An American in Berlin
12 April, 2017
A Berliner in New York
The subtitle is a bit misleading. To paraphrase JFK, Ich bin kein Berliner. I’m not a Berliner. That is not a statement of protest. It’s not a complaint. Nor is it a wistful regret. It’s just a fact. I’m not a Berliner. And that’s fine. It doesn’t mean, by the way, that I don’t love it here. It doesn’t mean I regret coming here or that I wish I’d chosen somewhere else. It simply means what it means. I’m not a Berliner. Thing is, I had to go home to learn this.
I’m a New Yorker. Bottom line. That’s not a knock on Berlin, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s not a brag either. It’s just a statement of fact. My name is Dave. I’m about 5’6”. I’m a New Yorker. None of those declarations is any more or less true than another. Just the facts, ma’am. But like I said, I needed to go home to (re)learn it.
I recently spent last two weeks on Long Island and in the City, visiting family and friends.1 Now, to be clear, Long Island can go screw. Sure, my family is there, and some of my best friends too; to say nothing of many memories. But that place is the pits.
Now the City, that’s where I belong. Not now, no. I needed to get out of there, and I’m glad as hell I did. When I left, I was often saying that the City didn’t speak to me anymore. Well, having been back, what can I say? It’s not singing to me. But we’re back on speaking terms.
Before I left, I could think of little more than food. Chinese food. Pizza. Mexican food. Jewish food. And not in generalities either. Chinese food meant Wo Hop, but it also meant Joe’s Shanghai (Soup Dumplings!) and my old corner spot. Jewish food meant pastrami on rye, but also pickles and matzah ball soup; um, and bagels. Yeah, OK, Mexican meant tacos and pizza is, well, pizza. But the point is, from my Berlin hideaway, New York meant food.
Then I got back. And all I had to do was stand in the passport line at our glorious shithole of an airport, JFK. And all of a sudden, New York meant “attitude.” It meant diversity – beautiful, gorgeous, annoying, frustrating, wonderful diversity.
Lemme tackle diversity first. See, I always have a hard time explaining this to Berliners. They feel – and rightly so, to a certain extent – that their city is very “mulit-culti,” multicultural, and that’s the word they use in German. They see their city as a major European capital filled with people from all over the world. And as I said, that’s true, to an extent.
But when people say this to me, I always have an answer for them. But I think it’s not a very good answer, because when I give it, they always look at me kinda funny. See, what I say is – though I never know quite how to express it, in English or German is – I say, “Guys, you don’t even know. This city is so fucking white.”
And again, I don’t mean that to be insulting. I’m not trying to take the place down a peg, or anything like that. It’s just that, well, everybody kinda looks the same here. And yes, I’m generalizing. There’s a sizable Turkish population, after all. But this is Northern Europe. And so, even when people are coming from Poland and Russia, for example, everybody kinda sorta looks alike.
Anyway, I’ve yet to find the person in this town who doesn’t look at me funny when I say my spiel about Berlin being “white.” So I was sorta wondering what kind of reaction that would get at home. How would it play in the Big Apple? Well, as it turned out, people understood me instantly. I was met with knowing nods, and comments along the lines of, “Well, yeah, man, no place else really looks like here.”
My buddy Shuman put it in more logical terms though. He said, and I paraphrase here, “Look man, I was in Italy. And at first, I had the same reaction you did. And then I realized, Oh yeah, it’s Italy. Everybody is just Italian here.” Oh yeah, it’s Germany. Everybody is just German here. It was only then that I realized to what extent I’ve taken this whole “melting pot” thing for granted my whole life. I guess I’d just assumed all big cities look like New York. And so, while I never meant anything böse (mean) with my line about Berlin being white, I’m realizing now that it’s a bit of prejudice I’m going to have to unlearn.
And yet, one can have a preference without being prejudiced, right? I can prefer the complex plurality of New York to the comparative homogeneity of Berlin without being judgey or superior about it, can’t I? I certainly hope so, anyway.
Oh, but I was talking about the diversity at JFK. So I get into the Citizen/Resident passport line at Immigration, and it was a sight for sore eyes. In that one line was every color imaginable, a dozen languages, religious garb of every stripe and what I can only assume was the full spectrum of sexuality. It was beautiful. I also think I saw more diversity standing in that one line for 45 minutes than I’ve seen in nine months over here. That. That is my city.
I also mentioned the attitude. So there I am, standing at the tail end of this long-ass Immigration line. And this dude walks up to me. “Hey man, is this the line for US citizens?” he asks. “Yes,” I tell him, “I’m afraid so.” To which he replies, “Fuuuuck.” Ah yes, I thought. I am indeed home.
