Underground at The Whiskey

HEIDELBERG

My brother takes me to the strangest places. One summer I visited him in Heidelberg, where he worked in a McDonald's. The night I arrived, he took me and his girlfriend Phillippa to a club called The Whiskey. It stood at the end of a narrow street, which he insisted wasn't an alley, in the oldest part of the city. We approached what looked like the back door of a restaurant. Garbage littered the sidewalk in front of it, in order, Alexis explained, to prevent non-members from finding the club. I discovered where Tommy's Lunch got the idea to use Bow Street as a trash can; it signals the chic which door to use.

The place was exclusive; when we knocked on the door, a man opened a little window and spoke through an iron grate, asking us in German for the password. My brother quickly stuffed a nylon panty through the grate and the door opened.

We entered the world of the German gay underground. Peering down a spiral staircase into a dark, smoky room, I surveyed a collection of the prettiest boys this side of the Neckar. Freaks in wet-look plastic boots, shoehorned into their black leather pants, dotted the tightly-packed crowd, which twisted and throbbed to a deafening American rock beat. At the foot of the stairs an enormous man is his early fifties frantically attempted to attract the attention of a golden-haired sixteen-year-old who wore makeup in excellent taste, like the wanderer in Fellini's Satyricon.

There were a few women in the club, and Alexis told me that not all of the men were gay. He introduced me to a small group of men near the door, most of whom completely ignored me. I became annoyed. "Don't be surprised, dearie," Alexis teased, "they're just not interested in you." I felt as if I had taken a tour of a wax museum, where real people no longer lived. Someone took my arm and led me toward the dance floor. "Alexis' sister?" he asked, explaining, "this is how we do it here." He jerked his head back like an electrified man; grinned and spun around, watching me as I danced ignoring him. I felt self-conscious, and thought I saw people staring at me. After "Lola" and "White Rabbit" played, we joined Alexis, Phillippa, and the others at the table.

"That's Hans," whispered Alexis, pointing to the older man who was still trying to make goldilocks. "He's a famous tenor who sings in the National Opera." Hans could barely spare the time to shake my hand when Alexis introduced us, immediately striking up a conversation in German with my brother. Since I can barely find the bathroom in German, I wandered off with Margrit to meet a friend of hers who sat at the bar behind the crowd that gathered on the periphery of the dance floor. We pushed out way through a sea of psychotrops and down-out watchers who, according to local sources, had purchased their elysiums at outrageous cost and under penalty of extended imprisonment, in line with the German severity of character apparent everywhere.

I finally realized that puffs of fog pouring onto the dance floor, presumably from a machine underneath, caused the dense smokiness in the room. The anaesthetized audience basking in the glow of red lights sat on overstuffed leather loveseats or leaned against the walls. At the bar, wine cost four marks; all other drinks cost six. Jon soon reappeared, and he bought us both something sweet. Margrit's friend, a pianist, asked us to come to his private recital the next day, and invited us for tea beforehand.

We discussed the evening's topics: who had come with who, a new chemical that had surfaced recently and how well it did the trick; boring and idle talk. The bartender, a young and subdued blond, asked me about the U.S.; he listened, cynical. I became the amusement that evening, still out of place. Everyone treated me kindly and with great, although not exaggerated politeness. I felt like a doll in a clean white dress that a child proudly offers to the admiring grownups for inspection.

When Frederick, the pianist, left, he disappeared through an exit by the bar that I hadn't noticed before. A lifesized cowboy painted on the door pointed his six-shooter straight at me. When we left shortly after, I saw that the hole in his gun formed the mouth of a midget clown painted on the outside. The mouth, contorted into an evil grin, said, "Enter never to leave; go forth never to return."

*

Europeans in every corner of the Continent still observe afternoon tea. In France they observe it all day long, but in Germany, most people confine themselves to half an hour or so. To amuse ourselves before tea, Alexis, Phillippa and I climbed the hillside where the University of Heidelberg stands, and followed the paths into the enormous forest-park that borders the city. Like Boston, Heidelberg sits on the banks of a river, the Neckar, and extends up both sides of the steep valley. Where the ruins of an old schloss (castle) still stand, the city dates back several hundred years. Also like Boston, students flock to this university town. The warm summer weather brings people out, and on an August day, German students and Americans' Mercedes crowd the streets. Unlike Boston, Heidelberg is an important American military base.

The American presence in the city creates tension. American officers in Heidelberg speak little or no German, and their wives rarely leave the base to venture into the city surrounding them. American boys play football on the Neckarvise, the grassy bank of the river. On a Sunday afternoon, no trace remains of last night's cowboys or clowns, only docile families, discreet and not-so-discreet sweethearts, and decrepit ice cream peddlers. The Germans don't play American football or drive Mercedes, and they resent the wealthy foreigners who make no attempt to learn their language. Although the Germans respect American business expertise, they think of Americans as naive, ill-mannered, and offensively chauvinistic. American visitors often bear out the Germans' worst expectations.

As we climbed the forest paths into the hills around Heidelberg, I picked up tips on rolling cigarettes from the pouched tobacco sold everywhere, which everyone smokes. Pre-rolled cigarettes like Marlboros or Winstons cost six marks the pack, about three dollars. By the time I had mastered the rolling technique, it was teatime.

Fredrick the pianists' flat opened onto a very small courtyard, the kind that surprises you when you open the door of a large house in Europe built right onto the street, and expect to step inside. Hans had come, as well as two young women; so had Frederick's students, and some young men, impeccably dressed in light summer suits and thin ties, whose faces looked vaguely familiar. I discovered, to my surprise, that all these friends spoke excellent French, including Hans, who had refused to speak a word of it with me the night before.

Frederick kept quantities of freshly-cut flowers in his bright and airy flat, which he decorated with nineteenth century mahogany and oriental rugs over parquet. A heavily rouged black man in a gold harem outfit, who had done his hair in one long, thin braid down his back, served tea to this lively, well-mannered bunch. "That's Oscar," whispered Alexis. "He helps Frederick out around the house."

The topic of conversation drifted from Alan Watts' latest treatise to the whereabouts of the celebrated soprano who had been vacationing on the far bank of the Neckar. I thought I recognized one of the young men from The Whiskey, who turned to me. "Alexis' sister?" he asked, "don't you like the plum cake? You're not eating anything." Except for the presence of the servant, I felt particularly at ease with this mildly pretentious intellectual crowd and their coffee-table chit-chat. The sun pouring in the window relaxed the guests, who sat on ottomans around the black grand piano.

*

Outside, in the street below, traffic zoomed past. It could have been any street, except that all the cars were Fiats, with an occasional Volvo or BMW, and they drove at breakneck speed, the drivers shouting and hurling insults through the honking of horns. Turning back toward my new acquaintances, they seemed for a moment to be my friends in Tommy's, but the rays of the sun affected me. When I roused from my reverie, I realized that the gibberish they uttered was German, not the vacuous, unintelligible, pinball-punctuated banter overheard on Bow Street. I smiled, shaking my head at my own silliness, and, as Oscar was fairly imploring me, I decided to try a piece of the plum cake after all