Livings in Los Angeles. Whole Foods and the Terror of Me. Now!

 

It’s Tuesday, so-called “Taco Tuesday” to be precise. Beaming at everyone with a Californian sunshine smile, a young “dude” with a white cap and the gestures of a 1920’s hotel bellboy is handing out samples. I’m in a hurry and shake my head to decline. “It’s vegan!” he says quickly, as if that would be the ultimate selling point, passing me a small paper cup with a barely bite sized nibble. I thank him. It looks a bit like shriveled up cat food so I tip the contents into my mouth and chew… it tastes ok – for cat food.

Throughout the store the cool air is permeated with the sickly smell of freshly pressed wheat grass, mingled with the heavy aromas of roasted, fair trade coffee beans and hot, free range lemon chickens. Take-out dinners galore are flying off the shelves: golden slices of freshly baked truffle pizza, extravagantly shaped bottles of pomegranate juice, barley-spinach salad, curry tofu, eggplant hummus and rainbow sushi – you name it. The choices are overwhelming and the prices astronomical.

I am at Whole Foods, one of Los Angeles’ most popular health food supermarkets. Only half jokingly, people also call it Whole Paycheck. Founded in 1980 in Austin Texas, and beginning its expansion only four years later – to California in 1989 and to the UK in 2007. This one is located just behind the popular Farmer’s Market and The Grove on Third Street. The location has always struck me as odd. It’s wedged between the drugstore CVS, a row of cheap boutiques with discount clothes from China, bargain wig shops and Kmart.

All of these stores share the same huge parking lot: an asphalt arena sporting two anorexic palm trees that heats up unbearably from the permanent glare of the sun. This definitely isn’t quite the setting you would normally think of when purchasing organic Deep Breathe Tea, fair trade organic quinoa and Yoga mats made from recycled plastic water bottles. Because this is also where regularly verbal fights, vicious glares, dirty hand signs and other mostly empty threats over parking spaces are exchanged. Especially when temperatures around noon start rising and the pressure of shopping for certain holidays, mostly equated with food, are approaching. Parking around Thanksgiving? Forget. It. A while ago a rapper even recoded a video titled “Whole Foods Parking Lot”.

Generally, in Los Angeles parking is not only a problem but a phenomenon – unlike in any other city I have ever visited. Whatever you attend in Los Angeles, the first question will be: “What’s parking like?” or “Where did you park?”. When posting events to mailing list subscribers or sending out invitations to private parties, some people will even boast about “great parking” or even “free parking!!!!!!!!!!!!” In which case I should add a row of exclamation marks too, because at Whole Foods parking is FREEEEE!!!!! (and your mattress is too but that’s a whole other story….).

For Los Angeles this is indeed very unusual because most of the time it can be quite aggravating and expensive to find a parking spot which was why driving services like Lyft and Uber have become so successful. Usually, if you didn’t want to risk a parking ticket, or drive in circles for hours, you would have to surrender to paying between $5 and $10 for valet parking. That was something I had never heard of before visiting Los Angeles for the very first time in June 2005 and something that seemed so endlessly posh and extravagant at the time for someone like me, so used to taking public transportation or going by bike. That is however, in Los Angeles, something only people do who clearly couldn’t afford a car.

But that’s exactly one of Los Angeles’ main attributes, a deep divide between social groups which is strangely epitomized in that very cluster of stores: Whole Foods’ lunching and munching impulse-shoppers and fussy label-readers couldn’t be more opposed to the coupon-clipping, bargain hunting low-income families that frequent American superstores like K-Mart. These poor, frequently obese consumers you will find eating a GMO-laden corn dog (or two, or three) before they head back to their beaten up Chevy with their jumbo, jam-packed shopping cart, drinking out of oversized plastic beakers sporting words like “BIG GULP”.

The average crowd at Whole Foods has most likely got a BMI of 23 and is ethnically an unbalanced mix of generally youngish, Silver Lake’ish, white Caucasians. Then there are of course the celebrities I never recognize and brigades of mostly South American housekeepers and nannies filling up shopping carts. There are always a few street people roaming the aisles, seeking for samples, clueless tourists wandering around mostly looking to quench their thirst and soothe their sunburn and security guards languidly eyeing everyone but mostly their iPhones.

