Random snapshots of just-being

Another set of impressions of the beauty of small lives hiding in the darker corners of a metropolis


In the free shop, from the corner of my eyes I notice two of our regular guests exchanging a piece of clothing. One of them is a fanatic knitter, always scanning the shop for left-over pieces of wool. She shows a sweater which the other customer liked, but which was just a bit too short, and therefore put back in the racks. The knitting lady secretly took the sweater home,  found a matching color wool, and made the sweater just long enough. Now she surprises the other regular with the finished product.

One of the alternative projects organizes a small protest against gentrification in front of their “shop”. It rains, an icy rain, and people dance with their scarfs pulled up to their noses, gloves and beanies on the jungle beat. One of the regular, more run-down-looking, guests of the foodsaving brunch passes by, asks me what is going on. He introduces me to his boyfriend, a far younger, tall, and good-looking blond guy. Just as I wonder about the combination of the two, the older guy quickly continues: “you know where to get a beanie for him for free? His ears are freezing, and he doesn’t own one”. Only then I notice the slightly absent look in the eyes of his companion and realize who’s taking care of who.

A former roommate who fathered 23 little black & white rats
A former roommate who fathered 23 little black & white rats

On my way to work, I see a plain looking lady with her – obviously mentally disabled – daughter sitting on a bench, waiting for the Ubahn. In front of her feet, there’s a huge cage, with a small white & black rat feverishly washing itself. Next to her daughter, there’s another cage, full of straw and probably also full of cuddles. Walking along the streets near Checkpoint Charlie on the way back, I see something moving from the corner of my eye. I look, and there’s a tiny little brown mouse, looking back with beady eyes. Must be rodent day today.

During the foodsaving brunch at the end of the month it is busy again. Many of our customers have a bit of month left after the end of their money. One of the guys tells me, we saved him again, he hasn’t eaten for two days. Another guest counters: Berlin isn’t a city at war, you can always find food here. I just politely step out of that discussion. A bit later, one of the other regulars brings me a gift. I always walk around with lots of black markings (I don’t call it make-up, too many people ask me if those markings are tattoos…), so she presents me with an eye-pencil, and look, it is even still packaged. I’m very happy with it, because maybe it’s a small gift, but she obviously got hold of it thinking of me (though I actually don’t want to know how she obtained it.. I’m afraid she took an, albeit small – risk for it).

Rodent-On-Wheelz - doodled in the metro
Rodent-On-Wheelz – doodled in the metro

Doodling one of my twisted kritters in the metro coming back from a noise gig, I notice the guy on the opposite bench secretly glancing at my paper. When I get up to catch the next line, he shouts “wait”, fumbles in his backpack, and hands me a flyer of another music event the next week. I look at it only when I get out and just have to laugh: how come in a city of millions, a guy looks at my drawings, and gives me a flyer for an event with experimental and industrial bands I happen to like. Not exactly mainstream, if 100 people attend to something like that, it’s a lot.. so this is just a bit too much of a coincidence. Just before the doors of the metro close, I walk back to stick my head around the corner “I was already planning to go there, but thanks”.

There’s a huge protest against the “danger zone” which was forced upon a part of the neighborhood a few weeks ago, resulting in dozens of cops invading squats, stopping people to ask for IDs, closing off streets and a general feeling of unease towards this “surveillance” from the people living here. Surprisingly – also for the organization – a couple of thousand show up. The atmosphere is peaceful and joyful. I watch someone I know making soap bubbles for the refugee kids hanging over the fence of their “emergency shelter” in front of which we gather. They don’t really have a clue what the demonstration is about, but sure are enjoying the soap bubbles. Afterwards, I realize you shouldn’t breathe in those bubbles when trying to catch them in your mouth. Still coughing up a soap mixture hours later.

In the free-shop, one of the regular customers shows me something undefinable she found, and asks me if I think it could be made into a lamp. She can’t do any “real” work, she tells me, but, well, you have to get under the people, so she spends her daytime at a “disabled center”. She’s always looking for stuff she can rework in something else, then brings it back to the shop. And after more than 15 years of “well.. it’s a way to stay social, sitting at home is so boring” she has become quite capable in upcycling stuff. I don’t think she realizes she has been pioneering a recent trend among the more well-off citizens for such a long time. But well, she doesn’t really have a choice: her creativity is caused by being poor.

Berlin. The end of winter. But still winter. Not that Berlin people care. February is still here, and already the smell of smoke of a campfire lingers in my hair. Walking past the Boxi square with minus 5 or so, I hear music coming from a group of people playing while sitting on the swings and the slide of the play-ground.

