TO COME DOWN TO EARTH
was the phrase that came to me when I landed in L.A. and the passengers on the airplane clapped to thank the pilot for flying it across the ocean, approaching the New World from the sea, circling for a long time above the lights of the giant metropolis, then gently touching down. I still remember how I decided to use that sentence later, when I would write about the landing and the sojourn on a foreign coast that lay ahead. Later: Now. That so many years would pass in dogged attempts to reach the sentences which were to follow, to reach them in the right way, was something I could not foresee. I decided to fix everything in my memory for later, every detail. How my blue passport caused a stir with the wiry red-blond officer who was rigorously and carefully checking the papers of every arriving visitor; he flipped through its pages for a long time, studied every single visa, then picked up the invitation letter from the CENTER, under whose auspices I would be spending the following months, a letter certified and authenticated many times over; finally he looked straight at me with his ice-blue eyes: Germany? —Yes. East Germany. —I would have found it hard to give him any further details, because of the language barrier too, but he decided to ask a colleague for advice over the phone. The whole scene seemed familiar—how well I knew the feeling of tense excitement and the sense of relief too when he finally, having no doubt received a satisfactory answer to his question, stamped the visa and slid my passport back across the counter with a hand covered in freckles. Are you sure that country exists? —Yes, I am, I said curtly, even though the correct answer would have been No and I had to wonder, during my long wait for the luggage, whether it was really worth it to travel to the United States with the still-valid passport of a no-longer-extant country just to confuse a young redheaded immigration official. That was one of the acts of defiance I was still capable of then, acts which, it occurs to me now, become fewer and fewer with age. And there the word stands on the page, mentioned in passing, as is only fitting: the word whose shadow flickered across me for the first time then, more than a decade and a half ago, and has meantime grown so thick and dark that I have to worry about its becoming impenetrable before I can fulfill the duties of my profession. Before I have described, that is, how I hauled my bags down off the baggage carousel, loaded them onto an oversize luggage cart, and headed for the EXIT in the middle of a confusing crowd of people. How, having barely set foot in the terminal, something happened that according to all the earnest pleas and warnings from experienced travelers I should never have let happen: a giant black man came up to me, Want a car, ma’am?, and I, inexperienced creature of reflexes that I was, nodded yes, instead of resolutely refusing the way I had been told to. Already the man had snatched the cart and set off with it—I would never see it again, or so my alarm system told me. I followed after him as quickly as I could and there he was, in fact, standing outside on the curb of the access road where taxis were rolling up, bumper to bumper, their headlights dimmed. He pocketed the dollar he was entitled to and handed me over to a colleague, also black, who had gotten himself a job waving down taxis. He too discharged his duties, stopped the next taxi, helped me load my bags into the trunk, likewise received his dollar, and turned me over to the skinny little driver, an agile Puerto Rican whose English I couldn’t understand but who obligingly listened to mine and, after studying the letterhead with my future address on it, seemed to know where he was supposed to take me. Only then, when the taxi started driving, I remember, did I feel the mild night air, the breath of the south, which I recognized from an entirely different coast where it had come over me for the first time like a thick warm towel—at the airport in Varna. The Black Sea, its velvety darkness, the sweet heavy scent of its gardens.
I can still, today, feel myself in that taxi, with chains of lights racing by on either side and sometimes streaming into handwriting—world-famous brand names, billboards in garish colors for supermarkets, for bars and restaurants, outshining the night sky. Words like “orderly” would be out of place here, on this coastal road, perhaps on this whole continent. Very softly, and quickly repressed again, the question came to mind: What had actually made me come here?—just loud enough for me to recognize it the next time it announced itself, already more urgent than before. In any case, the scaly trunks of the palm trees glided by as though they were reason enough. The smell of gas and exhaust. A long drive.
Santa Monica, ma’am? —Yes. —Second Street, ma’am? —Right. —Ms. Victoria? —Yes. —Here we are.
