Being in Berlin
In a grainy colorless broadcast on CBS News, I watched John Kennedy declare himself a Berliner near the Wall in 1963, and the hope of seeing that city myself became embedded in my dreams. I took German classes in high school and college, preparing for the day. Then in 2008, long after the Wall had finally fallen, I was on a plane to this place that enchanted me as a child.
Before leaving, I thoroughly researched Berlin. Read books, saw films and, in a life-long calling to end cannabis prohibition, contacted Hemp activists there working at the forefront of European drug policy reform. Yet the impact of actually being in Berlin was jolting. The weight of history is palpable there, perhaps because the legacy of its past is still so present. In young adults whose childhood was enclosed by the Wall, distrust and disruption remain. Berlin is an outpost on the porous edge of morality.
True to the German stereotype, Berlin’s public transportation system is an outstanding example of engineering efficiency. Trains were so reliable and direct, it felt like flying from one station to the next. Even street traffic was not intimidating. Along broad boulevards, drivers obey traffic signals in such perfect unison, it seemed they were coordinated by remote control. On the surface, everyday life in Berlin appears to be orchestrated with a fastidious precision that excludes the unexpected. Then I found Friedrichstrasse.
Living many years in San Francisco, I thought I’d seen the broadest array of sexual accessories anywhere in the world, but the erotic storefronts along Friedrichstrasse were unique in one prominent aspect. Scattered among the mannequins in B&D devices were ordinary hot water bottles and Fleet enema kits. Tourist articles I’d read mentioned the German preference for toilets with special shelves designed to collect shit. Much has also been written about the contrasting German obsession with cleanliness and feces which Freud first described as the controlling behavior of the “anal retentive”. On Friedrichstrasse, common drugstore laxatives were alluring sex toys.
Heading south from a concentration of S&M shops at its intersection with Leipziger Strasse, Friedrichstrasse crosses Checkpoint Charlie where East German State Security, known as Stasi, once passed life and death judgement on every aspect of human behavior, a nexus of sex and control. As the German-born Henry Kissinger said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
After being immersed for a few days in such intense energy, I began to crave a toke or two just to lighten up. The Hemp activists I contacted would have some marijuana but we weren’t scheduled to meet until midway through my visit so I opted to try a high profile sales spot I’d found online.
The Kottbusser U-bahn station, located in an old section of the Mitte district, is known for Turkish hash trafficking. I expected that transactions there would be similar to those among strangers in most public places, quick and subdued. My greatest concern was that I wouldn’t be able to identify the dealers so I practiced some German slang (Etwas zum kiffen?) in case they needed prompting.
Entering the underground passage to Kottbusser station, my concerns were immediately replaced by an onslaught of offers. Swarming with customers and dealers, the tunnel vibrated with haggling in business English as hands full of hash bars were waved in my face. Tempting me to part with cash, prices dropped within seconds from 20 Euros for one bar - to 15 Euros for a bar and a half - to 10 Euros for two bars. Exchanging 10 Euros for more hashish than I’d ever owned, I quickly returned to the relative calm of street traffic above.
The bars were each about three inches long, half an inch wide, and as rigid as metal. As I later discovered, the hash probably contained lead to make it heavier which also explained the consistency. Back in my room, I chipped off crumbs of hash and rolled it with tobacco from cheap cigarettes. My contrivance worked but struggling for a drag of contraband near the remains of the Berlin Wall wasn’t the high I wanted.
Meeting the German drug policy activists was a heartening contrast to my Turkish retail hash experience. I connected with them in the Berlin Hemp Museum which is also home the Hemp Parade (Hanfparade), the largest annual legalization demonstration in Europe. The basement of the Museum served as an air raid shelter in two World Wars. I spent the evening in that former shelter, smoking marijuana from old Chinese porcelain pipes with people I had just meet in a foreign country. And felt perfectly at home.
Our conversation centered on International drug policy, as they educated me about US responsibility for creating and maintaining the global “War on Drugs”. Steffen Geyer, a well-known German activist, summed up the situation by saying, “The US invented the War on Drugs. Now it must invent the solution to ending it. The whole world is waiting. Legalize it for us, please!”
At the close of the evening, my hosts gave me a small supply of locally grown product and advised me to discard the Turkish hash because of contaminants. I asked about another supply source I’d seen on the web, a bar called Zapata, but none of the activists had been there. Out of simple curiosity, I set out for a visit the next day.
