Archive for the ‘friends’ Category

Conall’s family lived in one of those long, whitewashed stone-built cottages, with small awning windows along the front and back and none in the narrow side walls that peak in a chimney. It was set a little back from the road, on a rise yellow with high, flowering gorse. The Defender roared as Conall raced it up that last bit before killing the engine in a choked stutter. When I stepped out, the coconut smell of the gorse washed over me. The sea, on the other side of the road, was dark, and quiet.

Conall took me inside. Everything was crowded with boots and coats and people. The air was steamy with the smell of boiling cabbage, and wet dog, and many conversations being carried on at once. In the living room a table was being set while a boy and a girl were hastily finishing homework. Three older men in work clothes were discussing something in Gaelic in the hall next to the front door. In the kitchen a matronly woman, her long hair streaked with silver, was directing more young people to cut bread and fill jugs. Lamps were spaced haphazardly, so that some areas were gloomy and others brightly lit, increasing the sense of buzzing chaos.

Conall shouted over the din to several people that I was “Danny” and that I would stay for tea. Several people nodded to me. The boy at the table, who was maybe a year or two younger than me, and who had dark, curly hair, bright eyes, and a chipped tooth, looked up from his homework and asked something in Gaelic. Conall laughed and answered back. I understood that he made it clear that my name was “Daniel”, not “Dana.”

Then he said to me “Masel buist fault tae yowes” and left again. I had no idea what that had meant. A young woman, maybe three or four years older than me, greeted me. Her English had the same beautiful Scottish sing-song, and the dry, harsh “r”s, but was a lot more intelligible than most of her family.

“Hi Danny. A’m Iona. Pleased tae meet ye. Tae’s awmost ready. D’ye want tae wash oop?”

And she showed me a tiny bathroom next to the kitchen. It had just about space for one deep, chipped enamel sink, and a loo with a rickety, wooden seat, and two feet, and it smelled very strongly of soap.

I closed the door, and breathed deeply. I washed my face and my hands rather thoroughly, and combed wet fingers through my shaggy and by now shoulder long hair. I looked down on myself: I was wearing my patched fatigue trousers, and – under an old black leather motorcycle jacket – a black T with bold, mustard yellow letters inviting everyone to “Guess where I’m pierced”. I had appropriated the T from an Australian backpacker on Skye. At the time I had thought it was pretty funny, but now I felt decidedly uncomfortable in it. But I couldn’t very well keep the jacket, that I had taken along when I’d left the sleeping Ruth, buttoned up to hide it, could I?

So, when I came out again and Iona took my jacket to hang it on a hook in the hall that had already two or three other pieces of garment hanging from it, the boy at the table nudged the girl and pointed out the words on my chest. Both giggled.

Iona said something to them in Gaelic, rather sharply, and they began gathering up their pens and papers. People filed into the room and sat down on chairs.

“Hey! Ta’ss ma sait!” the boy shouted when someone else wanted to sit on the chair he had been on before.

“Awricht, awricht, Sim. Dinna tak a sparey. Whit’s wi aw yir gibbles on ma ane cheer?”

“Chust sit on Conall’s fer noo!”

Sim – that’s pronounced shim – cleaned up his mess, and by the time he was done, everybody had taken their seat and  the only one that remained for me was the one next to him, from which he just then removed his book and papers.

I was officially introduced to Mr. and Mrs. MacLeod – he was one of the three men from the hall, a broad-shouldered, big-handed man with closely cropped, steel grey hair, and a dashing scar on the right side of his face; she was the woman the kitchen with the silver in her hair, and eyes surrounded by a nest of crow’s feet.

When Mr. MacLeod shook my hand across the table, he greeted me, but left my name hanging, expecting me to complete it: “Daniel…?”

“Balnchard, Sir. Daniel Blanchard.”

Gerald Daniel Blanchard is a Canadian master thief, who burgled amongst other places an Austrian castle in 1998, and who had finally been caught in 2007. I had followed his process with fascination and awe.

“Thank you for sharing your supper with me,” I added. “It was very kind of Conall to invite me.”

Mr. MacLeod seemed pleased, and for the rest of the meal, I was mostly left alone. Soon enough the necessary information transfer that always occurs when a large family sits down together took up everybody’s attention. And when Conall came back, he had to explain about the cut on his face – he had gotten plastered and fallen in to a barbed wire fence – and then about the sheep, or yowes, he had bought.

Only Sim kept quietly bugging me.

“Whaur ye frae, mo caritsh?”

“Canada.”

“Uss’at sae? Whaurawa frae tare?”

“Winnipeg.”

“Och, aye? Nae frae Quebec?”

“No.”

“Bit Blanchard uss a French naem, nae?”

“Yes, but people have French names outside of Quebec as well.”

“Yer accent ussna Canadian, uss’t?”

“My mum is from Austria.”

“Hou auld ar ye?”

“Sixteen.”

“Awricht? Ye leuk yunger. Masel uss fourteen!”

That last bit he said with all the pride of someone who only earned that distinction very recently.

“Sae, whit ar ye daeing in bonnie auld Alba?” He grimaced and thre a quick look at his dad, before he added: “In Scotland A meant.”

“Just travelling.”

“Aw by yersel?”

“My rents are back on Skye. Your brother Conall picked me up hitchhiking.”

And so on.

While Sim kept up this constant Q&A, I tried to figure out the peeps at the table and their relationships. Mr. MacLeod was a right patriarch, he kept the pose of the unmoved mover at the head of the table – and even though the table was round, it was very obvious that the head was wherever he sat. The others seemed to regard him with a mix of fear and respect. Most of the other were his children, and their general management was apparently left to Mrs. MacLeod. There were two daughters and three sons present, though I gathered that a few more had already left the house. One girl was a friend of Iona, and one boy a mate of seventeen year old Boyd. One of the older men from the hall had left when supper had started, but the other was a friend and neighbour, and I got the impression that he and Mr. MacLeod were working on some project or deal together, but could not pick up any details.

Eventually tea was over. I offered to help with the dishes, but Ceana, the youngest, and the one who had been doing homework together with Sim when I’d arrived, wanted me to help her with her chores, namely feeding the horses and rabbits. Sim, who would have had to go also, asked if I could fill in for him, so he could help Conall with something (a lot of technical farming terms were used, in Scots or even Gaelic, too boot, and it all went right by me.)

Ceana showed me their four horses and the rabbits they kept in boxes behind the house. From her I learned that her family were crofters, people who kept a small farm next to a main job. Her father captained a whale-watching boat from Port Maree and her mother did some administrative work for the Highland Council. But they also raised quail, held sheep, offered hiking tours in summer, and hunting tours in autumn. And they had two hunting cottages to rent to tourists.

It my be girlish, but I really like horses. When I had been younger and begun getting into trouble, this one counsellor got me a place in a stable in the Southwest  of Berlin. I was told that it was a job, taking care of the animals. I only learned later that in fact my mum had to pay for it, and that it was therapy. I still bristled at the memory of the deception, but I really enjoyed spending some time with the horses. And when Ceana noticed that I got along with them, and knew what to do, she warmed to me. That was how I found out that Sim had put her up to getting me out of the house.

