Beyond the pines
Back in Germany in June '66, I spent a few weeks with my
parents at Bonn and then, as planned, headed for Berlin. My eldest brother,
Professor of Education at Frankfurt University, on sabbatical in the States
at the time, kindly lent me his car: another beetle, but a white one for
Off I went early in the morning of the 13th of August, which
happened to be the fifth anniversary of the construction of the Berlin
Wall. Driving along a pot-holed autobahn through, what was then still
the German Democratic Republic, I arrived in the divided city about noon
and went straight to my twin brother's apartment, all mine for the moment,
since he and his wife were on holiday on the Black Sea.
Mathew and Dora then lived in Zehlendorf, a pleasant residential
district on the western outskirts of the city, where most of the Americans
stationed in Berlin and their dependants lived until reunification. Having
showered and changed, I got back in the car and drove down Clay Allee,
a broad avenue named after Lucius Clay, the first US Military Governor
and hero of the Berlin Airlift, to Kurfürstendamm. This was and still
is West Berlin's show-piece avenue, like the Champs Elysées on
a smaller scale, with expensive shops, restaurants, and side-walk cafés.
It was while sitting in one of these establishments, in
summer 1913, that the famous World War One poet Rupert Brooke, feeling
a bit homesick for the gentile atmosphere of pre-war Cambridge, penned
a nostalgic poem called "Grantchester" ending with the oft-quoted
line, "And is there honey still for tea?"
Well, more than fifty years and two World Wars later, a
would-be film maker wasn't pining for English-style tea, with or without
honey, instead just savoring the relaxed continental atmosphere. What
a difference, I thought, to my first visit here, as a GI, in the freezing
winter of 1961, before the Wall was built.
Seeing an empty table outside crowded Café Möhring,
I quickly grabbed it. Having ordered the obligatory Kännchen Kaffee,
a pot of coffee, I sat back and engaged in the time-honored past-time
of watching the world go by, as well as people at other tables.
Among the latter, I couldn't help noticing a group of people,
quite vivacious and looking rather Bohemian, who naturally attracted my
One of them particularly caught my view, apparently the
center of attraction and only black among them, who wore a colorful silk
shirt with flared sleeves, a bandana, wine-red corduroys, and high-heeled
boots. Now and then, this exotic-looking creature would lift a little
blonde girl, apparently belonging to one of the young women in the group,
up in the air, a game she seemed to enjoy, since she reacted to it with
The longer I watched the more something about the fellow's
striking face and figure struck me as vaguely familiar
be Raoul, a black dancer I had met years ago in New York? The longer I
looked, the surer I was it must be. But even if it was, would he remember
While still debating whether simply to walk up to him and
ask, the waiter happened to pass my table. Having asked him for the bill,
I quickly paid, got up and sauntered back to the car, parked just round
the corner in Fasanenstrasse, where one of Berlin's synagogues, burnt
down during the infamous Kristallnacht of November of 1938, used to be
(today a memorial site).
But, after putting the key in the ignition, I just sat there
without turning it over, wondering if I'd done the right thing. After
all, on my own in Berlin, not knowing anyone, why didn't I want to talk
to someone who might be glad to see me again after all these years?
What was I running away from? My gay past I suppose, which
I was determined to get away from, to start a new life.
I sat there thinking it over for five or ten minutes: one
of those moments of indecision that, depending on the decision you make,
can change the course of your life. Suddenly, without thinking really,
I made up my mind. I got out of the car, and went back to Café
He was still there.
"Excuse me," I said, "isn't your name Raoul?"
Hearing mine, a slow grin of recognition spread over his face. "Won't
you join us?" he said
the die had been cast.
He was with the Living Theater of New York, Raoul told me,
an experimental theatrical group touring Europe, to great critical acclaim,
with pieces like "The Brig," a one-act play about life in a
Marine Corps prison (under conditions not unlike those in Camp X-Ray I
suppose) and "Frankenstein," based on the horror story by Mary
Currently appearing at Berlin's Kunstakademie, a venue for
avant-garde art including the performing arts, for their next engagement
they would be going to Venice, with other Italian cities to follow, where
they would be doing "street theatre."
Where was he staying?
At a Pension on Kurfürstendamm. Run by Madame Shéira,
a former ballerina, once married to an Egyptian, long dead, their spacious
apartment in a building with art nouveau facade had been converted into
a Pension. Julian Beck and Judith Malina, founder-directors of the Living
Theater, were also staying there. He had a large double room, all to himself,
What was I doing later that evening?
"Nothing," I said.