Archive for the ‘family’ Category

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. I’m trying to tell you how I became a thief. The shoplifting, that might have been my first attempt at it. Well, it wasn’t actually. Before that I had sometimes taken some money from my mum’s purse, although never without feeling, well, not so much guilty as cheap. Dirty. Low. And when she sent me for groceries I often kept some or all of the change for myself. I usually did that with a rather clear conscience, calling it a carrying fee in front of myself. Once, when I was about 10, I stole a really cool key chain with a skull pendant from Leo, even though I knew I would never be able to wear it. Everybody would instantly recognize it. I stole it anyway, and I felt curiously good and bad about it at the same time. But none of that made me a thief. At best someone who stole.
All of this was before I went to juvie, obviously. This is what lead up to my arrest, to the whole year before that blacked-out Friday night in Neukölln, and my final break out at Wotton-under-Edge. My fighting problem was at its worst then, and I knew I was about to be kicked out of school. The rozzers were regular guests at my mum’s flat. I was going to counselling twice a week, but that was a total waste of time. I mean, I suppose it cannot work when you do not tell them what’s really on your mind. But how can you when you cannot even tell it to yourself, when the very thoughts they want to hear are the pain you are trying to get away from, are exactly that which is so bad that getting the shit beaten out of you is a welcome distraction. How can you reach someone for who being tortured has become addictive, the thing to look forward to?
The next school year my academic performance was really going below par as well. I mean, I am no genius, but when half your class is still struggling with the common language, it doesn’t take much to stay abreast. But that year, well, I couldn’t even muster the effort for that. By the spring of 07 it was clear that I would have to repeat the year if nothing was done. My mum made me take private tutoring, even though we really couldn’t afford it. All through summer I had to job to pay her back some, and the planned trip to my aunt in Gloucestershire fell flat also.
I managed to scrape by, just barely in French and Chemistry, but enough to move up to 4th form. With all my studying and jobbing, babysitting little Nicky, and the thing with Hendrik, I had hardly spent any time with my mates all summer. So when sometime in late August after football training Hector suggested a poker game at Old Luisenstadt Graveyard I felt more than obligated to agree.
My mum returned from work around 10 pm. ‘Nessa, Nicky, and I had already had supper. When my mum looked in on me I pretended I was studying for school, but I had hidden a Travis McGee novel inside the massive chemistry textbook. Nicky was asleep. Mum and ‘Nessa talked for a while in the kitchen, then Mum withdrew into the living room, where she slept on the sofa-bed.
Around midnight I went to the loo. Mum had fallen asleep over a crossword-puzzle. I pulled the cover up to her shoulders, put the biro and the puzzle book onto the couch table, and turned off the light. When I put on trainers in the hall, ‘Nessa came out of the kitchen.
“What the hell do you think you are doing, bro?”
“Just going to see Orcun.” Since he lived next door I figured that would be the easiest answer.
“And you are putting on a jacket for that?” She pointed out the tracksuit top I was wearing. Say about her what you want, but my big sister is a sharp one.
“Didn’t say I was going to see him at his place,” I conceded.
“You are not happy unless you are fucking things up, aren’t you, Rikki?”
What can I say? She’s right I suppose.
The night was bloody marvellous. The air was damp and cool, hazy with a hint of mist from the canal. It smelled of dust, straw and dew, just the way a summer night is supposed to smell. I biked down Admiralstrasse, Grimmallee, and Körtestrasse, and no ten minutes after leaving the house I climbed the fence of the graveyard.
I was the first and I had some time to visit ‘Nette’s grave. Leo found me there. He had brought beer and handed me one. I lit a fag for him. He squeezed my shoulder and we went over to the big stone angel with the chipped off face that guards the oldest part of the grounds. Hec and Orcun joined us there.
We stayed until dawn. On the way back to Kotbusser Tor we stopped at a bakery. Officially it was still closed but we went to the back door and the apprentice sold us a couple of warm sesame rings anyway. And when I let myself into the flat, mum was waiting for me.
I had expected her to sleep in, since that week her shift at the supermarket didn’t start before 10 am. Normally she wouldn’t have been up before 8. But Nicky had had a colic that night and his implacable crying had woken her around the time we left the graveyard. She had only meant to look in on me to get a glimpse of her youngest peacefully asleep or something, but when she had found me gone she had pressed ‘Nessa for info and ‘Nessa had told her I’d been gone all night.
My mum has never had the energy to care much about my private life, but with all the bother and expenses of getting me through the previous school year, she totally blew her top this time: I was grounded for three weeks, football training and all. I was to go to school and back right after. When she was at work, I was to call her from the phone at the flat so that she could see via caller ID that I really was where I was supposed to be, and she made sporadic calls to make certain I staid in. I was supposed to use the time to study. Of course she couldn’t know what this would cost us all in the long run. None of us knew what this would lead to. Because in those three weeks I discovered that art and joy of larceny.
***
Over the summer I had read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I had liked it a lot and read a number of interviews with Mr. Gaiman about the book. I learned that one of the books he had used for research had been The Big Con by David Maurer. I had tried to get that at the library, without success. What I had found instead, amongst a lot of books on card and coin tricks, was How To Be A Professional Confidence Artist by former Michigan rozzer Dennis M. Marlock. HTBAPCA isn’t actually meant to be a how-to book, or if, it’s rather meant to be a how-not-be-scammed book. In the end, I think, it mostly is a why-confidence-artists-are-really-not-cool-at-all book. But to me it was a revelation.
If I hadn’t been grounded I may never have read it. It didn’t look particularly interesting, but rather dull, a small press pamphlet. So I had put it aside and more or less forgotten about it. I might even already had gotten a reminder from the library to return it. But then I was grounded and once more began using my entire waking time to read. And eventually I picked up Mr. Marlock’s pamphlet.
At first I wasn’t really that into it. The writing is a bit too smug for my taste, too cocksure. The first chapter is on change raising. It sounded positively barmy. I was certain that what he explained would never work in real life. But the good thing about that technique is that you can at worst only embarrass yourself with it. Even if caught nobody can prove you did anything with criminal intent.