It’s lunchtime and like so often, it is absolutely packed. I have been darting through the isles like a slalom skier at the Winter Olympics but have successfully been able to avoid confrontation with other shoppers. Now finally, feeling relieved but highly agitated, I have reached the check-out queue, shopping basket in hand, well-knowing that my three and a half items will cost at least thirty dollars.

To add to this slightly frantic atmosphere, disco music is blaring out of the loud speakers, interrupted every now and then by someone mumbling incomprehensible slogans. I only catch fragments, “grass fed…organic…Taco Tuesday” Then the sound of Donna Summer’s Bad Girls picks up again. I suddenly realize that, behind two turntables, set up between the vitamins and cereals isles, there is a DJ juggling vinyl records. Dressed in the obligatory hipsters’ uniform; a large woolly hat, black framed glasses and a full sleeve tattoo, he knowingly nods his head to the beat. I wonder how long it takes him to comb his beard in the mornings and whether he has strange hobbies like competitive wood chopping.

Suddenly, to my horror, I realize that I have of course chosen the wrong queue. Other shoppers have already begun flocking towards the alternative ones and a bored looking Asian guy is now standing behind me with a very reluctant look on his face. It’s too late now to change queues. And it’s Murphy’s law somehow, that whichever one you switch to, your original lane will suddenly speed up and you’ll take even longer to check out. But now I’m stuck behind a short blonde, clad in expensive looking yoga wear, frantically trying to discuss lunch choices with her two-year old.

With an annoyingly high-pitched Valley girl voice she lists organic macaroni and lactose free cheese, versus gluten free spaghetti with vegan meat sauce. She isn’t paying any real attention to her frustrated child who is simply overwhelmed by the complexity of these choices. Tears are already welling in his big eyes and it’s obvious that he is dangerously close to throwing a tantrum. Annoyingly, she’s not taking any notice of the cashier either, who is looking to check out her items that she is still waving in front of her child. But the bored looking dude at the check-out is either just far too patient or has taken too much Xanax to care. Then the blonde woman’s mobile phone makes a “ding!” sound and her focus is immediately drawn to a text message she hastily starts responding to. I indulge in one last eye-roll and turn away.

Standing there in one of Los Angeles’ most iconic take-out food temples, I realize once again, how this overindulgent and lavish lifestyle, that at the same time, is so disconnected and distracted sometimes, really depresses me. Every neuroticism is pandered to, guaranteeing the fulfillment of every food fad or first-world hysteria, whether gluten free, vegan or organic. I watch the blonde mother virtually stress her young child by trying to project her own neuroticisms and neediness onto a child that simply needs food, a simple lunch, as nourishment. But it’s not about him, not really. It’s about her. Which is exactly what sometimes so bothers me, being so frequently witness to people’s narcissism.

Waiting there in that queue I feel as if I’m drowning in this extremely high concentration of the Me! society that pollutes the air in most of L.A. Not only at Whole Foods but in so many other places, in relationship to food, you hear these high pitched voices nauseatingly screeching, “OMG. I so need to eat!” which means, “Go run! Now! P.A./assistant/other slave-like person and fetch me a highly complicated list of goods and ingredients to show how well I care for myself and how much I love and embrace my needy little inner child, like my therapist and yoga teacher told me to: “Panini – only roasted for two minutes, one side only, no cheese, extra onions, coleslaw on the side (extra plate and extra pickles), triple mocha latte (soy milk)…” You would think if someone can be bothered to give out all of these meticulous instructions, they could as well make it themselves…

But this is why Whole Foods, with its seeming endless variety of products, is the ultimate supplier and why its popularity reaches its peak at meals times. It crawls with customers who, like spoilt little children, are on a constant search to claim their uniqueness and exclusivity even in their selection of prepared lunches, carrying with them an air of entitlement – to special favours, to special treatment. I watch this disconnect, that keeps the aspiring narcissist neatly tucked into their cushion of grandiosity, with much discomfort. It sadly also seems so be representative of a culture that feeds and grooms the me-generation with the terror of now! The strain and the demand of instant supply and therefore instant gratification. It is deeply connected to the terror of busy. I’m so busy, have no time to prepare food I am therefore important. I therefore am. So even food consumption, like most of the city itself, has become a huge, self-inflating and promoting production. What happened to the good old cheese sandwich, a boiled egg and an apple?