When I got back, Conall told me that I would stay in his and Sim’s room for the night. He would sleep in the room of another sibling who wasn’t there that night. It seemed a bit complicated but I went along. From the pitying looks I received from Mrs. MacLeod and Iona I understood that Conall had relayed my tale of woe.

Sim showed me to the room and gave me some washed out PJs from one of his older brothers. I had expected him to take up his interrogation again, but he hurried away and left me to my own devices. I was fine with that, and sank into the thick covers. I had had more to eat than in a long wile, and since I had begun the day early and with some serious walking on Skye before getting that ill-fated lift, I was quickly asleep.

Not much later, Sim shook me awake.

“Wheesht” he hissed, signalled me to be quiet, and handed me my jacket.

“Pit on yet claes!”

“What?”

“Yer claes.” He also tossed my trousers and T onto the bed. “Coorie oop!”

“Why?” I asked, but instinct had me obeying already.

“Akis ye coud fuil ma glaikit brusser wi yer yairn, bit nae ma paw, ye bawheid. An me naisser. Tsat T-shert o’ yers, nae lad what’s feart o’ his paw wat pe caucht deid in it. And oniewey, A ken what Gerlad Blanchard uss. So A ken yer nae what ye said ye ar. Bit ma paw onlie suspects, sae he’s callin’ t’ polis in An Gjerestan reit noo! Tsat’s hou ye want uptail tis bluidy seicont!”

He opened the dormer window and looked out.

“Kin ye sclim o’er tae t’ ruif and…”

But I was already at his side, then up on the window sill, and pulling myself onto the eave line and the dormer roof.

I looked down from there and said: “Thank you, Sim!”

That was the first time, I used his name.

He smiled up at me: “Isheh do veha, Dana.”

That was, what he would call me from then on forth.

There was a noise on the landing outside his room. I froze. He ducked inside but after a second he had his head back outside.

“Fause alairm. Hey, haud on fer a sec. Masel uss richt back.”

He disappeared and I heard him hurry out of the room. I considered scarpering anyway, but while I was still checking out the best – and that meant quietest – way down from the roof, he was already back.

“Here, tak tsir.” He held up a ring with two keys. “Tay’re fer ane o’ oor deer stalkin’ boossies.” And he explained to me how to get there.

“It’s toom richt noo,” and at my confused look: “Empty. Nae occupied. Ye kin scug tare. A’ll come by t’ morn and bring ye sum scran… sum food.”

“Okay.”

I wanted to turn away, but he whispered: “A kin onlie come efter schuil us soot. Ye promise ye’ll be tare, Dana?”

He looked zp at me, his face pale in the darkness.

I promised. He nodded and ducked back inside. I crawled across the roof to the windowless side wall and down the downspout, and disappeared in the night.

Continued here

In Edinburgh I finally returned to my webspace. What, you thought I learned to write such stunning prose in school? Nah, I had a nice space on Yahoo, the old 360 that they eventually got rid of, where I had virtual friends, and where I could write the stuff nobody in my real life could give a flying fuck about. In fact, a lot of what I’m telling you here originally appeared on Y360 and – after that was gone – on multiply.
I had established my online presence in early ’07, mostly putting up Neil Gaiman quotes, taking the piss in other bloke’s comments, and chatting with dirty old men.
Some of those friendships actually endured.
There was JD, an Asian-Australian Christian, who began by wanting pics of my butt in undies, but ended chatting with me about religion and literature. There was “Uncle Ed”, the obese, insecure shoe salesman from New Jersey, who in all seriousness tried to get me to mend my wicked ways while audibly drooling whenever he asked me about my sins. There was Jim, the seventy year old ex military intelligence chap who lived in a little cabin in the wilderness of Michigan, tended his vegetable patch, and couldn’t for the life of him admit that he was into young blokes. He, too, wanted me to repent, but when I wouldn’t, he was quite content just to talk about people, politics, and philosophy instead. And there was Matt, the black father of two teenage daughters, who dreamed of having a white boy as his slave. We sort of got into a father-son sex role-play that over time got to be less and less about sex and more and more about being father and son.
Not all of them were naughty, mind you. Shawn, for example, a queer HIV+ ex-amphetamine-junkie from Philadelphia, and writer, director, and producer of small but increasingly successful Off-Off-Broadway plays, made it abundantly clear that he wouldn’t talk with me about anything sexual until at least my 18th birthday. We began chatting when I was 14, so if that had been his aim, he certainly was in it for the long haul. No, he was perfectly happy to just be a pen pal, follow my blog as I was following his, comment, listen, advise, and chat.
Or Bo, the unemployed teacher and writer of a sport celebrity biography and a historical novel, who claimed to be 100% straight (but who had a curious tickling fetish and a penchant to befriend teens on the web), and really never bothered me about wanting to cam or anything of the sort, but was just interested in talking about life, the universe, and everything.
I hadn’t blogged or chatted with anyone for over a month when I went back online from the ESCape Internet Café on London Road in the New Town of Edinburgh on August 13, four days after I had left Leeds. My online friends were suitably impressed about my daring, or dutifully admonished me to be sensible and return to my mum, though I suspect most of them didn’t believe a word of what I told them. Only Jim actually figured out a way to follow my IP addresses and reluctantly decided to trust me on the rest of what I blogged. He also became an increasing pain in the arse about me stopping this nonsense.
The other thing I returned to in Edinburgh was regular training. When I had been nine years old it had become apparent that my regular and unacceptably violent fights were part of a pattern. I was sent to a kiddie shrink and to Ergotherapy – and to an Aikido Dojo. Once I started doing Aikido my fights really did seem to abate. Of course, then my dad up and left, and two years later after a fashion so did ‘Nette. That was when things became really bad, rozzers and all.
But ever since then I had trained martial arts almost religiously. I always liked how it complemented football. Football was about interacting with the external world, about strategy, and friendship, and fighting the enemy. Martial Arts was about the internal enemy, about discipline.
Some people have raised eyebrows and commented that it was a really stupid idea to teach a troubled, violent kid how to dish out hurt more efficiently. But I am certain, if it hadn’t been for Aikido and for my sensei, I probably would have become a killer a long time ago. It really helps, you know.
Anyway, a while ago my sensei had kicked me out of the Dojo for dishonourable behaviour. But I continued to train on my own, mostly up on the roof above Berlin. I even did while I was locked up in juvie. It helped calm my nerves. But when I got back out, I stopped. The internal enemy had won anyway, hadn’t he? What was the point of continuing to fight a lost battle?
In Edinburgh I returned to training. I went for regular runs in Holyrood Park. Those two weeks I spent in Edinburgh it was raining almost constantly. Seriously. Even by British standards it must have been the wettest August in ages. Once it got so bad the sewers backed up all the way into the flat where I was crashing. I woke to screams of disgust and the stink of sewage soaking into the carpets.
I learned to love running up and down Arthur’s Seat in the pouring rain. The sweat and rain and mud all would become one and my self would almost dissolved in all the grey, brown, and green.
Mostly I ran so I wouldn’t lie awake on the couch, chasing sleep that just eluded me. There was too much I didn’t want to think about as I lay there and stared up at the ceiling. To avoid that my choices were either exhausting myself to the point of collapsing into comatose sleep, or drinking myself into a stupor. On some nights I resorted to the latter, but even I knew I felt much better the next day when I did the former.
Of course, after a week of this Charley introduced me to Ponyboy. I continued training, but after that I had other things to distract me during the nights.

