Thursday, November 27, 2014


Artists. Are. Everywhere.
            This has been a topic I have written about for years. Where in the world is the best place for an artist of any streak; the painter, the writer, the photographer, the musician—to live, to work, to survive and flourish? All fingers point to Europe. This is nothing new. Who hasn’t heard the ‘I’m big overseas’ announcement from American artists? It’s a common explanation to family members, doubters, and other desperate artist types here in the States lauding Europe as some sort of Shangri-La for the creative temperament. And there is a reason for this.
            Paris, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Barcelona, Dublin, Prague; these cities are listed as the most hospitable in Europe for the Artists of the world. But only Berlin (and Prague) stands alone (for now) as the affordable choice.
            This will probably change over the next 10 years, as popularity and news spreads about this artistic city. Let me tell you some wild facts, financially speaking, regarding Berlin.        
Average one bedroom apartment in a slightly boring part of the city:
400 euros. (that’s about 550 dollars)
Average price of a six pack of beer (and we’re talking good German beer):
3 euros.
Average pad of regular butter:
.35 euros.
Average night out per person sans booze at a sit-down restaurant:
12 euros.
Average schwarma street food sandwich (delicious, btw):
2.50 euros.

Already, you can understand why people, especially artists, would want to live here. Weed and alcohol are tolerated on the streets. Smoking is allowed everywhere. Prostitution totally legal in the Red Light District. The bars rarely close at a certain time, and obviously the clubs don’t close. Drugs are available quite easily outside Gorlitzer Park in Kreuzberg. All you have to do is be a white person and the ‘businessmen’ will approach directly.
Artists are welcome here in Berlin. No one chides an artist as they do here in the States. No one is worried about what you make or drops the annoyingly passive aggressive line: “so have you sold a screenplay?”
There is a sense of some kind of camaraderie, a lost bastion out in the world, and they stick together, supporting one another, going to each others rocks shows, film premieres, and art openings.
I stumbled accidently into the artistic elite. Held up in the bougie neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, I wandered, night by night, trying to find a place for this bartender, not bartending. Of course there were beer halls. No such thing, really, as a ‘regular’ bar in Berlin. It’s either a restaurant, a beer hall, or a wine bar.
Then there’s 8MM Bar. My Holy Grail of Berlin.
            Rumors of the bar were already floating about even before I left to Germany. They told me, that’s the punk spot, dark and whorishly red-lit. Old film canisters adorned the shelves, and screenings on the far wall of odd psychedelic cut-up films, ranging from the sexual to the perverse, gleam under the smoke filled small main room of 8MM Bar. They make their own version of Jager, some mysterious concoction called Melloch, delicious and potent, and offered by the kind and generous bartenders that work behind the bar. Most were musicians, in their own psych-rock bands; others were photographers, painters, and pianists. Really, anything interesting only started at 3 in the morning. And that’s during the week folks. Yes, all ages, all styles, all variance of drug induced dance party people, all of these happenings occur past the witching hours—into the night they go…
            That is Berlin. I didn’t go to the clubs. I don’t like electronic music. Nor am I a fan of crowds. I start getting that strange feeling of an ocean rising up to my throat. Of course, if I had ingested some Molly perhaps, easily available on the streets, I would have become a dancing fiend. But no, instead I became a wandering drunk, taking my drinks on the streets below glowing yellow street lamps, and pocketing small Vodka bottles in my overcoat. Then I found the free concerts at the Berlin Philharmonic at noon every Tuesday. I stumbled upon violin players, accordion players, and strange folk-tribal groups playing by The Spree and on the random streets.
            There was the fine ‘walk’ I created, arranging a mix of interesting streets, pleasant to the eye, aesthetically speaking, all making for a great walk. It was from Prenzlauer Berg to the Brandenburg Gate, then onto Checkpoint Charlie, and back across to Kreuzberg.
Making my way to the long knife cut into Mitte using Schonhauser Alle, already one can feel the entrance of the city center. Walking past the closed 8MM Bar (not opening until 8pm) I came to the intersection of Torstrasse and Alte Schonhauser where the very odd bar called the Old CCCP sits under the bulbed lights of its moniker above the door. Not quite sure what was going on in this place, good DJ’s no doubt, but the workers were oddly dressed in suits and vests. I couldn’t help but shake a feeling of organized crime was somehow involved in the bars existence. Inside the place, on some late nights I got a very ‘working girl’ vibe in the place.
This made more sense as I made my way along the curved Neue Schonhauserstrasse which leads winding down along side the beautiful and picturesque Monbijou Park, a tree filled lush and peaceful place where with a bottle of Budweiser (actual Budweiser kids) and a Gauloise cigarette one can find some kind of reflection of the future and the past.
Or find prostitutes. Yes, that’s right, of course I accidently wandered into this area. Normally I took a right down Monbijoustrasse. But if one continues down Oranienstrasse past 8pm on a Friday night, legions of Eastern European prostitutes in porn attire line the sidewalks offering back massages, old fashions, and other assorted activities. I suddenly remember it is legal here, and not necessarily being a prostitute kind of guy, and being broke, I merely chatted with them. They, upon realization I was the worst ‘john’ ever, ignored me and moved on. Back to the “PG” rated beauty walk.
 Hanging a right down Monbijoustrasse, we come to the prosaic domed structure of the Bode Museum over a small bridge above the Spree River. At sunset, with the TV Tower in the background, one can witness the most pristine vision of Berlin under construction, a city still building its identity and its structures.
Past the river, hanging a left down Kupfergrabinstrasse, a small side street leads underneath a sullen grey-sooted above ground train, there is a winding beautiful little street (Georganstrasse) full of bars, bodegas, and shops that sneaks under the railway charmingly rattling above. Walk the long curve to Friedrichstrasse, their 6th Avenue, and gleefully pound a beer in front of the suited working types of this areas business district. All the way down is Checkpoint Charlie, obviously packed with tourists and such. Take a left on Oranienstrasse and follow all the way into the more grimy and hipster-laden and of Kreuzberg.
The comparison to Brooklyn to Berlin is repeated over and over again. But let me tell you the truth. Berlin is German, that’s it. If anything, many styles of Brooklyn have been co-opted from the Berliners, not vica-versa. Nothing can compare to Berlin. It stands alone as the last bastion of cheap living for the artist in Western Europe.
But coming back into the States (yes, I have returned to Brooklyn), once greeted by the custom agent, I grinned widely, slammed my bags down, and confessed: “Goddamn it! It's good to be back in the States!” The custom agent, usually a solemn bunch, punched my passport, and said grinning back: “Welcome home.” He knew I was no terrorist. I looked too relived to be back on home soil.
It felt good to speak English and not be judged for it. The taxi line at JFK even felt warm and cozy (listening to the screams of angry drivers and the full hard press of the horns in traffic). People were swearing everywhere. Taxi’s were playing hip-hop loud through the speakers. Every one was ignoring everyone else, and moving fast toward their destination, all with angry grimaces and tired eyes. I was home. I was happy.  
I was back in New York City. My favorite town.

