Gloomy Sundays

When I was a teenager, I got shipped off to Berlin once a year. Those couple of weeks were by far the happiest times in my young life. Theoretically I was supposed to babysit my two young cousins but practically I would spend many days roaming the city entirely unsupervised. This might strike observers as perhaps a little risky – we’re talking about the Berlin of the Bahnhof Zoo days, with heroin, petty crime and prostitution rampant and highly visible. In fact, one glorious summer I was abandoned entirely to myself for a full week, with my uncle’s family off taking their vacation elsewhere.

I did not get into any trouble, mostly because of my debilitating shyness and my total inability to strike up any kind of human contact. I did see a lot of black and white movies, enjoyed the burgeoning New Wave scene and spent many hours in record and clothing stores.

My uncle and his wife were card-carrying members of the West German version of East Germany’s state party, and had the book and record shelves of 1970s communists. It was certainly a very different world from the rural isolation of my native village.

Although I do look back somewhat nostalgically to those days, the surreal night train rides to Berlin through the chemical haze of the East, the punks and squatters and the earnestness with which dogma was defended, the few arty cafes of Schöneberg and Kreuzberg, I cannot ever forget the choking nothingness of Sunday afternoons.

Stores closed Saturday lunchtime and did not re-open until Monday. If you ran out of food you’d have to travel to the couple of special weekend stores, with the stock and prices of a small neighborhood bodega. If you ran out of money you were out of money.

Streets were empty, and ennui descended like a leaden blanket over everything. It was like time had stopped and would never resume. Intense boredom pervaded everything. I am not sure what people actually did on Sundays. Visit cemeteries perhaps? Watch the Bundesliga? Sleep?

Michael Schmidt‘s photographs capture this dead atmosphere so perfectly I can barely stand to look at them. They seem to suck up all the life around them. You feel like you are sitting in a waiting room in which your name never gets called. You are forced to contemplate that you will die, and have not accomplished very much. It’s as if the whole world is covered with a fine layer of ash. I wake up covered in sweat. Thank god for New York.


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