Duality: On Conscience and Guilt

Duality: On Conscience and Guilt

The morning. Baby and I arrive in Berlin just after eight. It’s raining. A cold mist cleaves the streets. We left early and our eyes are half-open from half-sleep on the train. We lost our tickets crossing Karstädt and had to search our bags, our pockets, the floor when the conductor asked us where they were. We finally found them at the bottom of the valise, tucked away for safe keeping.

Cities look different in the rain, wrapped in cotton-white mist and rising through the fog. Like a dark army marching through the clouds. I notice the way people move when I arrive someplace new – the city’s sidewalks and sounds. I notice windows and doors and alleyways and wonder about the places they lead. It’s a quiet army that leaves the streets vanquished in a gloomy, gray calm.

It smells of curry sausage, perfume, and gasoline on the street outside the station. We stop to get a salted pretzel, it is soft and warm in paper, fresh from the oven, and coffee. This makes Baby smile.

Berlin is not, in the fairy-tale sense, a beautiful city. Not like Rome, full of statues and archways and ruins. Or the more delicate scene in Paris. It is also quite different from the skyscrapers and skylines of cities in the United States. The buildings in Berlin are low and dark, stretching for miles into the horizon. But it is a great and multicultural city, established in 1237, home to almost four-million people: A constantly changing array of poets, artists, thinkers-and-the-like. The weather here is not as warm or as cold as it gets elsewhere; mostly cool wet and gray, covered in pregnant clouds overlooking black trees that sweep the streets.

Fashion (streetwear) is a defining piece of the city. The aesthetic way we represent ourselves, i.e., what we wear and how we wear it, gives the city character. Shopping is easy. Sneakers are important: Berlin is perhaps the most interesting city in the world for footwear. Long coats are klasse. Black coats and hats. People wear sunglasses inside, checking their hair and makeup in mirrors as they pass.

And the kids who cannot afford it stand on the other side of the glass with their skateboards and say, silently, “Maybe next time we’ll cop something new.”

In Berlin we drink and stay out late, stumbling down streets and alleys with high walls covered in art, graffiti, poetry, ire-and-the-like. We go to a bar near the scruffy Gorlitzer Park called Madame Claude’s where the furniture hangs upside-down from the ceiling. It was a brothel once, now named for the eccentric Madame who was then in charge. There is a foosball table in the back room where students shout and fight. We tilt our heads back and look at the ceiling, and the ceiling is the floor. We finish our glasses of beer. We go to parties in abandoned swimming pools with pulsing electronic beats where forgetting is currency and we embrace each moment as eternal – the first thing they tell you here is that tomorrow doesn’t exist, that sunrise won’t come, and that it might never again.

Berlin is a mix of narrow streets and wide-open spaces. We find secrets in small corners – names and hearts carved into stone by the people who came before us – searching for the soul of a city rebuilt so many times and still rebuilding, caught in a civic renaissance that brings art and food and style to a culture of politics, and that has helped define the city as a global leader once again. Berlin is the past, but not only. And not as much anymore. We are just another piece of the landscape here; faceless in a momentous, changing tide as the world shudders around us. We record what we see, open camera shutters like Christopher Isherwood described in his stories about the city, judged as impartial by those who come for fashion and future; like those who came to disappear because the only thing that really matters is the here and the now.

As the city’s grandparents ask, shaking their heads, “What pain could you feel, so young and carefree, that you need to disappear? What could you possibly have learned, children still that you are, that you would already need to forget?”

I was born in Hackettstown, New Jersey.

I was born in the morning before the sun. We moved to Huntsville, Alabama from there, where my sister was born in the humid, mid-August heat. We then traveled north to St. Paul, Minnesota, a river city from the days of Mark Twain and endless prairie, built into the limestone bluffs and woods along the Mississippi.

