Translated by Linda Frazee Baker
The 6 German original texts are published on Fixpoetry
Time is behaving like a vacuum in which we are captive. Because we don’t know when, where, or even how we will leave the vacuum or where we will go, we adapt ourselves to Time, we ourselves become a vacuum. We fill it with all manner of things, for example rosemary scones or looking out the window or playing Frederic Chopin.
Sadly, we mostly sit alone in the vacuum or in groups of two or three or more alone. It’s very hard for me to think about the others who are sitting in the vacuum, it’s as if they had disappeared although I know they are there.
The day before yesterday I rang the bell at the goldsmith’s. He opened the door. I said, I want to buy your silver ring. Good, he said, I can resize it for you. I left, he closed the door behind me.
The café-bakery on the corner is run by three women, all about equally old. Their husbands, who are workmen, also live on this street. This morning two of the men were still in the store. They were probably talking about how the store would soon run out of goods to sell. They regularly bring the goods from the other side of the Polish border. Buckwheat honey was on the price list, but there wasn’t any. Acacia honey was on the price list. But there wasn’t any. There was only linden honey, many jars of it. I really didn’t need any honey, I thought to myself, and bought two meat patties they had made themselves. Later I cut them in half and stretched the pleasure out over four days.
The goldsmith’s shop window was empty. Why have you done that, I asked him, are you giving up already? No, he said. I had some work I had to finish and besides, since no one is coming … Please, I said, set out a display again. It makes me sad to look at your window, all cleaned out like that.
When I came back from the café-bakery he had put beautiful uncut stones in his shop window, and a finely chiseled chain with small moonstones. He handed me the ring. A flat silver rosette. I can’t remember ever having worn any clothing or jewelry in the shape of a rosette. This was one of two that were there, and the other ring also had a rosette. Now I sit in the vacuum, turning and twisting the ring. Sometimes I take it off and then I worry that I may have misplaced it. It is important to me that I find it again, sit down in the vacuum, and turn the ring.
March 20th 2020, Berlin
The Metropolitan’s stopped paying salaries—the opera’s been cancelled. Won’t be carried on German Public Radio. What would happen, actually, if we were to keep on paying in full but without seeing a performance? Why do the tickets we have already paid for in the theater have to be refunded? Yes, of course, under ordinary circumstances—but we’re not living in ordinary circumstances.
A florist has put out signs: Not sold. He means, not for sale. He doesn’t want to attract customers, he wants to observe the government orders, but he’s there anyway, watering the flowers, taking care of them, probably because that’s what he always does. He’d rather not know that they’ll decay, unsold, under his hand.
At the checkout, the man keeps his distance. Everyone keeps their distance. Until it’s time to pay. Then the distance suddenly shrinks, and he can’t wait until the previous customer has packed up and gone on his way. In front of the checkout, there’s a sign mandating distance. After the checkout, no sign. The man tells the cashier it’s unacceptable that she has to sit there without a plexiglass protective shield. What is the cashier supposed to do?
She talks to us, the women customers; we don’t talk to each other. I didn’t meet anyone else today. On the lower floor, a door opens. The inhabitant comes out and offers to run errands. She talks to me almost as if I were a child, just in case I might need … She gives my purchases a reproachful look.
He is the Lord of the Fish Counter and gave me a double portion for the price of one. Once, when I wanted to buy a fish head for soup and he didn’t have any, he offered me his own head. As if I were Salome and had demanded the head of St. John. Which I hadn’t. The fish heads today were enormous and very good value. Bye, he said. See you next time. I thanked him and took his good wishes with me out into the street.
