In 1970, I lived in Sausalito, which is the town that’s at the other end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Despite what the town is now, back then there were still little enclaves of funk, and my apartment, needless to say, was one of them. It was set on a steep hill, so that although it was technically a basement, there was still a nice view of Richardson Bay, the fishing fleet (yes, there was still a fishing fleet), and Mt. Tamalpais.
One person I’d always inevitably get to know would be my mailman, because back then I was inundated with free records, and, less frequently, books. The records would come sometimes in outrageous boxes with promo trinkets in them, the books were always heavy, and so there was always a lot of mail at my house. At one point, my mailman was a jolly young guy with wire-framed glasses, who seemed too smart to be in this for a career — you saw a lot of folks like that working in the Post Office in those days. This one’s name was Jim, and sometimes he’d stop to chat for a moment. Nice guy.
But one day he showed up and announced that he was quitting. “Yup. I’ve saved up enough money and me and my girlfriend are going to do something we’ve always wanted to do: go to Africa.” Now, this was a surprise, especially since Jim was white (and I presumed his girlfriend was, too). There was something of a vogue for middle-class black Americans to visit Africa back then, but you didn’t get many white tourists from the States. It was also a surprise because I’d gotten a book in the mail called Bright Continent, by Susan Blumenthal, an American woman who’d done the same thing and published a guidebook to sub-Saharan Africa. Remember, this was in the days before Lonely Planet and so on — it was 1974 or so, and books like this just didn’t exist. I’d taken a look in it and gotten hooked; it was not only useful as a guide, but it was fun to read.
So I mentioned this to Jim, and he said sure, he’d love to look at it. “Take it with you,” I suggested. “Bring it back when you get back.”
And he did. It remains one of my treasures: beat up, bookmarked with odd bus tickets and harissa-can labels, annotated with corrections and amplifications. I’ve never been to sub-Saharan (or super-Saharan, for that matter) Africa, but I’ve got a book that has.
I’m not sure what happened next, but I lost track of Jim and eventually moved to Texas.
Last year, I heard from Jim again. He’d found this blog, and was bemoaning the fact that he’d been in Berlin some months earlier, and hadn’t known I was here. He was in Portland, Oregon now, selling real estate and hoping to find something else to do, but loving Oregon and hoping I could visit. Well, that was sort of out of the question, but it sure was good to hear from him, and yes, it was too bad that he hadn’t known I was here. But, I said in my e-mail back to him, I had a friend in Eugene, Oregon, who constantly fantasized about moving to Portland but didn’t seem to be doing anything about it. Not only that, I figured Jim would like this guy and maybe he could kick his butt gently enough so that he’d move and realize his dream while putting a couple of bucks in Jim’s pocket.
And that’s just what happened: Brett and his wife Carole had dinner with Jim one evening when they were in town for some musical event and Jim wound up showing them a place that they wound up buying. Everybody’s happy: Brett’s doing a lot more good work and is much happier being out of the decaying hippie/university surroundings he was in, Carole’s doing fine with her artwork and other innumerable projects, and Jim’s got a couple of people he likes to hang out with.
I like happy endings, myself, but there’s more. To thank me for sending him customers, Jim sent me a gift. It’s a â‚¬200 gift certificate redeemable at the restaurant QuarrÃ© or the “gourmet restaurant” Lorenz Adlon at the Hotel Adlon. It expires on April 19 and cannot be renewed.
And when I saw it, my heart sank. I knew he meant well, and yet the Adlon pretty much represents a huge hunk of what I don’t like about this city. It’s got a horrible reputation as a place to stay: I once helped an editor for Conde Nast Traveller research a story on Berlin, and he was staying there, went for a walk, and was refused re-entry because he wasn’t wearing a jacket. He finally convinced the doorman to accompany him to the front desk, where they conceded that he was, indeed, a guest. Then there was the young African woman who was fired for wearing her hair in an “unconventional” style, albeit one traditional to her people — and hardly outrageous. The stories go on and on; the high-end travellers I know avoid the place.
The idea that I could get into one of their restaurants without a jacket and tie, too, is ludicrous. That’s not the way I dresss, nor is it the way you have to dress in most restaurants here. One nice thing about Berlin is that, outside of government circles, anyway, it’s very informal. I don’t want to eat where the Bonners eat anyway, so they can have their jackets and ties.
Jim was, understandably, distressed that I was upset by this gift. Why, he said, he’d been to the Adlon and it didn’t seem like that kind of place. And couldn’t I borrow a jacket and tie? (Answer: no. From whom? Nobody I know has one either!)
I’ve tried not thinking about this for a while, but it occurred to me recently that the clock was ticking on this gift, so I took it down the other day and saw the date. I honestly don’t know what to do. I don’t think they check ID when you cash it in, so maybe I should sell it. But I don’t know anyone who’d want to buy it, either. Should I hit Craigslist? Just let it expire quietly in its folder here by my desk? It’s only eight days away.
Some day, I hope, I’ll visit Portland. I also hope I’ll have enough money to take Jim out to dinner and explain the cultural nuance behind all of this. Meanwhile, I’ve got a white elephant with a Quadriga on it making me feel guilty.