Life’s Different Now, Life’s Changed

Happy Fourth of July and the headlines run … a 21 year old U.S. Army Private rapes and kills an Iraqi woman, along with three other members of her family. Two sons are at school when the murders happen. Several other young American soldiers are accomplices.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/04/us/04arrest.html

This is truly, um, “f-ed up,” and when I say f-ed up, ‘scuse me, but I mean it. If you haven’t hung around a group of testosterone-filled 21-year-old and 22-year-olds in a while, let me remind you that you can bet your bottom dollar that the “f-word” occurs more frequently than the word “please” … especially when they’re holding guns they just learned how to use and are tryin’ “real real hard” to bridge the language divide with a bunch of Iraqi’s.

I’m speaking from having read several first-hand accounts of journalists who’ve spent time with American soldiers in Iraq and have recorded the language and linguistic camaraderie that gets tossed around in such a circumstance. Its nothing I haven’t heard before. I mean, none of this is: not the misogyny, the racist slurs, the macho attitude, the temptation to break the rules. I get a taste of it every night just cocktailing in a bar in Berlin. That’s why it’s so frustrating …

Yea, I’m upset about it. I’m really upset not because “rape as a tactic of war” surprises me … after all, rape always has been a “tactic of war.” Rape makes me angry enough on it’s own … War is all the dynamics of “normal society” under high pressure. What gets me is this bizarre practice of categorizing some violence as “okay” and other violence as “cruel or unusual.” What gets me is this bizarre wrist-slapping when members of this killing machine kill just a little too much, in the wrong way, or rape someone along the way. Is there any “proper” way to invade another country and make sure its citizens are quaking in their boots when you do so?

Honestly, is it any surprise that a 21-year -ld boy who learns to kill, maim, and torture would think of committing such atrocities “outside” of the “rules”? Is it any surprise that the rules would get bent or broken just a little bit when we’re already playing a heinous game based on racism and run by racists? Is it honestly anything other than racism that allows us as a nation to drop bombs on Iraq?

I know plenty of people would argue that the war in Iraq has nothing to do with racism … but the truth is, you just can’t be on the ground, acting as a force of fear, you can’t play, you can’t win the game of war without grouping an entire people together and treating them as enemy … and to do this you have to start with one simple stance: you have to value “American” lives over “Iraqi” lives. That’s what I mean by racist.

This morning I received a forwarded email account written by an Iraqi-American journalist who speaks both English and Arabic and is able to span the language divide, who perhaps can “see” more clearly what is transpiring from both angles: “Nir Rosen is perhaps the only independent American journalist in Iraq who speaks a useful amount of Arabic, who actually has some knowledge of the country, and who is able to move relatively freely among Iraqis because of his Middle Eastern appearance. What he describes in this article includes everything from utter stupidity to wanton cruelty based on racism, to obvious war crimes (e.g. punishment via home demolition).”

She did not speak English, and the soldier in 

body

> armor she asked for 

> help did not speak Arabic. He shouted at her to 

"get

> the fuck away." She 

> did not understand and continued beseeching 

him. The

> soldier was joined 

> by another. Together they locked and loaded 

their

> machine guns, 

> chambering a round, aiming the guns at the old 

woman

> and shouting at her 

> that if she did not leave "we will kill you."

….

> The Procrustean application of spurious 

information

> gathered by 

> intelligence officers who cannot speak Arabic 

and

> are not familiar with 

> Iraqi, Arab or Muslim culture is creating 

enemies

> instead of eliminating 

> them. The S2 captain could barely hide his 

disdain

> for Iraqis. "Oh he 

> just hates anything Iraqi," another captain 

said of

> him, adding that the 

> intelligence officers do not venture off the 

base or

> interact with 

> Iraqis or develop any relations with the people 

they

> are expected to 

> understand.