Continued here

I might have bettered my lot by blabbing about the harassment. One reason not to might have been The Code. You know the one: Deal with it yourself and don’t run crying to the grown-ups. Is it a stupid code? Of course it is. Is that any help in breaking it? Not much. I happen to believe in that code. Also, do I think peeps would have believed me? Certainly, there were the vids and it probably would have been possible to scrounge up some witnesses, though one never knows with these things. Smarter men than me have noted that the truth is a whore, willing to go to bed with whoever pays her best. And the real question probably rather was, who did I think the relevant peeps – teachers, principle, rents, etc. – would have wanted to believe? Me, or tall, good-looking, well-dressed, well-spoken, promising Samuel Richter? But be that as it may. None of it was the real reason to keep my trap shut anyway.
The real reason was that I would have had to tell them about it. Tell them about the piss and the cat litter. I would have had to show them the vids, those beautiful, shaky-yet-spot-on captures of the redness in my face, the glistening in my eyes, of me trying to blink it all away. And it wouldn’t have been just once, to one teacher. I would have had to tell all of them, over and over again. And I would have had to tell them the reason for it all. I would have to tell them about Tim, about the kiss. I mean, come on. You didn’t really think I would do that, do you?
So I took the punishment in stride. And funnily, when I returned for the remainder of that school year, I discovered that I had become something of a celebrity. Turns out it’s okay to be queer as long as you prove your manliness by violence. Seriously, all you queer boys out there. If you are getting static at school, just go berserk. It might get you into all kinds of hot water with the grown-ups, but it’ll counter most of the homophobia from your mates. As for queer girls, you’re on your own. Butch behaviour isn’t going to earn you any points, I guess. But then, do you want to earn any? I couldn’t make myself like those kids anymore. I couldn’t forget what had happened. I couldn’t forgive.
The other consequence was that I finally had my official coming out in front of my mum. The fight had happened on the Friday before mother’s day, and she was not amused when I told her about the suspension.
My mum must have known I was queer. I mean, I knew ever since I was eight or so. Lukas found out one day when I was nine or ten. He asked me if I was queer, not because he had any reason to question my sexual orientation or anything, but just because it’s something kids say as an insult, meaning soft or wimpy or something of the sort. Too bad it had been mere minutes after I had been wanking to thoughts of my assistant football coach, and when Lukas asked me like that I took the question literally for a second. And the guilt and shame written all over my face was too obvious for him to miss.
He grabbed me by the t-shirt and slammed me against the wall.
“Don’t you ever tell anyone, not while you and I are still living under the same roof, you little shit,” he snarled, his nose almost touching mine. “Or I’ll have to break ever bloody bone in your body. Got that?”
Of course, that same rule of discretion didn’t count for him. He told ‘Nessa the same day. But ‘Nessa never gave a damn. She sometimes made snide remarks – and she didn’t care if mum heard those – when she was feeling mean, but you could tell it was just any damn thing that came to her mind she could use to cut me with. She certainly never minded me looking after little Nicky.
From time to time mum must have noticed how I reacted to some bloke on the telly. (Amına kodum, did I ever have the hots for Harvey Keitel in National Treasure. Wouldn’t have minded him slapping cuffs on me…) She must have noticed that there were never any straight porn mags in my room, not like she found in Lukas’s from time to time, but sometimes well-thumbed, dog-eared girly teen mags with pictures of male emo band singers. And at least one time, almost 2 years before all this, she caught me and Jonas making out on the living room couch. We let go of each other at once, of course, but, I mean, 2 flustered boys, red faces, wet mouths, mussed hair, clothes in disorder, sitting next to each other on a couch, looking up at you decidedly sheepishly, how can you not know what’s going on?
But she had never mentioned it, never commented upon it in the least way. No clumsily probing questions (that wouldn’t have been her style anyway), no quietly sarcastic, knowing remarks (that would have been more what I’d expected from her), not even some hasty channel changing on the telly if homosexuality came up as a topic, or when someone happened across some culture program about dance theatre or so. Nope, she displayed total ignorance, until I came home and had to tell her why I had been suspended from school for 2 weeks.
I mean, at first all I said was that I’d been in a fight, and normally that would have been that. But she was so hurt, hurt that I couldn’t pull myself together that once, that I’d made a mess of things already again, not a quarter year after having been released. I couldn’t stand her wounded, disappointed eyes on me. I mean, my mother has had reasons to be disappointed in me plenty of time, and neither of us really expected much else from each other. But that time, well, I suppose, I could understand the blow this gave her. I wanted her to know how much I had tried not to, how hard I had struggled with myself, what I had endured, before I couldn’t take it any longer.
So I told her. Told her what had happened. Told her I was queer.
She took it with a stony, tired face. She thought about it for a while. And then she asked me, still so tired, so weary: “Can’t you try not to be that way?”
And when I just stared at her, she continued, still too tired to display even any haste in explaining herself, as if it was a bother that she had to clarify this at all: “I know it’s not fair, but people will react that way to you when they know you are, well, homosexual, if we like it or not. And with all your other problems, do you really need this one, too?”
I was that close to asking her how being straight had worked out for her: Almost 50, dumped by her worthless toe-rag of a husband, with four kids, one of whom had gotten herself knocked up at 18, and her oldest apparently hell bent on doing the same to any one of his many flings before long. I didn’t. Maybe I wasn’t pissed off enough. Maybe because following that argument would have lead dangerously close to mentioning ‘Nette. And that was something I knew mustn’t be done. So I didn’t say anything. I just left.
After that, I was back in my old rut. I got into a fight at football and was kicked off a team I had been a member of since I had been six years old. Then I had a bad one with Leo. He forgave me, afterwards, but that fight was what lead to me being on my own that Friday night in early July, when I woke up not knowing where I was, or even, for a delicious few moments, who I was.

