easilyand whenever a tour bus would pass they'd cheer in jest, tourists peering awkwardly from the windows.

The actual tour bus carrying the actual German champions arrived in time, I'm sure, but I was long gone by that point, snaking along the river and settling down in the enormous park, a whole lovely meadow to myself. I sat in the shade for hours, read, slept. Woke up again, figured it was safe to head back into town. Indeed, the crowds had dispersed, the wall had fallen once more.

I picked up a new pack in Berlin. My old one was doing just fine, great support and more than enough room, but after two months of traveling through Europe, I was tired of looking the part of a backpacker, tired of strained shoulders and a sweaty back, tired of always having to remove my pack to pull anything from it. So I got a messenger bag. I knew it was probably an unwise choice, that throwing all my pack's weight onto one shoulder was a terrible idea, but I loved the simplicity of it, how small and light it was. I loved how I could swing the bag around toward my front to grab my camera without breaking stride. Satisfied, I sent the old pack home, and blended into the traffic of Berlin like a regular local, little bag swinging ever so slightly by my side.

***

I found a new hostel for that last night in town, a pleasant affair out by the abandoned airport park. Emerging from the train station, skipping across a busy intersection, checking in and heading upstairs, I showered, then did it all in reverse: dried off, redressed, headed down the stairs and out the door to grab dinner from a nearby takeaway. But the outside corner was markedly different than the one I'd seen just ten minutes before: sirens blaring, ambulances everywhere, police roping off a great cross around the intersection.

A bodybag rested heavy on the asphalt in the distance. Onlookers hung close to the police tape, peered at it morbidly, curiously. A pedestrian had been killed, I heard. Hit by a car crossing the street. This was the second person who had been killed outside my hostel in the span of three weeks, struck down by a carno, a driver. It infuriated me. Again: that's awful, the people would say. So it goes.

Every day in the United States, one hundred people are killed behind the wheel, or in front of the wheel, or under the hood of a car or stuck in its underbelly or flung through its windshield; each year, over thirty thousand people die so motordom can live. We must go fast, we say, and we never consider the cost: forget one hundred per day, thirty thousand per year, consider this: since Henry Ford opened Pandora's box and unleashed his plague of industry onto the world, more than 3.5 million Americans have perished in our collective pursuit of automotive speed.

When a plane crashes, we mourn. We hold investigations and we erect memorials and we say never again. We change laws to make us safer, we figure out what went wrong and we look to fix it. We do what we can to ensure those deaths were not in vain. And yet, when a pedestrian is killed in an urban center, we do nothing. The driver doesn't even get a ticketover ninety percent of vehicular manslaughter perpetrators don'twe call it collateral damage of cities, an inevitability every now and again. We shrug our shoulders. So it goes.

Cars don't belong downtown. I don't fault the driver of today for using one to traverse the urban plain, for we've ruined our citiesno, they've ruined our cities, AAA and Firestone, Standard Oil and General Motors. They've torn up streetcars and lobbied against pedestrian walkways and commuter taxes, they've perverted the very notion of jaywalking into a civil offense. It's always been about moneyit always ismore cars sold, more tires bought, more oil burned. They've tarred our cities in black slimy substance and made them too difficult to navigate in any other way, and so we drive. And sometimes we drive too fast, and sometimes we kill, but we don't have to. There are ways to fight back: cancel your AAA membership, sell your car, find a bike, get used to walking, use public transit. Make driving in the city an unpleasant experience for others: amble and jaywalk and when the sidewalks overflow, take to the streets, for the streets are the commons and the commons belong to all of us.

***

I ran through the commons the next morning, bare feet smacking against the ugly asphalt we've lain upon our precious soil. My soles produced an unnatural smack instead of an earthly thud, but no matter: the morning was all pretty and crisp, the streets quiet and the cars asleep. I ran to that old airport, centered myself on the runway and raced down the long strip as it grabbed for the horizon, lifted off with elation toward its end as that familiar dose of dopamine and adrenaline flooded my system. I felt better. Sweat poured from my pores as I rounded the park, and by the time I returned to the hostel some kilometers later, I was red and parched and sore and drenched, and it was sublime. I showered, checked out, headed around the corner to the train station. And in the middle of the intersection, a small crew was powerwashing blood from the pavement, cleaning the road so the cars could rip across it once again.

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