This journalist’s account reminded me again just who it is that we’re sending over … “Those are our boys and girls” … Damn right, those are our boys and girls, children of America, a microcosm of Americana … no, they’re not innately bad, but have you ever seen a bunch of drunken football fans about to haze the new members of their fraternity? Put a gun in their hands in a foreign place and remind them which team their playing for, red or green—then tell me what happens. These are our kids, they’re no different from “you” or “me.” That’s what’s really scary about this.

Yes, I’m mad about the rapes, the killing of innocent citizens; that’s what really got my blood boiling this morning. But as far as I’m concerned—all of it, “war crime” or not, is simply wrong. So let’s not act all “surprised” about who we really are; let’s not treat our young soldiers as though they weren’t mirrors of our society, as though this war thing were a great idea until “those people” took it all just a little bit too far. Give me a break.

You know, life around me is just getting more and more of the same. Berlin. Beirut. New York. San Francisco, Northern Virginia. Paris. Italy. The same over and over again.

Yet, I see difference all around me. Let me start with the immediate. For instance, at this café, as in all of them throughout Berlin, the tables sprawl onto the sidewalk and block the way. There appear to be no strict zoning laws about occupying the public space. There are genuine beach lifeguard chairs set up on the sidewalk and you’re allowed to simply climb the steep ladder over the sidewalk and sit in the chair with a beer in your hand and watch the traffic and people go by—many of whom are on bikes. (Difference: “Bike to work day” is not a phenomenon.)

Difference: There are no signs on the lifeguard chairs dictating “One person at a time” or “No alcohol” or “Climb at your own risk” or “For display only.”

If I could make a generalization I would say that Europe is more comfortable trusting its citizens to use their own judgment and trusts that granting rights will demand responsibilities. They expect this and perhaps they get this.

In this sense I would suggest that Europe were more “progressive” than the States…

But one could also argue that tables blocking the sidewalk create inaccessible cities for people with disabilities and to not address these issues is to simply silence the question or to “assume” able-ness of a community which is diverse and runs a wide spectrum of from “ability” to “disability.”

Further, that allowing citizens to buy alcohol anywhere and anytime promotes rampant alcoholism that one does not have to call alcoholism because it has in fact been normalized…

One could argue for what I’ll call “Similarity” … that citizens, on the whole, are not conscious, on the whole, are not conscious of people’ needs that are different from their own and the only reason America might be more apt to regulate the hell out of its sidewalks is because it’s had a large and vocal community of disabled persons who have forced America to deal with cracked and blocked sidewalks. Or one could argue that litigation has become so lucrative that Americans are forced to post signs at every minor threat.

Well, I’m just not sure. But I do know one thing: “Everyone speaks Football.” That’s certainly one strong argument for similarity.

Okay, I stole that from Coca-Cola. But living in Berlin during the 2006 World Cup, I can tell you that from this vantage point, whomever arrogant European it was who started the rumor that soccer (football) is loftier, civilized, or more interesting than football is pulling your chain. It’s a myth.

Speaking from experience with drunk horny loud soccer fans from Ireland, Germany, Spain, Italy, Mexico, and everywhere else in the world, let me tell you … it’s all pretty much the same deal … and as European media will remind us “sex and sports have always gone hand in hand.” Yipeee!!

The world cup in Germany has brought the question of difference and or similarity to my front door step and it is here that I am forced to grapple with the profound realization that … what? What exactly? That working as a waitress for ten years is like riding a bicycle, pretty much the same and easy to do once you learn … that men and women alike would sooner (much sooner) ask me where they can find a gram of coke than where they can find a cheap whore (thought prostitutes have been imported into Germany to meet the demand.) and yet I hear them talking about where the pussy is and how they wouldn’t be cheap (its cheap to pay for sex with a prostitute, its not cheap to buy a girl free drinks until she’s drunk enough to sleep with you).