There was a clique of blokes two years above me, lead by swimming ace, wealthy lawyer’s son, and ditsy girl’s favourite Samuel Richter. Samuel had two lieutenants and a couple of sycophants, plus two or three female groupies, and at school you rarely saw him without his entourage.
He and I hadn’t really crossed paths before. I had only been aware of him because early on Tim had pointed out that Samuel was known to be the meanest bully in school, and I had decided to stay as far away from him as I could. Not because I was afraid of what he might do, but of what I might.
Wednesday I had to live through a lot of whispering, staring, and averted glances when I looked back. But on Thursday happenstance took me on my way from one classroom to another past Samuel’s posse. There was a lot of hushed giggling as I approached. Suddenly one of the girls stepped up to me and asked me loudly:
“Hey, um, I have something of a problem. Could you…?”
I looked at her, guarded, uncertain what this was about. The way the posse nudged and snickered I suspected it wouldn’t be anything I would find amusing.
“Well, you see, my period just started, and I forgot to bring a tampon.” Here the giggling from the group broke out into loud snorting and gwaffing, and the girl herself couldn’t bite her dumb grin away any longer. “Can’t you help me out with one… Patricia?”
I blushed – damn that blushing – and just walked on.
Things quickly got worse. Nobody threw tampons at me, there was no concerted effort to attack or anything. But the requests for make-up tips, the lewd winks and blown kisses didn’t stop. I gritted my teeth even though it was hard. It was so damn hard. But I did keep my temper bottled up. I doubt I could have done it for as long as I did without Uncle Valya, but well, I had Uncle Valya and our work together to look forward to, and that was what I concentrate on while I bit on the insides of my cheeks until I tasted the blood or clenched my fists hard enough to hear my knuckles pop.
Then, sometime next week, I found that during gym class someone had pissed onto my clothes. And a few days later someone used my same inability to have an eye on my stuff during gym to cram my backpack, books and everything, into the toilet, before pissing on it and flushing. One day I found a pile of dog crap on my bicycle seat after school, and another time someone poured what I think was soiled cat litter into my backpack.
(I kept all of this from my mum and from ‘Nessa, mostly because at the time I had more money than I knew what to do with from my work with Uncle Valya, and so I could relatively easy replace the stuff they ruined.)
I never caught anyone directly, but from the way there was always someone from Samuel’s posse around to watch and giggle when these things happened, it wasn’t hard to figure out who was behind it.
And then there were the vids. One morning in the second week of this, a small bevy of beauties stood tittering around a mobile phone, going into whisper mode as I approached. However instead of regarding me with the amusement or scorn I had come to expect, they did something far worse, they regarded me with pity.
I was about to skulk past them when one of them almost shyly tugged me on the arm.
“Patr…” For a second she stopped herself, horrified. I am certain, that she had almost called me Patricia to my face. Then she forced herself to go on: “..rick. I think you should, uh, see this.”
And she showed me her mobile. On the screen the boy’s locker room. My class, changing back into street wear after gym. I could see myself, alone, silent, untouchable, a ghost amongst boys. I could see myself undress and reach for my jeans, start to get in, hesitate. The camera man, whoever he was, zoomed in, not on the wet trousers, but on my face, caught the flashes of shock, rage, and humiliation, before I clamped down my visor of haughty street nonchalance.
“I’m sorry.” She said, and she even looked as if she really was. I mumbled a quick thanks. Later I palmed the mobile of some arsehole I was certain would also have this vid, which sure enough he had, and a few more, including one that showed the cat litter being poured into my backpack, and my reaction when I found it. Also some of me being cat called in the halls. Most were done by the same artist, the one with a penchant for capturing the humiliation in my eyes.
That day, on the way back to Kreuzberg, I threw the phone into the canal.
Only once Samuel stopped me in a hall directly. He looked at me, his face serious, slightly shaking his head, like a disappointed father, and said:
“If I found out I was a dirty faggot pig, well, I hope I’d have the strength of character to ask a vet to put me down. But then, I guess when you are, you are also too sissy for a clean solution like that.”
His mates slapped his shoulder for the good line and they all trundled off, joined in satisfaction about having stuck it to the queer kid.
Now, please do not think that everybody participated in this. The more public displays of homophobia usually earned the name-callers disapproving looks, especially from the more socially minded girls. And as far as teachers took any notice, they too were of course very much against bullying. Of course that only made things worse. This form of a disapproval was after all part of what the comedians where after.
And when I couldn’t hide the results of the cruder (if more anonymous) jokes, most witnesses were shocked and appalled. But I suppose I couldn’t deal with the support any better than with the attacks. For one, I hated those girls who thought they could make a political symbol out of me. It hadn’t worked when I was the ex-con from the bad side of town, and it worked even less when I was the boy with the sexual identity issues. Also with a lot – not all, mind you, but enough – of those displaying shock and disgust at the practical jokes I had my doubts. Faces were turned away too fast to hide anything but amusement. Voices raised in the name of justice were too smug, too certain, to sound anything but happy about this opportunity to polarize. There’s no better news than bad news, right? I was a spectacle, and if people were on one side of the argument, or the other, none of them were on mine. Well, I suppose, I wasn’t on anyone else’s either. So maybe it all worked out.
What little social contact I’d had dried up with Tim. Even positive attention solely turned around my role as pariah, and mostly served to make those willing to talk to me feel better about themselves. So I more or less stopped talking at all, and did what I always did when facing an unconquerable enemy. I withdrew into books.
Of course, this was only a big thing for me. Every day school stuff went on as usual, tests, sports, school yard romances. Even for Samuel’s posse, this was just one amongst many amusements. There was other kids to torment (under other pretexts), girls to impress, teachers to toady to. This was just one small part of life. Only for me, for me it meant the end of my attempt to fit in and get along.
I was sitting by myself on a boulder in a corner of the school grounds more or less hidden from the main yard, reading Douglas Hofstaetter’s excellent Escher Gödel Bach, when Florian found me. Florian Maxim was one of Samuel’s chief lieutenants and one of the creative brains behind the campaign. If I’d have to finger anyone as the video artist, I’d have named him. Of course I had no direct proof, but he always struck me as a man who understood real pain. He grabbed the book from my hands and tossed it to one of his mates. They started throwing from one to the other, glancing at me from the corners of their eyes, expecting me to chase after it like a nervous squirrel with a bladder problem. I just leaned back and enjoyed their skilful passes. The blood in my mouth was soothing.
Florian turned the book around to read the title and overjoyed he called out: “Hey, Samuel, guess what, Patricia is reading about Dödles.” (Dödle is a silly kid’s word for penis, and it rhymes with Gödel, the mathematician mentioned in the book’s title. I know. Haw-haw.) They amused themselves a while making Dödle cracks, but I was more concerned with checking out how deep my fingernails would go into my palms to pay them much attention. Eventually Samuel got bored with the whole game.
Two days before I had made a pretty bad mistake. A girl had asked me how could I put up with all of it when she saw that somebody had written “I take it up the rear” on my hoodie with indelible magic marker. I tried to appear nonchalant and quoted a German proverb: What does the oak tree care when the boar rubs against it. It’s a good sentiment, even though like most sayings there is something of a lie hidden inside. Like the one about the sticks and stones. It would be nice, but it just is not so. Anyway, I said it while Florian was in the room, and he must have heard it and reported it to his leader.