Are You Smelling the Roses?

 

Like almost every morning, I took the dogs to the park for a good, over an hour walk. While they were enthusiastically hunting and chasing squirrels, I discovered this beautiful clean and completely intact pine cone. I thought of a brief chat I had had with a very friendly Korean woman, a few weeks ago, who, in her broken English, had shown me how she uses simple objects from nature, like pine cones, or the rough bark of a tree to massage parts of the body. The principle being that of traditional acupressure.

So I picked the cone up and carried it with me, alternatively clenching it in each hand for a few minutes, the opened, flexible scales giving way in the process, massaging the palm of my hand and strengthening my fingers. I am very much a practical, hands-on person who loves writing and playing the piano. So I like to keep my hands and fingers strong and nimble. I also believe, that being in touch, so actually touching something from nature is per se healing. My favourite yoga teacher mentioned the other day that walking barefoot, also known as “earthing”, is actually a scientifically-researched practice with a number of remarkable health advantages that stem from the relationship between our bodies and the electrons in the earth. The planet has its own natural charge, and we seem to benefit greatly when we’re in direct contact with it.

img_8539Walking my rounds with the dogs, pine cone in hand, I passed one of the homeless people who occupies the same park bench every morning at around 8am. My best guess is that he is schizophrenic because sometimes you can hear him angrily shouting obscenities from the other side of the park. But then, when he has his “lucid” moments, he is a very chatty, well educated and friendly gentleman who always has his belongings stacked very neatly and tidily next to him and a handkerchief on his lap when eating his breakfast.

In passing, I greeted him and he immediately asked, “What’s that? A pine cone?” I said, “Yes, I’m massaging my hands with it and later, I’ll take it home…” He interrupted and said, yes, you can decorate the table with them at Thanksgiving.” We immediately struck up a conversation about all of the things you can do with pinecones, smell them, eat the pine seeds, burn them (the sap ignites fires very well) and I mentioned how beautiful they are in their perfect symmetry, and he added, “like everything God creates”. I replied that sadly, many people don’t see these beautiful things that surround them anymore. No, he said, “They don’t stop to smell the roses, they’re too busy cutting them”.

I thought his point was well taken. I think that today, most people are fixated on “owning” things, as in having a collection to show off to others that is as vast as possible. This collection of images serves to then quasi adorn a virtual online persona for others to admire. Objects are taken into possession via photographs on Facebook and Instagram but only hastily and superfluously consumed and accessorized but not emotionally absorbed. Historically, a photo acted as a substitute, a token, a memento. Now it seems to have replaced the actual experience. When the image is then shared there’s no authentic contact with the actual object, the full experience is kept out of range, not only visually but also tactually. It’s a way of distancing oneself from an authentic experience in quite a detached and guarded but also very possessive way.

And you, have you stopped to smell the roses today? Or are you too busy cutting them?

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Livings in Los Angeles. Closet Stories – The Hollywood Uniform

Clifford Coffin, American Vogue, June 1949 – © Condé Nast
Clifford Coffin, American Vogue, June 1949 – © Condé Nast

 

It’s true. Most transplants here in Los Angeles are quite obsessed with detecting and pointing out how different things are. I belong to them. One of the things that struck me immediately on my first visit to L.A. in 2006 was fashion – rather, the lack thereof. Despite fashion apparel being L.A.’s third biggest industry, quantity seems to dominate over quality. There are small pockets in this vast place where individuals may purchase and flaunt unique styles and internationally televised events like the Academy Awards showcase an array of always quite spectacular designer evening gowns, but unlike any other metropolis I know of, this is generally speaking a fashion desert.

In most parts of the world clothes were originally and primarily needed as a form of protection against shame, danger, cold or heat. But humans have also always had the desire to decorate themselves and to dress in a variety of ways according to their sex, age, socioeconomic status, culture, geographic area and historical era. Clothes are frequently an expression of a person’s personality. But in Los Angeles it seems as though most people do not have that desire and default to one outfit.

 

Valley “Girls” & Valley Moms

Especially the people who live in the so-called Valley – a topographical basin in which the desert heat is captured like in a casserole – wear, what I would like to call the “Hollywood uniform” almost all year round. This area, once the home of vast orange groves, has been since the 1950’s mostly populated by so called WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon protestant) in cheap housing made of wood and stucco.

