Crooked Street


Walter Benjamin’s Krumme Straße was “lined on both sides with small establishments full of excitement and danger”: the swimming pool, pawnbrokers shop, writing materials store with rosettes and Chinese lanterns in the window, the municipal reading room, a jostling crowd. What would I find there now?
A Max & Moritz, offering half roasted chickens, to be eaten standing up, and the S-bahn, behind a noise-buffering concrete wall. The first stretch is lined by the long side of a department store, with posters rather than mannequins in the window displays. This is the place the fire exits emerge, the insignificant street you cannot imagine being used for anything but cigarette breaks and parking spots. A man waits in his green station wagon as the trains above go east, go west.
A gardener rakes over a patch of earth where a tree has recently been cut. Only two feet of the trunk still remains, no branches. Behind him, a couple argue. The man is in a hurry, and urges his wife to stop dawdling. It is difficult to take him seriously, as he is wearing a brown velour track suit with brown leather shoes. His belly stretches the velour, and shows it wobbling with his every step. He is the first person I have seen wearing a track suit outside an exercise context since I left Australia. This is not something that I have missed.
This corner, the bend that gives the street its name, was where Benjamin’s swimming pool used to be, and the bric and brac shops with their “decrepit” merchandise. Now there are empty shops with bright signs announcing their closure on the windows. Inside, piles of plaster and sweepings. What once was a musical instrument store still has the staves decorating the windows, and green felt lining the display areathe impressions of the objects once resting on it still faintly visible. I go into a doorway and look at the names of the people who live in the apartments above: Scheer, Rösicke, Beichel. All are on labels stuck over the original name, all in different handwriting. Other labels have been torn off, the apartments must be empty.
At the first intersection, the bonsai shop has a Japanese maple tree outside it, and a man rides past on a kind of modern day penny farthing, and there is a store that sells fine pens and stationery. At least Benjamin and I could visit here together, in search of specific writing implements (which he believed were very important). Yes, Walter Benjamin is my other uncle. Beuys can be the uncle that I don’t see very often, the wacky one that no one really understands, who appears at family gatherings and has weird things in his pockets, and Walter is the uncle who takes me out in the city for adventures. Although it is not nice to play favourites, I love Uncle Walter more.
For him I am here in Charlottenburg, and not the nice, genteel part of it, with handsome men in the coffee houses and marble entranceways, the scrabby part of it, cannibalised by a shopping mall a few streets away. Here people hang their horseshoes sideways on their balconies, and fill their pots with red and grey plants. This is where to find the wig shops and the podiatrists. Side by side, feet and scalps. The rest of the body must be in the wall in between.
The Schicha Lounge leaks its sweet smell from underneath the door and through the red curtains. Beside it, men bend over plates of noodles in the blue and white tiled Vietnamese restaurant. In every shop there is some kind of busy activity, like a man fixing shoes surrounded by equipment and mirrors. The word “Lededartikelreparatur” is comfortable taking up the entire width of the front window.
“Esst Obst!” orders the brown paper bag I step over, on my way towards a display of rakes, shovels and brooms. They lean up against the wall, like pieces from a game of Jack Straws. I could make off with one if I chose, snatch one of the rakes and run, perhaps go back to the beginning of the street and help the man rake the patch of earth around the stump. But I don’t, of course I don’t. I’m taking enough just by looking closely at this unassuming street. It is excites me, all the tiny things that I have noticed, I feel full of electrons.
I turn the corner, into a different street, and pass by a playground. On one of the items of play equipment, a raised pathway made out of sheets of thick rubber, sits a woman holding a small white dog. She has pointy black boots and a gold brooch in the shape of the sun, which glows as if it were providing its own light. She smiles at me as I pass. I climbed over the low stone wall because I had the feeling I must enter the park, although I don’t know why. She smiles and I look up. Covering the wall of the building beside us is a trompe l’oeil painting of a hot air balloon, rising up in between marble columns. Hot air balloons are my symbol of hope, happiness and love, and I gasp to see this one through the black arms of the trees. Thank you Uncle Walter.



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