We miss the culture but does the culture miss us

Juan is in the shower. He is washing off his thick makeup from the night, when he was “Anita Drink,” one of the most obnoxious drag queens to grace the stage, which is quite difficult in a city with such stiff competition. I lie down on our unmade bed, which resembles more of a nest of blankets in the middle of a room-sized closet of dresses skirts boots pants wigs chains costumes and strange bits of metal and cardboard and gaffer tape that we’ve saved for future costume endeavors. I try not to fall asleep before I get my chance in the bathroom to wash my face, brush my teeth. I set the alarm for 6:30, one hour from now. It’s almost futile to fall asleep, I realize, but equally so to simply try to remain awake with the aid of coffee. I drink coffee now just like a drug; it’s lost its ritualistic beauty. Like a sleeping pill to make you sleep, I drink coffee to keep me awake when I shouldn’t be.

Already my phone is ringing its alarm like a phone call. Juan and I awake without speaking. He is pulling on pants, the Sunday morning flea market is one thing that he has absolutely trained his body to do, no matter how little sleep he’s had. There is no way to miss a week. If you don’t prearrange that someone else takes your table, you lose your reservation for the next week, and that may mean your table for the rest of the summer, which means, in essence, that you lose your real estate permanently.

I watch Juan momentarily, considering letting him go alone. But I know that he doesn’t have Silvia this week to take him in the car, and he has to load all the things from the store and go by tram. He needs my helping hands. A pile of black fishnets and high heeled shoes litter the ground by the bed. Fake eyelashes lie out of their boxes like sad spiders on my vanity. My eye makeup is still intact from the Kamikaze Queens show I did. In fact we just got off stage about four hours ago.

I pull on the most comfortable shoes and thick socks I can find. I know that it is going to be warm today but at this hour I still need my leather jacket, my scarf and my hat. We drink our coffee like zombies and lumber down the stairs to our awaiting “horses” outside. Red and purple, we climb on them and our bodies know perfectly how to ride. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found that my relationship with my bicycle has improved. I’ve always appreciated riding—the advantages to my body, to the environment and to me financially are all reasons why I’ve been a bicycle commuter for years, not to mention that its one of the fastest ways to get through a city. But it’s only recently that I can honestly say that my body craves cycling on a daily basis. I love to ride. And I almost love it even when I’m half asleep and cold—that’s why I can, at least, tolerate it this morning as we make our way across the river to the shop.

Thankfully it is sunny and Berlin in the early morning is my favorite time to be alive. The sun shines across the river, the brick of the “tower bridge” as I call it, the industrial U-Bahn tracks that creek overhead, the yellow train cars somehow comforting. We head straight through Goerlitzer Park, an ugly step-sister to the Tiergarten, the “Central Park” of Berlin. What grass that lives here is brown and a crater size patch of dirt occupies the center like ground zero—it is in fact rumored to have been bombed, which is not unlikely. It once was a train station, but now it’s an urban park, populated on warm and cold days by punks, families of all ethnic groups, Turkish women who convene on the benches, White artists, and large groups of mostly African men. This morning there are only a few dog-walkers and party-goers stumbling home from Saturday night.

Fortunately Juan has already packed his bags for the market, so after crossing the park we go inside the shop from the back entrance, open the shutters over the windows so that Sunday passerbys can view the inside of the store, and then grab the large black suitcase of clothing, a bag of hangers, a chair, and three hanging mannequins. I’m already unsure about how Juan will make it back by himself in the afternoon with so many things but I have to go to Hamburg so I won’t be around to help him. We walk the five blocks to the U-Bahn, wait fifteen minutes for the first leg, and transfer to the tram. This is why I avoid public transportation if I can—it takes so much longer than biking.

We don’t speak much on the way, but the coffee is kicking in and I feel my mood lift. It is beautiful, and I say so as we cross back over the river, this time high in the air in the warmth of a U1 bahn car. Even the “O2 World” stadium they’ve built on the river, with the audacity of cutting into a few panels of the “East Side Gallery” (one mile remnant of the old Wall), doesn’t look like such an eye-sore. But then again I’m delirious. “There’s our city,” I say to Juan.