The “young” women, whose biological age can sometimes be difficult to determine, casually dress in flip flops or flat sandals, designer sunglasses, colourful maxi sundresses or skirts and frequently streaked, bleached and ironed hair. About two or three years ago super short shorts had a revival – cut off jeans with the frayed, white, cotton insides of the front pockets hanging out like two handkerchiefs. Another L.A. fashion phenomenon is wearing hippy-ish scarves with tassels and boots all year round.

Another thing that soon struck me was that the monotony of this “style” is even mirrored in a speech pattern called “Valleyspeak” [1]. One common characteristic of Valleyspeak is the frequent and very annoying use of high rising intonation, causing statements and normal declarative language to sound interrogative. The actual term was coined after the release of Frank Zappa’s 1982 hit single entitled “Valley Girl”, on which his then fourteen-year-old daughter Moon Unit (yes, that’s her real name) delivered intermittent random monologues behind the music, littered with the quotative word “like”. “Like” is applied to preface statements or used as a word substitute as in “Last night we went like, like – you know?” Eavesdropping, you automatically say in your head, “No, I don’t know. But whateverrrrr…” The word “whatever” with a long drawled R at the end being another favoured term of the American Generation Y.

There is another typical outfit for the so-called Mom, especially when “running errands” – which means driving half a mile from their cardboard home to the drive-through post office, to the drive-through dry cleaners and then to the gym to then pick up a triple soy latte at drive-through Starbucks only to be stuck in traffic for most of the time. Moms will have wriggled into a pair of vanity sized skinny NYDJ’s (these are not your daughter’s jeans), pulled on an overpriced Banana Republic or J Crew T-shirt, perhaps some flats and a pair of designer shades. On that note, skinny is a very popular word here, the skinny latte, the skinny jeans. Unlike in Europe, if someone in L.A. says to you, “Wow, you’re looking skinny”, that’s a compliment.

Sadly, the males’ fashion statements are hardly worth mentioning – which is probably why frequently tall French men occupy the Valley-Mom’s dreams of desire. The “dudes” mostly slop around in stained, over-sized t-shirts, sporting some banal bumper sticker slogan or the name of a college, crumpled Bermuda shorts, trainers and faded baseball caps. Alas, after seven years of residency in L.A., I still dearly miss the imagination and inventiveness in clothing and dress-style New Yorkers or Parisians, Londoners or Romans of both genders have to offer and are readily to flaunt. I miss sitting in a café and admiring the passers by.

So, if everyone defaults to sundresses and shorts, it must be down to the lack of seasons. Because there are basically only two seasons that range in temperature from mild to hot, instead of four ranging from below zero to hot. Interesting fashion accessories like leather gloves, fur collars, hats and cashmere coats are therefore superfluous. So partly, the weather is to blame. However, generally occasional and seasonal clothing does not seem to ring a bell with most people here. I don’t even think that people rotate their wardrobe. It is firstly not really necessary and secondly, most houses and apartments have large walk in closets – perhaps not like Carrie’s in Sex and the City but larger than a normal European wardrobe.

I personally have the need to mark things, not only in my calendar but visually and tactically by wearing certain pieces of clothing at specific events (take the grand British example of the Ascot hat). Especially here, the sense of ritual and rotation gives me a sense of security in an otherwise seemingly same place in which even the vegetation barely changes all year round. Besides, putting on a flowery, strapless sundress in January – even if the weather permits it – makes me feel as if I’m on permanent holiday with no hope of escape and getting anything productive done. I’m stranded on an island, ahead of me lie lazy Technicolor skies and an ever glaring sun.

This French short film on Los Angeles from 1969 is very mesmerizing and picks up some of these subjects, Los Angeles’ weirdness quite poetically and poignantly with a touch of Jacques Brel…

I do miss the feeling of urgency, a bustling city life you only partially find in Downtown L.A. Is really everyone on Xanax, like a friend of mine suggested? But why am I surprised, in a country in which even children are simply medicated if their behaviour isn’t within the norm. Most doctors seem shocked at my answer to the routine question, “What medications do you take?” which is “None.”  I have already been to two doctors who have wordlessly handed me prescriptions for Xanax. And yes, I did toy with them. Also wondering if perhaps I could “make a buck” (as one says here) only to discard them in the end. I’m sticking to red wine. Try rushing up an escalator in Los Angeles where left and right the face-down generation stands like statues, pre-, re- and post-confirming appointments on their mobile phones to their stylist/agent/manager/mother/shrink/real-estate agent/yogi.