And who knows what would await me upon my return?




Saturday, November 15, 2014


           There’s no better way to really understand a place or time than when you are away from it. Currently, I am in an undisclosed location, floating between this world and the next, and free from the regular constraints of time and space. I think back to the past two months, the adventures, the trials and tribulations, all the fucking red meat. It seems like a hundred different worlds, all strung together by memory, and the long Strassen, stretching out in front of me.  
            Did I mention all the red meat?
            Vegetarians of Germany, my heart goes out to you. From Currywurst to Bratwurst, Blutwurst to Weisswurst, Bockwurst to Gelbwurst; these line the aisles of every food store in Berlin. All screaming at the stomach, ‘you will shit horrible for days with us!’ Terrible. The meat is fine. But staring, often times slightly high from Amsterdam weed, at the rows and rows of sausage at Netto like monotonous rolling hills of swine flesh, I can only assume this is what any veggie nightmare would look like.   
            There are some vegetarian options, sure, but for the gluten free, you, my friends, are in the Devil’s Den. Beer is EVERYWHERE. And cheap, fine beer, indeed, no doubt—truly some of the greatest beer I have ever tasted comes from the Fatherland.
Don’t forget the potatoes and the bread. For you gluten-free people out there, get ready to only eat beets and sauerkraut as your meals. Oh, and the broccoli. You guys can have some broccoli, too, they like that.
These types of Germanic meals says one thing about the people: Fortification. Meat, potatoes, and beer. All you need for the war. Whichever one we are talking about—because with the German people, life is a war. Whether it be to caught in the Wagnerian arms of the Weimer Republic, or the booted insanity of Fascism led from crippling unemployment, to tearing down a walled division between brothers and sisters, Germany (specifically the Berliners) is at war all the time, even if it is with its own history.
I was drinking in Berlin: in Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Mitte, and Friedrichshain. I walked through the maze paths of the Teirgarten, stood at Brandenburg Gate on the 25th anniversary of the Wall coming down. Just after hearing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony live at the Berlin Philharmoniker in full.
It was only in the late hours of the night did I meet the angry youth of Berlin. Some outsiders, boys who had to watch their mother’s cry when the GDR fell. All in one night none of your property is worth anything and your currency is a joke. The West had won. Then there’s the stories boys told me about their grandfathers being Nazi’s. Sitting there on a bar stool right next to me, eyes almost brought to tears. “So you hate me too?” one asked me. I stared him down serious. The last blood relative in Germany had been my grandfather, killing Nazi’s. I said: “You are not responsible for the sins of your fathers.” We drank whiskey on that note. Hell, my bloodline could have killed some of his bloodline. Creepy thought.  
There are always two sides to any story. This kid was on the wrong side of history, even before he was born.  
By the time Nirvana’s first record was released, some these people were up-rooted, and tossed to the side. Sure, the rich were fine in Pankow. But a whole working class had to leave in 1989, some to Wedding.
Oh, Wedding (pronounced V-edding). Berlin’s Queens. One night I went out with some ‘actual’ German’s. They were fine people, one a psychotherapist, the other, a writer. We all cliqued immeadiatly. Plans were made; beers (endlessly available at the local bodegas) were drunk. Three bars later, all of us ended up at some locals joint in Wedding at 4 in the morning. I don’t have a phone or a clue where I am. At that point, it didn’t really matter. This was one of my first adventures with folks from the country itself. I couldn’t be happier. The Germans have a strange sense of humor and the glasses of beer (mugs, really) came sloshing our way. How strange is their ‘humor’?
