“If you take the train,” they had advised him at the farmhouse, “go directly south. The train’s much cheaper in France. But if you hitch, go east and pass by Germany and Switzerland. It’s much easier.”
Cosmo said he decided to hitch to save money, but actually he was afraid of arriving in Sienna too soon. He needed to prepare himself mentally for an encounter with Lisa, if such an encounter were to take place. He did not know how big the city was, but assumed there would be some places where young people hung out, or he could check the art and language schools. Above all, he knew he had to give her the impression he was not chasing her and had arrived in Sienna by chance on a long, rambling tour through Europe.
The rides were few and often not for long distances. The sky was cold and gray, and rain forced him to seek refuge in cafés several times. In the evening he set up his tent not far from the road amidst a few trees bordering a farm, ate some bread and cheese and drank red wine. It took him three days to reach the French-German border, a distance of only 400 kilometers, but he did not mind. He told himself he was sight-seeing, and in fact he did stop in Dijon, Besançon and Colmar to have a look around. The hardest part was getting out of them, but he always found someone to point him the way or get him on a city bus to the outskirts.
The van was a luxury model compared to Jacques beat-up jalopy, but in Germany, where any vehicle was banned from the road for the slightest bit of rust – a ruse by the automobile companies which claimed old cars were dangerous, so they could sell newer, faster and more powerful cars helping to give the country one of the highest accident rates in the world – it looked like a mobile junkyard. Some parts looked as if the body had been replaced by parts from equally old vehicles, only with different colors. There were stickers calling for a nuclear free environment and extolling the virtues of unemployment (“Two million unemployed – join us!”). Cosmo would have liked that one, only it was in German and he could not read it. Torn discolored curtains partially blocked the view of torn, discolored seats. Ashes, cigarette, butts, empty beer bottles, old papers and wrappers, and rags (or were they clothes?) lay strewn about, and for once Cosmo had no worries that his three-day’s sleeping out and rarely washing might give cause for offense.
“Steig ein. Wo gehst Du hin?” the crew cut driver with an earring and a torn shirt greeted him.
“Hey, thanks for picking me up, but I’m afraid I don’t speak the lingo.”
“Oh, oh, ein Ami,” a heavily bearded man said. “If unequal Deutsch Gosub English.”
“Return,” said the driver.
“Don’t interfere with my program! Invalid command!” the bearded one retorted angrily. “How am I supposed to understand him? Locate previous question: Repeat: Where are you going?”
“Oh, here and there,” Cosmo answered hesitantly, since he was neither sure what they had been talking about nor was he hoping to be dropped off on a road to Italy thus depriving him the chance to drink a German beer. “Right now I’m just sorta taking in the sights.” He could see from the looks on their faces that they had not understood a word he had said. “Well, I guess I’m heading west and south nowadays, though not necessarily in that order.”
“Program malfunction,” the bearded one said.
Cosmo continued unabated. “Sure is a fine vehicle ya got here. Used to have a bug myself, but that was a long time ago before they became sorta collector items. Don’t make’em no more back home.”
The two Germans looked at each other quizzically. They had no idea what he was talking about. One of them pointed at a road sign. “Freiburg. We’re going to Freiburg.”
“Sounds great. What kinda place is that? Is that it?” he asked pointing to another sign. “Freeburg,” he mispronounced. “Free sounds good to me.”
“Freeburg?” the driver asked.
“Er meint Freiburg,” the bearded one said confidently. “Er geht nach Freiburg. Input Freiburg: Let Freiburg equal driver plus van plus hitchhiker.”
“Oh, okay, Freeburg-Freiburg,” the driver asked smiling at Cosmo.
“Yeah, sounds like the place. I can’t wait to drink some of that beer.”
“Bier, er will Bier trinken. You want beer?”
“You bet! Good ole German beer.”
“Print: Don’t worry; we’ll show you a good place. American plus bar plus beer equals good time.”
“Sounds great, only where’d you learn to talk like that? Sounds even stranger than this guy I know in Paris, Milos. You go to England to learn English too?”
“No, no, Helmut’s a victim of modern technology. A computer took over his brain.”
“Error number 231: I have mastered computer-speak and now I can put order in my life. Correct logic sequence: Perform swap.”
The two men got out with Cosmo in front of a boarded up bar, the boards plastered with posters for rock concerts and political movements.
“First time in Germany? First time to drink German beer?” the man who had been driving asked.
“Sure is. I mean once in a while I had some imported German stuff in the States, but it’s too expensive to make a habit of it. Besides, I heard it’s not the same stuff as here, that they put some preservatives in it when they send it to the States.”
The bar was shabby and dimly lit, pervaded by the smells of stale smoke and flat beer. There were about ten tables of various sizes and shapes only partially occupied, but then it was only four in the afternoon. The walls looked the same as the outside, with the exception that the posters were not rain tattered. There was a counter at one end behind which a thin, sickly-looking woman with stringy hair sat reading a book.
“There’s Wolfie,” the driver called as he motioned them to a table where a fat bearded man sat smiling and rolling a cigarette with a half empty glass of beer.
They exchanged greetings while Cosmo shook the man’s hand. Cosmo had no idea what the man said, but it sounded like a grunt so he grunted back.
“I’m sorry; we didn’t even ask your name,” the driver said. “I’m Klaus and this is Helmut, and – of course – Wolfie,” pointing to the fat man at the table.
“Pleased to meet ya; I’m Cosmo.”
“Being as it’s your first taste of beer here, I’ll get the first round,” Klaus offered. “How about you, Wolfie? Another one?”
Wolfie grunted affirmatively.
Klaus laughed. “Wolfie doesn’t understand English,” he said to Cosmo, “But he sure understands when someone is going to buy him a beer.”
“Sounds like a man of intelligence,” Cosmo complimented. “I gotta learn that trick myself since I’m traveling in all these countries where I don’t understand half of what’s going on. Come to think of it, I don’t understand what’s going on in my country either, but that’s a different story.” Turning to Wolfie, he asked, “How do you do it? What’s the secret?”
Wolfie only smiled.
“Don’t expect an answer. Besides the fact that maybe he doesn’t speak English, Wolfie gave up talking in any language a while ago. Said it was useless.”