This trip home for me was basically about three things. Seeing my family. Seeing my friends. And eating. Well, also drinking. But, I mean, that’s a constant. So what about all that, anyway? Family first, right?
Apart from two nights crashing in the city with Jared and Josh and then Codog & Arlene, I stayed with my parents on the Island. I can’t say I was particularly happy to be in the ‘burbs. And I can’t say it was convenient, when most of the people I wanted to see were in the city. But there’s no denying it was great to be back with the fam. And it was nice to be back in the closest thing I have to my own home Stateside. I mean, when you add it all up, I probably lived there for about 18 months, maybe a bit more.
Naturally, one of the highlights of being at my ‘rents house was that I got to cook dinner for them a couple of times. Look, when you’re in your mid-thirties, you just don’t want to be living with your folks. No matter how much you love them, no matter how good a relationship you have with them, it’s just not where you’re supposed to be in your life. And I do love my parents. We do have a good relationship. Not that we don’t break on each other sometimes.
Anyway, when I was living there, one of my favorite things was cooking family dinner. I mean, everything about it comes up Dave. They usually foot the shopping bill. They do the dishes. And they generally like what I cook. Plus I drink a goodly amount, which has the effect of putting me in a good and talkative mood.2 So that’s the time I most enjoy hanging out with the parental units. And this trip home was no exception.
Also, one night I made a Guiness-braised corned-beef brisket. Personally, I think I overdid it on the spices; especially the cloves. And I maybe thought it was too salty. But the meat was tender as all get-out. And my old dad insists it’s the best thing I’ve ever made. I don’t think I agree, but it’s nice when your dish goes over well all the same.
The one downside was, I didn’t get to see my brother nearly enough. And that was just a function of shitty timing. Being a music teacher, he was working late almost every night with concerts and rehearsals. But it was classic good times when we did get some time together. And I kicked his ass at NHL94, which was mission critical. I mean, if I’d lost, it could have rendered the entire trip home a failure. That’s a lot of pressure. But I came through.3
Right. So your family is your family. You basically know what to expect. And you’ve only got one family. Well, one blood-family, anyway. What I mean is, it’s not a thing you’re going to replicate or recreate abroad. Your family is your family. But your friends, that’s where things get interesting.
What’s amazing to me, is just how much friend-love I’ve got back home. So many people went out of their way to see me, to make time for me, to do something special for me. It was incredible. I’ve done a pretty damn fine job, I have to admit, of filling my life up with some pretty wonderful peeps. And these people genuinely love me; as I love them. But it’s the kind of thing you can take for granted when they’re (or you’re) just around all the time.
And you know what? Maybe I shouldn’t be making too much of a distinction between friends and family here. It’s more like there’s the blood-family and the choice-family. So many of these clowns have been around for well over half my life already. What do you call that, if not family?
At this point, I’m going to try and do a brief run-down of my schedule over those two weeks; without hopefully getting too bogged down in the details. And if that seems a bit self-indulgent, well it might be. But as much as anything, it’s so I can have some kind of record of those times; before I forget. And also, it’s my blogue. So deal. No, but seriously, this actually goes on like a (very) long diary entry, so do feel free to just skip it…
Right, so I came in on a Thursday. I went for dinner with my parents to the diner, which is about as classic as it gets. Natch, I got a burger deluxe and a Corona. Comfort food, comfort company. It was exactly what I wanted.
Friday night was dinner at Amanda’s. The whole gang was there, though not all the wives. Keith was already in the city for work, so the only people coming from the Island were me and Murph; Murph, who was good enough to drive me since we all knew I’d be hittin’ the sauce. Let me tell you, I enjoyed the shit out of that car ride.
Murphy is an interesting cat. In a group setting, he’s exceedingly quiet. I mean, he’s good for about one absolutely brilliant one-liner/zinger per night. But generally speaking, he’s a man of few words. In a group setting. One-on-one, it’s a different story. And I love chatting with Murph, one-to-one. See, he’s a mechanical engineer. So to me, his work is fascinating. I’ll never be my dad when it comes to cars, or mechanical things in general. But I certainly learned a lot from the old man, not least of which is a simple appreciation for the mechanical and scientific world.
So when I get together with Murph, we talk about cars, we talk about engineering, we talk about science. To put it simply, we talk about man things. I love it. We talk, but mostly he teaches me. Remember when, in a previous post, I spoke about the conversations I’d have with my former roommate Christian, about economics? The idea was – and is – if I’m lucky enough to be able to chat with someone who has expertise in a field, I want to learn everything I can from them. It’s the same with the Murph. He’s so fucking knowledgeable. So I just ask questions and let him go. And I appreciate the hell out of it.
