Dean sat at the window of a burger restaurant on Dicksenstrasse watching the few early risers pass by. It was Sunday afternoon and Berlin was just waking up after the previous night’s parties and sightseeing. Dean had not partied the night before, but instead had done his usual routine and worked on his German to English translation of his latest commission. He translated German novels for a living, and while he enjoyed the work, it removed him to some extent from the life of the city: the sights, the people, the parties. He tended to work all day and night; he was slowly becoming a hermit and somewhat removed from Berlin humanity.
As he waited for the waitress, Dean stared at the scene outside the window. The morning sun glistened off the beer caps and bottles which had been discarded on the street and sidewalk, and the posters stuck to every available wall space provided the missing color to a drab Dicksenstrasse. Not only was he waiting for the waitress, he was waiting for something to happen, anything, something to ignite a spark in his life. Not likely, he knew, in a burger restaurant but he held out anyway.
Dean ordered a burger and an IPA. As he sat and watched the people pass, a tall, grungy man carrying a mattress walked by the restaurant. The man was about six feet tall dressed in a worn and faded black overcoat which hung open revealing a tattered flannel shirt and dirty jeans. He had a fraying backpack slung over one shoulder and the mattress over the other. It was a small, maybe single mattress, completely soiled, and with faded pink roses and green stems printed on it, barely reminiscent of their original spring colors. The thin mattress had no structure to it, like a smaller and skinnier version of a futon mattress; it draped over his shoulder, falling heavily over his back and his chest. The man stooped slightly under the weight of the mattress; and as he walked the hem of his long coat dragged on the ground kicking up bits of debris.
In Dean’s three years of living in Berlin, he had seen people carrying strange items: a didgeridoo, a kayak, even a dead cat. He had not, however, seen anyone who was not moving house carrying a mattress. And this man was clearly not moving house. The man returned after a few minutes, stopped in front of the burger restaurant and looked in the window. Not at anything in particular it seemed to Dean, just looking. But before he moved on, he made eye contact with Dean and Dean stopped chewing his burger in response. The man had deep, clear blue eyes which stood out against his dirty and sun-damaged face. The eye contact lasted only a few seconds but it was enough for Dean to sense something beyond the disheveled person he saw at first glance. There was humanity lingering in the man’s eyes, a dark and solemn loneliness with a hint of desire for connection which Dean had not seen in a stranger before but had seen in the mirror earlier in the morning.
The man abruptly walked off and Dean finished his burger and beer, paid, and headed out down Dicksenstrasse to catch the M4 Tram. Coming in his direction was the man with the mattress, stumbling across Dicksenstrasse with the mattress still thrown across his shoulder. The man crossed the street in front of Dean and stopped by one of Berlin’s ubiquitous orange garbage cans. He looked in it, stuck one hand in, and pulled out a Chinese take-out box. Dean stopped at the corner, tried to be inconspicuous, and watched the man drop his mattress to the ground and plop himself on top of it. He ate what was left in the carton with his fingers and then licked his fingers clean. Dean was disturbed by the sight but felt a bit of guilt that he was lucky enough to eat from a clean restaurant table. The man rose from his mattress, dropped the empty carton back in the garbage bin and walked up Rochstrasse with his mattress.
Dean was aware that there are thousands of homeless people living on the streets of Berlin: under bridges and viaducts, in parks, train stations, out on the streets. He could not say for sure why this man intrigued him more than the others. Perhaps it was the mattress; perhaps the look of determination on his face, or just the intense eye contact they had shared. Whatever it was, Dean felt a visceral connection to this man, as if they were meant to meet. Dean decided to follow the man, regardless of how reckless it seemed, while thinking about the man’s life: where he came from, where he was heading, where he slept at night, why carry a mattress through the city. He knew the man had seen him in the restaurant so he was unsure as to how close or how far behind to follow to remain unrecognized by the man. He stayed back what he thought was far enough so the man would not catch sight of him and he would not lose sight of the man.