Especially the Beverly Center, a five story shopping centre is spiked with zoned out space cadets, oblivious of what is going on around them. I miss the click-clack-click of a business woman’s Prada heels while she purposefully strides to her next meeting. I miss people who actually look as if they have got a goal. This is not a theatrical city like Rome or Paris but one that seems to perfectly mirror and accommodate exactly what it was created for – for the film industry. For dreams and illusions that are pieced together from different segments. It’s the big wait – for the make-up artists to be done, for the actress to get her lines right, the lighting to be fixed. So everyone just slops and slips and slurs around in the meantime in whatever-land; spray tanned and hairless-lasered stick legs in pink Ugg boots treating even fancy restaurants like craft’s services on set.

That said, there are, especially along Melrose, arrays of shops which carry quite a spectacular choice of clothing items – but these cater mainly to Chinese tourists and to the pop music industry. It is surprising to me that fashion is so neglected because Los Angeles is such a materialistic city. It finds its expression however, in other objects of desire and prestige: the facelift de luxe, the million dollar hair transplant, and – the Los Angelino’s most prized possession – the automobile.

And that’s exactly where the problem lies: Most metropolises’ have a boulevard, an agora – some kind of an urban catwalk for pedestrians. Here in Los Angeles, the public eye can only bear witness to fashion if it’s a visually publicized image via mass media. Even if you’re clad in Channel from head to toe, no one will see you sitting in your car. People don’t walk and mostly can’t walk in Los Angeles unless they are walking to or from their car, walking their dog or, clad in sportswear, walking for exercise. Two friends of mine were exploring in Beverly Hills by strolling around in a residential area and a police car started following them, then stopped and questioned them. Forget the term public transportation.

This is why a mobile prestige object like a car, helicopter or private jet (if they’re bullet proof, even better) is the perfect showcase. They cover more territory than a pedestrian in a much shorter amount of time. There are just barely spaces to flaunt your latest designer piece in public. Downtown L.A. is now being resurrected from the dead – like hopefully soon the L.A. River that lies there mostly water-less in a concrete corset – so I will be curious to see whether a more urban environment will encourage more conscious and expressive street and high fashion.

That said, Los Angeles has recently received a new agora – a place where you see people strolling, talking, drinking wine, enjoying art and talking and flaunting fashionable attire! LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum) is situated between 6th street and Wilshire Boulevard, flanked to the east/west by the open spaces of the La Brea Tar Pits. Because LAMCA consists of five(?) individual buildings it has many open spaces, some paved, other areas are covered with gravel or grass. There are plenty of seating areas and -possibilities like low walls and steps; which always seem like an open invitation to the public to utilize the space, even for small picnics. Special events at the weekends have become hugely popular so it has also attracted a larger diversity of people in terms of age, gender and race.

Unlike the Grove, a shopping and entertainment centre which lies only half a mile away but whose sole purpose it is to lure consumers into purchasing more items they don’t really need with elevator jazz and animated water fountains. This open roofed shopping plaza, with a multiplex movie theatre, over-priced cooperate restaurants and chain stores is completely enclosed by Disneyfied pseudo-historical façade architecture and an artistically completely irrelevant bronze centre statue. “The Spirit of Los Angeles” depicts a male and a female angel soaring skyward, “an enduring symbol of the limitless opportunities Los Angeles offers”, like the tourist information at the Grove states on their homepage.[2] Like a corny reminder of bygone transportation, a trolley drives a six minute route of not even a mile to and fro.

