Brave New Traveler posted my article on vegan/vegetarian travel tips today. You should read it. What’s good for Google is good for everyone.
“Oh my god do you think they’re closing?”
We were standing in front of our favorite Konsum, pretending to be on a late-night stroll while waiting for the S-Bahn to haul away the twenty people standing across the street. We both looked at the boarded up windows and missing sign with furrowed brows.
“No look!” Markus said. “The shopping carts are still there. They’re probably just renovating.”
I sighed. “I fucking hope so.” That dumpster is the yogurt and expensive cheese dumpster, and my personal favorite. And if the Konsum here closes, there won’t be any more Friday night bike rides ending with bags full of Brie and mozzarella-tomato kabobs and chocolate covered bananas and crème pudding.
I slid under the fence and started filling my bag. “Do you like Jell-o?” I asked. Markus was leaning casually against the other side of the fence, keeping watch. People always see us; there’s a S-bahn station across the street and a popular brewery next store. But besides the well-dressed couples whose steps quicken when they see a pair of legs hanging out of a trash can, no one ever seems to care.
“Na I hate Jell-o. Are there any more of those fruit juices though? They were really good with vodka.”
A tandem bicycle is the ultimate dumpstering vehicle. Or it would be, if we had a working trailer. Even without it we can fill two backpacks, strap a box to the luggage rack, and then bike home, with the person in back balancing another box in their arms.
At our other regular stops, a Konsum and a Netto across the river, we fill our bags with vegetables that I can use for the vokü—eight cauliflower, bell peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, and broccoli. I balance a box of oranges in my arms, and we pedal home.
It is usually our last stop, but the adrenaline had us back out on the street after unpacking the booty. Before leaving, I looked at the ceiling and dictated a short letter. “Dear Dumpster gods. I need some more vegetables for cooking tomorrow, and stuff for the salad. Thanks.”
It’s almost joke. Almost. It’s more like a budding diy folk religion. I’ve never asked the dumpster gods for something and not found it in the next days or weeks. Starts to make you feel like the universe is watching out for you. Starts to make you forget about being afraid: afraid there won’t be enough food or a roof over your head, and remember about living, passionately and unapologetically. And all because of a bunch of trash.
This time we rode to an Edeka whose containers are always full of pinapple rinds and that smell like fruit and garlic. Every container we opened got better and better. First some of the usual suspects: a few yellow bell peppers, apples, and enough broccoli to fill out my soup at the vokü the next day. In the next container we found mushrooms and a bag full of hot chilis that we strung and hang in the kitchen. And then—buried treasure!—an entire garbage bag filled with bread. We took the entire thing out and drug it around the corner. It was too heavy to just be bread, and at the bottom of the bag we find ten packages of asparagus, and ten more of children’s salad. “Vegetables for cooking tomorrow and stuff for the salad.”
Dear Dumpster Gods, You are fucking fantastic. Love, Nikki.
The Chemiefabrik (Chemical Factory) is where Dresden punk shows run off to when the noise complaints from AZ Conni’s neighbors start to become a problem. Every Thursday they have Jugendtanz (Youth Dance) there as well. But don’t bother with that. The music is terrible, and on the days when it’s a little less terrible, it’s still not worth the entrance fee. Even if you can sometimes buy your way in with dumpstered honey.
I don’t know if the Chemiefabrik was ever really a chemical factory. There are other industrial buildings in the area, and one story is as likely as the next. There are no bathrooms, just a few places to crouch between trees and graffiti covered walls around back. Sometimes there’s a big bonfire outside, and the inside is covered with posters of bands who’ve played there.
There is a long bar where a Sterni costs EUR 1.30. Highway fucking robbery if you consider that a Sterni costs exactly 34 cents at the grocery store. It’s easy to rob poor planners, and by the time you get there and remember that you should have bought your own Sternis at the grocery store, all of the grocery stores are closed. All the same, it’s still cheaper than you’d pay at a regular bar.
On Wednesday I got off my lazy, broke ass, and shelled out 5 euros to see Contempt. A friend had organized the show, and well, it’s not like I have to wake up early mornings.
Dallas Denver opened—a local band. They don’t look like anything special or play like anything special, but they’re not unpleasant either, mostly because of the row of high school-age groupies who were standing up front with homemade, red glitter Dallas Denver shirts and an “I heart Conrad” sign sprayed in blue on an old piece of cardboard. The crowd bobed a little, a nod of appreciation for the attempt but not much more, and the teenie fans insisted on an encore. It was adorable actually.
The usual punk crowd was there. The girls with rows of peircings, Mohawks, and layers of ripped stockings. The boys in leather jackets, covered in spikes and pins and dirt. The rocknroll cats in tight tapered black pants, ripped black Converse or striped Vans slip ons. Black t-shirts screen printed in white. Patched pants. You’re probably familiar with the cast, set, and costumes already anyway.
Contempt came on around the second or third beer. And they have it—that charisma and energy that’s hard to describe and impossible to fake, but that has the crowd dancing by the first song. The drummer sat back in the shadows. One faded green Mohawk down the center of his head, wearing a black Contempt T-shirt screen printed in white. The guitarist—that’s right, another black T-shirt screen printed in white. The bassist was one of the punk rock chicks. Three layers of Mohawk, a chain connecting one of the peircings in her ears with one of the peircings in her nose. She’s filling in for someone named Trog, the singer told us from behind long brown dreadlocks.
