Bryan R. Monte – The Last Harvest
The Last Harvest
by Bryan Monte
I’d been working for nearly a year in San Francisco as a free-lance reporter and interviewer on a weekly, gay radio programme. One morning in May 1990, I got a call at my day job at an insurance company from the publicist for the International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
“How would you like to have some surprise guests next month from the festival?” she asked.
“I’m game,” I said.
“I can’t tell you who they are, because I’m not sure if I can get them, but if I can, you’ll have an exclusive.”
“OK,” I said not knowing whom she would send. I quickly mailed off a note to the radio station in Berkeley for the monthly listeners’ calendar “Special surprise guests, Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.” Then I went back to the spreadsheet I was making for my company’s California state rate filing. It went down at least 50 rows and across so far that the alphabet repeated itself in the column headings.
The day of the interview the publicist rang me again.
“How’s your German?”
“A little rusty, but I can still get by,” I said being modest. I’d breezed through German courses at Berkeley to pass my reading and writing proficiency after having lived in Hanover, Germany for six months. In addition, I’d grown up in a small town in Ohio where the high school choir sang Mendelssohn’s eight-part Heilig to open the annual Christmas concert and the public school system offered six years of German.
“How would you like to interview the director of the East German film, Coming Out, and one of his actors?” she asked.
“Get out!” I’d read her publicity packet, complete with 3 by 5 inch black and white glossies, she’d sent a few weeks earlier. I knew that the director, Heiner Carow, and an actor, Dirk Kummer, would kick off the film festival that weekend at the Castro Theater. Coming Out, their film, had won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. I couldn’t believe my luck nor how little time I’d have to prepare for the interview that evening.
In the days before Internet websites and Google, all I could do that day was draw on my past knowledge and experience related to East Germany. Twice in 1978 I had crossed from West to East Berlin. I had visited bookstores, had meals in restaurants, and attended concerts before, Cinderella-like, I’d had to cross back before midnight or risk being detained. I remembered standing in a line for hours at the Friedrichstraße S-Bahn station next to one-way mirrored windows as East German border guards, with machine guns slung over their shoulders, paced back and forth in the hall.
Finally, I got to show my passport to a man behind a bank teller’s grilled window. He asked me the same questions over and over again. “What is the nature of your visit?” “Do you know anyone in the German Democratic Republic?” “Do you have any printed material?” “How much money do you have with you?” “How much money are you planning to change?” Then I changed my hard, West German marks for East German marks at a rate of one to one even though the East German marks weren’t worth a quarter as much.
On my first visit, I spent my first hour or two around Alexanderplatz, crowned by the giant, glass ball radio and television tower built by the Swedes. To the officially atheistic, East German government’s consternation, however, sunlight reflected on the ball’s windows created a gold Roman cross that couldn’t be masked despite several attempts to change the glass’s reflectivity.
Since it was noon by the time I made it to Alex, I spent some of my East German marks on bratwursts, which were cooked on giant electric grills in front of the Neptune Fountain. The thirty-foot high god, triton in hand, sat on an open shell held up and surrounded by mythological water minions. Then I walked north under the station again and past the round World Clock, with its wire atom model atop, to East Germany’s flagship bookstore. Here in a two-story shop were many German classics reprinted by Insel-Verlag, Leipzig, at half the price as in the West. I purchased Goethe’s Faust mit Urfaust for a college friend. Next, I bought a copy of Heine’s Buch der Lieder, the inspiration for many of Schubert’s Liederen that I’d been learning since I was 16. Last, I asked a female clerk what she would recommend for contemporary poetry. She suggested Ich mach ein Lied aus Stille (I Write a Song from/out of Silence) by Eva Strittmatter which had won the Heinrich Heine Poetry Prize in East Germany two years previously. I wondered at first if the woman was trying to tell me something about the political situation in East Germany. Then after I read the rhyming poems inside which sounded a lot like Heine’s poetry, I decided her suggestion had been innocuous. I thanked her and purchased all three books, which, to my surprise, she quickly wrapped in a coarse grain paper with a pattern that looked as if it had been hand stamped. Then she sealed the paper with one green rubber band. In comparison, in West Berlin, books were wrapped in smooth, glossy paper and sealed shut with Scotch tape.
From the bookstore I walked back under Alex in the direction of the fountains and towards the Museuminsel (Museum Island) and the Pergamon Museum. There I spent an hour or two admiring its two great treasures – the Pergamon Altar with its friezes and statues of Greek gods and heroes and the purple and gold glazed bricks of the 47-foot high Babylonian Ishtar Arch decorated with lions, aurochs, dragons and flowers. The arch had once been one of the Seven Wonders of the World and it was the smaller of two arches archaeologists had brought back to Germany in the late 1800s. The larger gate, over 100 feet tall, was still in crates because it had been too big to reconstruct inside the museum. (Years later I would visit the British Museum and realize that the Altar looked in better shape than the Elgin Marbles even though the Pergamon had suffered several direct hits during WW II).
After visiting the Pergamon, I decided to explore some of East Berlin’s sights off the beaten path. Just two streets south of Unter den Linden I found myself in a square with two mirrored buildings whose towers and grounds had been destroyed by what I assumed were WWII bombardments. One was inaccessible; its staircase still piled high with rubble. From the second, however, the rubble had been removed. It looked like some ancient Greek ruin similar to what I’d just seen at the Pergamon. I walked up its pockmarked steps into the building’s interior. In the centre of the building grew a three-story-high tree towards the open sky above the missing cupola.
A bald, white-bearded man in khaki shorts with an old, silver plate accordion camera, complete with cape, was also in the building taking pictures. I asked him: Was ist der Name dieses Platz?
“It used to be called Französischer Dom,” the man said which at the time I thought meant French cathedral, but which I later found out meant French dôme. It was part of two identical churches facing each other across a square, completed by Kaiser Friedrich II in the 1780s, which had been heavily damaged by WWII bombardments. I couldn’t tell if the East German state had left them ruined as a reminder of the Great War Against Fascism or whether, like many churches in prominent places, they were left to decay as a reminder of the East German government’s atheistic ideology. At any rate, without thinking, I took out my compact, plastic, battery-powered, self-winding, Japanese camera and snapped a few pictures of the tree. I did in seconds what would have taken this man hours to accomplish. He gave me a look as if he wanted to hurt me, so I quickly left the building.