During the Christmas shopping season, fake snow is produced periodically during the night. In mid-November, the Grove Christmas Tree goes up. At a competitive 110 feet, it is the tallest Christmas tree in the city of Los Angeles. I got a “parking ticket” once because I had chained my bicycle to a lamp post. It was obvious that bicycles don’t fit into the Grove’s very controlled “aesthetical” concept which merely imitates a public space. I have to park my bike at the neighbouring Farmer’s Market which allows for a more bohemian atmosphere. The Grove is an extremely controlled and cooperate environment that does not attract customers who possess unique tastes or any sense of style but mainly sun-burned and dehydrated tourists (whose uniform is a whole other story) and WASPs in their Hollywood uniforms.

This uniform in its nothingness does therefore somewhat possess a deeper meaning. It signalizes membership to an extremely entertainment hungry, materialistically motivated group. Because let’s face it, Los Angeles is a very cooperate town. It is not highly creative or avant-garde. It has small hidden pockets of artists’ communities but mainly it is ruled, moreover controlled by the movie and pop music industry, like Disney. Some call it Mouseschwitz. Fashion here looks laissez-faire but it isn’t a true expression of a person’s unique sense of fun or casualness. It copies what is portrayed as fun and casual in the American media, especially TV – or like the narrator says in the film clip, they’re “people who try out their existence and then pass on to another one, like actors that pass from one role to the next”.

 


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valspeak

Candy’s Caravan. A Song about a Prostitute

 

I released my single Candy’s Caravan in December 2010 in my jazz label Moontraxx Records. Stylistically the song is a blend of Nu-Jazz, electronica and pop – reminiscent perhaps of artists like Portishead and Annie Lennox. It features two characters with different perspectives: myself as the narrator and the prostitute Candy who is the main character – like the title implies. Atmospherically it sounds slightly theatrical, like a short and dark Burlesque piece.

I had completed the lyrics for Candy’s Caravan long before I had even started on the music, which fell into place when I was experimenting on the piano along with a simple pre-recorded trip-hop loop. The structure and arrangement for the piece I then further developed on live gigs.

It marks one of my first pieces that evolves around another woman’s very specific fate. I focussed thereby on a very narrow window of her everyday life and struggle. I have since then explored an array of typical female topics from different socio-economic statues and cultural backgrounds. Some are in song form, other are spoken word or musical poetry pieces. The paths of women, their stories and their dreams, have always intrigued me. In a patriarchal society, we face completely different challenges than men. As a writer and a woman myself, I have experienced many traumatic events, unexpected changes and terrible losses. So even if I haven’t made that exact experience personally, I try to deeply empathise. Often through images I then research and reimagine what those struggles may be.

 

Listen to a full-length recording of the song here:

Although I have never worked as a prostitute, the lyrics of Candy’s Caravan actually mirror a combination of different experiences, made during my student years in Hamburg, Germany. Another influence is my theatre background, most obvious in the usage of dialogue. I worked for two small theatres on the famous Reeperbahn in St. Pauli, Hamburg and these experiences definitely coined the piece.

Slightly Unusual Student Jobs

Like most students getting themselves through college, I took on a vast variety of jobs and gigs. These jobs not only varied in certain skills I had to quickly learn and apply but also in their social environment.During the summer holidays before I started junior college, I worked in a tile factory. I was intrigued and sometimes intimidated by the gritty working class women. Many even had children to care for and households to run. But they stood there every morning at 6 am on the dot from Mondays to Fridays for a physically strenuous 8-hour shift. The parallel universe was later working in an office, a proper office with buzzing computers, a synthetic carpet, bad coffee, fashion magazines and lots of gossip, where I helped translating technical terms.

Another interesting experience was being an extra on TV productions. During those years, in the nineties, Hamburg was a huge media metropolis before a lot of production companies moved to Boomtown Berlin after the wall came down. So there were lots of well paid TV jobs. I did have a hard time sometimes, being the impatient and curious person I am. I found all of the waiting, the “hurry up and wait!” hard to endure, which is why I so loved the theatre and love performing live because it’s all about being in the moment. Anyway, for two episodes of a German evening TV series I played (or rather posed as) a prostitute which turned out to be a very interesting experience.

Livings as a Prostitute?

One of the gigs was quite well paid because it was not only in the middle of the night and absolutely freezing cold but we were also, naturally dressed in the most skimpy clothes you can imagine. In retrospect, it would be fun to have a few photos but that was before the selfie-era. My friend and I were hardly able to stand in the patent leather boots we were strapped into, the fishnet stocking were cutting into the flesh of my toes and the layers of thick make-up seemed to be the only form of insulation we had against the freezing cold. Although we flirted with the role, it did in a way feel uncomfortable that the mostly male technical crew changed the way they looked at us the moment we were clad in over-sexualized, skimpy mini skirts and revealing lace-up tops.

