Title: I Give You My Money


In: Sport 31: Spring 2003

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, November 2003

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 31: Spring 2003

I Give You My Money

page 75

I Give You My Money

Berlin is a city with roughly the same number of inhabitants as New Zealand, in an area the size of Wellington. What that means is, living here, you have more encounters with people per minute and more of those encounters are with people you don't know and will never know. This affects your idea of yourself as a thing worth a second glance—my wife asked a friend, ‘Do you think I can wear this?’ and was told, ‘In Berlin? Wear what you like.’ Some people respond by becoming extroverts. Not many, punks mostly, pretending it's still 1977 (tartan miniskirts are back this year). A few put in a big push and become Somebody, and that is the last we need concern ourselves with them. The rest of us are reduced to a kind of stoic anonymity. Okay, let's get racist for a moment: this is Germany and so no one was that demon-strative to begin with. Flair is on a long lunch hour here. As a German colleague dryly remarked when Deutschland ground out a win at the World Cup of soccer, ‘Another victory for German efficiency.’ After a while what descends is something like the grey weather of the soul.

This then is about one New Zealander out in that weather.

On my way to work, there's this guy I give money to, pretty well every day. He is an item I tick off, along with checking to see how many cranes are currently swinging over Potsdamer Platz and whether there are any crows in this one big field. But now I see that he's actually on my train, with the other passengers. Then he gets off at my station, Hallesches Tor. I guess this isn't so surprising, because it's at Hallesches Tor that I usually see him, sitting down with his back against the base of one of the big concrete pillars that hold up the train line.

In Berlin there's your selection of people to give money to. Over four million unemployed in Germany, plus immigrants who aren't even on the radar, and rising. I usually give something to the Turkish women—I think they're Turkish—who sit on the footpath, which page 76 strikes me as a chilling thing to do, with a paper cup held out, their heads wrapped by scarves, which is their custom but also, under these circumstances, a hood within which they can retreat. They don't look up, these women, they're just a huddle, down there to your left, against the wall, attached to a cup that hangs in the air. Sometimes they have kids with them and this looks terrible. The kids always look stilled by the cold, half-dead.

So how much do you give? I see people give their ‘klein geld’, their little money, copper coins and shiny cents. I usually give a Euro—I want to make them think, That was a good hit! I want to see them pleased, to see them cheer up. Well, I don't think I have to grind through the emotions here, they're highly familiar.

I usually give to the guys who come onto the trains selling Motz, which I've never looked at, since it's in German, but as far as I can see no one ever does look at it. They never take a copy, they just pass over a Euro or so and the guys go Danky shern, or, when they realise that I speak English, Dank you. Dank you. Lots of nodding and smiling. Motz is, I presume, one of those newspapers like The Big Issue which, I have read, unemployed people sell in London. For some reason it's an easier transaction to give to the Motz sellers. I guess it's like they're working.

It's easier if everybody's working.

There's a guy who stands just along from Hermes in the Friedrichstraße who looks a lot like George Burns—a little guy in a cardigan, with hair slicked flat across an oval head and glasses with large roundy black frames. But George never looked as downbeaten as this guy, who is red-faced and always has a frosting of white stubble. He has semi-decent shoes and corduroy trousers with turned-up cuffs. You can see he had a good job once. He holds a ragged cardboard sign. He always stands—standing is work—and holds his sign in front of his chest like a guy in an American police photo. I can't read it—it would be uncouth to stop and study the words—but I know what it says: ‘They fired me for being boring, my wife left me for a younger man, then my daughter kicked me out, whatever you give will be employed only for the purposes of flagellation.’ At first I used to give this guy the go-by, he annoyed me, but I only ever see him when I'm page 77 on my way to Dussman's to buy as many CDs as I think I can sneak into the house, and I started to feel bad.

My technique is, I go past them, decide, step into a doorway so that I can go through the coins in my wallet unobserved, and go back. I can't imagine deciding in front of them—‘Oh, no, not the twenty-Euro note, why should I? No, ten cents will do for you.’

Once, in Wellington, this was years ago, I saw a guy with a sign and a bowl and I gave him a few coins. I was shocked—in New Zealand! Then a few days later I decided to give him a hit and I dropped a five dollar note into his bowl. His eyes popped. But he didn't look at me—of course I had walked on but I contrived to see him. He stared at the note. Then he looked up and down the street, canny, picked up his sign and the bowl, and made off. I was chuffed. A few days later I saw his picture in the local paper. There was an interview with him but it was incoherent. The accompanying text was sombre—‘Begging In Wellington.’ But a friend said to me, ‘Oh, that guy, he's a bit of a character. I see him noshing at that fancy bistro place in Upper Willis Street, he doesn't need to beg.’

