It’s starting to feel like the daily routine, a sudden rain shower violently ripping me out of bed at 4:30AM. And the word “bed” is an overstatement, more like a sleeping bag in the weeds covered with giant slugs. The nearby abandoned racetrack grandstands taunt me each time early rain falls, behind fencing that would be impossible to climb. There’s also an old wagon sitting underneath an overgrown carport, but somebody else has already taken up residence there. At least the streetcar stop is covered, but the first service doesn’t arrive till after 5:30AM.
The only place on the streetcar line open that hour is the Starbucks at Central Station, which is fine if you have $3 for a small coffee and can tolerate the elevator version of Madonna’s ‘You’ve got to prove your love’ complete with a cheesy vocal rendition.
The university library has let me down, just as I was walking up to the building thinking ‘I’m glad this building is here’. A sign on the door reads “Ferde blah blah 6 Juillet“, closed for two weeks.
I’ve been to two places that not only serve free hot meals, but they also do it at tables as if it were a “real” restaurant. The first time was just for a single meal at what appears to be some sort of economy social service restaurant on the ground floor of an apartment building. Old ladies bring out soup, sandwiches and bread while a young man impeccably dressed in a suit goes around shaking hands. I don’t trust people that dress up especially fancy to serve the needy, but thanks for the food.
The other place serving free meals restaurant-style is on Bosnie Street, where I’m getting lunch for at least a week. It’s in a basement where the tables have been nicely laid out with flower arrangements. Most of the clientele are local senior citizens that pay a couple euros each per meal. The “waiter” handles a full room full of customers usually all by himself, even taking away the dishes.
A whirlwind of a man calling himself Wayne stopped me on the street as I was leaving lunch, also looking for the same place. I said about a dozen words while he streamed out a thousand. Here is the speech as best as I can recall, spoken in a heavy Irish accent.
Wayne: something in French
Me: Do you speak English?
Wayne: Yeah where is the place to get lunch?
Me: It’s just back around the corner here. I’ll show you.
Wayne: Your American? What’r you doin’ here?
Me: I came to Berlin 3 months ago to work on an Occupy Project
Wayne: We’ll let me tell you! You greedy bastards are the 1 percent! You’ve got to be more spontaneous, less organized. I travel too, but not with a backpack. I was behind a Roman Catholic Church in Antwerp last week and there were these gypsies practicing black magic back there. They had a baby and asked me to masturbate in its mouth. I told the cops and the cops told me to never tell that story again. Then the number 8 started appearing everywhere. I even had 88 Facebook friends, then I saw some other gypsies in the south of France that asked me what my favorite number was. I said ‘8‘ and they said ‘Come with us, we’ve been waiting for you.’ So they took me down into the subway and asked me to pick something out of the vending machine. I picked the orange juice and they said ‘Thank you very much’ and walked away. I walked outside the station and there were all these sirens everywhere and I thought ‘What the fuck’. Just like all these sirens right now, what the fuck. You’ve got that mark on your head, that’s good. You’re Garth and I’m Wayne, that’s good. You know I was sleeping outside at some abandoned factory last night and there was this pool of oil there and there was this green leafy stuff growing in the pool. That stuff will be here long after we are gone, even where there’s radiation. I used to write for one of the biggest science magazines in the world. Do you know the Gospel of Thomas? You know why people used to sleep under dream catchers? To protect them from what’s on the other side. They knew! When they are asleep you are awake. You are their dreams, their plaything. You are a shelf on their wall and it’s a long way out of the house. They love rituals like that Occupy. You’ve got to be more spontaneous. Can I have a piece of that bread? OK, good day Garth. Sleep outside. Outside….
Eating with the few dollars sometimes available in my bank account is a cat-and-mouse game of finding stores that will accept small Visa debit transactions. There is never usually enough in the account to use an ATM, which would require at least 30 dollars to cover the 20 Euro minimum withdrawal plus transaction fees. There are Carrefour Express convenience stores all over the city that will usually not put up a fight, but the female cashier at one of these stores grabbed the debit card out of my hand as I was in mid-swipe.
Even one of the big supermarkets turned down the Visa for a small purchase, on a day when food kept getting so close yet remained so far away. All day it was one thing or the other keeping food from me, then finally in the evening just as I was about to give up…..a Quick fastfood restaurant accepted the card for a 3.50 Euro meal.
But I’ve never been as bad off as the woman who had her head smashed into the pavement near the Grand Palace. It was a bloody spectacle of a mess observed by no shortage of tourists and their cameras. A little black car containing two black women ran down a middle-aged woman crossing the street. I couldn’t tell much about the victim due to a huge neckbrace that medics had applied. There was nobody with her that seemed upset, just the driver kneeled down by her side. Her body was lifeless except for the hands, which occasionally rose. The pool of head blood expanded across the white crosswalk paint, also containing fluids not the color of normal blood. Her headphones lay on the pavement beside her.