I started work at midnight last night and got asked at least five times about where to find coke, and twice asked if I would go fetch some guy his long papers so he could roll a joint (in exchange, he said, he’d buy me a drink, but never tipped me a dime—err…euro ten cent…)

“I drink for free, love,” I reminded the [Polish?] guy. And told him to ask for his long papers at the bar.

Four times I had men ask me where the pretty girls were … and if they couldn’t get laid at this bar, where to go next (for the girls and the cocaine).

A few asked me for the “main drag.”

[Difference: few waitresses in the United States would likely be asked so openly for cocaine … people don’t openly roll joins in restaurants and smoke them after eating their steak and salads]

Are these men and their drunken counterparts deplorable pieces of humanity? No—these, my proud fellow Americans, are the United Nations of the world. This is France, Italy and Ireland singing the Pogues at four in the morning. This is the “World Cup” where the nations come together to play. This is Coca-cola country. Wait-no-this is former East Germany. Or?

Here Germans watch large communal TV sets in the middle of the town square. Every bar, every hinterhof, every café has been devoted to the broadcasting of the World Cup and one could not walk a block without keeping score, whether they intend to or not. Flat screen TVs are on and thousands of fans are sitting on café and bars chairs that have spilled onto the sidewalks, or the TV’s themselves are located just outside the open doors of the café.

Here again, is difference ... Americans tend to watch the Super bowl in dark sports bars or in their comfortable armchairs at home with plenty of Budweiser and expensive home entertainment systems. One is not likely to see the streets filled with fans watching out of doors with their mates on the village TV. A vision of WWII Germany; I see my father watching the war news with little boys straining to see the small village TV in the window of a grocer.

Just the other day we watched the Spanish beat Ukraine 4-0 at a wide screen set up in front of Gesundbrunnen subway station. This is another rich and layered image. You have to understand that for years East Berlin was full of ghost stations—trains would have to pass through stations that, though they had been in use since the early 20th century, were suddenly manned with armed guards.

New and renovated stations have popped up since the fall of the fall, and I assume that the concrete island of Gesundbrunnen is one of them, since it appears to be in former no-man’s land near where the wall once stood. Here, on the concrete island is an outdoor café with a large flat screen TV displaying the glory of our nations. And there are people that simply sit under the sun umbrellas at the subway station and watch.

Berlin is in unusual state of transition …has been for a while now. It retains somehow its cultural liberalism that was apparent before WWII. This liberalism was maintained separately in the east and the west, though capitalism didn’t touch the east; communalism did: cooperation, sharing, house calls, matter of fact dealing with life and body and sex … it is not the “West” that necessarily brought the climate that enables the teeny-boppy magazine anyone can pick up from the corner store to contain each week a new full-frontal nude teenager on the spread (boy and girl, in a simple standing pose, un-eroticized). Caption states: I am Ulrike, 15 years old. I’m writing a book about how difficult it is growing up. The magazine is an opportunity for teenagers to look at nude bodies and read about sex without having to sneak porn from somewhere else.

Difference: No teen magazine in the United States would dare.

A documentary on the topic revealed teen attitudes varying –US teenage boy: “I never carry a condom—I don’t want to jynx myself or assume I’ll get lucky.” US girl: ”A girl that carries a condom gets considered to be a slut or a prostitute.”

Difference, German boys and girls: “Of course we carry condoms. You always carry a condom. It you don’t have a condom you can’t have sex.” Much more matter of fact.

Similarity: Teenagers have sex. Difference: Societal trust in a teenager’s agency and responsibility. Lack of moral stigma about having sex out of wedlock or even outside of “committed relationship.” Respect for young adults as capable of personal choices for their bodies—thereby empowering them to have safe sex.

