Simon Hunt: Passing Time in West Berlin
Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the LGBTQIA+ storytelling night I host and programme. I run Queerstories regularly in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, as well as one-off events in other cities and towns. Check out MaeveMarsden.com for dates and details.
This week – Simon Hunt is a composer, performer, activist and writer who lectures in Media at the UNSW, but he is best known for his character Pauline Pantsdown – a drag simulacrum of politician Pauline Hanson. Simon’s story is featured in the Queerstories book, and he performed it at Antidote Festival at the Sydney Opera House.
Soon after this performance, Simon actually uncovered photos of him performing as Pauline Pantsdown at a resistance rally in 1998. He zoomed in, and there I was in the front row looking up at him like I had just seen – I don’t know – God, or something. So, it’s pretty incredible that I now get to book him for events, when as a 14-year-old I was looking up at him, like, prayer hands pose emoji, I think is the best description of how I was. Anyway, this is a beautiful story that he’s written that has nothing to do with Pauline Pantsdown, or me. Enjoy.
On the 1986 summer’s day in West Berlin, workers were building foundations for a children’s playground and the suddenly dug up the old Gestapo torture cells. They’d been buried since the final bombings of 1945, and the playground architects had thought they were a bit further to the right, as you would.
Late that night, three drunken friends and I climbed under the police tape and went down into the pit, exploring the small white-tiled rooms filled with scattered debris, mud-caked clipboard folders, broken shells, even a war-time calendar that seemed like a bad film prop. I found a small glass ampoule, and held it up to the moonlight with a sudden horror vision of an SS Officer drawing out its contents with a syringe. In my head, of course, this was in scratchy black and white 16-millimetre film, because that’s how I’d always seen the Nazis, like, a distant past. But, here, now, 1986, my sense of time was falling apart. The earth smelt fresh. The ampule was clear. Was this just yesterday, or was it even longer ago? Am I in the ruins of ancient Pompei? When is this? I mean, it’s 1986, how could there still be Nazis in the world?
But Berlin was also a futuristic science fiction TV movie. I’d arrived a few months before with my band, four days after the Chernobyl disaster. The Soviets were still underplaying it, but high-radiation readings on food trucks arriving via East Berlin told the real story.
On the first day, the government advised everyone not to eat any fresh fruit or vegetables, and so in Berlin we lived on frozen meat and canned food for the next few months. Empty cafe tables with abandoned salad on the left over plates.
On day two in Berlin, as the storm clouds drifted across from the East, the radio advised us to keep out of the rain because it might be radioactive. Completely ignoring this advice, we head for the Olympic stadium in battering rain, manned with our industrial-sized umbrellas, because at the age of 24, you’re going to live forever and there’s so much to do in a new town.
We’re the only people at Hitler’s stadium, and in the thunder storm we stand in our umbrella circle around the giant Olympic bell. It’s raised swastikas have been clumsily welded over and then scratched out again, and then painted over, and then scratched back in again. The bizarre separation of the city into two quickly became normalised in daily life. In summer, I would sun-bake naked on the Eastern side of the narrow Kreuzberg riverbank with Dean, a member of my band, right next to the wall. Officially, the riverbank was East German territory, even though physically on the Western side of the wall, because the wall was following the river at this point.
One day, some guards leaned over the top of the wall, telling us that we were trespassing on East German land, and then proceeded to take naked photographs of us, which presumably still exist somewhere deep in the Secret Service archives.
Every day I’d catch a train from home to my band’s rehearsal studios. Both of these places were in West Berlin, but due to the oddities of the wall, the train line passed through old, crumbling East Berlin ghost stations where no one had been allowed to board since 1961. Although these underground stations had identical architecture to the Western stations, they were lit only by a few flickering fluorescent tubes, and they were always guarded by two East German guards with machine guns. You’d sit there and you’d pass through East, West, East, West, and after a few months, you’d just keep reading your newspaper.
But, today, a year into my Berlin stay, I’m watching Stephen on the train as he experiences it for the first time. Stephen is a friend-of-a-friend from Sydney, he’s on a European arts junket. He’s carting around a collection of Australian Super 8 films between different experimental festivals. I ask him to help me carry some bags of coal up to my ratty apartment, so that it can be warm by the evening.
“So medieval!” he exclaimed in his sardonic Sydney queen tone. It’s a tone sort of coming across like a breath of a far-away summer.
“Can we go to some East Berlin gay bars?” he asks, and I realise that I don’t even know if such a thing exists. My world was a straight, electronic music, post-punk scene full of people who took a lot more drugs than I did. Occasionally, I’d sort of furtively dart into nights of disappointment at local West Berlin gay bars, but leave very quickly, bored by the music, not confident enough to sustain conversations. I want gay friends, but I never seem to have anything in common with them; just quick sex and then I’m out of there. You know, if we’d had Grindr in those days, I would’ve had… Looking for sex between studio recording and dinner, and then, you know, disclaimer: Dinner not included. Something like that.
At the time, I’m proud when straight people are surprised to find out I’m gay. I’m weirdly proud that they assume I’m something I’m not. It’s like, you know, “Look, you thought I was human but I strip my flesh away and I am indeed a robot underneath,” you know? So, of course, drag was a good 13 years in the future at this point. Anyway, I doubted that gay bars could be any better over in the Eastern side, but a few phone calls later, we’ve got an address, so I’m about to find out.