I walked around in the neighbourhood for another hour. I noticed two tower blocks that had been built in the 1960s or ’70s, between the ruined churches and the Wall, almost as if to hide the view of the ruins from the West. And even though hundreds lived in this neighbourhood, I saw no one on the street. Every now and then I heard a bit of recorded music from an open window or a car in the distance. For a place with so many apartments, however, it seemed strangely deserted. Then I decided to make my way back to Friedrichstraße.
I discovered to my horror, however, that during my exploration I’d lost my way. I tried retracing my steps back to Friedrichstraße, but every time I kept ending up in the wrong place. I didn’t have a map with me because I’d been told bringing Western maps into East Berlin was illegal and punishable by fine or jail sentence. Eventually I found my way back to an S-Bahn station, but it wasn’t Friedrichstraße. It was five in the evening and everyone was rushing about, probably trying to get home for dinner.
I stopped a middle-aged woman wearing a scarf over her head and asked: Wie komme ich zum Westen? She stood there unresponsive as if I just said something unintelligible even though I knew my German was correct. Then I realized my mistake and I rephrased my question: Wie komme ich zum Friedrichstraße? The woman’s face immediately lit up with intelligence, and she told me the way. The next time I was in East Berlin, I bought a map of the city centre so I wouldn’t get lost. But even then, I noticed that the streets along the western and southern edges just faded off into the white border, precisely where the Wall stood.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
At the end of my day at the insurance company, I stopped by the Goethe Institute for an hour on my way to the radio station. The Institute was very close, just a few blocks away and within a block of the red, gold and green Chinatown dragon gate. I skimmed through its books on post-WWII German cinema. I learned that Carow had had a modest career in the ’50s and ’60s. In 1968, however, he’d directed a controversial film, Die Russen Kommen (The Russians are Coming), which was banned. For two years Carow was persona non grata and not officially allowed to work as a filmmaker. In 1973, however, his Die Legende von Paul und Paula, (The Legend of Paul and Paula), was personally approved for release by East German president, Erich Honecker. The film was a hit, seen by 3 of the then 17 million East Germans. Clearly, Carow was a risk taker who had “suffered” for his art. Nervous, but enthusiastic, I couldn’t wait to interview this director and one of his actors that evening.
Carow and Kummer arrived at the studio about a half hour before airtime. I buzzed them in and their footsteps thumped up the studio’s sagging, creaking, wooden staircase. My three colleagues were startled because I had heeded the publicist’s advice to tell no one. Then, they were dumbfounded and angry when they realized whom I had in the waiting room.
“Why didn’t you tell us they were coming?” they grumbled.
“I did. It’s on the schedule. ‘Special surprise guests – Lesbian and Gay Film Festival’. I didn’t know myself, though, until this morning, who they were sending,” I answered honestly. There had been other times when big stars had requested explicit billing and not shown up. I had made it a habit to keep them secret, even from the other collective members, so if they didn’t show up, I didn’t end up looking like an idiot.
Carow and Kummer both wore very dark clothes – lots of blacks and grays, typical for Germans but a bit out of place for Northern California. Carow had straight blond hair with bangs that hung over his slightly wrinkled forehead. He was a little shorter than I am (5’ 8”) and had a thick barrel chest that hung a bit over his belt. He looked at me rather shyly though his wire-rim glasses. He wore a non-descript, dark gray blazer, a gray T-shirt with a stretched out neck, dress trousers with a thin leather belt, and a pair of hand-made, wide, black top-sewn shoes. Kummer, forty years his junior, wore clothes a bit more Western – jeans with a wide, black leather belt and a dark, long sleeved shirt. His hair was cut in a short mullet, similar to Bono’s from U-2.
I must confess, I’ve always been a bit disappointed when I’ve met stars in person – without makeup, the right lighting and with my own eyes – instead of through the magic geometry of the camera lens. My first impression of Dirk in person was different than that of the film stills. His nose seemed a bit larger and his cheeks and chin were slightly pinked with acne. Meeting him in person reminded me of the times I had passed a very pale and thin Marie Osmond, more than 12 years earlier, eating lunch at Brigham Young University’s Cougar Eat on my way to German class. The camera lens transformed both these stars, putting pounds on Marie’s thin frame and smoothing out the inconsistencies in Dirk’s face, which appeared more angular and rugged on celluloid. His high Germanic forehead and big hands were also a turn on.
I took Carow and Kummer into the lobby (all the other rooms were locked by the time our show began at 10 PM). I sat them down on a torn up, probably donated sofa and got them both a coffee. They were both very calm and down to earth, but Carow seemed tired, probably from a long journey, while Kummer was more alert, his right foot twitching with energy, like most 20-year-olds. I was slightly embarrassed by the station’s poverty, its broadcast booth soundproofed in places with yellowed, foam-rubber padding. The booth that evening also smelt of cigarettes, French fries and beer.
I quickly got down to work telling them about the interview’s time limit, ten minutes, and the show’s overall format – first, the news and then right to their interview and then another forty minutes of book and film reviews, call ins and music with my three colleagues. Typical East Germans they quickly told me to use the informal “du” instead of the formal German “Sie” and to call them by their first names. Dirk told me very politely that they wouldn’t be able to stay for the whole show. The publicist would collect them downstairs right after their interview. I sank down in my chair. I had wanted to drive them back to San Francisco and have a drink, but they probably needed to get back to their hotel rooms right away.
As Heiner and Dirk finished their coffees, I previewed the interview questions and wrote their answers in black magic marker on a large spiral notebook that was attached to a clipboard. I’d learned long ago that sometimes even big-name guests blacked out once the red, ON AIR sign on the microphone over their heads lit up.
When we went on the air, though, they answered the questions as seasoned pros. I didn’t have to use the clipboard once to keep the conversation going. I asked them to describe their feelings the night their film, Coming Out, had premiered and the Berlin Wall had come down. How had the coincidence or synchronicity of these two events, artistically and literally tearing down the walls of oppression, affected them?
