excerpt from 'Black Deutschland'
By Darryl Pinckney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
All rights reserved.
It doesn't always start with a suitcase. Sometimes things begin with the wrong book. Berlin meant boys, Isherwood said. Fifty years after his adventures among proletarian toughs, Berlin meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany's crimes by loving a black boy like me.
The first time I saw the Mercedes-Benz star revolving over Europa Center, West Berlin's triumphant commercial hub, I knew I was home. I had a room in a hotel near the main West Berlin station, the sort of place where burned-out hippies beat up their girlfriends. I didn't even turn on the light as I tossed in my bag. I hit the heavy-named streets, delight in my stride. You would have thought I'd arrived in Venice. But I'd read quite a bit about how the not-old-for-Europe structures of West Berlin, stripped of decoration, felt squeezed by the postwar functionalism of the here-to-replace-what-was-unremembered.
I pranced to the central shopping mall. West Berlin was the outpost of Western prosperity, the floating island of neon and pleasure deep inside Communist territory. This was its core. I'd read that after the construction of the Berlin Wall, both sides wanted to distract their populations from the border cutting through the heart of the capital. Each side created its own new city center away from the Wall. East Berlin had Alexanderplatz, dominated by the giant needle and revolving restaurant of a television tower visible for miles. West Berlin had Europa Center, a wall of steel and glass, a courtyard of shops and offices nestled beside an office tower, the only one of its kind in the city when erected in 1961. It blocked out, psychologically, the wall of mortar and wire that ran parallel, along the same north-south axis, dividing east from west.
The standing rectangle of office tower looked across the Tiergarten, a vast park that had become as quiet as No Man's Land because of its proximity to the Wall. At any hour, the Tiergarten was filled with boys, silently cruising under the cover of postwar linden or chestnut trees. The tower block was grounded in a narrow plaza. The past sat on the shoulder of everything you saw in Berlin. The ruin of a Romanesque Revival spire marked one end of the plaza, chiding the ugly modern octagon of beehive-blue glass next to it that was built as the new church and also as a memorial to the old one. Had there been traffic, it would have flowed around this plaza. There the Kurfürstendamm begins, West Berlin's show street that makes a humorless diagonal through the city, along the route Prussian kings took to their hunting lodges.
In the middle of the plaza a round fountain of big beige granite dollops is still running. My very first night in Berlin, the people hanging out around the fountain, young or just long-haired, looked like they'd met at the train station a few minutes before and had walked over to conclude unsavory transactions. Young couples, families of shoppers, and groups of moviegoers kept their distance, sitting under umbrellas at the beer, cola, and coffee tables at the other end of the plaza.
The company emblem turned in the friendly sky. Behind the red Mercedes-Benz star, perfectly in line with it as I looped back around, was a pink August sun just beginning to quit.
This was the start of the awful 1980s. I saved money from my second job, a telephone-marketing gig, for the few weeks I could afford to spend in Berlin every summer. Just before Chicago flipped out because of AIDS Terror, I was getting away, but every summer coming back too soon, broke and heartbroken over some kerchiefed bartender and feeling superior to everything about my hometown. I was leaving pieces of myself in Berlin, like a bird carrying its feathers one by one to a distant nest. In the Cold War days, Berlin was far away, a disco ball behind the Iron Curtain.
I smoked menthols on bar stools, snorted lines in paperless stalls, and threw up on corners all over the Near North Side, protected by my dream of eventual escape. Though born in Chicago, I was just passing through. Whatever had happened in the Golden Rectangle, whatever was going down on the South Side did not matter. I may have fallen apart in the city of my birth, but the city of my rebirth would see me put back together again. My real life of the happiness I deserved would begin once I got over there and stayed. What had not happened in Chicago would finally happen in Berlin, the city that owed me and loved my fantasies.
I was idiotic during my first visit to Berlin. I bought drinks three nights running for a sour-smelling old man who told me he had inherited from his father the most rare footage in Europe, twenty-seven seconds of Nijinsky dancing. Of course the film was held in a bank. He'd invite me special to see it.
"It used to be 'Aimez-vous Paree?' that the black GI ran to," my dad said, rolling slowly in his chair, up to and back from his desk. "But you and your cousin can't get enough of that 'Sprechen Sie Jive?'"
I didn't tell him that because I'd been in a bar all day I'd snored through the Berlin Philharmonic concert that my cousin had taken me to. I forgave before anyone else did the young blind prowler I had been, who drank as though Weimar culture could be got through the bottle.