There was a miniature pit and the rest of the crowd remained in the shadows, one hand holding a beer and the other in a pocket, back heels tapping to the beat.
It’s not earthshattering, but it’s a reason to thrash out two weeks of pent up aggression, and I went home sweaty and exhausted. The sound the speakers leave in my ears to fall asleep to sounds like a flock of restless seagulls.
Once upon a time in a faraway land where democracy existed and communism wasn’t boring, there lived a girl who saw a demonstration and thought Look! Something happening! People accomplishing things. Change! Hope! Momentum! And she joined the demonstration, and she felt inspired.
Eventually though, she grew weary of the demonstrations. Of the aggressive police trolls. Of wasting time and energy expressing her discontent through pre-approved sanitized-for-your-protection child-proof pasteurized plastic-wrapped tactics. And she saw demonstrations for what they had become. Yet another opiate on the long list of opiates for the people. A state-approved channel for discontents to make themselves feel vital. A place where you could yell and drum and stomp yourself a little less angry.
And she became a cynical old man at the age of 25 and received her standard issue porch, rocking chair, and cane to shake at passersby.
As you ride north on Königsbrücker the city begins to unravel, buildings slowly becoming sparser, spreading themselves out between abandoned lots until the trees are growing on the buildings themselves and you find yourself in a tiny city, mostly abandoned: the industrial district. To get inside you can climb over fences from the front, or up a hill and through apocalyptic-looking piles of rubble from the Heide behind. Some of the buildings remain in use, while the rest form a labyrinth of architectural corpses, innards gutted and removed, a horror-film-soundtrack dripdroping to the offbeat meow of a lost alley cat, the last echo of a black-shuttered death rattle.
There’s enough empty real estate here to house an army of squatters. An army of squatters! I think to myself. If we all showed up on the same day, they could never arrest us all! I imagined hoards of people pouring in on freight trains and bikes, in caravans of red and blue wagons. The smell of dumpstered vegetables roasting over pallet bonfires. Patched pants. Tough wiry dogs with their tough wiry owners. Squatters swinging Tarzan-style between windows of the 15-story (former) army barracks…
Many of the buildings show signs of having been squatted already: an arrow topped “N” scrawled on a roof, curling yellowed theater advertisements, a blackboard to-do list—”1. locks 2. phone numbers 3. plan 4. suicide” read the headings—blue-tinged cut-outs of naked women pinned in neat rows along the wall, empty spray paint cans, damp shoes waiting to be claimed by every rag-tag Cinderella in the valley.
Further north along Königsbrücker, past blocks of human filing cabinets and chinzy motels you’ll find Klotzsche.
Klotzsche has never been mentioned in a travel guide or featured in one of those “Travel’s Best Kept Secrets” articles. No one will ever recommend that you go there, and unless you happen to fly from the Dresden airport, you probably never will.
A name like a slap in the face—Klotzsche!—a word you’d expect to find exploding over Adam West’s head in an old episode of Batman—and a town like a limp-wristed slap. One of its few redeeming qualities are the supermarkets, or rather, the dumpsters behind them. Unless you don’t have a car. In which case, you might actually be burning more calories getting there than you gain in remaindered cucumbers and bell peppers. Dresden is in a valley, and that means that everything outside of it is uphill.
And therein lies Klotzsche’s other redeeming quality: on a bike the entire ride home is down.
Wohngemeinschaft (WG) noun: 1 a number of persons living together in one apartment, usually co-operatively
I fell in love with the stairwell before I even saw the apartment. Old concrete walls chipped in places, as if the shrapnel had walked in the front door and gone upstairs. Something happened to you in that stairwell. A musty spell released by a foot on a step, in just the right light. Time was suspended, and disbelief, a dark banister leading you somewhere, you didn’t know where, but somewhere, a mystery, pulling you further inside. Anything could have been up those stairs. A family of husky dwarves arguing about the rent. A murder. A love affair. A creepy old man playing cards with a picture of his dead wife. Tawdry, half-dressed cabaret girls peering through peepholes from behind solid wood doors. It was just that kind of building.
It was just that kind of apartment. It had “you will write a novel here” written all over it. No, it didn’t, strike that, it had “you will write a fucking dark impelling masterpiece here” written all over it. I already knew I wanted to live there, and I hadn’t even been inside the apartment yet.
Chris answered the door on crutches. “Volleyball accident,” he told me when I asked, leading me into a high-ceilinged hallway. “I’m starting to appreciate how great it is, just to be able to bend down and pick something up yourself. Three more weeks though.”
He gave me a short tour first. His room, Jane’s room, the bathroom, the room that could be mine. It was an ugly yellow, but with a tall bed already built in, the wood already stained dark. Plenty of space and a sunny window looking out at a playground. I could already see myself sitting at my desk in front of the window, typing madly on my new Erika typewriter.
“Do you mind if I finish my cigarette?” he asked. “I just lit it when you rang.”