Dirk described his amazement as he emerged from the cinema premiere to hear that people were walking across the top of the wall in defiance of the authorities, just a few weeks after hundreds had been arrested in peaceful protests across East Germany. At first, he couldn’t believe it, but when he saw the Vopos (Volkspolizei or East German border police), trying to get people to come down from atop the wall, he knew that something extraordinary was happening. The Vopos had set up a table or wooden platform next to the wall so people could step down safely. As each person descended, however, he or she chanted: “The Wall must come down!” and then jumped onto the table with a “Whump!” Dirk said he would never forget that chant “The Wall must come down” followed by the “Whump” which continued into the evening.
During the interview I asked my questions first in English, then translated them into German so Heiner could answer, and then translated his responses back into English. Dirk knew more than enough English to answer questions directly, even if his grammar wasn’t always perfect and his intonation rose a bit at the end of statements.
It was quiet in the booth after Heiner and Dirk had left. My colleagues said very little to me for the rest of the broadcast. At the time, I didn’t think very much about it. I went straight home that evening and stayed up until 2 AM writing up a story about the two men and their film for one of the local gay newspapers. Early the next morning, the publicist called again. She invited me to the film festival’s press reception in the Castro Theater lobby that Friday.
When I arrived that night, I had my photo taken with Heiner and Dirk by Rink, the Diane Arbus/Weegee of the lesbian and gay community. Instead of chasing ambulances and police cars to photograph wrecks and homicides, however, Rink regularly turned his camera on LGBT fashion or social disasters such as drag queen and leather parties, tuxedo/evening gown events, or politicians chasing after the gay vote, in addition to the real celebrities who came to town like Allen Ginsberg, Gus Van Sant or Elizabeth Taylor. I gave my business card to both Dirk and Heiner, hoping for a chance to talk to them again before they left town. Dirk gave me his card, but Heiner apologized, saying he’d used his all up. He wrote his address in my reporter’s notebook. The publicist then herded us to our front-row seats.
Heiner and Dirk were delighted by the restored opulence of the Castro’s silent-era film theater with its red flocked walls, gilded ceiling and pipe organ console that rose up out of the orchestra pit before a film to play a medley of American show tunes, ending with a hand-clapping chorus of “San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gates.” They were also taken aback by the exuberance of the gay and lesbian lefty audience who applauded enthusiastically when they went up on stage even before their film was shown.
The publicist or festival director had asked me if I would go up on stage and translate. I suggested that Dirk do it, since he’d done so well during the broadcast. I’d always been at home in front of a microphone in a sound booth. I wasn’t so sure how well I would do in front of a full house of 1,400. Dirk did just fine, accepting the festival director’s greetings and speaking on Heiner’s behalf.
Then they came back to their seats next to mine, the lights went down and we watched their film. It began with a night-time establishing shot of a busy, East German street – automobiles driving towards and under an elevated S-Bahn track with a train passing simultaneously overhead from right to left. Roman candle fireworks were being set off in a park, as the camera tracked an ambulance driving around a square to a hospital. Dirk’s character, Matthias, was rolled down a hall on a gurney after having taken an overdose because his married boyfriend, Philipp, had dumped him. The film then retrospectively depicted the two men’s difficult, frustrating relationship and what it had cost both of them – Matthias almost his life and Philipp, his relationship with his wife, his gay lover and his job as a high school teacher.
The film had a realistic (for 1989) depiction of East German gay bar life with the usual suspects – male transvestites and suit-wearing lesbians – but also shots of bored regulars sitting around waiting and drinking and smoking and hoping to meet someone.
The most poignant part of the film was a monologue by Walter, a gay man in his 70s, whom Philipp assaults in the bar after he discovers that Matthias has a new boyfriend and won’t take him back. Walter tells Philipp (after a dozen cognacs) that he was also in love once, 50 years ago, in the German Army during WWII, when he met the love of his life. Despite their attempts to keep their love a secret, however, they were betrayed, interrogated by the Gestapo and sent to the concentration camp. Walter had to wear a pink triangle. “A badge for the lowest of the low,” he said. He became a member of the Communist Party and the comrades saved him. After the war Walter worked to create a better world. “I was an activist from the very beginning. We worked very hard to end the exploitation of our fellow man. Today it doesn’t make any difference if your co-worker is Jewish or whatever – except if you’re gay. We forgot about the gays.” The film ended with an impromptu inspection of Philipp’s class during which he says and does nothing except stare out the window and answer: “Yes,” when the head of school calls his name.
Tears started streaming from my eyes. I felt the same way about the gay movement in the US. The civil and sexual rights movements of the 1960s had eliminated the miscegenation laws and had created equal opportunity in employment – at least on paper. By the mid- ’70s, unmarried heterosexual couples were no longer legally prohibited from renting accommodation in most major cities. Birth control pills and condoms were obtainable in most pharmacies and abortion was legal. But the gays, they forgot about the gays, who still had no legal right to housing and employment. No matter how hard they had worked with heterosexuals or African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans to end their exploitation, gays in 1990 in the US were still legally exploitable and politically expendable. And on top of that, they were dying by the thousands each year from an incurable disease that had reached epidemic proportions so that more than half of the gay men in San Francisco were infected. When I’d taught at an exurban Massachusetts’ high school after graduate school, I’d experienced the same increased degree of surveillance, censure and the need to prove myself that Heiner had depicted in his film. I moved back to San Francisco, after teaching in New England for just one year, to the only place I had ever felt free.
After the film, Heiner and Dirk were spirited away by the festival’s director before I had a chance to speak to them again. And even though there was a Market Street address printed on the after-film reception invitation, I couldn’t find it. At first I thought the party’s location was towards downtown, away from the Castro, but after driving that direction, I still couldn’t find it. I ended up driving back towards the Castro and then around in a loop two or three times towards downtown and back. Unfortunately, my boyfriend of nine months was in the car with me. My frustration with not being able to find the reception mounted until we got into one of those shouting matches that herald the end of a relationship no matter what the catalyst.
A few days later one of my colleagues from the radio show phoned. Towards the end of the conversation he mentioned that he’d rebroadcast excerpts from my interview on another radio station without my prior consent and for which he’d been paid. As a result I ended up getting into an argument with him and the “collective” – the two other men who always took his side on the show. Instead of the station manager disciplining my colleague, however, she offered me a slot on the Sunday evening news show. I declined. I wasn’t interested in being a regular news reporter. I loved my beat – the LGBT community. In addition, I wasn’t getting paid for my work; just for the extras I earned writing newspaper articles and press releases. My weekly news and interview segments took 10 to 20 hours to prepare – one hour for every minute I was on air. This was time I decided I could spend working on my novel or running a writers’ workshop in my home that would bring in extra income.