And I think – I hope – he appreciates it too. I could be wrong, but I don’t think any of the rest of the gang have much interest in this direction. None of the other guys are into cars, or machines, or airplanes or whatever. And so, while I’m clearly no engineer, I can at least keep up. I think, or I like to think, he enjoys talking with me about this stuff too. Anyway, that was the car ride to Amanda’s, and it was a joy.
Then there was the dinner itself. Amanda made ribs, which were uh-mazing. And then all the guys were there. Jared, Rob, Keith, Lermo, Murph. The Original Six. You know – and I’m just thinking about this now for the first time – in the past, it was always hard to get all six together. There was always somebody who had something. Yet, this trip home, we got the whole gang together not once, but twice. That’s pretty special. Josh and Monica were there too, and man do I love those two. Josh, of course, is Jared’s boyfriend. And MoMo is Amanda’s bestie.4 Of the wives, though, only Kira was there; and she’s fantastic. But the Carroll girls were absent, as was Rob’s wife Meg, who I’d yet to meet. Needless to say it was a great time.
Me and Murph were the last to leave. I’m sure he didn’t want to stay as late as we did, but bless him, he let me have all the time I could have with my friends before we finally called it a night. We had another long chat on the way home, this time about him trying to decide if he should go back to school. It was either a really good conversation, or it was me drunkenly rambling and him politely “Yes, Dave”-ing me the whole time. I suppose I’ll never know.
Saturday night we went to visit my dad’s family at what used to be Mike and Mag’s place in BK, but which, sadly, is now just Mag’s place. It was the first time I’d seen everybody since Mike died. It was bittersweet. But, tbh, it was mostly just sweet. There’s so much love there.
I spent most of the night chatting with my cousin Jay. Another interesting cat. It’s weird. I can’t say that we’re close. We never get together outside of family gatherings, even though there’s really no good reason for this. But we have the same damned sense of humor. We see each other maybe three or four times a year. But when we do, we’re finishing each other’s jokes, and it’s just effortless. I laugh as hard with him as I do with my best friends.
My plan was to drink only wine, and not to get too wasted. But towards the end of the evening, Mag – Jay’s stepmom, for the record – plunked a bottle of “vodka”5 and two shot glasses down between me and Jay. And then the wheels came off. By which I mean, we went down the Jew-joke rabbit hole.6 Which, let’s be honest, is pretty par for the course with us. We mixed in plenty of Russian and Yiddish accents, which are always fun. But sometime around the fourth shot of “vodka,”7 we got into the German accents and the Holocaust jokes. And, regrettably, I think I went a bit overboard.
It was only then, though, that I realized how much I’ve been suppressing this stuff over here. I mean, yeah, I do Jew jokes. But there’s a limit to how far I’m willing to push those in this country. And so, stuff was coming out of me that even I was like, “duuude.” But I’d had nine months of pent-up Holocaust jokes that needed to get out. Not my finest showing, to be sure. But if you can’t fuck up in front of your own family, where can you?
Sunday, Vinny drove down from Mt. Vernon to spend the afternoon. I met Vin sometime around 2009, just because we kept bumping into each other at metal shows. At first, we traded numbers only to say “Hey, bro, you going to the so-&-so show?” It was probably another year or so before we started actually hanging out. So compared to the lads from high school, he’s relatively new in my life. And yet, that mutherfucker is like a godsdamned brother to me. Anyway, Sunday, he came down to the Island.
I drove him up to Huntington so we could have lunch at Little Vincent’s, my favorite fucking pizza place on God’s green earth already. It’s important to remember here that Vinny is not only Italian, but first generation American. I mean, his mom makes her own tomato sauce from scratch. And by “from scratch,” I mean she picks the godsdamned tomatoes herself. So when I say the dude has high standards when it comes to Italian fare, I’m not exaggerating.
All this to say, he gave his seal of approval to LV’s. Which fucking matters, alright? Because if had said to me, “You know what, paisan? It’s fine. But honestly, it’s not really any different than the shit you can get anywhere.” If he had said that, I would have felt shame. But what he actually said was, “You know what, paisan? This is actually pretty fucking good. Honestly, the best part is the crust. It’s nice and thin, and it has great texture.” Which is true, btw. But it matters to me that he thought so. He didn’t say anything about the sauce though. He didn’t have to. We’ve both had his mom’s sauce.