“Output: Here you are,” Helmut exclaimed putting down four half liter glasses. “Output equals input: Cheers or Prost as we say.”
“Hey, this is great,” Cosmo acknowledged gratefully. “None of those puny little mugs we got home.”
“Input beer: beer equals contented people.”
Cosmo clinked glasses with the others and was surprised by the twinkle in Wolfie’s eyes as he toasted with him. After taking a long draught, he said, “Wolfie, old buddy, you got a point there. What’s the use of talking where we can be using our mouths for something important like drinking.”
“He’ll like you for that,” Klaus put in. “Sometimes I agree with him, because, you see, I’m an artist and I think my paintings say a lot more than words.”
“Invalid comment: you like people to talk about them,” Helmut chided.
“Damn it, of course I do! They are supposed to make people think and discuss, but ultimately when someone understands there is nothing more to say.”
“Print Bullshit! Only yours are not worth talking about.”
“That’s a compliment coming from an aberrant computer clone. Your low-level logic cannot appreciate beauty.”
Do until subject no longer speaks nonsense
Print Subject suffering from delusions of grandeur
Input Psychiatrist and hard labor
Cosmo looked at Wolfie while the two were arguing. Wolfie shook his head disparagingly at the conversation. Then he smiled and held up his glass.
Klaus noticed it and said, “Yeah, okay Wolfie, we’ll shut up. “Then turning to Cosmo, “Wolfie gets annoyed when Helmut and I start arguing, threatens to throw us out on the street.”
“Doesn’t look like the violent type,” Cosmo remarked. “Does he let you finish your beer at least?”
“No, you misunderstand. Not throw us out of here, but out of our apartment.”
“Yeah. Wolfie’s our landlord.”
Wolfie grinned and pointed at Helmut and Klaus. Then he mimed picking one up in each hand, dropping them on his boot and giving a sharp kick.
“Ha! I told you he understands English,” Klaus laughed. “Actually Wolfie, if you throw us out, we’ll send over some punks to liberate your building for the people.”
“Print,” Helmut joined in, “We’ll turn it into a meeting place for all the derelicts without a cause. Input derelicts: Let Wolfie’s apartment equal finito.”
Wolfie laughed unperturbed, although squatting was one of the landlords’ worst fears in that city. For one thing, they did not bother him enough to throw them out, and for another he knew plenty of other people who would gladly move in. He continued drinking his beer with gusto and again indicated for Cosmo to do the same.
“Here’s to real estate and to the privileges of its tycoons!” Cosmo toasted. And after drinking asked, “How come I don’t own any apartments? You don’t look so different from me, Wolfie. What’s the secret? Hard work?”
“Ha! He never worked a day in his life. Can’t even get him to do the dishes, you lazy fuck. Wanna know the great secret? Parents that left him a couple of buildings and a half million in the bank, that’s how.”
“Some people got all the luck,” Cosmo sighed. “But then I’m glad it happened to Wolfie who seems to be a connoisseur of the better things in life than some sleaze with a tie and jacket and greedy for more.”
An hour later and somewhat tipsy, Cosmo accompanied the three out of the bar and around the next corner to their apartment. It was on the top and fourth floor of a gray building dating previous to the First World War. There were about twenty bicycles parked around the front and sides, indicating a high population density inside. The outside was dingy, and the inside stairwell even more so. Sundry posters of long past events plastered the stairway wall, causing Cosmo to wonder if it were not an annex of the bar.
“Welcome to Schloss Wolfie!” Klaus joked.
“You own all this?” Cosmo asked impressed.
“Let building equal Wolfie
Four building equals one to three
Building equals twenty inhabitants
Inhabitant equals 300 German marks
Next,” Helmut answered confidently for Wolfie.
“He means Wolfie owns this and lots more. In other words, he earns big bucks.”
“Hey Wolfie, how about adopting me?”
Wolfie ignored him and opened the apartment door.
“Yeah, I guess that was a stupid question.”
“If perlocutionary act then
Wolfie equals unfriendly
“I don’t understand what you said, but I get the message.”
“Cosmo, that was profound! Logic has its limits, especially Helmut’s, so we must leap over its gaps to reach true understanding.”
“Oh yeah?” Cosmo said politely. He began to understand why Wolfie had stopped talking.
There was a small hallway cluttered with coats and cabinets, with several doors leading off it. One of them led into a kitchen where Cosmo followed the others. They took out dark, heavy loaves of bread, various sausages and cheeses and half liter bottles of beer, and set them on the table. The meats were of several shades of red and brown, some with thick blobs of fat in them, and one – a blood sausage – with a color and consistency that seemed scatological. The cheeses were pungent, some soft and runny, others a hard pale yellow. Cosmo had never imagined that milk products could have such distinctive odors and flavors.
“This is all right,” Cosmo exclaimed. “You guys know how to live.”
“This ain’t nothing. Wait till you try Wolfie’s special.” the three Germans laughed.
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“Hot dog stew!” Klaus said hysterically.
“Yeah, okay, with mustard and ketchup, and I suppose sauerkraut too.”
“No, no, we’re not making fun of you. He really does make a fantastic hot dog stew.”
“Hot dog stew equals many sour-krauts,” Helmut joked enigmatically, and again the three broke into uncontrolled laughter.
Cosmo poured himself some more beer and decided being made a fool of was the price of his room and board.
“Maybe I’ll go shopping this week, so our American friend can taste this German specialty. How about it Wolfie?” Klaus suggested.
“Ha, ha!” Wolfie guffawed, looking at Cosmo and rubbing his stomach and licking his lips to indicate voracious satisfaction.
“If it tastes that good, can’t be no American hot dogs,” Cosmo said. “Anyway, I don’t get many invites and I turn down even less, that is as long as I ain’t eating this stuff alone.”
“Oh no! Wolfie insists that we all eat together if he goes to the trouble of cooking. It’s not something he does every day.”
Cosmo could believe that. Furthermore, he doubted whether the household chores were done with any more regularity. The dirty dishes were stacked haphazardly, much as in Cosmo’s apartment in New Jersey, and the floors, shelves, stove, etc. were of a similar vein.