What was it Johnny Rotten used to snarl at the end of Sex Pistols gigs? ‘Ever feel you've been cheated?’

Sorry, this is turning into a short history of. But suddenly all kinds of memories come to me. In Los Angeles, this was in 1991, I was approached, early evening, as I came out of a bookstore, by a tattered-looking guy with a Stars and Stripes sewn onto his denim jacket. ‘I'm a vet,’ he said. He had his hand out. There was something pathetic and needy in this, and also something aggressive. He knew I guess that I was the right age—that I had marched against the war (that's the Vietnam War for you younger readers—my war. Iraq is your war—did you do anything about it? Me, I marched. I took my daughter. This was in Berlin, where we did the right thing, over a million of us, or even two million, depending on who's telling. The music they played was from my war—see, I was right. Sixties music is best.) I hurried away. My justification was his aggression and also I had a kind of fear-of-America which was telling me, Don't get into uncontrolled encounters with the natives. But I have never managed to forget this page 78 guy. He had a droopy moustache like one of the Doonesbury characters, but dirty, a loser. I guess I owed him.

Well, they just drink it all don't they.

And in Spain the women maim their kids and then show you the stumpy limbs to tear at your heart. Is that true? I have no idea, but I have been told it twenty times. My heart was utterly ripped apart, in Madrid and also in Ventimiglia on the Italian border. Exhausted women sitting in the dust holding children in extremis, while you decide whether 900 francs is too much for a leather jacket.

Yet somehow it survived and later that year I used it to fall in love, again. My heart, I mean.

There are gangs, you know, it's all organised, a good beggar can make a heap of money—haven't you ever read The Threepenny Opera?

And the gypsies hassle you and curse you if you don't cross their palm. I have seen them, in Greece and in Spain. They ganged up on a woman I know, a little team of them got her flustered and stole every cent in her purse. That really happened.

Anyway, the guy I give to is on my train and I guess I found this disturbing.

He's respectable.

I started giving to him about ten months ago. I can remember the first time. I had just had a piece of good news and it looked like I was suddenly going to bring in a pile of cash. Okay, I confess: I'm a writer and after years of trying it looked as though I had finally produced a book that might actually make some money. Real money—the big time. Well, as we used to say in the playground: dreams are free. And I did dream. Going up the FriedrichstraBe, next item after George Burns is a car dealership and in the window they have an immense Bentley on a turntable, dark red, as though the fires of Hell have been sublimated and polished, and I would walk past and think, Why not? Why would you deny yourself that? Of course, it would be a bugger to park—you'd have to find somewhere where people can't get at it. They scratch the paintwork, you know, with coins, out of envy.

On cloud nine.

And it was around this time that I really started giving money away.

page 79

I think the idea was to propitiate the gods. To make Fate think that I was a good guy to whom big money could be entrusted. Oh, maybe I'm being too hard. Maybe it was just that I was feeling good. Whatever: my wallet opened.

And there was this guy, at Hallesches Tor.

He kept, I discovered, business hours, more or less. And when I observed him I saw that his clothes weren't too bad—faded jeans, denim jacket, sneakers. All fairly clean and every now and then looking like they had been ironed. White hair, combed back and a white beard. Maybe he looked a little like John Huston? It's always best, I find, to use people from the media for these IDs. On bright days he had a real cool pair of sunglasses that he would wear. He'd take his sneakers off and sit there toasting his toes, bum on a square of newspaper to keep the cold from rising. Out front he had a paper plate which I recognised as coming from the nearby döner place—he would get a fresh one every day and set it out, and then sit beside it in exemplary fashion, looking around interestedly, waiting for some money to arrive.

I gave him a bit of change, and then a bit more; then the day came when he'd just sat down and I placed maybe four Euro in his dish, a minor cascade of coins. That made him stare. Then he looked up at me and said, animated, ‘Danke schön.’ And there was something else, too, but I shook my head and said, ‘Sorry, I only speak English.’ So he mimed, eagerly, that he was going to go and eat—his hand came up to his mouth and he rubbed his tummy. This made me feel terrific. I was feeding this guy.

As it happened, I was early that day and didn't have a lot on, so instead of going to work I wandered off and sort of hid on the far side of the bridge which is just at hand there and watched the river flow. From that distance I kept an eye on what he did. Immediately he went across to the kiosk, bought cigarettes, came back, sat down and smoked one.

This pissed me off.