We settled down across from each other at the narrow kitchen table, Chris easing himself gingerly into his seat. The walls were the same chipped concrete as in the stairwell. Pans hung from a string stretched between a cabinet and a wall. A full spice rack. An exposed gray pipe. It breathed history and character, as if the decades of lives were all still there, just behind it all, whispering at us quietly.
“This place is beautiful,” I said. You can try not to gush, but when you’ve already succumbed to the seduction you won’t be able to. “The chipped walls, the old doors, the ceilings. It’s so…romantic somehow.”
Chris smiled knowingly. After all, he’d been under the stairwell’s spell for four years already. “You won’t find many buildings like this in Dresden anymore. Most of them have been sanitized.”
“I love it.”
He took a drag of his cigarette and leaned forward. “Enough people have come by already that I’m getting pretty good at this introductory speech. What you should know about living here is that we’re what some people call a ‘Zweck WG.’ Usually people say that as if it’s negative, but I don’t think it has to be. We’re people who would like to live alone, but can’t afford it. We’re pretty quiet. We keep out of each other’s way. No obligatory spaghetti dinners or happy family bullshit.”
I smiled and nodded. I wasn’t sure how I would fit in with quiet, but I would certainly fit in with the moody, sometimes-antisocial crowd whose skin crawled at the thought of the happy family picket fence spaghetti dinner. I can’t even write those words without shuddering.
“The other person who lives here is Jane,” he continued. “But she’s in Stuttgart right now working on a production. She’s a set builder. But what about you? What do you do? Why did you come to Germany anyways?”
“Well.” I hung on the “l” for a long time. I’m never quite sure how to answer those questions. You’d think that by now I’d have a cute little monologue memorized, complete with suspense, intrigue, and a few well-timed jokes. But I don’t. I hesitate every time. Not sure where to begin or where to end. How do you package the most important and exciting two years of your life into a conversation-with-a-stranger sized answer? “Right now I’m an English teacher,” I started. “But, well, I’m moving to Dresden to take some time off to finish writing a novel.” I said the last part fast, embarrassed somehow, as if taking time off to write a novel was the most ridiculous thing in the world. The people who support my decision tell me it’s brave, what I’m doing, and really exciting. But I still feel a bit silly saying it out loud. Yes, I write. I am a writer. Yes, I’d rather starve to death than do anything else. No, I will never be rich. I’ll never get a promotion or work my way to the top of some imaginary ladder. But I’ll never sit behind someone else’s desk in someone else’s office doing someone else’s work. The trade offs are more than fair.
Chris raised his eyebrows. “I can’t afford to live in Frankfurt and not work,” I went on. “Everything there is at least twice as expensive as it is here. And besides, my boyfriend lives here.”
He wanted to know more, and soon we were talking about our Uni theses, whether or not the school system made any sense, about getting stuck in jobs and the meaning of money, and about the punks outside the Scheune whose bottle throwing catalyzed a spät Bierverkauf Verbot (late beer selling ban). We laughed at how we were both already grumpy old men at 25.
Two hours slid by, and I had other appointments to get to. We became awkward at goodbye, the way little kids do sometimes when they’ve just made an exciting new friend. Downstairs I unlocked my bike, still in a bit of a trance. And there, just inside the door, the name Bird, another omen, another thread of the stairwells spell, whispering at me still, you will feel at home here.
I wanted to live there, I had to live there. Back out into the daylight, back into reality, onto Louisenstrasse, charming like rest of the Neustadt: walls covered with graffiti and wheat pastes, charming little stores owned by real live people and not corporations, smiling hippies and punk types on every corner.
How could anything live up to Louisenstrasse? The place on Bischofsweg certainly didn’t. A ho-hum apartment on a busy street. “Sometimes the trucks going past rattle things right off of my desk,” the chick living there now told me.
None of the people who would live there had ever met. This chick, who had the place now, she was just filling it up herself. The new residents could worry about liking each other once they’d moved in. No thanks. “One of them is studying economics,” she told me, “and the other one said business I think.” Next please.
I rang every bell outside the building, but not one single Tony answered. The few people who did answer hung up on me as soon as they realized that I didn’t know them or have a package for them.
If only I had some credit on my cell phone. If only I EVER had any credit on my cell phone. What would Marty McFly do? Nobody had cell phones in the eighties and they solved problems like this all the time. I thought for a second. Marty McFly would probably just go back in time and remember to ask the dude which bell to ring in the first place. As if doing the whole “I’m the exciting and interesting person who you’d like to pick over the other twenty people who’ve looked at it today” dance wasn’t exhausting enough, I had to fight my way into the building and then guess which door to knock on? Great. Calling people I don’t know makes me nervous. Ringing strangers’ bells is even worse.
When a dude with a bicycle slipped out, I slipped in. Now what? The first door on the left had a “Nazis Raus!” sticker on the door. Students, I thought. Students living in a WG, I hoped.
I knocked. A scruffy blonde guy opened the door and looked at me suspiciously. “Are you Tony?” I asked. He nodded. “I’m Nikki. We spoke on the phone. I’m here to look at the WG.”