I think now of Sabine, with whom I spoke all night. A 40-year-old single mother who regulars at the Last Cathedral, the gothic bar where I dance. She always watches me with kind eyes, she tells me, “I’m not a lesbian, but you appeal to both men and to women.” I find her to be so powerful. These women I speak with over hours, months, glasses of white wine, waiting for my set … We speak for hours about Sabine’s daughter, about how her daughter wishes she were like the other mothers, not a forty-year-old goth with a heart problem. She tells me about how they speak openly, as friends, about how they went the other day to buy a bra. Miss Manson, the other dancer that was working there for a while and then got fired, she tells me about how her boyfriend impregnated her two times and then beat her stomach in to abort the child … she will never have children, she says; she is still only 22. Her tears roll down her cheeks when she tells me she wishes me the best in my marriage and that he never, ever, breaks my heart.

Similarity: domestic violence, abandoned children, drug-addicted parents, lack of guidance.

All this is worth speaking about. At least, I think it is? I want, so desperately, to hold on to these moments.

You know, in the winter I thought it was the constant darkness that was driving me just slightly batty, but now I think it might be the light. This summer light never leaves me. When I wake it is fully daylight—the sun burning my skin, and I have taken to switching directions on the bed halfway through the morning. You may ask why not wake with the sun you lazy girl and I will say because the sun begins to burn through my window at four in the morning and I do not get home from work until at least 3, if not more regularly close to six … When I fall asleep, therefore, also fully daylight already, 5, 6, 7 in the morning. And when I go to wait tables, or to performance, whichever it is, twilight, ten pm, the light is still drawn out across the sky …and when I emerge from the smoky dark club—fully daylight again.

These are some of my happiest times, when I am biking home from work, dawn in Berlin, the light providing some sense of hope and renewal. A sense that I could get home and stay up the full day writing … but no—I rarely can do it. Sleep takes me despite the light.

Yeah, it just might be the light, that’s driving me insane. There’s no difference at all anymore, between light and day. Life’s different now, life’s changed. I can’t remember when I’m supposed to be outraged. We’re all relatively—relative to each other—deranged. Relatively the same. We’ve kitched the abuse right out of our eyes; sex is a sex of pink tits drink. Yeah, I’ve been therapized.

That East Berlin has retained a sense of communalism present under the communists and has more locally aimed-business and small galleries restaurants and cafes in haphazard spaces that have not been zoned for what they are but they are small enough to function under the police radar. Accompanying that is a still thriving necessity for informal economy, creation of jobs where there are none.

In the West, both in West Berlin as well as the “West,” i.e. Washington DC, one has little choice but to buy high priced coffee in fairly homogenous looking cafes—and to do so one must have a career that falls into prescribed guidelines: “career” (benefits, hours, the clothing that does with it, the buying power and consumption of buying power, needless to say, a car …) All this is fine—fine, I’ll take it! Although it’s strikingly DIFFERENT in places where that is not true—places where one need not live up to the cyclical standards capitalism creates. And if one gets off at “Gesundbrunnen,” or at the “Tiergarten,” one notices the difference.

In retrospect I think the maintenance of wasteland—purposeful maintenance of ugly spaces, physically or symbolically—has merit. Merits inspection.

Berlin is curious architecturally because it contains elements of squat city (like Havana, a revolution that happened and ended, an exodus of wealth and the lack of maintenance that followed) the glittering newness of NEW Berlin Western Capitalism – and in that vein the maintenance of historical areas we could call “old world.” The “how quaint” Europe alongside spaces that have been bombed in WWII. And then those spaces that have been built within the emptiness left by the wall—no man’s land—utter wasteland—now construction sites (sign of hope but currently an aesthetic devastation, a squat city, informal growth in gutted buildings, soviet constructed utilitarian socialist, and by all accounts ugly). If I were an architect I’d have real language for all of these things. As it is, I am forced to improvise my categories. Architecture could be the lens through which we understand Berlin and our contemporary moment of very competing ideals and juxtapositions of influences. Yes, a postmodernism.