You see, by the early 1990s, San Francisco was one of America’s most expensive cities and it was A Tale of Two Cities. Gay men and lesbians, who had arrived in the ’60s and ’70s, generally lived in rent-controlled apartments twice the size of what I had for half the price. Or they’d bought homes or flats in the ’70s or even the early ’80s at half or even a quarter of what they cost in 1990. These lucky, older residents didn’t have the same financial pressures more recent gay émigrés experienced. In fact some of these ’60s and ’70s renters were what was known as super-tenants – having lived in the same apartments for years, they paid very low, rent-controlled prices. They then moved in two or three younger roommates at current market prices. This covered most, if not all, of the super-tenant’s rent and, in some cases, even generated income so he or she could write or paint and/or not have to work a regular job.
People such as myself, however, who had moved to San Francisco in the late ’80s, needed at least three jobs to stay afloat financially. The first, the big 9-to-5 day job, paid the rent, utilities, insurance, groceries, buying clothes at second-hand stores and going out to clubs that didn’t charge a cover. The second job, usually a volunteer or low-paying job such as my radio news reporting or teaching workshops at a university extension, gave the necessary experience for one’s CV to move ahead with a career, but paid next to nothing for this expertise. And the third, my evening ESL tutoring which I got through one of my writing students, built up my savings and what my father’s generation called your “tell the boss off” or “get out of town” money.
And if there’s one good thing my parents taught me, it was to be a planner and a saver. I had started saving money for college in elementary school. In 1990, I was on my second stint in San Francisco and the beginning of my third, five-year plan. The first had taken me in 1979 from Ohio to San Francisco and through Berkeley by 1983. The second had taken me from San Francisco in 1984 through graduate school on the East Coast and then back to SF in 1988. By 1990 I was preparing my escape from San Francisco and its expensive housing and healthcare and its massive AIDS crisis. Five friends had already fallen ill or died of AIDS. By the time I left in 1993, another five would become ill and later die, including a partner I would meet in 1991.
In addition, my insurance company, my bread-and-butter day job, was being downsized. Its greedy investors weren’t happy with the previous year’s 5.5% profit versus the 7% they could earn, due to a temporary inflationary blip, by investing their money in CDs. So the whole company was to be reorganized. Many of the company’s 17 offices from St. Louis to Honolulu were to be closed and every job would be reevaluated to determine if it was essential. This made everyone at Home Office, where I worked in the Actuarial Department, so tight with their money and tight-lipped during breaks and lunch hours that the company canteen slashed prices and finally had to close because so few people ate there. More and more employees began eating brown bag lunches while standing at Bart station telephones setting up interviews for new jobs.
My financial, relational and artistic problems, however, were the least of my problems. During the last four months, four people had been murdered within four blocks of my doorstep. I walked past the site of the last one, a Wells Fargo auto teller at 16th and Mission, one morning on my way to Bart to get to work. Someone had set up a sidewalk memorial complete with a bunch of flowers and six votive candles for an Irish student who had been knifed for $100. You could see where the pavement had been scrubbed with wire brushes to clean up the blood. Thus, my first priority was to move to a safer neighbourhood. My second was to keep my head down at work, although working in the Actuarial Department, I was fairly sure I would make it through the first round. No one else knew how to design the rate tables, troubleshoot the department’s network printers and manage the data backup as well as I did. Through a friend I had heard of a shared apartment down by the ocean in the Outer Sunset just beyond 48th Avenue. It might as well have been in Outer Darkness, though, as far as my gay friends from the Castro were concerned. No respectable gay man lived any further west than 7th Avenue. Leaving the radio show and moving to the beach, I literally fell off the map.
While preparing to move, I’d written Heiner and Dirk letters at the end of June telling them how much I liked their film and that I would like to visit them in Berlin when I travelled to Europe in September. Even before I’d met them, I’d already booked my second of what would become five annual, two-week visits to Europe before eventually settling there in August 1993.
I didn’t spend these holidays relaxing, though. Dressed in a blue blazer, button-down white shirt, red tie and khaki trousers, I visited all the English-speaking schools from Groningen to Maastricht dropping off CVs while looking for a teaching job. In between, if I had time, I would admire Old Masters in museums. On the first Thursday of the month I’d also visit my friends in Amsterdam at the Dutch gay Donderdagavond Eet Club, the Thursday Evening Dining Club. This club was founded by Floris Michiels van Kessenich, de Roze Jonker or pink nobleman, as his friends referred to him. He’d led demonstrations in the Netherlands for equal rights and had even interrupted one mass when priests had refused to give communion to practicing gay and lesbian Catholics. For a few evenings each year, I’d get together with these men and discuss gay politics and tactics and also art and culture. It was the type of civilized, integrated culture I missed in the US.
I left on holiday in early September having just moved into my beach apartment. I spent a week in the Netherlands, visiting the schools and the DEC, and then I got ready for my journey to Berlin.
Before leaving Amsterdam I had called all the “quality” economy places at the top of the bottom of the list in Frommer’s Europe on $50 a Day, but they were full up. Everyone and anyone it seemed was trying to stay in Berlin either for work or for sightseeing in the month before reunification. Then I got desperate and tired of being put off. I called a youth hostel and asked if they had an extra bed in one of the dormitories. The man on the other end, a Herr Detlef, said “Nein.” Before he could hang up, however, I asked if could reserve a double room for one person for a week, but I would only stay six days and pay for two people. I used an old sales trick I’d learned as a telemarketer while putting myself through graduate school – offer the customer a deal that’s so good, he can’t refuse.
“Ein Doppelzimmer für eine Person für sechs Nachten aber Sie wollen für sieben Nachten bezahlen?,” he said in disbelief with a pronounced rising intonation. I imagined his other guests barely had enough Deutsch marks to get through the week. I pictured them making their lunches from a shared loaf of sliced, supermarket bread, a large bottle of beer, wine or soda, and 400 grammes of assorted lunchmeats.
“Yes, a double room for one person for a week, but I’m only staying six nights,” I confirmed.