We arrive at the front of Mauer Park nearly forty minutes later. Its 8:15, so we’re early, but that gives us time to buy a brötchen and coffee, and to sit on our table—number 44—and watch the circus begin. At this hour, everyone is setting up, and those that have cars use them, pulling through the rows of wooden stands, their vehicles barely fitting, inevitably pissing off some seller who is slightly obstructing the way with a stray clothing rack or pile of books. The hot and cold tempers of our neighbors are comical—one moment they’re greeting us with beaming smiles and the next moment their screaming, “Asshole!” at another seller who is trying to maneuver himself between two stands. Dogs side with their masters and fights break out. A truck is waiting behind our neighbor’s car, which is at a standstill while she unloads all her boxes. The truck driver beeps at her and tells her to keep moving and she screams back “I’ll go when I’m good and ready.” In the next breath she comes over and asks if she could borrow one of our extra sawhorses.

I love being awake at this hour, even if I have not slept, even if I have slept one hour (sometimes worse than none at all). I love being awake and alive as the sun comes brighter in our eyes; I love the camaraderie and the anger. We are competitors but we are in it together and we know this. It feels good to be accepted; reluctant, hard-earned acceptance is even more satisfying than being instantly loved or being identical birds of a feather.

The market grows larger. The nursery awakens; geraniums and tomato plants are cheap here. The book stand directly across the “street” (the narrow path that runs through our row of tables) is open for business. I peruse his English books; this week he appears to have come across the former collection of a feminist. Gloria Steinem, Virginia Woolf, a book about why women’s writing gets ignored, an anthology by and about women and fiction; the list goes on. I smile at the coincidence of these books being in such an “unlikely” place as the hands of this “normal” German guy who sells everything from cook books to romance novels to physics textbooks. I think of that Dylan lyric, “you don’t read women’s writing, do you?”

Tape cassettes sheep skin rugs metal train cars old radios clocks hammers bicycles military jackets mangled lamps shoe polishing kits used boots answering machines pirate socks dream catchers beanies stuffed crows comic art seventies porn magazines antique furniture baby bibs soaps silkscreened skirts hemp bags jewelry studded belts pig purses.

The Mauer Park flea market is in essence a microcosm of a larger dynamic which is occurring currently in Berlin, and that’s one of the reasons why I find it so fascinating to hang around and observe the movement. For one thing, Mauer Park is long and narrow and runs from Danziger Strasse all the way to the S-Bhan train tracks. Part of the Berlin Wall used to stand here, and this is the site of some of the first protests and the first hackers—those that began to break down the wall piece by piece.

Think Nazis invading last this Sin City Berlin, think cabaret, think Salon Kitty, think the wall falling and instead of cheering for the coming of the West, much of the East lost their way of life overnight. 250,000 people laid off from one day to the next. Former skilled persons unemployed. Right here at mauer park … we’re grappling with some of those same questions: Shall they let the West in, the English speakers, the high prices? We can’t to sell our handmade products to people who come to this market willing to pay no more than 5 Euros for an item; we long to raise the “status” of this flea market to an “arts and crafts faire” on par with London’s Bricklane Market or Sugarloaf Mountain Arts and Crafts faire in Maryland. And why shouldn’t we? We are artists, we want to make a living seeing what we make, and yet we’re fully aware that what brought us here in the first place was that it isn’t yet London or the DC Metro Area.

And let’s not be romantic here. The “real” East Berliner drinks beer like water, coughs out their lungs as they chain smoke, and complain about being unemployed in a thick Berliner-only accent. They venerate the real Berliner Folk. Depending on their political persuasion, they might be relatively pleased or displeased with their economic situation and the changes in East Berlin since the fall of the Wall, which was, in essence, an invitation for us eager-beaver American and other foreign capitalists to join in and raise the so-called bar. But in general, the East Berliner is sort of happy (well let’s not use the word “happy”) with just making it. They kind of like the idea of selling a few old toilets to fellow do-it-yourselfers in order to put food on the table and pay the rent and then coming back again the next week to do it again. They kind of—dare I say—enjoyed the early days when they were kings of the flea market and the flea market really was still a flea market—when you really didn’t want to buy anything, you bought it because you needed a used hot water boiler. You went there to buy a used black and white TV because it was a treat. You actually bought cigarettes by the cigarette.