For the first time, the illuminated metal sign affixed to the iron fence: MS. VICTORIA HOTEL, OLD WORLD CHARM. Everything quiet. All the windows dark. It was a little before midnight. The driver helped me with my luggage. A front lawn, a path of stone slabs, the smell of unknown flowers that apparently gave off a scent at night, the weak light of a gently swaying lamp over the front door, a doorbell which had, stuck behind it, a piece of paper with my name on it. Welcome, I read. The door was open, I should go right in, the key to my apartment was on the table in the hall, second floor, room number seventeen, the manager of the MS. VICTORIA wishes you a wonderful night.
Was I dreaming? But unlike in a dream I didn’t lose my way, I found the key, took the right stairs, the key fit in the right lock, the light switch was where it was supposed to be, in the blink of an eye I can see it all before me: Two floor lamps lighting a large room with a cluster of armchairs opposite a long dining table surrounded with chairs. I paid the taxi driver, to his apparent satisfaction, with the unfamiliar money that I had luckily exchanged in Berlin before my departure, thanked him in an appropriate way, and received, as was proper, the answer: You’re welcome, ma’am.
I examined my apartment: Aside from this large living room there was an adjoining kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms. What a waste. A family of four could live here comfortably, I thought on that first night, then later got used to the luxury. A welcome note from someone named Alice lay on the table—she must be the employee of the CENTER who had signed the invitation letter, and it was probably she who had also thoughtfully left me bread, butter, and a few drinks in the kitchen. I tried a little of everything and it tasted foreign.
I worked out that back where I had come from it was already morning, so I could call without waking anyone up. After a few failed attempts with several overseas operators trying to help me, I managed to get the telephone in the tiny cabinet next to the front door to work, I dialed the right numbers and I heard, behind the white noise of the ocean, the familiar voice. That was the first of the hundred phone calls to Berlin in the next nine months. I said I had made it to the other side of the globe. I did not say what I was asking myself: What was the point? I did say I was very tired, and it’s true, I really was, a strange, foreign tiredness. I looked for a nightgown in one of the suitcases, washed my hands and face, lay down in the bed, which was too wide and too soft, and didn’t fall asleep for a long time. I woke up early, out of a morning dream, and heard a voice say: Time does what it can. It passes.
Those were the first sentences I wrote down in the large lined notebook that I had taken the precaution to bring with me and had placed on the narrow end of the long dining table and that quickly filled up with my notes, which I can now refer back to. In the meantime, time has passed, the way my dream laconically informed me it always does—which was, and is, one of the most mysterious processes I know and one that I understand less and less the older I get. The fact that rays of thought, looking back into the past and looking ahead into the future, can penetrate through the layers of time strikes me as a miracle, and the telling of stories partakes of this miracle, because otherwise, without the benevolent gift of storytelling, we would not have survived and we could not survive.
For example, it’s possible to let such thoughts flit through one’s head and at the same time flip through the packet from the CENTER I discovered on the table in my apartment the next morning: “First Day Survival Information” for new arrivals. It listed the nearest grocery stores, cafés, and pharmacies, described how to get to the CENTER and its rules of operation, and gave its telephone number, staffed twenty-four hours a day, of course. It recommended restaurants and also bookstores, libraries, scenic drives, museums, amusement parks, and guidebooks, and last but not least impressed upon the unsuspecting newcomer the proper behavior in case of an earthquake. I conscientiously reviewed all the information and also studied the list of my fellow scholars, from various countries, who would be my colleagues for the next six months, who would develop into members of a friendly community, and who have since scattered to the four winds again, or in other words, back to their various native countries.
A serious earthquake took place in the city only after my stay there, and the San Andreas Fault running under the city, shifting large masses of earth against each other, remains a constant threat. If someone had showed me a picture of the world of today, I would not have believed it, although my visions of the future were certainly gloomy enough. Whatever residual innocence I must still have been endowed with then has left me. What remained was a resolution that is hard to carry out, that remains unaccomplished, and that therefore lives on, unchanged to this day: To follow the traces of pain and suffering.
I later talked about that topic often with Peter Gutman but I didn’t know him yet on that first morning. He would be one of the last of my colleagues that I would meet, a fact we laughed about afterward. There was a lot of laughter in general in the CENTER’s lounge, when we were sitting there for tea and cookies that Jasmine, the younger of the two secretaries in the office, prepared for us at 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. sharp, along with the newspapers from every country we came from, American of course but also Italian, French, German, Swiss, Austrian, even Russian, despite the fact that there were no Russians in our group, all hanging from wooden sticks like in a Viennese coffeehouse, all one or two days old, which provided a soothing distance from the usually unpleasant news we read in them, and sometimes, shaking our heads, read out loud to each other, as though compelled to enter into some kind of competition over whose native country the most deplorable circumstances prevailed in.
