No. 5: Apartment of Sand and Fog

this is not my grandmother in her living room

my grandmother in her Berlin living room

my fathers Berlin apartment building, Apthorp-on-the-Spree

my father’s Berlin apartment building, Apthorp-on-the-Spree

My brother David sends me a file that contains an image of our father’s birth certificate.

I look at the address typed on the fourth line.

Berlin, Iranische Strasse 2.

The apartment where my father lived when he was born, I presume.

With some relief and some hope, I enter this information onto my Federal Republic of Germany naturalization paperwork.  I don’t know much, but I know this: where my father and my grandparents were living in 1938.

I picture what this apartment might look like.

My mind is already cluttered with images of European apartments, so concocting this visual is a snap.

My maternal grandmother lived in the Hague when I was a child, and we would visit her in the summers.  Her front door was that wavy mid-century glass that makes the postman look like Nude Descending A Staircase.

Friends have lived in various London apartments.  Common themes are kitchen tile, electric kettles, scratchy rugs and hash smoking.  Paris apartments I have known are miniscule and crooked, plus art, books, and hash smoking.

And then there’s the Berlin apartment complex that I recall from the Bourne Supremacy.  The film washed over me in the haze of an attractive travelogue until the extended fight sequence to which I was riveted with the kind of real estate lust that’s raised and currently felling American civilization.  Forget the karate chops:  I was straining for a glimpse of the master bath.  All I could think about for days was that apartment complex, the big glass windows, the spare, deftly edited interiors, the courtyard where you pass your charming neighbor in his really terrific glasses as you head out for the evening.  When living in Berlin in my fantasies I have a “light, quick, firm step,” just like Anna Karenina in the Maude translation, but with a happier ending.

I don’t imagine the Ebels in a mid-century apartment complex.  One reason is that my father was born in 1938.  So the mid-century hadn’t quite landed.  Also, I assume that their home was more like the bougie apartment in the Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Vittorio De Sica’s 1971 film adaptation of Giorio Bassani’s 1962 novel about doomed Italian Jews living in Ferrara, Italy, under Mussolini.  Dark, glossy wood, spotless moldings, built-in sideboards, good lamps, good rugs, good silver, good picture frames, good help.  Maybe on the third floor of the building pictured above.  A cage elevator takes you there.  Electric sconces along the hallway, a repeating pattern of ivy on the carpet, a heavy porcelain umbrella stand at the front door, coats on hooks and wellies lined up.

It is helpful to me on a deep psychological level to know my father’s address at the time of his birth.  Berlin, Iranisch Strasse 2.

Isn’t it interesting? I marvel.  Iran is in the news these daysAnd my father lived on Iran Street.  It’s Everything’s An Augur Friday!

If I can picture my father as a baby, coming home to his well-appointed apartment on Iranische Strasse, then I can have compassion for my father, who was a vulnerable baby, who would soon be a displaced, confused little boy with  two languages wrestling for control as the A train rumbled past.

Also, thanks to my clear sense of Iranische Strasse, 2, I  can imagine my homecoming.

As the taxi speeds away through the puddles (because it is always a wet, chilly autumn evening in my fantasies of Berlin), I cross a marble lobby to the elevator.  My arrival is announced with the harsh, homey trill of European buzzers everywhere.  Alex Kupfer comes to the door.  He’s a young architect, living with his girlfriend, Nola, who’s Cape Verdian and studying musicology at the art institute.  Thank God they speak perfect English.  (Nola did graduate work at UC Santa Cruz!)

Alex and Nola are startled but game.  They lead me through the rooms, arranged formally around a large central foyer.  Nothing is left of my grandmother’s interior décor, of course.  But the sound of my boot heels as they storm the border between wood floors and carpet, streetlight through the windows as evening settles outside, and the tiled kitchen, my God.  Despite the cloud of cardamom from the vegetable fritters Nola is in the middle of frying when I show up unannounced – in this tiled kitchen time and space refract.  I am at the kitchen table.  Grown-ups debate urgently in the next room as I slowly dunk sugared lady-fingers into a glass of milk until they dissolve, then fish them out with a long spoon I have nicked from Cook.

And then – Eureka! Google maps! – I look up Berlin, Iranische Strasse 2.  I am going to see a photo of this place before I’ve even checked the airfares.

But this address is not my father’s apartment, and it never was.

It’s the Judisches Krankenhouse Berlin.  The Jewish Hospital of Berlin.

So apparently I have no idea where my father lived when he was born.

Certainly not in my hallucinated memory mash-up with random details pillaged from five decades and various nations, starring Matt Damon and an invented brainy couple as art-directed by Giancarlo Bartolini Salimbeni.

Sorry, Alex.  Sorry, Nola.

Although your cardamom fritters do smell delicious.


No. 14: I’ll Have What He’s Having

MTV documentary in which I appeared in 1993: The Seven Deadly Sins.

Sin I represented: Anger.

Celebrity with whom I was paired: Ice-T

Number of times Ice-T and I saw one another or spoke: 0

Subject matter of my featured spoken word piece, taped at the Nuyorican Poets Café:  My stepfather.

How my brother, then in high school, knew that the girl in the MTV documentary was me: he recognized the baby photo featured in the art direction of the segment.

What my father said when he called me on the phone soon thereafter, having not spoken to me for 19 years:  “It is I.”

How I interpreted his sudden interest: the lure of what seemed to be at the time a whiff of literary recognition.

Where my father sometimes took me as a child: the Museum of Modern Art.

Notable childhood MoMA experience: purposefully whacking a sculptural piece constructed from twine,  old boots and a tin can, setting off the central alarm system.

How my father reacted: He yelled at the guards and criticized the bullshit art.

How I last pictured my father: tall, imposing,  in a fringed suede jacket, white oxford, jeans, brogues.

What I wore to meet my father in front of the Museum of Modern Art:  purple long-sleeved tee shirt, vintage ankle-length black velvet skirt, black wedge heels.

What I carried: vintage purse.

How my father looked: frail, white-haired, effeminate hands and limbs.

What my father wore: belted trench coat, jeans, running shoes.

What my father carried: plastic Korean market bag.

What my father said when he first saw me: “I see you got all dolled up.”

What happened at the diner where we went for lunch:  The waitress arrived while I was in the ladies room, and when I returned to the table my father had just finished ordering.  “I’ll have a tuna sandwich on toasted wheat with lettuce,” I said, “and a cup of cream of tomato soup.”

“That’s funny,” said the waitress.  “Your father just ordered the exact same thing.”