We watch football in a squat that occupies a mile of old WWII bunkers. We find a reggae party in the loft of a ruined building, hot sweaty Africans—they are otherwise hardly visible in this city, except as the owners of internet cafes—smoking fat joints with German dreaded hippies. We walk down the stairs hearing English spoken with Rasta accents, watch a young German youth riding a trick bicycle on the fresh wood of a skate park that has been built with communal hands out of this abandoned warehouse. No one owns this place, no one is in charge. It is four in the morning. We dive in a swimming pool that has been built out into the Spree river, no lifeguard seems to watch us and we are topless or completely naked, the water just warm enough, the sun burning.

Behind the old Wall, on the thin strip between the wall and the river, they’ve laid sand to remind a Berliner what a real beach is like, and shack bars have been erected to house the wasted German youth, young and old, that dance off their come-downs to electronic music, starting four, five, six, eight in the morning … Berliners bearing shirts that say: “Wasted German Youth,” coming down off their speed and cocaine. Dancing, sweating, diving into the Spree River and emerging from the pollution with bicycles that have been decorated, every inch, with river snails. They squirm still as we crowd around and marvel at this piece of art, just as we’ve marveled around the village TV. How is it, some of us might wonder, that this “prime property” along the river has not yet been bought by greedy developers? Is it only a matter of time, Berlin?

They’ve stopped flying the flag now, the German flags were put away the instant the German’s were clearly third and not first. A young kid on network TV is asked what the colors of the German flag means and he says; those are the colors of football. Football is the only way to legitimize nationalism in a country that made a deep, deep mistake. Similar to, or not so very different from, the killing the United States has engaged in over the course of this past century, at least if we speak in terms of numbers and not simply in terms of method – but is anyone really counting?

Football is the first time that Germans have flown flags in a very long time, and I cannot help but shudder when I see those colors flying. Though this flag waving is not so very different from the US flag waving that continues, football or not, killing or not.

Brandon and I sell T-shirts at the gay pride Motz Strasse festival and I can’t help but think how far he’s come, from when I knew him wasted on a Berlin sidewalk telling me to just stay with him a little longer while we waited for his panic attack to pass. Now sober he’s geared with sharp glossy fliers and labels for his silk-screen T-shirts. He looks like a “real fine establishment.”

German grandparents, one with a sticker that reads, “I’m flaming” (in German) stops by the stand to smile and look us with warm eyes, their grandchild in hand. Grandma has bad teeth and they inspect the T-shirts not seeming to care that the little girl sees naked Afro-bearing seventies gay men with enormous erections silk-screened onto colorful t-shirts. The little girl’s shirt says, “Too cool for school” (in English) and the shirts Brandon is selling say “I love it when he rides my cock” in seventies porn script. I can’t help but think that wearing silk-screened gay porn on a t-shirt is far more subversive—and ultimately productive—than waving an American flag, or a German one.

Difference: Somehow I don’t see too many American grandparents with their grandchildren at gay pride festivals. And I know that Brandon and I would be thrown out for “inappropriate sale of inappropriateness.”

Today’s festivities are a mix between Folsom Street leather fair and Castro street/Dyke march/gay pride. Loads of info stands and nonprofit agencies and help centers for gay/trans/AIDS/dykes/queers/freaks/drag queens/leathermen/curious; I’m sure I’ve forgotten someone. Oh yes—the beautiful blond asexual who passes with a shirt that says, “This is what an asexual looks like” (in German).

Every year that I’m at gay pride I feel more and more at home and less wide-eyed and curious and innocent and terribly wishing I could be as cool and beautiful as everyone else. I also remember how far I’ve come from Fairfax Virginia. How homophobic I was raised to be, inadvertently.

Yeah, life’s different now; life’s changed. I can’t remember when I’m supposed to be outraged. We’re all relatively—relative to each other—deranged. Relatively the same. We’ve kitched the abuse right out of our eyes; sex is a sex of pink. Tits. drink. We blow each other to bits. Don’t tell them you like dick.


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