I wrote this text after watching this TedTalk about how to use creative writing to bear witness. You best watch it yourself if you’re interested in the method, but I’ll quickly sum it up here:
Step 1: Write down ten experiences you made in the past where you could have, or should have intervened, but you did not.
Step 2: Pick out three of your experiences. Write down the details, focussing on the order of events and on how it made you feel.
Step 3: Pick one of the events. Write your story.
The day I should have called the ambulance was bright and sunny. It was a day that should have smelled like summer: park lawns, sweat, sizzling tar, overripe cherries, pungent petrol.
But my apartment in a rather rough corner of Hamburg smelled like damp clothes and risotto, like the saucers with vinegar and dish soap I had placed all around our flat against the fruit flies. The vinegar attracts them, and when they sit down on the saucer, the dish soap sticks to their wings and they drown. Every evening I washed a considerable amount of dead fruit flies down the sink. Watching them disappear into the drain filled me with satisfaction.
My flat mates and I avoided each other as much as we could. I heard Sarah and her boyfriend having morning sex in the shower, Sofia ate cheesecake in the kitchen when she came back after a work shift. Our conversations were clumsy and awkward, because we had nothing in common but the key to our apartment. Sometimes I sat on my windowsill and watched my neighbor, who sat on his balcony in the same grey sweatpants every day and smoked. Sometimes his girlfriend came out and clasped him from behind, stroked his hair, his chest. He did not move, but just continued peering into nowhere.
The actual reason that I lived there was the harbour five minutes of walking from our apartment. In summer I walked across the street to the port about every day.
On the way I passed a polish restaurant which had a giant picture of a whole roasted chicken on its window, I passed by neon signs screaming SEX!SEX!SEX! into my face, tired Arabs in kebap stores, shiny, flickering police cars, a group of homeless people holding up their plastic cups, a “Jesus lives!” banner and then the only place in which the world seemed just intact: a bakery.
Cigarette butts and burger king trash and plastic cups that had been filled with cheap mojitos the night before covered the ground. Latin American prostitutes danced in windows that never closed, grey curtains were drawn in high ceiling apartments with stucco on the walls.
Excited tourists arrived on Friday afternoon to peek at the turmoil brought to stage on the streets. They played along with it all night long until they tumbled back to their hotel room in the early morning.
The place was a shithole, a moloch, a melting pot for failed existences, the poor, the rich, the wannabees, the criminals, the flamboyant, the common, for me. I loved it.
Like a cockchafer that fell about and helplessly kicked its legs in the air, I spent the summer trying to get back on my feet. Apart from extinguishing the world’s fruit flies, my summer goal was to survive on things that consisted mainly of water: cucumbers, watermelons and sweet mixed beer. I came home long after sunrise, I laid in bed watching documentaries on YouTube about miracle healers in Peru, I dragged myself to work, I did the dishes two days too late, I collected a considerable amount of Indian spices in old olive jars, I cooked coffee and started reading a new book every week that I never finished. I wasn’t happy, but I did not know, so it did not matter.
As soon as it was warm enough, I stopped wearing shoes when I went to the supermarket around the corner. The warm slabs on the soles of my feet felt good, and the stares of people at my feet navigating around the glass splinters felt even better.
Our house entrance was often occupied by drug addicts hiding from the rain or the sun, but I got used to them quickly. They too needed a place, after all, and they never bothered me. Like cockroaches, they scurried away around the corner as soon as I opened the door. They were never alone but gathered in small groups to share crack pipes or shoot heroin.
The crack smokers were different from the drunken homeless: some of the homeless would just need a shower, a haircut, and a few days without booze to seem like a sane human being again. They chatted, they ate, they walked around in the streets.
But the junkies sitting on the stairs to my door were no longer alive. Like hyenas, they gathered in dark corners, hidden from the sunlight, they made no sounds and walked with their backs bent over. Their eyes were dead, their limbs skinny and sore. Sometimes I woke up in the night and heard them scream like a shot animal, scream out of anger, pain, or desperation. In the daytime though, they were quiet and disappeared into empty basements or God knows where, when somebody approached.
That day I went to the supermarket to buy dinner. In the stairwell down to the house entrance the wallpaper flaked off the wall. The guy on the first floor smoked his head off and played Kendrik Lamar for the whole building. I pushed open the heavy, barred door to the outside and blinked in the bright sunlight. On the way to the supermarket, I passed two gay bars, a pizza place and a specialty shop for dance shoes. The sun warmed my naked feet, my head was empty, my mind a blank canvas.
Then, I saw something, someone crouched on the ground, flickering eyes, straggly hair, a jeans full of holes. I realized immediately that it was one of the crack zombies, a sad character from another world, minding her business, while I minded mine. So I kept my eyes to the ground while I passed her, but this time something was different:
the girl looked at me.
I looked back and saw a huge hole on her forehead. Blood ran over her face and stuck in her hair. Her mouth was half-opened, as if she tried to say something, and then I saw that she did not really look at me, she rather looked through me. Her eyes were grey, empty, and then they rolled back. She did not say anything, she did not see anything. With a quiet sigh, she sank to the ground. Her weak body hardly made a sound as it hit the ground.
I was just as blind as her. I kept walking and pretended nothing had happened.
I looked at my reflection in the shop windows, a transparent, dark copy of my body. I could see through it just as the junked girl had done a few seconds before. I could pretend that I had not seen anything, that I could not help her, that I had no responsibility.
People drink, people shoot, people go crazy, and sometimes, people faint on the street with a hole in their head. What does it matter?
The supermarket was bright and cold. I shifted through the gangways, picked up skimmed milk, a can of third selection mushrooms, soy vanilla drink and two kilos of apples. Outside, a homeless fought with the staff of the supermarket, a dog licked up some liquid that leaked onto the pavement. The sun loomed over the roof tiles, the sky was bright and baby blue.
The girl was gone when I turned around the corner back to my apartment. Maybe someone else had called an ambulance, maybe a basement had swallowed her. I had missed a chance to do something, but my life carried on. I was busy enough carrying home all of my purchases, wasn’t I? I suddenly sweated heavily and scolded myself for not bringing a bag. One of the apples tumbled out of my arms and fell on the pavement with a muffled sound. I watched it roll down the gutter, then realized I was at the door to my house. I turned the key in the lock, the door snapped open. I sighed relieved when it slammed shut with a bang.