He left the door open and walked back inside expecting me to follow. He still hadn’t said anything. He seemed bent out of shape somehow, as if I’d just interrupted him masturbating, just before finishing. He kept looking at me like he couldn’t imagine what the hell I was even doing there.
“That would be your room. Mine. Bathroom. Kitchen,” he said, shrugging in the direction of each room as he mentioned it. The place was dark and dirty, a pile of mattresses, drying racks, and odd-shaped boxes littering the end of the hallway. This place didn’t have ‘you will write a masterpiece here’ written all over it. More like “you will rot and die here.” It was 123 Church Street all over again, but without the big communal living spaces and merry housemates.
I should have left right then. But I felt compelled to stay and make conversation. As if that was somehow the polite thing to do.”So what’s it like living here,” I asked. I suppose that at that point, I was still considering the place as a last-straw emergency apocalypse option.
He looked confused. “What do you mean, what’s it like to live here?”
Was there anything not to understand about that question? I mean, you live here, I’m thinking about living here, you put an ad online, I answered it, I came to see if I liked the place and what it was like. Isn’t that what we’re doing here? Hadn’t he been hearing that same question from all the other people who’d come to check the place out? “Ummm, well, how are the neighbors? Is it cold in the winter? Is it loud? Are you happy here? Stuff like that, for example.” Maybe I had made a mistake with my German. Said the wrong word. I was still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Well, umm, it’s ok I guess. I’ve lived here for a few months. It’s alright.”
“And, so, what do you like to do? In your free time?”
He looked just as confused by this question as by my first. “Well I guess I don’t have much of that because of Uni. I study traffic engineering. And, ummm, well, I guess I like soccer. Yeah, I like to play soccer. And watch soccer. On TV.”
It was official: I hated him. I hated his dirty kitchen. I hated his suspicious looks, and I hated his inarticulate ridiculous answers to what I was pretty certain were really reasonable questions. I’d given it a chance. I couldn’t live here. I couldn’t even stand twenty minutes in the place. Too bad, there’s a really badass playground on Böhmische Strasse.
I had been wondering what a guy named Knut would look like. From his voice and a few texts, I’d pasted together an image of a laid-back, shaggy blond hippy type. But that was probably just what I’d hoped he would look like.
The Knut who opened the door had well-kept black hair and a polo. The stairwell had felt hospital-sterile; one step into the apartment and I was having dorm flashbacks. Knut and his other roommate had already started painting the walls hideous shades of maroon and bright yellow. There were tapestries on some walls, gaudy glass cabinets filched from mom and dad against others. The room meant for me was small and impersonal. I wasn’t sure you could pack personality into that room with a crowbar. Looked more like the kind of place that sucked the personality out of you. Maybe that was what had happened to Knut.
As usual, we ended up on opposite sides of the kitchen table. And Knut had his “so this is the deal in our WG” speech memorized. They had been there two months. The other dude was a journalist. Knut studied biology. Had always wanted to live in Neustadt. Listened to underground electronic music.
At the end of his speech he folded his hands and in what sounded like his best attempt at a professional interviewers’ voice said, “So Nikki, tell me about yourself.”
I almost laughed out loud. Some of them just want to hang out and chat. Some of them don’t even seem to want you there. And then some of them turn it into a job interview, practically demanding a resume and references through tone alone.
He must not have noticed my smirk because he offered me the room after fifteen minutes. I needed a back-up plan, just in case, so I told him I had a few more places to look at, and that I would call him on Monday. I told him I had another appointment that I had to rush to right then. I already knew I didn’t want to live there. My other appointment wasn’t for another hour. I met Markus on the river, and we lay in the sun taking turns trying to ask each other “So Nikki, tell me about yourself” as seriously as possible without laughing. I never called. Poor Knut.
I was getting bored with the apartment search at this point, tired of all the shitty places and awkward forced conversations. But I had high hopes for Kamenzer Strasse. When I had first decided to move to Dresden, I had googled “Dresden + squats.” The results were a few articles about a squatted park on Kamenzer Strasse. The police had already cleared it out once, but the locals had just come right back and planted their gardens and built their playgrounds all over again. Sounded like the kind of neighborhood I could feel at home in.
Sara answered the door, as blond and pale as you’d imagine someone from Finland would be, with Steven, with his brown shaggy hair, just behind her. The place felt good. There was no fairy dust and no magic spell, just a good feeling. Just inside the door was a board covered with postcards they’d gotten from all over the world and a pile of checkered Vans slip-ons. The kitchen was painted light blue, the cabinets white with red trim. There were signed posters from indie rock bands on the walls. And everything was just chaotic enough. The bathroom was at least four times the size of my old one, with a rainbow peace flag hanging as a curtain over the glass door. My potential room was a decent size, with ceilings high enough to build a tall bed, and a window facing out into the back courtyard. And on the other side of the courtyard, a workshop with artists’ studios.
“And this,” Steven said, “is the party cellar.”
We walked downstairs into the low-ceilinged room. “It used to be a meat smoking cellar, that’s what those hooks are,” he told me. “When we first moved in the walls were completely black. But we fixed it up and now we have parties down here.” I looked around. A sound system. Lights. A disco ball. I looked at Steven and Sara and smiled.
