Tear them down and paint them over

Though Berlin natives and resident ex-pats often write it off as a schmaltzy tourist attraction that hasn’t held up over the years, The East Side Gallery is still a lively, colorful representation of the city’s divided history. Last week Jennifer put together a slideshow of some of the paintings, which were created by artists from all over the world. As she said on her website:

The photographs displayed in the slideshow are not a complete representation of each section of the gallery, but instead a selection of a few personal favorites, chosen because of a particular composition or color pattern. The former presence of the wall, mentally and socially, becomes less and less apparent over time…

It’s neat to look at this over 20 years after the wall came down, especially in light of the revolutions currently taking place in the Arab world. It’s as if the same peaceful populist spirit that brought the iron curtain down has shifted to the Mideast, and I’ve noticed that people here share the excitement and are paying close attention, as are so many others around the world.

Hope this brightens your Monday, and more later in the week.

Sketches from the morning commute

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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

My year behind glass

I first got inspired to shoot short, observational video clips after watching my old neighbor Blue McNiel’s “A 43rd and Warwick Story.” In 3 minutes and 2 seconds, virtually nothing happens aside from the lights changing and some cars driving by while the camera watches from her front porch. I had pretty much the same view at the time, and I remember the sounds of the lights clicking and the green- and red-outlined shadows they would cast through my curtains onto my ground-floor bedroom. The document has taken on a historical importance now that the lights have been replaced by stop signs and I have moved away.

I started shooting similar observational clips out of windows, on front porches, at parks and art exhibits. My montage could be called “A 2010 Story” or “A Kansas City Story” although this timeframe and location has to be expanded to account for a wee bit of Mississippi and Europe. It’s a just over 2-minute trip across flooded and frozen landscapes, Christmas carols, full moons and orange balloons.

Nothing that’s going to break down any doors, but you might enjoy it all the same.

‘Like hell comin’ out of the pavement’

I don’t upload a lot of things to YouTube, but it seems like when I do it’s always something about fireworks. Like this pyramid-of-snakes burning ritual in the parking lot at Herbert’s Mart strip mall, located squarely in the middle of Wayne County, Mississippi. While working in the fireworks stand there, Brian and I befriended a local high school graduate named Tom. Due to his athletic and amorous pursuits in and Waynesboro — most specifically that very strip mall parking lot in which we sat and drank beer — Tom had been dubbed “The King of Herbert’s Mart” by his peers. A widely recruited placekicker who was injured early in his senior season, Tom spent most of his time drinking beer, getting in fights, cruising the strip and fixing cars at WalMart. He was a welcoming and friendly guy, and told some amazing stories about life in Wayne County, which he called “The Land of Dreams.” I’ll share more about him another time. For now, some footage of the aforementioned smoldering snakepile, with commentary by the King of Herbet’s Mart himself…

The nutcracker and the virgin

At dusk on the outskirts of the makeshift ghost village that was the Leipziger Christmas Market, three workmen hoist a life-sized nativity statue of the Virgin Mary onto the back of a truck, right next to a giant grinning nutcracker encased in what looks like a plywood gingerbread coffin. The men struggle with the wobbling nutcracker, and though I’m tempted to yell “Sei vorsichtig mit dem heiligen Mutter!”* I can see that even if Mary’s co-passenger falters, her arms are stretched out as if ready to catch him.

(* “Be careful with the Holy Mother”)

The drunken postcard

I made this at a print-your-own-postcard booth at Berlin’s Museum for Communication. The other available stamps were something like butterflies or flaming skulls, so there was little artistic decision involved except to keep inserting the card over and over, like a carnival punch card totaling up a few too many. I like the way the bottlenecks look almost like slanted steeples with a little cross on the top, somewhere between a hangover and morning mass. Reminds me of a line from Kerouac’s “Windblown World”: ”no one has consciously realized the tremendous significance of American weekends, from proud sartorial Saturday night with its millions of premonitions of triumph and happiness, to dark Sunday night with its sweet and terrified loneliness.”

Maybe not, Jack. But they would if they tried my new line of postcards. With Drunken Postcards, you can write anyone you want exactly what you’ve been wanting to say to them, without fear of reprobation. How? Easy. They’re written in disappearing ink, and never delivered. Like the opposite of Facebook, with the same exact color scheme. Old-fashioned and untraceable except for that stack of empties next to your notebook.

Not convinced? I can hardly blame you. I do, however, have an experiment which you are welcome to try at home — something I hit on entirely by accident last month while writing a stack of postcards that I’ve yet to buy postage for. If you want to dream about someone, write them a (real) postcard just before you go to sleep. Does it work? It did for me, but I’m curious what kind of results others come up with.

Flights resume at Tempelhof?

For a few minutes last Sunday, it appeared as if Tempelhof Airport had been reopened for flights. The silhouette of a jet plane soared through the sky, acrobatically weaving between and flocks of birds and Drachenflieger*.

Tempelhof Airfield is the decommissioned city airport and site of the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949.  These days Tempelhof is more Seurat painting than former airstrip, having been turned into a massive park grounds following years of civic discussion and city planning. While studying in Berlin in 2008, my brother James wrote his final paper about the future of the airport, which officially closed in Halloween of that year.

Meanwhile, the plane had arched one last time around the structure itself before crashing softly into the grass, just meters away from the couple operating it by remote control.

Still, a glorious flight.

*the German word for kite, literally translating to “dragon-fliers.”

(music plucked from some strumming in my flat on Saturday night after seeing Jenn off to her flight to London at Schoenfeld)