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In Berlin I lived a few blocks away from a nightclub named Mandingo. I passed it every day on my way to the U-Bahn station, and the incongruity of the place never ceased to amaze me.
It had absolutely no reason to be in that neighborhood, which was one of the many in Berlin with a rich history: during the Second World War, it was one of the few places that escaped extensive bombing, so I was surrounded by some of the last remaining buildings that had been designed with the ominous Fascist architecture of the Third Reich.
When the Berlin Wall went up after World War Two, it was constructed right against the neighborhood’s boundaries. So for generations it was a marginal place, populated only by the most bohemian types and the impoverished Turkish immigrants who had come to Germany as “guestworkers” in the 1950s and stayed after the work was done, though their hosts would have preferred them to leave.
After the Wall came down, Berliners suddenly recognized how desirable the neighborhood was—with its cobbled streets, its 19th-century housing stock, its imposing Fascist columns—and by the time I moved in it was the kind of hip place that has a weekend farmer’s market and a café on every corner. The bohemians had mostly been priced out, but the poor Turks remained. And so did Mandingo.
I never went inside, even though I missed seeing Black people in Berlin, and from what I could see of the crowd, Mandingo would have been my best opportunity. The number of Black people in Germany amounts to a rounding error. That’s for a good reason—modern Germany only became a nation-state in 1871, and it missed out on the colonial scramble that consumed its European brethren. Black people are a curiosity to the Germans. Post-World War Two, the role of the wretched has largely fallen to the Turks.
But too many people have struggled too long and too hard for me to walk into a club called Mandingo. And I didn’t get the best vibe from the people I saw hanging around the club: it struck me as a meeting place for African men on the hunt for visas, and German men and women who got excited at the thought of… well, Mandingos. If I wanted to see Black people without all of those exhausting politics, I told myself, the trains to France left many times per day.
The realities of nightlife in Berlin, however, meant that at some point when I was stumbling home at seven a.m., I was going to run into someone from Mandingo in the line for coffee at one of those neighborhood cafés.
When it happened, I tried to avoid talking, but he wasn’t having it.
“What’s your name?” he said. “You weren’t at the club tonight. I’ve never seen you before.”
“Yeah, there aren’t that many of us,” I said. “I’m sure you’d remember me.”
It was clear by now that I wasn’t getting out of this conversation, so I ordered the largest coffee on the menu and told him the basics—that I was from the United States and that I lived in the neighborhood.
“It’s a good neighborhood,” he said. “You are lucky.”
His name was Jean-Luc (“You can call me J. L.”) and he wasn’t so lucky, living in a far-flung, less expensive neighborhood. Still, he said, there weren’t so many bad neighborhoods in Berlin, and it was a much nicer place in which to live than France, where he came from. “There, they treat us like dogs,” he said. “Here, the Germans are so nice. They’re happy to talk to me, I never have any trouble with them.”
While he was talking I watched the young Turkish man who was getting the café ready for the morning rush. Sleepy, he scrubbed the counter and the floors in wide, lazy circles. When he saw me watching him, he smiled. I smiled back at him. He had probably lived in Germany, in this very neighborhood, for all of his life. And this was as far as he would ever get.
Meanwhile, J. L. would probably move to this neighborhood in time and continue meeting nice Germans. I could stay in the neighborhood, move back to the U.S., do whatever I wanted, really, simply because the accident of my own birth had given me greater opportunities than either of them. It was an unusual moment for an African-American, that moment of privilege.
It didn’t last long, either. As soon as I finished my coffee, I got up and wished J. L. a good day.
“You going to come to the club next week?” he asked.
“Sorry,” I said. “Maybe someday.”
Caille Millner is an editorial writer and cultural columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. She is also the author of a memoir, The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification. Follow her on Twitter @caillemillner.