STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 06/14/2010

SPORKS | You Are Here

A confession: I stole a pen, and I’m sorry.

I was in Berlin, Germany, with some friends, having what we dubbed a “bro-mantic man-cation.” Each evening, after hours of bundled walking through January-chilled streets, we seemed to end up at the same hole-in-the-wall burger joint down the street from our apartment. The place was called City Burger 2 (when asked for the location of City Burger 1, the answer came back simply “No such thing”); and to be honest, my particular brand of gastronomy tends to be more salad fork than greasy spoon, more bulgur than burger.

Business was pretty slow at 2 a.m., so when we walked in, the sole worker arose from his crossword, Sudoku or other time-waster, and went behind the counter, bearing the brunt of the language barrier to take our order. I sat at the table where the burger-flipper had been sitting and waited while my compatriots ordered their fatty-patties. I saw a pen sitting on the table. It was one of those pharmaceutical pens and had a spring that made it bend in any which way. Like watching my grandfather pull a nickel from my ear, my brain went oooo, and without further thinking I pocketed it.

That week my friends and I had taken part in the paradox that is an Eastern European vacation: enjoying the sites and gustatory delights while at the same time coming face to face with scars that war so irreparably etches, our lips performing an aerobic workout of smiles turning to slackened jaws. Just a block from Brandenburg Gate—the mouth of a city that’s breathed peace and war for centuries—we walked into a Holocaust memorial comprised of thousands of tomb-like stones. It’s as close to museums and landmarks as it is to parking lots and apartments. Visitors and residents have no choice but to engage with the wounds of history. It is impossible to forget something that still hurts, but that doesn’t mean healing can’t happen in the midst of it.

No more than ten hours before the pen incident, we’d made a trip to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp turned memorial. Though it’s main role was a labor facility, it still contained death chambers and medical experimentation facilities. On one diagram a rigid grid marked out what atrocities occurred where, to help the onlooker make sense of the dust-covered ruins before him. Below squares that read things like “gas chamber” and “crematorium” was a large empty space with a dot that read “You Are Here.” There it was in bold present tense, a reminder of what side of history I was on—the one that survived.

So, how did I respond that evening? I stole a pen—took the power of words from a native who by necessity was already forced to use our words in order to communicate.

Had I already forgotten where I was and that I was still here?

America often strikes me as a country suffering from a combination of Alzheimer’s and restless leg syndrome. We’re quick to forget, and even quicker to move on. This kind of spirit has brought us pioneers and 49ers but also slave owners and pilgrims covering their tracks under smallpox blankets; we hoped by getting bigger we’d get better.

Our common brother’s-keeper response is often “Can’t we just move on?” Sure, but that limp’s not going to heal itself.

A friend of mine was once on the receiving end of some anti-American rant while he visited Russia. Another passerby almost immediately shouted “Sorry.” I long for that sense of corporate responsibility even amidst our darkest corners. But as I put on my coat on my final day in Berlin, I shoved my cold hand into a deep, dark pocket and felt a pen. My response to the shame was to leave it behind. So my apology still remains hidden in a small wicker basket in that apartment, where the next tenant will probably pick it up to write down the address of that restaurant where JFK went after his “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech, having no idea they’re continuing the chain of regret I started. And they are culpable simply because they are there, and I am not. Humbly I name the site of my grief: 51 Reuterstraße #2, Berlin, 12047, Germany.

You are here. Incomprehensible numbers of others are not. So I invite you: Pick up your pen and follow me.


bryan parys doesn’t like to capitalize his name and will be graduating with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at the University of New Hampshire in May. He needs a job, has a pen—that he paid for—and will travel. Email him.

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