Sketches from the morning commute

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After leaving the party we turn the corner to Schlesisches Tor and hear what sounds like a live gypsy band with horns and drums and everything. Inside the station, a full-blown cabaret is underway, the likes of which Berlin hasn’t seen since 1929. People lock arms and dance jigs and hoist their beers and clap in rhythm, all at 2:30 in the morning. But by the time I’ve bought a beer at the station shop, the music has already stopped. Cops pile out of paddy-wagons on either side of the station, and as the crowd boos and begins to disperse a girl hands out fliers.

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On the way to catch the 4:45 a.m. train to Erfurt, I walk by the Trinkteuffel, the Kreuzberg corner bar where the patrons sit and drink their beers with the same casual nature you’d expect at a nice Sunday afternoon cafe. Further down the street I see a man slipping all over the ice, which is pretty thick at the moment. He’s having a hard time keeping his balance, and I feel sorry for him until I notice he’s just really, really wasted.

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Still dark outside, and it looks like I’m the only one awake on this ride to Alexanderplatz. Everyone else is sprawled out on the benches with their eyes shut and their mouths open. When the U-Bahn turns a corner, however, I catch a glimpse of at least one other awake soul — a girl a few cars down waving her arms in half-windmills and tossing her pink-streaked hair from side to side. Nobody bothers to tell her she’s no longer at the dance club. But, nobody seems to mind.

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At the back of the tram to Europaplatz, the teenage Mutti watches over the stroller while Papa strides toward the ticket machine in the front car, taking his hands out of the pockets of his black hoodie to steady himself against the swaying of the tram.

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On a cold Friday afternoon on Kotbusser Dam, a girl with frizzy hair and a red-and-white jacket juggles juggling pins at the stoplight. She drops them several times but still has the nerve to jog between the cars and wave a change basket before the light changes. Nobody obliges, and I wonder if anyone else is missing the fire-breather who set up shop there last week.

* * *

Just before dawn along the cobblestone street to Südplatz, a lady in high leather boots, a ski coat and jewelry shuts the car door and steps toward the door of her building. I’m on my way out the door to work and she’s just arriving home. I know where you’re going and you know where I’ve been.

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At Mehringdamm an old man in a long black coat tries to step out of the U-Bahn just as the red lights flash and atonal bleeps sound in alert. The doors close halfway on him, but he manages to free himself by prying them back open with long, spindly fingers, gasping as he steps out into the station. His face is as pale as Nosferatu, and we can’t help but think we might have just witnessed something release itself from the underworld.

* * *

A few minutes until 6 outside Leipzig Central Station, and dozens of bakery employees in red jackets huddle in clusters and smoke cigarettes outside the exits, puffing with the urgency of people who think they might be smoking the last cigarettes of their lives.

* * *

Here comes a headache, I think as I watch a trio of guys lug instruments and a mobile p.a. onto our midnight car to Kotti. But once they start playing — saxophone, melodica and beats — everyone starts clapping and singing along to “Hit the Road Jack.” Even the sullen kid across from me puts down his book and lets out a tiny smile. When someone shouts for an encore the band launches into the first few bars of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” And when the train lurches and pulls everyone into each other, the dancing kids do their best to keep their beers from spilling.

* * *

On the morning commute, I being to realize I’m the only one on the U-Bahn not wearing a black top and blue jeans. After a few stops I start to feel like a corduroy-clad crasher of their impromptu denim convention. The jeans themselves come in all varieties: The man on my right has opted for dark and distressed, while the woman beside him sports a lighter shade of stonewashed.

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Riding though the Saale in January, I see for the first time the cupolas of churches and houses of a hillside village built around a valley waterway. I marvel at how closely the buildings are intertwined with the river until I realize that it isn’t supposed to be this way; that the town is half-flooded.

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As the tram nears a stop, a young couple embraces in what looks like a very passionate farewell. When the doors open, the man behind them waits calmly for the couple to finish instead of pushing his way past. It looks like they are saying goodbye for a long time, he probably thinks. But when their lingering kiss finally ends, they join hands and walk off the tram together.

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Author’s note:

As a journeyman English teacher, I do a lot of transit riding. In fact, yesterday I had to get up before 5 to catch a train to the central German city of Erfurt, where I teach three classes at Siemens. I teach at different schools and businesses in Leipzig, and before moving here I had to race all over Berlin to take class, meet friends, and collect various visa papers and stamps. I can barely sit down without expecting the scenery out the window to begin moving at any moment.

What makes the commute interesting is not just the time I get to sleep, read or stare out the window, it’s the fellow passengers and people I observe along the way. The other day I compiled this little people-watching catalog from my rides to and from class these last few months. I was going to upload this from the train for extra style points but the connection on “das Internet Stick” was too slow.

This one goes out to all of my fellow U-bahn Ratzen and tram travelers, and to especially to Jenny, who has a long voyage ahead of her tomorrow to get back to her man. I welcome any feedback or and it would be extra fun if anyone wants to chime in with their own transit observations in the comments. Love, LW

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