I do not believe I am mistaken when I say that I attracted more curious looks than anyone else in our circle. Not only because I was the oldest, I had to get used to that. It was the place I came from that guaranteed me a certain special status. No one was tactless enough to say anything about it to me directly, but they would surely have very much wanted to know how a person feels who has come straight from a country that has ceased to exist.
Every morning, light fell into my bedroom through a wooden lattice, filtered through the leaves and tendrils that had worked their way up the wall of the MS. VICTORIA and partially scaled my window. My morning dreams brought me words that I noted down later: I can read one now, “unholy,” jumping out of a context that is now lost. First in bed, then sitting on the edge of the bed, I carried out the few exercises that I had prescribed for myself, since, all alone in this distant, foreign country, I could not let myself get sick or get too stiff to move. I then went to the bathroom I had decided to use, the smaller one, and climbed into the shower, whose head, unlike in Europe, was attached to the wall, so that special techniques were necessary to reach my whole body. To the accompaniment of music I could not understand and news I could not understand from the local radio station in Los Angeles, I assembled my breakfast with hand movements I was already used to, but out of components that to some extent I was not used to: muffins (well, why not?), a strange muesli mix, and orange juice, which, after a few failed shopping efforts, seemed the most reliable. It was only when it came to coffee that I still had to experiment—I had to find someone who understood Germans’ taste in coffee and could recommend which brand out of the dozens of tins on offer at PAVILION came closest to it. (In the GDR, it had almost caused a revolution when the government, to make the expensive “genuine” beans last longer, expected the population to accept an undrinkable coffee blend; when the workers’ protests started to approach the threat of strikes, they immediately took it off the shelves.) Bill, who had lived in the apartment before I did and then moved in with a friend, had left behind various exotic spice mixtures for me, as well as an impressive array of bottles: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, good whiskey, California wine. On his last day in the city, he went out to eat with me at the Italian restaurant on Second Street, and introduced me, with affectionate irony, into the customs of the old MS. VICTORIA and the young CENTER. It’s the damnedest thing, he’d said, there is nowhere you can work on the history of good old Europe better than here in the New World. They collect everything that has to do with the old country, it’s like they’re possessed, as though they wanted to preserve at least a copy of Europe in case it ever ceased to exist, because of nuclear war or some other catastrophe. Bill was working on the history of Catholicism in Spain and France, and calculated for me the thousands of human victims that the various pushes to Christianize those countries had claimed. In every colonization, he said, the first thing to be rooted out among the conquered in order to take away their identity was their religion, their beliefs. Aside from that, the conquerors had a pressing need, however implausible it may sound, to insist that not only their weapons and commodities but their worldview and beliefs were superior. It stemmed from a deep-seated inferiority complex. Oh, I know that, I’d said, and Bill, the Englishman, had given me a searching look: You’re going through that now over there, aren’t you? He hadn’t insisted I answer. Sometimes, in the evening, when I had drunk a glass of wine from his stock, I clinked glasses with him in my thoughts.
So, many times, I set out in the morning through the blossoming front lawn of the MS. VICTORIA, full of unfamiliar plants and with a small bitter orange tree in a circular flower bed in the middle, whose fruits I saw ripen. The cars here, extraordinarily wide, crept carefully up to the intersections and politely stopped even when there was no little green man on the traffic sign to permit pedestrians to WALK; they rocked gently back and forth on their suspensions; friendly, well-dressed, carefully coiffed female drivers or chic male drivers in dark suits with ties and collars signaled the pedestrian to go ahead, with nonchalant waves of their hands, so I crossed California Avenue without hurrying. Did I even notice the trees still with gaudy red blossoms in November, in December? I was spared autumn leaves and gray foggy days that year, but also denied them. Did I already miss them?