So when Samuel was bored with the taunting, he took up position in front of me, hands on his hips, pelvis thrust forward.
“Hey, Patricia, hungry for Dödle?”
I looked up at him. At my old school peeps might have warned him that the flickering in my eyes was a serious warning sign. But even if, I suppose it had been too long since anyone had challenged him in his position as top honcho of the school yard, and if there would have been someone he might have considered a risk that someone wouldn’t have been a short, queer kid two years his junior. Also, I don’t think that he had ever been in a real fight in his life.
“Don’t know, Sam. Haven’t seen yours, have I? Is it any good?” I asked through clenched teeth. There probably were hectic red splotches all over my face.
He laughed, carefree. “Better than all the Turkish dick-kebabs you’ve been getting at home, you can bet on that.”
And then another idea occurred to him.
“Hey, tell me Patricia…” He nestled at his fly. “Does the oak tree mind if the boar waters it? Cuz, I really gotta take a leak, you know.”
“Samuel,” I croaked. “Don’t take out what you don’t want to lose.”
He decided to call my bluff. And that was when I decided to end my period of non-violence, the one that had started when Hendrik had had me in a head lock almost a year before, and then had kissed me long and hard.
The fight was short and ugly. This wasn’t the back gate of an insignificant Kreuzberg primary school. This was a high school for the pride and joy of Berlin’s most influential national and international leaders. We had hardly found our stride when the first teacher was trying to break us up. But I wouldn’t let one lady in high heals and a tight skirt keep me from trying to put hurt onto Sam. After a second’s hesitation he, too, got back into the spirit of things. It took three teachers and two 12th graders to finally separate us.
By points I clearly lost that fight. And I have to be fair: none of Samuel’s sycophants joined in to help their glorious leader. Once he got it that I meant business, he didn’t wimp out. Of course, he was two years older, about 15 kg heavier and a good head taller than me. Anyway, I like to think that I gave him a run for his money.
Afterwards, when we were waiting in front of the principle’s office, me with a split lip, a closed eye, and torn up paper tissues stuffed into my nose, and him doing his best to prevent anything from touching his swollen family jewels, he suddenly grinned at me.
“Hey, Patricia. I take back what I said. You may be a poof, but you’re no sissy. I guess you can stay at my school.”
And he offered me his hand. But Samuel was no Leo, and I wasn’t six anymore. For a moment I was very, very tempted to hit him again, as hard as I could. Just to see that grin turn red as blood gushed from his nose. But I decided to find back to Ghandi and Jesus. Well, almost.
“And you may be an arsehole, Sam, but I promise you, I’ll never put my Dödle in it.”
We shook on it.
I was suspended for two weeks after that, while there was an official inquiry at the school. It ended with me having to state a public apology, being warned that the least antisocial behaviour on my part would lead to an immediate relegation – and that any more display of violence would also be reported to the police. After this I could feel how the administration was just waiting for another slip up so they could get rid of me rikki-tik. They had proved their social responsibility by accepting me in the first place and now by showing me leniency once, but that was it. The rest was a foregone conclusion, a pre-written script they expected me to play out.
Continued here
I picked him up Saturday morning shortly past 8. His rents were both there to see him off. As always, I was on my best manners, and shook hands with them.
Tim apparently had never been on a bike tour, or if, at least he had never packed his bike by himself. I had to laugh when I saw how (and what) he had stuffed into his backpack and how he just stuck the rest under the simple spring loaded clamp of his luggage carrier. Most of it would fall off at the next corner, and his shoulders would be stiff and sore by nightfall. I made him leave half of everything at home, redistributed the rest and secured it all on his rack with a couple of spare bungee cords.
Like most rents his dad could be trusted to do the most stupid, insensitive thing, like, clap me on my shoulder and tell Tim what a practical and sensible fellow I was, and that he should learn from me. Apparently the old chap thought I would have a good, manly influence on his wimp of a son, or something. And not wanting them to rescind their permission, I smiled stupidly and promised I’d bring back their boy in one piece by Sunday evening. I know I’m far from the first when I demand a test and licence for the right to raise children, but anasını satayım, I mean, sheesh, what a salak!
It was about 65 km each way, a nice, relaxed ¾ day tour, half of that through the city, half outside. The weather was fantastic and we had great fun. Not far from the city border we stopped at a supermarket to get lunch. I taught Tim how to raise change, mostly to secretly spite his dad, and he did it beautifully. A bit later we went for a swim at Kleiner Stienitzsee, a small lake not far off our route. Tim claimed to have forgotten his swimming trunks (I mean, come on, what was I supposed to think?), so I said, that was okay, we’d both go commando. Good thing the water was still freezing cold. Or perhaps not. Maybe if it hadn’t been, things would have been different. Maybe that was one of those moments that pass totally unnoticed at the time, but where secretly life suddenly goes off on a totally different direction than it would have otherwise.
We camped wild in Rotes Luch, a beautiful, shallow moorland valley surrounded by a forest of tall spruce trees. We cooked sausages on a stick over a small campfire, had beer and talked until late into the night. He had seen my tat during our swim, and the scars on my arms, and he shyly asked me about them. Later he told me a bit about his own dad and their problems with each other: How he had to play-act a role all the time, but didn’t dare to just drop the act. He didn’t actually come out, and say anything directly, but what would you have read into this?
He obviously wasn’t used to the beer, though, and when he fell asleep pretty much as soon as he laid down, I blamed it on that and the long tour under a scorching spring sun. It took some time, hot and bothered as I was, but eventually I found sleep, too.
Sunday we went for a quick swim at another small lake, and had breakfast in Buckow, a nearby village. We had a look at the house were Berthold Brecht had lived for a while and then went to a small fun fair. The cherries were in full blossom, and it was totally romantic. Tim seemed happy, and we kidded around. Nothing overt happened, and maybe that should have tipped me off, but, well, hope keeps the misery in place, huh?
Eventually we went back. The return trip was long and tiring, but in a good way. If you’ve never biked down Frankfurter Allee in East Berlin in full end-of-weekend rush hour you may not know what I am talking about, but something tiring and even a bit  monotonous and dull can still sort of create a bond with the person you are doing it together with, you know? At least that was what it felt like to me.
I delivered him to his rents’s house. We stopped in the drive way. He got off his bike and opened the door to the garage, while I remained standing, my own bike still between my legs. He came over to me and asked if I wanted to come in for a drink or something. It was late, and I was tired, and didn’t want to overdo it. So I said, no thanks, I’ll head back to Kreuzberg. He said okay, and thanks for a great weekend,  and we’d see each other Monday in school. I said sure, and then there was a silence, the sort of silence, you know, that asks to be broken by a good-bye kiss, chaste but hinting at, well, at possibilities.
Was it a risk? I suppose so. Hey, you have to admit, the cues had all lined up pretty much, and given his usual shyness, I figured I would have to be the one to make the first move. Maybe I should have just held hands under the cherry blossoms in Buckow. Things might not have gone quite as bad then, although maybe it wouldn’t have made any damn difference.
