Sunday, June 7, 2009


In a previous posting I gave some of the details of the neighborhood I grew up in. Our neighbors ran a refuse business and used part of their backyard as a parking space for the garbage trucks. The houses were all small and unusually close together, since they were all built by brothers (long before I was born.) Their mother lived in the original house on the property and by the time my family came along in the years after the end of World War II, although the houses had changed hands several time, we were still the only family in the neighborhood that was not related by blood to the original builders. Across the street was an estate that belonged to the family that owned Bloomingdales, but on our side things were decidedly more proletariat. Most fathers in the neighborhood had blue collar jobs, and when some of them came home in the afternoon, they would come down to the river bank with a bar of soap to bathe. More likely than not, the kids from the neighborhood would all be swimming already and we tried not to splash too much.

The highlight of each summer was when a large communal garage at the center of the half circle of homes was cleared of cars and set up for an all day/all night barbecue. The guests spanned several generations and they came to eat, drink, play games, listen to music, but mostly just to talk. I attended a party in Langenberg yesterday, south of Essen on the way to Wuppertal, that was organized by the Feuerwehr from Velbert and although it was a good deal larger over all, it had a similar feel to those old neighborhood blowouts. This party too was in a garage, but in this case it was a garage intended for fire trucks rather than the personal vehicles of our neighbors. The Fire Department Band played a remarkable line up of favorites including "On Wisconsin," by John Philip Sousa and "Dancing Queen," by Abba, which I had never heard performed by a brass band before.

Other attractions included a small shack that had a smoke machine inside. There was a line of little kids waiting their turn to turn the hoses on the shack, but each time they "put out" the fire, a fire department official would turn the smoke machine on again. Endless fun. Other kids were operating hook and ladder equipment, climbing a self built tower of Bierkisten (see photo sequence below) or wandering around eating their fourth Bratwurst. I spent most of my time in the garage, eating, eavesdropping on conversations and enjoying the music. Two elderly woman across from me discussed "Der Heinz," who one of them was sure was long dead. "No, no...," assured the other, "I saw him at Christmas..." "Oh, I thought he was long dead," repeated the first. "No, no," assured the other, "I saw him at Christmas..." And so on. I listened to plenty of such conversations at neighborhood parties and always wondered what was wrong with adults. Now I have conversations like that too.

Unfortunately conversations in my youth often trended toward the war in Vietnam and it was rarely a good thing, usually ending in some ineffectual blows exchanged and groups holding back the fighters. Yesterday was election day for the European Parliament, but I heard almost no discussion of that. In the Ruhrgebiet only a third of registered votes cast a ballot. I think most people would agree that the Greens are the big winners, to the extent that anyone can be said to be a "big" winner. But I think the most evocative element of the experience was the prevalence of smokers in the crowd. Please don't get me wrong. It's a filthy habit and I'm glad I gave it up after a few years when I was twelve. But in the 1960's just about everyone over 18 smoked and the world had a nice familiar stale nicotine aroma that was somehow comforting. Now smokers in the US are an endangered species, but being at an outdoor party in small town Germany is a little like being in one of those time warps that seemed so common on "Star Trek". Lots of lined faces, deep phlegmy voices and coughing. It gave me a warm nostalgic feeling for my youth.

No comments: