“One day I will be that man”, I think every time I meet my neighbor in the stairwell. And then I think about what that means. What does it mean to be old? too old
I live in the middle of this city, not in the Mitte district. I grew up on a four lane street. I can’t look into my neighbors’ apartments across from me, the houses are too far apart. It’s loud, it’s dirty; the only time I heard birds was when Germany went into the first lockdown. I was surprised that there were songbirds on this street, I always thought they would die coughing as soon as they started chirping. Or get pecked to pieces by the many ravens that live here.
Sometimes I put cheese on the balcony, I’ve been friends with one of the crows here for years. Once, the crow friend brought me a dead mouse as a thank you. I guess he’s noticed that I’ve gotten smaller.
The higher the apartment, the more I miss the neighbor
This street in Berlin means a lot to me, also because here I can experience the much-discussed anonymity of a big city. I barely know the names of the people in my house, I can identify faces. A silent wink in the street, no effusive gesture, no conversation in the corridor. Residents of the house exist among themselves, just as they live in apartments. The higher up a tenant lives, the stranger it is to me. I need this.
In a wave of metropolitan madness, my parents decided in the late 1990s to move to Wuhletal, a small town on the outskirts of Berlin. A church in the middle, my mother chatting with the vicar’s wife, my father organizing Easter bonfires and, since it’s the 90s, with a mustache.
Neighbors who talk to each other, neighbors who live in creepy houses that are always in the shade. The LKA officer who lives in two semi-detached houses next to us and admires my grass plants, the neighbor of the same age with whom I share the way to school and the first bad love.
“Well, Thilo, a box for your father too?”, when secretly buying cigarettes at the gas station at night.
I experienced it, the opposite of anonymity, and it still shakes me to this day. This experience will prevent me from ever moving to the country.
“Who dropped 72 butts on my balcony!!!!!!!”
My neighbor across the street, however, doesn’t shake me. We’ve grown closer over the years, teaching each other each other’s rules. Nothing really bothers my neighbors unless someone throws cigarettes onto their balcony from above. Then he gets angry and writes messages that are posted in the hallway until they end up in “Notes from Berlin”. (He counts the butts and then writes: “Who dropped 72 butts on my balcony!!!!!!) The neighbor accepts packages, checks my door for someone, and tells me horror stories from around the house.
“One time, Thilo,” he says, “the shit pipes froze and burst, the shit was so high up in my apartment,” then he spreads his fingers and I estimate a height of 20 centimeters.
I have lived in this house, in this apartment, on this street for over ten years, and I have no plans to move. Also for my neighbor whose life I was able to observe.
meatballs at the door
In my own perception, my life is still the same as it was ten years ago. That’s silly, of course, I know, but that’s how it feels. But my neighbor’s life has changed.
I still know him and his wife, a nice lady who, if I wanted to borrow a ladder, offered me something called “cement”. “Becherovka with tonic,” she said. After that drink, I got drunk and climbed a ladder and put up a lamp. A quiet Berliner who lived up to her trips with her husband. After the fall of the wall, they conquered the world together on buses, ships and planes. If I were the age of my neighbor, I would speak of a good woman.
“My wife died today,” he told me a few years ago. And then we both stood in front of the mailboxes. I wasn’t embarrassed, just sad along with him. “She was sick too,” he said.
My neighbor is slowly aging, not frail. His ears get bigger, his nose sharper, his cheerful children often come to visit. Sometimes they hang a meatball on my door, which is salty and delicious. They don’t call, they don’t want to talk, they don’t force me to talk, they allow anonymity. And that creates so much closeness, so much sympathy that I not only think that one day I will be that man, but also: one day I want to be that great neighbor.
This text appeared in the weekend edition of the Berliner Zeitung, every Saturday at the newsstand or here as a subscription.