I was bored. I was pissed off at my mum. I felt another fight coming on. No idea with who, but my blood temperature was rising, and I knew that sooner or later someone would be along, just when I was about to boil over. And I would be in trouble again. I needed a distraction. Hendrik, who had kept my temperature down for the last couple of weeks, was gone from my life for good, so there wouldn’t be any help there. So when my mum sent me to buy groceries one evening I decided to give it a try.
Like I said, this wasn’t the first time I stole something, but still this was different, I knew that, even before I did it. This was serious. I wished to defraud someone deliberately and see if I could not learn what it had to teach me. I wasn’t setting out to pinch some chewing gum or cigarettes, this wasn’t giggling excitement, a lark to pass the time. That I went at it alone was telling enough. This was like drinking on your own. When I went into the supermarket on that August afternoon, I went like a samurai going to battle.
At the supermarket they have these shopping trolleys that take a Euro coin as security deposit. It was early evening, rush hour at the checkout lanes. The sales girl had just started processing a mum with three hyperactive kids when I approached her about some change to release one such trolley. I had to wait a good while for the sales girl and the mum to get everything tallied, paid, and packed away (again, amidst kids climbing on the conveyor belt and other waiting customers, begging for sweets, and chasing each other around). I kept hovering patiently behind the sales girl and smiling benignly at the kids. This was going just as I had hoped.
By the time she was free to help me, she was quite apologetic and thankful for my patience, but at the same time also under pressure to get on to the next customer in line, who had already been waiting even longer. I handed her a twenty Euro bill and got a tenner, a fiver, and some coins in return. I smiled again and began to say thank you, when in putting the money away I discovered a 1-Euro-coin sized token that you can also use to release a trolley. I slapped my forehead and asked her to please take the fiver and the coins back, in return for a tenner, as I really did not want to carry all that lose change around.
“Okay,” she sighed, and took the fistful of money I put back into her palm, while giving me another tenner.
With just that hint of uncertainty and doubt in my voice I said: “That should be all.” Just enough to make her check if she really got the whole 10 Euro worth of change, enough to make me seem innocent if she hadn’t gotten all. And of course, she hadn’t. I was two Euros short. That was odd. I was puzzled. Hadn’t I just handed her back what she had given me? Had she really given me the full amount in return for my twenty? I searched my pockets while the annoyed murmuring from the queue was getting louder and more urgent. She still remembered my own patience with her and the mum, but worry lines were beginning to show on her face.
I put the tenner between my lips and patted myself down with both hands. There, some change, most of it in coppers. I count out three fifty cent coins, one twenty and one ten cent piece, that is two Euros.
“Look here,” I said, taking the tenner from between my lips, now obviously very embarrassed and in a hurry. “Here is twelve. Together with eight I just gave you that is twenty. Just gimme back my original twenty note and we are done; after all, I got the token for the trolley.”
Under pressure from the customers she counted the money and right enough, twenty Euro. She gave me back my banknote and let me go. She had a somewhat troubled look on her face, but even trying to think it through she could not find any fault. She shrugged it off, and hey, I was a polite and honest looking German boy, not some pidgin speaking Turkish hoodlum or a Yugoslav gypsy, it was probably alright.
But if you have been keeping count you know that there was nothing honest about the whole transfer, and in the end she paid me 10 Euros for the dubious pleasure of my company. I left with my old twenty and a brand new tenner from the supermarket till – and then took my token to another supermarket around the corner to do my shopping there, just in case she caught up later.
When I left I felt great. It wasn’t the money, though for a 14 year old from a household where a single mum had to work 2 jobs to see her family fed and clothed, 10 Euro is nothing to be sneezed at. But that wasn’t what gave me that incredible high. No, having been able to fool her, messing around with her in plain sight, und under the scrutiny of dozens of annoyed witnesses wishing me to hell, and still getting away with it… what a rush!
I did it as often as I could. When my mum ended the grounding, I spent my afternoons on the shopping miles of Berlin and milked every small and mid-sized store I could. I avoided the really big places, large department stores and such, figuring they would have cameras and detectives and that they might have schooled their cashiers to catch this form of deception. But I hit all the little boutiques, the expensive sweet shops that sell gift hampers and gold wrapped pralines by the ounce, and all the other shops scattered along Tauntziehen, Wilmersdorfer, Tor, and Schlossstrasse, around Hermannplatz and Leopoldplatz. I only steered clear of the area around Oranienburger and Kotti. I was too familiar a face in my own Kiez to risk getting a rep for change raising there. Word would have filtered back to my mum.
I made some fascinating discoveries. Computer shops were amongst the easiest targets – they were used to handle large amounts of money and the personnel was definitely more interested in the technical than the commercial side of any transaction. But every now and then there would be a math wiz amongst the nerds that would make me at once. Often enough they wouldn’t suspect foul play at all, though, but just correct me, complacent in their mathematical savvy.
Kindness is definitely a down if you want to go far in the business world: Friendly shop keepers are much easier to dupe than grumpy, forbidding ones. Gender and age on the other hand seem to be in no way related to how easy a mark can be suckered.
Every now and then I encountered a cashier that was trying to shortchange me as I was trying to raise the change. Shortchangers aren’t exactly thick on the ground, but shockingly common if you try enough. One time we both recognized each other at the same time. It was a cheap jeans shop off Rosa Luxemburg Platz and the garishly made up half-Arabic girl might have been doing it out of sheer boredom. Certainly her chewing gum held more fascination for her than her few customers – who, truth be told, turned out to be only window shoppers. But she was skilled enough to obviously not have started with it that day. Of that I am certain. When we made one another we looked at each other, first guiltily, then angry, sizing each other up. And then we both had to laugh. We each took back out original investment and I left, strangely relieved. I had met myself, and we had disliked each other less than I would have expected.
But as fun as raising change is, it is a somewhat elaborate con for a usually pretty low gain. Once you start to fish for larger sums than ten Euro people tend to get much more careful. (Once I did walk away from a computer shop with two fifty Euro notes that I had let them give me for allowing them to briefly handle the five hundred that I had brought along. I never could repeat that stunt, though, and eventually got into trouble for trying. I had to leg it and leave behind a good deal more than those one hundred, so in the end the attempt to go for big fish was a net loss for me.) Which meant that eventually I began to hunt for other games.
