Jack Orlik makes some interesting discoveries amidst Berlin’s flotsam and jetsam…
Walk down any street and you’ll see plastic bags strewn from the linden trees; a pair of grease-caked trainers smeared behind a discarded sofa; a Döner kebab splayed gorily across the tram tracks like a scene from a (very) low budget three am horror.
On my third day here I saw a mother in a nice part of town goading her eight year old son to piss in the street. Against a parking car. Over the last month, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing the slow decay of a TV thrown from a window on Schönhauser Allee, broken down almost organically, like a dead lizard dismantled by ants.
Two weeks in, it was joined by another, this time entirely whole television. Some artful scavenger managed to break open the back, and its gizzards now lay tangled with the first. It’s a beautiful sight. Is this filth simply dirt, something that in a modern metropolis like Berlin, the German capital, should be wiped away? I see it more as a human resonance—relics of our inhabitance.
In many cities, it can be easy to forget that the way we’re living is entirely unnatural. Standing on an island between two lanes of traffic, you’re struck, hard, by the development of cold articifice about you. Even by the swollen Thames in London, stone-walled embankments conceal the fact that the city grew through an alliance between human nature and the environment, not simply in an effort to overcome both.
Sebastian Horsley, the now-deceased dandy, once said that culture was the “distance between you and your shit”. In Berlin, the shit counts too. The rubbish acts as a constant but gentle reminder that our context may be cold, concrete and synthetic, but that this is a place where humans live and act.
The televisions have been destroyed because a person has kicked them in, perhaps out of anger, or maybe in an effort to impress his (or her) friends; the sofa was once a cherished addition to a family’s living room—if it hadn’t been rained on, it might have been adopted by an itinerant artist looking to deck out his unmobiliert Altbau.
Rubbish, in Berlin, speaks of social connections, and can even create them—not in the one-to-one way which sustains our personal relationships, but in a one-to-many, or many-to-one manner. Things left in the street by anonymous strangers are offerings to the most human of gods—the bustling and changing social network of the city.
Did the person who left an old TV in our communal hall, with ‘Funktioniert Noch!’ joyously attached to the remote control (still containing batteries) know that it would be used for huge games of Sing Star? Could the dumper of an old MDF desk and wooden chair on Eberswalder Straße have considered that they would enable my flatmate to get a writing job?
In Berlin, carefully placing a whole but empty bottle of beer on the pavement is not littering, but philanthropy—each time you do so, someone is given the means to recoup the Pfand (deposit), to become a sidewalk entrepreneur and take his or her place in the fabric of society.
Those with less humanitarian intentions, discarding broken or useless objects, are just as important in the creation of the city. The rubbish we see adds to the web of context through which we experience Berlin’s different streets, parks and neighbourhoods.
While it might be useless to us, an empty packet of the Pill lying mud-smeared on the ground speaks of a romantic engagement—or perhaps of prostitution; a scrumpled Döner wrapper reminds us of the city’s history, and of its idiosyncratic command of multiculturalism. A picture of a happy kebab seller speaks a thousand accent-thickened words.
I may be overly sentimental about the dirt and disorder of Berlin. It can make the city look like crap—in the summer, it cakes anywhere worth sitting in an unsavoury film. It’s hell to have to scrape up someone else’s shit before you can have a picnic. But as a constant and changing backdrop, it connects you with a city where freedom and trash go hand in filthy hand.
Without the dirt, we might as well be in Zürich.