by Alan Steinborn
Berlin, February, 1994.
In Berlin, a city known for its heavy winters, there is a district named Neuköln–an area made of hard stone and cold steel where the winter colors on display were gray, gray, and gray.
February was a time of little sun in Berlin; about 5 hours a day, and even then the sun seemed doubtful of itself. As if it had forgotten how to shine, how to warm. It was there, when it was visible that is, but it seemed weak. Then there were the many days when you just didn’t see the sun at all. On these days there was a low ceiling of cloud cover blanketing the greyness of the city. This low heavy cloud often seemed to hang over us for days on end.
What I am trying to tell you is that this area of the city, this time of year, and let’s not forget, this time of my life, all conspired to create sadness, heaviness, and coldness; February, 1994 in Alan’s Berlin was a very cold and lonely life.
All of this was about to change the night I met the fat lady.
The night in question was particularly unforgiving.
First there was the exhaustion. This night came at the end of a day filled with tedious work, and the day came after two consecutive nights of almost no sleep for all the wrong reasons.
My tired body was in a completely different area of the city.
The sky was falling daggers of ice. The daggers were flying in zigzags so there was no way to avoid them. Not even with an umbrella. Not that I had one.
I dreamt of flying home in a dry, heated taxi; One of those cream colored Mercedes beauties would be my magic carpet flying me through the madness and dropping me right at my doorstep.
Alas, I had no money for a bus, much less a taxi, and the subway in which I could be a schwartz-fahrer (or black traveler, the Germans called us when we took a free ride on the sly) stopped far away from my flat on Herzbergstraße.
There was simply no alternative. I started walking through the ice daggers with my head and shoulders hunched in a purple ball of determined movement.
By and by, I noticed my extremities were numb and the rest of my body was beginning to freeze like a wet rag in a freezer.
I had one thought, an image really, of me sitting next to the oven warming myself as I drank down a generous cup of hot chocolate and ate on a serious slice of sunflower seed bread luxuriated with the cheapest cheese or butter I could find.
This tasty image carried me through a city I was determined not to see. Just get through it. Survive.
But things can change when you least expect it.
It happened a full hour after walking through this horror show.
By that time, I was walking on a street ironically named Sonnenallee. Maybe the name was more cruel than Ironic, thought I. But who cares? I didn’t, because I was only two blocks before I was to turn the corner onto my street, and my flat was only two buildings after that. Almost home.
The falling ice had subsided. The night was dark and the street was abandoned.
As I passed a bus stop I noticed a huge hulking figure, held up by a crutch.
To this day, I don’t know why, because it was against everything I wanted in that moment, I stopped in my tracks and walked over to the hulking figure.
As cold and numb as I was, I was nonetheless overwhelmed by what I saw.
It was a woman.
It was a huge woman–possibly a 400 pounder.
She was wearing old rags. Layers of them. Rags upon rags upon rags; making her look like a standing pile of rags than a human.
She had an elephant foot, and that huge purple foot just had a bandage with no other covering.
Her calves were so big and undefined the skin looked like massive volumes of melted
wax spreading slowly onto the pavement.
She wore casts on both lower legs. Her entire being was a picture of disrepair, freezing cold and utter, complete, exquisite pain.
I just stood there, openly looking at this woman. I had forgotten my urgent mission to get home. I had forgotten my fatigue.
In the presence of this woman, I had forgotten my manners.
This woman had captivated me. It certainly wasn’t anything about her physical appearance, which was utterly repulsive.
No, she captivated me in a way that wasn’t yet clear to me, but was about to become dramatically so.
I was in a kind of trance, or maybe I was waking from one, and I asked her: “Wie Geht es Ihnen?” or “how are you?”
Naturally she replied as you or I most likely would reply to that question if we were in her dire circumstances. She told me of pain unimaginable; she told me of troubles staying warm in an unforgiving Berlin winter; she told me of poverty and loneliness; she told me she could almost not walk at all!
Slowly, I surveyed her entire body from bottom to top. I did this with no shyness. It was not my character to be so cavalier; certainly not with someone in her situation.
Something else was guiding me.
I discovered what was pulling my attention when I had made my way all the way up to her face.
I looked in her eyes.
What I saw dazzled me.
Her eyes were bright loving suns that expressed the greatest heart I have ever witnessed.
Time and space stopped.
As I drank her essence in like the starving beggar I didn’t know I was until that moment, I asked again:
“Ja. Aber Wie Geht es Ihnen?” “yes, but how are YOU?”
She smiled a smile that made me forget there was ever something in this world called cold, sickness, pain and loneliness and she answered:
“Mir? Mir geht’s ganz gut! Kein Problem!” or “Me? It’s great! No problem at all!”
Her eyes welled in tears of joy and mine did too, as we beamed smiles of love and surrender upon each other.
Just then the bus came.
I held out my hand to help her on the bus.
She smiled and grabbed my hand, and boarded the bus.
The bus took off, leaving me standing there completely still on the pavement. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I just wanted to soak in the last few rays of her radiance.
It was in this way that I discovered that even on Sonnenallee in February, In the otherwise unforgiving city of Berlin, you could warm yourself in the presence of a bright sun if you just knew where to look; if you just dared to look; if you let your seeing do the looking for you!
Just then the ice started falling again. I slowly walked the last two blocks of my journey so I could enjoy the sound of the pieces of ice hitting the pavement.
I drank no hot chocolate that night. I ate nothing either. I simply came home and got into bed.
I slept particularly well that night.
Postscript, September, 2023.
I originally wrote this story in 2007. At the time, the interesting aspect of this story to me was myself. The lost hero, wondering around cold and lonely, with my life barely together, and how, even with all that, I had the sensitivity to notice things, the intuition to get ‘crazy’ ideas, and earnestness to actually carry them out.
Today, I see it differently. Today, I think more about the lady. I think about those eyes, above that body. I think about what a great Guru she was for me. How she taught me, through example, that a person’s situation is secondary if they know who they actually are. When we are connected with who we are, she seemed to be telling me, we can’t lose.
Today, this is the interesting point. It is still a lesson I am learning almost 30 years after my encounter with her.