[Image: Aschenblume (Ash Flower) by Anselm Kiefer]
Berlin was gray before I left and gray when I got back. Even in spring, there was still dirty snow in the gutters. I had a whole journal filled with notes about the shooting in Mitrovice, but I couldn’t tell if I had a story there or not. It was just a place I didn’t understand. After a few days of being back, I almost forgot I was ever there, and the magazine stopped asking me to send them something.
The old rituals hadn’t gone away either. Walking around the far west with lines from Celan in my head from the translations I was doing to try to learn the language: Ein Nichts waren wir, sind wir, werden wir bleiben, blühend: die Nichts. Die Niemandsrose. Or going over to the Danish redhead’s apartment, the one who wore all black and was taking pictures of old naked men bathing in the sprinklers in Tiergarten when I met her, the one who turned the lights off right when I arrived and waited for me to touch her. Or drinking at the kitchen window that looked out on Eislebenerstraße and the massage parlor with the rice paper lanterns in the window, watching the matron sweeping up the sidewalk or opening up the front door for customers before they could even set foot on the welcome mat. But probably the most abiding ritual was riding the ubahn when it was late enough that the clocks above the tracks stopped running, when I didn’t have to worry about the plainclothes ticket inspectors since I was never good at spotting them before the doors closed and getting out of the car in time anyways.
The underground offered tutelage in a language that was becoming more important for me to learn than Celan’s müttersprache, a language of glances, stares, glimpses, sinister leers, eyes half-hidden behind strands of hair or splayed fingers, a language I dreamt of compiling into a vast lexicon. The more repressed a culture is, the more complex and nuanced its language of glances. Here, it was the true civil discourse. Otherwise, if they were to speak with their tongues, who knows what indecency would come out? They might wail out “Warum muss der Sohn betten? Warum?” like the slouched guy in a trenchcoat who drags empty bottles in a sack up and down the car. Or they might scream like the skinheads on the platform with their dogs and studded denim vests and knife games. If I could become more fluent in this language of glances, then maybe I could get a few more tutoring jobs and move out of my room across from the massage parlor.
Listening to the woman’s voice over the train speakers each time the doors opened. Einsteigen bitte. All of our breath exhaling at once over the tracks, steam from it rising past the clock that had stopped at die Stunde null. Pacing over the warm tiles, brushing past the overcoats were the goatmen, as I called them, the ones who huddled on the benches with their bellies flopping over the belts and piss stains on their pants, who never seemed to get drunk enough to fall asleep even if the bottles were piled up around their feet, the ones who stared at you like they were repossessing all the solace and illusion that you’d accrued in your short life. Maybe some of the goatmen were returning home at that hour, but most of them had to be dragged out by the polizeiwhen the u-bahnstations were closed, then they made their way to the big s-bahnstations, which were opened all night for the regional and national lines: Hautbahnhof, Nordbahnhof, Ostbahnhof, Alexanderplatz. That’s where they could stare at the passengers straggling back to the permanently gray city. One of those stations is where I was falling in and out of sleep waiting for Anna to get back from the airport just before die Stunde null. I sat next to a goatman and listened to him tell me about the jeans he stole before the wall came down, how he’d seen a guy wearing them at Ostkreuz so he followed him home and broke into his apartment when he was gone. In ‘85, he said, these were the only jeans you could find in the east. Looking at them, I wondered if he hadn’t taken them off in twenty-five years. They were hardly even blue. More like a soupy faded brown with his long underwear exposed behind the shreds. The guy he stole them from must’ve also been a few sizes smaller because he could barely move his legs when he stood up to piss across the rails.