Oranienburger Strasse in the Mitte district, not far from my hotel, was the acknowledged center of the city’s cool factor. An online “underground” guide recommended Zapata im Tacheles at Oranienburger Strasse 54 as one of the most reliable places to score hash and marijuana in Berlin. Of course, there were rules of engagement. To indicate you were looking to score: sit alone at the bar, order red wine, wait to be approached. Traveling alone and preferring red wine, these were rules I was already following.
A large Medieval Spanish coat of arms marked the entrance to Zapata in a nest of squatting tenements. I arrived around ten in the evening, too early by Berlin standards, so was conveniently alone at the bar. Soon after ordering a house rotwein, a voice behind me in British English said, “Pardon me, Madame. May I take this seat beside you?”
He stood well over six feet tall and was thin but moved with the confident strength of a dancer. With the exception of a red shirt, his clothes and riding boots were black, including a leather duster that nearly touched the floor. Dark straight hair was slicked back from a high forehead that topped a long triangular face. A narrow beard framed the acute angle of his chin. Despite the formidable outfit, I was softened by the impeccable politeness, the flattery of focused attention. Without hesitation I said, “Yes!”
With a slight bow at the waist, he introduced himself as Jack. His companion, a long haired dachshund, was appropriately called Blackie. I felt an immediate obligation to reciprocate his civility. After telling him my name, he began to weave an interrogation during which I confided to being an American tourist traveling alone for the first time. When I mentioned that Zapata seemed to be a smoker friendly bar, his eyes locked onto mine. “I understand what you want”, he said. The scenario proceeded just as it was described online. My expectations had been met and I forgot I was talking to a stranger.
He led me into a large room behind the bar, scattered with versions of old wooden chairs and round cafe tables. Choosing one closest to us, we sat and continued to talk as he constructed two long spliffs laden with hashish. He spoke as smoothly as he rolled. His English was perfected by years of living in London and traveling in the US. We shared favorite aspects of the same American cities. Our conversation could have taken place between friends reunited after a long absence. It was a beautiful Fall evening. He suggested we take a walk.
Outside Zapata, he guided me down the street with a hand gently placed on my back. Lighting the spliff, he bent toward me while offering it and began a kind of animated storytelling that required all my attention to graciously appreciate.
Absorbed in hypnotic imagination, his monologue turned to details of his exquisite apartment, how it was heaven just being there, how friends were always welcome to stay, and how I was now, of course, a friend. He bent closer, like a lover about to share a secret, and slipped his arm around mine. It felt like the hasp of a lock had snapped shut. My eyes glanced at the foreign and deserted scene around me. The spell was broken. Fear shot blood to my head. His arm tightened around mine as we proceeded toward whatever end he had planned.
Realizing that panic would probably not be my salvation, I remained attached while my mind coursed through options. Once again distracted from my surroundings, I didn’t see a young man coming toward us until we nearly collided. He shouted “Fraulein!!” into my ear and it was like an escape hatch tore open. I yanked my arm free and spun around to follow the young man at a safe distance until finding a familiar street that lead to my hotel. I couldn’t explain what had happened but felt lucky to be looking back at it. With my mind still numb the next day, I took comfort in my favorite form of refuge - film.
Filmhaus, Berlin’s Museum of Film and Television, is housed in the Sony Centre, a spiraling mountain of glass and steel in Potsdamer Platz, the historic heart of the city. The stars of German Cinema, Marlene Dietrich, Robert Wiene, and even Leni Riefenstahl, have whole rooms in the Filmhaus dedicated to their work, but Fritz Lang is remembered with special reverence. M, Lang’s masterwork that introduced Germany to the talking film, is screened in continuous rotation. Based on an actual series of child murders, it was produced and premiered in Berlin in 1931 and is credited as being the first Film Noir.
M opens with a child singing “Just you wait a little while. The nasty man in black will come. With his little chopper, he will chop you up.” That is followed by the scene of a mother in a clean, well-ordered kitchen, carefully arranging a table setting for her child, soon to be a victim. A police detective investigating the murder says, “A mother’s first duty is to guard her children from the danger that always threatens and is often hidden in some attractive bait.” In 1937, Lang told a reporter that he made the film "to warn mothers about neglecting children." But it was also a veiled warning of the growing Nazi threat, and I was reminded of Jack the night before in the shadow world between attraction and control.
Enchantment is not just a word used in fairy tales. It is real and dangerous and easily conjured in a naive trust of authority, civility and form. Edward Bernays, the Viennese-born “father of public relations” called it, “the engineering of consent”. I woke up, grew up, was forever changed by Berlin. It is a place with much to teach about being lulled in layers of illusion and the need to stay alert.