Winters in the north are long, cold and dark. Frozen, quiet, and beautiful. Summers are conversely hot and fleeting, made up of blazing days, balmy evenings, and bugs. Spring comes soft and wet with green leaves dotted purple, violet, lavender with lilacs and the smell of rain. It brings everyone from their homes to see the world again for the first time after the snow.

My family spent many of our summers in Germany growing up – in Stuttgart, Hamburg, Munich, Berlin with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins there. We spent our winters in the United States, on Charles Avenue in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, where the houses are built side-by-side in different colors and styles. With crooked windows, peaked roofs and chimneys like ours. Behind each house was a garage. Behind each garage was an alley where we collected the things other people left behind. Children’s balls and bikes packed away for the winter. Steam rose from the sewers and carried with it the stories left on the block.

Winter’s first snow softened the streets and turned the world into something peaceful and new. It covered our neighborhood like a blanket overnight, waiting for the boots and tires and shovels of the morning. We woke to the paw prints of small animals that come before us in the snow – the squirrels and rabbits that manage to survive in the city between our houses and cars. The glow of the quiet white was blinding at first, the streets almost unnatural, unbelievable in their splendor. Before garbage and waste, before city smog and car exhaust, before our tired days packed snow into dirt and turned it into something half-alive, melting and no longer beautiful.

We weren’t against the ugly (or imperfect) things in Midway, no. Nice things were rare, so we claimed ugly as our own. But watching winter die that way, slow and violent at the hands of the city, stung each of us deep inside and still does. We were told, as we watched our parents’ friends stumble home drunk at night, our evicted neighbors sob on the side of the road, the kids with dirty wrists catch ringworm from playing too long in the sandbox, that someday we would all be lost to time and the earth… But for a moment, one ephemeral moment after the first snow of the season, we had a new world to call our own. We had the beauty of Mother Nature who had come, briefly, to visit our forgotten piece of the city.

And – we thought then – maybe it wasn’t so bad we would one day be covered by the same white blanket falling from our windows and doors.

It was a working-class neighborhood. Some houses stood straight, and some leaned to the side. Some had lights on in the windows, and some stayed hollow after dark. We heard what sounded like fireworks sometimes at night. My parents would come into our room and tell us to lay on the floor until they stopped. But I had my friends and didn’t usually get beat up on my way to school.

M- who lived in the house next door to mine liked to play in the street. Even after his grandmother, his abuela (he called her Gato – I didn’t know why), told him not to. He sat in the middle of the street in front of his house waiting for cars. We watched in awe from the sidewalk. As a six-year-old boy, I believed this to be the purest form of bravery. My mother told me it was stupid, and that I should never ever do it myself (if I knew what was good for me). The cars did not come. But we were kids still kids then – when other people were the only ones who died.

My friend R- and I found empty shells (bullet casings) in alleys that stretched like veins through the quarter. A .22 (deuce-deuce) was worth more than a .25 (deuce-nickel), “…and if you find a shotgun shell,” he told me as we walked, “you’re king for a day.” We went back to his house to trade what we found, usually just bottle caps and old pennies or worn bits of colored glass. Passing through the living room where his brother smoked on the couch with his friends. The air was thick with gray smoke and it stung my eyes. We watched cartoons on the small TV in his room. His mom was in the kitchen cooking chicken patties or macaroni-and-cheese or ramen noodles on the small stove. I stayed for dinner when my parents let me.

I went to my first funeral the summer I turned eight years old. It was the funeral for a friend of my American grandparents who lived down the road from their Minnesota farm. She was an old woman who gave us sweets when we visited and let us play in the attic while the old fogies talked about agronomy and the good old days downstairs.

I asked, “Was it fireworks?”

“Fireworks?”

“That killed her.”

“No, no,” my mother shook her head. “She was just old.”

Flowers lined the paths between graves as we walked back to the street. Orange flags hung limp without a breeze from the headlights of the cars parked nearby. The sun came in fractured bursts through the branches of weeping willow trees, and everyone wearing black walked slowly through thin shafts of light. My grandmother erased her friend’s name from her address book without saying anything and I was the only one to see her do it – I knew we wouldn’t be going there for sweets anymore.