We talked about squats and music, supermarkets and favorite bars. Steven was working on the German equivalent of his GED. Sara worked in a sign printing shop. I could tell that Steven liked me, but Sara was harder to read. I stayed a half hour and left, one more appointment to go. An appointment I skipped after driving past the building. Concrete filing cabinets. Next please.
Two nights later I got a text from Steven offering me the room on Kamenzer Strasse. I called Chris. The line was busy. I was sure he was on the phone with Jane. Damn it. I had wanted one last word before he spoke with her. To tell him that his place was my first choice. Now there they were on the phone deciding, and there I was on the other side of the country and a busy signal, unable to do a damn thing but pace around my apartment and wait.
I called back every fifteen minutes for two hours. Finally I got an answer instead of a busy signal. “Chris! It’s Nikki,” I said when he finally picked up, over-cheerful to hide the nervousness.
“Nikki, I just dialed your number, but then I got nervous and hung up. I have bad news, we’ve decided to offer the place to someone else.” He said it the same way I’d told him I was taking time off to write a book, fast, practically one sentence, as if the faster he said it, the less likely I was to notice how much what he had to say sucked.
“Too bad, that’s really too bad.” Fuck fuck fuck I screamed in my head.
“I’m so sorry! I’m so so sorry!” he exclaimed. “I wanted to pick you. I told Jane all about you, and, well, she thought that I was a little too, well, euphoric. She got all jealous. She didn’t want to lose her place as favorite female housemate. So we chose a guy.”
Wait, wait, wait. Stop me if I missed something, but I didn’t get picked because some dude liked me too much? Well f@ck all. Here I thought that I could get a spot in a WG if the people there liked me. But apparently I should have been aiming more at cold distant bitch.
“I hope you found another place you liked,” he said, sounding as distraught as I felt.
“Well, one other WG offered me a room. On Kamenzer Strasse. The people are really nice, but I’m a little nervous that they are a little too happy-family obligatory-spaghetti-dinners. But at least I have a room.”
“I’m really sorry Nikki. Oh I’m so sorry. I would have really liked living with you.”
“Well, it’s ok, that’s the way it is, right? Too bad though, it was my first choice.” I paused to let that sink in. “But maybe we could get coffee or something sometime. Once I move to Dresden.”
“Yeah, that would be really cool.”He apologized a few more times before we hung up, and I assured him it was ok. Didn’t it have to be? The place on Kamenzer was really good. Had a really happy, fun feel to it. Had a “you will laugh and be merry and meet people here” feel. It just didn’t say “here you will write a masterpiece.” But after all, that part was up to me.
And then there I was, in Dresden, two of my new house mates helping Markus and I unload the van into our (thank fucking cod) ground floor apartment.
“How many typewriters do you have?” Sara wanted to know as I handed her another one from the van.
“Five.” I laughed. “I can’t help it. Every typewriter I see I have to take home. Most of them I found in the trash anyways.”
That afternoon after some unpacking I came into the kitchen with a few more plates. Steven stood at the counter, spreading Leberwurst on slices of dark bread. We chatted about Dresden until Sara came in.”
I made you a sandwich Sara,” he said, holding out a slice of bread with cupped hands.”
No thanks, I ate something already,” she replied.
“Oh ok.” I was looking at them harder now. There was something about the tone of his voice, the puppy dog look on his face, and the way he’d offered her the bread…Sara put on her coat and came back into the kitchen.
“We’re going to Steven’s parents. We’ll be back sometime tonight.”
His parents. We’re going to Steven’s parents. As soon as they were gone I ran out into the hallway and started counting rooms. The bathroom. Steven’s room. Ant’s room. My room. The kitchen. Three bedrooms. Four people. Going to Steven’s parents. Well look at that, I’d gone and moved in with a couple. It’d only taken me two entire days to notice.
My third house mate had been in Denmark when I’d looked at the place. I was nervous about having a housemate I hadn’t met before signing the lease. What if he was a jock? Or a republican?! Or a four-headed monster who would devour me on sight!?!
Monday morning we finally met. I was plan-lessly moving boxes from one place to another in my room. He was wearing an “I spooned Kimya Dawson” shirt.
“I’m Ant.” We shook hands.
“I’m Nikki.” He seemed normal enough.
“You have a lot of stuff.”
“Yeah well, it just looks that way. It’s not actually that much, once you get it unpacked. But hey, I like your shirt.”
“Kimya Dawson gave it me herself!” he sang back, obviously proud. “Because we’d hitchhiked all the way to Amsterdam just to see her.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Looked like everything was going to be just fine.
The only thing that can save us now is five gallons of juice, Laugenbrötchen, and three packs of mozzarella cheese, I’m sure of it.
I’d woken up to a text from A. “Life is pain,” it’d said. I had nodded, dizzy, not quite sober, wondering if she could read my mind or if she was as hung over as I was. Note to self: do not have grand finale goodbye party BEFORE carrying all your belongings down the five flights of winding stairs. Life is pain.
