July 28, 2008

The Sausage Girls

GERMANY - The German island of Sylt. Also known as the Hamptons of the Hun. You didn’t know that Germany owned a resort island in the North Sea, just a few hours from Hamburg? With beach parties and blondes and volleyball? Seagulls, windsurfing, and hotdog stands? Neither did I. But it’s where the moneyed Germs keep thatched vacation homes. And so here I am with my aunt for two weeks staying at her dacha.

Our first day here we go food shopping in the giant Famila Supermarkt. We start in the sausage section, possibly the largest part of any German supermarket. Packaged wursts of all kinds stuff the mile long refrigerated case, which looks exactly like where you’d find the milk and eggs at an American supermarket: in other words, they’re staples. Five blond girls shop together; one of them I saw that morning on the plane. At the gate in Düsseldorf she had looked serious and unsmiling, as though grieving over a bad grade. She wore defensive sunglasses. Now, she laughed and chatted with her hot friends. 18? 19-years-old they are? No more than that. They all wear shorts and their hair runs loose, ready for more sun bleaching. On each a perfect ass. Tragically, they ignore me.

Here’s the thing and it’s what makes this moment so special. They spend much time combing the sausage case. One of them picks up a package and shows it to the others. A discussion ensues and then she throws it back. Now, another chooses a contender. Currywurst? This is serious business: a dozen makers of bratwurst compete for business. Then they all gather in front of the case, pointing and debating. I can’t tell you how much this scene warms my heart. When in America has anyone ever seen a group of beautiful young women arguing excitedly about what kinds of sausages they should buy for their vacation weekend at the shore? I would say that it’s never happened.

This produced in me a stab of nostalgia for Nadia, the Croatian. Spending the afternoon one day near her apartment on the Upper East Side, we passed through some Bulgarian street festival and she kept on wandering to the sausage stand, repeatedly failing to fight the pull of her heritage in an adopted land that frowns upon beautiful women lusting after minced meat sheathed in intestinal casings.

In the end, Nadia had said, “Look, I think now I’m going to go eat a sausage.”

My kind of girl.

The five young women finally moved on, chatting and giggling, their cart now well stocked. They would never grow tired of eating wursts. German women never do: they eat sausage and drink beer up until the day they die. But they don’t age gracefully here. Better to see and remember the sausage girls now, before they grow old in the German way, before their faces become square and leathery, their hair sensibly short, their mouths hard, and their eyes suspicious.

July 23, 2008

That 70s Country

GERMANY - I’m in Germany. It’s raining. It’s been raining for a week. And it’s cold. When I go out, I can smell burning wood: people are running their fireplaces in the middle of July. It’s a profoundly medieval smell. This, of course, brings instant terror to any Jew’s heart.

I pass the time by writing down condescending observations about the Germans. This one is about fashion. I know little about fashion (except that my jeans are trendy), but I know more than the Germans do.

It’s true that Germany is technologically modern – maybe even more so than the U.S. People here are wired. Even the appliances are more sophisticated than ours. And still, from a fashion perspective, the Germans seem mired in a tacky 70s mode of self-expression. Jean suits. Bell-bottoms. Feathered hair. The occasional handlebar moustache. But they’re not shabbily dressed, mind you, the way you might find some Eastern Europeans. They’re just dated. And music? Pop bands that still sound like Abba waft out of windows, with those marching choruses that are one step away from a fireman’s band, or something worse. How did this happen? Why haven’t they moved on? It’s a big country: 80 million. That could be part of it. They don’t need to look elsewhere. They might just be insular in the way the U.S. tends to be. Our design sense has also suffered from neglect. But you see this more in our trucks and busses and buildings: our industrial design hasn’t gone anywhere. This used to be true of our consumer goods, too, but Apple has helped change that.

In some ways, though, the German fashion sense is progressing. But slowly and towards punk. It’s become stylish for middle-aged German women to cut their hair short and dye it red. Blood red. Punk red. They’ll spike it, too. And we’re not talking about fashionistas here, but otherwise fairly staid housefraus about to enter their golden years. The other day, I saw one with purple hair. It matched her twin set.

The 80s beckon.

July 20, 2008

The Beautiful Subway Girl

There are two kinds of beautiful women in New York City: the kind who know it and who look perpetually exasperated and annoyed, presumably at the attention; and there’s kind who merrily share it with the rest of us. Men mostly expect the former, because it overwhelmingly outnumbers the latter. We prepare ourselves to feel shame for looking. But one warm morning down in the subway, a woman of the merrier kind appeared.