I kissed him. He froze up for a second, just long enough to make me realize that this had been a bad mistake, but not long enough for me to brace myself. Then he gave me a savage push. I feel over, bike, luggage and all. For the briefest of moments he looked down at me, and all I could see was his face awash in horror. I just have no idea what the horror was about. Me? Himself? Something else? Then he disappeared into the garage, the door slamming shut after him. I was alone.
After a while I extricated myself from the bike, put my luggage back into order, and rode off, unable to think anything but an endless repetition of “stupid, stupid, stupid,” the entire time. I went home, sick to my gut, and spent the rest of the evening lying on my bed, listening to Belle & Sebastian, staring at the ceiling, and feeling very sorry for myself.
To this day I do not know the truth. Had I so completely misread him? Was he straight and I had just been projecting things? Was he queer, but unable to admit it to himself? Had he suddenly been afraid that someone, his rents, might see us, and had gotten cold feet? Much later, when I met Alex, I got the idea that maybe Tim had been abused and physical intimacy caused him to go fight ‘n’ flight. But the end of it is that I don’t know. We never spoke again, except for the most perfunctory and unavoidable exchanges in class.
He did however talk about it. To his best girl friend, who went to the same school as us. And she told her best friend. Who told three others. By the time school was out on Tuesday everybody knew that I was not only an ex-con and a thief, but also a queer pervert who had tried to kiss-rape poor, little, vulnerable Timmy.
And then the taunts began.
Continued here
As I discovered during the next couple of days, Tim was neither a troublemaker, nor a teacher’s pet. He was an outsider, but of the more or less accepted kind. He was a bit of a music nerd, you know the kind who spends his free time either tinkering on his stereo or browsing dusty, under-lit off-high-street music shops for ultra rare CDs or even vinyl.
And while I suppose that most of our class mates were still blind to it, I could already see that in two or three years, Tim would shed his shy cocoon, and find a place amongst some hip crowd, as a DJ perhaps, or even in some indie rock band. He’d probably not be the lead singer, but I could picture him as the taciturn bassist, you know, the bloke who secretly is the backbone of the group.
He was terribly cute, too, in spite of his argyle slipovers and colour-matching knee socks that his mum made him wear. He had soft, floppy, dark blond hair, large, baby blue eyes, and a small and pouty but very kissable mouth. He was terrible at football, but a surprisingly good track and field athlete. He read a lot, and mostly stuff like French poetry at that. Almost all of his friends were girls, but none was his girlfriend, if you know what I mean. Hey, sue me, but we all have our prejudices. Why should I be the exception.
Our taste in books differed, but books were the first ground on which Tim and I could found a tentative friendship. Up to then, I never had much patience for poems, and French was to me just the school subject I loathed most. Tim gave me Baudelaire and Villon, and no matter what happened later, I will forever be grateful for that. (I gave him William Burroughs and Denton Welsh, and he seemed to like them, too.)
There were a couple of other boys, mostly the sporty ones, I got along with okay, but I didn’t really feel comfortable around them outside of the gym, just as they very obviously didn’t feel comfortable around me. Those girls who took an interest in me – amongst them some of Tim’s friends – seemed to see me mostly as a welfare case. Sticky tolerance oozed from them like sap from a wounded pine tree. When I didn’t react to that with the expected fawning gratitude, they put me down as an unwashed, football playing hooligan, and I suppose they weren’t all that wrong.
Tim stuck with me, though. He provided me with info not only on other kids, but also on teachers and the administration. For all his seeming wide-eyed innocence, his vague social confusion, and not-quite-stuttering demureness, he was a keen observer, and I liked that a lot in him.
We met a couple of times after school – always at his place, though. My mum’s flat isn’t exactly the place where you want to take a new friend whose father owns an 8 room villa in Zehlendorf. We played Guitar Hero and Bioshock, and watched tivoed episodes of CSI Miami or House MD. Slowly the weather got warmer and spring began to really show off.
One evening in late April I was lying on his balcony (yeah, his room had it’s own balcony facing the park sized garden) smoking and staring at the sky. Tim was sitting inside at the open door, cross-legged, and trying to repair something in a model airplane. It was getting late and I knew I should get going. The house of Tim’s rents was close to the school, and the school was a good 15 km, that is about 45-60 bike minutes, from my mum’s flat.
Not that I minded. Quite the contrary. After half a year of having been locked up, I really looked forward to those daily rides. I dunno why, but riding my bike through the morning and the afternoon rush hour traffic was about the closest I came to even remotely feeling free, until I got through my shaking spell outside Wotton-under-Edge that is. The wind cooling the thin film of sweat on my face, thigh muscles working, denim caressing the skin of my legs as I peddled down Schlossstraße and Unter den Eichen, ducking and weaving through the avalanche of steel all around me, with engines roaring, purring or idling, car horns honking, and the multitude of breakfast radio stations blaring through rolled up car windows from all sides… it was half workout and half waltz.
No mind.
All presence.
Sheer bliss.
But right then, on that balcony, I felt lazy and complacent, as I watched the smoke dissipate in the sky above me. I looked over to Tim, his face screwed up in concentration as he reached with a pair of delicate pliers deep into the body of the air plane. I remember the tip of his tongue, surprisingly pink, peeking out between his narrowed lips. I scraped together what little courage and self-confidence I had left and asked Tim: “Want to go on a bike trip with me?”
“Hmm?” He looked up, trying to focus on me and this new idea.
“Just a one night camping trip. Maybe to the Märkische Schweiz? Next weekend? We’d be back by Sunday evening.”
He looked at me as if it was the most outrageous, absolutely unheard of suggestion. But then, after a brief hesitation, his customary shy smile appeared. And then he said: “Let me ask my parent’s for permission.”
He put down the plane, jumped to his feet and darted out onto the landing. There was the subdued murmur of a conversation, and the distinct sound of Tim’s voice pleading: “Please, mum!” And when he came back, he had a bounce in his step and a broad smile on his face.
“They said yes.”
Continued here
There was no more talk of the missing 200, of course. Bryan even tried to give me back my 500 and wanted to talk about how much of what we had made the past three days should be mine. I took a perverse pleasure in refusing all of it. Bryan couldn’t understand me, but Julie did. In the end she told him to leave well enough alone.
The next day, around noon, the crew met in the pit again. Bryan paid out 100 pounds to everybody, and an extra 200 to Tyler and Roger each, for watching me, another 200 to Melanie for catching me, and 400 to Julie for handling me.
“I think, Jan and we are quits now.” Bryan said.
“I think he needs a little memento,” Lonnie said. “Something so he doesn’t forget the lesson he’s learned.” He took out his knife, flicked it open, and looked challengingly at his leader. I saw at once that Bryan wouldn’t dare to refuse him.
So did Julie. She stepped up to Lonnie.
“You’re right,” she said. “And I’ll be the one who gives it to him.”
Lonnie eyed her suspiciously.
“You’ll not go all soft on him?”
Julie gave him a contemptuous look.
“You know I’m better than that,” she said. “And so is he.”
Reluctantly Lonnie gave her the knife. Julie came to me.
“Take off your jacket and roll up your sleeve.”
I looked into the semi-circle of faces around me, some pitying, some eager. One or two looked away. Not Melanie or Lonnie though. I did as told and gritted my teeth.
I hissed and winced as she made two deep cuts into the flesh of my upper arm, just underneath the shoulder, one perpendicular to the other. Like a rough L. Her eyes held mine, while she cut. Her eyes. Wide, and dark, and warm.