Most grifts require two or more peeps – usually at least one roper who engages the mark and a cap who comes in and takes over. Those that can be played by a lone grafter require some serious skill at sleight-of-hand when for example you swap the mark’s money at the crucial moment for a wad of worthless scrap paper faced back and front by a single real banknote. So, after doing a bit of research, and beginning to train my fingers to do what I wanted them to while I was focusing attention elsewhere, I decided that I might as well pick pockets directly. In the end, that to me is the purest form of the art: Your dexterity and skill at misdirection against the mark’s perceptiveness and presence of mind.
I said my first time going out to raise change I went like a Samurai going into battle. In a way that is of course total bollocks. The very essence of a Samurai is that he follows a lord, that he adheres to a code. A true Samurai is never selfish. He sacrifices himself for his lord, not just his life, but his personality, his innermost being. With Hendrik I actually tried that, even though I suppose in the end I failed. Or he proved unworthy of the sacrifice. I still do not know which it was. But being a thief I did nothing of the sort. It was utterly selfish. But there still was something of Bushido in all this.
Life in every breath. Focusing all of existence on a single moment, letting that moment expand to fill the entire universe, so that time stops and each second becomes an eternity unto itself. When I stole, everything else ceased to exist. I finally had found something better than fighting. I had found something better than wanking, better than sex. It was my daily worship, my mass and prayer.
If books had been my heroin than thieving became my cocaine.
Continued here
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All my siblings read to me from time to time when I was little, not just Lukas. ‘Nette was actually quite the bookworm. But I didn’t really discover the beautiful world of literature and the blissful escape it can provide until I was 11 years old. The first book to open that hatch for me, into another, saner world, was the Satanic Mill by Ottfried Preussler. I was sitting in one of the ugly orange moulded-plastic seats outside ‘Nette’s hospital room. My mum was inside with her and the docs, and I was scared shitless. I was supposed to have read the Satanic Mill weeks ago, the test was in 2 days, and I thought, what the hell. Anything to take my mind off the false smiles, the hollow promises, and most of all off the desperation in my mother’s face as she made herself believe the lies.
And you know what? It worked like a charm. From page 2 onward I was lost in the strange, bleak, romantic, magical world of the boy Krabat and his fight against the evil miller. I kept reading every free minute I could scrounge up, deep into the night, and by the next evening I was through. I remember the moment of waking when I suddenly ran out of words the way Wile E. Coyote runs out of street to stand on. I flailed and grasped for anything to keep me from plummeting down into the harsh chasm of reality. What my fingers found and clung to was ‘Nette’s bookshelf. I opened Michael Ende’s Neverending Story, and I suppose I haven’t stopped reading since.
Of course there were comments in school and at football training. But two of my psychopathic fights later those comments died. Reading didn’t make me soft. It made me somewhat numb, however, and that was exactly what it was supposed to do. Is it a wonder then that I found my true vocation in a book?
Continued here
I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?
– Hemmingway (attributed)
There is three things that contributed a lot to me ever starting out to be a thief. One is fighting. The other is reading. And the last is playing poker. But I guess I better explain that.
I never could get my temper under control. I hatedmyself for it but that didn’t help. According to my sister ‘Nessa I’ve always had it. The way she tells it I did little else as a baby than scream and toss matchbox cars at her and Lukas. I’m not quite convinced that there isn’t a second side to that story but unfortunately I was too young back then to still remember now.
But it is true that I have always been fighting, all my life, and with nobody as much as with Lukas. Lukas is seven years older than me and physically of course I never had a chance. But that didn’t seem to stop me. I don’t really know why we never got along. To tell you the truth I don’t even know what sort of a person he was when he was younger. Now he is a real arsehole, a total chav. He signed up for four years of voluntary military service after school. To him girls are just mobile life support systems for boobs and snatches. He talks about little but his latest conquest. His regard for his mates corresponds to how often they get laid. For the few girls he actually regards as human beings it’s the same, only the other way around. What of his free time isn’t spent on the pursuit of one night stands is spent on his abs, biceps, and tan. He talks with a pretend lower-class, migrant, wanna-be hip-hop patois. He is a walking cliché in almost every regard.
But he must have been different once, a long time ago. My earliest memories of him – he must have been 10 or 11 then – is of him reading to me how-and-why type children’s books of which he had dozens. There are still a few around, most of them torn and defaced with crayon scrawls. My work, I must assume. And when he was 12 he used to cook for our dad, my sisters and me, when mum was at work. I haven’t seen him cook in years. I think, when I arrived, for a while at least, he tried to be a good big brother. And I suppose, I never tried to be a good little brother in return. Whatever it was, eventually he gave up, on all of us.
So, almost from the beginning we have been fighting. And I do mean fighting: The slapping, punching, kicking, spitting, biting, pushing, clawing kind of fighting. Even before our dad left us, Lukas claimed I was a bastard, in that traditional illegitimate sense of the word. And when dad went, Lukas claimed I was the reason. And later, well, he blamed me for much of what followed as well. I suppose Lukas blamed me pretty much for everything that went wrong. And who knows, maybe he was on to something. Children are cruel, that’s a given. As a rule they are not stupid.
When ‘Nessa hit puberty my mum tried to put the four of us into a boys’s and a girls’s room, instead of the old’uns, young’uns pairing we’d had going until then. The experiment lasted for one week, leaving me blooded and wailing every night. Don’t get me wrong, Lukas would have needed the patience of a saint to put up with my incessant needling and obstinacy. And neither of us had a patience that was anything of the kind. So my mum put him back into one room with ‘Nessa and me into the other with ‘Nette.
(Our rents had named us Lukas, Vanessa, Anette, and Patrick, but only Lukas was actually called that by anyone but our mum. To everyone else Anette had always only been ‘Nette, Vanessa ‘Nessa, and I only answered to Rikki. And yes, if you are wondering, there is a reasons why I spell it with a double-k instead of the more traditional c-k-y, but this is neither the time nor the place to go into that.)