I come back from my visit along the empty streets. I managed to mail my package at the last minute when the man who collects the mail came in with his yellow boxes to get today’s load. I hold the doors open for him and turn away. He turns away and thanks me. He’s wearing a face mask and plastic gloves. The man at the package counter is also wearing a face mask. It dangles loosely at the sides. Naturally I don’t say anything. The mere idea that he’s doing something is helpful to him and his customers. The way back takes me along the elevated tram tracks. The trains are ghost trains, trams with elongated cars. As if they were lizards lolling about. I listen to them, it’s as if they were louder with no one in them. I also watch them from my window. From here the trains go to Wannsee, Potsdam, Spandau. They continue to run despite remaining empty. Once I saw three people in the very last car. The trams run as a kind of defiance. On principle, so to speak. It’s a moral issue.
I think such things to myself, this and that. A tall person dressed in black comes out of a door. A long down overcoat, a black cap that’s almost like a hat, a black scarf. I was just thinking that a bit of color would do this person good when I look at her from behind and then call out a name. She turns around. It’s really her. Almost four meters’ distance between her and me. The person says something, wants to go on, clearly I shouldn’t get any closer nor should I walk with her. She walks so fast I thought she can’t be wanting to take one of those empty subway cars or busses.
In the evening she writes me that someone in her immediate circle has fallen ill, that she can’t talk, that she … I understand. She worries, she worries a great deal, as does my friend Chloe. Every day she posts a video on Facebook in which she reads something aloud to her mother, who is sick. She can then watch it in the hospital. At first I thought the video was a message to humanity, or her followers, until she told me No, that’s for my mother. Her mother’s in Warsaw, she’s in Switzerland. One of her friends is a doctor who gets home every day from his night shift around noon. She leaves a pot of soup outside his door. Then he sleeps a few hours before he goes back out to work.
I walk down to the lake. Lots of people go down to the lake now. They exercise vigorously as a form of sport. More and more people are exercising. The branches of a willow hang over the water’s surface, ducks are making circles. People sit on the benches separate from one another. It looks as if the park has been transformed into a clandestine marriage market, all these people looking the other way as you come closer. Otherwise they’d be asking you to have a seat and linger. I, too, look away, as if looking at others were an indecent harassment. I don’t want to breathe in this direction, I mean … Here and there, mothers are playing with their children. I think they seem especially nice, completely absorbed in their children. But after I see a mother telling her two small children in the most severe tone possible that they should lean up against the stone wall of the hill when someone comes the other way, I avoid that path. Besides, it leads into a tunnel narrower than medieval alleys, you can’t keep your distance.
And then, too, I breathe loudly and distinctly when I’m jogging … So I go somewhere else, leaving the park by the steps, then coming back in by another entrance. Here is someone sitting on a mattress. Two police officers on bicycles stop. The man looks fantastic in his helmet and sportswear, like a male model. I don’t remember how the female police officer looked. The park is famous as a red light district in certain areas for gay male prostitutes. The policeman wants Mattress Man to leave or be fined an enormous amount of money. But where to? How can a person disappear who doesn’t have a home? He can’t pay the fine either. The prison doors have just been flung open for these kinds of offenders and the inmates sent home.
I jog further along a broad path that leads upwards. I certainly won’t encounter anyone here, one lone man almost at the top of the hill. A thick cloud blows towards me. He’s smoking marijuana. The sun dazzles my eyes a little now at around noon.
16. März 2020
The engineers‘ trade union held the view that the time had really come to take the empty German Federal Railways trains that were still operating out of service. German Federal Railways wasn’t willing to do that. How can we explain this? The linkage between the trains that are running and the souls of those who aren’t passengers anymore? They remain mobile to the extent possible. Switched-off railway cars that aren’t running … In families, the doomsday scenarios of the Second World War are being revived and passed on. The Chancellor hasn’t said anything about war. That’s good. The trains and buses that are running are rather like flower shops that are still open.
Or like the railing where people leave donations on the corner across from the shuttered playground.
Many bags are hanging here, I think there are more than yesterday.
