Its Golden Age was coming to an end. A new, not previously tasted sense of instability had fallen upon us. ‘This cannot last’, people said, ‘something’s got to give’. It was clear to us, that we were standing on the other side of a shift – somewhere past something, with no way back; reminiscing about a city we didn’t know, except that it had been bliss, with rent under control, and sunshine, which made the new classicist buildings shine like melting silver. This morning they looked grey. The wind from the river drifted through the empty streets, and was icy, and went through both my sweater and shirt, chilling the skin of my stomach. The final bit of alcohol from last night was leaving my body, through what felt like every pore in my skin: secretion of wine into sweat.
So perhaps it was me – perhaps it was my mood, my hung-over tiredness that caused the city to look particularly desperate that morning. I was walking from the underground to work through fossils from the night before: fried chicken legs, chewed clean, and scattered along the edges of the road. A man was sweeping up a shiny broken glass, which covered the pavement outside a bar, next to which its terrace furniture stood tied up with nylon rope. All in all, it was a regular Sunday, after what by all accounts seemed like a regular Saturday night.
The joyousness was not over yet: past a crossing and next to a side street, there was a strip club: Rainbow Girls. Around this time, their last customer had left, and the girls gathered outside for a good-morning, thank-you-for-today cigarette. Their hair was dyed and in ponytails, their long nails intact, and in tracksuits and heels from their shift, they were talking loudly, wishing each other a good day of rest. I was always uplifted by the girls – their perseverance was impressive.
But it wasn’t just me, for the girls were the exception. They were the ones who made it – the ones, who did not crack under the pressure of the city. They made do with what they had and probably did pretty well for themselves. No, the city had changed. It had grown and overgrown, slowly, taking its time. Its web of money, luxury condos and ever-expanding ambition, had fertilized the growth spur but left a thin layer of debris on the bottom.
The feeling of being unsafe had entered. It seemed incessant and all-engulfing; it was everywhere. It had happened without anyone noticing it, and it seemed impossible of changing. No area was left untouched by it. Sitting under parasols outside fancy restaurants, it was there. Going home on the train Monday night it was there too, even though ‘costumers were asked not to encourage this behavior’. Entering a supermarket, a Tuesday afternoon to buy discounted wine, it was there, and it was the same lady outside as the day before, as the week before. She looked like a child with a tough build, small breasts, and she sat on the pavement with her legs crossed. A nod was intended to signify sympathy. She sent a grimace in return. My flatmate told me, she had seen her burning her foot with a lighter. Back in my kitchen, I couldn’t remember her face – dirt, bruises and malnutrition? Probably. Her undershot mouth.
Homelessness and druggies cover the streets like fallen leaves in October. It is visible and harrowing, and constant. Their bodies are thin and distorted like Schiele-figurines, and they move unpredictably like scrap cars, bothered by reasons I dare only imagine. Hair, in thick strands like braided hay. There are beggars everywhere: wherever one goes, this metropolitan disease follows. They yell at each other from across the street, sometimes to us, and we ignore it the best we can. From desperation, follows the loss of dignity, and it is from this the fear stems: the fear of people with nothing to lose.
Saddest is the fading of individuals. Remember the man, walking hurriedly? His face was red, clearly sweaty; I thought he was tired. As he was walking towards us, he steadily drew closer to the wall. Out came the vomit, in one fat column, without stopping fully. For a second he half stopped, leaning over to avoid spilling on his clothes and then continued walking. He did not look up and seemed unbothered by the incident. A woman behind me exclaimed an audible ‘Oh!’ He must have felt ashamed.
Or the woman who I had given soup every few weeks, a couple of years back when I worked in a kitchen? I saw her recently in a scene from across the road. She was held by two men, twisting and turning trying to jerk herself free. A young waitress fumbled to grab something from her hands; I assume something the woman had taken from her. Thefts are very common now. As from nowhere, she started shaking and yapping uncontrollably. The men immediately let go; the woman fell on the ground, continuing to shake. The waitress gave out a quick scream. They looked at her in silent horror, as if asking themselves quietly ‘What have we done?’ The waitress ran inside to call for help, and as if pulled by strings, the woman on the ground jumped up, her thin body accentuating her every move, and she ran off. The men scrambled to catch her, but they didn’t and she was gone. I admired her courage. I never saw a sadder scene.
We have adjusted to the fear. We walk at a faster pace, always with headphones in, and we fixate our eyes on the pavement or the space between their shoulder and head. We know by heart: ‘Sorry, I don’t have any change’, because we say it ten times a day. We get on – leave the wart untreated, for no one sees it anyways, and it doesn’t bother us that much. And we find solace in the small things. In sunshine, which warms the outer layer of our skin, or in the grapes we have managed to grow in our garden this summer. Aren’t they fresh? Or distractions in busy-ness and light indignations; how long does it really take to make a cappuccino? The city still has its culture, so we go to the theater, or for dinners and eat plaice and drink Chenin Blanc. And when we come home, we fall asleep in our beds, next to our lover, and leave the window open, to catch a nightly breeze and the early sunrays. It is easy to feel dignified then.
© Self-Portrait with Splayed Fingers, Leopold Museum, Vienna, Inv. 1383