Berlin in February, buildings of lilac-gray under radiant clouds, Italian madrigals leaking through half-open windows, the dark grumbling alleyways, centuries-old stone cathedrals, sun on the Quadriga, graveyards deep in shadow, the sweet smell of honeyed baklava drifting from a Turkish bakery, and the roar of underground trains, old men telling cock-and-bull stories in the dim-lit kneipen, advertisements in neon, sadness in a bordello, the ecstasy of the dance, thoughts of death, murderous desires, Kafka’s immaculate laughter groping through hallways of Portuguese marble, the sultry dread silhouette of a beautiful woman in the fragrant twilight, the earth under you spinning and the feeling of being fully alive.

This is why I write.

I do it because there are things in me – impressions, nuances, reveries – things I can’t express in normal conversation or in any other way, but they’re so alive in me, something would die if I had to keep them inside.  Sincerity, as I said in an earlier post, is a goal. But sincerity is only one feather in the pigeon’s breast. The rest is the play of language, the creation of vivid images, of mood, of atmosphere, the accurate transference of emotion, cultivating the perfect lie, the perfect truth, lyricism, the slowing of time, the flowering of eternity, the flower in mid-blossom and just out of reach.

It’s the reaching for it, that’s why I write.

Love & Shandyism


I have just returned from walking my girlfriend to U-Bahn Hermannplatz and seeing her off. She’s flying back to London today. I have no other plans but to write today. I haven’t written anything since Friday a.m., and I’ve dealt with it pretty well, but last night it started to get to me and probably would’ve been much worse if we hadn’t gone to the bar.

From now on, I’m calling my girlfriend Erica on this blog. The name is the Latin of her real name and was her 3rd choice when I asked her what she wanted to be called. Her first two choices were duds and I had to reject them.

Erica and I originally met three years ago in the bar we went to last night which is called Travolta. The night we met she tells me I was totally drunk and that’s why she kept looking at me. Not sure I believe her, although I did drink a flask of vodka on the way into the bar, and somehow we ended up sitting at the same table. Then my friend Bernd, a six-foot-six-two-hundred-eighty-pound-Teuton-got-up-like-Johnny-Cash plunked down between us.

“Soooooo, Mike,” he said, in his thundering bass-baritone. “Wait, she’s not the Polish girl. Wha? A new one? Huh?”

I’d made out with a Polish girl the week before. I pretended I didn’t hear what he’d said and introduced the two of them. A few minutes later, he worked his screw in again.

“Have you told her how old you are yet, Mike? C’mon, fess up.”

“43,” I muttered, and cursed him under my breath. Erica was only 24 at the time. Nevertheless, we kept talking, mostly about books. Her favorite was One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Marquez, and she knew the first line by heart.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

I was impressed, both by the first line and that she’d remembered it. I told her a few of my favorite books, one which was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne, and she’d read that too, which shocked me. I’d never met anyone who’d heard of Sterne, let alone read him and got his brilliant Irish wit.

I cursed Bernd again.

Then I got up from the table and lit a cigarette at the bar. Erica now says I did that to hide from her the fact of my smoking, and she’d be right, although if I really wanted to hide it I would’ve gone outside. The bar was only 10 feet away.

After that night, I started seeing Erica every week at Travolta, but didn’t do anything except once when I invited her to sleep at my place because it was closer. She told me she couldn’t that night because she had to work early the next morning, but said maybe some other time. So that confirmed it. But I still rested on my chesterfields. I’ve always been slow to act. I’m no Lothario, nor do I try to be. I go to bars for drinks and crackajabloking and good conversation, everything else must arrive by itself. So I sat back and watched as this 26-year-old Welshman started buying Erica drinks, and stealing my seat, and blockading me from her, trying to court her. A month or two went by like that and finally I got a haircut and trimmed my toenails and made my move. I challenged Erica – no that’s not true – I commanded her to memorize the first line of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and present me with the results the following week.

The first line goes as follows:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were doing; – that not only the production of a rational Being was concern’d in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; – and for ought they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost: – Had they duly weighted and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, – I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.

She memorized it to the letter, and soon after we went out on our first date at a beer kneipe, and soon after that we were making out in the back of some dark bar in Mitte, and I looked out the window and saw the Welshman looking at us, his mouth hanging open, his face pale as a toad’s belly. He took a slow drag from his cigarette and stood there decomposing in his cloud of blue smoke.

Poor sod. I felt sorry for him. I really did! I tried to think of what I could do to help but for some reason was all out of ideas. I turned to Erica and we continued.

My Favorite Berlin Cafe: Cafe Kotti


It’s 11 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am sitting here drinking an espresso at Café Kotti in Kreuzberg. This is my favorite café in Berlin. Right now it is relatively empty. There’s a Nigerian in headphones on the sofa to my right. Across from me there’s an old Turk wearing a doorknob-shaped lid and smoking a cigarette. And on a couch in the other room there’s an Arab in a black baseball cap drinking a cup of coffee and staring at his iPhone. The music playing is jazz. Not very good jazz. Though I confess the only jazz I like, with a few exceptions, is the late 50s early 60s stuff by John Coltrane and Miles Davis. A Love Supreme, Milestones, My Favorite Things, Kind of Blue and a few others. I can think no piece of music that goes better with being in a city on a rainy day than Kind of Blue. I’ve listened to it thousands of times and, like all songs with a hint of eternity in them, it never gets old.

I will now light this rolled cigarette to give accent to my espresso. I started smoking again just so I could have a cigarette here, though I must admit I’ve never really been a big smoker. I smoke when I drink, which some people say makes me a big smoker, but I’m not. I’ve always been able to quit whenever I wanted.

Okay, cigarette’s lit, and the music has improved. It’s Dave Brubeck, Take Five – not to be confused with Take That (boy band reference) – and the Turk across from me is beating time with his soft leather shoe.

I’ve heard this place gives free coffee and tea to refugees. That’s another thing I like about it. There’s usually a healthy mix of Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqis, Sudanese, and so on. No hipsters of the Starbucks variety. Pumpkin Spiced lattes and raspberry scones you will not find here. The sofas look like they’ve been left out in the rain after a yard sale, there’s a sign over my head that says Beware of Pickpockets, the walls and ceilings are covered with pamphlets and strange artwork, and on the mirror near the door there are two stickers that say #FREE AHMED. On the mirror closer to me there’s a sticker that advises you to SHAKE THAT ASS.

Well, now my cigarette’s done, and so is my espresso and it’s time to go back out in the sun. Sunny days are a rare commodity in Berlin, so I must take advantage. Not that I care that much about sunny days. I had enough in Florida to last me a lifetime. Blue skies can be depressing too, and nothing feeds my art like the dark and gloomy damp.

Here’s a poem of mine about this place that was recently published by the good folks at Red Fez.

Cafe Kotti

It’s best here in the early mornings
on an overcast autumn day.
Sitting on the plush orange sofa, in the semi-light.
Warmed by Turkish tea, smoking rolled cigarettes.
There’s only three of us here,
and the barmaid clattering dishes in the back.
An old French song tiptoes about the room.

It’s best here when outside the weather’s grim.
When there’s just a few yellow leaves left trembling on the trees.
Sitting in this dim, uncertain light.
Sitting under a sign that says Beware of Pickpockets.
Smoke curling from my ashtray. Mumbling as I write this.

It’s best here before the crowd comes,
when it’s gloomy and cold outside, the windowpanes
speckled with raindrops. A jar of sugar and a vase
of flowers on every coffee table.
And the barmaid who smiles every time I order a tea.