My mother sat with me the evening after the funeral and asked how I was feeling. She asked me, “Were you sad today?”

“No,” I said and shook my head. “Not really.”

“No?”

“She was just old like you said.”

“But were you scared?”

It was a warm night in May. My bedroom windows open halfway. I could hear high school kids playing basketball on the court across the street, cursing when the ball banged against the backboard or the rim. I wanted to be them. I wasn’t old enough to know how. I was tucked in bed beneath polka-dot sheets, my favorite book by my pillow, the pages bent at the most exciting parts.

“Were you scared?”

“Yes,” I told her I was.

“Yes?”

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

“What doesn’t make sense?”

I slipped lower beneath the sheets. “What’s the point of anything if we just have to die anyway?”

“Well,” my mother paused, thinking for a moment. She looked to the ceiling and then back at me. “Would you appreciate today if you never got to go to sleep?”

“I don’t know.”

“Would you still like your book if it didn’t have an ending?”

“But you’re scared, too,” I said. “Aren’t you?”

“Oh,” she pushed my hair across my forehead. “What’s so scary about dying? There’s nothing to be scared of. It’s just going to a different room while other people keep on talking without you. And, if you live a good life, they’ll only be saying nice things. Other people dying is much-more scary. Don’t you think? Losing the people you love?”

“But –”

“But what?”

“That means you will too.”

“Someday,” my mother said, sitting up straight and smiling down at me. “When you’re fifty years old, maybe. Or sixty. Or maybe older than that. That’s a longway away, don’t you think?”

“We still have a long, long time together,” she said. “Isn’t that okay?”

She died nine years later, the day before my seventeenth birthday, in a hospital room in downtown St. Paul where everything was made of cold metal and plastic, even the flowers. Where the sounds of different patients in different rooms came through the wall into ours. We talked in medical terms and timelines. We talked through polyester sheets. We were leaving to visit family in Germany on the April day she checked in – a spring trip for my German grandparents’ (Eberhard and Sophie’s) 50th-anniversary fête in the country. She spent four months in that room before she died July 23rd.

She was supposed to come with us, but, as the doctor said, there was instead a “…last-minute change in her condition.”

He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head slowly, fumbling with the pens and meters in his pockets. “She needs a hospital bed instead,” he said. “She needs tests. She needs the attention and help of professionals.”

My father slept in a cot on the floor next to her IV. He didn’t know that she wasn’t going to leave. We didn’t. Maybe he suspected it. I did. We worried, held our breath in our lungs. Thankful for mornings and eager for more. The world moved on without us outside – sights and sounds that don’t change just because something has changed for you; sights and sounds that don’t change but aren’t the same when you see, hear them again.

I was raised between the United States and Germany, between St. Paul and Stuttgart, split between endless space and narrow streets, holding onto both. I learned who I was through her, and what I believed in. Where I might end up one day myself. Once we taste something new, it’s hard to stay content with the ordinary; satisfied with the sedentary and the same.

She wasn’t afraid, so I felt worse about the fear I had. It was an anxious sort of fear, one that leaves you waiting and wondering, caught in a cold limbo, sterile and unsure. What is there to say or do in the meantime? I wanted her to live – I knew that she wouldn’t. Maybe there was guilt in that alone: The way you look at someone still alive and breathing as though they’ve already stopped. Our conversations seemed to drift off, dangle from the side of a cliff, break away and crumble into the sea. Unfinished words die with the body.

Guilt is a good word for that feeling. My father was raised Catholic and guilt is an important tenet of Catholicism: There was always someone to confess to; someone to listen and tell you how to make things right. I was raised Presbyterian, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone from the congregation. I didn’t trust them. They who share their secrets with a ghost.