The line went quiet for a few seconds. Then he said, “OK,” and asked for my credit card details. He said he would debit the amount right away even if I didn’t show up. I agreed to his terms, hoping that would convince him I wasn’t a nutter.
I left on the night train that arrived at West Berlin’s Zoo station around breakfast time. I knew, even then, a new order was coming to Berlin. The glass roof above the station, which for decades had been opaqued gray by dirt and dust, was now crystal clear, revealing the blue sky and tall green trees that arched over the roof. Through these windows for the first time I could see the Berlin Zoo or Tiergarten for which the station was named.
In contrast to the isolated, down on its heels, divided city I had last seen in September 1978, Berlin was now an open, vibrant building site, drawing people from all over Europe, the US and Canada in preparation for its reincarnation as the German capital. Initially, I was a little bit nervous about my hotel’s Kreuzberg address even though the guidebook praised the former cigar factory’s quiet, side street location, inner court, cleanliness and order. Twelve years earlier when I had first visited Kreuzberg, it was one of Berlin’s most dangerous neighbourhoods. Its streets were lined with burnt-out, abandoned cars and every vacant wall was painted with graffiti. When I came up from the Mehringdamm U-Bahn station, however, I was pleasantly surprised. I saw Turkish men in their late 20s and early 30s, walking next to their head-scarved wives who pushed big, black prams with white rubber wheels down the green meridian of the busy Gniessenaustraße boulevard which now, instead of being carpeted with litter and used hypodermic needles, had neatly kept bushes, trees and flowers.
My telephone call in German with Herr Detlef had done the trick. In a hostel dominated by ten-bedded rooms and communal showers, I had got a self-contained apartment with its own bath, kitchen and dining areas, two single beds, a sofa, pots and pans and an ironing board and iron. I couldn’t believe my luck in a city with people streaming in from every direction, desperate to find work and put a roof over their heads. My room was suitable for writing and possibly entertaining. I now realize after having led college excursions to London and Dublin, that this room was probably intended for tour leaders so they could regain their sanity after spending the entire day with their charges.
I obeyed Herr Detlef’s admonition to say nothing to the other guests about the extra bed in the apartment. A young woman, however, the next morning at breakfast, sat down next to me. She was in her early 20s, a Los Angelean, she said, via Long Island, it sounded like, judging from her accent.
“I’m in Berlin scouting locations for a movie crew,” she said. Then she asked: “Do you know of any beds in the hostel that are still free?”
“No.” I lied.
“If you did, I’d be very grateful to you,” she said, trying to add a bit of seduction to her request.
“No.” I repeated. ‘Wrong number’, I thought. Perhaps if it had been her twin brother with the same brown, but much shorter, wavy hair and dark eyes, I might have reconsidered. I wondered how word of my spacious room had got out. I certainly didn’t think Herr Detlef had said anything.
Later that morning, on my way to Prenzlauer Berg to look up my own film actor and director, I was surprised to discover how uncomplicated it was to cross into what had previously been the Eastern or Russian Sector even though it was still a separate country. Out of habit, I’d got off the U-6 subway at Kochstraße to go through the checkpoint. But instead of having to queue for hours in the border offices, I was amazed that the checkpoint was deserted. Shocked, I walked through the empty building, my passport in my hand, which, through force of habit, I’d taken out of my secret vest pocket just as I’d walked into the building.
I walked towards the center of old Berlin along the main boulevard, Unter den Linden. I stopped at a post office along the way to get directions to Dirk’s apartment and to see if they had Heiner’s telephone number. The man behind the counter was very helpful. He told me to take the Pankow line to Dmitroff Strasse to get to Dirk’s. Then he wrote down Heiner’s phone number in the very distinctive German number notation, the unbalanced eights with their top circles falling to the right over the lower ones and the sevens with bars through the verticals.
From the Dmitroff Strasse U-Bahn station, I walked two blocks towards the Schönhäuser Allee, noticing the bullet holes in the brick buildings from WWII street fighting. From the peeling paint, missing stucco and rotting wooden boards on many of the buildings, it looked as if exterior work hadn’t been done since this time also. As I walked up the street, I passed a man shoveling coal on the sidewalk. I noticed the air in this part of Berlin also smelled acrid and sulphurous due to the poorly-refined, Eastern Block petrol and the lack of pollution controls on automobiles. I also had to watch where I walked due to missing or uneven paving stones in the street or on the sidewalk.
Then I turned the corner and went two blocks down the street where Dirk lived. I immediately noticed that every block seemed to have at least four metal dumpsters overflowing with concrete, plaster and wooden board refuse parked at the curb and one, late model, four-door Mercedes with West German plates. Finally I came to a building that was supposed to be Dirk’s address. From the outside, however, it looked like it was abandoned. At first I was afraid to go inside because I didn’t want to get mugged, but against my better judgment, I went in. The lobby was dark and had high ceilings. A little bit further inside I found some open mailboxes. Dirk’s was easy to find with its plasticized snapshot of the Kurfürstendamm attached with a white tack next to his name. Only then did I know I had the right address. I steeled myself, however, for the possibility that he might not be home or even worse, out of town since he hadn’t answered my letter. I walked up two flights. When I arrived on his doorstep, however, I thought I was in luck because I heard voices inside. I knocked.
“Ach, du!” Dirk said as he opened the door. Even though I’d written him, he was genuinely surprised to see me. I asked him if he’d got my letter. Ja, but he hadn’t had time to respond. Then he showed me around his cavernous apartment that he was renovating. The kitchen and the bathroom seemed enormous – at least twice the size of my six-by-six foot bathroom and eight-by-ten foot kitchen. Dirk showed me the Portuguese copper dolphin fixtures for his bathroom sink, tub and shower and the black and white floor tiles that were being installed by an East German workman or Facharbeiter as Dirk referred to him. Dirk’s apartment also had two, even larger, front rooms. Both overlooked the park across the street. He used one as a living room and the other for a bedroom. Instead about bragging about his apartment, however, he worried about the view out of his kitchen and bathroom – a courtyard filled with junk from current and previous construction projects.
