An American in Berlin
24 April, 2018
Right, so this is weird. Writing on a weeknight, I mean. It’s gonna be an unusually short post, I think. See, I’ve done all the Hebrew I care to do for the day. And I’m not feeling up to hitting the Greek or cracking on with the Federalist Project. But watching TV doesn’t really appeal to me either just now. I want to do something that passes for productive, so why not write a bit?
So I did a mitzvah1 on Sunday. Not intentionally, mind you. And the whole thing was really rather surreal. So strange was it, that I feel I need to write it down. Here’s what happened.
The weather being just swell on Sunday, I set out on of my long walks. And as I’m walking down Seelenbinderstraße, not ten minutes from my apartment, I see this strange-looking man ahead of me, further down the street. “Strange looking” is perhaps a rather cruel way to put it. It was clear that he was struggling with some sort of physical handicap, at the very least.
Now in New York, you would immediately think “troubled homeless guy.” But as we shall see, things are a bit different here. Anyway, I see this guy ambling towards me. But I’m listening to a podcast and just doing my thing, so of course, I’m just kinda hoping to pass this guy without any kind of interaction. Which is a polite of way of saying, I was hoping this guy wouldn’t stop me and ask me for change.
Either I’m that much of an asshole, or that’s how New York has got me conditioned. Or both. Anyway, that’s where I was at. Judge if you must.
Well, of course he waves me down as I’m passing him. Damn. Well, even my asshole-ocity has its limits. So I stop and take out my headphones, prepared for the inevitable asking for change. Now, mind you, I’m listening to an English-language podcast, so my ear doesn’t tune in to his German right away. I didn’t quite catch what he said, but it was clear he wasn’t asking for money. “Wie, bitte?” I ask him to repeat himself. And whatever he said, it’s very clear that he’s got some kind of physical disability; possibly a mental one on top of that. He repeats:
“Kannst du mich nach Hause bringen?” Can you bring me home?
Oh, fuck. I mean, yes, obviously. But shit. Sorry, let me clarify. Not, “Shit, I don’t need this inconvenience.” I mean, “Shit, that’s kind of heartbreaking.” Can you bring me home. Well, yeah, obviously. Which is what I said: Ja, natürlich. And I give him my arm. Which he takes. I know, how romantic. And we start to walk.
I ask him where lives. And he tells me the name of his street. Which I didn’t know. And so, I’m kinda like, Welp, I hope it’s not too far. In hindsight, I should have known it couldn’t have been that far. Because clearly this guy wasn’t built for cross-country, you know?
Anyway, there I am, walking down the street, with this old dude on my arm. And I notice he’s carrying this wicker basket. Well, I’m a curious guy. I sneak a peak down at the basket. And all he’s carrying is three Sternis. Sterni – Sternburg – is a beer. In fact, it is the single cheapest beer in all of Germany. It’s kinda like their PBR. Either you love it, and it’s your number-one go-to beer, or you turn your nose up at it. Personally, I’ve never had one. No real reason, I just haven’t. But they also make a Radler, and I’ve certainly had plenty of those.
Anyway, I look down, and I see he’s got a basket of nothing more than three beers. And I had two very opposite reactions to this. On the one hand, there was something a bit heartbreaking about it. Like, clearly this guy had left his home at great difficulty to himself, just to buy three not-very-good beers; which was probably all he could carry. On the other hand, I kinda felt like this guy really wasn’t all that different from me, and I kinda wanted to give him a hug.
I was thinking this until I was interrupted by the sound of the three glass bottles beginning to clink against each other in the basket. It took me, honestly, longer than it should have, to realize that the reason these bottles were clinking was because it was too heavy for him and his arm was starting to shake.
Shit. Get your shit together, Davey. So I got my shit together. I stopped our walking and reached for the basket. “Darf ich das tragen?” Can I carry that? He handed the basket over with not a little relief and we started walking again. So now I’m walking with an old man on one arm and a wicker basket full of beer on the other.
I tried to make a bit of small talk. I asked him how long he’d been living here. He didn’t understand me. I asked again, and he didn’t understand again. So I gave up. I hope this doesn’t sound dickish, but my German’s not that bad. So I kinda chalked it up to maybe some mental disability. So we just walked in silence.
And now I’m thinking, this is Germany. Land of the Brothers Grimm. Maybe this dude is fairy godmother in disguise and he’s testing strangers. Maybe the last three people he asked to walk him home ignored him. Maybe when I get him home, he’ll turn into the fairy godmother and grant me a wish or some shit. Or, you know, not.
Then I had a darker thought. Or a brighter one, depending on your point of view. Because, again, I realized, this is Germany. And how lucky for him that he lives in Germany now, where they do an excellent job of taking care of their people; excellent social safety net in this country. But man, what if this was the 1930’s? This guy would have been sterilized at the least; at the worst…well, you know. But it’s not the 30’s. It’s now. And he has his own apartment and he can go out and buy beer. In New York, this guy might be sleeping on the sidewalk outside of Penn Station.
Anyway, we finally get to his building. Now he makes a bit of small talk. Something along the lines of, “We’re almost there. Number 22.” OK, that’s not really small talk. Whatever. So he fishes out his keys and goes to unlock the front door. That wasn’t so easy to watch. His hands were all shaky and shit, so it took him a few seconds to slot the key. And you could see that the metal plate around the lock was scratched to shit. So yeah, that’s life for this guy. Getting the key into the front door is a new adventure every day. Fuck me.
We get inside and I ask him what floor. Because everything here is a walkup. I thought he said first floor. It was the second. And for a second, I was thinking, Shit, how’m I gonna get this guy up the stairs? But he just grabs hold of the railing and starts climbing. No problem. Right, good. But I stay close behind him, just in case.
