We meet at the Café del Sol, somewhere that’s become a fixture. A pre-fab Neanderthal cave. Colonial style, with a West German vibe. A promise, similar to those of the changing rooms in Karstadt, DB lounges and Neckermann travel agencies, so similar to artefacts that have become spaces – or possibly, more accurately, spaces that have become artefacts – of a recently past present.
In Leipzig, I once saw an old man step out into the dusk from a Karstadt hewn from sandstone in exactly the same way that he had previously stepped out of a socialist Kaufhalle on the same spot and, before that – maybe when he was a child – out of Althoff’s department store. It wasn’t Karstadt, which, apart from the staff, only a few incomers were campaigning to save, that was the artefact, but that old man. He’d seen it all.
But the Café del Sol is still there. Its turning into an artefact – and ours – has yet to happen. All this occurs to me when I meet Tobias on the terrace. Orange juice, cappuccino artfully decorated with cocoa powder on top and a waitress whose ponytail is dyed all the colours of the rainbow.
All of this might be a story worth telling, because reading this city as an artefact is very easy indeed.
Between lockdowns I visit a bar in the basement of a Berlin shopping centre. The landlady pulls out her phone and asks me to rate a particular street in Schalke. Is it a good or bad neighbourhood? It turns out that her new boyfriend – a long-distance lorry driver, a long-distance relationship arising from such romantic circumstances that recounting them could never do them justice – it turns out that her new boyfriend, who she’s going to visit soon, lives in this street. It seems absolutely fine to me.
»I cut the bread for them and they run«, Sibylle Baier sings in Alice in the Cities, and: »love them if ever they come, wherever they’re gone.« Alice’s grandmother doesn’t live in Wuppertal, nor anywhere else in the Ruhr. An old WDR (West German Broadcasting Corporation Cologne) documentary shows two migrant workers, the fathers of the teenagers from Karnap belonging to the thrash metal band Kreator. One says they should at least give their music a try. The other wants his son to get a secure job right now. The two fathers are standing on uneven pavement slabs between two pieces of lawn. One of the sons will drop out of the band before it becomes world-famous, the other will stay. In the rehearsal room next to theirs a young man practises flamenco guitar. He respects his neighbours, because their music is complicated too. Both the fathers were still children when the Zeche Carl mine was abandoned. The demystification of America, I read in one film review of Alice; railway lines high overhead, in Queens, in Wuppertal, between the steelworks, I think.
Opposite the spot where Tuffi the elephant fell into the Wupper stands Friedrich Engels, 3.85 metres tall, with Chinese features and a bronze Mao suit, surrounded by tourists, half-way between Paris and Berlin. An artefact. In front of the national headquarters of the MLPD (Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany), in Horst, on what looks like a section of public pavement but the land is actually privately owned – in a way we would only otherwise see in London, New York or Dubai – a statue of Lenin has been erected, 2.15 metres tall and gleaming silver like a Power Ranger.
Tobias and I walk to Ückendorf. In a shop window there is a giant poodle. We watch as the dog clipper takes holds its chin in her fingertips and looks earnestly into its eyes. At the second-hand car dealer there is no longer any sign of those holographic blue and white and bright-pink pennants that ought to be fluttering on a line above the fence.
How do we deal with a life in collapsed backdrops?