Soon after I abandoned my notes on the shooting, I started to write about the stations. Since I was spending most of my time down there, I thought I might as well scrape together the lexicon I’d been thinking about. Just like a detective sifts through a suspect’s trash for clues or evidence, I would sift the heap of minutes discarded by those in transit. For me, the stations were sacred and revelatory precisely because most passengers wanted to be rid of them as soon as they could. To descend was to erase any vestige of awareness, but the more ignored something was, the more I wanted to confront it. Like the less you claim something to be true, the truer it is, and the more someone points at the sun, yelling “Look! Look! There it is! Can’t you see it?” the brighter the moon shines behind their back, or the more we call for peace, the hungrier we are for war, and the more we fear, the more we’re unwilling to confront our overwhelming love. That’s why Orpheus had to turn back and look at Eurydice while she was still in the shadows: he was too scared to see her in the light. We will run from nothing as fast as we run from the truth. The most ingenious scientific achievements and elaborate systems of philosophy are little more than an escape from it. We rush through stations, those non-spaces, indifferent to their nuances, their traces, but soon, they would become our homes, the last places where we could expect to survive.
Hunched over my notes on the bench, it was like I was reassuring the station with one breathless, sustained prayer, “Eberswalder, Kastanianalle, Hermannstraße, your tunnels may resound with only a flood of hurried steps now, but soon, you shall inherit the earth! Your goatmen and flower sellers and die antisozialistisch Alten will soon have their manna and dwell in celestial peace.” When the goatman with his stolen jeans asked me that night what I was writing about, I told him I was writing a lexicon of the stations, and he didn’t even bother to pretend like he was interested as if I was complaining that my feet hurt or telling him about the stupid intricacies of a dream I had.
The way he responded reminded me of what Borges wrote about the authentic gaucho poets, how they didn’t concern themselves with flowery descriptions of the pampas because the landscape was too familiar, but for me, each station was its own floating continent, and the more I thought about it, I wasn’t compiling a lexicon, but drawing a map of the entire system. How the bright orange tiles of Rosenthalerplatz formed an illusory barrier against the cold, and how the imbiß owner plays Cash’s “Big Iron” from a portable radio while he sucks on slices of grapefruit. The wrecked and ravaged of Kotti, limping around the columns, sifting towards the escalator: a bandaged ear, a woman with track marks who squats by a trashcan, faces scratched and bruised, crutches tapping across the floor, scars, busted teeth, the girl with pink eye holding a piece of string and staring at the magazines behind the store window that have images of tanned celebrities in bikinis standing on balconies draped in bougainvillea on some tropical island. How birds nest in the rafters of Warschauerstraße, beating their wings against the murky skylights. How the drag queens prance before the kaleidoscopic pastels of Kurfürstenstraße, masquerading as Teutonic princesses with their bleached hair or shimmering black wigs, bedecked with shoulder pads and dainty purses and diamond rings, led up the stairs by suited men with clenched jaws and sunglasses. The accordion player of Heidelbergerplatz sitting on a nylon fold-up stool, her gloved fingers blurred over the keys, empty pill bottles scattered among the coins in her case, or how the circle of flutists at Görli twirl under the ironclad lamps while a terrified dog seethes between them. The apocalyptic mural at Savignyplatz with its fallen airplanes and ashen steeples, hungry faces taking cover in the roots of trees, the words “Werden wir gedacht gemacht wir” chiseled into brick. Or the night I was sitting in Richard Wagner Platz and saw the infamous ghost train barreling through without stopping, a faceless conductor at the helm, the cars empty, some lights inside them flickering, like the ship from the opera The Flying Dutchman, a vessel in pursuit of some vengeful fantasy, eternally charting its course without docking at any harbor.