Cosmo thought they were going to make sandwiches, but then noticed that the others only used one slice of bread with their cold cuts. Klaus and Helmut were actually cutting and eating them with a knife and fork as if they were steaks. Cosmo, however, found that too strange and instead decided to follow Wolfie’s example. The latter had taken a sausage in one hand and a slab of bread in another and was alternately taking bites out of them. Then he would put them down, take a bite of onion and wash it down with a gulp of beer.
After dinner Klaus showed Cosmo a small room where he could put his things and sleep. “This is Peter’s room, but he won’t be back until late Spring, about three more months from now.”
“Where’s he? Hibernating for the winter?”
“Yeah, something like that. He always goes traveling to somewhere warm in the winter, Asia, Africa or South America.”
“Must have big bucks.”
“No, actually he does it in part to save money. Says the cost of living there is so much cheaper.”
“Yeah, but ya gotta have some money in the first place. After all, he’s renting this place.”
“But Peter’s retired.”
“Oh, an old coot.”
“Nah, not so old. He’s only forty.”
“Forty? Then he sure ain’t retired.”
“Sure he is. Peter’s a clever guy. Got retired on disability at thirty-five. Had a good story about his back or something. He doesn’t get much money, but now he’s set for life.”
“Shit! This sounds like a good system you got here. Maybe I oughtta become a German.”
“Well, you could apply for political asylum,” Klaus mused. “It’d take a few years for your case to come up, but then being an American you might have a hard time convincing them. I don’t suppose you’re wanted for any political activity.”
“Nah, I ain’t one for politics. Most of the people I know deserve what they got. They voted for Reagan and then Bush if they voted at all. Now let’em suffer for it.”
“I see we’ll have to think of another alternative. Hmm…, you wouldn’t have any German ancestors, would you?”
“German ancestors? Well, I got one grandmother who was German.”
“That’s it then! We’ll register you as an ‘Aussiedler’.”
“An ‘Aussiedler’. Oh, how can I say it in English? Maybe an ‘evacuee’. You see, ‘Aussiedler’ are people of German descent who return to the fatherland. I think the government got the idea from Israel. They made this law to get all kinds of people, people who hate communism, out of Eastern Europe and to Germany, so they could get a lot more conservative voters registered and stay in power. But the law doesn’t say you have to come from Eastern Europe; it just says you have to prove you have German ancestors.”
“And what happens then?”
“Then, why you get an apartment and money, sometimes a pension or a job.”
“Wait till all the homeless in the States hear about this! Anyway, a pension sounds good to me.”
“That might be a little hard to swing, but once you have a job, you could always try to get disability like Peter.”
“I guess that’s the man I have to talk to. Why don’t you do it?”
“I’d love to, only you have to have regular employment first. Peter was a teacher, a civil servant, so it was easy. But me, I’m a freelance artist which means I’m my own employer. I’m the only one who can give me a pension.”
After Cosmo had deposited his belongings in the room, Wolfie motioned for him to follow him upstairs. Where there had once been an attic had been remodeled into a huge living room. There was a large television screen at one end and videos stacked against the wall. On the other side of the room there was a stereo system with record player, tape deck and compact disk player, and the necessary records, tapes and disks lined the wall next to the videos.
“Nice set-up ya got here,” Cosmo said noticing a couple of cases of beer and wine in a corner.
Wolfie grunted and motioned for Cosmo to fetch a couple of beers. Then he put a video on, dimmed the lights and sat down in a big armchair. Cosmo followed suit, falling into another chair and sipping at his beer. He had a feeling he was going to get quite drunk.
The movie was an American one but dubbed in German. Fortunately for Cosmo, he had already seen it so he could follow the story despite the linguistic barrier.
After the video was over, Wolfie demonstrated the various reception possibilities of the television. There were about twenty different stations in four different languages, and Cosmo recognized many American shows. He feared he might have to watch one of them out of politeness, but suddenly Wolfie turned it off and gestured for him to follow. They walked down the stairs to where the kitchen and bedrooms were, and then Wolfie rang a huge cowbell that was hanging by the door.
“Christ Wolfie, how am I supposed to concentrate?!” Klaus exclaimed storming out of his room.
“Too much noise equals sloppy program
Sloppy program equals unfinished program
Unfinished program equals no money
No money equals no rent
No rent equals unhappy Wolfie
Merge Information and Wolfie.”
Wolfie indicated Cosmo and that it was time to go out.
“Oh, I get it,” Klaus said. “We should show Cosmo around on his first night in Deutschland. That’s fine with me; I haven’t any deadlines.”
Helmut, however, shook his head:
“For Helmut equals now to tomorrow
Input Write program
Print Sorry; next time
and he disappeared back into his room.
Cosmo looked quizzically at Klaus as they got their coats and headed out.
“Oh, Helmut’s a freelance programmer. He’s got a big job that he has to finish by tomorrow. It’s going to bring him enough money to live for a couple of months.”
“Seems like everyone’s got an angle but me,” Cosmo sighed as they stepped out into the cold night. However, he was not unhappy. He was with Wolfie and Klaus, two strangers who he had met by chance and had taken him in. He did not have to sleep outside nor spend money on some cheap hotel or youth hostel.
After walking about fifteen minutes they entered a crowded, smoke filled bar. Cosmo felt immediately at home. The people did not look very different from back home, but there did not seem to be a television and there was certainly no room for a pool table. He noticed a dozen pretty women he would have liked to talk to, but he was uncertain whether any of them spoke English. He and Wolfie sat in a corner at a table where some people made room, while Klaus walked around greeting acquaintances.
They drank for a while, Cosmo sometimes exchanging small talk about where he came from and where he was going with anyone who came over and acknowledged some inkling of English. He began to feel more confident and espied a pretty woman standing alone at the bar. He automatically got up to walk over to her, but misjudged the strength of the beer he had been drinking. He stumbled, knocking over his beer and falling back into his chair. The beer followed his body’s direction, and his pants became terribly wet.
“Ha, ha!” Wolfie guffawed, and Cosmo would have punched him had he had another place to sleep. He rationalized that since his head was swimming, his pants ought to be wet too. Then he also began to laugh, sensing how ridiculous he must have looked.
