Escape from Berlin

And how I was wrong about the Berlin Wall

By November 1987, the weather in Berlin was cold and grey again, and I was running out of money.

Freelancing checks arrived at uncertain intervals, and I had uncovered no great scoops in Berlin, although I did make the front page of the prestigious British newspaper The Guardian with on-the-spot coverage of Rudolf Hess’ death.

The old Nazi had hung himself in his cell at Spandau Prison, which British troops bulldozed within hours to prevent it from becoming a twisted kind of shrine.


Up against the Berlin Wall, 1984

Anyway, I had a Nazi-connected secret of my own: I was living off of mostly off of selling travel stories about Berlin 's 750th anniversary. Berlin was not necessarily 750 years old – no one knew precisely how old it was – but in 1937, the Third Reich had needed a event to follow the Berlin Olympics, so Joseph Goebbels pulled a 700th anniversary out of thin air.

Fifty years later, both East and West Berlin had planned flashy celebrations of the invented anni-versary, and I was busy describing it for a variety of newspapers. I also sold a lot of stories about an old man who liked to sit on top of the Berlin Wall and bang it with a hammer.

But it wasn’t enough. To stay in Berlin, I would have to find a steady job, and I just didn't have it in me to do that. I decided to leave. Looking back, that has always felt like a defeat, but I’m not entirely sure that it was. How long should I have stayed? I was 23 years old.

When I think about what would have happened if I had stayed in Berlin, I sometimes think about Charles Brady, who arrived shortly around 1948 and was still there in 1987 (and, I discovered via a recent Google search, was still there as late as 2005).

Chuck must have been around 60 when I knew him, and although he was tall and well built and had probably been quite a hunk in the Robert Mitchum era, he looked terribly elderly to me. He took me for a drink at the Galerie Bremer, which was more famous for the bar in the back than the art in the front.

Chuck explained that he had been coming to the Galerie Bremer 's bar since the 1950s. "See that banquette?" he said, after a couple of drinks. "That was where I decided to abort my only child."


He had a lot of regrets, and a lot of complaints. Although he introduced himself to people with a strong handshake and the words, " Charles Brady, amerikanischer Journalist," he disliked the United States. "It's a terrible country. It doesn't take care of its children, and it doesn't take care of its old people," he told me.

American journalism was a crock; he had long aban-doned any pretense of serious reporting. "What you do is get Americans who are coming through Berlin, singers or whatever, and then write to their hometown newspapers and pitch an article about it," he said. "That's your bread and butter."

Chuck belonged nowhere, to no country, no family, and no set of rules. He made a play for me, asking me to come join him in a cabin he'd rented in southern Germany and "make a memory," with him.

I tried to let him down with humor. "Um, I'm not that kind of girl," I said.

"Well, I've met one too many of your type of girl," he said bitterly.

Painting on the Berlin Wall, 1987

But before I left, there was one thing I had to do. I had to paint on the Berlin wall.

Who paints on the wall? Artists? Activists? Tourists? I knew a lot of people in Berlin, and I didn’t know anyone who had done it. Painting the wall actually required entering East German territory, since the communist had cleverly built the wall two meters into East Berlin, so they could maintain both sides. That said, I had never heard of anyone being bothered by the VoPos, or People's Police, while engaged in graffiti activities on the Western side.

I recruited a German friend and made a stencil of front page of that day’s BT, a local tabloid. The thick headline said, in a reference to an upcoming visit by Mikail Gorbachev, “The wall will soon be torn down,” which we thought very funny. Everyone knew that the Wall wasn’t going anywhere.


Half a can of pink spray paint later, there it was. It was probably still there when the Wall fell eighteen months later.

Clearly, I was wrong about the Berlin Wall, and so was everyone else. Conventional wisdom always seems to make sense, but it’s so often wrong. You never really know what is going to happen.


Next: An undistinguished return.

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