As for the rest of the world, it was a little bit like that as well: Every new group I’d become a part of, every new class, a football team, summer camp, anything, it wouldn’t take me long before somehow I would get into a fight with the biggest, meanest bully around.
I am not a big guy, never was. Maybe a tad on the stocky side when I’m well fed. And I really would pick the biggest, toughest bloke I could find. That meant I would lose almost all of those fights. But the psychopathic, all-out way I went about it usually meant that after this first fight people would pretty much leave me alone. Long after the bruises and the punishments those fights earned me were forgotten the fear – I dare not quite call it respect – of hair-trigger Rikki persisted. Rarely did anyone need a second demonstration.
Please, don’t think I was courageous. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Nor was I trying to be strategically clever. I never set out to do this. In fact, I dreaded these fights when I saw one coming up, I just couldn’t help myself. It was as if there was something in me, some force I did not understand myself, that demanded this of me, like a sacrifice, like a proof for I don’t know what.
Violence is a funny thing. Sure, it’s scary. I mean, it bloody hurts, you know. On the other hand there is something very liberating in just closing yourself off from all rational argument, in drawing a line around yourself and reducing all communication across it to the staccato Morse code of blows and kicks. Little can focus the entire world to such a fine and clear point as unbridled violence. How many angels can fight on the head of a pin? All of them, mate. All of them, forever. There is a little bit of paradise in an honest fight, when nothing remains of the world but me, the other bloke and that strange satisfaction when we connect.
And it got worse and worse. In the past years I’ve gotten into fights with more or less everyone: Kids, teachers, random strangers on the street, or on the bus, and with bus drivers kicking me off for fighting. Hell, even with a cashier at a supermarket for not selling me fags. And with rozzers of course. Always bad news when you kick a police officer. They take a dim view on that, let me tell you.
A very few times I even blacked out during a fight, switched to autopilot. I would come to afterwards, victorious or vanquished, but with no memory of what had happened. That scared me badly, when that last bit of self-control went up in a red haze, and left me entirely at the mercy at whatever demon I had allowed into my life.
I only managed to stop when I started stealing. Well, more or less.
Continued here

The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do
They’re really saying “I…”
– Louis Armstrong: What A Wonderful World (first recorded 1968, lyrics by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss)

When I came to, the two blokes sharing the dorm room with me at the YMCA were up and about, quietly brushing their teeth and packing their stuff. For a while I stayed on the bed and just stared at the blank white ceiling above me, and listened to these two strangers move about around me and whisper to each other every now and then to not wake me.
It reminded me of another morning in another bed, one week before I had left Berlin for England. Well, it hadn’t really been a morning. In fact, it must have been about 6 pm, on Saturday, July 5th. But I woke up in a strange bed just the same and for a while just stared at the ceiling.
That ceiling however had been painted black, just like the walls, and it had had a fading crown molding, marking it clearly as that of an old Wilhelminian tenement building – and not the 60s council flat, with the low, unornamented ceiling made of rough, fire resistant cement render that I had woken up to most mornings of my life. The molding had been gilded. And I didn’t have the slightest idea where I was. I could barely remember who I was. All I knew was that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
The first thing I had become aware of that morning had been the smell. A mix of unwashed bed linen, stale cigarette smoke, musty socks, and drying puke. The second thing had been the killer hangover. You know the kind that radiates outward from deep within your neck and tightens your shoulders.
The third had been the disgusting taste in my mouth. At least part of the puke seemed to be my own.
Only then had I opened my eyes and discovered the strange ceiling.
I was thankful that the place was moderately gloomy. That was in part due to the black paint, in part to the late hour. A little dappled sunlight was shifting on the high ceiling. Something outside, perhaps the windscreen of a parked car, was reflecting the low sun upwards through the branches of a tree standing outside the window.
I tried to remember, well, anything. At first I was drawing a complete blank. Then slowly, memories were emerging from the murk. A fight at someone’s party. A fight with my best mate, Leo. Then some other party, mostly older blokes, college kids. I remembered drinking too much, too fast, and too indiscriminately. Everything drowning in a fuzz of stroboscopic lights, loud music, and a sea of unknown faces.
This hadn’t been my first blackout, but the first time I woke up in a completely strange place. Normally one of my mates would have kept enough wits about him to either get the rest of us to his own abode or dump us at our respective rents’s places. Not so that night, apparently. I had been on my own.
Somewhere nearby someone was snoring. I could feel warm skin against my own. Braving vertigo I slowly sat up. Immediately the hangover reared and bit down on my skull with those particular steel jaws that seem to the be the divinely ordained punishment for very sweet wine or very cheap vodka.
The room was untidy bordering on the catastrophic. The black walls had been haphazardly plastered with posters of German Hip Hop bands. The desk was buried under an avalanche of physics and computer science textbooks. Two or three games consoles, several monitors, an electric bass, and a stereo, all covered in drifts of dirty laundry, constituted another mountainous island rising against one wall out of the sea of pizza crusts, socks, CD covers, comic books, and hundreds of pages torn from a college block and covered in dense, spindly handwriting. My unknown host was still snoring, lost somewhere in the heaps of crumpled bedcovers.
I got up, dizzy and aching, and began wading through the room, sifting the debris for my clothes or at least clothes that could pass for mine. When I was reasonably dressed I had one last glance around, swiped a half full pack of Prince (what sort of person smokes Prince, I ask you? In case you are wondering, I have always been a Lucky Strike man myself, except for that phase when I smoked Roth Händle; and always filterless, not so much because of the taste but because of the much more stylish soft packs), and let myself out. To this day I have no idea with who I spent that night. And you know what?
I like it that way. I like it a lot.
I spent the evening wandering around Neukölln. At Hermannplatz I tested if drinking coffee really makes you any more sober, but as far as I could tell, it only makes you more awake. Eventually I got kicked out for smoking and went for a stroll in Hasenheide Park. Hermannplatz is within walking distance of my mum’s flat, and only two stops on the U-Bahn, but I really didn’t feel like going there. My mum would be working, but she would have noticed that I hadn’t been in all night. It was weekend, sure enough, but with all that had happened in the past year her tolerance for antics was on a record low, and we’d been in too many fights as it was.