Going to church was more important to my American grandparents. During service, I closed my eyes. I kept them closed. In the darkness behind my eyelids I saw my grandparents as children. With dirty cheeks playing in the grass. Throwing a red ball back and forth in the summer sun. Swinging on ropes hanging from the branches of trees that overlook cornfields still green and young. I saw streams of sunlight come down like strands of blonde hair, turning into a golden rope to tie them up in its glow. And they’re still there: bound forever to the sky.

On the playground of my elementary school one kid was bullied more than the rest. His name was Terry, or Tommy, or Zach. My classmates circled him in the yard and laughed. One called him, “Little pussy!” and another threw a ball at his knees. Someone threw a stick. Someone pulled his shirt and ripped the collar. Someone covered their mouth with their hands. Someone else covered their eyes. The school bell rang and we all ran. I don’t remember which one of them was me.

My mother told me I should treat people the way I wanted to be treated myself.

I always thought I would end up living someplace far afield. In the mountains, maybe. In the Alps, or maybe further. Where wooden steps lead through pastures with white flowers, and mountains meet the sky with snow instead of cement. Someplace hidden where I could grow old without anyone around to see, and they would remember me as I was, in a circle of schoolchildren and dust, still wide-eyed and watching, or wherever it was that they saw me last. And I would stay that way forever.

I remember thinking that you’re never truly alone if you believe in God, and maybe that’s why so many people still go to church. And why so many people don’t. Some people need that feeling, that companionship and guidance, and others not at all – like Alpo’s grandma, who lost her legs when a truck spun off the highway and into her living room wall where she was sitting on the couch watching reruns of Matlock. She talked a lot about God, but she never cared to go to worship.

We went to service every year on Christmas, when everything was candlelight and baked sweets, low hymns and organ music, somber in the quiet dark. The sermon had a softer tone about grateful appreciation, and it helped me forget all the questions I had running around in my head.

My sister said, “You want to be a Christian, I can tell,” and I said, “No, I don’t. I just want to be me, and I can do that alone.”

I would sing along to all the hymns. I would sneak candy from the old ladies serving coffee in the kitchen and, in the sanctuary, with chocolate stuck between my gums and the angels looking down on me, I would lie about it to my mom. “I didn’t have any candy. I wouldn’t eat anything before dinner. I wouldn’t spoil my appetite…”

Hallowed be His name,” as the choir sang in the background, their hands in raised in the air, dressed in blue robes that matched the silk overlays behind the pulpit. “Christ the Lord, hallelujah, hallelujah…”

The music from the organ was deep and hollow. The church sang along in the carved echoes of dusty-dark corners. Everyone whispering from behind their hands like God couldn’t hear, or like maybe they didn’t believe in Him after all. Bibles and hymnals stuffed into wooden slats along the backs of pews. The enormous cross hanging from wire overhead that looked as though it might fall at any moment.

“Forever in his name. Hallelujah!”

“Hallelujah!”

“Hallelujah, amen.”

We went home after to the smell of warm potatoes and carrots cooking with thyme on the stove, and the fresh bread mom had put in the oven earlier that morning. We would eat mostly in silence – it was a quiet time of year; snow falling softly on the other side of the window as we sat warm around the low-lit table inside.

“Amen…”

I stopped going to church after my mother died (passed away). I only went for her – because it was important to her. The tradition was important; the community and faith; the something greater to believe in. They still hold services there for families, couples, widows, bachelors, anyone who walks through the door is welcome to come, worship and pray. But they worship different gods there now – those gods of capital and entertainment – and no longer on Sunday: It is no longer a Presbyterian church, but now an event center and banquet hall available for rent. The businessmen are more fervent even than the Christians, but the old ladies made much-better food in the kitchen.

In Berlin.

