Many stories about gentrification in Berlin have been written, and especially in Prenzlauer Berg. Yet Gröschner gives us a very special take – her narrator feels like part of an endangered species, like the fox she meets on the now empty streets at night. While she’s wary of the invaders, she’s aware that they’re only human too, and for want of an alternative she starts to fraternize with them and study their habits and habitats. Annett Gröschner knows and loves Berlin. She knows the locals in her neighborhood and the history of the streets and houses. She knows the tiny details, the leftover artifacts she describes in her story. And she captures the atmosphere of Prenzlauer Berg by night, then and now, so well that you can very nearly smell it. Join her as she peels back the layers in this arch, funny-sad short story.
That night I ran into the fox again at the corner of my road, just after one. And like the last time, he stopped and turned his head towards me and we stared at each other for the blink of an eye. The last two living creatures in the city. There wasn’t a sound, not even from nearby Greifswalder Straße. The moment seemed endless. It was something like a silent agreement between the two of us. Then the fox vanished behind the parked cars.
I don’t know when I noticed that no one’s on the streets here after midnight apart from me. It must have been a gradual process. First the pubs on the corners disappeared, then the bars with cocktails for happy hours, then the clubs were sued out of their premises, the restaurants started closing their kitchens well before midnight, the late-night grocery stores closed down and the cafés shifted to daytime opening hours. At some point even the dog-owners didn’t take their last walk of the day, because there were only a few dog-owners left. I missed them, although I’ve never liked dogs off the leash.
At the beginning of the year my favourite pub closed down, the sanctuary for the last locals from the area. We met up there to drink, smoke, talk and gamble, and to bitch about the newcomers, about the men who started a second family at an advanced age with women who were all ten years younger but not exactly young either, and who all made a good living doing something in the media.
To begin with we thought we’d soon get used to them; we’d seen plenty of others come and go. But these ones were different, more relentless. Not that we could put our finger on exactly what made them so relentless; they were friendly on the outside, sometimes even polite. But the next moment you’d find notice to vacate your apartment in your letterbox and just couldn’t find a new one, there were tiny flags in the last piles of dog dirt, issuing demands to keep the streets clean, and the press poured scorn on those of us who clung to our neighbourhood like a place to call home. We hadn’t understood the signs of the times, they said. We ought to make a move at last. We’d been here long enough. There was no human right to an apartment with stucco ceilings and wooden floors, they wrote. Worse than the scorn was the fact that one person after another vanished all around me, until there were only a few of us left, paying double the price for a beer so the barkeeper could still make a living and pay the rent on the pub. We renovated it after an anonymous caller made a complaint to the hygiene authorities, and we smoked outside the front door as quietly as cats on a backyard wall. But it was no use.
The barkeeper lost his nerve when he got into a fistfight one night with the owner of the luxury apartment above, a man who called the police over the noise every evening. The barkeeper lost the case and his licence with it, and we were turfed out of our living room. There was no way to make a living out of unmarketable art, humbug or beer sales around here any more. On the last night I brought along a postcard I’d had pinned up in my hallway for years, from A Child’s Machiavelli: “When you take over some place, kill off everyone who’s against you, pronto, then act really nice to everyone else.” Perhaps precisely that was the relentlessness: None of us were to be left over. One of us had once wondered out loud whether the state of our neighbourhood was comparable to the effects of a neutron bomb, the things they’d frightened us with as children. The terrifying idea that the enemy might drop them on our neighbourhood and wipe out all life, leaving the houses unharmed. Then the invaders would take over the place and make themselves at home in our apartments. Alright, we said, but no one’s actually died. So where, he asked, have they all gone? We stuck the Machiavelli postcard to the pub window with superglue. It was no use though – they put in a new window. The barkeeper moved out to Brandenburg and the pub where we once snuggled up at night is now a kids’ café with a bouncy castle, where fathers spend hours watching their children play, fearing they might bump their heads or get abducted by other, bad men.
