On being followed by spies

A cub reporter in an abandoned big city

I stayed because I had discovered a hole in the journalism market.

For the major American and British papers, Berlin in 1986 was not important enough to merit its own correspondent any more. Correspondents lived in Berlin, where the West German government had its “temporary” home – we foreigners used to laugh at the “temporary.” We thought that the Germans should just accept the idea that the Berlin Wall wasn’t going anywhere and that Bonn would be the capital for our lifetimes, at least.

In Berlin, there was a Clive somebody, in his sixties with not many teeth, who provided freelance items for the British newspapers. There was Charles Brady, an old American WWII soldier who provided whatever the US papers could be persuaded to take from Berlin, which was not very much.

The Associated Press made do with English-speaking Germans, and Reuters, the other big news service, had a guy called Ralph who was based in East Berlin covering the East German regime.

His girlfriend, Krista, was the Berlin “stringer” for the New York Times, a stringer being the first person newspapers called if they needed something before their own correspondent could get there. Krista got a big scoop on a terrorist bombing because she happened to be sleeping next to Ralph when it happened.


In front of the Brandenburger Tor, which stood on the border between East and West.


For some reason, this situation looked like opportunity to me. I had been an intern for the Wall Street Journal Europe, so I had contacts there, and went dutifully about trying to become a stringer for the US papers – I didn’t know about Charles Brady at the time. Besides, my expenses were low. At 22, I was happy to live off of spicy Turkish pizza or bratwurst from the local Schnell Imbiss. And I had no real reason to go home.

I started sending out pitch letters typed on the electric typewriter I had received as a college graduation present. And, slowly, assignments came. For the Toronto Star, I wrote about a Berlin apartment complex with a superhighway through its basement – apparently a similar building was being considered in Toronto. Ms. magazine, an iconic feminist publication, let me write a piece about long-delayed recognition for the Trummerfrau, women who had sorted through the ruins of bombed-out Berlin. For Sports Illustrated, I wrote about a new East German boxing robot.

I wrote for anyone who would pay me. I wrote for a left-wing journal called Mother Jones about the racial harassment of Africans in Europe, something rarely discussed at the time. I contributed regularly to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal Europe, a bastion of right-wing, Reaganite thinking.

Once, I helped a Fleet Street celebrity reporter named Baz Bamigboye chase down actor Sean Penn, then known mostly for his run-ins with he press. Sean hid beneath the red banquettes of the Café de Paris when he saw me and Baz Bamigboye on the way.

But that all seemed like small change when it seemed that I might have a chance to become the stringer for the New York Times. Krista had broken off her relationship with Ralph and was returning to the US. The man who would make the decision was James Markham, the Bonn correspondent for the Times. I wanted so much to string for the Times.

During a trip through Berlin, Mr. Markham agreed to meet me in his hotel suite, where we sat in the tiny front room at a cramped oak table. I did my very best in to impress him during the interview, which I attended in the most professional outfit I had at the time, an orange plaid business suit.

Mr. Markham never gave me any work for the Times, although I found out later he had been making fun of me all over Europe because of the orange plaid suit. He was not a likeable man, apparently even to himself, as he shot himself a few years later in Paris.

A transit visa for East Germany

Anyway, my youthful enthusiasm was apparently quite amusing for many of the old guard. I ran into Ralph, the Reuters guy, while covering a raucous demonstration by the autonomes, a loosely-organized group of young anarchists who wore black ski masks and wanted nothing in particular. Sometimes they put chewing gum in bank machines to protest the idea of money.

On this particular day, they began to a riot, turning over café chairs and smashing shop windows. I began to run towards the action. "Yeah, run! run!" Ralph smirked after me, as he stood immobile, holding his notebook. He apparently didn’t think it was much of a riot.


Ralph wasn’t all bad. He took me out to lunch once at one of East Berlin’s leading attractions, a rotating restaurant at the top of the TV tower. The restaurant was inside what looked like a giant steel golf ball, which reflected the sun in a cross pattern, a great irritation to the communists who built it. We had a typical East German lunch – heavy gravy over something, and waitresses who served at their own pleasure – and a good chat.

Ralph said he was happy to see Krista gone - she had become an “albatross around his neck,” he said. He filled me in on the social and political situation in East Germany. The Berlin Wall, he said, would stand for at least another fifty years. Every time he said something unflattering about the regime, he made a great ceremony of talking into the fern on the table. In the East German police state, microphones and spies were everywhere, he said.



As I walked back towards the border crossing after lunch, I thought about some of the things Ralph had told me. And then I noticed someone following me down the street.

I was being spied on! What a thrill. Clearly, East Germany had too many spies if they had someone with time enough to follow me, since I had about as much secret information as you’d find on a billboard.

My spy followed me down the street, turning when I turned. He followed me through the Nicolai quarter, the Communist authorities' “reconstruction” of medieval Berlin using ribbed re-enforced concrete, and he followed me past the huge white Nazi adminstration buildings, now East German administration buildings. He followed me all the way to the famous Checkpoint Charlie.

There, at the border crossing into West Berlin he finally left me, feeling like a temptress in a paperback thriller.


Next: My boyfriend the schizophrenic.

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