An Underground Stage

When traveling in a city, experiencing a trip on the metro system can always lead to one big adventure. Whether trying to make heads or tails of the color-coded lines or comprehending where you actually are, public transportation is a show in its own right. It hosts a potpourri of people from all walks of life, and I readily have my bag of popcorn to watch it all unfold right before my eyes.

On a sunny morning, I decided to enjoy a day at the Berlin Zoo, I make my way to the nearest underground  station, or U-bahn as the locals call it. When walking the streets of a city, I somehow stand out among the rest. It’s not simply due to my 6’4” frame, but rather my aura that suggests that says I’m approachable.

As I get closer to the U-bahn station, a barrage of greetings rings in my ears. Cheerful, young something-year-olds are intent on signing me and anyone else up for their worthy cause, so that an endangered frog floating on a lily pad down a river in a far-flung forest can see another day. Bless their knitted cotton socks for their philanthropic enthusiasm to find someone who will listen to their pitch and glimpse at the pictures of the crayon-colored creatures, whose bulging eyes overtly plea for us to save them with just a few euros. If they only knew my current bank account balance. I politely say no to the young woman, despite her compliments on my youthful looks—thanks in part to my anti-aging cream—and I take the steps up to the platform where my carriage of transit awaits.

While the crowded city train weaves its way across this sprawling city, I look around at my fellow riders. Many are engrossed in their daily newspaper, a tawdry paperback novel or the latest, must-have gadget in technology. Others, who have succumbed to the heaviness of their weary eyes, try to snooze in spite of the gypsy band playing “Hit the Road, Jack!” (amplifier and a small bongo drum included).

I glance to my right and see a teenage girl ogling me with endearing eyes. She cocks her head slightly to one side and beams at me through her rose-colored glasses. Only the words ‘I love you’, written in eyeliner, are missing from her eyelids. I suddenly sense my cheeks flush, as if I’m an awkward, pubescent boy who is filled with a flurry of emotions too abstract to put into words.

I feel flattered yet utterly embarrassed in this unexpected scene plucked right out of a romantic Woody Allen film set in a European city. I direct my gaze elsewhere and wait until this uncomfortable moment, in which cupid randomly shot his arrow in an obvious state of drunkenness, comes to a screeching halt.

Berlin Underground

Berlin Underground

As the train pulls into a station, the young girl stands up, flips her hair to one side and then gives me a look that says: “you could have had this, you silly boy.” She steps off the train with the gypsy band in toe and disappears amid the throngs of other commuters. Luckily, it seems that no one else has taken notice of the teenage girl’s perceptible affection for me, and I breathe a sigh of relief that a director somewhere off stage has mercifully yelled “cut!”

New arrivals board the compartment and vie for an available seat in the ultimate game of musical chairs, jockeying for the best cushy position. There’s German punctuality to uphold, so the doors close after one minute, and the driver whisks us away and we slipping into a network of darkened tunnels under the city. A few people hold onto their coffee-to-go cups, as if they have just been given the elixir of life. One woman empties the contents of her purse onto the seat bench, selects a tube of make-up and enthusiastically begins to apply liquid foundation on her face. A few young people look as if they have just rolled out of bed and put on whatever clothes were lying on their bedroom floors. Regardless of colors and patterns not matching, their fashion statement simply reflects the laissez-faire atmosphere of Berlin.

I get off at the next station to change trains. I’m not in a hurry to get to my final destination, but I still get caught up in the hustle and bustle. Before I go upstairs, I notice a woman in a wheelchair out of the corner of my eye. Due to the fact that the elevator is out of service on this particular underground platform, she desperately tries to catch the attention of strong, muscular men passing by to help her get up to the station’s main hall. Albeit of slender build, I, too, am called upon to help this damsel in distress.

Four of us take our positions at each end of her heavy form of transport and one, two, three, we lift the woman in her wheelchair and carry her up the flight of stairs. It’s quite the spectacle, and we look like Egyptian slaves carrying Elizabeth Taylor on her portable throne when she enters Rome in the film Cleopatra.

It’s a bit strenuous and cumbersome, but we reach the top without a hitch. I think that my work is done, yet I’m sadly mistaken. She commands us to take her down another flight of stairs to the next platform. It’s one thing going upstairs with a hefty object is one thing, but going downstairs with such a bulky item is another, more awkward maneuver.

I stand with the other big, strong men in formation. We grab hold at each end of the wheelchair and, once more, we lift on three. However, as I take my first step down, I slip and twist my ankle. I instantly drop the part I was holding onto, and the wheelchair falters and teeters. I think for a second that the woman is going to fall out and roll down the steps, but the other three are able to pick up the slack. The woman seems totally unfazed, completely disregards my physical suffering and cries of pain and says: “So, who’s next?”

She singles out another dispensable slave passing by to help the other three schlepp her downstairs, so that she can make her train on time. I, on the other hand, hobble away to find a place to nurse my injury.

The only person who seems to care about my well-being is a homeless man. He comes over to me, carrying his faded grocery bags brimming with empty plastic bottles, and asks in his heavy Berlin accent: “Everything in order?” I put on a brave face while wincing from the pain and manage to mutter “Yeah, okay.” Although, I truly believe I have broken my ankle.

I spot a line of park benches just outside the station entrance and decide to limp my way up the short flight of stairs and nurse my ankle. No sooner do I plop down next to an older man snoozing soundly on the stark white bench, does a woman on a bike stop right in front of me.

“Excuse me,” she says with a shrill voice. “Do you know the Berliner Tafel?”

Not only will people try their best to sign me up for a worthy cause, others will approach when their own senses of direction fail them. It’s as if people see an “i” for information imprinted on my forehead.

“Is it a café or restaurant near here?” I ask, trying to be helpful. The name kind of sounds familiar, but I don’t know where I’ve heard it before.

As she begins to explain to me what the Berliner Tafel actually is, it dawns on me that it is far from a quaint café. It’s more of a soup kitchen where people can also find work. Why is she telling me this? I don’t look homeless, or does she just assume I’m friends with this snoring man who is cuddling with his empty beer bottle?

“So, do you need work?” she asks me.

“No, I have work, thank you,” I reply, wishing that she’d would go away and leave me to my suffering.

“Oh, that’s good. So, are you married?”

“What? Um … no, I’m not married.”

Her gaze suddenly radiates from behind her over-sized eye glasses. “Great, you’re single, then. Well, I’m looking for a man.”

“Try looking on the Internet,” I suggest. Why I’m allowing myself to get so involved in this conversation is beyond me.

“Well, I really want to find a man for my cousin, you see.”

Who’s her cousin? Bridget Jones? “Sorry, I really can’t help you out. Good luck, anyhow,” and giver her two thumbs up.

She finally walks away, looking somewhat defeated, but she quickly finds another man standing alone on the corner and approaches him. She is no doubt repeating her rehearsed speech to him, despite the gold object that glistens in the sun on his ring finger.

In spite of the beautiful day, I finally admit to myself that it’s time to throw in the towel and just go home and tend to my foot there. I get up from the bench and slowly totter over to the concrete steps that lead into the main hall of the U-bahn station. I find my way to the right platform and arrive just as a train is pulling in. As the compartment doors open, I spot an empty seat and sit with a heavy sigh.

However, not all is lost. A trip on Berlin’s underground can be just as amusing as a day at the zoo. It streaks across the urban jungle and collects a colorful array of life that will certainly entertain me along the way home on this moving city stage.

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