21 January 2011

Don’t Be Like That

I started the job in my last year of high school, when the possibilities of cash were starting to impress me like a fad. Friends said I got lucky. The video store specialized in martial arts and animated films: the owner was an estranged father of two sons who possessed a high-up belt in karate.

My friends didn’t know about the orange phone. It sat on a schoolroom desk behind a wall of VHS cassettes, in a space concealed from customers and lined with pornographic posters. “Here it is,” said the owner. “We call it the orange phone.”

It turned out that in the basement, behind a locked door, he ran a side business that sold mail-order XXX-rated videos. The porno setup, he explained, had a nice and sanitary company name and advertised in regional newspapers across the country. Customers saw the advert, called the orange phone, and I would mail them a catalog: the idea was that they’d eventually phone back, select a few videos, and give me their credit card details. He told me to pretend I was well acquainted with the latest pornography trends and sex toys. I asked him how often the orange phone rang. He said all the time. We both stood there, looking at the receiver. I asked him which took precedence, the proper video store or the mail-order porn video store, if for example the orange phone started ringing while I was serving a customer. He said to take care of both, please.

About 10 percent of callers to the orange phone had an agenda that didn’t strictly involve our catalogue of XXX films. Phone masturbators usually presented with what at first sounded like hiccups. Over a period of three years, perhaps two dozen men and women called after receiving their sex toys—that is, while they were in the process of using their devices. The other video store clerks had similar experiences. And then there were the chancers who wanted to sell their own homemade movies and mistook me for a foot in the door. They described their films as tastefully done, as playful, educational, passionate, true to life. The strangest, the guy I can’t forget, was an amateur pornographer who called me with his pitch for a two-hour film shot on a farm. This happened in 1997. The man had a teacher’s voice, I imagined him grey and bearded, and he finished the pitch with: “Watching my wife deep-throat a horse is truly a thing to behold.” I said something along the lines of: “That’s against the law.”

The caller was astonished: “You sell these videos but you don’t want to be a primary producer?”

I heard someone tapping a coin on the white counter of the regular video store, so I hung up and served the customer. I was just about finished throwing the videos into a plastic bag when again the orange phone rang. I rushed back to the booth, picked up, and heard a woman’s voice. I was nearing the age of 19. “I believe my husband just spoke to you about our videotape,” the woman said. “Now I want to send the video to you, to the address here on your catalog.” I said, “Please don’t do that.” “But you’ll love it. I promise.” “I’m worried about being raided by police.” She made this very comforting, low-end sound and said: “Don’t be like that.”

For some reason my boss grew nastier: first he became obliquely rude, then outright mean. He’d stand up his friends and they’d call the video store looking for him. He fired a young woman who got pregnant. He cut our pay without explanation. He asked if my real name should be Pipposopoulopolous. It should not. But I was too lazy to find another part-time job. And soon enough I was skimming from the non-pornographic video rental trade, gradually stealing what I hoped would be enough money to take me far away.

I justified the theft in a proliferating number of ways, all of which I now recognize as bogus. Most of all I clung to the fact that I’d never stolen anything before: I promised myself that after I withdrew a few thousand dollars from the video store I would never steal again. Here’s what I did: until my third and final year of part-time work, I had never raised the subject of late fines with customers, unless they asked me what they owed. Which a few did. I’d tell them a figure near the actual sum, and that they could pay next time, because it didn’t make sense to harass customers every time they felt like they needed to see a movie.

But during that last year, I started asking customers for the money they apparently owed the business. I offered incentives: if they owed $40 and paid $20 straightaway I’d wipe the rest of the fine from their account. Late fine transactions were untraceable. A sign in the video store window said Cash Only. At first it didn’t feel like theft. I was new to theft. I turned 20. Theft could be sheltered inside a purpose. The scheme found its purpose when my girlfriend moved to Berlin, to study painting at the Hochschule der Kunste: we were breaking up, because she was moving to Berlin. To this I had to somehow respond energetically.

Because of the world wide web the orange phone basically stopped ringing in 1998.