My sister ‘Nessa would be there, though, with her little boy, and when I’d come in she’d bitch me out. How can you do this to mum, you know how she worries, do you have to muck everything up, you are only fifteen for chrissake, yadda, yadda, yadda. I mean, for chrissake, she’s the one who got herself knocked up at 18. But she’d go at it anyway, and I was just too tired of it all.
It was a truly beautiful evening. The air was humid and oppressively warm, the sky the colour of a fading bruise, with a thunderstorm in the making somewhere far away. Junkies and bunnies were going about their respective businesses in the bushes. Gnats were dancing their mystical dances. In their enclosure the deer were pointlessly walking to and fro. And around the corner was a playground where the last of the toddlers were frolicking with their rents. I sat on a the backrest of a park bench, feet firmly planted on the seat, and enjoyed the last Prince, without a care in the world.

Continues here

People are always going on about juvenile delinquency, but they are just full of shit. Like in the UK, according to this survey most grown-ups believe that teens are dangerous and feral and to blame for half of all crime. In fact less than 12 per cent of all crimes involve minors as perps. Given that the 0-14 year olds make up almost 20% of the total population, that’s rather good. And while between 10 and 30 kids are sentenced for killing before they turn 18 every year in the UK, 4 kids die every week due to neglect and abuse at the hands of their grown-up rents and carers. That’s over 200 per year. No, while we aren’t innocent on account of age by a long stretch, on the whole, it isn’t the kids that are evil. But then facts have never stopped fear- or hate-mongering, have they?
People are scared of kids just like they are scared of the future. I mean, when was the last time the world wasn’t about to end? Swine flu, economic collapse, global warming, avian flue, hurricanes, rising sea levels, Islamic terrorism, Y2K, AIDS, nuclear war, Communism, boys with long hair, rock and roll, the yellow peril, Jewish well poisoners, the list goes on and on. As far back as the year ad 999 people were expecting the full stop any day now. Hell, all of Christianity is based on the anticipation of the Second Coming. So is Judaism, come to think of it, though I suppose in their case it would be the first coming. Wikipedia tells me that this sort of thinking is called eschatological.
I am not saying that none of these doomsday predictions will ever come true. I mean, everything ends eventually, right? One day it will be the world or at least life as we know it. Predict it often enough and you’re bound to be right once. An infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters and all that. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day, unless it’s digital. Then it’ll just be blank.
Peeps, while indubitably stupid, are often pretty smartly stupid. They’ll pick whatever theory sounds most likely at the time to focus their fears on. So from time to time they might even accidentally pick one that is actually right. But that isn’t why they picked it. And neither is today’s youth anywhere as bad as our elders are claiming.
I have a pretty good idea why peeps are always bitching about this, though. It has something to do with the fact that the young will on the whole survive the old. I mean, it is pretty unfair when you look at it this way, innit? One gen gives life to the next and how are they repaid? By their kids taking over everything.
There is a school in Jewish theological thought that says that each life taken is the end of the entire world, just as each life saved is the entire world saved. So in a way these thousands of doomsday predictions all do come true. For everyone. Eventually. While the next gen parties on. Small wonder the old are always pissed off at the young.
So yes, the young are scary. They have all that potential, all those chances to do what the older folks see drifting away. They show no respect. Outliving the old, imagine the cheek. And anyway, clearly back then, when Hitler still made the trains run on time, everything really was better. For back then those who say so were still young and strong and had their lives stretch out before them.
But those bothersome facts tell us that the trains were as later in 1938 as they are today, and juvenile delinquency is actually receding, just as crime is in general. And I don’t just mean that a lot less peeps have been murdered by 16 to 22 year olds in the entire second half of the twentieth century than from 1938 to 1945 or between 1914 and 1918. (Ah, those pesky world wars, eh? How those of the “good old days” persuasion hate to be reminded of those.) No, while there are occasional hiccups, crime is receding on the whole. According to the US Bureau of Justice, for example, violent crime in the United States has almost halved between 1973 and 2000, with aggravated assault decreasing by 30% and murder by 75%. As much as we are galled to admit it, most things are actually getting better. Just not for us.
But be that as it may for society on the whole, personally I am exactly one of those bad apples the old are always going on about. Rotted to the core. Well, I wasn’t your mean, average street thug. I leave opportunity theft, mugging, bag-snatching, and shoplifting to the rabble. I take pride in my work. Picking pockets is a dying art, and for over a year I had been doing by best to preserve it. (Of course I did spend half of that doing time in a young offenders institution. Ought to put a dampener on that pride, huh?)
ATMs are to the thief and his mark what the water hole is to the lion and the gazelle. And not only do they allow you to find peeps who are definitely loaded, but if you keep your eyes peeled you get to see right where they keep it, too. One danger are of course the cams. But since all ATMs have those, in a way even that is useful. You don’t have to wonder if there are any, just figure out where they are and how to keep out of their sight.
Unfortunately in Painswick, the church-girls informed me, the local branch of Lloyds had closed up shop two years before. The last means of accessing cash was the local post office, a few hundred feet up the road from the church. Well, I don’t like to steal in close quarters, for the same reason that I don’t like to shoplift. Bad escape routes. So I loitered at the entrance, smoking my bummed fag, taking my time checking out the picture postcards on the spinning rack, and kept an eye on the customers at the counter inside.
When picking a mark the most important thing to be on the look out for is of course the ease of access to the money: Open handbags are my perennial favourites. Second easiest are back pockets. If you are thinking ‘but I would notice my wallet getting pulled out past my bum cheek’, well, trust me, I’m a professional. Nine times out of ten you wouldn’t, at least not in a crowded place where peeps are bumping into you all the time, and especially not if the thief replaces the wallet with, say, a piece of folded cardboard. Give us some credit, most of us know what we’re doing.
Inside pockets are a bit trickier, but still easy enough. It’s just a question of distraction. Even zipped up or tightly buttoned inside pockets or pouches worn under your clothing can be gotten to, but I’ll admit, they are hardly worth the time, planning, effort and skill required to get to.