The man wandered up Rochstrasse, quickly zigzagging on the sidewalk to avoid other pedestrians, and crossing the street without looking for cars, many drivers of which screeched to a stop and blared horns, to search in garbage bins. He did not seem to find much: a few empty bottles, scraps of bread or other food. Each time he reached in a bin he needed to shimmy his mattress back up on his shoulder to prevent it from falling off. Dean saw many people with the same look of outrage as the man meandered around them and especially when he dug food out of the garbage bins. The man did not seem to mind, or at least not notice, the stares from others, and certainly not their shaking of heads in disgust as they past. Dean noticed it, though and was appalled by the lack of compassion but was aware he had just recently experienced the same response to the man and his behavior.
The man stopped in front of a small grocery store, folded his mattress in two, and placed it on the ground opposite the store doors. He sat down, pulled a paper cup out of his backpack and, in both English and German, started asking for change. Dean walked by and stopped a few yards past him at a café, thinking of drinking a coffee while he waited for the man to finish. As he began to enter the café, Dean remembered the eye contact he had made with the man and was suddenly overcome with a feeling of neglect. As if he owed it to the man to talk to him and share a coffee with him. Dean decided to offer the man a coffee or a beer. With trepidation, fearful that the man might be aggressive if he knew Dean was following him, Dean approached the man.
“Spare some change for a hungry man?” the man asked meekly.
“I can spare a euro; and if you like, I can buy you a coffee. Or perhaps you’d like a beer instead.”
“If it is not asking too much, I will take a beer.”
Dean purchased a coffee and a beer, placed his coffee on an outside table, and delivered the beer.
“Thank you,” the man told Dean in a monotone voice. He took a sip of beer and continued to ask other passersby for change. Dean stood at the man’s feet for a few seconds then returned to the café to drink his coffee. Dean was half way through his coffee when the man stood up, threw his mattress across his shoulder, and headed down Tor Strasse with his beer and backpack. Dean ran in the café to pay his bill. The waitress was slow and preoccupied talking to her colleague and the panic in Dean increased as the seconds ticked by. He feared he would lose sight of the man if he did not leave the café right away. The waitress finally took his money and made change and Dean rushed out the door. He looked in the direction the man had taken but he was not it sight. Dean quickly walked up Tor Strasse hoping he would observe the man once again. Just before Dean gave up hope he spotted the black coat and the mattress turn down Old Shoehouse Strasse. Dean quickened his pace to catch up. He felt relief he had not lost him. Dean turned at the same street and saw him a half a block ahead. The man turned left at Schendel Park. Dean crossed the street and entered the park but saw no one.
Dean cautiously moved on through the park and as he passed a stone wall he was violently pushed to the ground, his entire body and face smothered with something dense and heavy. Dean panicked and felt the fear escalate through his body. He had never been assaulted before but knew it was possible in such a large city. Dean smelled putrid and acrid air and it seemed as if the dirt was falling and entering his mouth, nose, and eyes. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t yell, and it seemed impossible to free himself. He thrashed his arms and legs but made no progress in getting out from under whatever was smothering him. Dean could hear yelling but with his face covered he could not understand what was being said.
Eventually, Dean saw sunlight again and the face of the man with the mattress looking down at him. The man was slowly sliding the mattress from Dean’s face, “Why are you following me? Who are you? What do you want?” the man shouted.
The barrage of questions made Dean dizzy and he felt a bit nauseous even before the verbal assault. They stared at each other in silence for a moment, Dean looking in the man’s eyes once again but this time seeing aggression and hatred. Dean regretted following a man whom he knew nothing about and who could very well be quite dangerous. Finally, Dean stammered in fear that he had seen him outside the burger restaurant and was interested in his mattress. He felt ridiculous with such a seemingly implausible answer, a man eating a burger is interested in a used mattress, but it was all he could come up with in his state of fear.
“It is not for sale,” the man yelled at Dean.
“I don’t want to buy it; I was just curious as to why you are carrying a mattress around the city.” Dean, with shaky voice, tried to calm the man down by assuring him that he meant no harm. As kindly as possible Dean asked if he could get out from under the man and his mattress. By now the foul stench was making it impossible to keep a disgusted grimace from his face and Dean was sure there were things crawling from the mattress to his clothing.
“I will let you up but you better not try to run away. I still want to know what is going on.”
The man got up, removed the mattress, and dropped it to the ground. He faced Dean with an aggressive posture, looking as if he were ready to leap at the faintest sign of escape from Dean. Dean stood up and dusted himself off. He ran his hands across his face but the grime seemed to linger the longer he rubbed. There was a convenience store across the street, and although Dean was still shaking from the violence which had occurred, he suggested that he buy a couple of beers for the two of them, thinking this might diffuse a potentially dangerous situation. The man agreed but repeated his previous warning. As Dean left the scene he thought about running for a tram to escape this stranger. He was, however, genuinely interested in the man he had seen through the window of the restaurant and thought being stalked must be just as frightening as being assaulted. He continued on to the store. When Dean crossed the street back to the park, the man had the mattress down on the grass and gruffly pointed at the empty space on the mattress for Dean to join him. Dean gave the man a beer and hesitantly sat down on the mattress.
“So, what is your story?” the man asked Dean, still with a bit of anger and threat in his voice, “I saw you eating at the burger place. You have been following me since then. Why? And why buy me beers?”
“My name is Dean and I am a German translator. I come from the United States but my new home is Berlin. I was just trying to meet somebody interesting, someone different than myself. It’s my job to understand other lives and other lifestyles. Still, I should not have followed you. I’m sorry.”
The man looked at Dean with a questioning look on his face. Dean wondered if he had said enough to calm the man, if they would be able to talk together, and if he was safe from further violence. He could not tell from the furrowed brow of the dirty man, “You should not follow people,” the man chastised Dean.
“I know. Again, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
“I am Mehdi,” the man began, now a bit calmer, “I come from Morocco but I have lived a bit in Spain. I had a little work there but it ended and I could not find any more work. I moved on to Berlin but I have not had any luck.”
“What about your mattress? Where did you get it and why carry it around with you? Isn’t it a bother to have to carry?”
“It is good in Berlin. When people clean out their apartments, anything they do not want they place outside the building with a sign saying ‘free’ on it. The stuff goes fast but can last a couple of weeks before the city cleaning crews pick it up. It was one of these spots that I found the mattress. It was early morning and the pile had not been disturbed. I got the mattress, a t-shirt, and a bunch of beer bottles I could return for the deposit. The mattress has been my home ever since. I do not trust other people with my stuff so I carry it wherever I go.”
“Where do you go every day?”
Mehdi sipped on his beer and eyed Dean.
“I do not like to stay in one place. I like to move around the city. Sometimes I stay two or three nights in one place, but mostly I just stay overnight and then move on. It is a big city. Lots of places to put my mattress.”
“But you could stay in homeless centers instead. They would be more comfortable than that mattress and the street.”
“You do not know. You talk like you know me and what it is like living on the street. You do not know the street. It is better to be alone. Better to not have to count on someone else.”
Dean thought about what Mehdi was telling him: trivial details Dean probably could have figured out on his own. He wanted something deeper. Something about what motivated Mehdi. What allowed him to wake up each morning and continue with his daily existence? How was he able to accept his current lot in life?
“Why so quiet now,” Mehdi asked, interrupting Dean’s thoughts.
“I was just wondering if you and I are a bit the same. Obviously, not financially, like as far as money goes. But we both move about; you daily and me every several years. We are both homeless in a way.”
“You must be joking. We are not the same at all. You are rich, I am poor. You eat in restaurants, I eat off the street. We are very different.”
“That’s all true,” Dean responded; “But maybe in spirit we are the same.”
“I do not know spirit. I know you followed me because I am different from you. You are comfortable and happy with yourself. You know what every day brings. You do not know the streets. I am done talking to you. I thank you for the beer and ask you to leave me alone.”
Mehdi stood up and grabbed his mattress, forcing Dean to get up too. He glanced once more into Dean’s eyes and then headed back towards Dicksenstrasse with the empty beer bottles but without saying goodbye. Dean followed him with his eyes until he disappeared around a corner. Perhaps Mehdi is correct, he thought. Perhaps there is no getting to understand life on the street unless you live it.
More importantly, Dean felt he had failed to make a connection with Mehdi. Mehdi was still just a man with a mattress and Dean was weary with the thought that he could not cross the divide that defined the two of them. He wanted more. He wanted, for reasons he still could not pinpoint, access to what lay behind the man with the mattress. He would not attain it, he knew. He also knew he most certainly would not be following Mehdi any longer.
Unsatisfied, he headed in the opposite direction from which Mehdi had taken and boarded the M4 tram. His work was waiting for him at home.