We visit the Jewish Museum Berlin at Lindenstraße 9-14. Near Franz-Künstler-Straße and the Indian grocery on St. Agnes. The building that houses the museum is itself a study in reactions: The walls of the museum are made up long lines and extended edges jutting out at different angles. There are no parallel lines anywhere in the space. Walls and corners absorb light and darkness and give it back to the viewer in stunning effect, drawing you toward the horror of the Holocaust and the history of the Jewish people in Europe.

Museum architect Daniel Lindeman described his design like this:

“The new design, which was created a year before the Berlin Wall came down, was based on three conceptions that formed the museum’s foundation: first, the impossibility of understanding the history of Berlin without understanding the enormous intellectual, economic and cultural contribution made by the Jewish citizens of Berlin, second, the necessity to integrate physically and spiritually the meaning of the Holocaust into the consciousness and memory of the city of Berlin. Third, that only through the acknowledgement and incorporation of this erasure and void of Jewish life in Berlin, can the history of Berlin and Europe have a human future…”

A photo of the Berlin Jewish Museum
The Jewish Museum Berlin

There is a café here, and a gift shop selling postcards, books, souvenirs, and toys. I buy a copy of Elie Wiesel’s Night to read. But it would be hard to eat here. Or see or think as portraits and family photos watch you from cases behind glass. It’s hard to think of anything but what we take with us; what we learn as witnesses to these lives now lost. We go to dinner after. The streets and the shops and the restaurants don’t look any different once you leave the museum behind. They’re meant to, we know, with a new understanding and appreciation for these terrible things that happened in the past. But the world keeps moving around us without care for what we’ve learned. We disappear back into the cityscape as the doors of the museum close behind us and it’s sobering to think how quickly the world is able to move on; how quickly learning becomes memory: No matter how cold the winter is, as soon as the weather grows warm, the sun shines and the snow melts, we take off our coats and put them away in the back of the closet with scarves, mittens, and boots. We forget about the winter as though it never was and live through warmth like it’s the only thing that’s real. Until winter comes back again. This is how we treat history as well.

Berlin is known for green “Walk” and red “Don’t Walk” crosswalk figures used to regulate pedestrian traffic on the street. Called Ampelmann (“Stoplight Man” – they resemble a small, jovial man wearing a hat), or Ampelmännchen, the figures are a relic of the old East Germany (the GDR, 1949-90) and help illustrate the city’s duality – i.e., holding on to familiar pieces of the past while embracing novelty and innovation, even in small, and often disregarded pieces of civic measure, while rebuilding the city, and building culture anew.

At the corner we pause. Ampelmann turns green and we cross the street. Passing through the headlights of waiting cars dimmed by fog. The air is wet. It’s almost raining. Not quite. The air is thick, and I can taste it when I breathe. It will be warm in a few weeks, but for now the wind bites through our coats and we shiver with the gray steel beams of bridges and buildings, blurring into the sidewalk with everyone walking along it, and everything else standing still.

We are here, now.

Standing on the subway platform beneath the Kurfürstendamm, waiting for the train. Wind whistles through gaps in the street upstairs. Water drips from the ceiling into a pool on the floor. The signs on the platform are made of blue plastic, with white letters that tell us where we are now and where to go next. The wind is cold upstairs. It’s warmer here beneath the street. We’ve been drinking and we’re still sweating from the club; we’re full of good food and drink and the apartment (our warm bed) is waiting for us at the other end of the line. This thought alone shelters us and keeps us warm. Baby slips deeper inside my coat as we pull close together.

There are faces around us on the platform, young and old and middle-aged. People looking at their phones or reading magazines with the cover folded back. A woman buys chewing gum and coffee from the kiosk nearby. A boy watches videos on the small screen in his hands on the bench with his legs swinging over the cement. His parents smoke cigarettes in the designated area a few feet away. A pigeon washes its feathers in the brown pool by the stairs. An old man with a cane watches from the corner in a high-collared coat.

A girl in a hooded sweatshirt stands before us with her head bowed. She asks in broken German if we might have a little something extra, “…etwas kleines…” so that she might buy something to eat. “A little something for tonight,” she says, “and maybe tomorrow, too.”