The mark I settled on that day was a batty old lady. I know, I know, but sometimes you have to be a traditionalist. Live the cliché. I could have shaken down the mum with the two bratty kids instead, or the emo twink with the wallet on one of those ridiculous long chains. It would have been a pleasure to fleece the tall, well-dressed businessman, but he walked past too quickly and ducked back into his Rover before I had a chance to draw him out. What? I’m not Robin bloody Hood, okay?
She not only had one of those oversized handbags that just beg to be picked, she kept it constantly conveniently open because she was forever reaching inside to feed broken bits of dog biscuit to a fat and sneezing decrepit yappy type dog that looked a bit like a flecked, furry sausage. I cannot stand peeps with fat, pampered dogs.
I intercepted her on her way out of the door and asked for directions to the Painswick Beacon, a local lookout hill I had discovered on the postcards, and that apparently had a famous view of the Severn Valley. I also indicated an interest in the town history and the age and health of her oh-so-cute doggy. That kept her talking for ages.
I learned that the church precedes the Norman conquest and that on its walls you can still see the scars left by the bullets and canon balls of the Civil War. The yew crowded churchyard has been called “the grandest in England” by someone I had never heard of. New Street (along which both the church and the post office lay) was about thirty years older than Shakespeare – even though she believed that the plays of Shakespeare had in reality been written by the Earl of Oxford – and the post office was housed in the oldest building any post office in England was currently housed in. Her dog was called Prince, a pure-breed tri-colour Pembroke Welsh Corgi, exactly like those the Queen prefers and owns 16 of. Prince was 11 years old, suffered from arthritis and cataracts, but is such a dear. And while I patted the dog and pretended to be interested in all that bollocks, I helped myself to her purse. Turned out she had just withdrawn 500 pound sterling.
God, sometimes I can be a real cunt.
Eventually she let me go, not without telling me what a fine and likeable young man I was, and that she wished more boys of my generation were so polite, respectful, and interested in the past. I gave her my best son-in-law smile and watched her and Prince waddle away.
Then I went back inside, got a postcard and scribbled on it: “All is well. Taking some time off. Tell Gudrun not to worry. All the best, Rikki.” Gudrun is my mum. I addressed the card to my aunt, had it franked and posted, and paid. This was going to be the last my family would hear from me for half a year. After that I got the hell out of Painswick.
On the way out of the village I stopped at the local minimarket for some grub and fags. I carried it to the top of the Beacon where I sat down to tuck in. Even if the old lady had by then noticed what I had done, even if she had added one and one and fingered me for the perp, even if she remembered me asking about the Beacon, I doubted that she would get a lynch mob together in time to catch me. Painswick didn’t look large enough for their own constable, and I didn’t see a patrol car rushing out here at top speed from Stroud or Gloucester or Cheltenham, just on her word that the thief, while taking her money, had told her he would late enjoy the local scenery from up here.
So I did just that – I enjoyed the scenery. I leaned my back against the triangulation stele that stands proudly and lonely on the treeless, grassy hilltop. Tired from a long day’s walking, sated from the bread, cheese, apples, and water, I was happy to just sit there and smoke a couple of fags, and look out across the land, the surrounding hills and valleys, the golf course to the south and the woods to the north and Gloucester spread out beyond. Across all of it the shadows joined hands and the sinking sun lightly kissed the crowns of the trees good-night. A pale orange haze of cirrus smeared across the sky signalled the end of the sunny weather, but for now it held.
When a group of chatty elders came up the path and I cleared out. On my way down the hill I really felt my aching legs, and back, and feet. Even taking the one or other shortcut from the scenic route I must have walked a good 40 km that day. It was easily the farthest I had ever walked in one day up to then.
I reached Birdlip, some 10 km outside Cheltenham. I simply couldn’t go on any more and still had avoided all thoughts about how I would spend the night. I was standing at the side of the B4070, too tired to look for some bush to curl up beneath, when a tiny yellow Alpha Romeo sports car that must have been at least as old as I, stopped and a long haired, bearded blond giant with hardly enough room to manoeuvre inside leaned out the window and asked me if I wanted a lift to Cheltenham. He took me to the local YMCA, where I got a bed in the dorm. I barely managed to kick off my trainers and must have been asleep before my head hit the pillow.

The Cotswolds, the hills between Bristol and Oxford that run along the southern bank of the River Severn, are what always comes to my mind when someone talks about the green and pleasant fields of England. I mean, just listen to the names: Nibley Knoll, Old Sodbury, Stow-on-the-Wold, Sheepscomb, or Toddington. Rolling green hills, rich woodland, and sheep pastures, separated by country roads, hedgerows and low dry stone walls. The villages rows of ancient grey houses. And when you look close at those grey stones, you find thousands of tiny, calcified sea creatures embedded in them.
This is pastoral England at its best, this is every James Ivory film you have ever seen, Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day all rolled into one. A homely beauty, a scenery so content with itself it borders on smugness. Every hedge, every wooded knoll, and every burbling stream sees itself and knows that it is good.
The weather was the perfect collaborator. Warm and dry, just the way a summer day is supposed to be. The crisp, almost crackling brightness of the morning framed everything in a cloudless azure sky. The saturating noon glow flowed across the land through the canopies of old trees, splattering the dry, mossy ground with flecks of gold. And in the afternoon the red, warm sunbeams danced with the lengthening shadows amidst motes of dust and butterflies drunken with life. Everything was perfect.
I followed the path along the escarpment past North Nibley, Dursely, and Stonehouse to Painswick. I was high on my own daring and content to let my feet take all responsibility. The Walk was busy with hikers and bikers, British and foreign, but never crowded. Peeps were amiable, respectfully greeting and nodding as they passed each other, walking briskly but unhurried. Evil was unimaginable.