J, M, and I exchanged half-awake, half-sober grimaces. If I didn’t drag myself down the stairs and to the grocery store soon, nobody would. My stuff would stay in the old apartment and the new resident would end up putting our dehydrated, whiskey-hardened corpses out with the rest of the big trash. Better get up then.
Out on the street I was startled by the bright light and the bustling people. People out buying groceries, walking dogs and children, eating lunch on restaurant terraces, wearing fresh clothes and well-kempt hair.
Do they know? I wondered, glancing around conspiratorially, hair sticking out in every direction. Can they tell I’m still drunk? Am I walking straight? Is this even the right dimension?
It must have been though; the store sold me the supplies, and I didn’t even forget my debit pin. Now I just had to get back up the stairs, pack all of my stuff into the van, paint the apartment, take a box of kitchen stuff to friends, and move to Dresden. Just.
While I’d been stumbling around the store, A had shown up with a headache and a bruise on her leg the size of an encyclopedia.
“What happened to you?” we wanted to know.
“Vodka. Bike. Road.” She groaned back. “Life is pain.”
It was our mantra for the rest of the afternoon. Even after H showed up with guacamole. Especially after marching everything down the stairs and into the van. It took five hours, but at 8 o’clock we were finally finished. The van was packed so tightly that it was only safe to open the front door. Our hangovers were gone. My apartment had been toothpaste-spackled and sort-of painted. A had wandered home to sleep, and H and I had tried to casually hug goodbye as if I hadn’t cried about moving for a full hour the night before. M and I packed J into the back of the van with the rest of the boxes, and I waved goodbye to Richard Wagner Straße one last time.
“Goodbye stupid dark cave apartment!” I yelled after it. “Goodbye bitchy anal-retentive floormates! Goodbye Frankfurt! Goodbye Nordend!” I blew the city one last kiss. We were on our way. It didn’t feel real. It still doesn’t.
The first time I came to Dresden I had peered excitedly out of the train window, expecting a skyscape of city lights to appear on the horizon, beckoning me into Dresden’s heart. It never came. You arrive in the city without fanfare. Without welcome. Without even really noticing you’re arriving anywhere at all until all of the sudden there you are. Right in the middle of it.
The Frankfurt skyline makes your heart beat faster when you come home to her: a smattering of skyscrapers sparkling down at you, luring you into Gothem with glittery promises she’ll never fulfill.
The Dresden skyline sits quietly by the river, stoically gazing past you into dark memories. She doesn’t bother luring you to her; she doesn’t need to. She doesn’t give a damn, and besides, you’ll come anyway. She simply sits, introspective, arms shredded by scars that remind you that she’s experienced a level of tragedy that you will never understand.
And despite the scars, because of them, she is beautiful. You’ll love her for her stony-stoicism, for her distant, tragic air. Her abandoned buildings, her shrapnel-pocked facades. You’ll love her because you’ll never understand her, never really be able to wrap your mind around what has happened to her, she’ll remain dark, mysterious, untouchable, beautiful.
Welcome to Dresden.
Bzzzzzz. Tzzzzzz. Bpfiiif! The little-kid-on-christmas-eve feeling that’s crowding my head right now, and making it impossible to accomplish anything except running around my apartment in circles in between half-read paragraphs of Despite Everything.Well, ok, I also washed a dish. Maybe even two. I’m not too keen on having the fruit flies squat my place while I’m gone. And I’m sure as hell not going to have time to wash dishes tomorrow. I’ll be on the way to Karlsruhe where I’m meeting Mr.-Someone-or-Other Jochem (if I disappear, find him and kill him) who’s driving me to Amsterdam. (Pray he doesn’t force me to listen to top ten radio techno. Yes god damn it, get down on your knees and take one for the team.) From Amsterdam it’s one more train to the Hague, and then two weeks of a whole lot of things that I should have been doing this whole time. Exploring new dumpsters. Finishing that zine. Biking biking biking. Climbing around rooftops. Reading in the sun. Plotting mass chaos and international world takeover. You know. Vacation stuff.
And then! Yes then! I’ll be on a plane to Dublin to play with bikes and drink frothy stout for another week. I get the feeling that a messenger championship will be a lot more fun when I don’t have to wake my three-days-worth-of-exponentially- multiplying-hangover-just-slept-on-a-concrete-slab-by-the-river-bank- after-taking-some-really-bad-drugs ass up to work at the beer tent at 11 am. (Don’t be fooled. I loved every second.) Anyone know anything about squats and such in Ireland? Google’s telling me there hasn’t been anything since Leeson Street got evicted in, what, 2004? I don’t buy it. Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy.
There’s one more week of vacation after that too, but I’m leaving that one up to the weather gods, the hitchhiking gods, the dumpster gods, the gods of indecisive anti-planners, all those rad cats who always seem to be looking out for me. I like to think of it as something like a surprise party, except a vacation. And if I’m real dedicated, and yer real lucky, I’ll come out of it all with a few finished zines, and a whole bunch of purdy new graffiti pictures. Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy.
Why is it I haven’t felt this alive in months? This energetic? Oh right. Work.
