It was 1983 and I was a guest of the West German Cultural Academy (Akademie der Kunst) in Berlin. It was the first time I visited there; and the first time I saw The Wall it almost brought me to tears that I could be p[art of a race of beings who could be so stupid and so mean. (I’ve gotten used to it since then and accept humanity for what it is. )
I was staying at the Akademie building in the Tiergarten, which is kind of like staying in Central Park except there’s no official building for artists/writers in NYC. I suppose you could count the museums, for dead artists.
Anyway, one morning I awoke at dawn and called a taxi and had it take me to Checkpoint Charlie, where I crossed over to East Berlin. On the Communist side I had to change a bunch of Deutschmarks for their Marks, which were worthless in the West.
It was barely light and suddenly I was in a completely different world.
I saw this older, stout woman with 2 shopping bags, one in each hand, walking towards me across the street from where I was. She stepped off the curb and fell flat on her face. I rushed to help her and squatted down beside her. She lifted her face and her glasses had broken and a big chunk of lens was sticking out of the middle of her forehead and blood was streaming down her face.
Out of seeming nowhere there was a cop dressed in a uniform as gray as the morning. I helped him get the woman to her feet. Then he ordered me on my way. He seemed furious and I wasn’t sure if it was at the woman for falling or at me for seeing it.
I had breakfast in a workers café where the night shift workers were drinking. It was the Hundred Year Anniversary of Karl Marx's death. Every shop window had to display his portrait. I saw a lingerie shop that had indulged in a bit of satire, it seemed to me. Their photo of Marx had brassieres affixed to the window like rays of the Sun radiating from Marx’s visage. I took a photo. It is now in one of the many boxes that comprise the dustbin of my obscurity.
Anywhere I saw the Wall, it was slate gray and clean. On the Wall in the West, it was covered with graffiti. So, any of you folks who condemn graffiti, think about that.
My last stop before returning to the West side of the Wall was in a square where there was a peddler selling toys off a cart. I bought my recently born son an anarchist doll. It was a figure with a brown cape, white beard, floppy black hat, and one arm with a fist at the end of it that you could raise up and down.
I still had a bunch of East German marks in my kick., Everything was super cheap. I had a lemonade at a café and left the waitress the rest of my East marks. When I handed her the money and told her to keep it, she got a very fearful look on her face and looked around to see who had noticed, then pocketed the dough and turned away with a murmured “danke”.
My return presented another problem. There were no signs leading to the frontier crossing. No one I asked knew where or what Checkpoint Charlie was. I found it pretty much by accident and because my internal sense of direction tends to be pretty good.
When the Wall came down, 25 years ago this weekend, I cheered at the images on TV. The event was overwhelming to a lot of people. My German literary agent had a heart attack and never recovered. I spoke with him on the phone before he passed and he told me that he never believed it would happen in his life and he was glad to see it, but the shock of it was too much to handle.
Nowadays, I hear about people wanting to build a Wall at the Mexican border and all I can think is “Never a shortage of stupid people who think they’re smart when they follow bad leaders."
Peace and prosperity to all.