“Yes, it looks bad now,” I reassured him, “but ten years ago, Kreuzberg looked bad and now it’s a model neighborhood.” Dirk agreed that in ten years he hoped his neighborhood would improve also. He said he enjoyed living close to the gay community in East Berlin. I wanted to tell him that in ten years, he’d probably be better off than I was in San Francisco, but I didn’t want to shatter the illusion so many people have of how much better things are for gay people there. Everyone dreams of sharing a restored, Queen Anne, Victorian row house on Alamo Square with the man or woman of his or her dreams. I can assure you, however, that very few of those who do move there ever achieve this goal.
Dirk confided in me that he’d had a fling with an Israeli actor, whom he met at a film festival in Italy. They’d exchanged letters and were horribly in love until Dirk had gone to Israel to visit him and then they had had a miserable time. I felt sorry for Dirk. He seemed like a genuinely-nice young man looking for love, but unable to find it. I hoped things would look up for him.
While we were talking, Heiner showed up. He had come by Dirk’s to collect him so they could look for locations together in Potsdam for Heiner’s next film. Dirk had been the assistant director of Coming Out, and I had the feeling he was one of Heiner’s protégés.
Heiner was astonished to see me and instead of looking worn out and out of breath as he had at the radio station, he looked great. He’d lost at least five kilos and looked more rested. He also wore lighter colors – light blue and tan versus the black and grays he’d worn in San Francisco, probably de rigueur for directors on the road who knew they would be photographed. I told Heiner how much I had enjoyed Coming Out, especially the love scenes between Dirk and the other actor, Mathias Freihof. I also mentioned how upset I was that I wasn’t able to see them after the film’s premiere at the Castro.
Heiner said he was also richtig enttäuscht (really disappointed), that he’d been whisked away by the festival director and that he was afraid it would look like he hadn’t wanted to spend more time with me. I told Heiner and Dirk about what had happened in the last few months – my breakup, the rebroadcast of excerpts from their interview, quitting my job at the station, moving to a safer neighbourhood and the reorganization of my insurance company. They were both astounded by how much my life had changed in just two and half months, especially that I had quit the radio station.
Since they had to get going, we made an appointment to get together Friday evening, to visit one of the bars and some other locations from Coming Out. As I walked back from Dirk’s apartment towards the center of Berlin, I was over the moon. Not only had I interviewed an East German film director and actor on the radio, written a newspaper article about them and looked them up in Berlin, but also I’d been invited to go out and see some of the locations where they’d made their film. I remember being so happy I seriously considered not getting back on the plane the next week to go back to my soul-numbing, bill-paying job in San Francisco. Maybe I could stay behind as a photojournalist and cover the last days of the DDR and the first months of Die Wende.
In the two days in between, I explored East Berlin again, trying to capture how it was changing. I walked around Alexanderplatz and photographed the new red and white Marlboro posters that covered almost every billboard in the above ground, S-Bahn station. Previously the same space would have been used for State messages about social and political solidarity. I also walked past the East German parliament building, Der Palast der Republik. I saw that the East German seal, with its hammer and sickle, had already been cut out of the center of the building’s front grillwork. Further down the road, I watched the changing of the guard in front of the East German war dead memorial with its eternal flame. As the relieved column of soldiers marched away single file, a man spontaneously broke from the crowd to march at the end of the line mimicking their steps à la Charlie Chaplin. A year earlier this would have got the man thrown into prison, but now, with the East German parliament across the street voting itself out of existence, anything seemed possible.
Not everyone, however, was happy with the change. A group of about 300 protestors had gathered in front of the cathedral across the street from the parliament building. They held signs, one that included the Bundesrepublik’s eagle shredding the East German hammer and sickle, along with some people hanging onto them, with its talons. They also used a light-blue sound truck to carry their message across the street. Their protest, however, was well contained by a block-long series of interlocking, metal riot gates. These prevented the crowd from suddenly swarming across the street and disrupting the proceedings in the Volkskammer. In addition, there were eight trucks full of East German soldiers parked at the other end of the cathedral square.
I walked further down the street and bought tickets to Swan Lake at the Opera House for Thursday evening. I was surprised at how inexpensive they were – 15 DM for the front row box circle. Tickets like that in West Germany or America would have cost at least five times as much. I also went to the East German National History Museum, which was holding the last GDR painters’ exhibition. Most of the canvases exhibited were either realistic, cubist or multi-media collages that seemed at least 50 years behind the times.
The next day I visited the Pergamon Museum. It looked much the same including the postcards in the souvenir shop that still had Hauptstadt der DDR printed on the back. Some of the galleries were still closed due to WWII damage. It didn’t really matter that afternoon. Walking up to that altar standing amongst those gods and heroes again, I could feel that Berlin was on the brink of celebrating an auspicious victory – a peaceful change of power due to the will of the people that hadn’t involved tanks, planes or bombs – and that was worth celebrating.
The performance of Swan Lake the next evening was probably one of the most unique I’ve ever seen. The ballet had been adapted so it had a political slant. A male joker, dressed in a white, tight body suit, painted with black, red and gold question marks, (the German national colours), interposed himself among the dancers, perhaps to symbolize the persistent uncertainty of German reunification. One interesting aspect of this performance was when the prince was offered his crown and robe, he didn’t take them due to the joker’s mocking pantomime of regal pomposity. The adaptation, however, continued to make some of the audience members increasingly upset. First they fidgetted, then they cleared their throats. Next, they guffawed and finally, they got up to leave during the performance. I wondered if these East Germans, who left in protest, realized that if they had done that in the old East, Stasi agents would have immediately noted their departure.
After the ballet I went next door to the Operncafé for something to eat. I remembered on my last visit in September 1978 that it had been filled with East German actors and television personalities with slicked back Elvis hairdos and ’50s style clothing. I discovered the prices for cocktails and ice cream were still incredibly inexpensive even though the hair and clothing styles seemed to have caught up with the times. I could still have a good, filling, after-ballet dinner for 6 DM. I stood by the door for a minute and then asked a blond waiter, using the formal German Sie, if I could have a seat.
“Here it is not necessary to be so formal and polite,” he said. “Just have a seat wherever you want and someone will come along to take your order,” he barked. Later, he seemed to have mellowed out when he came by my table. He apologized and took my order. I ruffled his feathers again, however, when I ordered the Cointreau aperitif. He didn’t recognize it. When I pointed it out on the menu, however, he understood immediately. I wondered if it had been a recent addition to the menu or whether he’d just started working there.
