A group of twenty year-old club promoters from Dresden led me up concrete steps covered in piss and graffiti. The one other girl in our group, bad looking, with big teeth and brown hair pinned up in a crusty mess, had love tattooed on the inside of her forearm in braille. She looked like she hadn’t slept in days because she hadn’t. She looked at me like she was speaking from the other side of a two-way mirror, just guessing where I was standing.
She drank black currant juice and struggled for English words. I struggled for things to say at all. I complimented her sweatshirt in American desperatness to fill the air with words. She said it was from H&M, and that was that.
I went to the bar and ordered three Becks for the drinkers in the group, holding up my pointer, middle and ring fingers for the count. One of the boys laughed at my American fingers and taught me to count the German way. Thumb for eins, pointer for zwei, middle for drei. He had a black hoop of a piercing wrapped tightly around the fullness of his bottom lip. He wore a black t-shirt with a sparkly green skull on the front, black spikes in his ears and black polish on his nails. He looked like a baby dressed up as a ghoul for Halloween.
They cut up little lines of speed on the surface of an iPhone.
When it finally got to be late enough we went to Tresor, a legendary techno club that from the outside looked like an enormous suburban movie theater. One of the boys crouched down and rearranged his backpack to better conceal his little plastic bags of drugs. He also had multitudinous Microsoft laptop chargers that gave a kind of cyber-criminal mystique to the whole operation. We created a shield around him and smoked like collaborators.
You have to wear the Right Thing to get into clubs in Berlin, which is nothing at all like the Right Thing for American clubs. It has something to do with wearing all black and no logos, I think. There were no collared shirts and no tight dresses. Only drag queens wore heels. But as far as I could tell the rules were arbitrary, subjective and impossible to follow, which allowed bouncers to reject anyone with impunity. They turned away people who looked Wrong like sidewalk hobos trying to enter the Ritz. It was a nasty process.
The female bouncer at Tresor, the pretty one holding the guest list and the authority, wore all black, dark purple lipstick and a black Yankees cap. Maybe only logos that nod to America, the New Era corporation or the billion-dollar mega-industry of Major League Baseball were allowed, but she let me in, so what did I care?
The boy with the bedazzled skull on his shirt was not so lucky. His shirt was too flashy. He offered to turn it inside out. She said a firm nein — he had already proven himself. Off they went with their drugs, cigarettes, and laptop chargers, to find another club and never be heard from again.
I hope they did well on their finals.
I went inside with Ben, a non-German, non-twenty year-old club promoter. Hardcore techno pounded away, sounding the way a panic attack feels. The concrete hallway that led to the basement dance floor was smoky and barely lit in flashing red light, like the entrance to hell. There were little alcoves where people sat scrunched together in deep, quick-worded conversations, driven wildly forth by the wicked of chauffeur of amphetamines.
He spoke to me as one might to a vegan at a slaughterhouse.
“If you’re uncomfortable at all, we can leave,” he said.
It was very dark. I could only see past my hand when strobe lights flashed. We stood in the back, on an isolated platform away from the men (they were mostly men), moving their bodies in a fast way that was more like careening than dancing. It was a heavy scene, but strangely happy and harmless.
Techno was their music. It hooked into them, a wire running from the turntables through their hearts. Ben was like this — techno hooked him into the nirvana of belonging. Every time I looked at him he had the beatific smile of a person in his place.
I retuned to Berlin, this time with Heather. While waiting in the long line for Waterbar we met two sweet girls from Denmark. They had brown hair and mall-bought scarves. We hung out with them all night and enjoyed the happy functions of the fast friendships made between tourists, the buddy system for the bathroom, the shots at the bar, clapping along proudly when one of them made out with a dude.
We planned to meet them the next night at Berghain, another one of the legendary techno clubs set in a another former power plant. We were delayed at dinner and late to meet them.
By the way, do you know why it always takes extremely long to get the check in Europe? I believe that after every European waiter serves dinner he slips through a magical hatch in the kitchen floor and descends into a faraway cavern where he meets up with all other European waiters, Greeks, Portuguese, Norwegians, all of them. They smoke and drink red wine out of those tiny glasses and make fun of the way Americans count. They have a really nice time. This whole process takes about an hour. When they’re done they return through the hatch unbothered, smelling like cigarettes, to blithely ask us if we want a tiramisu.
By the time we got to Berghain the Danes had waited in the legendarily long line for us for an hour and a half. We cut the line and joined them, shamefully, just two minutes away from the entrance.
There were three bouncers. The first held the guest list. He wore a black trench coat and had beautifully sharp male-model cheekbones that could have sliced you right up into paper cuts. You would have been happy to bleed.
The second had the square-jaw and imposing biceps of contract killer. He stood straight-backed, one with a palm wrapped around the other fist, ready to crack his knuckles and break the bones of infidels. The third, the famous one (he has an agent and has written a book) looked like a fat Terry Richardson with menacing facial piercings and neck tattoos.
The knuckle cracker looked over the Danes and gave them a revolted no. They went away. Goodbye, friends. He had noticed us talking to them in line.
“They are your friends?” he asked.
I said no and Heather said yes at the same time. We explained that we’d only met them the night before. The knuckle cracker and fat Terry Richardson spoke to each other at great length in German. They looked us up and down. They let us in.
Inside it was enormous and concrete and cold. I walked past someone who pinched my arm so hard it left a little red mark. I met and lost track of blonde half American, half German man who bought me ice cream. An emaciated, shirtless man wearing a leather collar chained to his leather pants danced alone.
Heather had to leave to catch an early flight. I was on my own.
I went up to the second floor and looked out through the steamy windows at the line outside. It had grown by hundreds. Faces, straining to check the length of the line ahead, all pushed up against each other. I was in. They were out. I took ugly pleasure from this scene, high above the sea of the excluded.
I went to the bar. I saw Ben. I don’t know if he saw me.
He didn’t know I was in Berlin again. I didn’t want to start saying unsaid things. I dropped low and ran-crawled away from the bar, like a policewoman in a SWAT raid. I hid in a corner where a sweaty Italian boy offered me ketamine.
It was a mess. I wanted to stay anyway. I didn’t want to be on the outside with the kids from Dresden, the Danish girls, the cruel bouncers and the straining blur of people in line. I wanted to be on the inside, among the tribe, even though I was crouched in a corner rejecting one of my own.
Regardless, there was little left to do. I left. There were still hundreds of people outside. I walked fast towards the taxi stand. I tried to keep my head down, my face turned away from the crowd of German men waiting in line.
They shouted things about me that I couldn’t understand.