“This musta been a German baptism.”
The would-be suitor looked up to see the woman he had wished to approach smiling and talking to another man. “I had kinda hoped for another kind of initiation rite,” he added wistfully. “Too bad about the good beer though.”
Since Wolfie only laughed or grunted at everything he said, his speech was becoming a monologue. He indicated to Wolfie that he would rather go back to the apartment with his wet pants, but the latter waved him off, signaling for more beer for the two of them.
Cosmo awoke late, feeling rather groggy. He would have stayed longer in bed, but the previous night’s beer was intent on leaving his system. He stumbled into the kitchen after pissing, and found a computer printout on the table explaining where the coffee was and telling him to help himself to any food. There was also an apartment key and city map, with explanations of how to get downtown and what one could see there.
Cosmo took a long time with breakfast without anyone else appearing. He felt better after a few cups of coffee and was surprised that he had no hangover.
He took a shower, then decided “Why not?” and let water in for a hot bath. The bathtub was bigger than any he had had in the States, and he was able to stretch out completely with only his head sticking out. He was at peace with the world. He closed his eyes and let the hot water soothe him. “If only those clowns from the factory and bar back home could see me now! Here’s a man who knows how to live,” were his last thoughts as sleep gradually overtook him.
“Ahhgg!” He spit out the soapy water. “Shit! Can’t I do anything right?!” He cursed while straightening himself up again.
He let out the water and got dressed. It was noon and there was still no sign of the others, though he thought he could hear a computer. He got the map and set out to see what the country looked like on the outside of bars.
There was a thick fog outside, and the cold, damp air made Cosmo wonder whether he had made the right decision in not returning to bed. He headed downtown which was only a twenty-minute walk away. Soon he passed an old woman in a housecoat furiously sweeping the sidewalk. He was so surprised at the extent of her energy that he almost stopped while staring at her. There was no litter to be seen, at least not by Cosmo’s eyes, but that only spurned the woman on to sweep even harder. She carefully put down her dustpan and brushed a few grains of dirt on to it, scowling at them as if to say, “There, I got you!” Then, to his amazement, she took a mop and began scrubbing the sidewalk as if it were her kitchen floor.
She looked up to see Cosmo staring and anxiously barked, “Was wollen Sie?!”
“Sorry lady,” Cosmo answered confusedly, guessing at the meaning of her question. “I was just wondering what you were doing. No harm intended.” And he quickly turned and walked away.
“A foreigner! I should have known it!” the woman thought to herself in German. “What’s our country coming to?” She ran inside to call the police and tell them that a suspicious looking person was roaming her neighborhood.
Cosmo continued on his way, noticing that although the streets were gray, they were immaculate. Did they have a brigade of old ladies going around sweeping?
He crossed a bridge over a small river, small cars speeding by him at break-neck speeds. He could hardly believe his eyes when he looked down at the river. Leaning over the cement railing, he tried to convince himself that it could be true: the riverbed was a cobble stone road. Who would be crazy enough with enough extra time and energy to do a thing like that? Maybe it had been an ancient Roman road turned into a river by some shift in the earth’s crust. Or was there a brigade of old men who went around straightening and paving riverbeds, disdainful of nature’s capriciousness and intent on instilling order in the world.
Cosmo thought of his hometown. He had often played at the river when he was boy, pulling the dead fish from its surface and throwing them at friends. Or the makeshift raft they had found which they used to cross its slow current. The raft never stayed totally above water, and their feet took on the noxious stank of the river. He had to try and wash it off somehow before returning home if he was to avoid being beaten by his father. He had warned Cosmo that it was too dangerous to go down there. And he remembered the agony of one of his friends who was bitten by a rabbit-sized rat; rabies injections were nothing to joke about.
The river back home was covered by green scum and suds. Its dark surface only let one guess what lay beneath. But this river appeared as clean as the sidewalks, and Cosmo wondered what they did with all their garbage.
He recognized the old city gate according to Helmut’s instructions and passed beneath it alongside of streetcar tracks. Streetcars? He had not known they still existed except as tourist attractions in places like San Francisco. And a pedestrian zone! Where he came from, they only had that in shopping centers.
Cosmo walked down narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets. They were crowded with people in dull colors: brown, gray and black. The people’s clothes and stores reeked of money, of a secure and orderly world where the problems of survival are more psychological than physical. The shoppers had intent looks, sure of themselves. Buying was more conquest than acquisition, and the enemy was not to be taken lightly.
Coming to a huge market place surrounding the over-sized Gothic cathedral, Cosmo waded through the vegetable stands, and – although it had not been so long since breakfast – could not resist buying a fat German sausage, smothered with fried onions on a small bun.
The cathedral was damp and musty inside. The footsteps of small groups and individual tourists echoed in its hollow shell. Various statues and paintings lined the walls with pained or drugged countenances, depicting the myths that the high priests had come to call their own.
In the back a long winding staircase led up into one of the spires from where Cosmo gazed down upon the city. There were almost no smokestacks to be seen, and Cosmo wondered how the people made their living. He knew from Helmut’s information that Freiburg was about the same size as his hometown, but the similarities stopped there. How had they prevented this city from degenerating into a haven for drug addicts and tacky store fronts, where the only people who congregated there were the ones who did not have the money to go to the fancy shopping centers in the suburbs?
After descending, Cosmo entered a department store bordering the market. The aisles were narrow, packed with people, and he often had to wait for someone to pass before proceeding. The department stores at home often seemed empty. Were there just less of them here, or did the people have more money? The prices seemed about the same: some things a bit more, others cheaper. The sales personnel were all frowning, and Cosmo surmised that this was a direct effect of the amount of work they had to do. No “Have a nice day” nonsense here; pay your money and get out!
He came out on the other side onto what was the main thoroughfare of the pedestrian zone. He walked slowly, often having to move around others in the crowded street. Passing a stand, a woman of about thirty-five accosted him, raving loudly in German and pushing a leaflet into his hands. She was neither pretty nor ugly, with such plain features that he would never have noticed her if she had not forced herself upon him. She had frizzled hair, was beginning to spread out at the seams, and wore obviously expensive clothes.
“Sorry lady, I don’t understand a word,” Cosmo said politely trying to give her back the leaflet.