That night, after he left, I knocked together a stir fry for my parents. That was the first family dinner we had that I cooked. We were all pretty happy with it. Also happy with, was I, was the bottle of Dewar’s that was somehow in the house. Not the white label shit, that’s fit for naught but scotch-&-soda. This was the next level up. I wasn’t expecting much, but it was actually pretty solid. So I drank a bunch of scotch and hung out with the ‘rents, and although I don’t remember what we talked about, it was a good time.
Monday was a recovery day. Tuesday’s plan called for me to have dinner at Jared & Josh’s and then to crash there. But first, I had a Taco-Tuesday lunch date with my dad in Levittown. This was a habit we’d got into while I was living at home, since, as a museum manager, he works weekends but not Tuesdays. So he actually texted me before I flew back, asking if I wanted to do Taco Tuesday when I got in. Which was funny, because I was about to text him the same thing.
It was pretty classic. By which I mean, we ate tacos and bitched about politics, which is what we always used to do. Also, amongst the tacos I ordered, one was lengua, tongue. At which point, he tells the story (again) about how he can’t eat tongue. Because when he was a kid, Bubbi (or possibly his mother?) had a pot on the stove, and when he opened it up, all he saw this giant cow’s tongue just boiling away. And while my taco just looked like chunks of beef, there in that pot, he saw a complete actual tongue. And that sufficiently grossed him out to the point that he had no interest in a lengua taco.8
Anyway, we ate delicious tacos and bitched about politics. Which is a thing, apparently, that they just do now. Bitching about politics, I mean. And by “they,” I mean my parents. I swear to God, every morning I woke up to the sound of them yelling at each other. Not fighting. Not even disagreeing. Just yelling. About Trump. It would go something like this. Mom: “Can you believe what this asshole is saying now?!” Dad: “Can you not?! He’s a fucking asshole!” Whereupon would I roll over and cover my head with my pillow all the while wondering what kind of masochist you have to be to watch the news in the morning anymore.
So much for lunch. I asked Jared what I should bring to dinner. He said bourbon. I brought rye. Because #davestheworst. Whatever. It was great. First of all, better than anyone I know, Jared knows how to roast a fucking chicken. It was moist and it was tender and it was delicious. “How much butter did you use,” I asked. “A lot,” he said. I suppose the expected question is something along the lines of “What’s your secret?” But when you live with someone for ten years, you know the secret is fucking butter. So the question is simply, “How much?”
So look, I’ve talked about this before. I lived with Jared for ten years. That sonofabitch is my best friend on planet earth. But now he’s with Josh. And I just adore that fucker. I mean, he really is one of my favorite people of all the people. And they’re great together. If it was anybody else, I’m sure I’d be feeling all, “Can we get some classic Dave-&-Jared time?” And indeed, Josh will sometimes be all, “I’m gonna go to bed and let you guys catch up.” But I’m like, “Uh-uh, honey, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.” There’s a reason they’re one of only two people I crashed with while I was in.
Added bonus, they also invited Hot Michelle to dinner. Hot Michelle is a lot of things. She’s Italian. She’s smart. She has yuuuge tracks of land. But more than any of that, she not only puts up with my bullshit, but indeed seems to find my peculiar brand of flirtation (?) amusing. She sees through the shtick. And she plays along. So I adore Hot Michelle. She’s a colleague of Josh’s, btw, which is how she fits into the schema. Anyway, a night with Jared and Josh and Hot Michelle (and rye) is a good godsdamned night.
Added bonus, they are all social workers. So, inevitably, at some point they get down to talking shop. Some of it is gossip, and for this, I kind of tune out. But some of it is the actual science of social work and psychology. And, just as with Murph and Christian, my brain gets turned on. I listen, and I ask questions, and I listen some more. And I learn what I can. What I’ve learned is, you’re never too drunk to learn. Now, remembering what you’ve learned the next day, that’s something else…
Wednesday was a hard day’s drinking. But first, noodle soup. I met my buddy Shuman at Pho Grand for the bowl I’d been dreaming of for months. Eye of round, brisket, tendon, tripe. God, I missed this stuff. Say what you will about Chinatown. It’s gross. It’s smells bad in the summer. People spit on the sidewalk. But man, I love eating there.
So I meet Shuman at Pho Grand. Shuman. One of the few good things to come out of my St. Lawrence experience. The only guy I’ve ever met who can credibly claim to be a bigger AC/DC fan than me. In fact, that’s how I met him. He’s this giant of a man, over 6’ tall; football player. And he walks up to me one day, in college, out of nowhere. I’d never seen him before. And he’s towering over me. “Hey, you like AC/DC, right?” Not as random as it seems. I stood out in college, with my long hair and denim jacket with a giant accadacca patch on the back. “Hey, you like AC/DC, right?” he says. And I look up at this man-monster. “Umm, yes, sir, an’ it please you.”