I can call up the CENTER before my mind’s eye whenever I want. At the time it was housed in an ordinary multistory office building, which has long since been replaced by a spectacular postmodern complex high above the city. So: a wide flight of stairs outside, leading up to a series of columns, through which I saw myself walking every day in the giant reflective glass double doors. I always opened the same door from among the six possible options, and stepped into the massive lobby, where there was always the same man stationed at always the same place, day in and day out, a doorman or guard who greeted favorite visitors with an outstretched right arm and a friendly snap of his fingers, and whose watchful gaze roamed over the spacious area the lobby opened up into on the right, where the First Federal Bank had its windows. This bank, to which I had already several times entrusted my biweekly checks and which had assured me of its gratitude for this act of trust both verbally and in writing, had for its part, however, expressed little trust in my financial seriousness—for I had not yet received the ATM card that would put me in a position to get cash from the machines. The ladies behind the bank counters had seemed extremely distressed and were forthcoming with reassurances, while in me the impression was reinforced that they, or their invisible superiors above them, were intentionally delaying the issuance of this crucial piece of plastic because they wanted to be reassured first that this customer’s account, though small in scope, would nonetheless continually increase and pose little risk of suffering a precipitous collapse. Still, I sometimes had to laugh when I thought about how different the grounds for suspecting me were in the various societal formations I lived and had lived in.
In any case, I didn’t veer off toward the bank windows but went straight to the elevators and noticed, not without satisfaction, that the doorman (guard?) greeted me for the first time with the gesture reserved for only those of the countless visitors to the building he had admitted into the inner circle of those who belonged there. How are you today, Madam? —Oh, great! —There are degrees of comparatives and superlatives for every level of well-being.
I took the second from the left of the four elevators, as always, and admiringly observed the young lady on the staff who stood across from me, ultrathin in her tight-fitting suit, with a swan made of gold paper, a gift, on her palm, and wafted up to the higher spheres, the eleventh floor, to which I never once strayed. How are you today? —Fine, I heard myself say: a sign that new reflexes were forming, because a very short time before, even yesterday, I would have had to dig around in my brain for an appropriate quick answer that might well have come out as Pretty bad (and actually, why would that have been my answer? I’d have to think about that more later). But by then I understood that nothing was expected of me except to carry out a ritual, which suddenly no longer seemed dishonest and superficial, but almost humane. Elevator syndrome.
As always, I got out at the fifth floor, where the black security guard already knew me by name and spoke it while handing me an envelope that had been left for me; where I automatically reached out for the correct hook in the little locker to take my Identity Card, complete with my photograph, and attach it to my lapel—a further important sign of my belonging there, and in the end that’s what it was all about.
I sometimes walked up the two flights of stairs to the seventh floor, and sometimes, when my joints hurt too much, took the elevator. My feet knew the way between the shelves in which photographs of all the works of art from every century and every continent were archived; it no longer happened that I tried to open a wrong door with a wrong key. So I opened the door to my office space and was already so blasé that I no longer had to go up to the large window first thing every morning, with a feeling of something like reverence, to look at the Pacific Ocean stretched out behind Second Street and a line of houses and a row of palm trees. The phone. It was Berlin, the city had melted down into a single voice that I had to hear every day. That wanted to remind me of the Baltic Sea. The Baltic, well. I am fond of it and always will be, and I know that I cannot endure sublime landscapes over the long run, the Alps and such. But still, the feeling that there’s nothing all the way to Japan but this endless expanse of water! Were my feelings exaggerated?
I put down the bag in which I was carrying around the bundle of papers that had come to me two years before, after the death of my friend Emma, and that burned away at my soul (I am not overstating it): the letters from a certain L., about whom I knew nothing except that she had lived in the United States and must have been very close friends with my friend Emma, and the same age. I had come here because of these letters, among other reasons, nurturing the illusion that it must be possible here to find out who this “L.” actually was.