“Do you speak English? Excellent! We have to spread our message to the world,” she insisted.
“Well good luck, but you got the wrong man.”
“No, listen! We must save the animals! They’re our brothers and sisters!”
Cosmo chuckled. “Yeah, I got a new bro; he’s sorta like a wolf if you know what I mean.”
“Huh?” she replied not understanding, but continued, “The animals! Every day hundreds, thousands die in laboratories all over the world. We have to stop it!”
“Like I said, good luck, but I got my own problems.”
“We’re all connected, don’t you see?! Their pain is our pain! Only by saving them from the sadistic experiments the laboratories make can we save ourselves.”
Cosmo decided it was time to move on.
“No, wait! You must sign our petition! We want to start a program in every town and city to make everyone aware. We’re going to publish it in all the newspapers. ‘Animal Prisoner of the Month’, just like Amnesty International does for people. You must support us; every voice is important! Here, sign,” she pleaded.
“Oh sure,” Cosmo acquiesced, hoping to thus get rid of her. He took the outstretched clipboard and wrote, “U. P. Yours.”
“Thank you Mr. Yours,” the woman said hesitantly, not sure about the contribution. “And next week we want to start another program for missing pets. You don’t know how many pets disappear every week in our city!” she moaned. “We want to get their pictures put on milk cartons. No, wait! It’s very important!” she yelled.
However, Cosmo was quickly walking away, having realized that otherwise the woman would keep him there all day if he gave her half a chance. He was relieved when he turned around halfway down the next block and assured himself that she was not following him.
Several groups of street musicians were hard at work. Cosmo stopped in front of a group of Andean Indians to listen to their gay songs of their homeland. Even though the group was there almost every week, Cosmo had to jockey in the crowd for a position from where to see them, and the hat they had laid out for donations was not wanting for contents. Some of the people listening to the music were even smiling. The happy sounds, the fact that he was there made him feel good. At home the only music in the city was the penetrating noise of gigantic portable tape recorders which was more a challenge or a threat than an invitation to enjoy: “This is my music, this is me, ain’t I cool and fuck you!” the itinerant disk jockeys had seemed to say. There was no question of listening to them, of participating.
Cosmo was smiling himself when he continued his promenade. He had been in Europe two months and had hardly spent any money. At this rate he could continue for years. The year before he had read an article in the paper about a couple of twenty-year old female students from California who had traveled around Europe in the summer for only $50 per day. The writer had made it sound like they had been leading a Spartan life. Cosmo had only cursed the little rich bitches. Such an expense account was beyond his reach, and they had surely not earned the money. The pretty, sun tanned coeds surely had rich parents, and the inaccessibility of the women and their parents’ achievements had made hate and envy swell up in him. He was sure at that time that such a trip would ever remain far beyond his means. Now, when he thought of them, he was only amused by their extravagance.
As he passed a bookstore, he noticed there were also English books in the window. He had used to read books, but when was that? Certainly not when he spent his days in factories. He had no energy left when the whistle blew for such pastimes. Still, he had enjoyed reading at one time. During a short stint at a local junior college, one professor had even succeeded in getting him to read quality works. He still read once in a while in later years, but had difficulty finding something he liked.
Inside the store he looked in vain for the usual rubrics of romance, historical, mystery, etc. Instead there was a wall full of good books, mostly modern or contemporary. There was not a bookstore in New Jersey, except at perhaps Princeton or Rutgers that could rival its collection. He browsed, wondering who the people were who wrote these books, and even more, who the Germans were who read them.
Finally, he espied a book he knew, a travel book, which he had read by chance many years before. A new travel book by the same writer about China had just appeared in paperback, and Cosmo bought it, reflecting that he had enough money to go to China or India, scene of the first book. The author had once written that a lot of people he met traveling seemed to be doing it for the purpose of saving money. That sounded good to Cosmo; every day on the road was a day away from work. He would have to talk to Lisa about it.
He walked around a little longer and then returned to Wolfie’s apartment. There was still no one around, so he went to Peter’s room, read a chapter of his book and then took a long nap.
Cosmo had no idea how long he had slept, but he feared halfway through the night because it was dark outside. He did not immediately remember that it became darker earlier in this part of the world. It was a pleasant surprise to find the others sitting in the kitchen and not yet having eaten dinner.
“Input Cosmo,” Helmut called.
“You are a wise man to save your energy. We have a long night in front of us. But first, let’s eat.”
“Do until stomach equals full
Input Food and alcohol
Food plus alcohol plus time equals piss and shit
If food and alcohol is greater than intake ability then
“Sounds good to me,” Cosmo said, adding cautiously, “I guess. Anyway, how’s the computer world?”
“While computer talk does not equal people talk
Input Much confusion
Output Much confusion
If Helmut’s program equals success then
People talk equals logic
“Ha!” Klaus mocked. “If Helmut has success, we’ll all be reduced to bits!”
Wolfie sliced some bread and began eating, impervious to the conversation. Cosmo quickly followed suit.
“Klaus equals binary logic
Fifth generation computers equals more complex logic
“You’d like that,” Klaus laughed. And to Cosmo he explained, “There are no conscientious objectors in his world.”
“I didn’t quite get what you two are talking about,” Cosmo said with his mouth half-full of sausage.
“You never will as long as Helmut refuses to talk normally.”
Normal is an undefined term.”
“That may be,” Klaus agreed. “But still there aren’t too many people who can understand you. You see,” he turned to Cosmo, “He’s developing a universal language, an up-dated version of Esperanto.”
“Understanding equals peace and harmony,” Helmut smiled.
“You think so? Usually when I understand what people are really up to, I kinda get angry, and more often than not we have a conflict situation,” Cosmo objected.
“Ha, ha!” Klaus and Wolfie laughed.
“But that would ruin everything!” Helmut cried aghast, for once forgetting to employ his formalized language.
“Communication equals key to solving problems.”
“Hey, I don’t know nothin’ about it,” Cosmo said apologetically, not wanting to endanger his position as a guest, though as long as Wolfie seemed to enjoy his company, he was probably in good shape. “Just some people are nice and some ain’t, and if anybody thinks he can take advantage of another, he probably will.”
