Spring was tough. Not as bad as winter, but still tough. A few good days but it snowed into May. My wife and I struggled to stay warm. Just when the heat was rising, the cold would begin. Our blankets are threadbare. Our sleeping bags filthy. Our clothing not much better. This is our third June living on the streets. That’s what kept us holding on for this summer. We knew it would be better. And finally, it is. We woke up on benches in Litfass-Platz to a wonderful summer day. The sun is shining on the surrounding trees and bushes casting them in an ethereal green glow.
Today we will search for better clothing. Better for the summer. We’ll hold onto our winter things. Cold will be here before you know it. Not before we enjoy the summer in Berlin. Last night, a friend told us about a new refugee and homeless program, including free clothing. Unfortunately, it’s across town, in Moabit, but we work our way there, sweltering in our old winter and spring gear. Always difficult to get that far out of our neighborhood but without tickets we don’t like to take chances with the authorities on the S-Bahn and U-Bahn. We prefer to save our few euros for food and drink. So we walk, carrying our blankets and sleeping bags. Takes us a good while to get there.
They are very kind at the agency. Talk to us with respect. Set us up with slacks and t-shirts. My shirt has "Hamburg" printed on the front with the picture of some building. My wife got a nice red shirt with "New York, New York" sprawled across the front. We also got light jackets in case the evenings get cool. Much better than what we have been wearing. And we don’t have to pay. We couldn’t anyway. They also feed us a small lunch. It’s not much but there are lots of people to feed.
We head back to Mitte where we have spent the last year begging for a living and finding temporary shelter. Not the best place in the city to live outside but it has a lot of people traffic. Better chances of raising a euro. Not as crowded and violent as Bahnhof Zoo. Although there is a soup kitchen there with free food, so it’s really a tradeoff. But I think we have made the right decision. We like to be with fewer homeless. Fewer problems.
We stroll through James-Simon-Park on this beautiful late afternoon. People at the edge of the Spree drinking and watching the river. Others closer to the restaurant buildings drinking and laughing. Enjoying the sunshine. Would be nice to be carefree and relax on a beach chair and enjoy the summer afternoon and watch the sun slowly fade. Yet, we enjoy watching the others. We can appreciate a summer afternoon as much as they can. No difference. But they have drinks.
We watch a beggar approach a couple in beach chairs. He asks for money. They refuse. He drops down on his knees and begs for money, holding out his dirty, empty hands. He has sunken cheeks and sunken eyes. He is definitely in a bad way. The couple still refuses. The restaurant manager approaches and shoos the beggar away. Apologizes to the couple, as if they suffered a grave indignity. The indignity was that the beggar had to bend his knees to beg. Just needs some food. Maybe a drink. We all drink. We just can’t all pay for it. We do pretty well collecting money without having to bother people at restaurants.
We cross under the tracks and walk through the throngs bustling at the bars along the Spree. We have new clothes and a few euros so we think we can sit and have a drink. We usually don’t buy beers like this but we can’t stand the division any longer. Would be great to have a beer right now with these people. We sit on the steps instead of at a table. My wife goes to the bar with the few euros in small change we have and purchases two small pilsners. Takes almost all the change we have. More than we should spend but we feel splendid in our new clothes and believe we can afford what the rest are enjoying. She brings them back and we sip our beers, watch the people as well as the boats with tourists passing by. I wonder if the tourists on the boats can spot the difference between weekend summer revelers and homeless people. We feel like we fit in but I think we still stand out. For now, we feel like we fit in on this warm afternoon . . . sipping beer, relaxing in the sun, abandoned to Berlin. But then our beers are finished and the sun is beginning to go down. Our journey to Moabit took most of the morning and part of the afternoon. Doesn’t mean the end of the day, just the start of a new part of the day. More people will be out strolling the streets and relaxing by the river.
Our beers finished, the sun almost gone, we head back towards Hackerscher Markt to find or beg some small change for dinner and more beer. No matter how poor, we always need our beers. My wife thinks we have a beer problem. She thinks we drink too much. I think the problem is that we can’t drink enough . . . can’t buy it whenever we want. We always have to save up and drink the cheapest. And of course, the search for food is never ending. We go to the shelters or soup kitchens occasionally and enjoy a hot meal when we can’t scrape enough coins together. But there’s not much in Mitte and we have to walk a ways to get to the others. Still, it helps from time to time.
On the outskirts of Hackerscher Markt we meet up with a few homeless friends who reside in the S-Bahn tracks underpass. We stop for a chat and they offer us a space for the evening. We politely refuse. We talk about the day and then tell them about our new clothes and how silly we were to buy beer with the regular people. They get a kick out of it and are surprised we had enough change to buy beers. But they scrape by as well as we do and could have done the same if not just once. We bid our goodbyes and move on.