The train emerges from the darkness of the ghost stations to East Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse, which functions as both line exchange and border crossing point. The long winding queues to reach the glass window where you hand over your passport, and then you get the famous East Berlin triple scan: The official stares at you for five seconds…
*Pauses for five seconds*
… and then stares at your photograph for five seconds, and then cycles this two more times. It’s a long process. With German body language, the length of time you’re allowed to stare at someone is much longer than in Australia, and in the first few months, I misinterpret curious stares on public transport as either a desire to fuck me or kill me. East German border guy doesn’t look like he wants to have some fast love.
Nevertheless, with a grunt and a jerk of the thumb we’re ushered into East Berlin on a day pass, and we’re ushered into East Berlin on a day pass – back by midnight.
We follow the map a few blocks to our scribbled address. All eyes pivot to Stephen and I as we walk into the bar, and we quickly embark on a walk of shame to a spare booth. It’s like a 1950s-style narrow milk bar. It’s got long rows of small booths, mirrors on both sides, and just millions of lamps; lamps all dimly lit but there’s hundreds of them. They’re all on little shelves, and a whole lot of them have been taped to the mirrors at the side. It’s like you’ve got a terrified lamp-shop owner, and they desperately tried to get everything off the ground before a flood.
“Where are we? Is this even a gay bar? It’s all whispers and furtive glances, and everyone is so old. I mean, they’re at least in their mid-30s.”
A much younger guy leans his back against the drinks area and he faces the booth with a studied nonchalance. A few dim figures pop up from the booths, walk over to him, negotiating in low tones before the victim marches him out of the front door. It’s all very grim. It’s back in that black and white film again, and we leave.
On the street outside, we run into Klaus, an 18-year-old who is meeting local friends at an underground party nearby, and he invites us to join him. Stephen doesn’t speak German, so he wants me to ask Klaus about gay bars but I think Klaus is straight, so and I don’t want to risk anything before we’ve had a chance to check him out more.
“Nearby” turns out to be a half-hour’s walk. Street lighting becomes sparse as we head further from the centre, and I start getting a little worried about the midnight deadline for Westerners to be back at the border; missing that means jail.
When we reached the warehouse, it takes a moment for our eyes to adjust to the dum lighting. There’s a red and blue cellophane covers draped over rows of lightbulbs. The last chorus of the Sex Pistol’s punk anthem Pretty Vacant is blasting through the small, distorted PA system, and there’s about twenty teenagers in classic 1976 punk clothing – and this is in the ‘80s – pogoing up and down on the dance floor. It’s like a VHS TV commercial for 20 Greatest Punk Hits.
Just as we sit down, the music abruptly switches to 1950s rock and roll. The punks who are half the crowd sit down, and then the rock and rollers will stand up on the other side. Girls in poodle skirts, boys with greased back hair. They shake, they rattle, they roll. And I can see that everyone is actually about 16 to 18. We’ve ended up at an underground Saturday evening school dance.
The music switches between punk and rock and roll every three or four songs, yet there’s this peaceful coexistence between the two halves, who all respectfully talk amongst themselves and wait patiently for their turn.
Klaus who has brought us here, he is one of the oldest here and he’s commanding some respect. He leads us to a darker corner where vodka is quietly added to the cordial jars. Very good Russian vodka in East Berlin. “Why is this being kept secret?” Stephen asks, and Klaus explains that some of the kids there have parents who are informers, and even though they’re attending an illegal event, they might create chaos if they go home drink, so the underground party has its own underground section.
The Russian vodka takes hold, and we relax into our unexpected evening. Everyone is very friendly. It’s completely different to the gay bar. But, suddenly the music stops. Overhead white lights last on. I panic. Is this a raid? Only Stephen and I are reacting, so we say, “Klaus, what’s going on?” He says, “Oh, it’s the 15-minute break,” and wanders off to refill the cordial jars.
“What are we having a break from, Klaus?” He says, “Oh, from the atmosphere, of course.” And, indeed, after 15 minutes, the party suddenly resumes, and we later discover that the official state-led youth dances have a compulsory 15-minute break, and this cultural practice has carried on into the underground.
Stephen and I are completely smashed by the time we reach the border. It’s 10 minutes before the midnight deadline. It’s sort of like this Cold War Cinderella scenario.
Klaus points to the Berlin Wall. “Look at that thing,” he says, and he suddenly grabs me by the waist, lifts me up. He says, “When I was a kid, I wanted to see what was over it, and now… You know, sometimes… I wonder if there’s anything worth seeing there at all,” and sort of trails off, not finishing the drunken thought. But then he says, “Bist do schwule?” – “Are you gay?” And I say, “Yes.” He goes, “Iche dachte,” – “I thought so,” he said. “Stephen’s been looking at you all night, Simon.” I don’t translate for Stephen.
“I’m not gay,” says Klaus, “but we are all happy in the world together.” It’s like this exploding Disney princess moment. There’s a real heart in it, and we all embrace before Stephen and I head back into the station across the line that Klaus is not allowed to cross.
On the sleepy train journey, Stephen leans over and just suddenly kisses me, but I gently pull back, holding his stare for an almost German length.
You see, I finally… Finally, I’ve made a gay friend, someone I can go on adventures with, and I don’t want to ruin it all. I’ve actually… I’ve found a friend. Thank you.