Close Encounters Of The Corrosive Kind

            I was coming back from Berlin. It was Sunday, the afternoon before Rose Monday, which is the grand finale of the Rhineland ritual of Karneval, but there were still quite a few revelers in outlandish costumes to be seen, especially in Köln Hauptbahnhof, known to tourists as “Cologne Central station,” spoken with a canned British accent.

I quickly grabbed my things and hopped on a regional train to Köln Süd to avoid the crowds milling about. The train I really wanted to take would be along in 15 minutes, and I wanted to enjoy the rare winter sunshine and warmer temperatures for a while.

            I admit I was tired and not as watchful as I should have been…

            When my intended train came into the Köln Süd stop, I grabbed my suitcase and tote bag of dirty laundry and took a quick right after the doors opened. Big mistake.

            I sat down opposite a fat teenager with glasses, who was attempting to grow a faint moustache. His leather satchel took up almost all of the seat opposite him (almost all seats on this train had matching pairs of seats facing each other), so I pushed it a little to make room.

            “DON’T touch MY satchel!” he growled in German.

Without thinking, I automatically took it and put it next to him on his seat. You don’t talk to me like that and get a polite response, not unless you’re a cop in the USA.

“I SAID DON’T TOUCH MY STUFF! And Get the FUCK OUT!”

“You don’t own this train,” I said evenly, in English, though I really wanted to shove the satchel down his throat.

“GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY SEAT!” he said in English.

“No.”

“Do you want me to beat the fuck out of you? Do you really want that?” He leaned forward into my face, “I’m much bigger than you. You are an old man.”

“No to all of the above,” I said, staring back at his frog-like face. He was quite overweight, with no evidence of muscles. I was sure my long arms could hold him at bay, if he really wanted to throw punches. “Shall I call the police?” I offered.

He smirked, “Don’t make hollow threats!” That much was true – I had no mobile phone, and certainly had no wish to deal with having to explain this ridiculous situation to a police officer who might just take his side because of nationality (we Yanks harbor a legendary (and justifiable) distrust of police). “Now get the fuck OUT!” he said.

I stayed put. No way was I going to give in to a bully.

I know a thing or two about bullies, having spent my early teens as a punching bag in my adopted state of East Tennessee. The last thing you ever would want to do would be to show fear and give in to their demands.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, old man? Where are you from?”

“Where are you from?” I responded.

“I am from GERMANY!” he said with evident pride.

That should have confirmed my suspicions, but the heartbeat thumping in my ears got in the way. “All of Germany?” I countered, “So you’re saying the entire German nation coughed you up out of its womb?”

“Get the fuck off my train!”

“This is not your train.”

“Maybe it is!”

“I bet you’ve been drinking.”

He blew in my face. “Want some more, old man?”

The absurdity of the situation was by now breathtaking. Here I was, in the midst of a festival of mandated happiness, and I find myself sat opposite this creep!

Just in time, my experience as a teacher kicked in, and I started playing with his answers. “You own this train? Do you have documents to prove it?”

“Get the fuck out of my seat! What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you fucking stupid?”

Bruhl station came and went by in the background. Passengers disembarked and boarded. Not one of the other passengers showed the slightest interest in what was going on.

I replied, “I’ve heard more ‘fucks’ out of your mouth in five minutes than you will ever get in a lifetime. Why don’t you get up and leave?”

“Because I was here first! Do you want me to take your bag and throw your stuff around? Get the fuck out!”

At this point, I actually felt a twinge of pity for him, perhaps because I hadn’t really noticed the red letters in Fraktur silk-screened on his black t-shirt peeking out of his windbreaker. I started turning his questions around and asking him to justify his attitude. I really wish I could recall just what I asked him, but adrenaline is not a great memory aid.

But I was starting to gain ground: three questions up and three wrong answers. I calmly informed him of this, ignoring the heartbeat, drumming in my ears.

“What the fuck have I to do to make you leave?” he blurted, getting redder all the time.

“Ask me politely.”

“Will you leave… please?” he said, drawing out the last syllables.

“Certainly.” And I did. I got up and moved across the aisle to a vacant seat just behind him, where I could keep a close eye on his movements. He immediately thrust his precious brown leather satchel back on the seat I had just vacated and scowled into his smartphone. (Oh, the irony…)

The train switched tracks as we approached Sechtem. I knew then and there, we would have to wait until the RegionalExpress overtook us.

As we rolled to a stop, more passengers left, but his eyes were glued to his phone screen. The platform outside was full of brightly colored clown costumes and their well-lubricated occupants, waiting for the train coming the opposite way to whisk them into Cologne for their beloved Karneval Sitzung shows and familiar jokes and singing.

There were so many beer bottles rolling around, I was momentarily tempted to step out to collect a few for the deposit money.

But no, our train beeped its warning and the doors slammed shut. We rolled onward, down the stretch to my stop. I continued to keep an eye on him, but he was still glued to his phone, perhaps typing in something, perhaps playing a game of some sort…

My station pulled slowly into view, a bare platform of concrete slabs stranded in asphalt. The doors opened.

I waited around 30 seconds before collecting my suitcase and getting up to leave. His eyes were still welded to his phone screen, as far as I could tell.

The train sped away, leaving me flooded with strange feelings. Was I really that rude to push his satchel aside when I had boarded? And what had gone so horribly wrong with that boy’s existence that he had to lash out like that. Yes, he was fat, but so are a lot of others, yet I had never seen anyone react so hostile in my 17 years living in Germany.

Once home, I opened a couple of Hefeweizen beers as the sun slowly set and switched on my hi-fi. I popped in my Super Audio CD of Goat’s Head Soup and pondered the whole thing while the bittersweet melody of “Coming Down Again” played in the background.

I spent most of the Rose Monday napping off and on while the populations of Cologne and Bonn paraded around in clown costumes, showered onlookers with candy and rattled their bones with thundering ‘oompah’ music from marching bands. I was completely kaput.

It took my two more troubled nights to realize his boast, “I am from Germany!” held the key. This was not typical German at all, not in Postwar Germany, where an agonized and protracted debate on the validity of national pride had clouded the months leading up to hosting the World Cup in 2006.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced his parting words, “Have a nice day” really meant he was going to text his pals in Bonn Central station to tell them who to go looking for, perhaps under the tunnels of the Bonner Loch under the station.

Several things still stand out about the whole episode, not the least being that the other passengers studiously ignored my plight, despite him openly threatening a much older man such as me. I had witnessed this willful ignorance, this unseeing before, on the S13 train, when a large jackbooted skinhead, high on godknowswhat, snorted and stomped like a wild bull, head down, perched alone in ‘his’ 4-person compartment, whilst the other passengers cowered into their newspapers.

It was 3:30 a.m. when I suddenly woke up with the realization that I had argued with a Neo-Nazi, my first such corrosive encounter. I had been blinded by that cliché that all Neo-Nazis were tall, athletic skinheads. Yes, I had gotten myself into a war of words with a Neo-Nazi.

And made him say “Please.”

It didn’t feel like victory, and I certainly didn’t feel like bragging about the encounter. But it would not exit my thoughts without a tussle, so I had to put pen to paper this morning, on the 5:30 train to Cologne.

© 2012 W.R. German. All rights reserved.

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