After those few summers of desperate rehearsal, tourist make-believe, I was recently sober and alone in a train compartment about to be locked tight for the border crossing between the fast-driving, exhibitionist German Federal Republic and the paranoid German Democratic Republic, with its harsh fuels. I'd left Chicago behind for good. I was inordinately proud of my one-way ticket. I'd become that person I so admired, the black American expatriate.
* * *
Branches of the same people who are black in the valley are white on the mountain, Frederick Douglass said. The beautiful hair of the Nubian becomes frizzled as he approaches the great Sahara, he added.
* * *
Mad, unknowable people were hijacking planes over Europe and setting off bombs at the Frankfurt International Airport the summer I came back to West Berlin ready for adult life, willing to register with the police. My new job came with what I considered glamorous international paperwork. The address I was going to wasn't far and I could nod to the Mercedes-Benz star — I always let it know when I was back in town — as the taxi turned in the opposite direction, onto the Kurfürstendamm.
The city arched its back in the sandy heat. My cousin Cello and her husband and their four children and a nanny from Stratford-upon-Avon lived not far from the seedy Zoo Station, but their address was historic, bourgeois Berlin. The street doors were heavy polished oak, and the front staircase wide slippery oak. Their apartment had four balconies; it was an apartment that went on and on, around the whole side of the corner building, with high ceilings, even in the maid's room, where, as I discovered, Cello intended to install me.
"I tripped over my baby," Cello said when she opened the door. She bounced a shrieking brown toddler with beautiful long curls in her arms as two other gorgeous little honey-colored boys reached up and tried to tickle his toes. "Remember peanut brittle?" she asked. Her boys had big eyes.
I shrugged and Cello cupped the screaming head, turning her baby away from my raised hand. The long, sleeveless pale-blue satiny dress she wore looked like a nightgown. She had on silk stockings, in August, and glistening black-and-white saddle oxfords with rounded toes.
To me, she looked like the music she studied, mostly because of her hair. She was a throwback to our great-grandmother's locks, got from some slave master. Instead, we'd say Cherokee. Her hair came from our Indian blood. It was the only thing she had on her sister, her lack of acquaintance with the hot comb. She didn't have to suffer for white-girl-like hair. Her nap was soft. She piled her amazingly long, undulating black hair on top of her head or dismissed it over her neck with wide combs. Her attitude toward her hair was as striking as its abundance. Look, okay, I have good hair, as it used to be called in Negro America. Fine, not frizzy. But I'm not going to let it mean anything to me.
Otherwise, Cello was the color of a Snickers bar and had a large nose and lips copied from Man Ray. She was tall, one of those girls who would have been comforted by the publication of Jackie Onassis's shoe size in the Detroit Free Press. Her ample hips gave her her music-camp nickname, which she was instantly proud of. Men noticed her breasts. Her posture was incredible. But her eyes were too small for her face. She did not get her mother's big eyes; she got the raisins of her father's side of the family, my side. Her glasses had to make up for a lot with their style. It was because of her eyes that other women, including her mother, felt that there were other women out there prettier than Cello. That made them generous about her brilliance as a pianist. Their approval lapped at the stairs Cello ascended when in their presence, her hair in her hands, just like the illustration in an old book we had about a princess in trouble.
Cello kicked at the tricycle that, apparently, had been involved in the collision of mother and child. "Bad tricycle," she said in German. The older boys started kicking at the various toys that had turned the spacious foyer into a mess. The entrance hall framed three sets of double doors, one set of which opened onto a large salon, also chaotic from child's play. An American fire truck that the children could ride was parked under a long black piano, which seemed to have rolled to rest where it was, not wholly in the corner, blocking the way to another room. Everything in the room felt as if it had been flung there, tables and telephone books and little wooden musical pipes and tiny drums and tiny T-shirts and Beethoven scores and plastic juice cartons with built-in straws.
"Who are you?" the oldest repeated in English.
"I'm Jed." I was nervous about saying even the simplest things in German to a child, but I again asked him his name.
Once more he didn't reply, and hopped away.
"Otto!" Cello said, putting her hollering youngest on the parquet. A hefty young white girl looked out from behind a door.
"Why aren't you in the kitchen? Where's Hildegard?"
The rosy-faced brunette scooted back down the corridor, agile in stretch pants she ought not to have had on. Cello lifted her boy again.