“Cosmo’s logic equals American way of life.”
“Could be, though I can’t imagine it any different anywhere else.”
After dinner they again went up to watch a video, since nightlife did not start till later. Then they went to a bar with live music. A hard rock band played to a packed crowd, and dancers jostled one another unperturbed to the deafening sound. Cosmo sat with Wolfie and watched, reflecting that if he had drunk a bottle of rum before coming he would probably have been up on the dance floor himself.
He felt a kind of kinship for Wolfie, since Cosmo’s lack of German ability almost put himself in the same situation: silence.
“Hey Wolfie,” he suggested, “How about introducing me to some of these pretty womens here?”
Wolfie chuckled, motioning for Cosmo to help himself.
“If it were only that easy,” Cosmo sighed.
“Grrrch!” Wolfie snorted. He pointed at some women, took out his wallet, and indicated that the women would empty it. then he picked up his beer and said, “Mmmm…”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Womens can be trouble. Still, …”
Cosmo got up and walked – if it can be called walking in such a crowd – around the bar. He found Klaus at another table talking to two women and a man.
“Cosmo, come here.” And to the others, “This is the Ami I was telling you about. We found him on the road, forlorn and forsaken, and now we’re teaching him about German culture.”
“Though I’d rather have one of these ladies teach me.”
“Hey, remember that old slogan, ‘Germany needs new men’?” Klaus joked. “Well, here he is.”
“Looks a little used to me, ” one of the women smiled. “You found him, Klaus. You keep him.”
“Don’t I have anything to say about this?” Cosmo protested.
“Of course, Cosmo. You have the freedom to court and be rejected by these women.”
“Yeah, Germany’s a democracy too, just like America,” the other woman said. “You have freedom to complain, freedom to pay your bills and go to work, and freedom to leave us women in peace.”
“You mean there are other countries where I’d be forced to hassle women?”
“Sure, places like Italy and Spain where if you don’t play the macho role, other people think you’re a weakling.”
“Cosmo’s going to Italy,” Klaus interjected.
“Yeah?” one of the women said sardonically. “Well, please don’t practice on us.”
“Hey, I’m just a poor innocent traveler. Don’t know nothin’ about no hassling.”
“I thought the song was ‘Poor lonesome traveler’.”
“Well actually, I’ve been meeting too many people since I’ve been in Europe to get too lonesome. Though when I see all the pretty women over here, I do feel like we ought to have some kind of cultural exchange.”
“Like what? Beer for coca-cola?”
“Yeah, that sounds like a good trade to me.”
“I don’t know if Germany is going to benefit from this new relationship with our big brother. How about trading California for Bavaria? Then you’ll get a lot of breweries.”
“And you’ll get Reagan and Nixon!” Cosmo laughed. “Sounds good to me.”
“On second thought, we’ll just take northern California.”
“No, no, a deal’s a deal!” Cosmo insisted. “You get the Beach Boys, Hollywood, Charlie Manson and avocado quiche, and we get beer and a share of the Alps.”
“Don’t forget the over-sized matrons serving the beer, the Christian Socialist (sic!) Party, knickerbockers and lederhosen, and a lot of fatty sausage.”
“Sounds like everybody loses.”
“Yeah, maybe we should just declare ourselves independent, go it alone.”
“Good ole American individualism, huh?” one woman commented cynically.
“Well, to tell you the truth,” Cosmo reflected, “There ain’t a whole lot of people back home I’d like to do things with. Maybe they ain’t sleazier than me, and maybe they got their nice sides too, but in the end I don’t wanna be any more responsible for them than they do for me.”
“Sounds like a great place.”
“Well, that’s why I’m here. Convince me it’s better.”
“You can decide that for yourself.”
Well, at least the beer’s better.”
It was not raining the next day, and Cosmo decided to explore the town again. He set out on foot, something he would never do voluntarily back in the State, but seemed to be normal here. Cosmo was not sure of the reason why people in the States always drove to a store, even if it were only two backs away. Maybe because the streets were so dangerous or dirty. He realized he had not been in a car since he arrived in town, and Klaus and Helmut had mentioned that they went most places by bicycle. There were plenty of bicycle paths, though Cosmo was not so sure how safe it was given the driving habits of the natives.
Cosmo ambled through downtown, wondering why the people all looked so unhappy. The place was clean, most people looked well off, and he did not have to worry about getting shot or stabbed like in most American cities. Although Klaus had assured him that crime was more prevalent than reported in the newspapers. There were some shabbily dressed people, but they looked like victims of conspicuous non-consumption rather than real down-and-outers. That is, except for one large man with scraggly hair and beard and a dirty brown overcoat who shouted at Cosmo, “Gib mir Geld!”
Cosmo looked up surprised and said, “Sorry bro, I don’t speak German.”
“Geld, money, give money!”
“Hey, you got the wrong man. I think I saw a sign for the Salvation Army down the next street.”
“Wat?! Money, give money!”
Cosmo became annoyed at the man’s aggressiveness. Usually he liked bums, but this one was too obnoxious. “Are you hard of hearing? This ain’t the welfare office!”
The bum angrily approached, so that Cosmo could smell the stink of his clothes and the alcohol on his breath. Cosmo stopped, glad for some entertainment. The bum was getting desperate, since in three hours of begging that day he had not gotten a penny. His throat was getting dry, and here was this foreigner making fun of him.
“Money, you have money!” he insisted.
“You’re a clever lad,” Cosmo smiled. “Yeah, I got money, but I sure ain’t gonna give you none. Why don’t you get a job?”
“That’s right!” a man called out, for a small crowd was beginning to gather. “Versuch’s mal mit Arbeit!”
“This man is threatening me! Call the police!” Cosmo shouted gleefully.
“Was sagt er?” a woman anxiously asked.
“Die Polizei, hol die Polizei!” the other man said.
“Ich habe nichts getan!” the bum protested, suddenly becoming nervous and backing off.
“Wat did this man to you?” Cosmo’s neighbor asked.
“He threatened to hit me unless I gave him money,” Cosmo said confidently. “I want an apology.”
“Entshuldigen Sie sich! Sie müssen sich bei ihn entschuldigen,” the man translated.
