By Jürgen Fauth
I went to Berlin, where nobody knew me as the son of a war profiteer to live among the common people: workers, shopkeepers, butchers, tram drivers, waiters. Berlin, seething capitol of a brand-new democracy that no one wanted. The city promised all I longed for: depravity, chaos, revolution, everything my sheltered upbringing had denied me. I enrolled at Friedrich Wilhelm University and rented a shabby room that smelled of beer and herring in a second Hinterhaus on Rosenthaler Platz, from a family of waschechte Berliners too polite to ask about my missing leg. They assumed I was a veteran, like everyone else, not a one-legged shut-in apprentice accountant from the provinces who'd grown up sheltered by five-meter walls, a Landei determined to join the twentieth century.
For the first few weeks, I dutifully took the tram to Unter den Linden to attend lectures. After classes, I headed west to the shops and restaurants of Friedrichstadt. I'd stop at my bank to furtively withdraw a few marks at a time, just enough to afford a pastry at Rumpelmeyer's or coffee and a soft-boiled egg at a Ku'damm Café, where I sat for the entire afternoon. Soon, I took out more money and went for dinner, or to the Tingeltangel. I discovered the Wintergarten, just south of Friedrichstrasse station, an opulent world made for pleasure, a temple of delights, a palace of sparkling crowds and thrilling acts. I drank champagne between artificial fountains and grottoes filled with exotic plants, and no matter what happened on the stage—dancing girls in leather and fur, trapeze artists, a woman from Spandau getting hypnotized by a Mexican magician—you could always see the stars through the enormous vaulted glass roof. It was like Walt Disney's theme park—but with tits. Wonderful, classy tits!
To a Landei like me, the crowd at the Wintergarten was as thrilling as the stage, so different from the plump industrialists who visited in Königstein or the rough-hewn working men who ate Knackwurst at the Gipsverein, where Herr Oberlin tended bar. At the Wintergarten, each person was fascinating, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, witty, and most of all, sexy. I laughed at the men's one-liners and desperately wanted to touch the women's silken dresses. I wanted to know them all, but even more than that, I wanted them to know me. After a couple of beers, I allowed myself to imagine that the applause was meant for me.
It was there at the Wintergarten I met Steffen. He approached from across the terrace with that graceful gliding gait of his, a smile so magnificent there was no way not to return it. By the time I noticed him, he'd already extended his hand, and before I could get up to take it, he'd introduced himself and taken the seat across from me. His cheeks were flushed—his cheeks were always flushed; it gave him a healthy complexion, even though I soon learned the real reasons were not of a healthy nature. His wild eyes were focused on me, and he talked quickly. He did not want to be forward, but he had a proposition.
Here was the attention I craved! Steffen's charisma made me feel blessed every moment his eyes were on me. Later, I knew movie stars like that, but unlike them, Steffen saw you when he looked. He smoked a cigarillo and talked fast, with so many clauses, interjections, and Scheunenviertel slang that was a mixture of Boxverein gangster jargon and the quasi-German the Romanian gypsies used. I learned later that he affected this accent when he wanted to impress. I didn't understand half of it, and the other half was unclear, but apparently, he was looking to play a prank on his friends—here he waved at a table across the terrace and rattled off names: Lady Miss Fear, Babsie, Kuno Kartoffel, Ute the Mole Girl, two more I didn't catch, and Anita Berber's sister Katja—and he needed my help. My help!
Why me? What kind of prank? I wanted him to slow down but I couldn't help smiling. He said he thought I had a mysterious air about me—he was talking about my leg—and he imagined that his friends would simply adore it if I robbed them. Furtively, he unbuttoned his jacket to show me the handle of a revolver. "It's not loaded." He winked.
I looked back at his friends. One of the girls blew me a kiss. I still didn't understand.
"You want me to rob you? Do I get to keep the loot?"
Delighted, Steffen clapped his hands. "Adorable!'Do I get to keep the loot?' Please, you must indulge us. Wait for us in the alley behind Dorotheenstrasse. I swear the loot will be to your liking."
Now, I was not a complete innocent. Heinz and I both had favorite girls at a bordello in Frankfurt, and I knew how to use a prostitute. I thought of Steffen Kung as a playful dilettante, clearly drunk, looking for a way to spice up his Saturday night with a harmless prank. I wasn't entirely wrong, but I had missed the point.
So I agreed. Why not? I had a surplus of optimism and no fear. Under the table, Steffen handed me the revolver. As instructed, I laid in wait for him and his friends in the alley, held them up—"Geld oder Leben!"—but instead of offering up their money, they turned and ran. This wasn't part of the plan! Dragging my wooden leg, I chased after them across the street, and for good measure, I fired the gun into the air. Bang! It was loaded after all, and the shot echoed down the street. Roaring with laughter, Steffen and his friends disappeared into one of the apartment buildings. I followed, climbing the stairs with my leg thumping on the wood steps until I reached the apartment under the roof, a wide-open space that was hung with Indian tapestries and cluttered with divans, mirrors, pillows.
"Now I have you!" I shouted, out of breath, heart beating with excitement. I fired another shot into the ceiling. Plaster fell in a cloud of dust.
Their arms went up.
"Oh my," said a girl with a monstrous mole on her cheek. "Please don't kill us! We'll do anything you want!" To make her point, she wiggled out of her skirt. One of Steffen's friends, his arms still in the air, produced a silver tin of cocaine. Zement, they called it.
This was the night I learned there was a real upside to my "predicament," as my brother Heinz liked to call it. You'd be surprised how excited a certain kind of girl—or guy—can get over a missing limb. I started off with Ute the mole girl straddling me, delicious, her blouse still on, but then I felt a hand on my thigh, and somebody was removing the strap that kept the artificial leg in place. I turned and Steffen kissed me and I returned the kiss and Ute was fucking me hard while someone else was fondling my stump. When the sun came up, we were all sitting at Aschingers, spent and eating pea soup, which was, as Steffen grandly announced, based on a recipe created by a Nobel Prize winning chemist. I used part of this story in Meine wilden Wanderjahre, but of course that doesn't mean anything to you.
There's a rush when you encounter something fresh, something that floors you, a great thing you didn't know existed—a kind of opening in the world, a precipitous teetering on the edge of possibility that's thrilling beyond belief. With age, these moments become more rare, until all that's left is a distant intimation one April day when the wind is just right. By the time you're as old as me, you barely remember they existed at all, unless they come to haunt you in your dreams.
I get flowery when I'm sad.
The stars above the Wintergarten are still there, but the building was ruined in a bombing raid in forty-four. I saw photos of it, in the newspaper. They made me wish I could have been there for the last show. It must have been tremendous when the roof burst.