The Missing Stink

I realized yesterday what’s been missing from this winter: the smell of coal.

It looks like finally, after all these years, coal oven heating is disappearing from Berlin. I noticed it briefly when the winter was just getting underway and thought I’d comment here, but then I thought, no, today’s just a fluke. It’ll be back. And it was, very lightly, very subtly, on some cold days. But the days when the entire city stunk like some sort of burned coffee horror are, I guess, over.

Having had the privilege of living in an apartment that had not one, but two, kinds of coal ovens as the only source of heat, during a winter (1995) that was colder, they said, than any but the one that coincided with the siege of Stalingrad, I have some experience with this medieval form of alleged warmth. By far the most common kind is Braunkohle, soft, brownish coal that comes in bricks the size of, well, bricks. These get burned in a standing oven of greater or lesser exterior fanciness, with half-glazed ceramic tiles with special backs that are supposed to maximize the radiant heat. At about chest height, there was a door, which led to the oven. You’d put in newspaper, then some kindling wood (people scavenged fruit crates all year long for this purpose, and it’s not uncommon to see a pile of them out on the street even now, offered to people who need them), and, when this was going, a few bricks of coal. You would then close the door and freeze, because it would take a minimum of an hour for the heat inside — which was quite intense — to start radiating out of the tiles.

The one I had was in my bedroom, and this was one reason I hated it so much. I like to sleep cold — well, not freezing, but cool — and the oven made it impossible. If you fed it at about 8 pm, it’d be doing its best around midnight, when I wanted to go to bed. I’d have a hard time going to sleep, but about 4am, I’d be awake because it was too cold. I’d have some sweatshirts near the bed to put on, and then go back to sleep. And when I woke up, it would be so cold I wouldn’t want to get out of bed.

One night, I actually started developing a fantasy. Because I had a cab-driver friend, I knew a little about the prostitution trade in Berlin, because she often got passengers who wanted to pick up a whore. I knew that most of the unlicensed prostitutes here were basically slaves, from various Eastern European places, working for the Russian mob. When their usefulness was deemed over, they were abandoned, even though by then they were ususally addicted to heroin or HIV-positive. You could, I was told to my horror, buy one for around $50. So I thought, wow, if anyone knows how these damned ovens work, it’d be a woman from the East. I could buy her, treat her humanely, get her in a HIV-treatment program, and all she’d have to do would be to make sure the heat in the two ovens worked all the time.

Mind you, in the cold light of day, I was horrified that I’d even had this thought, but like I said, this was the coldest winter in sixty years. Like, breaking the ice on the dishes if you’d left them there overnight in the sink kind of cold. And no, I didn’t even take this weird fantasy any further than conceiving of it.

Oh, yes, I said “ovens.” The other oven I had was a metal thing, in the living room. It burned black coal, which has another name I’ve forgotten. It burns hotter, and ignites quicker, than the brown coal, but it burns out faster and is more expensive. I was forever dumping another scuttle of coal pebbles into this machine, and yet it was never really warm. I used to sit on the couch at night, reading in a jacket with two sweaters, a shirt, and a t-shirt.

The other horrible thing about coal heat is that you’ve got to have so much coal on hand, and it’s heavy and dirty. Houses with coal heat provide a little lockable coal cellar in the basement where you can store coal, a ton at a time. Unfortunately, in this particular slum, the neighbors had wrecked the cellar assigned to my apartment, apparently in an attempt to steal coal. A successful one. (Given all that transpired with the neighbors in this place, this is hardly surprising, but you’ll have to wait for the book for that).

Anyway, this meant that I had to go to the coal-selling lady, who had a dim, barely lit, dungeon a few blocks away, with my little handcart and buy 35 kilos of coal a day. Actually, the consumption wasn’t quite 35 kilos a day, but nearly every day I had to buy around that much. It wasn’t terribly expensive, thank heavens — although it would have been significantly cheaper by the ton — but it was a drag pulling that cart back to the house, then firing up both ovens, and praying for a little warmth.