On one hand, yes, there’s literally murder in the streets: a guy bleeding to death after been stabbed by unknown people right in one of the busiest club areas. A gang racketeering a small underground club for “protection money”, so the people decide to stop their events, cause it’s not safe. Cops finding all kinds of excuses for breaking into an alternative project and confiscating dangerous goods such as heating-coal, fire-extinguishers and small bags of garbage. It’s like the alternative scene is being squashed between organized crime and “law and order”. On the other hand…. in the little dark and hidden corners, where people sometimes have no choice but to be resourceful and creative, dreams and ideas are kept alive, solutions are found by cooperating and making use of what is at hand. Just like the little rodents which you almost accidentally find in unexpected places at unexpected times, it’s hard to exterminate dreams and ideas. Thank goodness…


Impressions – Undermining “planned Obsoleteness”


One of the things I like about Berlin are the “artisans”.. not the artists, but the artisans, the crafters. Those people who do miracles with your old stuff, and whose eyes light up if you bring some “inherited” piece of equipment or material. Stuff, of which other, more “official”, shops tell you: not worth fixing it, please buy our newest product.

Hobby_FotoToestelOpa4_bewerkt2A Flash of Time

Such as the analog camera I inherited a long time ago from my grand-dad. When I got it, I brought it to an official photographer shop. They told me: already the money you would have to pay us for opening it up, would be more than the camera is worth. So I let it dust away in my cupboard as a memorandum. Until I told one of my colleagues, a hobby photographer, about it, and when he heard it was a Leica, he immediately send me to an artisan repair shop nearby.

There, they didn’t tell me, forget that old camera, here’s our newest digital product. The shop-owner, who I suspected was close, if not over, his retirement age, opened the case, started whistling when he saw the camera. I could see he could hardly wait till he would be able to bring it to his “laboratory”. Three days later I could pick it up. He took the time to let me hear the sound the shutters made, showed me how innovative the light meter on top of the camera was, the mechanism of the film transporter, and in general, what a wonderful little piece of pure mechanical, no circuit boards involved, machinery this camera was. I showed him a separate objective which came with the camera. He scratched his head and asked: “may I? You got 15 minutes?”, took it back to his laboratory, handed it back and said: here, it’s completely dust-free now. Hobby_FototasOpa3_bewerktNo, free of charge of course. From the corner of my eye I saw his much younger colleague (daughter?) sigh and shake her head. There was more stuff in my grand-dad’s camera case, including some unused films from the 50s or 60s. Totally unusable by now. Those films now are an exhibit object in this shop’s display window.

This Cow Died Almost 100 Years Ago

Another object I inherited is a long, leather motor coat my grandma used to wear in the 1920s and 1930s sitting behind my granddad on his motorbike. The coat is heavy, it weighs close to 15, if not 20, kilos. It’s very thick leather. But it’s warm, and utterly cool looking. Though too big for me. So it was gathering dust, cause when I went to a leather shop to ask how much it would cost to make it my size, it was way over my budget, and indeed, at least 3 times as much as a new leather coat would cost.

Until I moved here. Again, I looked at that coat, such a beauty, such a pity. And too much sentimental value to give it away or even sell it. So I thought, what the heck, and searched for a leather worker here in Berlin. Found one close to where I live, and dragged the coat with me. Unpacked, it resulted in quite a few exclamations from the shop owner, and another artisan was dragged from behind her sewing machine. Such LEATHER. They just don’t make it that way anymore. People like thin, supple, leather nowadays. The shop owner shook her head, tut-tutted and dismissively waved at the new leather coats hanging in her shop.

Kleding_gedragen_OmasJas_Cowboyhoed_Lendendoek_RKZ_bewerktYes, of course they can make it fit my size. The only problem might be the machines can’t take that good, thick, quality of leather. Nowadays, we’re simply not prepared for it anymore. But… She looks down at the coat, and tentatively feels the leather again. Again, she mumbles something like, they just don’t make it this way anymore. She looks up and says: I have to try, I simply have to. So she takes my measures, which takes sometime, since she’s very precise. A week later, I can pick it up. Perfect fit. And a bit lighter too, since I am skinnier than my grandma. I leave after a lecture about greasing leather. But, nothing beats how that coat keeps me warm during the harsher days of the Berlin winters…

Re-Tired and Re-Soled

Sometimes, there’s stuff I didn’t inherit, but just love, because it lasts me a long time. Such as my bike. There’s a dutch bike repair shop in Berlin, where “my” bike hangs on the wall as a museum piece. Where, if I go there, at least 2 of the guys wipe the oil of their hands and, almost drooling, point out the drum brakes to each other. Where I almost always get advice, or some second-hand replacement part, for free, just because they love the fact I’m still keeping this piece of history in good working order. And if they charge anything, it’s not much more than the material costs.

