Berlin Watching

For the first day of the World Cup, restaurants and bars in Berlin had old television sets hooked up on the sidewalks, side by side, or makeshift movie screens (sheets haphazardly hung), or the occasional widescreen, and people sat quietly in chairs watching. Noa and I walked from Mitte to Prenzlauer Berg at nine (it was still fully light out), and then I walked around Prenzlauer alone as the lights of the cafes got brighter in the warm, darkening air, and there was not one marauding band of twenty-something boys with giant plastic cups of beer, not a single drunken middle-aged man pissing on the street. Unlike New York City (which I love, don’t get me wrong), this is not a hell realm, though maybe that’s because it was one not long ago.

The quiet public watching of television reminded me of the one day we did something like that en masse in Manhattan—on the morning of September 11, 2001, when there was a car or workman’s van stopped every few yards, doors and windows open, radios blaring, and people standing around it in small groups, silently listening, with the towers smoking and then just smoke in the background, people emerging with briefcases in silence, cops all over the city with white circles around the hems of their pant legs.

These two occasions, of course, are nothing alike—one is happy, one is very, very sad. They are similar, though, in that they involve a city of people led to congregating in public, their hearts open.

New York Magic

I bow down to New York at this very moment. Maybe that’s why they call this season “spring”—because suddenly, overnight, flowers have sprung everywhere, and new green leaves, and masses of pretty people on the sidewalks and in outdoor cafes. Children fly all around and people seem happy. Even people who are sick or lonely can’t avoid it—this fleeting reprieve.

I’m looking outside of the city for a place to live, probably in a town by the water. I know that as soon as I leave it, I’ll miss this city. I’ve lived here on and off for thirty years, and it amazes me how, though the city continues to change, it remains as familiar to me as my own body. Because the connection runs so deep, it is filled with magic.

Like one time, when Geoff and I were in our second year in college, we spent the day walking around the city (a typical date for us, since we were broke), and at the end of the day we decided to stop at a cafe on Prince Street for a coffee. (We lived on Sullivan Street, just around the corner, in a $200 studio that overlooked a garden.) The year was 1975, the cafe was Borgia. We’d never been there.

When we pushed through the storefront door, though, we found a boy from one of my writing classes at school sitting there—Danny Jacobs, a kid from Staten Island who was in major rebellion against his orthodox Jewish parents. We weren’t friends, and, in fact, I’d thought he was a little weird. He was hunched over a cup of cold coffee, but when we walked in he straightened up and smiled. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said. “I knew you’d come sooner or later.”

This was New York in the old days. Danny didn’t know where we lived, only that we lived in Soho. Of course he’d find us, and in finding us we’d find him. The three of us spent the evening together at the table he’d been sitting at all day. And for the next several years, we were inseparable.

Danny was the person who eventually got me my first job at The New Yorker. After he graduated from college, he became a messenger there. And then a mail clerk. Here’s the one poem he published in the magazine in 1977. He died of complications from AIDS when I was living in L.A. in the early nineties.