They’re kind of angry at people like us who are trying to raise the standard. They’re not interested in a goddamn Sugerloaf Mountain Arts and Crafts Festival! They want to keep selling toilets! And to be honest, I understand them.

And there are several brands of “us,” all of whom are changing the face of the Mauer Park—the German latte truck guy (a Wessie, to be sure), the Americans selling “couture,” the Russian selling her hand-sewn pants, the Turk that appears to have defected from the Turkish market to sell his sequins, elastic and zippers to all the Prenzlauerberg make-their-own-clothes-artists, the French lady selling her handmade jewelry, the Macedonians next to us selling used shoes. For now, we’re all there together, which is what makes it such a lively place to be.

And it’s not just these new sellers that have changed the market and brought in new products, it’s also the demands of a changing clientele. Accordingly, some of the long-time sellers had to alter their tactic and stop selling used car parts. Now they sell used DDR antiques and relics—some sell large pieces of furniture and others just sell mounds of trinkets, but both are catering to a changing audience: a whole wave of new tourists and the up-and-coming Berliners who furnish their homes with a mix of IKEA and antiques.

Then there are those East Germans, like the ones across the way, who have gone straight for the commercial jugular, selling the typical bad gothic wear, cheap dream-catchers, the random glass pipe, marijuana leaf shirts, ugly synthetic hats, pins that say, “I’m here about the blowjob,” “Do I look like I give shit?” and “I have a drug problem, I can’t afford them.”

We all need a certain type of client to come to Mauer Park. And we’re all in the mix—those of us who want rich Italian tourists after artesian crafts, and those who attract the Berliner trend kid after the nostalgia of a real “flea market” … Those of us who want tourists and those who want the working class. Some bargain hunters walk up to our stand and gape at the idea of paying 30 for a shirt when the guy next to us lets used t-shirts go for one euro. “Make us a deal,” they say, but our stand cost us 28 and Juan’s labor much more. We can’t.

You can see how this builds resentment—the artists want the guy with 50 cardboard boxes full of DDR dishware to raise the real-estate value on this neighborhood … and the hardcore guy with the cardboard boxes is grumbling, “We’re out here without fail in rain and snow, you pansy English speaking fair weather sellers.”

And that’s when we got accepted—when we pulled a Berlin winter at the flea market. Every single Sunday, 8 am to sunset, rain, sleet, or snow.

Well it’s mid November now and only one more weekend until advent season starts and those who made it past August 30 are stiffing it out and likely to suck it up through the whole winter to safe guard their spot through the spring. Since we’ve chose to bundles ourselves and weather the rain and snow we have come into the ranks of the hardcore and we are more respected for it. Which means small signs of respect like nodding along to at least one of the songs we blast from our stand, e.g. “Boys Don’t Cry,” (Germans love the Cure) or, even more appreciated, safe-guarding our stand by fighting off would-be before we arrive huffing at 9:01 in the morning (you lose your reservation if you show up after 9:00). For this, we are eternally grateful. We’ve been accepted as regulars. And this is more than just a symbolic softening of “hard German hearts” to American punks.

That said, it’s important to mention that in this context, it’s not actually our punky nature at all that would be threatening, as Berliners tend to have a working class heroes kind of mentality. I’d have to add—even the cops have an inner kink rather than an inner rule bound mentality or retentive homophobia. This is an important distinction because I think it is culturally definitive of Berlin and can explain why the cops let seven of us off without charge when we were taking photographs laying on the working train tracks in pink high heels with an enormous upright bass. They were charmed by us and thank god, let us off without the apparently requisite 200 Euro fine per person.

But I’m getting off topic. The point is, artists are attracted to culturally interesting, ethnically diverse places and then yell about “gentrification,” after they show up, angry that all the real spots have been supplanted with obnoxious postmodern restaurants named “Eleven” and “Lime.” Yet it’s the coming of the artist that spells the death of an ethnically based cultural community, not because artists want it that way, but because they need people around them with enough money to buy their art.

“I miss the culture,” they say; White people wishing more mariachi music was floating around them all the time. Yet there is something strangely racist about a sentiment that at the same time passes for cultural appreciation …

And as the Mauer Park Market continues to change, as all of us continue our invasion we’ll probably say the same thing: We miss the culture. But does the culture miss us?

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