An American in Berlin
21 October, 2021
The Long Walk Home
Well, I’ve already scrapped two full-length posts. So who knows if this one will ever see the light of day. But here goes…
Those who know me know that I love a good long walk. Here I’m not talking about an aimless stroll, although that’s fine too. I mean more my preference for walking places rather than taking the train (or, gods forbid, a taxi). I’d rather take an hour to walk home than take the train or tram and get there in 15 minutes. That goes double if it’s the end of the night and I’ve partaken in my fair share of…imbibabtion? Imbibery? If I’m drunk.
In the past year, I’ve discovered that to walk from my place to Joschka’s – or more properly, from his place to mine – takes just about an hour exactly. From Deb’s place, which is not far from Joschka, it’s about an hour-fifteen. I also discovered, all too shortly before she left, that the walk home from Anne’s place was also almost exactly an hour. Same for Esma’s, who lives in that same neighborhood. But these are two very different walks, as we shall see.
I’ll first address the, well let’s call it the Eberswalder walk. Whether from Joschka’s or Deb’s or any of the bars and restaurants at the junction of the Prenzlauerberg and Mitte districts, the bulk of the walk inevitably begins at the U-Bahn station Eberswalder Straße. It’s an easy walk, in the sense that it’s a straight shot. And I mean that nearly literally. Staying on one street will bring me right into my own neighborhood, with but a single left and right leading me to my own block. What is a blessing in terms of practicality is almost a curse in terms of interest.
As Schönhauser Allee becomes Berliner Straße, you watch the city evaporate around you, only to be replaced by pedestrian, non-descript housing. There is little lighting. Not to say that it’s dark in a dangerous or eerie kind of way. Just that the bright lights of the big city are no more. And honestly, it wouldn’t matter if there were more lighting. There is nothing to see. At best, there is a small park (and ‘park’ is a generous appellation) about two-third’s of the way home, whose greatest virtue is that affords the weary and drunken traveler a modest place to answer Nature’s call, if need be.
And the more I make this walk, the more I discover that is become a melancholy one. Less because of it what it is and more because of what it is not. During my time in New York, I had two of the greatest urban walks-home that I think a person can have: the one to the Financial District from all points Manhattan, the other to Chinatown via the Williamsburg Bridge.
There is something magnificent about entering the Financial District, that point where Broadway becomes a canyon amidst the towers, below City Hall Park. It was quiet in those days, or rather, nights. Not many people lived there in the early Aughts. The stillness of the night stood in stark contrast to the daytime bustle of the financial capital of the world.
But FiDi was only the end of the journey. One of the great things about Manhattan is that every street is special, every street has a story, every street has at least one shop or building to catch your eye, to capture your interest on your long drunken journey. And the way was always somewhat varied. You went whichever way the lights or traffic allowed, all the while being funneled slowly but surely towards the southern tip of the island. More than this even, many streets aroused their own personal recollections. It was here that I had dinner with so-and-so or drinks with you-know-who. On this corner you can get a pretty solid lamb over rice, that Starbucks will let you use their bathroom at 3am. No matter which way you went, you invariably wound up on Memory Lane as you approached Maiden Lane.
The walk from Williamsburg to Chinatown, while far less varied, had its own magnificence. For starters, the walk would begin at one of three places. Niki’s apartment, an all-night noodle shop, or Duffs. Those nights at Duffs, with Vinny and Joschka and Niki, at times with Charlotte or the Finns or Dutch Eddie, are among my most treasured memories of my time in New York.
Duffs, you have to understand, was our Mecca, our metal sanctuary. It was the place where we felt at home, with our people, our music, our bartenders. The red lighting, the tour posters, the artwork by H.R. Geiger. The jukebox with all the best songs. The heavy hand that Jamie had with a bottle of Jameson. It was a magical place. And the walk home crowned it all.
Staying til after four, when they’d eventually kick us out, I’d walk home over the Williamsburg Bridge. There’s something quite moving about being alone at 430am, in the dark of night, suspended over the East River, with the never-dimming bright lights of Manhattan spreading out before you. It’s a powerful moment when you realize you may well be the only soul upon that bridge and that all this, the shimmering glory of the world’s greatest city, belongs to you and you alone.
Eventually, you make landfall in Manhattan, descending the end of the span as if coming down from a cloud onto Delancey Street. From there, it was only a short walk home past and down streets with actual names; not a small thing, and one that often gave me a touch of pride in being a downtown denizen.
To this must be added another, shorter, post-Duffs walk. Many were the nights – or mornings – where we would follow up our visit to Duffs with breakfast at Wo Hop. Now, it should be noted that not everyone of our party was as enamored of Wo Hop as I was. But for me, there could be no better end to a night of metal and whiskey than some crispy noodles, Szechuan chicken and endless cups of tea.
Wo Hop was a scant ten-minute walk from my apartment on Orchard Street, and by the time we’d leave the sun would be coming up. Walking bleary-eyed, drunk and satiated into the rising sun on the Lower East Side, even if it was not the equal of the Bridge, had its own charms to be sure.
No walk home in Berlin can come close to any of these. But the walk home from Wedding – Anne’s old and Esma’s current neighborhood – is not without merit. For one, it offers variety. There are at least two main roads which must be adhered to. But within that, there is the freedom to take this street or that. Nor does the liveliness of the city seem to drain from around you. True, it’s not all that lively to begin with. But whatever activity there is manages to more or less maintain itself for the bulk of the passage.
Two things in particular are worth mentioning. One is peculiar to Berlin, and this cannot be done in New York, at least legally. I speak of walking with a beer. Between Wedding and my own neighborhood of Pankow, there are any number of Spätis where a body can pop in and buy a beer for the road. This always serves to give the walk a bit of an extra glow.
The other is that it requires crossing a stream. The East River it ain’t. Nevertheless, it’s quite pleasing to stop upon that little bridge in the middle of the night and to have a bit of water under your feet. And in the winter, if you’re lucky, the trees that line the stream will be decked with snow. If it’s not magnificent, it is charming all the same.
The walk home from Eberswalder Straße is, regrettably, none of these things. No architectural wonders, no memories, no variety of route, nor even any water. It’s only seeming virtue is that is is, in fact, a walk. A bit of fresh air and a chance to stretch the legs after a long night. Nothing more. Even the beer that I bring with me is somehow joyless; a silent and morose companion.
It gives me time to think, though. And to remember. That is why I am writing this little essay, you see. Because all that I write here I have thought on those long and uneventful walks. And that it is why it is a melancholy walk. Because instead of enjoying it on its own merits – merits which as yet elude me – I find myself remembering other and better walks. Remembering what I have lost in coming here, and what I miss so much. And there are times when I think it would be better if I just took the tram.
But I generally do not take the tram. Weather permitting, it is almost always better, or at least preferable, to walk. And who knows? Maybe one day, this walk – anodyne as it is – will be pleasing to remember. In the meantime, I walk on. Me and my beer.
Addendum: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to publish this piece. But I just got off the phone with my brother, having asked him if he could take a picture of the walkway on the Williamsburg Bridge for my apartment. If for no other reason than that it will provide some context as to why I want such a picture upon my wall, I have decided to post this.