Anyway, we get to his front door. He opens it up and I give him his basket back. He thanks me kindly and that’s that.
So yeah, that was that. Like I said, very surreal. But he was a very sweet man. The thing that sticks with me most though, was his initial question. Kannst du mich nach Hause bringen? Can you bring me home? I don’t know why, but that really got to me. Just, I dunno, when you have to ask that to a complete stranger. That’s rough.
Anyway, that happened.
The other thing I want to touch on in this post is my future. Look, I’ve said a million times by now, I love my job. And today was another great day. I don’t feel like getting into it here, but maybe I’ll touch on it in my next full-length post. Just that, I developed a new way of teaching some difficult material, and it seemed to be a big hit. That was cool.
But the point is, no matter how much I love what I’m doing right now, I don’t actually know if I want to do it forever. And that’s all things being equal. But all things aren’t equal. Bad shit is happening at home, and I’m often feeling like I’m not doing anything to fight it. And I should be. So what can I do?
Well, some months back, I got this crazy idea that wouldn’t it be cool to be a lawyer and do civil rights or immigration or something like that. You know, help the people who are most defenseless and most under attack.
Well yeah, that would be cool. But, I mean, I’m 37. Am I too old for law school? Could I hack it? Is law school – never mind breaking into actually practicing law – a young man’s game? Well, I didn’t want to make any mention of this until I had a chance to speak with someone who’d been through it.
So while I was home, I asked Adam about it. Adam is my oldest continuous friend; we’ve been friends since the fourth grade; what is that – nine years old? And he’s an attorney. So if anyone would know, it’s him.
Right. So I ask him. And before I can even finish the question, he’s like: Yes. Yes! Do it!
Really? Really. So we discussed it at some length. And he’s of the opinion that I’m not at all too old and that I absolutely could do it, and people older than me have done it, and he’d always thought I’d make a good lawyer.2 Which was amazing to hear and very encouraging. Like, before that conversation, I thought maybe I was crazy for even considering this.
And Jared was there for the conversation. And he says, “David, I think this is a wonderful idea. And just so you know, when I finish my PhD [he’s doing a PhD now], I’ll be 39 or 40. So of course you can do this.” Which was equally great to hear and just as encouraging.
Of course there’s one major problem here. Namely, how the hell could I hope to pay for this? I mean, do I really want to take on even more student debt? And it’s not like I’d make a whole lot of money if I did this. Civil rights and immigration lawyers are not exactly well paid. Which, to be clear, doesn’t matter to me. I wouldn’t be doing it for money. Just to say, do I want even more debt when I’d hardly be making enough to service said debt?
So that’s something I need to figure out, obviously. And also, I’m not quite ready to leave Germany. I’m not quite ready to put a bow on this whole experience I’m having over here. To say nothing of the fact that I’m not done growing as a teacher.
To that last point, maybe you’re never done growing as a teacher. But for example, when just today I tested a new methodology of my own device and saw it to be a success, well, who knows what else I can come up with before all is said and done?
But then, as far as that goes, here’s another thing. And I’m almost ashamed to put this down, because I’m afraid it’s going to sound a bit arrogant. But that’s not how I mean it. So now I’ve had two students tell me they think I’m wasting my time and my talents at this job. That I should be doing something bigger, more challenging, whatever.
And I dunno. Am I too overqualified for what I do? I hate to think that. Like I said, I think it sounds arrogant. And look, I’m not blind to the fact that most people who do what I do don’t have M.A’s in dead languages. Most people who do what I do aren’t roping in French and Latin and Ancient Greek and Hebrew. Most people who do what I do aren’t finding time to teach Shakespeare or rhetorical stylistics.
But you know what? Just because you know a lot of shit doesn’t mean you’re good at communicating it. All that stuff is great, but if people don’t leave my class being better at English than when they started, well, I’m not a good teacher, am I? Now, I do think people leave my class better than when they started. And I do happen to think I’m good at what I do. But I also know I can be better.
And that’s what I’m focusing on right now. Trying to be better every day, trying to be better for every class. However good I might have been for the last student, I’m trying to be better for the next one.
So I try to remember all that when a student tells me, “Du verschwendest dein Talent in der Schule” – You’re wasting your talent in the school. But when she says, “Du bist zu großer Angsthase” – You’re such a scaredy-cat3 – well, you gotta think about that too. Don’t you? I mean, I’d hate to think the reason I didn’t pursue a PhD, or don’t go to law school – if I don’t – is because I was too comfortable doing what I was doing or I was too scared to try.
So I’ve got all that going on in my head at the moment. But six months ago, if I thought about the future, I couldn’t see anything beyond that day. Now though, now sometimes at least, I think maybe I have a goal. And that goal would be law school, and then civil rights or immigration law.
In any case, for now, I’m going to try and extend my visa. I know I’m not ready to leave in November, when this incarnation of my visa expires. I want to do this for at least another year. But after that? We’ll see. If nothing else, I can at least be trying to save money, to ease the financial burden if I do decide to go down that road.
A quick note to my parents, who are hearing about this here for the first time. I very much wanted to talk to you guys about this while I was in. But I didn’t want to bring it up until I’d had a chance to discuss it with Adam. And I didn’t see him until the Saturday before I left. And after that, there wasn’t time to sit down and properly chat. By which I mean, with wine. Obviously.
Anyway, that’s enough for this post.
- מצוח : The word technically means “commandment.” But when, in English, we say “to do a mitzvah,” it means “to do a good deed.” [↩]
- That last part has been true for a while. He’s been telling me for years he thinks I’d make a great (or at least good) lawyer. [↩]
- Angsthase – literally, “scaredy-rabbit.” Sometimes you gotta love this language. [↩]