I am determined to make it to the Berlin Wall. When I arrive to the East Side Gallery a young mother asks me to take a picture of she and her baby in front of the massive black and white painted face of a man driving a red-wheeled car. Traveling alone often makes me family and friend photographer.
Later, back at my accommodations, I try to determine who he is and the best I can gather is that he is the gentleman who drove through the wall without a windshield. Ducked his head and slipped car and all under the three-foot space separating East from West with his mother safely hidden in the trunk. After the fellow tourist has wheeled her baby away, I read three translations of the same poem that begins “I painted over the wall of shame.”
Crossing the bridge into West Berlin, I recognize why my host has called it “artsy”. The area reminds me of Brooklyn and certain neighborhoods in DC. Coffee shops, record stores, apartments stacked, combat boots, bangs.The café where I have lunch is also a yoga studio. The waitress tells me, “Well, I don’t eat meat…” when I ask how the rosemary ham sandwich is. Lunch comes laced with the woman’s salty judgment, eaten in front of tin-potted herbs and an open window.
As I am leaving, I see two men in tight black pants. One of them is not wearing a shirt and there is something to the way that one moves that holds my gaze. I follow twenty feet behind. His left shoulder hangs a little bit lower than his right and he slouches to that side every other step. His dark hair shines greasy in the sunlight. He grimaces more than smiles as his talks animatedly in German. I people watch as often as I listen to my gut and, though the two don’t often coincide, my gut tells I am looking at a scumbag. The type of person you feel your body bend away from in broad daylight as they make their way opposite you. Someone who wouldn’t take your wallet, but might spew a few things to ruin your mood. A “fuck you” or a comment about what taking you to bed would be like. Maybe spit too close to your feet or belch just before he passed you.
Outside of my imagined scenarios, he winds up like he’s about to swing for a home run and lands the palm of his hand hard and loud on a pretty young tourist’s jean-shorted butt. Her mouth opens, soundless and horrified, as she bends the large map in her hands down a creaseless middle. She quickly moves her body against the wall of the storefront. I wait to see if she will say something. Put up her middle finger. Yell. Something other than press herself into a shady place like she does. Trying to collect herself, taking breaths with her hand to her chest. I understand this response.
I keep following the men because I want my body to be between. Maintaining my twenty foot distance, standing solid, blocking the vision of her body, ready for what comes next.
He turns to see her reaction, to have one last laugh. Any woman, any person who has witnessed or experienced something like this knows this is what comes next. Instead, his eyes meet mine. I want to have snakes for hair, but I just have my face. I maintain a tight jaw and refuse to blink while he laughs at me for a moment before his face blackens.
I am not scared. I am angry. What happened here is a wall within itself. Some people would argue it is nothing, really, just boys being boys, flirtation, even and other people would defend it as life-changing. The wall stands between two communities here, too.
We stare at each other, he and I, for what can only be a few seconds before he turns to slap his friend’s palm goodbye with much less force than earlier. He makes a left and I turn right and buy a nectarine. I am shocked that I did not go back to check on the girl, but I realize that I followed the two men so far that going back would have found me nothing but shade against a storefront. I walk and I chew on the fruit, juice going down the front of me. I feel myself struggle between putting my bag in front of me where it is safer or putting it over my butt where I am safer. Once home, my host asks how my day was and I tell him, “Great!” because I don’t quite know how to tell him that the thing I will remember most about Berlin is what happened on that street.
I am not certain which side of this particular wall the woman it happened to stands on. The side that laughs it off or the side that is altered because of it. No side is preferable. It is the wall I am most concerned with – the material it is made from, who put it there, how long it will stay.
It is another wall that needs to come down.