I'm a Jellyroll by Joseph Giordano

I walked into a Dresden club hunting for a gig and saw a woman on stage with eyes like glowing coals. Dashni’s voice had a mournful sound that squeezed my heart. We sat in the bar after her set. She was Alvi Kurd from Çorum. Her mother and father were killed in a bombing, and she was smuggled by cousins into Dresden. She spoke without bitterness.

“Enough about me. So Kurt, what’s your story?"

My forehead creased. “I’m from East Berlin."

She raised her eyebrows. “Turks think Germany is rich, and everyone born here was lucky."

“My father was a bureaucrat in the Berlin city government. We didn’t have family in the West. Those with relatives on the other side of the wall flourished on the income from selling smuggled goods. A pair of Levis sold on the black market for two months of my father’s pay “I can still see my father’s ashen face the first time he left home for the West. Chairman Erich Honecker was to speak in East Berlin, and city officials wanted to give him the red carpet treatment. They feared embarrassment or worse if Honecker tripped on an unsecured rug, so my father was given Deutsch Marks, an official pass through the checkpoints at the wall, and instructions to locate a shop and buy double-coated tape to secure the crimson mat. My father said that when his superior gave him instructions, a chill ran through his body. What if the official papers he carried raised suspicion to Western guards that he was a spy? He’d be imprisoned in some concrete gaol and never see his family again. He said his heart rate didn’t slow when he passed into West Berlin. The return examination would be more intense, and his stomach soured at the prospect he’d be mugged by one of the homeless thieves or pimps that he’d been told ran rampant in the West. The specter of either incarceration or robbery and disgrace, all for some damn rolls of tape, kept his hands shaking until he safely delivered his purchase.

Dashni leaned her chin on her palm. “History condemns the wall."

I tilted my head. “My father wasn’t impressed by the 1963 John F. Kennedy speech, with the quote, "Ich bin ein Berliner,’ intending to say, "I am a Berliner.’ Proper German would have been, Ich bin Berliner. Ein Berliner was a pastry; Kennedy had called himself a jellyroll."

Dashni put her hand over a smile. “I never heard that."

“The wall was built in 1961, years after the occupation, and the Soviets received tacit permission from the West to erect it. West Berlin feared a flood of East Berlin refugees. So the occupation powers built the wall for their protection. But two decades later when the people tore at the wall, governments acceded to its destruction. Afterwards capitalists created a booming souvenir market for tiny pieces of concrete and barbed wire imbedded in Lucite cubes to be placed on bookshelves as a reminder of the superior culture of the West. My father laughed at the jellyroll joke until the wall fell. Then he cried. In a short time the West Germans ran everything, and he was out of a job. My mother’s heart gave out after my father was unemployed. He’d sit by a front window from dawn to dusk and peer at the street. One day, I found him slumped over and cold in his wooden chair."

“I’m sorry."

I nodded. “We had to adapt to capitalism or suffer. Our industries weren’t given time to adjust. I worked in a candy factory. We made crap; the smell of dark chocolate still makes me retch. But it was money in my pocket, until the business was forced to close, and we all were turned into the streets. The West Germans sucked us into their sphere like a sponge absorbs water."

“I didn’t realize East and West Germans were so different."

“Consider our fairy tales. The story my father told me was of a king who confiscated all the spinning wheels in the country because a sorcerer foretold that his princess daughter would die from the prick of a spindle. Without spinning wheels, the peasants couldn’t make clothes. Many faced starvation because their livelihood was taken from them. They protested to the king, but he turned his back on them. So the peasants rose up, overthrew him, and the spinning wheels were restored.

“In the West, fairy tale princesses aspired to marry handsome princes, who were rich and would support them in extravagant style. We had a saying in the East, whether it’s a female lion, or a male lion, they’re both lions. Our women worked; they didn’t dream to be turned into chattel."

Dashni said, “I like that adage."

“After unification, the East German singular act of defiance was to keep the street-crossing icon, Ost-Ampelmannchen, the striding symbol with a fedora that switched red or green at crosswalks."

A waiter came over. Dashni shook her head to another raki. I ordered a beer. Dashni said, “What did you do?"

“I left East Germany as soon as I could. Music was my passport. My first purchase in the West was marijuana. As a boy, I’d acquired a tape of the Sex Pistols on the black market. I played God Save the Queen, over and over until it shredded in my recorder. My cousin, Herbert, also played guitar. Herbert and I grew black, Rasputin beards, and wore octagonal granny shades. We looked like wraiths from the Black Forest. We both played base and formed a band called, Zwei Berliner. We hitchhiked throughout West Germany. We played stoned, rapped through our lyrics, and closed with a tribute to Sid Vicious."

Dashni said, “I’m trying to picture you with a beard. You must have looked quite mysterious."

“Perhaps, but the bars didn’t book us a second night.

“The dialects I encountered in West Germany reminded me why the ancient Greeks coined the term, barbarians, because their speech sounded like, 'Bar bar.’ Herbert felt compelled to go east. He settled in Dresden and took up with a pig-tales, blonde, Freida, who gave Slaughterhouse-Five tours. He sold East German nostalgia products, like Vita Cola and Ost- Ampelmannchen emblem tee shirts, from a kiosk. He kept his beard."

“What about you?"

“I decided to become European, and try sun in my life. Greece drew me: cloudless skies and a sea so blue, it stuck in my throat. I earned some money playing in clubs near Syntagma Square in Athens. I lingered in the city longer than I intended."

Dashni tilted her head. “A woman?"

“Kia lived with her grandfather, bushy gray mustache and calculating eyes. He moved from Cyprus after the Turks pushed him off his property and drove his Jaguar into the swimming pool during the 1974 invasion. One evening, when he had a snoot full of tsipouro, he told stories about the World War II German occupation and executed Greek civilians. Kia’s face darkened. Her grandfather’s lip curled, and he became stony. I almost told them I wasn’t a Nazi. The next day I set off to visit Herbert."

Dashni said, “ Then we’re both refugees." I sat back in my chair.

She pointed to my guitar. “Do you have any music with you?"

I produced several sheets with lyrics. She read and smiled. “ These are heartfelt."

I strummed some cords, and she sang the words in Kurdish. People at the tables around us applauded.

Dashni beamed at the reaction. She said, “We should play together."

I looked into brown eyes I could dive into. In my heart, Ost-Ampelmannchen turned green.


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