I just so happened to have been tested while in the rehab. The reason I'd not looked up Cello the last two summers I came to Berlin was that she'd told my mom that she could not have me around her children unless I had the AIDS test. I was secretly relieved not to have her reporting Stateside about me, as if people couldn't have seen for themselves had they wanted to.
My cousin didn't have to reply to the thank-you note I sent when I got back to Chicago after my first trip to Berlin, but Cello also didn't answer when I wrote her the next year to say I was coming. She finally agreed to meet me for breakfast the day before I was scheduled to leave. I slept through our appointment. She forgave me in Chicago when she brought her three children to see her fading grandmother. Maximilian hadn't been born yet. But when I came back to Berlin that summer, I promptly disgraced myself.
Now Cello was ready to help me in my starting over. She was showing me around the apartment, though I'd been there when they moved in three years before. By the end of that visit, I was sweaty in the mirror of the bathroom I kept adjourning to. I was not good enough at anything or good-looking enough to get away with being dirty, she said then. She'd kept me at arm's length since. But Cello was good at wiping the slate clean.
"You remember where the kitchen is," she said, in German. Back in Chicago, I was her cousin, but sometimes in Berlin she'd made it clear to me that I was her second cousin, a distant family obligation from the United States, a country relation she had to do something for. The boy in her arms and his six-year-old and five-year-old brothers trailing us down the hall that let in light from two sides were hardly kin to me. Cello handed Maximilian to the nanny and walked me, her mitzvah, past a pantry, a laundry room, and a bathroom. The corridor turned right. We walked through an open door and sat side by side on the bed.
How she accumulated shawls on her way down the hall I couldn't say. She folded three or four layers of delicate stuff over her bare shoulders. Underneath us, the intricate pattern of a lovely white bed throw. Cello sprang up and ushered the children from the room, telling Otto and Konrad to join their sister and brother at the coloring table in the kitchen.
The furniture in the bedroom was on a smaller scale than what I was used to, real Biedermeier with white marble tops, the lamps dark Prussian iron. The last time I'd been in that room, there'd been only a camp bed and cartons piled on cartons. I wondered how I was going to ask Cello if I could make some room in the glass case for my own books, which would be arriving soon. I somehow had the feeling that the books had been in that case unexamined for a long time. Every space was taken up. Books were crammed on their sides. Cello didn't read books, not really. She studied scores. Her eyes flashed across bars, like a burglar looking at windows for a way in. Yet somehow she had absorbed the vibe of the most important literary works of Western culture. She would have balked to be reminded that her father had this talent.
Cello's father was my mom's first cousin. He went nuts in the civil rights movement. Her mother thought she had a singing career, which meant that Cello and her little brother and sister pretty much stayed with us. Our extended family wasn't large. There weren't many of us, because of the family members who had no siblings or children or had just lost touch, not to mention those who weren't speaking to us. Cello never could decide what to do with me. After all, I was the only person in West Berlin who'd known her when she was called Ruthanne. And I'd seen her face during one of her mother's cabaret performances in Old Town in the 1970s.
Cello was infinitely more musical than her mother. The gap between them in regard to absolutely everything about music, from degree of talent to the type of music that engaged them, was deeply painful to Cello. It was my mom who called the blind piano tuner, got Cello to lessons, and discussed her next steps with her teachers, and no one more than Cello wanted her mother to be too wrapped up in her own singing lessons and choir practice to pay much attention to Cello's day-to-day development. Cello had a life of her own elsewhere, behind the temple of the Art Institute, at the American Conservatory of Music, then on to the Chicago Musical College.
She was set apart by her destiny. She was not expected to look after her brother and sister; she was never asked to go to the store. Cello never had a child's free time or an adolescent's schedule of lassitude behind closed doors. She ate separately, later or earlier, like the poet-slave Phillis Wheatley in the home of her doting Methodist owners. Then she'd disappear upstairs. Once we'd finished, she liked to help my mom to wash up. We often had my mother's social causes in the form of women bums and female cons staying with us, but Mom didn't like for anyone else to help her do the dishes except Cello, no matter how many had been at the dinner table.
My mom was the person she talked to. Mom was the one in the family who knew the Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu when she heard it and just what it would take for Cello to learn it as well as she wanted to. Cello practiced two hours a day downtown and then was driven home, where she played some more. But sometimes she sat on Mom's piano bench, not playing. She had to take out some of the music stuffed in the seat in order to get it flat. She liked to costume herself in an ankle-length pale blue taffeta gown and sit there, head bowed, hands folded in her lap, lights low.
Excerpted from Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney. Copyright © 2016 Darryl Pinckney. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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