Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Weiterfahren durch Keller und Dach... Gefährlich?

One persistent worry of this Fremder in a fremd land is that I will neglect to read some very important, even potentially life-preserving announcement simply because it's written in German and reading German still requires effort. Linguistically handicapped, I am constantly forced to ask myself, "Is this thing really worth reading?" A new fast bike. coupled with an old tendency to be late, intensifies the worry. My mental state as I zip around the city is often that of a squirrel stranded on a narrow highway median. I am aware of danger, but I don't completely understand it and I'm not entirely sure where to expect it. And I can see the woods where my squirrel wife is cooking some nuts, where my squirrel kids are due home from cat-baiting class, where I needed to be ten minutes ago. In my natural environment, I took for granted the power of the everyday written word, especially the written word in transition-poor-just-the-facts-ma'am-official-announcement style (z.B., DETOUR, HIGH VOLTAGE, or WARNING: PENDULUM EDGE IS RAZOR-SHARP), to shoot straight through my eyeballs into my consciousness without consulting the reading department of my brain. Reacting to signs was like pinballing off bumpers shaped like Creatures from the Blue Lagoon. I was a pro skier taking a shortcut through the woods to beat my rival in a contest for my true love's heart. I was a pro skateboarder on Fisherman's Wharf on a Saturday afternoon. I was a swallow in Capistrano, a bat or a dolphin in a dark cave. I was adept. Now I'm a bat visiting dolphin in-laws in a dark cave underwater. In scuba gear. A little drunk.

So far, I've managed to survive with good luck and American instincts, but the future looks more secure. The vocabulary is sinking in. I learn a new trick every time I bike from my suburban home on the edge of town to the Uni in central Frankfurt. Plus, goodhearted German folk are looking out for me. Last week, my host mom explained the easily missed but extremely important road signs that govern right-of-way at intersections. Apparently, German drivers will run a body down before sacrificing their right-of-way. Then, last Sunday, while biking with my eleven-year-old host brother to the bakery to pick up Brötchen, he noticed that I didn't signal when turning from one deserted residential street onto another, so he dutifully explained, at length, the importance of hand signals when turning. I apologized and briefly felt like a corrupter of youth before realizing with relief that young Jasper is securely encased in that special impregnable bubble of self-righteousness that is the exclusive privilege of over-indulged only-children. Still, bless his heart for the reminder. It seems that German bikers—unlike American ones—actually signal consistently, meaning that not signaling at an intersection is tantamount to signaling that you intend to go straight, and German drivers will hold you to it. AND if you do happen to be pancaked by a car or a bus, and you happen to survive, and your pancakehood happens to be your fault, THEN you have to pay for your broken bones and kaputt organs with the blood-saturated cash in your blood-filled wallet, because your German insurance won't bloody cover you.

The special occasion for this parent-worrying blog post: I was convinced my time had come yesterday. Disappointingly, my life didn't flash before my eyes. That's really the only thing about dying that I'm looking forward to, so it was a depressing revelation. If my life playback mechanism is actually defekt, some poor mortician is going to be stuck with the thankless task of reversing a very stubborn frown of severe disappointment on my cold dead face. You may be thinking, "If his life didn't flash before his eyes, he probably didn't really think he was in fatal danger," but if so, you're wrong. I lost all composure. I was frantic. It was dreadful.

I'm getting ahead of myself. One of my favorite things about my Uni—and there are lots of great merkwürdig things about it, but this might be tops—are the elevators, which are unlike any elevator I've ever seen or used. I have actually dreamed of elevators like these, but never in my life would I ever have imagined that.... And yet.... And yet!

Auf Deutsch, they're called Paternosteraufzüge, which translates to "Pater Noster elevators," which translates further to "Our Father elevators," which refers to the enduring Catholic practice of measuring the progress of one's penitence with rosary beads. Let's imagine an expert sinner after a particularly bad but still venial sin. Picture him or her on the way home from confession, perfunctorily clicking through his or her beads while muttering him or herself back into God's good graces. He or she is a penitence machine and is secretly proud of it. Now focus on the beads themselves as they pass—rhythmically, one after the other—through sinful fingers. And now replace the beads with wooden double-occupancy elevator cabinets, moving nonstop in a loop through twin elevator shafts. One goes up; the other, down. There are no doors, no buttons, no control. Instead, there are well-placed handrails, giggling Germans, and urgently necessary physical coordination.

Here's homespun visual aid:

The novelty persists. I ride every chance I get. I often ride for no good reason. I use the bathroom on the third floor.

Until yesterday, I didn't fully understand the reference to rosary beads. I failed to realize that the up and the down cabinets are really the same cabinets. I wasn't sure how the system worked, but my fuzzy working hypothesis involved two distinct loops and total cabinet collapse in complicated gear- and cobweb-filled netherregions beneath the basement and above the top floor. I pictured dark workings, inhospitable to non-collapsible human bodies.

So, when I absentmindedly rode Our Father past the ground floor to check my email in the basement, and the ride suddenly became very dark, and I realized with panic that the last chance to disengage with Our Father is actually the ground floor, I lost it. I thought I was going to join millions of poorly directed Marios, somewhere beyond the bottom of the TV. I screamed. I banged the sides of my cabinet. I cried, "Help!" (note: not "Hilfe!"). I muttered, "Oh, God..." (note: not "Mein Gott...," not even "Pater Noster..."). I braced myself against the walls in anticipation of a noble but ultimately futile final effort to fight the machine. In the near-complete darkness, I made out a large spinning wheel, surely the first and most benign piece of the hell that awaited me in a couple meters. Still bracing myself against the walls, senses at peak sensitivity, light gradually returned to my Pater Noster coffin. I was going up! I was back at the ground floor! A second chance! A chance to make it all right. A chance to make a difference in this mixed-up world. I stumbled out, saucer-eyed, on trembling legs, laughed nervously, and thanked Our Father for sparing the life of a foolish kid.

Sure enough, later that day, I realized that, between the first floor and the ground floor, there is a clearly posted notice reassuring German-literate riders that "WEITERFAHREN DURCH KELLER UND DACH IST UNGEFÄHRLICH." Continuing to ride through the basement and the attic is NOT dangerous.


Dumbledore McPants said...

Those elevators sound awesome, and you are hilarious. Keep it up.

Andrew said...

I, for one, am glad that you were not made into Swannywurst.

michele said...

Thought I should state publicly that this remains an unprecedentedly amazing, snazz-o-licious (snazz o' licious?) post. That elevator was Meant for you to write about. p.s. am listening to music and My Hood just came on, which tune you once sent pre-my visiting your now Erstwhile hood in SF.
Anyhow, hope things are swellll.