I enjoyed riding the S-Bahn as it chained its way across the city. I liked it when the trains ran parallel with the traffic on the road and you felt, momentarily, at one with the drivers behind the wheel – it felt like equality – and then when everything dropped away, thwump, into darkness as you entered a tunnel, and then again when you emerged looking for the sky. I liked this. The feeling of movement, of going somewhere.
I was 30 years old, turning 31 in less than 14 days. I was emotionally sick and wasn’t doing well physically. I smoked too much and my lungs burned if I exerted myself. I hadn’t eaten properly for months and the weight had dropped from me until what was left was a gaunt, bone of a man.
I was crashing at Liana’s place in Neukölln, two minutes walk from both the S and U-Bahn. She lived with five others in a flat like a commune I once saw in New Zealand, where the residents shared everything from sex to drugs. The rooms were large and bright, quite wonderful, and the corridor that linked them seemed to bend around like a two-headed snake. The doorbell didn’t have a button. It was two open wires you had to put together to make a sound. Although not entirely clean, the apartment was well organised, reflecting Liana’s presence. I felt, somehow, this flat was the hub for all the creative spinning of Berlin.
But I would discover more than this.
Many years ago I was heading out of Las Vegas in a white camper van. The fluorescent lights of Vegas were fading behind me and the beat of that sinful town was making way for calm desert and cacti. By the road, covered in dust, was a tramp with a dirty beard and a satchel slung over his shoulder. He had his thumb stuck out into the road. I remember thinking this man had probably arrived a millionaire. Cities can do that to a person.
Berlin is a regular city. It has its casinos, bars, nightclubs, strip-joints, whorehouses, but it’s also pregnant with the unknown, something that impels a person to search for adventure. Every possible thing opens into everything else. There are no boundaries. You can do what you like. A foreigner living in Berlin needs something of a safety word to keep them self grounded. It’s dangerous otherwise. You can lose yourself. Get arrested. Catch an STD. Overdose.
We all have our safety words, I expect, and I don’t mean an actual word. It could be a thing, a teddy bear, a coin, a book, even a friend, although friends are not always reliable structures. We’re fallible. That’s why neediness is such a red blooded killer.