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Travel

Berlin Story: Al Burian

It is as if I have finally paid a toll, and can now pass; I’m off his radar, he has other debts to collect.
June 22, 2012, 4:00am

Painting by Al Burian.

S

ummer is in full swing in Berlin, and my neighborhood is crowded with tourists. For the most part I don’t mind that, though the walk down the hill to the subway can be aggravating if you’ve got to be somewhere punctually and have to navigate your way through gawking, spacey hordes of vacationers with no particular agenda, loitering in front of their hostels, staring at the sky and blocking the sidewalk. There is a homeless guy hanging out by the Rosenthaler Platz U-8 stop– a real grizzled, spittle-dribbling, wigged-out looking dude, whose face is all furrowed skin, matted white beard and bloodshot abysses for eyes, but whose outfit, a snug denim jacket and highwater pants, is unintentionally hip, as if it is left over from another life. Perhaps he is some legendary Krautrock bassist from the 70s you’ve never heard of. In any case, this guy must be making a decent turnover at this spot, because he is always here, on the corner, raking in the change, and he sees all. He never misses a single person. Once you catch his eye, there is no way to avoid him, nothing you can do. You have to steel yourself for the confrontation.

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I’ve lived in this neighborhood for three years, so by now he recognizes me, and no longer treats me like a tourist. Instead he has pegged me as a gentrifier. One look at me and he switches to the English-language dubbed version of himself: he greets me holding up a shaky index and middle finger V.

“PEACE, Brrrohhh-zahhh!!” he enunciates loudly, in the timbre of a loudly creaking door. His English is sarcastic, meant to assault the senses; he wields it like a blunt weapon. I have heard this guy speaking German plenty of times, when he assails other pedestrians, and in his native tongue his diction is good, his vocabulary is inventive, and his banter is witty. It is only for the non-native speakers that he adopts his foaming-at-the-mouth, spitting out the syllables routine. Many a casual passer-by hands him a coin out of pity, mistaking him for schizophrenic, when in reality he is mocking them, making ironic commentary on present social circumstances in exchange for beer money.

I don’t know what exactly it is about my appearance that screams “gentrifier.” Shoes? Hair? He never fails to spot me. No matter how earnestly or articulately I answer him in my best German, he tunes it out, unwavering in his opinion that I can’t speak a word.

“New York Zzzity isss NICE, YES??” he screams at me. Who knows what the punch line is in this private joke of his; perhaps he is one of the thousands of former East German citizens walking around with a PhD that is no longer recognized in unified Germany, a person who could quote me Tolstoy in the original or give a lecture in highest hochdeutsch on Dostoyevsky, endlessly amused by the thought that someone such as he is reduced to communicating with these crass cretins in the coarse language of commerce. As for me, I resolved years ago to give my spare change exclusively to street musicians, to spare myself time and the mental effort of assessing such requests on a case-by-case basis while traversing from point A to B. In this way I feel that I’m putting my resources into bolstering the positive, productive energies of humanity, rather than trying to randomly counter misery and misfortune. That system has worked well for me for years, but now I’m at an impasse: my moral code is beginning to be a hassle on a day-to-day basis, as his attacks have become more pronounced, his accent totally unbearable. I swear I can see him, from a distance, perking up when he spots me coming down the hill, his lips twisting into a malicious, snaggle-toothed grin, as he unfurls his fingers and screams, “PEACE! Brrrrahhhhh-zahhhhhh!!!”

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There are times when I get angry and want to shout something back. But what would I shout? How can I explain my position? How can I tell him that I’m struggling to get by too, and in fact often when we meet I am on my way to the meager-paying job from whence I generate the coinage he desires, making his assaults even more infuriating? I don’t have enough change for everyone that wants it, and so the least he could do is get together some kind of musical act? This is essentially just a variant on the classic American response to panhandlers: “GET A JOB!” At the root of these angry responses is the core belief of our civilization, the work ethic, that earning power should be related to productivity, to doing something of value, not just to your intensity of desire to get drunk in the park. This Russian literature PhD is the antithesis of that worldview, the living embodiment of the truth that it is pretty viable to do nothing. In fact, you can survive on superfluous coins.

It is clear that he is not going to stop hassling me until he gets what he’s after, so one day, when he approaches me, I break down and negotiate.

“Haff you ONE FIFTY EURO?” he demands.

“One fifty?” I reply, in deliberate German. “That’s pretty steep. I don’t think I have that much with me.”

“I need one fifty, and then I’ve got an even ten,” he explains, wiping the saliva from his chin and displaying decent math skills. I root around in my pocket.

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“Twenty cents,” I offer.

“Well, It’s not what I need, but it’s a start,” he muses philosophically. “Every little bit helps.”

“Peace, brother,” I say, rambling on towards my destination, wondering if the transaction will have any impact, if he will remember me the next time we meet. Indeed, in the following days he proves that he does. Now he ignores me completely when I pass him. It is as if I have finally paid a toll, and can now pass; I’m off his radar, he has other debts to collect. You could imagine him the self-appointed troll of Rosenthaler Platz. I guess there are worse job descriptions.

Al Burian, born 1971, grew up in North Carolina (state motto: “to be and not to seem”) and lives in Berlin. He is the author of numerous books: Burn Collector, Natural Disaster, and Things Are Meaning Less. He was a founding member of the punk/hardcore band Milemarker.