The stations were distinct if you sat in their benches and listened to the tunnel awaken with the incoming trains and followed the headlights as they spilled over the tiles, but seen from the Ringbahn (also maybe an homage to Wagner since the line resembles more of a casket with its corners cut off than any ring I ever saw), which traced the city’s periphery, all the stations became one indistinct gray platform that melded into courtyards of flashing windows, billboards, walls with overgrown vines and tunnel cables caked in dust. Sonnenallee, Hermannstraße, Innsbrucker Platz, Bundesplatz.If I wanted to get out of the stations because of the cold, I’d ride the Ring. No matter what time of night it was, the controllers never checked for tickets. Even though the Ring encircled the city’s far limits, it was wrong to say it traced the periphery. The Ring wasn’t the amniotic sac of the city, but rather the substance of its soul. It was the outside that had become center, more than Brandenburger Tor or Alexanderplatz or Mitte. All the stations belonged to it whether they were on the line or not, and the city would collapse into the void left by the wall if it weren’t for the Ring. East, west, the swampy groves of Dahlem Dorf and Onkel Toms Hütte, the plattenbau of Lichtenberg, the auslanderbehördeup north in Westhafen where I got interrogated at a long table when applying for a work visa, the abandoned Nazi airport of Tempelhof, or the abandoned CIA spy station at Teufelsberg or the abandoned DDR theme park near Plänterwald, the Ring was like what a German theologian once wrote about God: an infinite circle whose center was everywhere and whose circumference was nowhere.
Riding around it at night, my feet propped up on the empty seat across from me, my head resting against the glass, sometimes I could be soothed by the monotony of the journey, like watching a clump of hair spinning around a drain, except I was the clump of hair and the drain was spinning around me, and what I thought was a journey was just one dim panorama that was slowly unspooling into blindness. But if I turned and watched the other passengers, the journey was anything but soothing. Inside the train we were all being transformed by monotony, undergoing one long spiritual progression (whether we noticed it or not) by entering the car and being surrounded by strangers who shared in the miracle of being alive just as we did. These were the stations of the Ring, not of the Cross, Via Circulum, not Via Crucis, not a way of sorrows, but a way of flight, and instead of death being the last stop, it would be transcendence.
A pregnant woman with her fingers interlocked across her belly, leaning over to whisper into the ear of her husband even though no one else was sitting near them, watching him nod his head, then falling back into her seat, relieved that he agreed with her or understood what she said. A boy being bounced up and down on the knee of his mother who stared into the night, almost on the verge of crying before he stuffed his fingers into his mouth. Or a woman without eyebrows lingering by the door with an unlit cigarette between her lips, gazing at the tip of it, her cheeks sucking in and out, the lighter weaving between her knuckles, or a man sleeping across from me with a wiry blond mustache and scabs on his arms whose overalls were streaked with paint. Another man, around sixty, with icy blue eyes, tapping his rigid fingers on his knees, who kept looking over at a woman more than half his age while she read a magazine and pulled her skirt down to cover more of her legs, aware of his eyes even as she stared down at the page, the nail bed exposed on one of her fingers. A girl in a shimmering hijab who untied her brother’s shoelaces while he listened to his headphones with his eyes closed. Or the amateur conductor, who I’d seen more than once during my night rides, in his polyester suit, nervously looking at his watch or pulling out the timetables he had in his coat pocket, not that he needed them, because he had all the times memorized, and the glorious Netzwas imprinted on his brain, all the endless combinations of rides, the ersatz lines, and the idiosyncrasies of each station recalled without hesitation. He could be found on the ubahn during the day, mostly ignored but sometimes met with ridicule and laughter, but at that hour the only captive audience he had was on the Ring since the ubahn was closed. Standing by the doors, with his bangs drenched in sweat, he intoned for the few people still left in the car: “Next stop, Gesundrunnen. Remember, it’s been raining a lot these days, so the steps, they get slippery, so please, be careful. Just last week, eight people fell, one resulted in a fractured arm. If you’re transferring to S9 going to Bernau, you have ten minutes till the next train, but if you’re heading on the S1 for Oranienburg, you need to hurry, you only have….” He paused and looked at his watch. “Oh, two minutes! Two minutes! But please watch your step at the top of the stairs.”
