A drizzling Berlin November evening. Three friends crammed around one of the gnarly wooden pub tables that have provided refuge on the wrong side of the Tram tracks of Warschauer Straße for nearly a quarter of a century.
Our stage of intent, blissful insobriety has hit the level where anyone who dares asking will learn our names actually are Tom Collins, Glühwein, and Strawberry Daiquiri. And the laughs only die for a brief 17 seconds when the speakers above us begin to pour Doug Pettibone’s trembling guitar sixths over Fruits Of My Labor and Lucinda Williams reminds at least one of us of the fragile poetry of companionship so indispensable in a life that has changed at a terrifying pace over the course of barely two years.
Baby, I remember all the things we did
I worked the bar in this pub myself 23 years ago. Drew beer, stirred Caipirinhas, slapped microwave dishes on cheap porcelain, emptied ashtrays (yes, those times), scrubbed urinals, waited on a crowd of the loudest and most loyal customers you’ll get to meet in a lifetime, and – at the end of my shift – would shake up a nightcap from the quite well-assorted liquor shelf and sheer intuition.
The latter attracted the attention of the owner. He had taken over the place just months ago, around the time when I had moved into my first Berlin ‘Altbau’ apartment two doors up the street – coal heating, kitchen shower and all.
I would become a regular at his pub, he would grow quite fond of the new kid on the block, and eventually I’d convince him to hire me.
About half a year in, he proposed to me. Meaning: the place next door, a former brothel that had been shut down and sealed by law enforcement the previous year, had become available to rent again. And he was planning to expand.
Meanwhile, a colleague had lend me Charles Schumann’s American Bar. I was hooked and producing Dry Martinis, Sours, Mai Tais, and Coladas along with my custom nightcap creations. The word had begun to spread among our regulars and my attempts at the artistry of mixing drinks were increasingly in demand.
In the eyes of my boss that settled it. I would get to co-invest into, and run an all-night bar next to his pub, serving our cocktail connoisseurs from seven at night to five in the morning, so he’d be able to avoid competition.
The naive, adventurous 24-year-old I was, with no other plans than writing songs for a living and no income worth mentioning, I said yes.
Lemon trees don’t make a sound
My memory may betray me, but I believe it was Tom Waits who once said more songs should be written about food. It adds an unerring sensual flavour to any poetry, and the poetry of Fruits Of My Labor overflows with sensuality in an almost biblical sense.
- There are the velvet curtains to keep an unforgiving reality from piercing the memory of romance;
- the reminiscing about the blue eyes of a lover as a reflection of hours or days spent in true intimacy;
- the irresistible scent of one person traced, found, and indulged in by the other in purple flowers (invoking the image of a hummingbird who just can’t get enough of Texas blue sage);
- lavender and lotus blossoms (also known as water lily whose seed can sleep for over a thousand years and still bring forth pure beauty);
- opulent sweetness: tangerines, persimmons (known to sustain sailors during months of austerity at sea), sugarcane (sweetness wrapped in leaves sharp as blades), grapes, honeydew melon;
- and finally the branches of lemon trees silently bending under the abundance of the fruit they bear until it starts falling.
In this literal bouquet of colours, scents, and tastes bathing your senses to those gentle, trembling laid back guitar harmonies, it’s the lemon trees that fascinate me.
Lemon trees don’t make a sound
’Til branches bend and fruit falls to the ground
Given how the last verse of the song speaks of transformation and self-empowerment, these trees, to me, resemble a person suffering in silence while yearning for a fundamental change – bent, burdened, laden with the abundance of the riches they’ve produced over years of weathering out wind after storm after rain after heat after drought in their life, yet too afraid to release their fruit even when it’s ready.
So what do they do? Double-down on growth. Burden themselves a little more. Bend a little further. Have a couple of more lemons to show for when the time comes.
But does it ever?
The thing with lemon trees is: they actually do let go naturally most of the time. Humans? Not so much. The world is full of lemon tree people whose fruit never fell, because as humans we have that fickle ability to hold on to something until it kills us (mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually – semantics).
I have no idea what a falling lemon actually sounds like in nature. But I do know what it feels like to be, or meet a person whose fruit is ready to fall and they’re fighting for the courage to release it. They hurt. The weight is killing them. Letting go is a painful and vulnerable process, probably much like childbirth (but what would I know). They’re afraid of losing everything and everyone they’ve cared for. And truth is, they might.
Lemon is a natural cleanser of everything it opens itself up to. But cleansing isn’t necessarily convenient. For every fruit of their labour a lemon tree person releases into the world, there might be someone in their life who feels harmed at first. Truth can be acid, and a person finally living their truth may not feel as agreeable as they did while holding on and suffering in silence.
Pedal to the metal
I’m going to make a long story short here – or actually several stories – and fast-forward over those next 23 years:
- My bar failed; I was a good bartender, but a lousy business person, so I sold it and got away with a couple of thousand Marks of tax debt to pay off.
- I finally applied at music college and got accepted.
- Instead of going, I married.
- Having learned little more than songwriting, playing music, waiting tables, tending bar, and making a decent first impression, I ended up selling my body. (No, in construction of course.)
- My boss and mentor would show me how to make a website, and like with mixing drinks earlier, I was hooked.
- I taught myself HTML, CSS, image manipulation, a working knowledge in design, and eventually hacking WordPress – pivoting from construction to freelance web design over the course of seven years, to eventually apply for my first remote job at a tech company.
Early on, my wife and I had a son, and he died. Being as traumatised as we were fiercely committed to our marriage, we would keep on keeping on – which slowly turned into the purpose of our relationship: facing the next life catastrophe and getting through it. We’d entertain ourselves with plenty of dreams of where and how we wanted to live, but we’d never make any real plans and work towards them as a couple. Maintaining the status quo seemed more than hard enough.
In hindsight, to me it was separation in slow motion; every other year, we seemed to have lost another small piece of common interests, or whatever had kept us going before. After 17 years of marriage and seven years of regular fights, festering frustration on both sides, and a frequency of suicidal thoughts that had started to seriously scare me, I knew no better than to move out.
I’ve been living on 16 square metres since, but at least they’ve been my own. My choice has caused terrible harm to a good person, and I’m anything else but proud of it. But it’s honestly the best choice I knew to make, and I stand by it. And after almost two years of trying to mend what apparently wasn’t meant to be mended, I finally feel ready to close this chapter and open a new one.
The paperwork of the closing part is still ongoing, but I’m about to move into a new place with one of the kindest, most loyal dudes I’ve ever met. We’ve been friends for the better part of seven years, and as different as we are, there’s an understanding and acceptance between us that I haven’t experienced in nearly 20 years of being married.
The lemons are falling – guess what we’re going to make.
The way things have changed
A drizzling Berlin November evening. Three friends crammed around one gnarly wooden pub table on the wrong side of the Tram tracks.
Our names are Tom Collins, Glühwein, and Strawberry Daiquiri. Grab a chair, love! There’ll be laughs and drinks and tears and the fruits of our labour to enjoy for another quarter of a century.