I walked to the middle of the office, waving, as I walked past open doors, into rooms where my colleagues sat at their computers, when they were not off somewhere in the rambling building, in the library or the archives, following some trace, or meeting with other scholars in the city. I sometimes envied them for their clearly delineated projects and disciplinary identities: they could state their field immediately: history of architecture, or philosophy, or art and literature, or film studies, there was even medieval literature, and every one of them could name the topic of study they were here to advance just like that. Whereas I was plunged into embarrassment whenever anyone asked me about my work plans. Was I supposed to admit that I had nothing in hand but a bunch of old letters from a dead woman and I was simply curious about their author, who must have lived in this city years ago when she wrote them to my likewise dead friend Emma? And that that was why the invitation I had received from the CENTER came at such an opportune time? And that I would now take advantage of the privilege of being an author of literary books, someone who couldn’t be questioned too closely about her project? It seemed highly likely to me, though, that my plans were destined to fail. Even now, the coincidences that in the end brought this project at least to a successful and happy conclusion seem unbelievable to me. If I may use those inappropriate words, “successful” and “happy,” just this once, as an exception.
For me, incidentally, the least embarrassing of my evasive actions (that maybe no one else recognized as such) were those directed toward the two department secretaries, Kätchen and Jasmine. Kätchen was middle-aged, somewhat nondescript in appearance but expert and experienced in all matters pertaining to the CENTER, absolutely reliable and discrete and versed in the technological skills that I often had to avail myself of, especially at the beginning, and finally, as we all appreciated very much, sympathetic about all the hardships and difficulties that a member of our community might encounter. The other secretary, Jasmine, blond and young and slender and supple and a delight to the men’s gazes, was in charge of our bodily well-being, for sending and receiving the mail, and for all affairs outside the building, such as arranging meetings with other people in the city, including invitations to this or that restaurant from this or that scholar, since the department staff felt responsible for making sure that the new arrivals felt at home in this foreign country as quickly as possible.
I took the mail out of my cubbyhole, Jasmine handed me a few newspapers, and Kätchen said that no one had gotten back to her yet about the information request she had put in to the city and university libraries for me. But it seemed unlikely in any case that there would be a complete index there, or anywhere else, of the German émigrés who had found refuge here in the thirties and forties. Although, said Lutz—my much younger countryman, an art historian, who was working at the copier nearby—although the totally impossible is possible here, where else if not here? He immediately provided an example: how he had found a photograph of a painting by the long-forgotten and recently rediscovered painter he had chosen as his object of study right here in the archive, as simple as that, after all the archives in Europe had reported it as lost. Well, good, I said, a little sheepishly, but I don’t even know the name of the person I’m looking for. I don’t know anything except one initial, probably from her first name, L. Yes, well, Lutz said, in that case it certainly is an especially difficult situation. He would be at something of a loss himself, he said, while we walked to the lounge, where it was time for tea and the others would be gathered as well.
In the lounge, where a gigantic glass wall let in the California light unfiltered, drawing your gaze to the Pacific Ocean and the course of the sun in its great arc from left to right, a sight that took my breath away every time and that since then I see in my mind’s eye more often than any other sight from that year—there they sat, each one behind the newspaper from his or her country of origin. Benevolent habits began to develop. Hi! I said, and Hi! came back from behind the newspapers. People already had their regular seats, and mine was, accidentally or not, between the two Italians: Francesco, working on architecture, and Valentina, here for a short stay to conclude her work on a classical sculpture in the CENTER’s famous museum. She had laid out my cup, put the thermos of tea within reach, and also the German newspaper they subscribed to here. I thanked her with a glance. She was looking especially beautiful again with her brown curly hair and her patchwork jacket combining every color; as always, whenever we ran into each other, she beamed delightedly at me. So I poured myself some tea, unfolded my newspaper, and read whatever seemed worthy to report on in Germany three or four days ago. I read that a colleague of mine, who had had to abandon our country a few years before its collapse but was nonetheless someone of rather the same convictions, was now revealing himself as a radical critic of everyone who had stayed in the GDR rather than leaving in horror as he had. I read that he had criticized the “Revolution” of the fall of 1989 for being peaceful. Heads needed to roll, I read, and we had been too timid and cowardly. It’s someone whose head wouldn’t have been in danger anyway who’s writing that, I thought, and I noticed myself starting an inner debate with this colleague of mine.