“So you’ll always remember us.”
Blood ran down my arms and splattered onto the concrete floor. Pat-pat, pat-pat-pat, pat, pat-pat. Roger took off his bandana and tied it around my arm. Mark offered me a fag and then gave me the whole pack and his lighter – a beautiful Zippo with the Death image of the Rider Tarot engraved in it’s side.
“Keep it man,” he said and averted his eyes.
I put on my jacket and hung the satchel over the other shoulder.
I walked 20 minutes to the Richmond Hill bus stop on York Road. My arm hurt like hell. I got bandages and some ibuprofen at a pharmacy I passed. I munched the Ranger candy while I waited for an eastbound number 18A, and put on the sterile pads and gauze with one hand and my teeth as good as I could.
Nate was waiting for me in Garforth, at the end of the line. He gave me the parcel, it was about the size of a one pound brick of coffee, if maybe a little bit heavier, and wrapped in plain brown paper. To this day I have no idea what it contained, although the idea of drugs certainly crossed my mind. I also considered simple cash, or jewels, or a disassembled gun or some electronic gadget or data storage medium, maybe packaged in polyethylene foam. Anasını satayım, for all I know it might just have contained a Bob Marley fan T-Shirt. After all, since the box underneath the brown paper might as easily have been made of plastic as of lead, the weight didn’t really tell me anything either.
I did shake it once and listened. Nothing clattered inside. Other than that I made no attempt to figure it out.
On Aberforth Road I put out my thumb. The third car to stop was northbound, a Volvo driven by an overweight and wheezing software sales rep who almost before we got rolling again began telling me in mind-numbing detail the advantages of the products he sold over those of his competitors. The ibuprofen dampened the throbbing in my shoulder while Leeds faded behind me in the drizzle and the gloam.
***
Why didn’t I run, when I could have? Why did I offer to take the parcel? Why didn’t I simply dump it in the first rubbish bin after I left town? I told you, I have no answers. I cannot even claim that it seemed like good ideas at the time. Everything about Leeds seemed like a bad idea, but I did it all anyway.
So, somebody tell me: Was this destiny? Was this providence? Because in a way, this was when this whole story truly started. This was when its inexorable end began to sneak into my cards. From here on out those three shots fired by the Aegean Sea were beginning to reverberate down the skein of fate that tied me, and Sim, Alex, Charley, Meryem, the Serrathas, that arsehole in Berlin, the chicken hawks of Jelenia Gora, the Ahimsa Corporation, even Steward, all of us together.
It is funny to think about it that way, to think about those brief moments in time, these random, ill understood choices that I made so unimaginably long ago now. But you cannot turn back time. The past is with you, always, and you just gotta learn to stand atop the rubble and to continue on your way, best as you can, until you finally run out of road.
After the final count I was only 200 short of the 1.5K. So when Bryan was wrapping a rubber band around the bills and tossed the emptied wallets into a bin bag to dispose of them later, I took the tracker from my pocket and tossed it onto the table.
“That one should also fetch a nice price. What do you think you can get for it? Fifty? Seventy-five?”
Julie at least had the decency to blush. I think. I find it hard to tell with a black girl. Bryan just picked it up and gazed at it.
“Quite a bit more, man. When did you find it?”
I stared at him. I wanted to lie for some reason, no idea why or even what I wanted to say. But in the end I said the truth. Because everything else would have felt like cowardice.
“Today. Sometime in the afternoon.”
He regarded me impassively. There was some serious High Noon shit going down between him and me, me glaring fiercely and feeling somehow betrayed, silly as that might sound, and he all pensive and cool as a cucumber. He broke the eye contact, but it still felt to me as if I had lost the stare-down.
“Can you put him up for the night?” he asked Julie, as if I was just a friend visiting and he needed to scrounge up a bed for me. That was how I spent my last night in Leeds a guest instead of a prisoner, on a bed sofa in the living room of Julie’s grandmother. And that was how I heard that bloody conversation I wasn’t meant to hear, and how everything went off course.
It was a lot later. I had been tossing and turning on the couch. Whatever troubled me, and something did, it was bad enough that I didn’t even want to think about it. It had something to do with Julie’s grin when she had called me “Fido”. And something with the tracker. And a lot with the darkness in her eyes when she had smiled in the kitchen, when I had brought up Bryan.
Julie and Bryan came out of the kitchen. I could hear him put on his jacket, keys and coins jingling inside the pockets. They were murmuring quietly, covert lovers stealing a hidden moment, stripped of all sarcasm and coolness, of all the bravado they hid behind during the day. That was not the make-believe of teenage romance, not the coy flirt or the hard to get games of people too lost in self-doubt to take another person for more than a test of their market value. Right then they gave each other that rare gift only true courage is capable of giving: Presence without calculation. Two people wearing no masks.
I wasn’t listening to their words, just to their voices. Was it envy I felt? Jealousy even? I don’t think I begrudged them their brief moment of honest intimacy, dear enough, painful enough as it must have been. But I was only too aware that this was something I had never experienced, not with Hendrik, and certainly not with Jonas. The only person who had ever seen me anywhere nearly that naked had been ‘Nette, and I had been 10 years old.
I became aware that something in their conversation changed. I am extrapolating here from what I sensed and what I thought I knew, but I had the impression that Julie at last pushed Bryan to tell her what really had been bothering him all evening. And as he finally began telling her his real troubles a desperation crept into his voice, a helplessness I knew too well, because it had been the background sound of my childhood: Before my father had left, and when ‘Nette was dying, and when my mum had talked with social workers, shrinks and lawyers as they all tried to keep me from slipping over the edge into the darkness, there had always been this murmuring in the hallway.
The thick tufted polyester carpet soaked up the sound of my naked feet as I snuck over to the door and listened closer. There was a lot of disjointed mumbling, names and references I didn’t understand, and most of it made no sense to me at all. But slowly I pieced that much of the puzzle together:
Bryan had something in his possession that he needed to have delivered to someone by Sunday, or he would be in deep shit. The sort of deep shit that really scared him. Whatever it was, he couldn’t entrust it to the mail service, probably because it was quite illegal, and because the recipient wouldn’t be willing to pick it up from a post office, sign for it, or provide a traceable address. Neither Bryan nor Julie, not even Nate, could be there in person. (At least with Julie, I knew that she would get a visit from the social worker who was keen on sending her, Nate, and the grandma to state homes if they so much as gave her a reason. Hence all the housecleaning I had been doing.) And apparently he seriously didn’t trust anybody on his crew enough to let them deliver it either – from what I gathered less because they might keep the something, but rather because they weren’t supposed to know about the whole transaction at all.
I quietly pushed open the door. Bryan was sitting on the narrow stairs, head in his hands, and Julie squatted between his splayed legs, her hands on his bony knees.
“I’ll take it.” I said, rushing the words to keep my brain from stopping me. I cleared my throat belatedly.
Both looked up, tired even in their surprise.
“What have you heard?” Julie asked. I shrugged.
“Does it matter? I don’t know what it is, and I suppose I don’t want to know. I don’t know where you want to have it taken, but to me any place is as good as any other. It’s not like I have much of a goal anyway.”
They looked at each other again. The question written all over Bryan’s face was unmistakeable. Julie thought long and hard, and finally she nodded.
