Under the U-Bahn line the workmen are laying cobble stones. Berlin construction workers restore the old unevenness after having dug it up. The conveniences of cables and optical fibres are buried in charm. No tarmac and steam rollers here, but a wheelbarrow full of rocks and a team of men with hammers. These men of 2011 could be men of 1921 or 1871 were it not for their modern interpretation of work wear.
The view is from a café on the corner of Schönhauser Allee and Danziger Strasse, overlooking the historic site of Konnopke’s Imbiss where, since Weimar days, this street-food shack has purveyed currywurst, day and night, to Prenzlauer Berg patrons. It has survived wars, hot and Cold, and managed to function behind the Iron Curtain. Now it’s being renovated, the stones under it being replaced, that it might serve sausage another century.
The U-Bahn arches over the street in freshly painted green wrought iron, riveted but trembling under the weight of the yellow trains. It’s an essential industrial relic: a monument to muscle work for which we no longer have a taste, but upon which we rely everyday. Thousands ascend the limestone staircase to the platform daily, for the train is the artery that transports worker blood to the capital heart. At 6 a.m. the workforce is in overalls; at 8 a.m. it is in suits. They rattle off that the city may function, and underneath the men with hammers, on their knees, knock in stone after stone.
In the café, students are being industrious in their way, learning languages in tandem, reading papers and writing essays. Some sit in a studied picture of thought, which is to daydream in an intellectual posture. The baristas pull shots of espresso and plate croissants and watch life go by, wishing they were going by too. The industry here is decadent and delicious. Plate glass separates this world from the clickety-clack and blue collars of the street. As if lured to giant plasma screens the intellects look up at the riveting scene of industry and the pathways to work. Disengaged, they resume their posturing. They live in a world of screens and windows – of televisions and computers, telephones and tablets – and the café is just another way passively to pretend that their lives are active and engaged.
Amidst all this the writer observes, wondering about his place. It is Monday, but it doesn’t much matter. The writer has done his fair share of manual labour. He has also ridden the train in a suit, heading somewhere for somebody else. He has been a student, and studied the affectations of their kind. He has done the intellectual labour that they haven’t yet reached, and may not ever, and found in it a detachment – an unbridgeable distance from the day-to-day – that he tries to recapture through observation. He fails for himself, but finds meaning in the others. Writing what he sees, he orders more coffee.