This condition of absolute midnight silence in the centre of a city, an oxymoron if you ask me, was easy to confuse with a state of emergency, but the last one of those here was the week after the uprising of 17 June 1953. Not even after 7 October 1989, when we angry youths had clashed with security forces on the streets around the Gethsemane Church not a mile away and many of us had been arrested as a result until the streets emptied out, had it been so quiet here at night. Alright, perhaps close to the Wall, but even there at least a policeman had come creeping out of the darkness of a decaying doorway and asked to see your ID in a Saxon accent, or in fact demanded it. There was a fashion at the time to imitate their strange singsong dialect. “Nuu, gomrade, I sh’ll ‘ave a loogg if I’ve god my doggumends aboud my berson,” to which the policemen responded, depending on their temperament, with stoic patience or increased pettiness, and sometimes with a police escort. That meant a night at the police station.
The winter before last, when the snow lay three-foot thick on the pavements and the parks and dampened the sound of footsteps for many days, even settled on the roads, a man had followed very close behind me one night, so soundlessly that only the smell of his breath alerted me to the fact that someone was there. He didn’t say a word, just followed me like a shadow. It was an hour before midnight and there was no one on the streets; even the windows were all dark. When I walked faster, he picked up speed as well. When I slowed down, he dawdled, and when I stopped to tie my shoelace he did the same. I expected a blow to the head at any moment, a tug at my bag or a gun against my back. After three hundred yards I started to panic. I checked the doors of the buildings – perhaps one would be ajar – but all the entrances were barred. Then I spotted a light falling on the snow on the pavement. Behind the window was a bar, one I’d never noticed before. I slipped inside and slammed the door shut. The shadow didn’t come after me.
The bar was packed. In my memory it was smoky, which can’t be right because smoking was banned by the time I first set foot in there. But everyone looked as if they were sitting by an ashtray and absent-mindedly tapping the ash from their cigarettes. They were almost all men.
What came next was actually a coincidence. One of them spoke to me. He looked familiar but the new people all look kind of similar, the same clothes, the same glasses, the same sort of aftershave, stubble and smartphones. I suddenly felt like finding out whether they were indistinguishable naked as well. I like sex with strangers, the same way I like currywurst. Sometimes I won’t eat one all year, but then I get a whiff of one and I have to rush to the nearest sausage stall and gobble down three in a row until the attack is over. I showed interest in us spending the night together.
It soon transpired that he was one of those helium men. That had been a running gag in our pub; that was what we called men who speak in baby voices. There were plenty of helium women too.
When another dozen of these chirpy individuals pass me in the park in the space of one afternoon I get fidgety and start talking to myself, thinking it’s contagious although I know better. But no, my voice is still so deep and rough that the families sometimes turn around in shock when I laugh out loud behind them. You can bet that one of the helium fathers says to his child, “Don’t be scared, Leon/Leonie, it’s only a woman,” and I laugh all over again, even louder, so loudly that they step aside in fear, which they never do otherwise because they own the whole world. I like laughing. I used to prefer being sad and mysterious, but once you’re over forty, serious soon comes across as depressed.
I didn’t like him that much – too short, too young, a bit of a bore – but I had an urge to accept his advances, to let him dangle in my web for a while and then devour him. I took him home with me. But he was so scared of his wife that we never got beyond the heavy petting stage. He couldn’t even say goodbye and simply never turned up to our next date. I still fancied the idea, though. I went back to the bar, which was actually nothing more than a poorly camouflaged pick-up joint like the Franzklub along the road used to be, except that this place was full of elderly fathers whose eyes had bags underneath them and greed inside them. Women seemed not to stay so long. They pretty much only came to take home a man. I only needed two beers for my decision as well, and seeing as they all looked alike I found it much less difficult to choose than from the yoghurt section in the supermarket a few doors down, where I’d performed at the official opening with my folkdance troupe. It had a different name back then, of course.