It seems as if we stood under this dark and eerie railway bridge in a barren industrial area near the train station in Hamburg-Altona for hours, pretending to chat up the drivers cruising by, until finally, I suppose, the lead actors got their lines right. Daylight was already lingering on the horizon as we fled home with numb toes, chattering teeth and blue lips. I realized what a terrible and humiliating profession this must be: exposed to the cold, to investigative stares, like being live stock on a meat market. Despite working on the Reeperbahn, I had never really seriously thought about these women before. But I needed to pay my rent too.

Fishnet Stockings and Lonely Tissues Boxes

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely mirror naked woman reflection dim light window blinds
© Jane Burton, The Other Side, 2002

It was a pure coincidence but the next gig I took on was playing a prostitute in a bar. But at least it was indoors and warm.  The most interesting part was the location: The scene was actually shot in a real bordello in Sankt Georg, a very seedy area of Hamburg, like often districts in close proximity to central train stations tend to be.

After a wardrobe person handed us each a hanger with our skimpy costumes, the production assistant showed us our dressing rooms: They were the actual bordello “bedrooms” (for lack of a better term) and we were supplied with one each. Mine was a fair sized room with red padded walls, sporting gigantic gold-framed, mirrors. It was dominated by a gigantic king sized bed that was stripped bare of bedclothes, revealing a smooth red plastic sheet that covered the mattress. Even the tall standard lamp with a pleated silk shade was protected – against body fluids – by a fitted plastic cover. The humungous bed was flanked by two night stands, each crowned with a singular, lonely tissue box.

It was extremely weird to get undressed and changed in that room. There was a bed – but nobody ever slept there. Was anyone watching? What was behind the mirrors? I panicked for a second thinking, any moment some John would be arriving. There was even a small extra room we had first entered before proceeding to the “bedroom”. It had a window and was sparsely furnished with two chairs and another tissue box – I think anyone’s imagination would have been triggered by this situation and it definitely delivered some interesting inspiration for my writing.

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely Window with lace curtains beaded red lamp female legs shoes dark
Image on the left © Jane Burton

The Famous Reeperbahn.

It was around this time I got a job at the St. Pauli Theatre, which is located on the famous Reeperbahn. The Reeperbahn (also known as the “sinful mile”) is absolutely unique. To someone who has never visited, it could be described as a hybrid of the old strip in Las Vegas, London’s Soho on Fridays, the red light district in Amsterdam and the sex-tourist’s strip in Bangkok. It’s atmosphere alone has certainly influenced some of my writing (and many others before me) and coined reflections on topics like prostitution.

The German crooner and actor Hans Albers is strongly associated with St. Pauli, and wrote the neighbourhood’s unofficial anthem, Auf der Reeperbahn Nachts um Halb Eins in the 1940s. In the 1960’s The Beatles had stints on the Reeperbahn early in their careers. And in the first lines of his song Down The Reeperbahn the American singer-songwriter Tom Waits captures an a-typical scene:

Around the curve of The Parrot Bar
a broken-down old movie star
Hustling and Easterner
Bringing out the beast in her

I love Tom Waits as a writer and enjoy reading most of his lyrics. A lot of people recognize him by his distinctive voice that the critic Daniel Durchholz described most accurately as sounding as though “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”.[1] Exactly like a sound track of the Reeperbahn…

Short Memories and Long Tales…

I have always been drawn to the Reeperbahn. It’s simply an extremely interesting and seductive place. Because indeed, like Waits writes, “the memories are short but the tales are long, down there in the reeperbahn”. As a visitor, it is a fantasy-world full of false promises and illusions – like a theatre. I’ve also been to some of the best parties at great clubs there (like the legendary Mojo Club) when the European Electronica movement first started. I sang regularly at a dive bar called very suitably, Die Rote Laterne, where my co-writer and I practically founded and musically developed our band  4UrbanArtists. I often partied and sometimes sang atAngie’s Nightclub, where my singing coach Roger Cicero, performed regularly, playing piano and singing jazz, soul and pop songs before he had his big breakthrough as a German jazz singer and sadly died prematurely in 2016.Quote Tom Waits at piano smoking prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque

