My boyfriend the schizophrenic

And feeling at home at Café M


One of the problems of being a freelance writer, as I was in Berlin, is loneliness. You work alone, out of your home. Your day is unstructured. I was very far away from my family and my college friends - in the days before email or inexpensive phone calls, and I had no natural circle of friends in Berlin. Sometimes I ate three meals a day alone.

The highlight of nearly every day was a trip to Postfach 3872, a post office box rented to provide a constant address when I was still trying to find a permanent home. It was Wilmersdorf, where I had been living in a sublet, so it was a trip on the U-bahn away from the apartment I finally rented in Kreuzberg.


My Berlin U-bahn pass, circa 1986


This was a plus: like many people who grew up in towns without subways, I loved the U-bahn. I loved the old wooden train cars, I loved the orange-soap smell of the stations. I loved the fact that you could ride without a ticket, even though you sometimes got caught.

I loved the taped woman’s voice that said “Einsteigen, bitte,” when it was time to get on and “Zuruck Bleiben!” when the doors were closing. (Hearing her own voice over and over seems to have driven the poor woman crazy: in 1987, a tabloid ran the headline "Voice of the U-bahn in Nerve Clinic")

Getting off the U-bahn at Wittenburgplatz, I would visit Postfach 3872 and then proceed to my regular café where, like generations of writers, I took advantage of its lights, heating, beverages and sociability while getting some work done.

Café M had originally been Café Mitropa, named after the dining cars on the Reichsbahn long-distance trains. It was sued for copyright infringement by the Reichsbahn, owned by the East Germans (who were forced to keep its Nazi-era name due to a legal quirk). Eventually the cafe just became Café M.

Traditional German cafes are dark and woody, but Café M had white walls, and red and turquoise plastic chairs. Its clientele were young and vaguely punk. Blixa Bargeld, the singer for Collapsing New Buildings, collected his mail there. German newspapers, plus the International Herald Tribune, were available for reading, but threaded on giant sticks so you couldn't take them home.

I usually ordered just a Coke, but sometimes treated myself to their “Kleine Frühstück” of fruit and cheese.

Kai helped me paint the floor of my apartment in Kreuzberg.

I met Kai at the Café M. He was my first boyfriend in Berlin, a tall, doe-eyed, hippie; dark-skinned for a German. But a German he was - his grandfather had died with Hitler’s troops at Stalingrad. I saw his pretty brown eyes across the room, and I can't remember who struck up a conversation with whom, but a conversation was struck, and we were together for several months.

Kai adored all things psychedelic. His favourite album – an LP, in those days – was by a mind-bending group called Brainticket. "Only listen to this album once a day. After you listen to this LP, your friends may not recognize you," warned the cover. He worked days as a ditch digger while spending evenings painting images on the wall of his apartment, like a giant ying-yang.

His apartment was one of the many Berlin rent-controlled flats that hadn't been renovated after the war: it had a coal stove for heating, and the toilet was shared and out in the hall.

We had a lot of good times together, Kai and I.

I met his family. His father, the son of the man who had died at Stalingrad, had said the hell with conventional society and now created abstract paintings with his feet. He was able to travel around the world doing this, as it was a popular sight in town squares and other places where crowds could gather to watch him work.

His brother, Uwe, was a handsome bicyclist who worked as a clown in an alternative-style circus.

I think I also met his mother, but twenty years later, she has left no impression on me.


All three of them neglected to tell me that Kai was fighting a lifetime battle with schizophrenia. I must have met him during a relatively lucid period, but in time, and with his recreational use of hashish and LSD, the symptoms came creeping back. When he told me there was a little man inside his head, I didn't know quite what to say.

Things got worse: he developed a delusion that his thoughts were escaping from his head, and that he needed to wear a headband at all times to keep them in.

The headband became a knit cap, and ultimately Kai felt he had to have at least one hand on his head at all times to keep his thoughts inside. If he needed both hands for something – as he did to open a present I brought him in the mental hospital where he ended up – he requested that you put a hand on his head to keep his thoughts inside.

It was all very sad and, being 22, I failed to stick by his side and nurse him back to health. In fact, I don't think I ever saw him again after that first depressing trip to the hospital. I did look him up in Google recently, and found he had created a huge gallery of psychedelic art.    It crashed my browser.


Next: Border guards examine my purse.

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