East of Eden in a Commie Cafe
The surly young East German guard at the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing looks at my U.S. passport and brusquely directs me into an empty room. He closes the door and gestures impatiently at me with both arms.
Oh oh. He wants me to undress. A strip search? I start to pull off my jacket. What crime against his miserable state did I commit this morning? Am I smirking too much at the Early Bureaucratic office decor? Am I packing too many pens? Maybe he’s detected the Reason magazine T-shirt hidden under my sweater that reads “Free Minds and Free Markets”?
But all Herr Warmth wants me to do is empty my pockets on the table. He frisks me, then paws through my money, camera stuff, notebooks and the anti-Berlin Wall post cards I had just bought at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum across the street in West Berlin. As he browses through my wallet with bored, officious arrogance, he asks why I’ve come to East Berlin.
I’ll not tell him the real reason, I decide, unless he starts torturing me. Anyway, he’d never believe I’ve come to do lunch at a trendy communist cafeteria.
A friend who’s a restaurant writer had told me about it. She’d never been there, didn’t know its name or address and warned that the food was hardly worth defecting over. But she’d been told that the place was so popular that at lunch time a soldier with a machine
gun had to be posted outside to keep the overflow crowd in line.
What a metaphor! The machine-gun part sounded like something (right-wing LA talk show guy) Wally George might invent, but who knows? Maybe it was some new kind of communist theme restaurant. I had to see it.
I had always imagined a communist country as a huge, well-guarded post office and East Berlin fulfills all my preconceptions. After a diesel-fume-choked hike through a gigantic construction zone I take a train to Alexanderplatz, which my guidebook promises is the center of East Berlin activity. Like the whole city, Alexanderplatz could use a fresh coat of paint and a lot of repairs. It’s a sprawling, shabby, sterile square lined with dull modern buildings, restaurants and . . .
Hey, what’s that way over there next to that G-R-I-L-L sign. . . ?
Suddenly I’m hip to the ways of Generic-land: The cafeteria I seek is probably the East German capital’s only cafeteria. The fancy red letters scream to me as I hurry across the plaza, but there’s no line outside, and no armed guard. . . .
Inside it’s just as disappointing. Hardly any people. The food being served is the traditional German breakfast of hard rolls with a slice of cheese and a slice of sausage. Plain rolls. Butter. Tea. Milk.
I quickly leave without buying anything. Thoroughly dejected and feeling pretty stupid for having believed my friend’s second-hand disinformation, I head down broad Karl Marx Allee toward the city’s main post office, so I can mail my silly post cards and get out of town.
A Moscow grocery store, circa 1990.Along the way I pop in and out of a sad 15-item florist shop and an equally grim toy store before spending 15 minutes in a depressing supermarket where desperate shoppers push child-size carts down pleasureless, colorless, loosely stocked aisles.
By the time I have mailed my post cards from the dingy and supremely bureaucratic post office under a train station, I realize it is 2 p.m. and I am starving.
Back to Alexanderplatz. Snow flurries (in late April). I enter a busy stand-up sausage restaurant and order what the kid in front of me ordered. Aghhhh, one foul bite of what I now know was blood sausage and I’m looking for the wastebasket. I dump my full paper plate discreetly on the way out.
Across the plaza the cafeteria calls to me. I answer. It’s crowded now. Maybe 50 people in line, but no armed guard. Trays are dripping wet and spotted with soggy food particles. No steam tables.
Just past the cold lunch meat of unknown derivation, two men in white coats and little chef hats are setting plates of hot food on the counter shelf next to dishes of cold carrots and cold green beans. The goulash thing and the pork something-or-other look OK, but I grab a plate with a white sausage, French fried potato bits and a blob of cabbage. Two or three equally mysterious kinds of desserts–pudding things–are next, but I pass.
My bill is 3 marks 10 (about $2.50). I take one of 10 paper napkins from the loose pile by the register, grab a tin fork and a weightless tin knife with a hollow handle and find a seat at one of the crowded cafeteria tables.
My Weisswurst is stone cold, but tastes great (I find out later in my guidebook that German white sausage is “often a medley of veal, calves’ brains and spleen”). Looking around, I notice that the decor is uncommunistically sunny and pleasant. Red-and-white window shades, even. Real wood paneling. Hat and coat racks. I’m so cheered up I decide to take some pictures of the joint.
I stand near the front door and frame both the cafeteria line and the chalk board that lists the day’s specials and their prices. Suddenly, I hear two voices shouting one of the dozen or so German words I understand.
“ Verboten , verboten ,” shout two women employees. They’re waving their hands at me as they approach. They point to the cafeteria line and to the chalk board and to my camera and repeat their commands until they’re sure I verstehen that it is permitted to take pictures of customers eating, but not of food being served–and especially not of the list of prices. In state-run economies, prices are treated like national secrets.
I take more photos, but afraid my hooliganism might bring a guard with a machine gun, I fade away. An hour later, grateful to be back on the good side of the Wall, I head for the McDonald’s on West Berlin’s main drag and buy an ice cream cone.
Back in L.A., I call the guy who first told my friend about the communist cafeteria. He tells me the day he was there for lunch it was raining heavily and a long line snaked outside onto Alexanderplatz. A policeman with a gun was there to make sure people in line didn’t crowd anarchically into the cafeteria’s small entry way.
No, he’s sure the cop didn’t carry a machine gun. Just a pistol.
Oh, well. I felt cheated that I hadn’t seen the guard. But he and I were certain we’d eaten at the same communist cafeteria. He thought the food was pretty bad, however, and I thought it was pretty good. But some things are relative.
Note: I didn’t take photos of the grocery store for some dumb reason. But the video above of a pathetic excuse for a grocery in Moscow circa 1990 — before Boris Yeltsin visited a typical Åmerican supermarket in Texas and realized the USSR had to dismantle itself — gives you an idea. East Berlin had a higher standard of living in 1988 than Moscow, the ‘most-livable’ city in the USSR, so the neighborhood grocery I toured was not as pathetic as the one I saw.