After leaving the Operncafé around 11, I walked back along Unter den Linden where people had gathered the day before for the protest. Even though it was late, I felt very safe. I think Berlin, East and West, must have had, at that time, one of the lowest crime rates of any major European capital. As I walked past the Palast der Republik, I noticed the police still had the crowd barriers up on both sides of the street, but it was much quieter because the protestors were gone.
Security was still high, though. I found this out later when I asked one of the policemen if I could go to the Volkskammer. “No,” he said, so I watched the group of 25 to 30 policemen gather around a black and white television that had been set up on top of the sound truck used earlier that afternoon by the demonstrators.
They were watching a late-night parliament session. Representatives were arguing over a law that proposed merging the West and East Berlin radio and TV stations. Those in the East, of course, were against it because they were afraid they would lose their voice.
In my trench coat and with my Walkman headphones on, I must have looked like someone from the foreign press, so the men moved out of the way so I could get a better view of what was on the TV. As I stood there, I watched the final chapter in the more than 140-year political struggle between Germany’s capitalists and communists and the end of the 45-year Allied military standoff. I wondered, however, if capitalism would create a better Germany. What would the East Germans get in exchange for their Krups coffee makers, Levis jeans and the freedom to travel to the West? I also wondered if the East Germans were prepared to fight to keep their jobs or find new ones in order to keep their large, fin de siècle city-centre apartments as I had fought to keep my head above water in San Francisco.
I left the cathedral square and walked down to the U-Bahn station to go back to the hostel. Down on the platform I was cruised by a stocky-looking guy wearing a dark-brown leather jacket, who was very obvious in his pantomime – thrusting his pelvis and stamping his matching brown boots onto the concrete platform like a stallion’s hooves. I declined. Even though I’m gay, I’ve almost always chosen safety over reckless sexual adventure and possible robbery and assault. I’ve rarely looked for companionship from strangers in bars. Mostly it’s been through work or shared interests like political clubs or churches. This conservatism or caution, my lack of fashion sense and my marginal knowledge of Marilyn Monroe films probably would have been enough to have had my gay card revoked — if I’d ever been issued one once I’d escaped Ohio for San Francisco in 1980.
Friday night I went by Dirk’s apartment at 7 PM, excited about a night out on the town with the two men. When he opened the door, however, Dirk gave me a worried look. As the door opened further, I saw his mother who gave me a somewhat cross look as if I were interrupting something. Dirk told me he couldn’t go out because his parents had arrived for the weekend to help him clean up his apartment so the workmen could install the flooring and woodwork on Monday.
“We didn’t know where to reach you,” he apologized. I spent a few minutes sitting in a chair uneasily watching Dirk and his parents as they moved about the apartment, hard at work, sweeping up dust, woodchips and nails. Then, there was a knock at the door.
“So,” Heiner said slapping me on the back as I walked back down the stairs, machen wir Abendessen!” I guess he could see I was a bit stunned and disappointed. I decided, however, to make the best of it and the spring in my step returned by the time we’d made it to the bottom of the staircase. We drove to the restaurant from Coming Out where straight and gay people had dined together.
Heiner asked what I wanted for dinner and I said I was unfamiliar with the menu. I told him he could order for both of us. He ordered a Russian soup with ground beef, onions, and tomato sauce as an entrée. For the main course, he ordered the most expensive item on the menu – filet with caviar. Earlier he had suggested a cheaper German meal (much cheaper – the filet was 45 DM and the German meal was 6.80 DM), but I decided to follow Heiner’s lead.
Then we proceeded to talk in German for the rest of the evening. At first I didn’t know if I was up for it. I’d spoken German before, even dreamt in the language when I lived in Hanover for six months in 1978. It had been a while, however, since I had spoken it for hours. Once I got going, however, I found that instead of getting a headache as I had feared, I seemed to loosen up and remember words and phrases to talk about all sorts of things. Of course, maybe the wine that Heiner had ordered helped me do that also.
I started the evening’s discussion by telling Heiner how much I liked Coming Out. He, in turn, asked me questions about comments generated by the film’s showing at the festival. I told him it had been a popular film and that people had praised its realism. Heiner said he had a stack of letters that he hadn’t begun to answer. So many gay people had written him saying it was the first time they had seen a realistic film about how they lived. I told Heiner that I was particularly impressed by Mathias’ portrayal of Philipp who was tricked into marrying a colleague and who loses his teaching job after coming out. In fact, the greatest revelation of the film for me was that gays in communist East Germany were just as oppressed as those in the capitalist US.
Heiner then started to talk about how difficult it was for gay men to be monogamous in Berlin, and, even if they were in a relationship, how suffocating that could be if one partner didn’t trust the other. He mentioned a man who became insanely jealous if his lover put pictures of other people on the walls or if he stayed out late.
I told Heiner about the pelvic-thrusting, boot-stamping man at the Friedrichstraße U-Bahn station. Heiner said I had missed an opportunity that could have been a lot of fun. I said I wasn’t sure, and besides, if I wasn’t ever going to see the man again, it wasn’t worth it.
Then we talked about unemployment in the new Germany. He said that one of the greatest losses of reunification was the closing of DEFA, the East German state film studio. Sixteen hundred people in this company had lost their jobs overnight. I told Heiner the way the newspapers kept reporting unemployment in Berlin, it sounded like something out of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Heiner seemed somewhat upset when I said that. He probably thought I was referring to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 13-part television series rather than the pastiche style Alfred Döblin used to weave newspaper articles into his own novel of the same name. Heiner immediately took offence to Fassbinder’s work, especially his film, Querelle, which he said gave a very distorted view of gay life. I agreed with him and said that it was very dreamlike, hyper-sexualized and not realistic. I countered, though, that Fassbinder’s Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun) was very realistic and good. Heiner seemed to accept this grudgingly.
After that we talked about wanting to meet someone with whom we could share our entire lives. He also talked about Matthias and Dirk’s affairs with men – Matthias with a Greek whom he was still seeing and Dirk with the Israeli with whom he’d broken things off.
