Alexanderplatz, One Afternoon
Midday — and a crowded city square. Even on a weekday it’s busy with tourists and locals: standing, strolling, or sitting. Meantime the pigeons flock, like vultures. This place is a pivot upon which the city spins, and I myself have agreed to or engineered many a meeting here, perched quietly on the fountain ledge, looking at the Weltzeituhr or checking my watch, discretely.
But today there is no hurry because today I’m watching and waiting for no-one. The crowd ebbs and flows, pulsing and throbbing. Small groups — friends, families, and tourists — float across the square; others — in ones, twos, and threes — wander without aim. Still others cross with purpose; they will wander another time.
This is the Alexanderplatz at midday. There is a little girl in a red coat — an unnecessary addition; it isn’t going to rain — cajoling her mother into buying a balloon from a vendor, and there are the pigeons too: pecking at each other, bickering over scraps, and watching, dumb. But there are others approaching…
K. makes his way toward the square from the west. He started out, as he often does, thinking about where he is walking, every step made consciously, one foot planted methodically before the other, each street acknowledged, every corner noted, although this only lasts so long. Such journeys become automatic before we’re even aware of the fact, and K. hasn’t gone more than a hundred yards before his thoughts refract into a multitude of matters more pressing than his deliberate processing of movements, and then he is making brisk turns without realizing, detouring without pause, all the while thinking of anything else. He’s only a minute or so away from the ‘platz and meantime the little girl is victorious, her mother faux-unwillingly putting her hand into her bag to disburse coins to her daughter, who has already ran to the vendor in anticipation, tippy-upping to his shoulder as her mother chases her across the square.
B. is on her way too but with a more harried air, her lower lip chewed, her dress haphazard as though she had better things to think of that morning. She is coming from the north, is further away than K., but trips along at a faster rate, conscious of the time, threading in and out of the slower pedestrians that are thick and heavy along this artery, many of them office workers descending for their hour of freedom.
The clock is not precisely in sync with my watch but tells a time slightly in advance, or likely more accurate: my watch is delayed. This is a thing I’ve never understood, how the world works with so much discordance. K.’s phone probably shows another time from the watch that belongs to B., and neither my watch nor the clock would concur with the multifaceted Rathaus dials — which are generally agreed to have stopped, although of course are correct at least twice a day. The Rathaus dials in turn are at odds with the digital display mounted upon the building opposite, which is in denial about the whole post-meridian state of affairs. Point being it’s a miracle anyone is on time.
The vendor has attached a skein of rubber to the valve of a pressurized tube and the girl in the red coat — whose mother has now caught up — jumps up and down with glee.
B. has to pause just before entering the square; a friend stops her to chat. She doesn’t have time for this.
P. comes from the east. In no hurry at all, she walks at a pace that suggests satisfaction with the world, although more often than not, the satisfied are taken by surprise. Days like these are rare and rarer; she remembers entire summers given over to nothing at all, whole days spent idling, days which don’t come along so much anymore. She heads towards the square and the pigeons scatter before her.
The balloon is injected with helium and squirms around wildly, desperate to escape, jumping and jerking around the valve until it is overcome and gives in. The girl in the red coat watches in wonder — small things are wondrous at that age — and her mother watches, with love.
B. is still talking. Being talked to. She smiles, is polite, really must go, but the friend doesn’t notice, and B. is unable to leave, frozen by convention. Actually, the friend is an acquaintance and someone B. can’t stand. Anyone else might notice her stilted expression, her poised body language, but the acquaintance sees nothing odd or out of place, and remains oblivious.
K. is on the edge of the square.
I’m still watching, not waiting. I often care to sit and do nothing; not everything needs a point. My figure casts a shadow that describes the time just as well as — if not better than — the clock, the display, and my watch, and is certainly more accurate than the Rathaus. Time is arbitrary anyway, timing meaningless, except that it isn’t to the hundreds — probably thousands — that cross the square every day. I sit and watch them all, catching only a glimpse of their lives, from the moment they enter to the moment they leave, few staying as long as I do, perhaps only the pigeons — a species whose purpose I have never been able to parse — ever eager to take everything they’re fed: only consuming and good for nothing.