A woman sticks a slip of paper on her plastic bag: “Bread” and “Margarine.” Another bag has: “T-shirt.” I saw a man there after the women had left. He read everything carefully and then decided on “Please only 1 bag per person—contains bananas, apples, tangerines, canned fish, bread, chocolate, cookies, water, toilet paper, soap. Everything completely fresh and clean. Stay healthy! All the best, Alexandra.”
I’d like to put something there, too. But something holds me back. It’s actually uncomfortable for me to hang something there. Aren’t I putting others in the shameful position of taking such gifts in public? In front of the copy shop there’s a slightly stocky man, somewhat unshaven. In his Sicilian accent he calls out: What’s that? Then he nods: Aha. “That anything left hanging there, Rumanians come for sure and take everything.” “Hmm,” I say. Then we talk about Palermo and how the police are in the supermarkets now. “There’s no welfare like here,” he says.
I walked back through the park. I’ve never been in the park so often as in recent days. It has something to do with the experience of being confined. A woman overtakes me. A man has moved a supermarket cart loaded with a mattress near a trash can. He moves closer and peers into the darkness. The woman stops when she reaches him, pulls a banknote from the pocket of her hooded pullover, and stretches out her hand. He takes the money, thanks her. She races on, faster than before.
The clouds were moving inside one another. Winds began to lash out in gusts and drive snowflakes through the park. Now it was a bit lonely here. In the house across from the entrance a girl was leaning out of the window. Holding her cell phone up, she took a photo of the woman jogger. Perhaps it was a school assignment, to make portraits of the passersby. Perhaps she was supposed to write something about it. The jogger stopped at the corner under the sign of a Berlin bar, Großbeerenstrasse and Hagelbergerstrasse. “Keep on going, keep together, keep your distance, keep your hands clean, and keep healthy! The Gretel keeps going and is supporting you. Drinks To Go!”
My e-mail correspondence from all over the world has increased immeasurably. Like this: How are you doing? Me? Ah, you too!
I call a Northwest Bank center and arrange to have my American credit card activated. The woman who answers asks for my Social Security number. I need this number if I want to be paid for work I do in the US. The entire number, says the call center employee at the other end of the line. I give her the numbers one by one. Click. The robo-voice says You can use your card. It has been activated. Now I can go shopping in Chicago or recharge my telephone credit line or pay for a Metro card for the subway in New York or buy an Impossible Burger. . . . My twenty-and eighteen-year old nephews had just been reading a magazine article about them but had never tasted an actual Impossible when I came in through the kitchen back door with six portions. A rather innovative and delicious invention in the field of plant-based food production. I had to wait in line for it. Had I been on Sherman Avenue near Dave Street and Church Street? They charge 2.99 dollars now for delivery plus tip. It’s essential to leave a tip. People live on tips alone. At least twenty percent, I’d say. I put the card in my little iron box together with my coins from other countries and push it all the way to the back in the wall unit.
The telephone will ring soon. It will be my friend when she’s finished with her online class. Yesterday she spoke very softly, as if she didn’t want to be heard. That’s connected to the fact that she shouldn’t be where she is. She’s in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on the Baltic, lives in Berlin, works in Baden-Württemberg—a six hour long train ride twice a week. A while ago, when she was still driving to her workplace, I don’t know how she managed the business with her license plate. “I always leave my house very late, so I won’t attract attention.” I say something vague. “They really are all blond here,” she says. On the way past the train station’s virtually deserted forecourt I pass a poster wall. It’s pasted with countless black posters on which you can read, in a white handwriting kept very plain: “KEEP CALM” and “USE DILDOS.” A pale gold logo with penis and testicles on top. Between a restaurant called The Orchid and Albert’s Hotel, and then comes Voltaire, Art Café and Bar. Seats that are waiting, yawning window panes. The company that started this series is called DildoKing. I can’t remember ever having seen the posters before now. But perhaps they were there already. Even in bustling Kreuzberg, Little Istanbul, everything’s closed. Ramadan.
25 April 2020
With kind permission from Tom Cheesman