I remembered—and I still remember today—your relief when, on the morning of November 4, 1989, around Alexanderplatz, the marshals approached you in high spirits with orange sashes on which was printed: NO VIOLENCE! The previous night, at a meeting you took part in, the rumor had been spread that trains with Stasi people disguised as workers had been sent to the capital to provoke the peaceful demonstrators and give the armed forces an excuse to attack. A kind of panic gripped you, you called your daughter and told her she couldn’t bring the children with her to Alexanderplatz, but they had already drawn their banners—MAKE SCHOOL MORE INTERESTING! and HELP US GORBY!—and they could no longer be kept away. You went over your speech again, word by word. None of you talked about it but you all thought about the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. The idea that you all might have fallen into a trap, by being too naive, too carefree, weighed heavily upon you, but the more demonstrators streamed up out of the subway stations onto the square, raising their banners and signs, forming a protest march, without needing instructions, the more sure you became that nothing would happen. You couldn’t know, none of you could know, that companies of the People’s Army were stationed on the roofs of public buildings along Unter den Linden, with live ammunition. In case of emergency. In case the demonstrators left the agreed-upon route and broke through to the Brandenburg Gate, the border with the West. Or, what you learned only later: that one of the sons of one of your colleagues was up there in uniform, lying on the roof, while her other son marched in the demonstration down below.
But would the soldiers have fired? A few months after that day, when the borders had long since been opened, the euphoria had passed, and reality—which apparently is always necessarily disillusioning—was gaining ground, you were walking home in your neighborhood with heavily loaded shopping bags when a young man ran after you and begged you to have a coffee with him and his two comrades, all officers in the National People’s Army, out of uniform. You sat with them at a sidewalk café, it must have been the first warm days. Until the fall of the Wall, the three of them had kept watch over the border with the West, but now that they were no longer needed there they had been withdrawn, to be transferred to the Polish border, which they absolutely did not want, they had their families and apartments or little houses here in Berlin, and anyway, the number of troops was being cut. What was going to happen to them? When after all they were among those who had made sure that no shots were fired at the Wall on the night of November 9. They said that they, a captain and two lieutenants, had not been able to reach a superior officer to receive instructions when the crowds started streaming toward the border crossing and that they had collected all the ammunition from their unit so that nothing could happen. You asked them why they had done it. They said: A People’s Army can’t shoot at the people. —Good for you, you said. —And now that’s all the thanks they would get in return? —I’m afraid so, you said. —In that case they would be the ones who lost the most in the reunification, they said.
The lounge. I was elsewhere for a few fractions of a second; memory outraced the light. I would photocopy my colleague’s article and put it on the shelf in my apartment with the other clippings and photocopies, a pile that quickly grew, that I would send back over the ocean, by air freight, to add to the other, similar, but far bigger piles at home, useless things that collected dust but that I might be able to use someday to shore up a memory that I otherwise couldn’t trust. Couldn’t trust anymore. In case of emergency. Even though I was well aware that the power of memory supplied by these newspapers was at best an artificial substitute for my real work.
Francesco was groaning over his Italian newspaper. The politicians are ruining us, he said, those criminals. My country is drowning in corruption. I showed him my article and he read it shaking his head. Has everyone gone crazy, he said, I hope you don’t take that nonsense to heart. I didn’t tell him what I took to my heart. He said how much he hoped that he would live to see another revolution someday. How he imagined that one’s sense of life, so crushed by our day-to-day existence—and more crushed the longer it goes on—would be permanently changed by such an experience: inspired, he should think.
I forced myself past my reluctance to talk about those days, a reluctance I didn’t fully understand myself. I said yes, having lived through and taken part in that, one of the few revolutions in German history, removed every doubt I had had about whether staying in that country, which so many people had left with such good reason, was the right thing to do. Now I was even happy I had stayed, in fact. But some defect I seem to be afflicted with, I said, prevents me from feeling the proper mood during so-called historical events. On that November 4, for example, I said, a day for high spirits, in the middle of my speech in front of the hundreds of thousands standing on Alexanderplatz, I felt the cardiac dysrhythmia I was well acquainted with overtake me, which the doctors absolutely refused to connect with psychological experiences, so I had to be taken to the nearest hospital in one of the ambulances standing ready at the edge of the demonstration, where everything was ready for admitting numerous patients. I, however, was the first and only patient to be taken there, and was seen by a team of doctors and nurses who thought I was a vision, since they had just seen me fresh as a daisy onscreen. So I lay there on an ER cot for the rest of the event and waited for an injection to take effect.—So much, my dear Francesco, for one’s sense of life. We laughed. I promised to join the outing that Francesco had arranged for the following day, to an installation of modern art.
