“Only someone who has been there knows the ugly, cold bite of winter concrete under you ass. No roof. No food. No friends. Nothing.”
That’s what AnnaLund of Goodreads wrote in her review of “Wild Horses.” It hit me straight in the gut. I drew a slow, deep breath as I felt hot heat rise to my head and my sinuses fill. At that moment I just happened to glance at the calendar. I had to swipe my hand over my eyes to see the date better. I could do without these seasonal allergies… but anyway, I just realized it’s been 35 years ago since I was a teen, homeless, political refugee in a foreign country. I had my family, true, and there was a social network in place for the likes of us, but a lot of what I write is grounded in reality. In honor of our family’s pilgrimage, and in honor of displaced people everywhere, I decided to post this excerpt from “Cancelled Czech Files.” Please remember that even though Kai found his happy ending, and I found a home as well, there are uncounted families in search of a better future right now. So, when you toss those tourist coins in a fountain, please don’t make them land too far out.
Munich in the fall was enchanting. The leaves were turning, the weather was still warm enough to swim in the river. The natives even sunbathed naked, and the passersby on the city promenades paid them very little attention. Market stalls sprang up on Marienplatz, right between the Kaufhof department store and the ancient church with its magnificent astrological clock. So many stalls. So many stores. So much to buy, to see.
It was 1979 and I was thirteen, and we walked through the shopping areas for purely recreational reasons. There was no reason or money to buy anything most of the time, but surveying the assortment of merchandise was enough. And there were no lines. No queues of mothers and fathers, stopping at a store during their lunch-break and seeing a line of people, joining it first and only then asking, “What are people waiting for? Is it toilet paper? We haven’t had toilet paper in weeks.”
Now my mother cooked instant rice and fried a liver steak for us at least three times a week on the little electric burner of our pension room. It was the cheapest meat, but it was always available. At least once a week we had a rotisserie chicken. And there was produce from the market.
My brother Patrik was a four year old with “the power of cute”. He would smile at the German merchant women and say, “Grűss Gott”, a common Bavarian greeting. “God Bless”. And they would smile at him, say “Grűss Gott” back and sometimes give him an apple, or a plum, or a pear. This was good, a free piece of fruit meant my mother could buy one less and save money.
This abundance of goods meant, naturally, that us kids wanted some loot. What good is it to be in West Germany, abandoning kin and kith and friends and family dog, and not even get any loot? There was an ice cream man, and there were little Matchbox cars, and my brother Patrik was interested in those. My father, in his wisdom, decided that Patrik can learn to save for them. After all, we were in the West now, were we not? Even the children need to manage money…somehow. So after every shopping trip, my four year old brother got the spare change.
At thirteen years of age, my yearnings leaned more towards bejeweled tortoise hair combs than toward matchbox cars. The most elaborate one sat displayed among its lesser cousins in a store window, carved in intricate knot-work and set with brilliant jewels. It was the very picture of Western sophistication, and it cost thirty two marks.
“Why don’t I get spare change, too?” I said, trying my best to keep my voice level and adult-like. “It’s not fair that Patrik gets all the change.”
My mother looked at my father. Their eyes had a bewildered, deer-in-the-headlights kind of look. They dearly wanted to give us all the spare change in the world, but not at the expense of begging the dour welfare official at the Sozial-Amt.
It was decided that Patrik and I would split the change, and we did. Patrik saved up small amounts of money, and found his reward in matchbox cars and cones of ice cream. I put my money into a sturdy, white leather handbag. It had white leather fringing and white leather tassels, and it used to be my mother’s.
Almost every day I added a few pfennig coins into it. They jingled in the bottom of my handbag at first. I stifled their sound with a cotton handkerchief. There were one hundred pfennigs to a mark, and I collected mostly the small one, two, and five pfennig coins. A twenty-pfennig coin would have been a fine prize. I carried my white handbag everywhere. I had my mother guard it while I was using the playground equipment for fear that somebody would steal it. It had the only money I had in the world in it. “Your bag is so heavy,” she would say.
Weeks carried on. One day the weather broke and the nudists disappeared from their sun-rock perches by the river. We had defected in summer clothing. Bringing fall clothing would have tipped the border guard off that we didn’t intend to return. There was a large building on the outskirts of town where we could have gone and asked for free clothing, gently used, in excellent condition. My mother’s German was rudimentary and my father’s, even worse. The welfare official at the Sozial-Amt probably told us to take advantage of this charity as he gave my father our family’s food allowance, our alms. And my father accepted the money, his hand wrapped around the bills in a fist, his shoulders hunched, his cheeks flushed. Only menial jobs were available to refugees. Taking a job also meant settling down. My father wasn’t ready to settle down. His dream was to go to America, start a company, and become a millionaire.