At the same time … I have to say, I really liked the way that he enjoyed that cigarette. It was obviously the first of the day. I have never been a smoker and its pleasures fascinate me. Lighting one up in page 80 bed—the flare of the match in the darkness. The way that smoke would curl from your fingers. My guy bent over this cigarette—he was squatting now like an Indian—and concentrated on it. I saw that it sent him off into a zone.

I continued to give to him. He developed an intense, emphatic way of delivering thank-yous. But he never said hello. He never looked at me. What he looked at was the plate, to see how much he'd got.

Some days I'm not in the mood.

And sometimes he sleeps. His plate is still there, waiting, with a copper or two as your starter. But he's sleeping on the job! It's like he's a fisherman who has his pole in the river and when the bite comes there's no one home. It's like he expects the plate to do the work.

I wonder about his life. Is he sleeping out? No, his clothes are too clean. Some days he wears white shirts, two buttons undone, and in this he looks like some rogue from a noir movie. How does he manage to keep a white shirt clean? I never can. Does he have a wife? Maybe she thinks he's got a job—every morning, a peck and out the door. The papers he reads are always uncrumpled—does he buy his own fucking papers?

If it's hot he sometimes has a beer. The can, it's always Beck's, none of your cheap beers, sits beside him on the ground. He takes a sip. How come he doesn't look like a drunk? There are drunks for miles round here, they claim all the public benches and have bench parties, shouting, disputing, laughing as though they're having the best of it. If they catch you looking they laugh at you—as though you're the latest thing that the television of the world has served up for their entertainment.

But I am always looking.

What's there to see in Berlin? It's not a pretty place, nor is it grand. The facades of the buildings are scarred—and that is the strongest impression, that this is a place where things have happened, where history was made. The faces of the buildings are lined, deep grooves running from the nose to the corners of the mouth. Mouth set hard to ensure there are no infractions. Rheumy old eyes. That's it: you can never surprise this city. But partly that's because it's beyond surprise, or even interest. That's it: nothing new will happen here.

page 81

And then I'm standing at a crossing, watching for the light to change. It's early winter. A truck approaching from my left sees that the woman beside me has started to cross and slams on its brakes. The driver had cleared the frost from his windscreen with a scraper. But he hadn't looked on his roof. When he stops a flat sheet of ice, two metres square, slides forward, down the bonnet, and slaps onto the road, where, right at my feet, it explodes into a thousand shining pieces. Driver, woman and I all grin at each other.

Swans walk on the frozen surface of the canal, slap-footed.

A squirrel, thirty metres up, gets from one tree to the next by flying.

There is a jackhammer inside the woodpecker's head.

It surprises me, all this nature in the city. Every street is thick with trees and they are always telling you the time—spring time, summer time, autumn and time for all the leaves to fall. Every tree is numbered—well, this is Germany—and is managed so that it thrives. The streets are kept scrupulously clean, as long you live in one of the better suburbs. There are squads of people to manage the snow, and the leaves, and the railway lines—recently, when there was a fender-bender outside my house on Saturday morning, a team of eight orange-suited guys arrived to bounce the cars to the curb. That was in addition to four cops and twenty rubber-neckers. For a dent.

Yes, everything runs like clockwork. But what's it all for?

I'm lifting an espresso to my pointed lips at Einstein's (who are they kidding?) when I see that he's sitting, four tables away, in the sun, cool shades on, legs crossed and thinking of nothing. My guy—where does he get the money for luxury coffee?

I follow chicks (one day I'll use that word without shying) through the streets. Well, not really, but you're trucking it up to Dussman's and she passes you and even from behind the gap between her short top and her hipsters is somewhere that your eyes can warm themselves. The back is underrated, in my opinion. The spine. That rich latte colour—oh, groan. I would hate for anyone to think I'm a stalker, I always fade away before I do any harm—though maybe girls can sense page 82 you back there? But, curves like that, it's enough to make you feel young again.

I'm sure he hasn't got a wife. Somewhere he has a small room, where his selection of books is utterly rigorous. Five CDs, Monk, Bird or Coltrane. At night he stands outside clubs, in the cold, ear to a grating, eyes half closed, inside the saxophone, the bassman's thwack. People offer cigarettes. On the first Sunday of every month the museums are free and this is a big day for him.

Do these guys pay to ride the U-bahn?

Finally we get a sitter and my wife and I can go out with friends. They know somewhere special, in Prenzlauer Berg, a little restaurant with character and a bit of history, called Offenbach Stube—very German. Very expensive. We ride through the night on the bumping train. The carriage is crowded and we are separated. It's a huge crush of no one that I know. Faces an inch from mine, bodies almost pressed.

Prenzlauer Berg is where they took Bill Clinton for a stylish coffee.