Pat and Mike, the young Americans with their Clinton buttons pinned to their shirts—assistants in our department—were brooding over the weekend’s New York Times, which saw declining prospects for the Democrats in the upcoming election. If Clinton doesn’t win I’ll have to leave the country, Mike said gloomily. —Why? —They both worked at a Democratic election office every night and they explained to me how hard it was for liberals, never mind people on the left!, to find suitable jobs in recent years, how stale and demoralizing, denunciatory too, the environment was in government offices; the same in the universities, how you had to gauge whom you could talk openly with, and young people like them would have had absolutely no prospects if they hadn’t conformed to the point of denying who they really were. You probably don’t hear much about that abroad? —You’re right, we don’t, I said.
But then we all gathered for the spectacle of the sunset over the Pacific, a ritual that was never planned but was usually observed. The sun turned its decline and fall into something special, a climax we wouldn’t have thought possible, and we mutely watched the performance until it came into someone’s head to say: God exists.
The light! Yes, the light, that’s the first thing I would say if someone asked me what I miss when I think back to those months. The endless streets, fringed with palm trees, that seemed to run right into the ocean, like Wilshire Boulevard, which I drove up and down so many, many times. And, yes, the MS. VICTORIA would come to mind too, which I gradually fell in love with, once I understood that it was a magical place. It did not come as a complete surprise that the earthquake that struck Los Angeles a few years after we all left damaged the old, somewhat ramshackle Spanish-style building to the point where it was uninhabitable. It wasn’t so easy to figure out “how it worked” but you had to take it with a certain sense of humor, and what other house or apartment could you say that about? I have kept some of the announcements that the invisible hotel manager regularly slipped under our doors, mostly warnings, for example: We should make sure that the front door remained closed at all times. We should never, under any circumstances, open this door for unknown persons, because we were surely all in it together when it came to the common goal of security, especially in these times, the nature of which Mrs. Ascott did not further specify. Not one of us had set eyes on the manager yet but a picture of her was already taking shape in our minds: that of a strict, middle-aged woman in a gray suit with her hair tightly pulled back. Obviously, to keep things running smoothly at the MS. VICTORIA we had to follow her instructions, for instance organizing a system in case—as happened rarely, but occasionally—a late visitor arrived at the door (which was supposed to remain inexorably closed to him). Depending on age and gender, the visitor could receive a roof over his or her head for the night from Emily, the American film studies professor who lived upstairs from me, or from Pintus and Ria, the young Swiss couple who lived downstairs, or from me.
It turned out that it was easier to smuggle in people than animals. One day a large sign, NO PETS! appeared on the hallowed front door and Mrs. Ascott, its author, took the prohibition against house pets fiendishly seriously, as I learned from Emily, who had not been allowed to bring even one of her beloved cats with her.
I had still not yet seen her in person, our Mrs. Ascott, and when one day I saw a frail old lady get into the giant white Cadillac that, to our annoyance, constantly blocked half of the entrance to the garage, I would never have dreamed of suspecting that she was Mrs. Ascott, who in the end did bear the title of “Manager” and so, I thought, had to be at least fit enough to be able to carry out her duties, and clearly was, since the cleaning staff, mostly Puerto Rican, who cleaned my apartment and changed the sheets and towels twice a week, one woman and two men, worked on Sundays too, and when I asked the woman, a black woman with short frizzy hair, a stout bosom, and wide hips, if that was really necessary, she rolled her eyes and said in her rough, labored English that Mrs. Ascott was “not good.” As a result, I decided to reply to the monthly questionnaire that the management gave out, in which we were asked about the quality of the cleaning staff, by checking the box next to “excellent” every time without exception. Yes, excellent cleaning of the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen, Mrs. Ascott. If only you knew how little I cared.
Copyright © 2010 by Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin
Translation copyright © 2013 by Damion Searls