Continued here
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
I’m not a big fan of chess. I mean, I adore the game on an abstract level. It’s one of the few sports I enjoy watching. I think it is a great game. Just not for me. Chess makes me paranoid – I always have the feeling I ought to think around one more corner, that there is some invisible danger lurking on the board, ready to pounce whichever way I turn. In short, it makes me feel stupid.
I really like poker however. It may not be as brainy as chess, but it’s not a dumb game either. I’m certainly not the first to remark that it’s got a lot to do with psychology. Yeah, you need math, and that is probably my weakest point in the game, although experience and rote learning makes up for some of what I lack in actually understanding of probabilities. But you also need to figure out which way your opponent is going to jump. And even if I say so myself, I’m pretty darn good at that.
But my enjoyment of poker had little to do with the graveyard games my mates and I used to play in 2006 and 2007.
Let me introduce you to my former best mates. Musketeers, you know, one for all and all for one. Best friends forever. Only, of course, that nothing lasts forever.
I have known Orcun literally all my life. His rents lived next door to mine. Not only did his mum and older sisters and my mum and older sisters pass us back and forth for babysitting duty, but as toddlers we explored the courtyard behind our tenement block together. Nowadays it seems like a narrow, lightless yard, with more dirt than grass, a couple of sad thorny bushes, and a tiny playground consisting of a small, weed-infested sandbox, rusting monkey-bars, and a swing set without swings. But I remember it as a glorious jungle where Orcun was Stanley to my Livingstone.
Hector I know from kindergarten. He comes from a huge family with dozens of cousins, half of them in Berlin, the other half in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where his folks are from. I suspect we mostly became mates because we were amongst the few who didn’t – yet – speak Turkish or Polish. By the time we left, we both did. Hector was better in Polish, I in Turkish.
And then there is Leo. When I started out in primary school Hector and Orcun were put into one class, and I was put into another. (Our kindergarten had informed the school that it would be better to split up Hec and me to prevent the formation of some ultra-violent gang or something of the sort.) Well, I told you that I had most of my fights with bullies. In first year at school that bully was Leo.
Leo isn’t really a bully, but he likes to swagger, to talk loud, and to have a bunch of followers. I mean, he isn’t half-bad as a leader. He can make you feel very appreciated, not only for your public face, but especially for your hidden self. And he can make peeps cooperate, feel as a group. He’s been captain of our football team for years, not because he’s the best strategist – that would be Georg – but because he can make the rest of us listen to Georg in a way Georg never could.
But groups are made by excluding everyone else. And in school, who can you easier exclude than the misfits? Small, snot-nosed, red-haired, freckled, and very badly dressed me practically screamed for that position. All summer I had wondered who it would be I would fight in primary school, and by the end of that first week, with those first alliances and enmities forged and everybody knowing who they would sit next to come Monday, I knew.
I was scared, because Leo was a good head taller than me, and heftier, and the bruise on his face told me that he was no stranger to violence. But the dice had fallen and there was no way around it. On the way out I challenged him.
That Friday it had rained hard in the morning and a lot of teachers had come by car. Turned out that all grown-ups meant to watch us at the end of the day were leaving by the front door, where the car park was. Leo and I belonged to those kids whose way to and from school led them through the rear gate. It took ages for a janitor to hear the noise and come investigating.
Also, normally Leo wouldn’t have let things progress far. Even back then he was usually great at making peace. I mean, hell, I bloody learned apologizing from him. (It’s certainly not like anybody in my family has ever been able to say I’m sorry.) But not that day. The bruise I had noticed on his face has been a special gift from his father for losing a key to their flat a week before school started. After that Leo had gotten a long neck band for his key, and he was taking that off to stow it away in his pocket so I couldn’t choke him with it, when I, scared and hyper, attacked. He saw the key and neck band land in the curb swell of rain water and get sucked down a sewer drain. I had really pissed him off.
When we were finally separated I had two broken fingers and a seriously mashed up face. Leo had a deep bite wound at the ball of his thumb on his right hand. He was missing a clump of hair at his left temple. He also had a bad tear in the skin holding his left ear attached to the skull and a bleeding wound at the back of his head, both from when I had grabbed him by the ear and slammed him against the ground several times. He needed four stitches on the back of his head and three at his ear, but the conch never really healed completely, leaving it somewhat lumped and crunched up. We were both crying with pain and frustration, and I think exhaustion, but none of us would give in.
In the waiting room at the hospital at first we were both determined to hate each other’s guts, but boredom and joined worries about the reaction of our rents got us talking, about school, teachers, football, TV, computer games, and Star Wars. Turned out that we had both seen The Shadow Menace that summer. It may well be that our future friendship was forged in our common disdain of Pod Racing and the Gungans.
Hec and Orcun were well prepared to hate Leo in support of me – though Hec with a certain reluctance, because he had already been touched by Leo’s charm – but then we appeared best of friends the next week, and soon the four of us were inseparable.
We did a lot of stuff together, we joined the same football club, we had sleepovers, we snug into films we weren’t old enough to be allowed to see yet, all that stuff. When we were 12 we tried our hands at shoplifting. It was mainly a way to enliven otherwise boring afternoons. Eventually we were caught and got into a lot of hot water over it. After that Hector, who had blamed it all on my and Orcun’s bad influence, wasn’t allowed to associate with us until his rents forgot about it again. Leo got the worst thrashing ever from his dad. I don’t know what Orcun’s rents said to him – I doubt that they hit him, they never did – but he was very serious afterwards and never broke the law again, at least not to my knowledge. That had been the year I had first been taken in by the rozzers for attacking an officer, so on top of everything else, I suppose shoplifting didn’t really impress my mum all that much. She did give me the same sermon she had given Lukas and ‘Nessa on the subject a couple of years before, but it sounded tired and as if she didn’t believe it very much herself.
The next summer I came up with the graveyard poker games, and they all took to it like moths to honeysuckle. Between July and September of 2006 we would either claim to sleep over at each other’s rent’s places or simply sneak out at night and check out all the cemeteries of Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Tempelhof, Schöneberg, Tiergarten, Mitte, Friedrichshain, and Treptow. We would try to find a secluded place, sheltered by some mausoleum, or a thicket of trees, and play poker.
I was going to say that there is something very surreal about sitting with your best mates on weathered old gravestones in the middle of the night, smoking, drinking beer (or Pepsi in Orcun’s case; he takes the Islamic prohibition on alcohol very serious), and playing cards. But that’s not it, exactly. It isn’t surreal at all, it’s almost the opposite. It is as if that little circle of light you are sitting in, the circle of your mates, becomes the only thing that is real. Everything else just melts away, the wall of trees and darkness around you becomes the backdrop of a stage, as if the world was only painted on canvas. The ghosts of the dead all around become more real than the memories of the living and all your daytime worries fade away into insignificance.
For a short while you can breathe freely.
Continued here