2014_MF_Zo019_Afterparty_Pinked_zwOr like my trustworthy big leather boots. After 10 years of good service, and 3 months of oil & rust after working on something also build-to-last, a 50 year old DDR-high-sea-fishing ship, now serving as an alternative music venue (and still sea-worthy), the soles of those boots cracked, straight down the middle. I went to 5 normal shoe repair shops. They all shook their heads. Way beyond repair.

Until I found on the internet the address of an orthopedic shoe maker. I went to his shop. A stooped, older, and very, very grumpy guy wearing a leather apron lets me wait for quite a few minutes before coming from the back. He looks me over critically and tells me: I don’t DO shoe repairs, I’m a crafter, a specialist, a maker of shoes. I start to look sad. He’s my last hope. Those boots have lasted me 10 years. His quite bushy eye-brows go up. 10 years? he asks. Let me see them. So I take them out. He slides his finger over the stitches. That’s good craftsmanship, he admits reluctantly. Ok. Leave them here, two days.  So I come back in two days. There are my boots. Shined up to the max. He straightens his shoulders, rubs his thumb along the side of the new soles, looks at me, and there’s a hint of a smile on his face. They’ll last you another 10 years now, he tells me proudly. I burst out in thank yous, but he waves me out of the door, bends down to his next project “it was an exception, ok? I don’t do shoe repairs”. When I leave, he looks over his shoulder: just take good care of them, grease them regularly, will you?

Wobbles And Knobs

Today I brought my old amplifier to a repair shop, because the socket for the phono input was doing weird stuff. I talked to the guy on the phone beforehand. Yes, of course he can fix it, he can fix anything. Of course, he’ll give me an estimate what it costs. So I unplug my amplifier, wrap it in bubble plastic, and step on my bike, and 1500 meters further, in between a vegan restaurant and a shop selling exclusive designer bags, is a dusty shop full of cables, spare parts, and reassembled hifi equipment.

I step in, and an elder guy in a blue coat with glasses comes from the repair room behind the counter “ah, you phoned. Let me see her”. He carefully unwraps my amplifier, and, almost caressing it, immediately brings it to the repair room, starts plugging it in, wobbles with the knobs, and agrees with me, yes, the old stuff is so much more reliable and long-lasting then the new stuff. IF you take care of it. And he starts telling me anecdotes about what he all found in amplifiers and tape decks. He quickly gives a preliminary diagnosis of the problem, and tells me, he’ll phone me tomorrow to give an estimate of the costs, and how long it will take. Repairing will be quick, but waiting for spare parts might take a bit. I immediately feel like my amplifier is in good hands, and tell him about the old Thorens record player I recently got and which needs a bit of love (& cleaning).

2015_Overig501_Materiaal_Muziek_ThorensMenno_bewerkt2His eyes light up even more. Though, he’s skeptical. Thorens is a name, a label, not all is as good as the name pretends. But yes, he’s more than willing to check it up, clean it, bring it in good state, give the mechanical parts a bit of grease. Max 60 euros, if nothing is broken. And yes, he’s fast. He starts telling me about DJs from Hamburg or Rostock who travel to his shop. With sparkling eyes he gives some anecdotes about what state he found their record players in. Proudly he says, he can repair almost anything. And fast. And good. And lasting. Good-as-new. IF you take care of it after it has been through his hands, of course.

The Crafty Fifth Column

These artisans, these professionals, are the silent force opposing – and opposed by – “planned obsoleteness”. They are threatened in their existence by a culture of throw-away technology. Where the warranty of a new camera or telephone is no longer than two years max, and even the bigger shops tell you: it prolly won’t last much longer than those two years. “Here, buy our newest product”.

I know. What they charge me to repair my stuff, simply does not cover the actual time they put into it. These are people who work with their hands. Who love when something of good quality comes into those hands. Something they can appreciate. Who truly take pride in their job. When they can bring something into, or close to, its original state. Technology, or craftsmanship which make their eyes light up, and, even with the most grumpy ones, makes the corners of their mouth go slightly up.

They hate doing shitty jobs. And if you bring shitty stuff, no matter how much quality work you put into it, it will still be shitty stuff afterwards. So yes, if you bring them quality stuff, they, albeit sometimes begrudgingly, love you for it. One of the – only – ways you can repay them (cause they usually undercharge you…) is to respect the quality of the product, and the quality of their work, by taking good care of it. And that’s what they’ll tell you again and again: take good care of it.