California Über Alles

After this, you will leave the chocolate factory for a job on the Kölner-Düsseldorfer Linie bringing American tourists to see castles along the banks of the Rhine.

From the porthole of the cramped cabin you share with another teenage girl, Üte, you will witness the concrete globes and funnels of the nuclear power stations that are also parked along the river’s edge. Against your wishes you will stare at them, held by their mesmeric simplicity. More majestic, more awe-inspiring than the castles, as if they’ve always been here and always will be. Machine smooth, untouchable by Atomkraft nein danke protests, untouchable by humans, untouchable by time. You will feel a chill as their shadows hang over the boat.

When, after a week of traveling up and downriver, you are berthed in Köln for the night, you will rush off to the chocolate factory, where you will find the blond boy fighting with another punk. A real physical fight, and when afterwards he catches your eye, all the laughter will be gone from his.

Everyone will be bored and broke that night, and you won’t have been paid yet. (The tips left by American tourists are no use, since they give them in the small change of countries they have already passed through, countries you may never even visit.) So, from the main hall where the old alkos lie sleeping, you and die kleine Marion will gather as many empty beer bottles as you can find and bring them to a nearby bar. There, the barman will allow you 20 pfennigs against each of sixteen empties. He will set three full bottles of beer on the wooden counter between you, and beside them a single yellow 20 pfennig piece that will land with a spin. Before the coin has finished its dance he will turn away, thinking the transaction complete.

Gib mal mehr, Marion will shout, pulling out a gun and pointing it at the barman.

You will have seen this gun before. The blond boy passed it round the circle once while you sat smoking weed and listening to Joy Division and Stiff Little Fingers, which you knew was his favorite band since the letters SLF were painted large on his black leather jacket. Your hand lowered as the cold metal sank into your palm and you knew then that the gun was real, but in that context it was also strangely unreal. A phantom from the past, perhaps from the war, a time-traveller gun. That first time you saw it, as soon as the song ended the gun was forgotten, relegated to the uncertain time zone where it once held sway.

But this time is different. This time the whole bar changes, in a very here-and-now kind of way: a barstool lifted high, your friend hit over the head with it. You try to shout that it’s just her idea of a joke, that the gun is not loaded, but you don’t know the German for loaded and everything happens so fast it is like watching speeded up film.

Someone raises a stool to hit you too, but you back into a corner and in moments the police arrive to arrest die kleine Marion. She says nothing to you as they take her away. It is as if she doesn’t even see you. You feel bad and tell one of the police you are with her, but he asks if it was you who pulled the gun, and when you say no he laughs harshly and tells you to go home and behave.

In less than a summer, less than six weeks even, all this will be simple past to you. For now, it’s unimaginable, almost, and yet when it comes — while it’s actually happening in the present tense — none of it really surprises you, not even the thing with the gun. It’s no more crazy than people without homes taking over one of the city’s dead spaces and using it. It’s just that that was crazy in a good way, and the thing with the gun is crazy in a bad way.

You spend a lot of time thinking, that summer. Half-formed thoughts, not really in English or in German, thoughts that don’t really belong either in this country or the one you’ve left behind. Dazed impressions. About Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, what it means now (an obscure but fashionable band) and what it meant before (something about the postwar years, about the Germans having to pay off their war debt). You are surprised when you see American soldiers in Germany, surprised again to note that they are all black, because in the old war movies on TV, the soldiers are never black. You think of how losers over time become winners, of how wealthy Japan and Germany have become, and you wonder how long the decline of the American empire will take.

That summer, you expect to watch it unfold in the space of the next few years — but back then you think you will live forever. Forever. And still be dead before the year 2000.

The electricity doesn’t work in this part of the building. Across on the other side of the river the last streaks of daylight glow yellow and turquoise above the city rooftops. A single dark ribbon of cloud furls itself above the horizon in what is otherwise a completely clear sky, and a phrase from your German textbook echoes through your head, an example of the future tense: es wird bald dunkel. (It becomes soon dark.)

You turn from the window and make for the stairs, stopping only to take one more bar of chocolate and stuff it in your pocket. You are halfway downstairs when the vague tuning-up noises you have been hearing give way to something louder and more definite. The last two flights you take at a run.

When you get there Dietz is pogoing on the small stage in unselfconscious mimicry of bands he loves from other parts of the world. You hear an eruption of metal, energy and feedback, a rush of audio fallout that causes several hippies to retreat somewhere quieter where they can continue their endless diskutieren. But to you these twisted sounds are full of hope; their harsh cynicism and skewed logic make sense to you right now.

And at this moment, listening to Dietz cover a Dead Kennedys song, you are firmly rooted in the present. You are looking at the boy with the badly dyed blond hair, the boy whose name you still don’t know. He is playing bass guitar. You hold up a bar of chocolate to him, ‘Willst du?’ and he nods ‘Klar,’ looking back at you with his laughing eyes, so you reach over and place the unopened bar of chocolate on the guitar amp next to him.

The song goes on: a song based on the old German national anthem, the one they’re not meant to sing any more. A song that started as a joke but will end by being truer than you suppose. California über alles, Über alles, California, Da-da-da-da-da-DA-da, Da-da-da-da-da-DA-da.

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