See, he’d bought an original Back in Black tour shirt on eBay. Only it was a size Small. Poor guy couldn’t even try it on, let alone actually wear it. So he wanted to sell it to me. Obviously I bought it. I still have it. So that’s how we met. We’re never not emailing each other about our favorite band. But we’re also both huge Yankee fans. And students of history. And Jews with a sense of humor. We get on well, is the point.
So after that glorious noodle soup, we head around the corner to 169, one of the last true LES dive bars. Beer & a shot for three bucks. And we spend a few hours drinking cans of Genny and shots of well whiskey, all the while cracking jokes, talking about AC/DC, and trading off Yiddish and German accents, making fun of everything that rightfully (or wrongfully) deserves to have the piss taken out of it.
Talking about accents, here’s a funny thing. We’re both New Yorkers. He was born – and grew up – in, I want to say, Washington Heights. I’m from BK, grew up on the Island. German accents, Yiddish accents, Russian accents, no problem. Then we get to talking about Marky Ramone and how he as the quintessential Queens accent, and how it doesn’t really exist anymore. And we try it, but neither of us can nail it.
But that’s one of things I love about Shuman. He’s got this bone-deep appreciation and affection for old New York, for the city as it was when we were kids, but in which we didn’t quite grow up either. I mean, we’re talking about the three shifts of alcoholics9 at Rudy’s (free hot dogs!) and dive bars that don’t exist anymore and a Queens accent that’s on its last legs.
And, not for nothing, a Queens mutherfucking accent. Not Brooklyn. Not Manhattan. Not Staten Island or the Bronx. Queens. I’m over here in Berlin talking in broad generalities to my students about some kind of “New Yawk” accent, whatever that means.10 Because when you’re in exile, you paint in broad strokes, and everything is rose-colored.
But when you’re back in it, it’s different. All the Hollywood shit falls away. I remember reading once that Mel Blanc described his Bugs Bunny voice as being a cross between a Brooklyn accent and a Bronx accent. Think about that. To him, these were two completely different and unique ways of speaking that he chose to blend together for a cartoon wiseass of a fucking rabbit. So yes, debating the finer points of Marky Ramone’s diction absolutely counts as a highlight of my trip home.
Anyway, somewhere around 5pm, we reached peak tipsiness. You know, when you tiptoe right up to the line of being actually drunk, look over the abyss, take a step back and realize there’s only one thing to do. Now, that one thing can be lots of things. It just depends on where you are. If you’re in Texas, maybe that one thing is to go and eat BBQ. If you’re in Philly (gods help you), the one thing, I guess, is to go for a cheesesteak.11 But when you’re on East Broadway, where it meets Canal, and it’s 5pm on a weekday, you have one choice.
And that, my friends, is why we stumbled into Kossar’s, there to eat bialys. And so we ordered two bialys. And we ate the bialys. And they were good. Man, they were good. I really did love living in that neighborhood. But that’s where me and Shuman parted ways.
And yet, my day had only just begun. But seeing as how it’s only Wednesday in this story, and there’s so much more to tell, I think I’ll stop here and finish the tale in my next posting. Until then…
- Chiasmatically – the family is on the Island, the friends are in the City. [↩]
- Whereas, at home at least, I am normally hardly talkative and often grumpy. [↩]
- #BRIANMULLEN [↩]
- Or do we spell it “best”? [↩]
- “Vodker” is the sort of thing I’d maybe have looked down on in the past. But after nine months of German accented English, this brand of Brooklynese was like an oasis in the desert. I mean, when my cousin Melissa addressed my cousin Cedar as, “Hey yo, Ceduh!”, it was music. [↩]
- Incidentally, I just taught my advanced class the “down the rabbit hole” idiom. Because we were going down all sorts of grammatical and linguistic rabbit holes. Then, one of my students thought I said rabbit hall (#accents). To which I explained, the rabbit hall was simply the rabbit’s home at the end of the rabbit hole. [↩]
- And this on the heels of an entire bottle of wine, mind you. [↩]
- Interesting follow up. Back in Berlin, I was in the supermarket the other day, where I was perusing the butcher’s section. And there, in the back of the showcase, was a whole, complete, giant cow’s tongue. And it looked like a fucking tongue. And you know what? Yeah, that’s gross. [↩]
- Go to Rudy’s at 8am and you find three kinds: 1) Actual nothing-to-live-for alcoholics; 2) Tourists; 3) People coming off the night shift. [↩]
- Cawfee? Wawtuh? Manha’’an? [↩]
- Gross. [↩]