I told Heiner about the trouble I had had in graduate school because I was “out.” I had had a boyfriend with whom I shared a one-bedroom apartment. It was a miracle we managed to stay together those two years. The landlord, people driving by on the street as we carried groceries home, or even the supposedly more enlightened students and faculty all gave us trouble. I mentioned the unforgiveable career blunder I made bringing my boyfriend to campus to one of the Writing Programme’s public readings. I discovered only too late that it had raised the hair, Medusa-like, of more than a few spouses whose husbands were prone to straying. As a result, even though I was a well-prepared, articulate student, a published writer and a presenter at the national English professors’ conference (with a paper entitled The Homosexual Discourse in R. W. Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz), I was blackballed from teaching on campus (a necessary prerequisite for a teaching career with the programme’s Master’s degree) or from getting a decent recommendation to a PhD programme so I could study further.
Heiner told me he’d also paid the price for sticking his neck out. After making his film, The Russians are Coming, in 1968, he’d had to repair cars for two years because he was officially shunned in the East German film industry. He was like Tomáš, the surgeon in The Incredible Lightness of Being, who after being labelled a dissident for following his mistress to Geneva and then returning with her to Czechoslovakia, ends up washing windows for a living. Heiner said it wasn’t until his Die Legende von Paul und Paula was released in 1973 that he was back in his colleagues’ good graces and “rehabilitated.”
I wondered if that was when Heiner had learnt the skills to keep his more than 20-year-old Peugeot running, but I didn’t ask. Heiner said he’d taped his old DDR auto sticker inside his car’s back window so no one could remove it. He said he was one of many people who were angry that all the sacrifices they had made over the decades to create an alternative, socialist state were being done away with almost overnight. He mentioned DEFA again, the first school for the disabled, and the Friendship Games, plus that in the GDR, people hadn’t worried about money, finding a job or paying rent because all these things had been guaranteed by the government. Now after the third of October, all of this would be eliminated or radically changed and the private sector would take over almost everything. Of course that meant that hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions would eventually be unemployed, even with all the renovation that was taking place in practically every East Berlin street. In addition, most East Berliners now worried about whether they should pay rent or buy their own apartments in order not to have to move once Berlin became the capital and real estate prices in the centre city shot up.
“Was bedeutet Freiheit wenn man keine Arbeit hat?” Heiner complained. “What does freedom mean, if you don’t have a job?” “Was bedeutet Freiheit wenn man Geld immer notwendig hat?” “What does freedom mean, if you always need money?” “Was geschieht, wenn Geld wichtiger ist, als du bist?” “What happens when money is more important than you are?” Heiner asked as we ate and drank more wine. What he said sounded like something from a 1920s Bertolt Brecht play, but it was 1990 and it could have just as easily applied to my situation in San Francisco as it did to the East Berliners.
After dinner we drove to a bar near the Schönhäuser U-Bahn where Heiner filmed the bar scenes for Coming Out. Here was where the drag queens had lip-synched and where Herman had had his talk with Matthias. Heiner said it had been renovated since he had been there last. The owners had added some steel I-beams over the bar, red lights, framed posters from Bogart’s Casablanca and a pinball machine. But there was still one long table in the backroom with a Reserved sign on it. The doorman took us directly there as we walked past a line of people waiting outside.
We ordered first two or three drinks in the backroom and then went back to the front room where we sat at a table waiting for the evening’s entertainment to begin. We talked a bit more. I noticed that in addition to the new Western décor, more than a few of the patrons were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the names of and scenes from Hollywood blockbusters such as Top Gun and Dirty Dancing.
We watched the show and then left around midnight. Heiner was a bit in his cups, so he drove slowly down the cobblestoned streets. Until then, I hadn’t really noticed Berlin had hills. As we drove back towards Alexanderplatz, I noticed what I assumed were a couple of West Berlin leather guys in full gear – boots, trousers, jackets, military hats and harnesses over their bare chests stumbling drunkenly in the direction of the bar we had just left. I thought about those “innocents” whose bar was already importing Western interior design and who were beginning to wear Western T-shirts. I wondered how long it would be before Western attitudes, prices, porno and AIDS (of which there had only been eight reported cases in the GDR before the fall of the Wall) were also imported.
On the way back to my hostel, we drove past the S-Bahn overpass and the apartment buildings Heiner had filmed in the establishing scene of Coming Out. I asked him if he would like to live there. “No,” he said immediately, then, realizing his mistake, corrected himself by saying that housing in the GDR had been cheap but comfortable, although it would soon no longer be so. Then we drove through an opening cut right through the Wall at Prinzenstraße in Kreuzberg to allow traffic East and West to flow a bit more freely until the whole structure was torn down.
Once back in the West, both of us were a bit disoriented, Heiner because he didn’t live there and I, because I’d always taken the U-Bahn and didn’t know the above-ground routes or landmarks. After driving around for a few minutes, I finally spotted the illuminated, blue-and-white, Mehringdamm U-Bahn station sign. We drove a bit further and then turned onto my hostel’s street.
I thanked Heiner for the evening, got out and walked up to the hostel’s front gate. I put my key in the lock and tried to turn it, but it wouldn’t budge. I tried again, this time with twice as much torque, but nothing happened. Behind me I heard Heiner’s car door open. He got out, asked me for the key and with one swift, powerful turn, opened the lock and handed back my keys. I thanked Heiner and watched him walk back to his car. It was the last time I saw him.
A few days later, I looked out my train window at miles of wheat fields, rippling in the wind. They were part of the old, state, collective farms, ready for the last harvest. These giant farms would soon be sold off, broken up and fenced in. Sharing my train compartment were East Germans excited about travelling to Western Europe. One short, gray-haired woman was a recently retired English teacher who was travelling to Cambridge for the first time since 1951. There was also a young couple, expecting their first child in the spring. They wanted to see Amsterdam and Paris while they still had time.
I wondered what would happen to these East Germans once they’d indulged their Wanderlust and the intoxication of reunification had passed. What would they get in exchange for their newly-found freedom of speech and movement as their country’s political economy, which had assured housing, jobs and healthcare but not tolerated dissent, was radically reconfigured and subsumed within that of West Germany’s? Would the new Germany be stronger and these new citizens better off? Would the new Europe be stronger and more politically stable? Would these passengers feel that Die Wende, the great economic transformation, had been worth it? All our conversations about our travels past, present and future, however, were temporarily silenced by the sight of seemingly endless fields of grain, bathed in golden twilight.