The balloon is almost inflated, and the vendor plucks it from the valve, conducts a series of complicated twists and flicks with both hands, then ties it all together on a string, giving it to the girl, who accepts it with joy. She hands the coins to the vendor, who places them in a pouch on his belt. Even from where I sit the girl’s smile is visible and distinct.
K.’s phone vibrates, and he halts on the perimeter of the square, fumbles in his pocket. P. is coming around the corner, content. It has been a long time since the weather has been so kind. For weeks it’s been blowing hot and cold; too warm to wrap up, not enough to strip down. But today is like the first day of summer, a preview of what could be and the city has embraced the occasion en masse, all short sleeves and bare legs, light dresses and sandals; the girl in the red coat must not feel the heat.
F. steps off a bus that stops south of the square. The girl in the red coat bobs up and down, the mother happy her daughter is happy, and together they walk towards the fountain.
K. moves even when he’s not moving, the phone to his ear, free hand in pocket and burrowing around for nothing. He paces within a small circle, does more listening than speaking, and then the call is over, the phone tucked away. He looks back to the direction he came from then forward to where he wants to be, conflicted. He pulls his phone out again, checks the time, puts it back.
He presses on as P. approaches the center of the square. She feels like a tourist, so obvious with their cameras and enthusiasm, and strikes up a conversation with one of the city guides. The girl in the red coat is telling her mother how she needs to practice her cartwheels and her handstands, but can’t in public until she becomes better, and her mother’s telling her about the value of trying new things and how to be brave, even if the thing she’s being brave at doesn’t quite work, and the girl listens in earnest, tugging at the string of her balloon to make sure it’s still there.
F. consults a pocket map, orients himself, and waits for a break in the traffic to along the road that traverses one side of the square.
B. finally extricates herself and steps into the square from the north.
The day is warming nicely and the girl is taking off her coat, which — I can now see — is made up of a small herringbone weave. The mother enacts a complicated maneuver that requires her to hold the balloon and assist her daughter. She manages to tie the balloon to the handle of her bag while folding up the coat; already the girl is tipping over on two hands and then tumbling upon her back while the pigeons look on, bemused.
F. spots a gap in the traffic, although the Ampelmännchen hasn’t said he can cross. F. hops over, looks the wrong way, steps onto the square, heads north.
B. is running now, aware of the time, which the Weltzeituhr shows as two minutes after twelve. The digital display on the building continues to insist that it’s morning.
P. thanks the city guide and walks away with a leaflet.
K. is striding with purpose.
All four are equidistant from the center of the square. I light a cigarette — bad habit, I know — as the mother of the girl who wore the red coat leans forward to poke at something inside her shoe while her daughter performs cartwheels, commendable for their enthusiasm if not their execution. The balloon string comes undone, and it’s too late for me to say — I’m at the apex of inhalation — or do anything, but the girl sees, from her upside-down pose. She tumbles to the ground and screams.
The four converge.
The mother runs over, instinctively. The balloon is rising and surely lost now even as she turns to follow her daughter’s gaze. B. reaches the center of the square first, followed by K., and both, lost within themselves, would collide but for F., who tugs B. by the sleeve and asks for directional clarity.
K. passes by unimpeded and B. pulls away, ignoring the tourist, while P. has stopped, entranced by the balloon. F. looks back at the map and having confirmed his position, reorients himself and proceeds northwest. I fully exhale. The mother makes a desperate lunge for the balloon and just manages to grab it. Later, a passing albatross will burst it with its beak anyway. P. moves on, and the day continues, and the pigeons flock, like vultures.
And what did you expect: catastrophe or cataclysm; some life-changing epiphany when hundreds — thousands — of people cross the square every day without incident or affair? Did I suggest something was going to happen, or did you expect it? How spoiled you are with your assumptions: spoiled by television and films and the soft blow of books, demanding extra from the ordinary and revelation from the banal.
I suppose you thought the girl in the red-herring coat had some significance, the balloon, too. You probably think everything does, from the birds in the sky to the shoes on your feet. But there’s no significance here, and even if there was, how would I know about it? There is nothing in this, nothing at all but the commonplace and the everyday, and still you want an ending: purpose and closure, structure and form, meaning from abstraction and something from nothing.
You people. You make me sick.