That scene has probably also been caused a time or two by the incessant diplomatic motorcades speeding through the city. Sometimes they pass every few minutes, followed by helicopters. Military police are the main guardians, with the front-line officers racing through the streets on white motorcycles. Cops block off an intersection to let the motorcade pass, then accelerate at maximum to block the next intersection before the motorcade arrives. The time is nearing for an end to the wasteful inconveniences of diplomats, representatives etc.
It’s finally getting warm and there seems to be no air conditioning in all of Brussels, or at least all of real Brussels, not even the trains.
Even little basement bathrooms in the middle of nowhere have little old ladies sitting there in the shadows waiting to take 50 cents. Even McDonalds.
A good portion of the population here is Islamic. It seems that half of the people I talk to are from Morocco. And I have to talk to alot of people since I don’t have a working GPS. It makes me wonder how many babies are never born because people don’t stop to ask a stranger for directions. The machine tells them to drive right past their potential soul mate. And it also makes me wonder how many babies died because their parents pulled over in the wrong place to ask for directions. It’s all the same in the end. The world turns one way or the other and the destination is always the same, another turn.
The other place that I stayed recently was a men’s group home right in the very center of the city. They agreed to take me for a week but then saw my foreign ID and said 3 days. The building has been what it is since 1886, and the non-profit running it has existed since the 1700‘s. But the government provides the funding so they are not allowed to take people like me. Getting the three days was under-the-table, just an unofficial favor.
Less than 100 people live there on three dormitory floors, each sectioned off into semi-private cubicles with cabinets and a curtain that can be pulled closed. The building is clean and extremely old, even containing an antique elevator.The dormitories are closed during the day and a staff member comes by at 7AM to rip the curtains open and turn on the lights. Considering this place is not just a shelter, but where some poor appear to be retiring, this waking practice is extreme. Nobody should have such treatment in a permanent living environment.
The doors are locked during the night. Leaving would be impossible without waking up a staff member. The kitchen and lounge areas on the ground floor are open all day, so at least the people are not forced out onto the street as they are with most shelters. A couple dozen people are always sitting around here, mostly congregated in the smoking courtyard. A majority have some senses while a few just sit around staring at walls or mumbling to themselves.
One guy drinks coffee from a bowl and another looks at the same book all day, never turning the page. In general, people like to sit across from me at tables giggling, and this place is no exception. A man in a wrinkled suit paces with a bible all day. Somebody sits in a chair slamming feet against the wall every few minutes. Old men methodically stack candy in plastic tubs to store under their beds. One guy, probably the oldest here, only speaks in mumbles but everyone speaks back as if they are having perfectly understood conversations. Alot of ping pong gets played, adding to the mental institution atmosphere.
Lunch is the biggest meal, sometimes with heaps of meat. Just about every meal has some kind of bean soup, but in all of Belgium this seems to be the case. The kitchen serving windows open at the exact same times every day and the same old men are always waiting first in line 15 minutes beforehand. The same staff who work in the office also help serve meals, although an actual chef is present for lunch and dinner. Breakfast is always ham served by the one person who happens to be first on duty in the morning. Every two hours between meals the window opens for some stiff coffee.
Every time a new worker comes on duty they seem to think I have infiltrated the place, that I don’t belong. The first time this happened I though this big woman was about to kick me out, but everybody got used to me after the first 24 hours. And yes it would be easy for anyone to just walk in the door and join the crazy party except for at night when the building is locked.
Other than a couple lonely old men and some sleazy young drug dealers, the only person who speaks with me at length is a young Iranian man named Cyrus. It turns out that we have much in common. He is here because he’s given up the life he knew to start over and study international relations. He says that people like us are crazy for fighting against the system, because it will never matter. I tell him that nobody will ever know who we were but it does matter, that it is the difference between revolution and evolution. We both agree that it’s impossible for us to live a pretend life anymore, no matter what the consequences. Worried that the police will throw me in jail 30 days for riding the metro system without paying, Cyrus gives me a 10-ride ticket.
The tail end of my tuna sickness has left me coughing violently and sweating overnight. It’s impossible to lay outside of the sleeping bag because then insects will bite and giant slugs will slime me. I went to the airport thinking that would be a better place to live but there is no wifi and nowhere to camp, just an industrial neighborhood. I did camp in some bushes near an airport sign and found some green cherries on the ground to eat. Only one tiny branch on the tree was still alive and there were no cherries there. It was too old to hold the last fruit it ever bore, and I ate it.
One of the old subway trains tried to eat an old lady. The doors have big metal handles and slam violently when both opening and closing. The handle slid around her wrist, right up her arm, throwing her against the train wall. She was pinned there and it took a whole crowd of people hitting emergency buttons and prying on the doors to get her loose. No employees came and the train continued on immediately.
Some guys grabbing their crotches in the park started following me around, getting closer and closer while trying to talk with me. I had given up conversation after the initial crotch grabbing, ignoring them and moving. A quarter mile later they were still following me, talking French while staring at my backpack, close enough to grab it now, so I pulled out a knife and started cleaning my nails. They walked away.
I hate cities.