It was 9am and the young commuters stood at their places waiting on the platform, mostly expressionless. Good-looking, many of them: that’s New York. That’s downtown New York. Some tried harder than others; some didn’t need to try at all. The majority stood alone, near the edge of whichever line they waited for, occasionally craning their necks in hopes of seeing the lights of an approaching subway. I shambled toward the middle section of the platform; it put me in good position near my stop’s street exit.

The guys who cleaned the train sat on a bench, chatting. They tended to be the most animated of anyone on the platform. They mostly talked about what they saw in the Post.

She appeared out of nowhere, wearing glasses, big brown-rimmed ones, like the famous sexy librarian: demure and pornographic, for she also wore a short, pleated skirt that showed off her spectacular long and naked legs. She stood at the center of the platform, so people waiting on both sides could see her. She smiled at everyone, at nothing. She never stopped smiling. She had her hair – dirty blond, a little curly – in a glorious bunch. She managed to look as though she had money. She had immediately changed the entire mood of the platform, at least the middle area where I stood. Men from down the platform began migrating up; those farther up began to migrate down. The cleaning guys had stopped talking about the Post and now started talking about her. They kept their volume down, but it was obvious what the topic was. I looked at her, looked away, looked again. I walked in mad little circles. A man about thirty said “Hi” to her in the most unthreatening tone possible, a tone, really, of hope and possibility. He didn’t expect a response; she gave none. My heart raced. She walked a bit in one direction, stopped, walked a ways back. People always did that – it passed the time. But with her it was a miniature spectacle. There was a growing sense of community, growing between the men and between the men and her.

And now the train came, and now the men on the platform tried looking nonchalant and random as they stepped with decisive intent to share with her whichever car she chose. It was a desperate dance. No one looked at her anymore; the choreography required severe concentration. I closed my eyes, turning away. I wouldn’t fall into this trap. The train slowed and squealed, crawled and then stopped. Doors slid open. The crackle of the conductor. The dour faces of those already imprisoned. Some exited to freedom. And there she stood facing me, waiting to enter. And like some old gent from Budapest, I bowed my head perhaps fifteen degrees and my arm extended to invite her into my little subway car.

She looked into my eyes and smiled and then she stepped inside. I followed her in but she immediately disappeared into the standing bodies of people, the hundred or so packed into the car, who had no idea that we had shared a moment.

July 14, 2008

Does Your Dog Bite?

It was a warm night so I walked home, hankering for dinner, for something prepared, like Indian or Chinese. Bamboo House was ahead. But I hate stopping at a restaurant to look at its menu in the window, like some old, stray dog, sniffing around for his dinner. And of course, I already know what I’ll find: Chinese restaurants don’t vary much. But like everything else, we march to the rituals we’ve already established.

I saw a man standing on the corner with — and speaking of dogs — a couple of little terriers scampering leashless about him. One of them followed me to the restaurant’s window and snaked around my feet while I read the gigantic menu. Dumplings, fried or steamed. General Tso’s chicken. Beef and Broccoli. Sigh. Nothing says lonely like Sesame Chicken. The dog — white, fluffy, hyperactive — searched for something. Animals love me. I’m not sure why. Animals, little children, and madwomen. And lo, soon another dog appeared, bigger and brown, and the two of them played at my feet.

“Hi, little guy,” I said to the new dog. “Where’d you come from?”

The new dog licked my hand, looked and smiled in that way dogs smile — desperate and grimacing.

And I looked up to see where the dog had come from and there stood a beautiful woman, holding a leash. She smiled at me. People like to show off their friendly dogs.

We began to chat.

“Nice dog,” I said.

“Thanks,” she said. “He’s great.”

“What’s his name?”

She gave some name: Bernie or Charlie– I don’t remember. She was young and cute and talking to me, a man at nighttime holding a plastic bag and peering into a Chinese restaurant’s window.

“He’s playful,” I said.

“He loves going out. What’s your dog’s name?”

“Oh,” I said, “he’s not my dog.”

I began to turn toward where the man at the corner stood. And sensing it was time to leave, the little fluffy dog — and I realized now, a gay man’s breed — bounded to his master. When I looked back at the woman, I saw that she had already begun to move away, pulling Bernie or Charlie with her. Dark clouds had gathered over her face.

When she had thought I was a fellow dog owner — and possibly a gay one — she gave me permission to speak to her, me a strange man on the street. Dog owners are allowed to talk to each other, they like to impress each other with their dogs. They like to pretend that they share in a secret society of canine lovers, something that cat owners, for example, would never understand. But I had scammed her; I had pretended to own that little fluffy dog to get in with her. I had betrayed her and the universal rules of the street. I was just another guy trying to ogle her. Because however much bravado women try to project — jaws set hard, eyes focused straight ahead (sometimes behind ridiculously giant sunglasses) — they are basically afraid of men.

“But I have a cat,” I said, hopelessly.