I like my job, yeah. I usually like it a lot. It’s an endless story-mill, that’s for damn sure. But anything that takes place at 6 am besides finally going to bed’s still got that soul sucking corporate death leech feel sometimes, you know? Still leaves Queen Hypochondriac’s wondering if chronic fatigue syndrome is actually the reason why she doesn’t have enough energy to do a damn thing but take four naps a day. Still leaves room for the wrong kind of dread, for actually having to think about whether not patching that hole in the knee of my pants or never, ever brushing my hair really matters, for paperwork, for having to pretend I’m in a really really good mood even when I’d rather just give everyone a big paper cut and run screaming out of the room.
I guess vacation got here just in time. Whew.
There are a number of reasons that I could be feeling the way that I do. Eighty percent of my food comes out of a dumpster. I wake up at the ass crack of dawn and go to Neu Isenburg hungover on three hours of sleep. The weather is fucking crazy schizophrenic. I smoke things. I just stopped drinking coffee.
Ding ding ding! I think we have a winner, Alex.
After a week of panic attacks, I figured I better start cutting a chemical or two out of my life. Coffee gone. Panic gone. Except now it’s kind of like I just quit a four-year long speed habit cold turkey, and I’m pretty much useless.
My day goes something like this. Wake up. Roll over and go back to sleep. Wake up. Groggily spend an hour drinking a glass of water. Think about going back to sleep. Go to work instead. Work for an hour and a half. Come home and take a three-hour nap. Fummel around for a few hours, and then go to bed. This must be what it feels like to be 110 years old. Christ.
But I get a little more energetic at night. Which probably means? Which probably means I’m turning into a vampire. I suppose that’s not so bad. I pretty much only wear black anyway. At least this won’t require any new clothing.
The doctor just smiled her a-fresh-batch-of-cookies-and-a-red-steak-would-fix-you-right-up smile (feels more like a grimace from this end) and prescribed me herbal circulation drops. Fucking German doctors. They have an herb for everything. Theoretically I should be happy about this, but shit, I want the hard shit. Give me some spee…hey wait a minute, isn’t that where this whole problem started? God damn it. Time for another nap.
It’s the guy with the blonde mohawk’s birthday, and I think I just punched him in the face.
But if I did, it was a right friendly punch. Sensa Yuma is playing the Au, and everybody’s dancing like a writhing lunatic. You could call it moshing. But you’d be wrong. This is a collective orgasm.
I danced so hard that I had to stop and rest against the wall. I guess that’s when I met Will. We exchanged giddy grins, both in a panting search for our breath. I motioned with my hands, one finger, two, three, and we both jumped back into the fray.
Single hand gestures that determine the events of entire years. The barely noticable countdowns that spark the fuse of the dynamite that will explode one spring day when you’ve stopped remembering whether or not that band played an encore or what the singer’s face looked like.
By the time the show ended, it was 1:40. In other words, Filter and I had missed the last train back to Frankfurt Innenstadt, a fact we were forced to come to terms with on the empty Rödelheim platform. We examined the map hanging next to the train schedule. And the map I so cleverly meant to put in my coat pocket is asleep at home in my bed. From 2 am, Frankfurt looks pretty fucking far away. Fuck.
Option 1: Curl up in a dry-looking gutter and sleep until the trains start running again at 5. Option 2: Follow the drinking gourd to…wait a fucking minute, I can’t even see the fucking stars. Option 3: Go back to the Au and ask around until we find a ride.
Option 3 it is.
As we’re heading back in, Will is heading out. “Hey so we have a bit of a problem,” I tell him. “We missed the last train into Frankfurt, and we have no fucking clue how to get home.”
“Yeah, that is a problem,” he replies. Yes, yes it is. But instead of shrugging and telling us to fuck off, he asks us where we’re from and then brings us to his friend’s car and tries to convince him to fit us in the trunk. “If he won’t take you,” he tells us as we walk to the car, “I’ll walk you back myself. But you have to be nice,” he tells me, “unbeliebably nice. He’s had problems with his liscense and he doesn’t want to lose it again.”
But the trunk is very clearly full (no it’s not a closed trunk, this wasn’t going to be kidnap-style transport) and the answer is a very clear no that no amount of ‘unbeliebaly nice’ is going to change.
It’s looking like option 2 after all.
We walked for ten minutes, twenty, thirty, an hour, two, a trail of butts and empties stretching out behind us Hansel-and-Grettel style. But! At last! At long last! Nordend!
Filter turned off at her flat, wet, tired, a half-remembered goodbye spat between her disappearing back and the slamming door. An I-live-near-here that convinced me to accept Will’s offer to walk me the four more blocks to mine.
The distortion of memory leaves only the details. Authors’ details, woven loosely together into dirty skeletons, empty halls that readers’ imaginations will later flesh out into muscle, flesh, arteries, pumping blood. A simple hand gesture. A wrought iron fence felt through a coat, against your back. A hand on the back of your neck. A promise that you’ll call. A folded peice of paper in the back of your wallet.
Promise me, promise me that you’ll call.
We stay up all night talking about the paintings on the wall, passing the ember between us, the patterns on the ceiling burning themselves slowly into our consciousness, and we lay curled together beneath one blanket so we don’t have to turn on the heat.
And in the morning I forget most of our conversations.