All four of us trekked to the Social Amt. We always traveled as a family unit. We took care to never, ever get separated. As one we walked through the large brass door and to the right, through the dark hallway, waiting, waiting for our turn with the dour, unsmiling Sozial-Amt official.
“Kein Geld”, my father said in his broken German. “No money.” The man replied slowly. We did not understand. The man gesticulated. We caught the word “school”. “Kein geld”, my father repeated his mantra. “Es ist kalt”, my mother said. “It is cold.” The official sighed and handed some cash over. His lecture which was lost on us.
We took the subway to the other side of town, to the cheap American Store. A black American man sold us pants and jackets. My father talked with him in English, a language with which he was more comfortable. I tried not to stare at the black man. I have never seen a black man before. He laughed and gave us kids stickers. I decided that he was OK, that all Americans laugh, are generous, and give kids stickers. We were hoping to go to America and I felt reassured. We were all a lot warmer now. I marveled at the fine fit of my first-ever jeans. I relished the feeling of the sheepskin jacket. We were all outfitted, but the money was gone. October was halfway gone, and the frowning, black haired official at the Sozial-Amt told us, “Kein Geld.” My father pointed to our clothing. “Kalt,” he said. The official began to sputter wordlessly. He might as well have been speaking German.
We went back to our room. The large, old pension building was built in grander days. The room was huge, its walls covered with four different styles of wallpaper. My parent’s voices echoed. I eavesdropped shamelessly.
“What are we gonna do,” my father said. “He won’t give us any money till November.”
My mother looked around, her eyes haunted. “That’s almost two weeks,” she said. “We need to buy food.”
I thought about my white leather handbag. It was fabulously heavy. A few weeks ago it was only half full, but we were allowed to play in water fountains before the weather turned and I found coins in those fountains. Well-dressed, well-fed tourists tossed in the coins for luck. Idiots, I thought. How could somebody be that wasteful. Our parents beseeched us to leave the coins alone at first. “It’s embarrassing,” they said. We wouldn’t relent. “Don’t let anyone see you,” they compromised. They would sit on a bench, their backs turned to us as in ignorance, talking. My brother Patrik and I took to fishing those coins out. Some were even marks! He had a formidable Matchbox car collection. I had earned a very heavy purse. At night I would spill its contents on my bed and count it, not moving lest the piles of coins topple over. It was one of my favorite things to do. It gave me a sense of security.
“We have food for tomorrow,” I heard my mother say quietly. “After that, maybe we could go to the Sozial-Amt again. Maybe you could talk to that man. Don’t they have anyone who speaks Czech? Or at least English?”
I saw my father’s face grimace. He would hate to go.
In my mind’s eye I saw the splendor of a tortoise hair comb, its Spanish intricacy set with brilliant jewels. Maybe even diamonds. I had twenty-five marks and seventy-six pfennigs. I needed only six marks and twenty-four pfennigs more. If I took my jacket off, I could fish a few more coins out of a fountain. Then I could go into the fancy hair shop on Tall Strasse, right off of Marien Platz. I could just see myself walk in and buy it. My mother thought it looked gauche but I didn’t care. It was beautiful. And it would be mine.
My legs carried me toward where my parents sat. “I have twenty-five marks and seventy-four pfennigs,” I heard my voice say. They turned at me and stared.
“Where did you get twenty five marks?” my mother demanded.
“It’s all that spare change,” I explained. “The pfennigs that Patrick and I get. And diving in the fountains.” They looked at one another.
“You know, the money I am saving for my hair comb,” I added helpfully.
“That’s excellent!” my father beamed, and there was deep approval in his eyes. “We have money again!”
I lifted my head, straightening. “But…but that’s the money I saved. I saved it. I carried it everywhere. I am saving up for my hair comb.
“You’d be wasting money,” my mother said.
“That money is food on the table,” my father said. “We are all in this together. When we have money again, you can get your new hair comb.”
We took my 4-lb handbag full of coins to the post office to trade the coins for bills. We were able to buy bread and rice and liver and wine until the end of October. In November we received an official U.S. political asylum, and with the asylum came a financial stipend. Food was more plentiful now, and there was enough money left over to stop in that fancy hair shop on Tall Strasse. I yearned for my carved Spanish hair comb, beset with jewels. My mother steered me in the direction of a modest hair clip. It had a few jewels in it. At seven marks and fifty pfennigs it set us back an equivalent of a rotisserie chicken, one package of American bread, and four apples. I hefted it. It was light.
It was made of plastic. The stones were mere rhinestones. I straightened up and forced a smile as genuine as the hairclip itself. “It’s beautiful,” I said.