Please, she says. “Bitte.”

But we don’t have anything left in our pockets – only our subway tickets, and a pair of sunglasses we found on the bench outside the station. We spent the last of our money at the Prince Charles on liquor or beer, at the corner kiosk on bottles of water, at the Turkish deli on lahmaçun, at the station window on train fare, bus fare, magazines, souvenirs, something…

I tell her we’re sorry. “Es tut uns leid” – I say – “aber wir haben nichts.

The station lights are bright overhead, running in white lines down the platform. We can hear the street above. The walls are an off-white tile turning yellow with age. The pigeon flaps its wings through cigarette butts and paper cups.

The old man watches the girl from the corner. He takes a step closer with his cane. The woman standing beside us hands the girl a silver coin from her purse. She smiles and sticks her hands back in the pockets of her coat. The old man watches, leaning to the side. The girl says, “Danke,” and nods her head, but the old man steps forward and slaps the coin from her hand –

“Schäm dich!” he yells, and the platform goes quiet. “Shame on you!” His voice is loud and heavy from his chest. His head sits like a stone between his shoulders. “With all of the money you get from the state,” he says. “All the money you get from our taxes for nothing and you’re here bothering these good people – these good, hardworking Germans who don’t need to beg to eat their dinner tonight. Einwanderer! You don’t belong here. You belong in the bin with the rest of the trash,” etc. etc.

A slight breeze comes from the stairs. It’s nighttime dark and wet upstairs on the street, the streetlights are on, but time doesn’t matter in the same way below as it does above: It loses its relevance when you can’t see the sky, measured only by the number of minutes left until the next train arrives, and how many times you move, shift your weight, sit, stand, check your phone, and sigh in between. Only after the train arrives can time finally move forward again along the tracks.

“Hey!” we call in German. “Leave her alone why don’t you!”

The coin catches the light as it rolls and settles beneath the bench. The girl bends to pick it up and runs quickly down the line. Like a rabbit from a guard dog in the backyards of the suburbs. She disappears to the street upstairs and to a different part of the city. The old man yells after her, “Einwanderer…” yelling to the air now if it will listen and shaking his cane over his head. His anger spilling forth from his neck like a clogged sink with the faucet stream running…

People stand quiet on the platform and hold their arms around their shoulders, waiting for the train. We stand close together, waiting for the U9 that will take us back to the apartment at Amrumer Straße #8 where there is beer and bread waiting for us on the table by the bed. It’s quiet there, peaceful and warm.

But in this moment: The old man shouts, the station lights blink and sting our eyes (we keep them open), people shift their weight on the platform, waiting for the train. Three minutes, two minutes, one. The horn blows from the tunnel with a gust of wind, the girl runs in loose jeans as time slows, the train arrives with a judder of steel against the tracks. Rats scatter into holes beneath the turnstiles. We pull our coats tighter around our shoulders as we step onboard, and the doors close behind us.

The old man collapses suddenly to the floor. Only his coat left as his cane clatters across the cement. Bystanders rush to kneel at his side. The pigeon flaps its wings and flies off into the rain. The old man clutches his chest, spit leaking from the corners of his mouth.

He puffs as we pull away. Sirens will follow.

In the apartment.

Our coffee still warm, barely, from where we left it on the table earlier in the afternoon. It’s only a few degrees (Celsius) outside, warmer than yesterday but getting colder again. We think, so this is spring in Berlin?There was snow last night, but it all melted and disappeared by morning.

Our friend Alpo rents this apartment. He gets drunk on the weekend and spends his money on books. He wakes up late in the morning with new bags of books, and the receipt for however many hundreds of euros (new books – hardcover – are expensive) he had spent for them. The things he buys – ancient texts by Plato, Machiavelli, Homer, Shakespeare, and contemporary pieces like White Noise and anything by Kafka, Munro, Isherwood, Baldwin, Hughes, Hemingway, Morrison, Woolf. He stacks his books in crooked piles next to his bed and they lean over him like a noble butler or an old friend by his side, reaching all-the-way to the ceiling. He adds weekly to this collection.

