Once when I was living in Hamburg I got the dreaded “knock on the door” in the middle of the night. I was alone in my apartment. I hadn’t been living in Germany that long, so I didn’t really have many friends (still don’t) and certainly none who would stop by unannounced. I opened the door and two policemen were standing there. They asked me if I lived there and I said yes. Then they asked me if I bought a t.v. recently. I said no – to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever bought a t.v. in my life, and I told them that. They said there was someone in the building who bought a t.v., and the landlady said it was me. I said I hadn’t. I don’t remember how the conversation ended, exactly, but I know they left, and I didn’t get hauled off and sent to die in a concentration camp, so that’s good.
Come to find out, after telling my buddy Peter about the incident, that when you buy a t.v. in Germany they don’t charge you tax on it, like they do everywhere else in the civilized world – you’re supposed to report the purchase to the t.v. tax people ungalagungagemineshaftarbeitspeilargentourfolk and they then send you a bill for the tax. The nearest I can figure is that I had bought a computer a few weeks earlier and someone in the building must have seen the box in the trash for the monitor, thought it was a t.v. and called the Gestapo on me: it has to be the unshaven scrimshanker living on the top floor.
So, the lesson to be learned is: when they’ve got you, tell the truth. Don’t elaborate, because that’s a form of lying, just tell them, “No, I’ve never bought a t.v. in Germany.”
I thought a long time about this afterward; about the nature and true evil of envy, and about complicity. Envy is invidious, especially for the vulnerable and unhappy, but a very powerful and sustaining emotion. You can live off it a long time, and you’ll find plenty of people to jump on the bandwagon and hate and wreck right along side you. My other thought was – why don’t they just charge you the tax when you buy the damn t.v., instead of making you report it yourself? The whole thing seems fishy to me, and doesn’t make sense. Maybe one of my German readers (if I have any) can enlighten me.
A few weeks later I’m getting my mail in the foyer, and Frau Bostel is also there getting hers. She eyes me suspiciously; I know she’s the snitch. She knows I know. I’m thinking; should I say something cheeky like “Good morning, Frau Bostel. It’s a beautiful day out, isn’t it? I’m so glad we won the war,” but decide not to. Instead she scowls and says and I’m paraphrasing from memory ‘What part of Spain are you from?’ Spain? I’ve been doing my best Lou Reed rock ‘n roll animal impersonation since the day I moved here and she thinks I’m Spanish.
The next thing I know I’m sitting on an expensive couch in an expansive apartment chatting with Herr Bostel Junior while Frau Bostel is making tea. Of course we get around to talking about the war and Herr Bostel wasn’t born until 1950 so he remembers a fairly normal childhood. I ask Frau Bostel what she did and she says she was a nurse in Lubeck, which was kind of a neutral city semi-controlled by the Red Cross. Everybody I ever talked to while I lived in Germany was innocent, or innocently employed, or too young, or too old. I was going to say I never met anyone who was guilty, or a Nazi, or a soldier but that’s not true.When I was a young kid I used to work at a pipe organ company that was in an old barn across the street from my house. It was called Kinzey-Angerstein Organ Co. and the master builder was a kind man named Hans Schmidt. I’ll tell you all about my experiences there in another blog post.