When I walked across the foot bridge over Ebley Road between Cainscross and Stonehouse I thought, if I had staid on the bus I would have ridden past this very spot around 10 am. And again, for a brief moment, normality beckoned. I toyed with the idea of walking into Stonehouse and taking the train to Swindon, of getting back on track with a five hour lag. But just considering all that would entail made my brain ache. I would need to get my stuff back, somehow, identification, money, tickets. I’d never catch the boat. I’d have to call Berlin and explain myself. I’d have to listen to the same old complaints, or even worse, the lack of them and everything that was implied in that tired, disappointed silence. No matter how aching my legs, no matter how many blisters on my feet, or how much the hunger was gnawing on my insides, walking on seemed just infinitely easier.
And I wouldn’t be missed for a while yet. By the time I was thinking about all this I should have been in London, according to plan, making my transfer from Paddington to St. Pancras, where the train to Ramsgate would leave soon. Shortly past six, when the ferry had cast off, I would be expected to call my aunt. If I didn’t she’d try to reach me. The phone, wherever it was then, would start ringing. But I was betting it would be in some depot, wherever lost and found stuff from the busses is stored. After six there’d probably be nobody around, at least not in time to pick up before the voice mail cut in. And my aunt wouldn’t worry, you know how it is with mobile reception on journeys.
No, the shit wouldn’t hit the fan before 10 or 11 pm the next day, when my mum would return from work and find no sign of me having arrived. I’d still not answer my phone, of course. ‘Nessa, my sister, would confirm that she hadn’t seen my ugly face all day. Then the calls would start. My aunt would quiz Jane and Alice, who would repeat that they had put me on the bus. There would be anxious waiting, tears, calls to the offices of Transeuropa Ferries. Maybe they would track down the bus driver, maybe he would remember me, how I had gotten off. Maybe they would find my backpack and jacket. Eventually they would call the police. And that would inform the relevant authorities that I had broken parole, and that whole machinery would be put into gear as well.
When I said that nobody had expected any of this, maybe that wasn’t entirely true. You see, of course everybody had been expecting me to screw up sooner or later, ever since leaving juvie not quite half a year earlier, and probably for years before I ever was sent there. Probably as far back as the week before my 12th birthday. And I sure have screwed up often enough. So perhaps this was just one more step on a much longer road. It was just this particular twist that nobody had foreseen.
All that aren’t just idle musings, at least not for me. Especially considering what it all lead to. Do you believe in predestination? In providence? In Fate? You see, I do. I really do. And I suppose I did back then, even though I would never in a million years have admitted that. But looking back, maybe that was what I trying to run from. Well, I was trying to run from something, at least. Maybe when I’ve had my say you can tell me what that was.
One or two hours after I crossed Ebley Road I found myself at the bus stop on New Street in Painswick, in front a pretty curious churchyard. It was filled with dense, dark green yew trees that had been neatly clipped into the shapes of eggs. Rising above them was a massive square tower with an extremely steep spire with ambitions to be an obelisk rather than a belfry. I don’t know why, but the location had me half expect a white rabbit in a waistcoat hurrying past, checking its fob watch and muttering to itself.
Everything was drenched in cooling shadows and waning brightness, suffused with drowsy, residual summer heat. My chaffed lips tasted of dust and straw and my skin was glowing red with the absorbed sunlight of a long day. (I don’t tan well, usually I go from freckled pale directly to boiled lobster.) A bus had just drawn up at the stop. Some peeps got off, others got on. The driver eyed me inquiringly. I smiled at him and shook my head. He nodded, the doors closed, and the bus swung away, entering the stream of traffic again that keeps everything connected all the time.
Three girls about my age came out of the church. One of them lit a fag. I bummed her for one and asked about the nearest ATM.

Continued here

Take a breath, take a step, meet me down below
Everyone’s the same
Our fingers to our toes
We just can’t get it right
But we’re on the road
– OneRepublic: All Fall Down (2007)

How can I explain to you why I’d let some bug-fuck crazy cunt shoot bloody big holes into my body? What fucked up path had lead me to a point where I schemed to get her to riddle me with bullets? Where I plotted to have little 8 gram bits of lead rip chunks of flesh from my limbs, tear open my veins and arteries, break my bones with the force of 500 joules, and paint red the raw concrete walls of a back staircase in a dinghy Greek guesthouse? I kinda wondered so myself on that Wednesday evening in the October of 2009, while I was, you know, lying on the cold steps of that staircase, no longer able to breathe, my chest nothing but a spread of hurt: Where had the road begun that like a sentence running into an ellipsis ended in these three sharp reports not 200 meters from the lapping waves of the Aegean Sea?
I suppose the deceptively easiest answer would be that this road began at the front door of my aunt’s house in Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, England. I stepped on it when I left there shortly before 9 o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, 29 July 2008. I had been 15 years, 157 days, and a little over 16 hours old, and everybody, including myself, expected me to return more or less straight away to my mum’s flat in Berlin, Germany. That morning nobody had any idea that it would be almost half a year before my mum saw me again, and that by then things had progressed way beyond the point where I was still in control of my fate.
That morning my cousins Jane and Alice accompanied me to the bus stop. My own private farewell committee. I had spent two lovely weeks at my aunt’s, the first time in three years. The last time before had been during my twelfth’s summer. When the time had been up back then I had cried and they had let me stay until school started again. But the era of tears was past now, their well long dried up. So I had to leave, however miserable I felt about it.
I have always been close to my aunt and my cousins, especially to Alice. Alice is one of those people that know how to be bad and look good at the same time. That summer I had asked her how she did that. We had been sitting on a fallen tree by the side of the pond under Wimley Hill, sharing a fag and squelching our naked toes in the mud. Alice had taken a long drag, elbows resting on her knees, and given it some thought.
Finally she said: “Maybe ‘cuz I make peeps think I see them how they want to see themselves? You know, once they swallowed that, they don’t dare to scratch on my façade either. So not to rock the boat they are sitting in.”
Maybe that’s it, I thought. I never learned how to do that – for all my lying, I can never make peeps think I see them for anything but what they are.
Alice looked up at me through her fringe, ginger like everybody’s in our family, with her inscrutable amber eyes. And then she did that thing where she lets her face slowly split from side to side by a maniac grin. The smoke curled out of her mouth and nose and she crossed her eyes trying to watch it get caught in her hair. And with a gravelly voice she said: “Course it helps that I’m cute as a button.”