An advertisement for face cream flashes from the side of the brick building across the street. A dark-haired woman in lingerie touches her neck with thin fingers, smiling by a brand name I don’t recognize. Stay young – the poster tells me by her cheek – And stay beautiful forever.

I tell Alpo that there are worse things he could spend his money on while drinking/drunk, and he agrees, wholeheartedly, shaking my hand with both of his. “They have become my companions,” he says, nodding to his books and smiling. “Even the ones I didn’t like.”

It reminds me of all the things I want to accomplish before my hands grow tired and wrinkled from all this typing – whether I age and my face changes as I yawn in the mirror above the desk or I stay young forever. He’s read more books than I could ever hope to write, there’s no time to read every book written before mine, it’s too late to write them all again.

People are laughing on the street outside the window, whistling in new shirts and shoes. The Kreuzberg district is alive, they yell. The Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburger Gate) is tall again and this time it will stay that way forever. More than just a symbol. Somewhere, near the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, restaurants are serving dinner in five- and seven-courses with wine. The shops in Charlottenburg will soon close and stay dark until tomorrow. Trains pass with a thousand faces nodding, sleeping, reading, watching, looking-out-and-beyond, and then a thousand more.

A gray cat licks its paws next to the dumpster behind our building. I watch as it runs off and disappears down the alley, turning into a girl with braids who rides her bike the other way toward the kiosk by the station.

I understand the whistles coming from the street downstairs are not for me, and probably never will be. Philosophy ends at midnight to make way for these more jubilant desires. There will always be people who ignore the world around them, concerned only with pleasure and comfort of immediate company and the luxury of finer things. And there will always remain an unbearable sadness for everyone else.

As my high school history teacher, Mr. A-, would say, “This is what makes us human – an awareness of the things we can and cannot do, and of the things that will and will not come to pass – knowing the difference between what is and what ought-to-be.

We look at the people around us. We wonder without knowing how we end up in the places that we do. We hope for new and better things tomorrow. And, when tomorrow doesn’t come, we make-do with today.

The wind blows outside, pulling at the windows. We laugh from our aching place in the center of the room, warm in the comfort of pillows and sheets, blocked from the cold by windows and walls and doors. I think of the girl on the platform and the coin on the ground, and the many opinions people will have about her situation and their own. I think of the old man’s coat, his cane and shaking hands. And, from our warm place in this sanctuary of Alpo’s apartment, what right any of us have to judge.

The tavern-drunk words of the wretched Marmeladov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment come to mind:

“But beggary, honoured sir, beggary is a vice. In poverty you may still retain your innate nobility of soul, but in beggary – never – no one. For beggary a man is not chased out of human society with a stick, he is swept out with a broom, so as to make it as humiliating as possible…”

And too am I reminded of an expression I heard when I was still a child: You cannot expect someone to be something they’re not. I try and think of a new word now, come up with another way to describe it as: But-can-that-apply-to-them-both… Opinions form themselves. But we decide whether to speak and share-our-thoughts, or stay quiet, listen, and learn.

Baby takes my hand. We pool the last of our coins from the drawer and slip outside. We walk down the street to the kiosk that doesn’t close to buy one last bottle of beer and chocolate for breakfast in the morning. We like to have things on hand in case of emergency. Then we crawl back into bed to watch Fassbinder films from beneath white cotton sheets and pillows. The screen glows white on our faces and the wall behind. Alpo reads by the Tiffany lamp he keeps on the floor in the room next door. It’s quiet in the apartment.

And, at some point in the night, the howls and hollers and whistles of the street outside fade into nothing; subside into silence as well.

Read next: The Guilt of Tangential Crimes

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Duality: On Conscience and Guilt