The Bare Essentials

When the doors to the crowded S-Bahn train opened, I could smell the stench. It was so overwhelming that it gagged me with every breath I took. I didn’t have to look up from my USA Today to know the odds that a homeless person entering the train car was high. I continued reading as the blanketing-odor grew stronger. When the train began to pull away from the station, a filthy hand joined the pole that was holding a few of us steady. Before I bothered to look up, I looked down to ensure my bag was secure. That’s when I saw the duct-taped shoes.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that my assumption had been correct, yet my stomach took a swan dive at the sight of the thoroughly-used, worn out shoes. The brown leather was barely visible under the frayed edges of the duct tape wrapped around each foot, as if they had been cast. As I moved my glance upward, the attire didn’t get any better—tattered, dirty jeans and an army green jacket kept together by tape and staples. It did little to keep the exuding smells at bay and I could only imagine its futileness in the brisk, chilly autumn air that was whirling through the streets of Berlin this October. My stomach dropped further when I met the man’s unshaven face—he couldn’t have been older than 25—three years my junior.

For a second I made contact with his piercing blue eyes. Their warmth seemed to smile at me briefly before noticing the American paper in my hand and the backpack at my feet. They registered that I was a tourist and not the optimal cliental for the papers he wanted to hawk. His gaze averted, he left the stabilization of the pole to move through the car. You could hear the duct tape sticking to the car floor with each step he took. Wer will den heutigen nachrichten kaufen? “Does anyone want to buy today’s news,” he asked? No one bothered to acknowledge his request and least of all, his existence.

One stop later, the duct-taped shoes left the car to try their luck elsewhere. The smell still lingered, but was no longer gagging. Farther down the track at Gorlitzerplatz, I picked up my bag and headed into the city to find a place stay for the night. I had hoped to Couchsurf, but no replies later, I had to search for a bed. I walked the neon-lit streets thinking of the things this guy and I had in common. We were both in our twenties and liked to use duct tape in the non-conventional sense. In northern Wisconsin, the saying goes, “If you can’t duct it, “____” it.” It’s common to see duct tape holding up the bumper of a car or keeping your windows sealed from the harsh winters. I knew a man who used duct tape to keep his favorite beer mug together.

From there on out, we were starkly different. I had been proud of myself for packing lightly and only bringing the bare essentials with me on this two-week trip. A quick assessment of my possessions had me doing the math. From the new wardrobe, camera and shoes I had bought right before I left, to the expensive iPod, sleeping bag and backpack I was using, my necessities came in at just under $1000. That didn’t even count what I had spent on flight, rail, lodging and beer. With one chance encounter, my pride had been tossed to the curb; trust me, the door didn’t forget to kick it on its way out.

Fifteen minutes later, the gentlemen at the front desk of a hostel informed me that I was in luck—they had room for me through the course of my stay. I would have to deal with the “inconvenience” of switching rooms each morning, but I would have lodging. I headed to my room to unload my recently weighted backpack. I wanted to put my bed together before taking a much needed shower, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the guy from the train. We would be walking the same city for the next few days. The same buildings would grace our horizons, the trains would come and go from the same platforms and the same clouds would cover our sky. Yet, I knew the ground would feel different beneath our feet. We may be walking the same sidewalks, but they led us down completely different paths—his, stickier than mine.

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Filed under Oktoberfest and other musings ’09

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