After the second helium man had fallen into my trap, I began compiling what I called a phenomenology of the species. Their greatest similarity is their pride of ownership. One swipe of the smartphone conjures up the current family, the wife snuggled up to a pair of children, usually twins. I’ve got more careful since I put one of them to pre-coitus flight by enquiring “Test tube?” with regard to the twins. The women all seem to wear the same size clothes, the same hairstyle and in winter those quilted black or navy coats with the outsized logos of expensive outdoor brands. I don’t usually get a chance to look at the wives closely though, because the men have to post a quick status report, answer a text message or check their mails. Sometimes they excuse themselves to make a call and then walk up and down the street looking important with the smartphone to their ear, signalling to me not to go away.
I don’t like flowery foreplay. My favourite is sex in the park at night – I get a bigger kick and fear of discovery means the act doesn’t get drawn out to eternal lengths. Mind you, I’ve noticed these men aren’t right for that kind of experiment. The sturdy lads of yesteryear didn’t mind a spot of nature, but it’s all too prickly for the sensitive new residents and they’re scared a twig between their legs might give them away. They need a roof over their head when they take their pants down. We usually go back to my place. I avoid switching the lights on. It’s about sex, not about how I live. I have a middle apartment at the front of a building, which I’ve staunchly defended against any renovation measures. The shower’s in the kitchen and the toilet’s half a flight downstairs. That’s enough to put off the odd one, especially as the water for the shower has to be heated up first. My work is none of their business either. I told the first one and it ended badly. Now I say I work with computers, and no one’s noticed yet that I don’t have a computer in the place, only books all the way up to the ceiling.
In fact they rarely want to know anything about me at all. They’re not curious. I’m not that crazy to tell them either; I wouldn’t tell the truth anyway. I’ve been living in the neighbourhood all my life. When I tell them that I get pitying looks, as if I’d never travelled anywhere else. Travelling’s overrated. There’ve been so many changes here in the past quarter of a century that I’d never have seen as much by taking a round-the-world trip or moving house. Mind you, it’s been getting more and more boring over the past ten years, since they came along to cultivate the East German desert with their off-road vehicles and healthy carrots. They’d deny that, of course. I would too if I were them. My neighbour Frau Korte, a 75-year-old who’s lived in the same apartment since the day she was born, said to me in the stairwell last week, “I’m certain I’ll see the day when they’re all gone again.” Her optimism reminds me of my old Auntie Trude. She and her husband were the only tenants in a completely empty building in the early nineties, when suddenly it was occupied overnight by a group of young people who kicked up a racket and a rumpus 24 hours a day. At three o’clock one morning, when they couldn’t sleep for thudding bass lines, Trude – not a woman to lose her nerve easily, having lived through the air raids and the Red Army’s victory in that same house – wondered aloud whether it might not be better to move out, but her husband told her, “Wait and see, Trude, they’ll get so old and square they’ll be complaining about us.” And that’s what happened.
I ask the men a lot of questions. Usually after sex, to calm down, while we have another little drink. I’m so good at it that they don’t get suspicious. We work through their lives, the lives of Falk or Florian, David or Daniel, Lukas or Johannes, from station to station up the career ladder; never down, of course. From intern to Senior Consultant. A woman like me, they think, you can tell her anything, she’s a stranger, she doesn’t understand. I can tell they’re lying to themselves, of course, but who doesn’t? I’m particularly good at it. I know full well my time here has run out. I know the argument that I was born here doesn’t count any more. I know it’s a suburb now and that means it has to be quiet at night. And I know I don’t fit in any more, that I have to make sure I get out of here with my head held high. But I’m still hesitating – it’s my home, after all. I used to be in a comfortable position until not long ago.
I sat on my balcony and the world around me changed in time lapse, one minute grey and populated by the underground and what my new neighbours would call the underclass – and the next everything was pastel shades like a row of ice creams, and full of happy families.
I never deny having been here back when they still lived in their suburban homes in West Germany and dreamed of a future in an end-of-terrace house. I could easily invent a West German childhood for myself, perhaps more in Lower Saxony than in Baden-Württemberg because of the accent, but I don’t. I’ve studied all their pop allures, watched their TV series, listened to their music, I know the musical heartthrobs of their childhood, the ones their mothers liked, because my mother liked them too. I know the makes of the mid-range cars in which they sat on the back seats as children or lost their virginity. I know the names of the motorway junctions, the water levels and diving depths of their rivers at all times of year and the titles of their childhood books. I can name their junior detectives and envisage all their sticker albums. I know the brands of their school bags and I can list all the types of beverages and ice creams from 65 to 90. But I don’t feel like pretending to be someone I’m not.
