Night Train

I am on a German train that is racing westward toward Frankfurt. It is a Liegewagen, a sleeping car. The compartment has six births, three on each side of the window. There is almost no room to stand. I try to sleep, on my assigned lower bunk, but the three other people, a pretty blond woman and two men, all of them mid-twenties, are standing out in the passageway, talking loudly, with the door to the compartment open. The woman’s laughter punctuates the young men’s sentences, shrill and repetitive, like an un-oiled wheel.

It is 10:30 pm, then 11:00 pm, then 11:30 pm, and I cannot sleep. The car is a Nichtraucher, no-smoking, but the ventilation system is pumping cigarette smoke from the rest of the train into all the non-smoking cars, including mine. Finally, the three young people have spoken all words that travel intimacy allows, and they get into their bunks. I get out of mine and go out into the passageway, closing the sliding door behind me.

I open the window for fresh air. I stick my head out. There are warning signs hung about, black lettering on white. Do not stick your head out the window. There are things that can kill you–like someone else’s head, stuck out from another train, coming from the opposite direction, meeting with yours at two hundred miles per hour. A prudent turtle, I retract my head.

I gag on the fresh air. In the slipstream, just a few inches beyond window, there is the smell of the locomotive’s electric motors–but also something toxic. It hits me when the train slows. I believe it is atomized asbestos from the train’s brake linings. I bring in my head, again, but remain standing at the window.

I am rushing through Germany–while Germany sleeps. It is cold and rainy, and there is no fresh air to breathe. Now it is 12:30 am, and now 2:30 am. My head aches with fatigue. In an hour and a half, the train will stop in Frankfurt. What was I thinking when I supposed the train I would rest there on some quite siding while I finally slumbered? Instead, it will hurtle on toward Rome, and I will be left standing in cold and exhaustion.

I stand at the window. The train is traveling a hundred miles an hour. It is dark and cold outside. There are no cars on the roads. It is desolate enough for a disaster, and the train is thinking of complying and leaving the tracks. I am entrusting my life to the Germans driving the engine, to the Germans watching over the switches. But this is a night train, and it is not supposed to leave the tracks, because we are asleep and helpless. Except that I am not asleep. And that is because I do not sleep well in Germany.

I go back into the compartment. I notice the overhead light on. I click it off. My blanket smells of perfume, from former use. Just as I rest my head on the thin polyester pillow, someone clicks the overhead light back on. It is the young, pretty, slightly plump blond woman two bunks above me. I decide she is afraid to sleep in a dark compartment with three strange men. The dim light will keep us from attacking her. There are limits to traveler intimacy.

My mind races, the same speed as the train. I cannot sleep. I try thinking of Sandra, my television love–probably most Germans’ television love. She is Sandra Maischberger, interview host. One night, at the house I’ve just left, I probed the contours of my host’s thinking. Yes, he says, with a slight wrinkle on his brow, possibly a Jew.

I have heard him suggest it before. People of talent, especially in the media, are Jewish. She interviews important people. She is highly intelligent and asks questions that make her subjects squirm, and gasp in both outrage and delight. Her face is attractive, the lips pulled down a little on one side. It is subtle. There is something dark about her. I am not sure where the darkness comes from. Possibly from me.

She is unfazed by power; she is good at what she does. And she is a woman. My host has a smirking lust for her and expresses this disposition in front of his wife. I tell him, it is clear to me she is kokainsuchtig, a cocaine addict. I say things like that–unfounded–to coax out another level of prejudice.

I too feel lust for this dark beauty, and I play her flickering image in my mind as a kind of Schlafmittel, a sleeping potion–something to make me forget. But I cannot sleep. Sandra is too dark for me, or not dark enough. I cannot decide which. The fascination of German males for Sandra, that too is dark.

I get up and stand at the open window again. It is cold and wintry outside. Because of the fumes, I try not to breathe anything at all. I look back at the day before. I am in Berlin, in the Oranienburg-Straße. There a police tank–a Panzerwagen with rubber wheels. It has a shielded machine gun pointing at the entrance of the Berlin Jewish Center, which is right next to the New Synagogue.

Earlier, I am standing farther up the street, in The Old French Cemetery, under a leaf canopy, lingering by the headstones of Bertolt Brecht and his wife Leni Weigel. To one side there are piles of gravestones. Some have been defaced by vandals. What if the tank had been standing there earlier? Back then. If the men in the tank had known Leni Weigel was Jewish, would they have protected her, back then?

The defaced stones are stacked among non-defaced stones. Like in Mexico, if there no surviving relatives and no one pays the rent, your stone is set aside. The gravediggers cut through your bones and lay some one else to rest in your arms. You lie there together, a Jew together with an anti-Semitic banker, or with the tender broken remains of a boy-soldier fallen at the Russian Front. Perhaps that is why the young woman up above me keeps the light on. So the gravediggers will not come.

Four police cars guard the tank, against a man who will come running toward it, holding a Molotov cocktail. The policemen are dressed in green. They carry Koch submachine guns, and stand on both sides of the street. They study me, to see if I fit the profile. There are Danes and Englishmen that are sympathetic to the Palestinians, or to the Neo-Nazis.

There are also Nutten, whores. They stand half on the sidewalk, half in the street. They mime being the whores they are. Other young people–not Nutten–wear stylish black and carrying Handys, cell phones. They are making the scene. This is the beating heart of the city. It is where I might see Sandra Maischberger.

Around the corner, out of the corner of my eye, I see a sign advertising falafel. I go in and converse with the owner. He is an Israeli Jew, and he loves New York above all things. He fixes me a delicious falafel, in pita bread. The night before, I ate tender venison in a wood-paneled restaurant known only to the wealthiest, most sophisticated Germans–the ones that live in Dahlem, the neighborhood of gas lamps and cobble-stoned streets and tree-shaded houses. I am sure it is where Sandra lives.

My new falafel friend and I talk about anti-Semitism in Germany, how widespread it is, how deep it runs. He calls the anti-Semitics Idioten. He uses forefingers and thumbs, squeezing the flesh over his eyes into Neanderthal brows.

Two young, almost cuddly men come in, boys really. He speaks Hebrew with them. There are notices on the wall in German and Russian. There are a lot of Russian Jews who have fled antisemitism in Russia. Pogrom, I think, must be a Russian word. The boys leave. The train rocks slightly. Night trains rock slightly before they leave the tracks. “Those were security men from the Jewish Center,” says my falafel friend. “They’re a lot more dangerous than they look.” He laughs. I laugh. I already know Israelis can be dangerous.

I walk by the tank again. I want to kick its thick solid rubber wheels, but know that would not be a good idea. A thick electric cord loops down from a second story window in the Synagogue. I figure it’s for a heater, so the crew can stay warm. It is cold in Berlin. I see blinking radio lights that look pink through the tank’s small, tinted, bulletproof window. I see a man drinking something hot. Steam rises from the paper cup, which he holds at his lips. He is watching the street ahead of him, through another small tinted window, looking out past Sandra Maischberger and on up the street toward the Old French Cemetery, as if the attack might come from there.

The train rocks again, and I hold onto the grips that are part of the lowered upper window. It is 3:40 in the morning, and, just beyond the train’s asbestos slipstream, it is dark and cold and raining. I am racing through Germany, from East to West. In the houses we pass, there are no lights, and only the occasional car moves the roads. I can see no one out there, not even Sandra, and I am wondering why I cannot sleep in Germany–and who is guarding the train.

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