The Global Economic Crisis — Seen In The Outstretched Hands of Berlin’s Poor
I park my bicycle in front of the organic grocery store and lock it among the others. I’m proud of my bike, a Gudereit Fantasy Classic, which together with the lock and child seat cost around eight hundred euros or close to a thousand dollars. Among the other bikes stationed there it is nothing special. It’s solid bike, reliable. I ride to my office and back home each day, some ten miles in total. With its wide, flat streets, Berlin is a great city for biking.
My aim is to shop and get home quickly. It’s already after six and my daughter only has another hour left before bed. I enter the store and grab a basket, and see that the young woman is sitting there again. As I start shopping — beginning with bread and cheese, moving on to produce — I reach into my pocket and touch some coins. Judging from size and weight, I know one of them is a single euro coin and the others are smaller denominations, perhaps one euro and fifty cents altogether or around two dollars depending on the exchange rate. For the past four years I have earned dollars and spent euros, and thus follow the ebb and flow of the dollar/euro exchange with the same tenacity an avid baseball fan follows batting percentages and earned run averages. At times, I even watch currency videos on Bloomberg news, looking to the financial sages for wisdom about when to make the most advantageous transfer of my paltry sums. Somehow, the credibility of these wise people has lasted through the financial crisis and beyond. Even my own faith, while shaken, has not entirely collapsed — or rather, it has collapsed completely and totally — but what is there to replace it? Chaos? I pull my hand out of my pocket, knowing that the change is destined for the young woman who sits in front of the store each day.
She appeared a year ago, or two, or three — around the same time my daughter was born; or maybe that’s when I first noticed her. She started showing up one winter. I know it was winter because she was wearing layers of thick woolen clothing and it wasn’t until spring that I noticed she was pregnant. In late summer of that year (whichever year it was) she disappeared. Another woman took her place. After some weeks or months (I wasn’t paying much attention) the first woman returned. She seemed undernourished, malnourished. Her skin had a distinct yellowish hue. Accompanying her was a baby and sometimes also a small boy. Her begging style hadn’t changed, though. She asked with nothing but her eyes — a plaintive, devastating look of need and desperation.
The woman’s ways were perfectly matched to the venue. The patrons of the organic grocery, including myself, gave to her generously. Mothers found in her another being to protect, shelter and nurture. Young fathers (like myself) basked in their newfound feelings of paternal responsibility by slipping her a few coins. Women of a certain self-confident middle-aged type would engage her in lengthy conversations. The woman’s basket always contained a few pieces of newly gifted organic fruit, often a bottle of unfiltered local apple juice.
I move through the aisles collecting things as quickly as possible. Apples, milk, cucumbers, tomatoes, yogurt, meat: my basket starts to press against my arm. I go to check out, wait in the long line and then flash my membership card to the cashier. The bike, the membership card — these are components of the costume of an emerging Berlin class: young parents with money. And even though I don’t have much money and more often than not buy groceries on credit, I still have money, enough money. The cashier swipes my card. I pack the groceries into two cloth bags and sign the receipt. As I move toward the door, I ready the coins. The woman deploys her look. I feel ashamed by it and pull the coins from my pocket. Out comes her hand. I place the coins on her palm, my fingertips brushing her skin. Without even looking down to see what I have given her she responds with a deep nod of appreciation, almost a bow. It jars me, as it always does, and I rush to my bike, trying not to look at the woman again.
As I ride home, taking care not to jostle my bags too much, the image of her hands flashes through my mind. Her hands are drastically out of proportion with her body. While her body appears thin, girlish, and undernourished, her hands are the length and girth or someone standing six-foot-five and weighing over two hundred pounds. The immensity of her hands and their swollen appearance point to sickness, I suspect, maybe a deteriorating nutritional balance, perhaps a childhood disease, possibly a genetic disorder. When I consider this, I feel, despite our recent touch, how distant she and I are from each other. How many fifty-euro notes, I wonder, would it take to shrink her hands to the size of mine?
I round the corner on my bike and pull onto the sidewalk. He is standing in front of the building adjacent to my daughter’s nursery school. Though it’s springtime, he’s wearing the same dark blue knitted hat that he’s been wearing all winter. I brace myself for the daily encounter.
“Hello, my friend,” he says to me in German as I slowly glide past.
“Hello,” I say.
“How are you? Everything good?”
“Yes,” I tell him, “everything’s fine.”
I turn into the building that houses the nursery school. I push open the large orange door, park the bike and take my daughter down from the seat. She’s in a sensitive mood, repeating that she doesn’t want to go to school today. She wants to stay with me. When I tell her I have to get to work, she doesn’t seem to believe it, probably because I don’t really believe it. In fact, each day when she asks to come with me, I feel increasingly sure that she is right and I am wrong. The work seems irrelevant, a bad choice.
After a few minutes of struggling to part with my daughter, her teacher comes over and intervenes, allowing me to slip away with a minimum of guilt. I push the door open and reenter the city. I pause to gather myself. I watch as others speed by on their bikes with bags strapped to them. They are headed to their jobs. They work with determination and purpose, betraying no hint of my general uncertainty. There’s only one German father at the school who seems as emotionally flummoxed by the drop-off moment as I am. Each day, he spends ten minutes at the window waving his daughter goodbye.