I kept all the money I stole in a box in my bottom drawer, along with some photographs, letters, and the only autograph I’ve ever owned, one I’d throw out before flying to Berlin: “To Andrew, Joe Montana.” At some point in my early adolescence I had cared about Joe Montana, but that time seemed irrelevant to my life; I felt sure that my ex-girlfriend, the stash of money, and the possibilities of Berlin and the rest of the world were all consistent with the kind of person I’d one day become: I thought they would lead to the truth about me. I quit my job. My boss said he’d send me a written reference, which he never did.

The travel agent looked pretty spooked when I said I’d pay the $1,529 round-the-world ticket with cash.


In Berlin my girlfriend Renee, or ex-girlfriend, it was all very unclear at this stage, shared an apartment with a German DJ and his girlfriend, whom he’d known since childhood and who was also a DJ. To my delight they were also drug dealers. When I couldn’t resist asking them what life had been like in the GDR, he said: “Everything was better, everyone was the same.” And she said: “But then we were only kids in a small town.” Now we were all stoned in a big apartment at 7 Korsorer Strasse, in what had been East Berlin. The Wall had stood at the end of the street. At the end of the street! If I had owned a camera I would have taken pictures. In an LSD stupor I wandered around down there, in the divide between the districts of Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg, which was still a strangely depopulated space, hazardous on account of the dogshit. My girlfriend, Renee, got up early for art school and I stayed in, failing both to write short stories and read Within a Budding Grove. Pretty soon Renee stopped going to art school, so we could spend more time together.

One afternoon we found an old bullet shell casing in the attic at Korsorer Strasse. Where the floorboards had broken there was an uptake of dirt and stuff and shreds of GDR newspapers: the aluminum casing was buried in one of these cavities. You could nose around for hours. Berlin looked exactly the way we wanted it to look. I put the shell back where we’d found it; I couldn’t very well steal something from a different world.

Somewhere in Mitte was a party attended by people from English-speaking countries, and with few exceptions we were of a similar order: musicians, visual artists, actors, journalists, academics, students. I met two boys in a band from Melbourne. Someone said: “I should have moved to Berlin months ago.” There was a woman who told us about an installation work she planned for the city’s biennale: she wanted to place stainless steel sinks and several taps along three walls of a gallery room; the dripping taps would somehow be rigged to drip out a tune. I loved the idea when I heard it: I wished it were mine. As far as I know the installation never happened. I was having a great time, floating around in the vague light, clearly still in love: I’d stolen money every week for a year so I might come to this party.

In the kitchen I smoked cigarettes with a man who removed a small black object from his shirt pocket and asked me: “Know what this is?” “A listening bug?” I said. He nodded: “Can you read the markings?” I couldn’t, but saw they were in French. “And I’m not French,” he said, “You understand me? You see what I’m trying to tell you?” This guy wasn’t drinking but he looked hung over. His name was Eric. He wore a black or maybe dark blue coat with fireman clasps. Eric said he told people he worked in insurance ─ “a boring job, right” ─ but to be honest he was in the security business, and as if to prove it he told me what happened when he and his associates planted that same listening device in a nice Berlin home. He called me kid. The problem with that job, he said, was a large dog in the backyard, which they drugged with sedatives so they might get on with the job. But the drugs killed the animal while they were indoors setting the bugs, so they carried the poor thing out to the street and ran over it with their van, in an attempt to make its death look reasonable. I believed him at the time. Now I wonder: where did he get the dog story?

That night would be the last time he told it. As he walked home from the party, an hour or so after I left, Eric was killed by a car on Schonhauser Allee. The car didn’t stop, there were no witnesses, and it was a big, terrible, wonderful mystery to some of us from the party, us gallow birds, when we met for drinks a week or so later, in Hackescher Markt I think, where our only subject was his death.

Eric’s body had been flown to England. No one knew whether he’d been buried or cremated. No one seemed to like him. I belonged to a minority who believed he really had been employed by an intelligence agency. Which meant what? He was deliberately run over? Suicide, said the woman who knew him best. What was Eric doing in Berlin? What were we doing there? We talked and talked and went home and tried to build our lives out of questions. What would happen to us? A few months later Renee and I broke up. I think of Berlin as a place where people go to believe.

Image: Jane D

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