God, do I ever miss her. Kahretsin.
Anyway, that morning, Alice and her sister Jane delivered me to the 9 o’clock to Stroud. We exchanged hugs and kisses and promises to mail and skype and all that, before I hoisted myself up the steep and narrow steps and found a seat by the window. I stuffed my backpack and jacket into the net above, popped the earphones of the mp3 in and settled down for the 30 minute ride to Cainscross. Jane and I exchanged a last wave. Alice was already drifting across the street.
As always the mp3 was set to random play. Snow Patrol struck up as the bus pulled away past the war memorial and St. Mary’s. “Light up,” Garry was singing, Mark and Jonny plodding heavily through the bleak rhythm. “Light up. As if you have a choice.”
The sky was clear, tinted emerald by the bus’s windows. The last of the grey stone houses rolled by. To the right the landscape opened up towards the valley and Blackquarrie’s Hill on the far side. To the left black and white cows dotted the green grass slope that reached into the sky past the window frame, all the way to the edge that had given this place its name.
“Even if you cannot hear my voice I’ll be right beside you, dear.” Gary sang on, cheerful hopelessness dripping from his voice. “I can hardly speak. I understand why you can’t raise your voice…”
For two weeks I had succeeded in staying mostly in the here and now. I had left Berlin in Berlin, and had been happy with that. But now I found myself helplessly watching my mind rush out ahead, back, back towards the life I had left there. I tried to cling to England, to soak it up, breathe it in, but I was failing fast.
The meadow of Coombe Hill to my left and up ahead became the sickly green interior wall paint of Plötzensee juvie hall, the lynchets running across it bars in front of the windows. That’s the past, I tried to tell myself. Look to the future. The rest of the summer, the coming school year, and the next and the next, they all loomed ahead. Family and friends, teachers, enemies, everything.
“Slower, slower. We don’t have time for that. All I want is to find an easier way to get out of our little heads.”
Have you ever had a panic attack? When all the heaviness and doubts and fear of your life become this fist closing around your chest, squeezing the air out of you? Your heart begins to flutter and race and skipping its beat like a miner’s bird suddenly aware that there is no exit, no light, no other purpose to its existence but eventually snuffing it.
Everything closed in on me, the aisle of the bus a long tube, stretching, and tightening, and finally tipping over, becoming a well with green balefire glowing hellishly at the bottom, and I was falling into it.
I clawed at the neck of my T-Shirt and tried to calm my breath, but all I did was make it worse. Then I couldn’t stand it any more. I rolled out of the seat, half crawled and half ran forward, bumping into seats and elbows, gripping backrests and shoulders for support. The driver said something, sharply, probably telling me to sit down or so but nothing reached me through the music and the panic. I stammered confused, jumbled pleas to let me out, nonsensical explanations about something forgotten, something left behind. I was about to scream at him when the good man – amidst sighing and eye rolling – brought the wheezing wale of a bus to a stop.
Doors opened with a hiss. I stumbled off. Doors closed again. The leviathan shook itself to life and roared off, leaving me beached at the side of the B4058. Alive. Breathing the air of a free man. It was not even seven minutes past nine. On the mp3 Snow Patrol’s “Run” gave way to Sixx AM’s “Van Nuys”. Life would never be the same again.
I had gotten off next to the tennis courts between Valley and Holywell Road, just outside the old town. Jane and Alice wouldn’t even have made it back to my aunt’s by then. I had no idea where to go, no plan what to do. I only knew that I couldn’t go back.
Perhaps guided by a craving for open spaces I decided to walk up to Wotton Hill and sit under the beech trees there, try to see the Canal, and think about it. I walked back to where Adey’s Lane starts up the hill when I suddenly realized that I had left everything on the bus: The backpack, clothes, the lunch my aunt had packed for me, the book I had borrowed from Jane, my mobile phone, the tickets, the wallet, money, passport, everything. Even my jacket. All I had left was the clothes I was wearing, the moss green Firestarter T-shirt my mum disliked so much, blue jeans, and the canvas trainers in that vivid shade of rosso corsa that I liked so much; that and the mp3 player.
Two kids, younger than me, were coming my way on the other side of the street. I called out to them.
“Hey!”
They looked over to me.
“Can you catch?” I asked.
No reaction except for mild bewilderment. I decided to take their Brooklyn street-wear attire as cause for optimism, and wrapped the earphones tightly around the player.
“Here!” I called and tossed it in a high trajectory across the street. One of them caught it.
“Cheers,” I called and walked on past them.
“Hey, uh. Thanks, man!” One of them shouted after me. I grinned.
The last bit of the lane leads pretty steeply uphill through a narrow strip of chestnut and beech trees. At the top I turned left onto Old London Road. The sun was in my face, and I didn’t notice the sign post until I almost walked into it. It pointed to my right where the Cotswold Way – a national trail leading through most of Gloucestershire from Bath to Chipping Campden – goes into Westridge Woods. At the edge of the woods a fox stood in the shadow of a hawthorn bush. It looked at me attentively for a moment, then it turned around and disappeared in the brambles.
I scrapped my plan to sit on Wotton Hill. I would walk the Walk instead, and see where it would lead me, and what would happen.
When I reached the first trees of Westridge Woods I began shaking, badly. I began to stumble, had to put my hands on my shaking knees, reach out for a tree for support. It was a crippled old oak, gnarly and half dead. I was afraid I would pass out. But I didn’t fall, didn’t have to sit down.
It wasn’t another panic attack, you see, quite the contrary. Was I afraid? You bet I was. Was I excited? Definitely. But more than anything, all of a sudden, I was relieved. The wave of relief flooding me was so strong, so palpable, filled me so completely, it was almost like a seizure. I was really going. By God, I was. Right here and now.
For one moment the fear resurfaced, a corpse buoyed by gas rolling over in the water, beckoning me with a rotted arm. For one moment I thought about going back. But the moment passed, the corpse sank again below the surface. I was still shaking, but I could get up again, stumbled forward. I walked on into the woods. And after a few hundred meters the hiking did its magic: My body got into the rhythm, step, breath, step, breath, and the mind followed along.
Continued here