“Ja, so ist richtig! Eine Schande ist es!” a woman joined in.
“Lass mich in Rühe!” the bum yelled.
Cosmo did not understand what the bum said exactly, but guessed he was refusing. “Either apologize or we’ll call the police!”
The neighbor translated, and anger swelled up in the bum as he surveyed the crowd and his chances. It was a bad day. The police had already pulled him in a few times for harassing passers-by, and he knew they would be only too glad to do it again. Reluctantly, he acquiesced.
“What did he say?” Cosmo asked.
His neighbor translated the apology.
“That’s better. Now you all have a nice day,” Cosmo laughed and continued on his way.
“So it was true,” Cosmo thought. In the States he would never have done such a thing, fearing a knife or a gun from some crazy lunatic. But Klaus had assured him that he did not have to worry about such things here.
His path was soon blocked by the animal woman of the day before. She was close to hysteria, and Cosmo was unable to understand her raving.
“Well, if it ain’t the local chapter of the SPCA,” Cosmo said sarcastically.
“You’ve got to help!” she screeched. “They’ve taken Jimmy!”
“Can’t say I know the man. Where’d they take him?”
“No, no, Jimmy’s my dog; he’s been kidnapped!”
“You mean ‘dognapped’,” Cosmo corrected. “Maybe he’s just visiting a girlfriend.
“Oh no, he always comes home at night, even if he goes off on his own during the day. Oh, what have I done?!” she wailed. “I only went for a walk with him at the edge of the forest, and then he chased something – he often did that – but he always came back. But this time!”
“Maybe he found what he was looking for.”
“No, I’m sure somebody’s taken him! They’ll probably sell him to one of those horrible laboratories where they torture animals. Oh, I can’t bear the thought! Come, we mustn’t waste any time!” She thrust a pile of leaflets into his hands. There was a picture of a German shepherd followed by some text and an offer of a reward. “We have to pass these out!”
“Sorry lady; I ain’t got no work permit.”
“You don’t need one,” she looked surprised. “It’s a volunteer job.”
“Volunteer?! I stopped volunteering in the third grade,” he said indignantly as he attempted to give her back the leaflets.
“But we have to organize! These people have a vast organization throughout the world. Without cooperation, we’ll never stop them!”
“Will you calm down. Look lady, why don’t you just get yourself another helper? I’m on a ten-day tour of Europe, and I was already supposed to be in the Alps this morning and I’m going to Spain tonight, so you see I’m just not available,” and he finally succeeded in pushing back the leaflets into her hands.
The frantic woman looked around in desperation. “Nobody will help me! Oh, poor Jimmy!” and she scrambled off to assault another pedestrian, not before she managed to stick at least one leaflet in Cosmo’s pocket.
“Sure are a lot of weirdos in the world,” Cosmo thought to himself. He sat down on a bench and observed the scene. Everyone seemed in a hurry, rushing in and out of stores. Cosmo wondered what they could be looking for, because it did not appear as if there were lacking in material goods. Neither did the purchases seem to bring any satisfaction, but rather they made the people greedy to buy even more.
What was he doing there watching these people under a cold, gray shy instead of sitting in an outdoor café in sunny Italy with Lisa at his side. And then a slight drizzle began which convinced him it was time to move on.
He was surprised to hear someone loudly singing a Joe Cocker song when he entered the apartment. He looked in the kitchen to see Wolfie cooking and bellowing at the top of his heavy accented voice: “Baby take off your dress, yes, yes, yes!”
There was a huge pot on the stove whence pungent aromas were emitted. Wolfie had a large chef’s hat and white apron on and was busily chopping away at onions and garlic.
“Take off your shoes!” he wailed, and gave Cosmo a beer. “They don’t know what love is!”
“No, they don’t know what love is!” Cosmo joined in, throwing his arms up in the arm and wriggling his hips.
Wolfie grabbed two wooden spoons and began drumming on the pots. He was quickly joined by Cosmo who took a spatula and ladle and used the sink, table and everything else at hand as his drums. They were both singing rather loudly and out of pitch, and soon an angry Helmut entered:
“Too much noise equals no work completed
Print Helmut is happy.”
“Fuck work! Today is a holiday; Wolfie is cooking!”
An astonished Cosmo looked at Wolfie upon hearing him speak.
Helmut explained: “Do until holiday$ equals ‘false’
If Wolfie cooking then
Holiday$ equals ‘true’
Swap Wolfie (silence, human speak)
Holiday$ equals ‘false’
“Gentlemen! And the rest of you,” Wolfie added. “The feast will begin at 21 hours. Prepare the banquet hall!”
“If Wolfie commands then
And Helmut motioned for Cosmo to follow him. At the end of the hallway, Helmut unlocked a door and they entered a large dining room laden with heavy oak furniture, a chandelier hanging in the middle, and expensive crystal and china in the cabinets. Klaus came in with several bottles of vintage wine, which he immediately showed, to Helmut and Cosmo.
“Cosmo, this wine costs over $100 a bottle!” he exclaimed excitedly pointing to one bottle.
Cosmo gaped. “We’re gonna drink it?”
“And lots more! Look at these! They all used to belong to Wolfie’s old man. The cellar’s full of them, but we only get to drink them on special occasions like this.”
“And what is the occasion?” Cosmo asked somewhat confused.
“Why, Wolfie’s cooking.”
“Is that so special? I mean, what’s he cooking anyway?”
“You bet it’s special! He’s preparing an old Korean recipe, ‘Bo-shi-tang’, or something like that. Wolfie once rented a room to a Korean student, and he taught him how to make it. Wolfie liked it so much that he let the student live rent free as long as he cooked it for him once a month.”
“Korean, huh,” Cosmo chuckled. “They seem to be getting around in the world today.” And then indicating the furnishings, “Is this all from his old man too?”
“Cosmo equals clever lad.”
“Thanks Helmut. What are we supposed to do anyway?”
“Come,” Klaus said. “You can help by wiping these glasses until they shine. Helmut and I will set the table.”
“They look clean to me,” Cosmo mumbled.
“But for Wolfie’s banquet, they’ve got to sparkle! C’mon, let’s get to work. We’ve got to dress properly for this too, and it’ll all take time.”