When the train stopped and the doors opened, he called out to the stationmaster, who had waddled out to the platform to turn the switch key: “Hey Jörg, I’m glad to see you! You look spry as a fox, Jörg!” After the doors closed, the amateur conductor turned back towards the aisle and said, “Jörg had hip surgery last year, and Gesundbrunnen wasn’t the same without him, trains were backed up all the way to Wedding, it was like a carnival. He’s a good stationmaster, Jörg, one of the best. The trains are always on time except for when his wife was sick the trains stalled in the station, a captain must lose his heart to lead his brigade.” The man with scabs on his arms opened his eyes and looked over at the amateur conductor, briefly, just to see his face, then looked at me, tucking his hands under his armpits and lifting his feet up onto the heater beneath the window. In his eyes was the type of look that dominated my lexicon: the look of affected indifference. You may despise or desire or wonder about a stranger sitting across from you, but never, never for one instant show them that you care. Above all else, reveal nothing while riding along the seamless gray platforms of the Via Circulum.
My lexicon was a just pitiful attempt to understand what was happening behind the mask of affected indifference. Instead of compiling more notes, what I really wanted to be was one of those angels in that film, Himmel Über Berlin, the ones who could pass between walls and glide over the city, listening to people’s thoughts, not the stories they tell other people, like the ones my grandfather told me about crossing into Mexico before all the checkpoints or what the restaurant owner in Mitrovice said about the shooting, but the stories they tell themselves, the stories the angels hear, the father in the beginning of the film who carries his child down the street and says to himself, “The consolation of lifting one’s head out here in the open and seeing the colors illuminated by the sun in all men’s eyes” or the woman on the bicycle who says to herself, “At last mad, at last redeemed. At last mad, at last at peace. At last, an internal light.” Most people’s internal lights probably didn’t look like that: they were probably thinking about what show they were going to watch or what they were going to eat when they got back home or scrutinizing their reflections in the window, but hearing those thoughts, however mundane they were, would still be better than imagining what they were thinking about based on some unwieldy taxonomy of glances and gazes.
The film, though, devolves into sappiness and gets it all wrong about angels in the end. The main one, played by Bruno Ganz, wishes he could become a human and fall in love (like an angel would ever want to wipe their ass or be ruled by the laws of gravity), but wanting to be what you’re not always seemed to me like a specifically human trait. By portraying the angel as being dissatisfied with his power, the film was saying that having that kind of access to people’s thoughts would bore you, even torture you, but it couldn’t be any worse than listening to your own thoughts all the time, and you could always choose whose consciousness to listen to, like turning a radio dial or floating through some digital interface, and if all you wanted was silence, you only had to flap your wings.
As a wingless mortal, I could only guess at what the guy with scabs on his arm was thinking about as he looked at me, and later, when he walked up to the amateur conductor, who was telling us that the next stop was Prenzlauer Alle, and nudged him out of the way while he exited the train and hurried up the steps. And looking at the amateur conductor, I wish I could’ve known what was going in his head when he stopped talking after being pushed against the seat, and when he pulled a wad of timetables out of his coat pocket, unfolding them and folding them back, or later when he got out at Ostkreuz and stood on the platform, looking up at the clock and comparing its time to his wristwatch while a crowd of passengers rushed past him. And all the faces of people reflected in the dark window, the ones who sat across the aisle, staring ahead, or glancing at each other, briefly, never long enough to show curiosity in the stranger across from them, eyes that retreated once their gaze was met, the girl in her shimmering hijab, the pregnant women and her consoling husband, the man with icy eyes and arthritic fingers, I imagined what they were thinking about until I fell asleep and woke up when a janitor tapped my shoulder with a mop handle and said “Westkreuz, end of the line” before reaching down to pick up an empty bottle that had rolled under my seat.
Lee Tyler Williams is the author of the novel, Leechdom (New Plains, 2015) and the forthcoming novel, Let It Be Our Ruin (Arc Pair, 2020). His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, published in numerous online and print magazines, and featured on National Public Radio. “Ostkreuz” is from a larger work-in-progress about restlessness and the decline of neon lights. He was born in Dallas, Texas.