Text & Poetry
Berlin Alexanderplatz, April 2016
The best time to catch a bus is about 10 minutes before it departs. A slightly nervous traveler, I arrived at Alexanderplatz much too early. The bus won't even arrive for another hour. Maybe I'm a little more anxious than usual because I'm on my way to a Pegida demonstration in Dresden to see if I can catch some interviews with people who have recently joined the far-right anti-immigration movement (Pegida is an acronym for Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlands, or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West). Alex (as Alexanderplatz is affectionately known in Berlin), usually so busy with foot traffic and busking, seems deserted at 9 a.m. The rows of wooden stalls are just starting to open; you can smell Würste grilling and hear Kartoffeln frying; leather goods are being laid out and hung up alongside growing displays of Berliner knick-knacks. Too early for anyone to sit leisurely at a wooden table in the kitsched-out Biergarten, with its windmill and Drindl-wearing "Fräulein" . . . The Platz--usually teeming with tourists, people living in the street, shoppers, commuters (this is one of the city's major metro hubs), partyers on the prowl, aimless wanderers, and the disturbingly focused mentally ill--is subdued in the early morning. Too early, too, for the street performers that will later add to the atmosphere of carnival and retail. Two people catch my eye, a man and a woman talking in the middle of the Platz--not so unusual, of course; but I'm suddenly awake to something anomalous and out of the ordinary about them. The woman, white, in her thirties, is slender, looks German, and is dressed professional hip in a black leather jacket, black scarf and black pants that flare widely from mid-calf to heel; she carries a small briefcase-like shoulder bag tucked under her arm. I can hear faintly through the distance that they're speaking English, but for both of them it's a foreign language. Her hands are gesticulating in short intense articulations in concert with her voice. The man, a little shorter than she, is listening patiently, and where there's an opportunity, quietly interjecting. He's calm and relaxed in his posture, respectful, receptive, assured. Although the only Black person within sight in any direction, his easiness claims his place in the Platz. But I can see his Air Jordans are starting to break down, his leather jacket has several scars of white paint on its back as if he had accidentally leaned on a fresh-painted fence somewhere; his black & white checked scarf is wound with a chic looseness. I can tell he's been living in his clothes for a while; the stonewashed jeans are beginning to stiffen from soil and prolonged wear, creased at the knees like an accordion. I take him to be a refugee from North Africa; there are thousands in Berlin now, working out their individual desperate fates. But the interaction between the two of them is not taking the shape of a typical down-and-out solicitation for help. Even at this distance, one senses an intimacy between them. She is trying to make him understand something he clearly already understands. The way he hovers beside her, slightly in front of her, refusing to be dismissed, suggests the persistence of an established relationship. But for his dress, they could be mistaken for lovers in a kind of quiet public quarrel. She is not pushing him off as an unwanted; and his posture is confident, respectful, attentive, not abject. He is not folded into himself with the solitude of a marginalized loner. He stands as one cognizant of his role at the center of a human drama. She concludes, and turns from him, but somehow not away from him, and continues walking. He moves with her, says a few words; she responds. They are walking together, talking. But there is a sustained intensity and pointedness to her expressions. She stops and turns to him at the door to the public facilities on the Platz. He steps a little closer. She speaks with him insistently for a few minutes more. He responds calmly. She puts up her hand, palm out, turns and descends the stairs. He's been rebuffed. He turns from where she stood and walks back into the center of the Platz, approaching another woman passing by. Excuse me, he says in English, looking for an opening; she walks past, picking up her pace, pointedly ignoring him. He angles off in another direction, repeats the manoeuver, and is again rebuffed. He is working the Platz. The first woman, in the end, not having offered what he wants or needs, he is searching for a better opportunity, a more yielding target. But now here's the first woman again, she has exited the facilities into which she had disappeared. She walks over and begins talking to him, picking up where they had left off. They are re-engaged, as if she had told him to wait there in the Platz for her to return. They walk off, side by side, her hands again articulating volubly. Following from a distance, I can see that he is listening intently, again occasionally gently interjecting. They are having a serious conversation as they approach the Alex S-bahn station. In front of the escalator to the platform, she turns to him. She could lean forward only inches to kiss him good-bye, they are that close. Again her voice rises with an agitation reined in by the loose decorum of being in public. Okay, he says, okay. She turns, steps, and the escalator carries her up. He has turned a second time from where she left him, back into the Platz, his gait easy, without intention, drifting with the little currents of motion in the gathering human sea of Alex. He approaches a woman perched on her heels, balancing on a low-walled garden box and eating a big meat sandwich. Excuse me, he says. She shakes her head and he keeps moving without breaking his stride. And yet he appears not to be heading anywhere. He is on the make, meandering in the multi-directional foot traffic of the Platz. But the enigma of his 20-minute engagement with the first woman lingers, a private drama played out in the public square. What did she need him to understand, this man from another country, from another continent, so far from home, trying to survive on the street by his wits. Whatever it was, it was genuine; and for that short time, even