“I’m afraid I didn’t bring any formal clothing along with me,” Cosmo snickered, not sure but fearing Klaus was serious.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you something of Wolfie’s old man. Wolfie’s got his suits upstairs.”
“The guests began arriving around eight, dressed to the teeth in old fashioned suits and gowns. Most of them were rather loose fitting, indicating previous owners. The three women had too much make-up and jewelry on, and the reek of their perfume made Cosmo sneeze a couple of times.
Each of the women took off one white glove, and Wolfie kissed the offered hands. When introduced to Cosmo, they gave sardonic smiles and said, “Enchantée.”
Wolfie led them into the dining room, which was now only illuminated by candles. The long table was set for nine people, with Wolfie’s place at the head and four places on each side.
Cosmo took a seat at the far end, feeling rather silly and out of place in the suit. But then he figured some kind of ceremony was called for when $100 bottles of wine were involved. He would have dressed up as almost anything for a chance at that.
As soon as they were seated, Klaus went around and poured a strong hard liquor as an aperitif into everyone’s glass. He winked at Cosmo quickly showing him the bottle. Cosmo had not idea what it was, but the alcohol’s bouquet quickly convinced him that it was something good. He held it under his nose as a couple of others were doing and savored its aroma, marveling at the number of glasses, dishes and pieces of silverware in front of him.
When Klaus had finished pouring, Wolfie stood up and raised his glass. In the dim light his stout, bearded figure looked majestic in his dark suit amidst the sparkling table setting and chandelier. The other guests quickly also rose holding up their glasses, and Wolfie proceeded to give a short discourse in German. Then he added in English, “And let us also toast to our most honorable guest from America!”
Cosmo drank slowly, trying to keep the liquid in his mouth as long as possible. It tasted so smooth and yet powerful. He felt such a surge of gratitude that no sooner had they sat down when Cosmo was up on his feet again.
“To Wolfie whose refined taste has made all of this possible!”
“To Wolfie!” the others exclaimed mirthfully.
Klaus was soon pouring wine into their glasses, and Helmut brought in the hors d’oeuvres. Cosmo watched the others to see which silverware to use. Course followed course, each one accompanied by more wine. Gradually the conversation became merrier and louder, though Cosmo could not understand most of it since they usually talked in German.
“Did Wolfie make all this?” Cosmo asked astonished.
“Of course not!” Klaus responded. “Wolfie only made the main dish; the rest was brought by caterers. But the main dish!” he smacked his lips.
“What is it?”
“Why, we told you a couple of days ago: hot dog stew.”
“A stew, huh? I don’t usually get to too many fancy dinners like this one, but a stew don’t sound so high class.”
“As, but then you’ve never had Wolfie’s ‘Bo-shi-tang’!”
When Klaus brought in the stew in a large serving bowl, the guest broke into laughter. It smelled rather strong, though not unpleasant. It was unlike anything Cosmo knew. There were exclamations of ‘Ohs’ and ‘Ahs’ as Klaus served.
“Wait!” Klaus called and went around with the most expensive of the wines. “The strong taste of the food needs this wine to balance it,” he explained to Cosmo.
Cosmo savored the wine, though he was a little disappointed in the food. It was pretty good though the meat was a little tough, but he had expected something really exquisite as the crowning event of the evening.
“Mmmm, Wolfie, this is great!” the others complimented.
“Bravo, bravo!” they applauded, followed by a toast to his culinary expertise.
Wolfie called to Klaus and Helmut, “Bring in our other honored guest!”
He stopped the soft classical music, which was playing in the background and put on a Renaissance march. Klaus and Helmut slowly walked back into the room carrying a huge tray. The empty bottle of expensive wine was in the middle of it and fixed on top of it was a huge dog’s head.
“Jimmy!” Cosmo cried, recognizing the dog from the leaflet picture. “Hey, this really was hot dog stew!”
“Did you ever doubt it?” Klaus asked. “Wolfie is a man of his words.”
“Wasn’t he delicious?” Wolfie asked with a twinkle in his eye as the rest of the guest laughed.
“Well, actually, it was pretty good,” Cosmo agreed as his eyes followed the dog’s head. “Though the wine sure helped to accentuate the good taste.”
Klaus and Helmut put it on a chest, flanked by candles. Then they mockingly bowed in front of it.
“A toast to Jimmy!” Wolfie bellowed.
“To Jimmy, to Jimmy!” the others echoed.
After they sat down again, Cosmo chuckled. “That crazy woman would have a heart attack if she only knew.”
“Too bad we can’t tell her,” one of the women said. “But how did you meet her?”
“You mean how can you avoid meeting her. All ya gotta do is walk downtown.” And he described his encounters with her.
“You see, Cosmo,” another man explained, “We are a public service organization dedicated to combating the evils of pets in our society. In Germany they treat dogs like humans and humans like dogs. In fact our country is going to the dogs. They spend millions of dollars on dog food every year. And where does this food come from?”
Cosmo shrugged his shoulders to indicate his ignorance.
“Quite simple: from the third world. For example, poor countries like Peru have to export their fish – an important source of protein – to America and Europe for our dogs and cats, while their own people suffer from lack of protein. We are doing our own small part to fight that.”
“Here, here!” the others cried approvingly and clapped, and Cosmo joined in the applause.
“Hey, I always say, ‘Anything for a laugh’. If ya got more of that wine, I’ll eat dog every day.”
“That would be a little expensive. Wolfie pays a lot of money for a dog; how do you think I pay my rent?” Klaus guffawed.
“I hate dogs, unless they’re well cooked,” Wolfie said. “Especially the little ones, those god-damn poodles, and the monsters like the Dobermans. Cosmo, have you noticed something on the streets and sidewalks here? There’s dog shit everywhere!”
“Yeah, at least in other countries they make the people shovel it up and put it in bags. But here, dogs rule the day!”
“And the government’s full of shit too!” another woman put in and they all laughed.
“That’s when we started our parties,” Klaus explained. “Wolfie stepped in dog shit once too often and decided we had to do something about it.”
“Enough shit! Let’s clean up our streets!” Wolfie yelled jokingly. “Klaus, more wine!”