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Standing By The Wall

I first met Albert ten years ago. His shop was on Oranienstrasse, a street which at that time was little more than a Turkish residential neighbourhood with the occasional bar full of artistically attired waifs. Bars that are now hip hangouts for the urbane urbanites of Berlin. You can’t argue with gentrification. Even in 1998, Oranienstrasse – the main vein running through the part of town that I live in – was a place that any guide book cautioned against.

Antique shop (Kenmare, Co. Kerry, Ireland)

Albert’s shop was a grotto of antiques. Tiny porcelain statues lived alongside Weimar era movie posters, small mahogany desks with tarnished brass handles supported equally tarnished silver photo frames and sets of crockery. The detritus of pre-war Germany interspersed with East German artifacts. The ruins and runes of failed civilisations.

He was out of sight when I stepped into the shop. I angled my body around the furniture that filled the small space, and made my way to a shelf full of books. I sensed the movement of objects around Albert before I saw his elderly figure. His tall, bearded frame and balding pate then appeared from a back room, his wild eyes making me sure that I had interrupted some form of hibernation.

He smiled and greeted me. “You have some remarkable books,” I replied in German.

At the front of the shop he crumpled into a desk chair after lifting from the seat a handful of prints, some encased in plastic sleeves, others fraying, happy and free, at the edges. He could have been anywhere between sixty and eighty-five.

“Thank you. You are a bibliophile?” he asked.

“I’m a writer.” I nodded and crumpled my face apologetically. “I live in the area. On Degarmostrasse.”

Albert nodded again. As I replaced a book on the shelves, he pulled one of the prints from the middle of the pile and unfolded it, pushed it across the table toward me. I approached and spun it around to face me. It was a map of the city, labelled only with subway stations, public buildings and large thoroughfares. Drawn down the centre a thick, jagged line.

“The Wall?” I asked. The German word Mauer could mean any kind of wall; in reality it signified only one.

Albert nodded. “Degarmostrasse isn’t far from where the Wall used to be.” He pointed at the map, and I saw the zig-zag line running roughly perpendicular to my street. I thought of asking him a price. But as a proprietary hand pulled the creased and disintegrating map back across the table, I thought better of my impulse.

...

This summer, humid like only Berlin can be, I have sat at wooden benches and on metal chairs along the sidewalks of Oranienstrasse sipping beer with art school dropouts, kids who figure that life in Berlin might offer both personal kudos and cheap workspace. They’re right, of course. Though I now occupy two floors in my apartment building on Degarmostrasse, the rent has hardly more than doubled in the last eight years.

Albert’s shop is now a slinky cocktail bar named Molotov. Named for a soviet politician. Wherever he might be, I hoped that he enjoyed the irony. On a subsequent visit to his shop, he told me that he had lived until 1990 in East Berlin, worked in a light rail factory soldering metal plates onto the skeletons of train cars.

He pointed to the map, to a small conurbation of squares that signified East German housing. “My previous life.”

I asked tentatively when he had moved from the east to the west. He looked away, then swiveled so that his eyes scanned the high walls and the ceiling of his shop. White tiles hung just above an East German flag, ears of corn, hammer and sickle at the centre of the red stripe; black and white photographs told stories I could not begin to understand; and the occasional Soviet poster, its red propaganda not yet appropriated by hip Berlin artistes, glared down at us.

“It was,” said Albert, “the only thing I could do. If you open the door of the cage, you can’t expect people not to fly away.”

“Oranienstrasse isn’t so far away from the Wall,” I pointed out.

He smiled. Several teeth were missing. “No. Perhaps I haven’t escaped, exactly.”

That afternoon I bought a leather-bound novella, on Albert’s assurance that it was a first edition. Its front pages were missing and its binding breaking apart. As I was leaving, I saw him carefully shuffling miniature figurines and glass bowls around at the back of the shop. I should have invited him somewhere, I thought. Taken him for a beer. I never did.

...

Albert, like his collection of antiques and trinkets, had an ungainly elegance. It was as though so much had been crammed into his seventy or eighty years that he had lost his balance a little, that he was destined only to stumble inexpertly around his ancient artifacts. Though I bought a few more books and even peeled an unappealing poster from the wall one winter evening (stuffing a handful of Marks into the old man’s cash register as payment), it was Albert’s history that intrigued me.

Recounting stories of his time in the east, he would point at some arbitrary area – unmarked on his map but for subway stops labelled in Gothic script – and relate a tale set in that locale.

“Here.” He jabbed a finger at a point just beyond the Wall. “I stood there, thirty minutes, staring at the guard up in his tower.”

When I asked him why, he just shrugged noncommittally.

“And here,” he said, pointing at an area just over the border into West Berlin. “Geisterbahnhöfe. Ghost stations. Whenever we rode a new subway car across to Alexanderplatz, we passed through the West. But of course the train was not allowed to stop. Faces would pass by the windows, stare in at us as though we were a zoo attraction.”

As Spring made the Berlin clouds greyer, I realised that my apartment, its walls and surfaces, were becoming crowded out by prints, books (some genuinely first editions) and even the occasional personal item that had belonged to an acquaintance of Albert’s, some unfortunate soul whose political inclinations had come to the attention of the Stasi.

Eventually I came to the unwilling realization that my office was becoming its very own Geisterbahnhof.

...

Oranienstrasse has, since that time, become a very unlikely place, gentrified yet peppered with tourists. Local and nonetheless fashionable. American voices float across the sidewalk whenever I wander past the Molotov cocktail bar and think of the narrow and tall, elegant but cluttered little antiques shop. I refuse, whenever I hear an English question, to respond; better yet, I turn to a neighbor and make a fluently snide comment in German. And at night I work on a new novel, a book featuring an unlikely memorial to Albert in the form of a German police detective with a penchant for stealing antiques.

But a little over a week ago, I was roused from my memorializing by the ring of a door bell. A suit, loosely attached to a young man, handed me a letter and a thin manila folder, told me he was working on behalf of Mr. Adalbert Schafer’s family. He handed me the envelope and the folder, and expressed his condolences.

With idle thanks I took the artifacts and, heading back upstairs, pulled the letter out of the envelope. There is nothing quite like it: the feeling you get when informed, on company letterhead, that someone you know has died.

I knew as I tugged the sheet of paper from the folder what it would be. But where once the map had been unmarked, now there had appeared two asterisks. The first signified the location of Albert’s shop on Oranienstrasse, the second denoting the spot in East Berlin where he had stood and gazed up at the guard in his watchtower. Along the top of the map in blue ink, Albert had written the words:

Dear Charles: We are both, still, standing by the Wall. Albert.

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