Of course, burning the coal was only half of it. Getting rid of the ashes was the other half. The people I was subletting from had given me zero instruction on how to use these infernal ovens, nor had they left any equipment around. The first time I scooped out the incredibly fine yellow ash from the brown-coal oven, it went everywhere. Electrostatically charged in the cold, dry air, it mostly poured into the plastic bucket I’d found somewhere around the house, but clouds of it also went up, into my hair, up my nose, onto the bookshelves, onto the bed, and everywhere else. I still raise a cloud of it every time I turn my futon over, and it’s been nearly ten years since I’ve moved. But there was another problem, of course: if there was any coal still burning, it was dangerous. And I noticed that the very first time I cleaned that damned oven out: on the side of the plastic bucket, a tiny black mark appeared, and suddenly a hole started widening. I dashed outside with it, praying the clinker would burn itself out before I dumped the ash. And then, of course, I was left with the fact of a pile of ash on the rug, no bucket, and an oven that had to be fed.

These clinkers were a constant hazard, especially as the city garbage company replaced the old metal garbage bins with plastic ones. Every now and again, you’d come across a twisted piece of plastic art, with singed stuff in it, icicles hanging from it, where the fire department had had to put out a garbage fire caused by live clinkers.

Now, right about this point, you may be asking yourself how, in a country as environmentally aware as Germany (second-greenest country in Europe after Holland!), this barbaric means of heating, pouring tons of CO2 and sulfur into the air each day, was allowed to exist. Part of the reason, I’m fairly sure, was reunification. Lots of buildings in the East were coal-heated, since it was cheap because the majority of the brown coal came from the friendly neighboring socialist country of Poland (where it was a major hard-currency trade item thanks to West Germans needing it, too), and you couldn’t very well expect all those buildings to conform to the new code overnight. However, I have to mention that the apartment where I had coal heat was very much in old West Berlin, and I had plenty of friends in the West who had coal oven heating. There was suppsed to be an EU-dictated deadline for getting rid of it, but nobody seemed to know when it was.

And, I should mention right about here, even with my two ovens, it could have been worse: a neighbor of mine at that time, also in the West, had all of his water heated by coal. This, of course, meant that, unlike me, he had to buy it year-round.

Yes, folks, this was the 20th Century. Really, it was.

But like I said, for the first time since I’ve lived here, the smell was absent as fall started to cool off. It hasn’t been entirely missing. One day I clearly smelled wood-smoke, but it’s not impossible that one of my neighbors in one of the fancier buildings has a fireplace as part of the living-room. And I have, in fact, smelled coal from time to time, but never as strongly as before, even as much as last year. They’re renovating one of the last buildings on my block to need it at the moment, and I’ve been watching the dumpster outside waiting for the inevitable load of tiles. It’s probably the last one for several blocks around, and I won’t be sorry to see evidence that less coal’s being burned.

The weird thing is, lots of Germans will argue that coal heat is actually good for you, and offer all kinds of rationales about dry versus wet heat and other imponderables that any sane doctor would arch an eyebrow at. The only thing I’ll say is that some of the old ovens, many of which can be seen in the museum in Velten, just north of Berlin, a town which still makes tons of ceramic tiles due to the clay deposits in the area, were strikingly beautiful. Until you had to clean them.

Which brings me to another end-of-an-era subject related to all of this. As the weather begins to warm up in the spring, people look for signs of good luck, and none is so potent as the Schornsteinfeger, or chimney-sweep. These guys, mostly young, swarm the city when it’s chimney-cleaning time, clad in their traditional outfits of frock coat and top-hat, holding swabs and buckets. They’re young because they don’t live too long, I suspect: chimney-sweeps historically have had abnormal instances of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. But to see a chimney-sweep in this amazingly superstitious country is fantastic luck: people often give chimney-sweep dolls to each other on important occasions as a way of wishing good luck.

The chimney-sweeps, too, are disappearing.

Which is hardly surprising. So is Berlin’s luck.

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