There’s no need; I don’t have to make a good impression. My heart doesn’t speak, that’s why. It doesn’t say a thing. In the old days when I was still a girl, I couldn’t imagine not being a little bit in love when I went to bed with a boy. That’s the way the world was back then: the boys broke hearts and the girls let them break them, just for fun. We had such heartbreakers in our neighbourhood! That’s all changed since I grew up. You had to grow up early here, in those days. Nowadays women shave off their pubic hair, as if no one will ever do them any harm if they look like little girls down there.
I’m actually the ideal mistress. I don’t want promises of marriage, children or gifts. But for some reason the helium men don’t seem to like that either. These relationships are over pretty quickly when I say, “I don’t love you.” I just want to fuck and so do you, so let’s leave it at that. We can carry on as long as you like, I’ll be as silent as the grave, I won’t run after you or harass your family, I won’t hang around the playground and spy on your children. But the helium men want to be the ones to decide. They want to say, “I’m sorry, we had a good time but it’s over now.” They want vows and pining, they like tears, adoring text messages and unfriendings on Facebook. They want to hear me say I want it to be forever. So that they can say, “It was just sex, baby, or did you seriously think I’d leave my family for you?” Or the more pitying among them can silently console me and then gather up their scattered clothes. One of them even wanted to give me money. He’d got the completely wrong idea. I threw his things out of the window.
Sometimes I back off even in the bar. One of them once bought us rounds of expensive schnapps and once he was drunk enough he started telling me about his job getting rid of quarrelsome sitting tenants and eradicating social structures. And when he said the words “The simple people are moving away and the good people are coming,” I thought for a moment about taking him home, having sex with him and then locking him in my outside toilet, naked in a state of post-coital drowsiness. It was winter and I could have blackmailed him; he had a wife and children after all. But I didn’t want him in my apartment. He probably would have bought it up and thrown me out. It wasn’t worth it.
The men love showing me their large apartments with their huge, expensive kitchens, which are rarely used for cooking. I can smell that. They run their fingertips over the knives to look tough, but in the end we go looking for the first-aid box in the bathroom and I’m forced to practice the profession I learned before I started studying. So there they are, their dream homes with stucco ceilings and wooden floors, with fireplaces and guest bathrooms, with designer kitchens and prams that cost as much as my used car. Large-format oil paintings on the walls or black and white photos, abstract or of some kind of plants or objects, sometimes screen prints of the family as if Warhol had asked them to sit for a portrait. They really do like showing off what they’ve got, it’s just that it’s hardly anything, only expensive objects really. And then they launch themselves upon me and I’m glad when we do it on the carpet and not in their bedrooms.
I don’t want to know anything about their wives, who are probably out cheating too while I sit on their husbands’ laps. I know I ought to show some solidarity, at least outside the bedroom, but I don’t like their ego-feminism. Even the tone in which they scold their cleaning ladies for ringing the doorbells of their front-of-house and maisonette apartments with their scrubbers in hand, sets my teeth on edge. I’m always in the role of the cleaning lady and then it’s not Hélène Cixous I think of but Clara Zetkin, and that the women’s issue is a class issue too, something I’d have rejected angrily twenty years ago. One of my sexual partners once listed the celebrities with whom he shares a cleaning lady. Not that I’d ever heard of any of them. Most of them work in films or TV, as presenters, critics or discourse pop musicians, what do I know. I don’t know much about all that – I’ve given up taking an interest.