But she was gone.

The man on the corner smiled and nodded.

July 5, 2008

Blue Jeaned

“Give me your credit card and I’ll buy you some nice clothes.”

“You can’t be serious.”

But she was serious.

“No, really. Give me your credit card and a budget — let’s say 500 dollars — and I’ll buy you some good clothes, clothes you can go out with. A good pair of jeans. Some Sevens. You have to spend money on jeans.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than 40 dollars on jeans.”

“I can tell. You also need some new shirts.”

“I like my shirts.”

“They’ve got holes in them. And maybe a pair of pants for work. And a summer sweater.”

“I have plenty of pants.”

“You’re always hiking them up; they don’t fit you.”

“I’m a little skinnier than I used to be.”

“Then you need new pants.”

She was the new girl. She referred to herself as a “girly girl.” She made being a woman look specifically fun. There is nothing fun or un-fun about being a man; you just are one, I guess. But Ariel made it seem that being a girl was an endless party. And she dressed the part. She lived on high heels. She liked to wear her own pair of fancy jeans; they fit her like a swimsuit.

Ariel had immediately focused on my bad fashion and she had made it her project to convert me into someone who cared. Coming up was a dating event I had been invited to and Ariel was determined to make me look good for it.

“So how much are these jeans going to cost me?”

“Not $40.”

“Can you give me an idea?”

Ariel’s office buddy spun around.

“Look, just give her the damn card,” Frank said, nearly shouting. “What can you lose?”

His eyes focused on my shirt.

“Nothing,” he concluded.

I got out my wallet and plucked out a credit card.

“Fine.”

“This is going to be great!” said Ariel. “You’re going to look so good! 500?”

“Yeah, OK, 500,” relinquishing the card.

On her computer she brought up the Neiman Marcus website. I was doomed.

“What are your sizes. Waist?”

When I told her, she shook her head.

“No. Your waist is smaller than that. No.”

“Look trust me. It’s what it is.”

“No, look. Just trust me.”

“Just fucking trust her,” said Frank, unmoving. His neck had turned red.

“And you’re tall,” Ariel said. “And you’re going to need a longer pant leg.”

“Whatever. Have fun spending my money.”

I went back to my desk, feeling as though I were on the verge of a humiliation. I could hear Ariel clicking around the Web and conferring with Frank. Within the hour, purchase confirmations had begun to arrive by email. I didn’t look at them; I wanted to be surprised, as though they were birthday presents. Except I was paying for them, like some people pay for sex, or how elderly Japanese pay for fake relatives to visit them. I had never spent 500 dollars on clothes in a single go. And I had never given anyone carte blanche to do it for me. I was simply exhausted with my life, a life that had nothing in it to exhaust me in the first place. It was that kind of weariness. Let someone else take over and make the decisions.

After a few days, boxes showed up. A pair of dark gray flat fronts. A dress shirt. A cashmere sweater with a half-length zip. The pants were one size too small around the waist and one size too long in the leg. But something funny happened: they fit.

A day later the jeans arrived. The jeans. They had been the catalyst. The fancy jeans good for meetings and dates. The not-Levi’s.

With the jeans came a polo shirt. It was the kind that sported the infamous alligator insignia.

“I don’t do the alligator. Sorry.”

“Open your mind, man. Make a change.”

I don’t remember who said that; everyone said it. Twenty years earlier, it was the alligator that I had stopped wearing to open my mind.

I went to the bathroom to change into the jeans. Ariel’s fashion venture had become an office spectacle. A dozen people had gathered outside. Out of the box, I could instantly see that the jeans were good-looking; I couldn’t quite put my finger on why they looked good, but they did. Even hanging limp over my arm, you could see the superior cut.

I slipped them on. I pulled on the polo. I look in the mirror. I looked fantastic. There was no way around it. I turned and looked back. I had an ass. I hadn’t seen my ass in a pair of pants in years.

I came out of my makeshift changing room. The office stood around me. Frank nodded.

“I have to admit,” he said, “she got a lot of good shit for 500 dollars.”

Someone else said, “Hey, nice shoes.”

I had worn those shoes at least twice a week for months.

“When you wear nice pants,” explained Ariel later, “people notice your shoes.”

At my desk, I finally pulled up the email with the receipt for the jeans.

$170.00.

Manufacturing some righteous irritation, I trotted back to Ariel.

“A hundred and seventy dollars? Are you fucking kidding me?”

“They look fantastic on you. How do they feel?”

“They feel great.”

They did feel great. I felt great.

“See,” she said.

And we both knew that soon enough I’d be giving Ariel another 500 dollars. I’d do this not just to get more clothes, but so I could feel like this again, like getting a sweet present I hadn’t expected.