Often, after the curtain had fallen and we had wrapped up the show, I would step out onto the Reeperbahn, the air filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of alcohol and it would take me a while to adjust. Especially when you actually work there the contrasts can sometimes feel very strange. For the longest part of the evening I had been enveloped in the safe and abstract world of a theatre. Then after the show, I would walk out onto the street and be confronted with crowds of testosterone driven guys seeking sleazy sex and drugged twenty-somethings on their way the next hip club, crazed to dance, to drink and flirt.

So afterwards, my co-workers and I would often have drinks at the house bar. But on one of these slightly insane evenings even the bar was so crowded that some of the crew members and I decided to go somewhere else.

My Encounter with “Candy”

We went around the corner into a dark alleyway to a small, unknown (well, unknown to the tourists) bar. I had my bike with me that I pushed along side while we all chatted and then absent-mindedly decided to chain to a lamp post (yes, literally, Unter der Laterne…). Suddenly this raging fury shot out of the dark. Hobbling towards me on her neck-breaking high heels, violently swinging her handbag she yelled: “Du Schlampe…! Du…” (You bitch, you) I understood immediately. I fiddled with the lock as fast as I could, muttering, “‘Schuldigung! ‘Schuldigung!” (sorry, sorry) under my breath and then humbly entered the bar with my bike. The image of that woman was forever burned into my brain and lastly coined Candy’s wig and the high heels. The owners of the bar, a lesbian couple were gracious and let me park my bike in their dingy back yard. It was a tight and dingy space, where once a week, boxes of liquor and the large barrels of beer were delivered to. I have always been quite a street wise person and am also respectful of people’s space but this one time I did almost get beaten up by a hooker, whose territory I – in her eyes – hadn’t respected.

The Rhythm of the Reeperbahn

Especially at the weekends the energy on the Reeperbahn can almost be explosive. Depending on how much the crowds drink, which football team has lost or won, on how warm and humid it is (the colder, the calmer) and, I suppose, how business in general is going for the street girls. There’s a strong feeling of hierarchy. As a “normal” working woman you stay out of their way, mind your own business. In the ecosystem of the Reeperbahn the street girls are at the bottom of the ladder: Not seldomly are they heartbreakingly young, runaways and drop-outs, barely the age of eighteen. In neon-coloured hot pants, snow boots and fur-trimmed jackets and thick make-up they line the street, hustling the men and boys in front of Burger King. Street prostitution is only legal during certain times of the day on the Davidstraße. It’s the most curios sight at 8pm to see them suddenly all pop out of their rabbit holes to then later suddenly vanish again. But it is also very absurd for most tourists to see them lined up exactly opposite the historical Davidwache, the district’s main police-station located on the South side of the Reeperbahn, on the Spielbudenplatz.

It was always downright fascinating to watch the gaudy but also desolate nocturnal activities of the crowds. But working almost daily at the theatre at night and sometimes in the daytime, is very different. Despite the chaos, there is a certain rhythm on the Reeperbahn. I sometimes had to go to the theatre during the day to hang up washing, repair costumes or attend rehearsals. Often I could almost hear a big and long sigh, a feeling of general relief when the tourists and party animals had left during the daytime. This void is used to nurse hangovers and guilty consciences, stock up on cigarettes and alcohol for the night. The rhythm of the street then elapses into slow motion. What lingers in the air is the stale odor of beer, bad breath, sweat, fried onions, cigarettes and vodka – like the trail of cheap perfume or cologne women or men, void of any style or taste, leave behind. The buffed and mean looking door men suddenly deflate, look tired and tame. The sleazy, crooked eyed drug dealers slouchy, and coffee-thirsty and run-down, catty prostitutes look cold and worn.

Yet the closer it gets to dawn the more the pace speeds up again: Having barely recovered, the cobbled streets and the musty bars are hastily swept. Synthetic wigs are brushed and plucked and laddered nylon tights are the subjects of emergency cosmetic surgery. Once the revealing daylight has vanished the illusions are born again – luring and seducing, like Candy…

© Frances Livings. All Rights Reserved.

 

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