On warm summer nights, when it doesn’t get dark until just before midnight and everyone’s on holiday, I like to walk around the streets and look at the layers of time on the things they’ve forgotten to get rid of: water pumps, waste baskets, manhole covers and lamps, the occasional un-renovated façade. I walk through the night and there’s another memory at every corner, the illegal clubs, the hash bars, the backyard film screenings, the children’s adventure playgrounds, their kindergartens and schools, the strange people with their tics. Sometimes I feel like I’ve turned into Frau Gladow, my next-door neighbour who poisoned herself when she was supposed to move out. She could still see the rabbits they hung out of the windows at Christmas time after the war, bleeding them and cooling them down nicely before they skinned them. I know that every sense of security will always be deceptive here, for the new people too, no matter how many invisible and visible fences they build around themselves. There are still plenty of unexploded bombs under the earth that no one has ever tried to find.
Sometimes I go to the cemetery and talk to my friends who’ve died. I don’t know when their graves expire and whether they’re at threat as well; the church always needs money and these graveyards are perfect for building on, or at least for converting into children’s playgrounds. And then some kid comes running up with a skeletal hand to show to mummy or daddy or maybe even the old grandmother come to visit from Munich, who’s been horrified at how dirty the city is all along. And maybe it’s the hand of the most amazing underground guitarist of the early eighties, the Jimi Hendrix of Prenzlauer Berg, who even spent eighteen months in prison for his music. But I’m dreaming. They’re all cremated and buried in urns.
Once I was strolling along one of the dead streets behind Kollwitzplatz with one of the men, slightly embarrassed by the silence, and as soon as he opened the front door to his building my heart started thudding and when we went through to the first courtyard I suddenly smelled it, that smell of 1984, Orwell and the coal yard next door, and there was always a rubbish bin smouldering and often a wind whistling down the chimneys. It was in the rear courtyard that I met my daughter’s father, when the power had cut out as usual and Horst the Strangler’s little darlings had come screaming down the dark stairs, and Erika had tripped up on her dog’s lead and fallen down a whole flight of steps, which meant there was finally a reason for her screaming because she couldn’t put any weight on her foot after that and her dog licked her ankle while I ran to Frau Schneider in the front building, the only tenant in the place with a telephone, to ask her to call an ambulance. But Frau Schneider refused to use her telephone for that gin fiend, she’d be better off dead, all that dirty slut ever did was make a load of noise. I cursed Frau Schneider (and really, she had a fall six months later and broke her femur, and she couldn’t make it to her precious telephone and she lived all alone). So I took care of Erika. Her daughter had to hold a candle and I improvised a splint out of a long piece of wood and an elastic bandage. Just as I finished, a tall dark stranger came down the stairs, a man I’d never noticed before, and asked what had happened, and as luck would have it he turned into my first daughter’s father. He moved away years ago, and my children have found themselves more exciting places to live as well.
The man with whom I now entered my hallway had a key to the lift. While we were waiting for it he tried to kiss me. I was somewhere else entirely. I was thinking of how I’d had to lug everything up five flights of stairs back then and had to decide what I took up first – the baby, the shopping or the coal. The man pressed 4 and when we got there he unlocked my apartment. I’d been expecting nothing else for the past five minutes. Except that he’d also bought the attic space above it. I didn’t tell him about the summer nights on the roofs or the nails with which the roofing paper was fixed to the improvised roof, that always poked into your flesh during sex. Right there where the houses are separated by barbed wire now, so that burglars can’t cross the roofs.
To finish off we always smoke a couple of goodbye cigarettes together, after they’ve said a few coy parting words. I’ve never slept with any of them more than twice.
The bar’s been closed since yesterday. I don’t know where the men have gone now. I’ve had all I need for the moment. I still think they shouldn’t be left alone together though. Otherwise they’ll only start killing each other.
The fox prowls around the cars for a while, snapping a few twigs underfoot. I read in one of our local papers that his family apparently has its den in the council archive building. The animal welfare people advised against driving them away from there. Sometimes I wish I were an animal, a fox or a bat, but there you are.
They say they’ve spotted wolves on the edge of town. One night they’ll invade my neighbourhood and find no one left but me.
*First published in: “Berlin bei Nacht. Neue Geschichten”, ed. Susanne Gretter, Suhrkamp 2013.