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Streets of Berlin

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Streets of Berlin

Before the bottom fell out, I'd returned back east from San Francisco to my hometown of Berlin for the holidays.  Might've been '95.  I think we even still had the old gray house on Old Farm's Place, so that seems about right.  It was either Christmas Eve or the day before.  I had to do some last-minute Christmas shopping, so I borrowed my mother's car and headed down the Chamberlin Highway to the Meridan Square.  For those of you who don't live in central Connecticut, the Meridan Square was a mini-mall, too few stores to quality as a full-on mall, but with more stores than a flimsy strip mall.  I think it's since graduated to mature mall status, but I can't say for sure.

Meridan has it's good parts, and not so good parts.  Of course, this is from the viewpoint of a nice Republican boy from a small farming town, who hadn't yet known the joy of living in Tenderloin residence hotels and eating at soup kitchens for Thanksgiving (  For me growing up on the repressed, homogenized streets of Berlin, New Britain was the ghetto, Stanley Street goddamn South Central.  Pretty hilarious going back to CT now.  If I ever have to drive on Stanley Street, there's about a hundred yard stretch with a couple crumbling houses, a wino, but hardly the inner-city, crime-infested blight I recall.

Anyway, this day, it was pissing rain.  Cold, cold December rain.  Punctuated, violent.  On my way to the Square, I see someone walking on the side of the road, slowing down as I pass.  It's a girl, not much older than I.  Not the kind you expect to see needing to be picked up. I mean, what is the kind? The really pretty ones aren't walking on the side of the road, and the clearly nutty ones you avoid.  But this girl just looked...normal. Except for the fact that it's fucking Christmas and she's walking in the rain.

I back up and ask if she'd like a ride.  I was still in Berlin when I passed her, so it's not that weird a thing to do; we were a friendly town.  She nods, meekly, and gets in.

I ask her where she's going, and she tells me the women's shelter in Meridan.  I steal a glance.  And, no, not much older than I.  Mousy, stringy brown hair, because it's fucking wet and she's been walking alone in rain coming down in sheets.  She's still about 4 miles from her destination.  It's a brutally depressing moment.  The poor girl's alone, wet, and oh yeah, she's just told me she's going to a fucking woman's shelter on fucking Christmas.

Now I'm driving my mom's nice car, and my skin is polished.  I have the world at my feet, not that I appreciate it.  Back in San Francisco, I've got a good-paying job, doing lines of blow on the weekend, sleeping with different pretty girls.  I'm good looking, young, can go anywhere I want in this life.  That someone could be so low as to be stuck in a shelter on Christmas is blowing my mind, man.

We start driving.  I turn on the radio, hoping to find fucking Jingle Bells or something, anything to lighten my heavy heart.  And almost on cue, this comes on, like a goddamn soundtrack.

What the fuck are you supposed to do with that?

The Chamberlin Highway is carved into the rock, so you got these stripped, nuclear winter New England trees and granite, making it extra murky, dark, and it's late afternoon, that claustrophobic gloaming, the rain thrumming off the hood, loud tinny splats, and this song, which is stripped to the bone and painful enough on a sunny day in May, is putting everything in perspective ("A little too much fucking perspective," David St. Hubbins might say). Not in the moment, though.  I mean, the perspective wasn't happening for me at the time.  In the moment, it's just fucked up and wrong, sad.  But knowing where my ride would take me, having the benefit of hindsight--man, I don't think I could write that scene in the story because it'd be too much, too schmaltzy and sentimental, overwrought and overkill.

Nothing eventful happened on the ride, at least not that I can recall.  I don't remember specifically talking about anything meaningful.  She wasn't like a crazy bag person who stank or anything.  Could happen to anyone.  I probably offered her a cigarette, wished her good luck.  She probably said thank you and attempted a smile.


It's weird the moments that stay with you over the years.  If I could string together every one of them I vividly recall, I might get a movie out of it.  I think I could come up with 2 hours.  Not much more, but 2 hours, maybe.  I might even be able to cobble enough coherence from them to pen a script that ties it all together, get the right actors, director, shoot on location.  We'd stage the scenes, tweak this or that, make minor alternations to not let the facts get in the way of a good story, do some rewrites.

But, on second thought, I wouldn't touch the soundtrack.

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At December 13, 2011 at 8:27 AM , Blogger jack rabbit said...

Great post. This one really hits me. Being one of the privileged white boy from Berlin and never experiencing much of the world, Philly, San Fran, Miami etc. I can't imagine what this woman was going through. And I am pretty sure I wouldn't have picked her up to find out. Thank you for sharing.

At December 13, 2011 at 8:39 AM , Blogger hlhinsley said...

Got me again Joe. BTW - that crumpled up area on Stanley was my Sicilian family & friends (my Mom being first-generation born here ... land of the American Dream) and it breaks my heart to drive by the ol hood. Good memories. As far as the sista walking on Christmas, I am happy you gave her a ride, we down stick out our thumb, we walk... as far as we have to. Life on life's terms.

At December 13, 2011 at 8:40 AM , Blogger hlhinsley said...

don't not down - ha!


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