as, ultimately, a rejection in progress, the two of them existed together one step from the border between meaningful connection and the economy of the lost. He turns a corner and I let him disappear. Berlin Alexanderplatz: Interrogation Ghazal “He turns the corner and I let him disappear.” What do you mean, you let him disappear? Was he subject to your whim as you watched him there, that you granted him permission to finally disappear? Disappear from what? From the sphere of your obligation? What is the payment for letting him disappear? Playing the flâneur, you window-shopped your ethics, your commitments were bullshit when he disappeared. You, too, a foreigner, invisible, but secure; the role you chose allowed you to disappear. No state surveillance cameras in the public square, no one was watching you, no one appears or disappears . . . What state were you an actor of, in the Platz that day, when you trailed them over the stone until they disappeared? But she didn’t disappear, you didn’t let her go, she left, it was her wish, and you refused to appear. Those murdered secretly by police are said to “be disappeared,” and those children at the U.S. border, where did they disappear? Like the poet who claimed his name was writ on water, from your own flawed mind he will never disappear. Carrying your sentences into the rickety house of lyric is no better framework for letting him disappear, nor does it change the fact that you let him disappear. “A new zone of dialogue and créolité”—no, I don’t think so; The Platz was a plot where everyone disappeared. And what you witnessed, a projection you couldn’t see, reifies reality—empire that never disappears. The wealth that brought you there, where is it hiding? The trace of your complicity will never disappear. “Because water practices, and is enlightened by water,” the self meets the self at the moment it disappears. What was your position, flagged by the GPS, the system keeping track of you so that you didn’t disappear? Did he have identity documents; he left, had been removed? Was he in touch with people, from the place he disappeared? “His easiness claims his place in the Platz”— but what can be easy in the struggle to not disappear. To stay in relation to the White woman who listened, to communicate, make common, his struggle to not disappear. For what he assumed that day, you too shall assume? For every atom belonging to you/to him, will never disappear. Does anyone belong anywhere? In the journey past barricades, unsettlement, departure/arrival, endlessly deferred, you stayed on the margins, your number nailing you fast to the moment; you let the questions disappear, appear, disappear. But when someone called your name you sat onboard, you settled in, you didn’t disappear. But your migration this whole time has always been underway; you’ve never not been drifting past the permanent address of here. Berlin Alexanderplatz: White Lines You describe the White woman’s black jacket, black scarf, and black pants before you identify the man as Black. With the word ‘distance’, you shift from first person to the indefinite pronoun, ‘one’, to mark your perception of their intimacy. You assume he’s from North Africa, but your uncertainty is never allowed to mitigate the staged authority of your assumption. His distressed clothes say that they’re not lovers; but the clothes say something else you’re not hearing. You arrive at the Platz anxious about joining a fascist Pegida march in Dresden. The sky that morning the blue of Gabriele Münter’s waters, the blue of closed eyes, of lovers out in the open, the blue of mountains. You are a Jew in Germany preparing to join what is essentially a Nazi demonstration. But to get there you need to board the bus. You don’t want to miss the bus. You want to miss it. Find time to cross the Loschwitzer Brücke, a friend said, the Blaues Wunder, the Blue Wonder, in honor of the Saxony king. If the man were not Black, or if the woman were not White, you would not have noticed them; or if you had noticed them in their tense relation, you would not have followed them. You would not have followed them because it would not have been any of your business. You followed them because you felt somehow it involved you—because he was Black, and because she was White? You cannot not answer the question. Yes. In your aimlessness, you were given a temporary cause. It came out of the blue, you followed it like water following water. You don’t want to write the next sentence. The next sentence is difficult. The next sentence peels back a layer; it implies the potential of a hidden violence. You identified with the woman through race. In that moment, you lost your Jewishness. The ambiguity, that allows you to pass as White, or to insist on your difference. In that moment, your mind joined the party you were on your way to joining (if only for that afternoon’s reporting). It happened out of the blue, out of the depth of what is known and unacknowledged. The Black man’s calm confidence and the White woman’s self-assurance allowed you to stay at the margin. You were not being called forward. Nothing that was happening required you to respond. She was taking care of herself in her position of social power. He was asserting himself through the knowledge of his natural rights. He was not a threat to her, or to anyone. He was living in the midst of a threat, to himself, his precarity. It allowed you to surveil them without risk, to try to read them like a text that holds onto its meaning. The door of the lyric is locked; the chambers of its repetitions will not admit you. There is no strophic return to redeem you. You also are folded into “the economy of the lost.” But you should not be allowed your existential abstraction. I’m taking it away. Ein blaues Wunder erleben. To experience a blue wonder. It runs beneath the blue bridge crossing the Elbe on its way to the North Sea. “Out of the blue”, we say. A surprise. Out of the blue, difficulty finds me again at the center. Out of the blue, it finds me again at the disappear. Note: “Berlin Alexanderplatz, April 2016” first appeared as an entry in Berlin Notebook:
Where Are the Refugees? published by Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016. “Interrogation Ghazal”
and “White Lines” are responses to it written in April 2021.