I now prepare for the second pass by the man in the blue hat. As I position myself on the bike, I reach into my pocket and search for a coin. I find one and draw it out — two euros. Fine, I say to myself, today I will give to him. I haven’t given him anything in weeks. The man might still place some hope in me, even if it’s a weakening hope. Two or three more days of parsimony and he won’t know me from the crowd.
I glide over to where he’s standing. He’s holding a small stack of newspapers that the homeless around Berlin sell on the streets and subways. His feet are shuffling back and forth, not too much but enough to draw awareness to the constant motion. His torso sways back and forth like a man in prayer. His face changes when he sees me pull out the coin. His mouth changes, I should say, but not his eyes. For a few seconds my eyes lock with his. Those eyes! Glassy, moist, rheumy, bloodshot, bulging, wild and crazed — they are the most disturbing eyes I have ever seen. His eyes, I imagine, conceal an explosive force, a madness that I do not want to tempt into the sunny morning, into a space in such close proximity to where my daughter spends her days.
To the west I ride — moving through the traffic, trying to turn my thoughts to what I have to accomplish that day, but my mind cannot lurch beyond the man in the blue hat. No, my mind cannot move beyond his disquieting eyes. In some way, I feel a common bond with this man. He and I are both foreigners living in a foreign land. He speaks the same imperfect German I speak. The main difference between us, it seems to me, is that this man is insane and I am not. I am sane — and do sane things like drop my daughter off at school and drive to work on my bicycle. Why is this man where he is? What forces brought him from who knows where to precisely here — the sidewalk in front of an Edeka supermarket in Kreuzberg — to beg for coins? This man with demonic eyes is a grotesque of sorts — an allusion to a deep social and historical malady. What, exactly, is the cause of this malady? What could be its cure? My mind wanders. I pick up the pace and feel my shirt beginning to stick to my back with sweat. The man will be gone when I return for my daughter in the afternoon. His position in front of the Edeka is a morning one. A German man in an old soft-brimmed hat, selling books and occasionally playing guitar, works the later shift.
It’s Saturday morning and I’m on my way to the bank to withdraw 500 euros from my American bank account in order to deposit it into my German one. I’m feeling pretty good because the day before the euro dropped to one of the most favorable rates since I moved to Berlin many years ago. The city is quiet and peaceful. The sun is out. It feels good to wear a short-sleeve shirt after the long winter.
I enter the park by passing under two blossoming cherry trees. The park is nearly empty at this early hour. Even the gangs of drug dealers are still asleep, retired long ago after the late-night club goers had successfully procured their provisions. During the past few weeks I had been considering whether I should start to smoke pot occasionally, a habit I’d given up after college. Some kind of new adult stress had been getting to me. My marriage was rocky; parenting was draining. Then I remembered that pot made me even more anxious. Drinking made me depressed. What was I to do? As I walk along the park’s dusty path I come to one decision: I need to stop checking the exchange rate. I had become addicted to it, obsessively trying to puzzle out the trajectory of the euro/dollar exchange. What were the reasons for the dollar’s rise, the dollar’s fall? What mattered? What was just noise?
I cross the street and pass beneath the aboveground metro line. A yellow train snakes by overhead. This morning, I remember, my wife has plans to take our daughter to visit a friend in Friedrichshain, meaning it will be quiet at home. I walk through the square. The restaurants are closed. The only sound comes from the sparse morning traffic and the few kids on the playground. When I get to the bank I see that a vandal has struck it again. Over the past few years someone has busted out the bank’s many large windows at least a dozen times. I scan the walls and see that this time is no different. Every window is broken. It’s likely the work of a Kreuzberg anarchist and I find myself, despite deep anarchistic sympathies, revolted by the act. Berlin has seen enough violence.
I get to the door and, as always, he opens it for me. Without application or appointment, this man has decided on a job for himself. He will stand outside this bank every day and open the door for people to enter and exit. Though I find it satisfying to open doors for myself, I respect the man’s efforts and often toss a couple of spare coins into his hat. On more than one occasion I saw him take care of a patron’s dog while the man or woman did his or her banking. He didn’t just hold the leash but crouched down and scratched the dog behind the ears. At some point, I heard him speak English and realized he wasn’t German but American. Before knowing he was American (and even after) I would return his German greeting with a German response. Today, I think as I withdraw and then deposit my cash, I’ll speak to him in English.
“Vielen Dank,” he says to me when I toss a fifty-cent piece into his hat.
“No problem at all,” I say as I look into his face. His eyes are squinty from facing toward the sun. When he hears me, he seems to smile. At the very least, he opens his mouth and exposes his teeth, which I see are nothing more than a partial set of rotting stumps, more brown and green than white and yellow. “Have a good day,” I say and turn away.
“You, too,” I hear him say behind me.
The café around the corner has just opened and the scent of fresh waffles spills out into the street. I slowly make my way toward home.
Seth Rogoff is the author of “First, the Raven,” recently published by Sagging Meniscus.