Hackerscher Markt is crowded. Dusk is here and people are enjoying the summer weather and falling sun. It’s pleasant when the sun goes down and it doesn’t get cold. Clearly, others think so too. Restaurants are full, booths are crowded, street acts are getting attention. People loiter with beers in hand, laughing, talking, listening to street musicians, having a good time. A few are very drunk but everyone ignores them. Once in a while one of them gets out of hand but buddies are close by to calm him down, at least for a bit. In the past, we have run into one of these who never calmed down. He was in our faces, yelling at us, telling us to get a job, get off the streets. We always try to get away as fast as possible. But on this clear summer night, no one is out of hand. It is too enjoyable.
We sit with our cups outside a grocery store and wait for friendly coins. Not too many to be had. Most people look right through us or don’t look at all, as if we don’t exist. A few coins drop, as well as an occasional beer cap, but over the hours, with what little we had remaining, it adds up to enough for some bread and some beers. We buy our beer at a local späti, late night convenience stores: beers at the spätis are cheaper than at the bars and restaurants. We buy our bread from a grocery store. We should have saved our money from before so we could buy more than just bread to eat but we were having such a good time. Even so, we can buy enough beer and bread for the evening. This beautiful summer evening in Berlin where it seems everyone is celebrating. No cares, no worries, no enemies.
We take a long walk to the Eberbrücke; just past there are benches we can relax on, never too crowded. We find one, sit down, and I open a beer for my wife. I still enjoy doing that. Opening a beer for her, offering her the first sip. She is worth it and she has stuck with me through all that has happened. This is one of the only places where we enjoy a bit of privacy. Hard to find when you are homeless.
We drink our beers, watch the night descend, the lights come to life on the boats, and listen to the people strolling by. We don’t talk much. We watch and listen. For us, it is what evenings are for: watching and listening. Never used to do that. Too busy working. My wife and myself. Years ago we both had manufacturing jobs. They weren’t great jobs but they paid the rent and we could easily buy food and drink. We lost those jobs. Who knows why. But that’s not important tonight. What’s important tonight is enjoying the mild breeze flowing past us, the lights on the Spree, and the time we share enjoying our beers watching the river. Watching people stroll over the bridge. My wife smiles. I know she is happy. Even though I want to give her more. I don’t want her to live on the streets. To beg for daily survival. To wonder where she will sleep each night. Yet she seems to accept it. I think she is stronger than me.
The summer breeze is blowing through my hair and I feel young and promising. As if I could give my wife a better life. As if I could provide her better than beer and bread, or worse, leftover food. We could sit out at a restaurant at the Spree. I would order champagne to start with. No more cheap beer. We would sit at our riverside table and I would order shrimp to start the meal. We would watch the lights on Museum Island as we waited. Then we would ravenously dig into our shrimp, believing there was nothing to follow. But there would be. We would enjoy Sea Bass with vegetables and a nice mellow chardonnay. We would conclude our evening with cognac and then stroll back to our penthouse looking over Berlin. But. We sit on our benches. My dream will not come true and she will still be sitting on a bench with me. I ask her if she is happy. She says the summer breeze reminds her of the time we strolled the beach on the north coast. She tells me the dark sky and the faint stars are reminiscent of the time I took her hand and walked with her along the beach. She is happy she tells me.
We leave to begin our search for tonight’s bed. We would prefer to sleep on these benches but even in summer the cool air from the Spree River is enough to chill you. We usually return to our recent place at Litfass-Platz but feel like a change. Plus, lately the police have been waking us early, telling us to be on our way. We stroll to Monbijoupark knowing there are some benches close together. If unavailable, we will settle in the bushes somewhere. We ask for money along the way but collect less than a euro. We also collect a few abandoned and redeemable beer bottles: an endless routine that is simply part of our lives. Convenient that sometimes folks leave them by the garbage cans; we don’t have to dig through the bins. I hate it when people throw the bottles on the ground just to break them. What a waste.
We have good luck in the park. No one has claimed the benches side by side so we do. We lay down our worm-eaten blankets and sit on top of them. We will roll the sleeping bags out later. It seems as if the warmth of the summer evening could go on forever so we are hesitant to sleep. Couldn’t anyway…too much going on. We sit and talk about the people walking by, the dogs running in the park, the laughter of the children in the playground, as well as the groups of drinking men walking boisterously through the park. Always causes a bit of fear in us, but most mean no harm.
Later we will sleep, waking up often because of strange noises and fearful restlessness. And because these benches are not all that comfortable. But tonight, we don’t mind. We both become mellow as late night descends and our first summer evening of the year comes to a close. We know the summer will be tough too, what with the excessive heat and throngs of visitors, but tonight we’re content. Tomorrow, we’ll start again.
About the Author: David H Weinberger is an American author working in Berlin, Germany. His stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, and The Ravens Perch. He holds a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and taught kindergarten for eight years in Salt Lake City, Utah.