Example 1: "schadenfreude". There is no other word in any language that shares its definition. It is the ability to find pleasure in other peoples’ misfortune. I had encountered several instances of this phenomenon while out in the night. Some German locals explained I didn’t ‘look German’, and that ‘outsiders were not welcome’. When I asked what exactly I did look like, the answer was ‘not from here.’
The German new friends I made were not like this, of course. They were gregarious after 12 beers, laughing and telling stories in their native tongue. I just sort of sat there, trapped behind a glass wall of language. Then I realize how much language separates us. All those language classes I ignored in college. I want to know all languages now. I want to become a walking Berlitz.
I go to the bathroom. Pissing, I reflect on my life back in Brooklyn, think about the friends I left behind and people I knew. I thought of the petty dramas. I remember the amazing parties my collective threw. I smiled and zipped up. What time could it be? 4? 5? Did it matter?
I walked out of the bathroom. Everyone was gone.
“No,” I whispered. I went to the door, past the looming locals watching me cross the room. I burst outside. Still dark. But they were gone. All of them, including the strange passive-aggressive Irishman we picked up along the way, nowhere to be seen. I feel the bitter cold chill my bones. My jacket was inside. That was the first revelation. The second was that I had no idea where I was in the city of Berlin. The 3rd—I didn’t have a phone. There was no choice now.
I went back into the bar and one foot in the record scratched. All of the men, large, working men in hoodies and plaid (not the Seattle 90’s version of any of that), stared me down. I go to the barmaid (I can say this gender stereotype of ‘barmaid’. She was a badly tanned woman squeezed into a tight, under fitting Bavarian beer girl outfit).
“Ein Bier, bitte?” I ask. She gruffly points to selection I also cannot understand. I gesture to the first one. She slams the mug in front of me, when I am approached by a burly Aryan who saddles right up next to me. Eyes locked on me, his face sweaty red-pink and twisted, as if he smells something terrible. I do the only thing I can do, still pickled drunk from my disappeared German friends. I turn to him, raise my glass, wrinkle my face the same.
“Prost,” I say. He meets my beer glass with a clank and downs half of his. I down half of mine. It’s like a Japanese showdown, the two warriors emulating each other’s stances before the battle. It’s me or him. And he’s built like a tank, 6’5”, 300 pounds easily. Me, 5’11”, 180. But I am brave.
He starts in, bad pronunciation and all. “No English!” He exclaims.
I smile meekly. He must be referring to the previously disappeared party antics hours before. I remember him leering at us the entire time we walked into his bar. I know how this goes. Hell, we used to play Cyndi Lauper on the regular on The Subway Bar’s jukebox back in the day, much to many of the regulars chagrin. He repeats: “No English. This is Germany!”
I wipe some of the spittle of my nose. Now I get it. Foreigner in a foreign land. I’ve been in Barcelona after Iraq War II. I’ve been to Paris. But never had I felt more like an outsider, and reminded of that fact, than in Berlin.
The giant continues. I get it. I get it. Simply because I was ‘over it’, I break from this man’s tirade (at this point barking at me in German) and go to the jukebox. Music, I figure, is the only solution between the cultures. One of the first records in the juke was Beastie Boys “License To Ill”. It was also the 2nd record I ever owned (the first, “Raisin’ Hell” RunDMC). I pick “No Sleep ‘Till Brooklyn.”
The song blares loud. I walk back proud and pound my beer. If this guy is going to punch, this was his last chance. He doesn’t. He takes a moment, listens to the beat. Then he blurts out, right at the chorus: “No sleep ‘till!”
“That’s where I live,” I say in plain English, slamming down my mug. I nod my head to the giant and walk right out into the black night. I don’t know what direction to walk in, or how long it will take. I was going to make it home one way or another.

Till next time: The Final Summation Part Two (The Berlin Edition #5)