And maybe, in the mornings, you forget most of me.
Retrospect is a bitch.
Once I called you in the middle of the night. I’m standing in front of a blue gas station, I said, and I don’t know where I am. You were with a friend. He gave me directions. You came to get me. I never found a damn thing I painted that night. I never do. Three a.m. has a way of erasing your memory that no hangover can compete with.
I roam the city photographing graffiti and listening to music and thinking of you and there are songs that are moments and I listen to them like memories, over and over again so that they can be with me in the present. You are the present. If you became the future I would lose you. You would become that guy who doesn’t call when I need him to, and I would become that girl who always cries at the wrong time.
I still remember how it felt the first time I was in your room. I got lost on the way to your house. I was always lost, calling you to figure out how to get to where I was trying to go. I got lost so many times on the way to your house. And you’d always come find me, lead me back to your place where we’d smoke another joint and giggle and watch that video of those stomp people throwing books on the floor in rhythm.
You came to find me with Deftones in your headphones, and that was the night that I asked you what you believed in. And you told me. And I told you about everything, even about the printing presses I was dreaming of putting in the little garage behind the used book store that I would run in that small town.
I wonder if you can read this. I wonder if they will black out the important lines at customs. It’s hard to tell, these days. They’re searching everybody’s bags.
You called me while I was writing this and now my hands are shaking, as if I’ve been caught in the act.
We’ve been doing this now for over a year.
It’s not true really. I do know a few things about you. I know about where you work and what you did last night. I know that you don’t like red wine. I know that sometimes you’re too tired to climb the ladder to your lofted bed and you sleep on the pull-out futon beneath it. I know that you roll your own cigarettes and try to quit and that there’s a pile of costumes on the chair in your room, and that I forgot my hoodie here three months ago. That hoodie. Fuck.
We’ve been doing this for over a year.
There was that morning when we had breakfast with D and K. When I asked for jam because nothing was vegan and D couldn’t believe I wanted a sweet breakfast.
There was that night when you called me late. You were having a party at your place and I came over when I was done babysitting. Before we even went into D’s room we disappeared into yours. You were drunk and silly and kept chanting “Kikerikoo kikerikoo Blut in mein shuh!” And you spoke English with me for the first time and you spoke English like a western and I spoke German like a child and we laughed at that. We laughed and we touched knees as your friends argued about birth control. That was how it was back then.
There was a night when I thought it was over. I came over and you were playing with the new drum machine, had been for hours. We watched Hannibal dubbed in German and then Vanilla Sky. I fell asleep until the credits rolled. On cue, I woke up, and turned to you. It always takes a movie or two before we forget that we’re too nervous to find each others’ hands.
The first time you came to my apartment, I finally started to believe that you existed. “You know,” I told you, “I’ve never seen you outside of your apartment. I was beginning to think you weren’t real.” You didn’t laugh. I changed the subject.
The first time I met someone else who knew you, who said your name out loud, I got nervous. I was beginning to think you were a phantom. A muse I dreamed about. You were my muse. I wrote for you. I write to you. Letters that you’ll never read. There are boxes of them. Someday my grandchildren will burn them while I’m asleep, and it won’t matter anymore that secretly, I was in love with you.
The first time you were in my apartment we slept with our heads at the broken side of the bed. And we lay cuddled together under one blanket so we didn’t have to turn on the heat.
“Do you want a coffee?” I just came to get my hoodie. I drink a coffee instead. Just friends is ok. Just friends is perfect. Just friends. Just friends. I’ve convinced myself that this was your idea.
We exchange stories, projects, buttons, patches, but when I say I have to go, you put your hand on my leg.
“Listen,” I said, taking your hand in mine, “There’s someone in my life now…I don’t want to fuck it up. We can’t make out.” He doesn’t want a girlfriend. He’s not in love. But all the same it’s too complicated. I can’t get my multiplication tables right anymore. It’s time to go back to addition.
He shrugged, his eyes almost big. Almost as if he hadn’t heard me.
“I thought the same thing must have happened to you, you hadn’t called in so long…”
“I was busy, that’s all.” His hand began to move. Calming, familiar. I know these hands. I know what they can do. I trust them. Can you lose something you never had?
“Openess means talking then doing, not doing then talking,” I plead.
“But we should go to bed one last time.”
“Then when, if not today?”
I grab his hand again, in self defense.
“I have to leave before I do something stupid.”
He’s rubbing my stomach now.
“This is hard, you feel really good, but I can’t.”
“You do too.” Inching further, seeing how far my weakness will take me.
“You make me weak.”
Now a hug, his head on my chest. “No. I have to go, now, before I do something I’ll regret.” His hand reaching farther now, but I’ve already hugged him goodbye and run out of the apartment.
And I’m running all day, walking fast, as if some phantom is chasing me. He’s always behind me, and I can’t walk fast enough. My hands are shaking. There is no safe place, no hug waiting down the block, no sympathetic ear. Just a silent phone and the echo of footsteps somewhere in the distance. I’ve got to keep walking. I have no other choice. And when the footsteps have finally faded into the distance, it’s the silence I’ll be running from, the echo of potential, the refrain of this song I’ve been writing.