Frankly … social Memories of Crowds and Café Armchairs

An alarm goes off at the station and nobody knows why. A little later, an argument breaks out about Covid rules. Things have become complicated.

By Maximilian Buddenbohm

A railway station, a crowd in front of it A crowd in front of the station – the chatter is a memory of times past | Photo (detail): Walter G. Allgöwer; © Westend61/picture alliance
One of my sons has an appointment downtown, so I take him there. I like doing that, it gets me out and about for once after working from home all the time. I’m walking through the station with my son when some sirens go off and a rasping voice announces that the building is to be evacuated, immediately, due to a technical problem. Some people start scurrying towards the exits. Others walk on at an almost infuriatingly slow pace in a show of unflappability, and quite a few stand still, looking around, then take out their phones and call someone, calmly observing what everyone else is doing. A huge crowd soon gathers in front of the station as the police and security personnel cordon off the entrances. No one knows what’s going on, they won't say. A “technical problem”, whatever that might mean. But the fact that no one knows is the talk of the unusually chatty crowd that has formed in no time. They’re all talking at once. I keep hearing the same snippets of conversation in passing: “Does anyone know what’s going on?” “What's it all about?” “Did something happen?” “False alarm?” “Is there anything to see?” “What’s the story?” “Is there a fire?” “What happened?” “Is it something bad?”

Nobody understands a thing

A polyphonic chorus of curiosity. Stretching their necks, a bit of jostling at the barriers. The tallest among them are asked if they can see anything going on behind the cops and they shake their heads. A policeman now addresses the crowd through a megaphone but I don't get a word of it. And I’m not the only one. Nobody understands a thing, and the whole crowd of people waiting around there, this great big chorus around the station, now say out loud, “What was that? What? What?” again and again.

Several fire engines pull up with their sirens wailing. Some people in the crowd promptly proceed to take grinning selfies in front of the flashing blue lights, replete with utterly mindless thumbs-up or Victory signs, duckfaces and all sorts of antics. Others ask them if they’re still in their right minds, and the cop with the megaphone again says something no one can make out. Unfortunately, I don't have time for all this to-do: I have to keep going, my son has an appointment, an important one. So we walk around the station, around the buzzing throng.

Such an unfamiliar sight, I'm still thinking to myself: a crowd of people all talking at once. It’s been two years since I last experienced anything like this. I'm not sure whether I've missed it, but it does occur to me that a chattering multitude is a memory of times past.

Not through the department store

My son's appointment is going to take at least forty-five minutes and he wants me to pick him up afterwards. So I take a walk around in the meantime. The shops, which you can’t enter without a vaccination pass, still aren’t getting a whole lot of business, and the restaurants and cafés are still pretty empty. It's still too cold for café terraces, and I do like walking around in the city, but it's not a very heartening experience nowadays. It lacks what may well be the essence of the urban experience: spontaneity, in the sense of going wherever you feel like going and, of course, buying whatever you fancy. In normal times, in case of rain I’d walk straight through the department stores over there, even though nothing on the ground floor interests me in the least. But I’d have had a look at it all in passing: the merchandise, the advertising, the decoration, the shoppers, the sales staff. That's how it used to be. This city is full of arcades and department stores you can walk through when it’s raining and keep dry nearly the whole time. But there are four people queueing for a vaccination check in front of the store. Four people isn't a lot, I'm sure they’ll be sorted quickly, but it’s still too many for me. I’d have to stand in line, and spontaneity doesn't work if it means standing in line. So I don't go through the department store.

Ordinarily, I’d probably have a latte macchiato at the café over there. But I don't know whether it’s advisable to sit in a café at the peak of the omicron wave, so I hesitate at the door, then make up my mind to take a coffee to go – at least that. Pop in, pop right back out, that will work.

Complications

In other times, in normal times, I’d have taken a seat there in one of those deep leather armchairs. I’d have fished a book out of my knapsack, read two or three chapters and looked up occasionally to observe the people around me. I might even have seen or heard something to write my column about later. That's what I used to do sometimes, but now it’s just another memory.

At least there’s only one young woman in front of me, so this ought to go fast. But the woman wants to have a drink inside, so her ID and vaccination certificate have to be checked. And that's where things get complicated. The guy at the door looks closely at her pass and points out a problem: her “recovered” status has expired, so now she needs three vaccinations. She explains that she can't get three vaccinations yet, it's impossible. He says those are his instructions. She says they’re illogical. He says he has to follow the rules in any case. She says that's nonsense. He says those are his instructions and he's sorry but he has to, he's going to be checked too. She says this is “not on” – and on and on it goes. A dialogue as in the Theatre of the Absurd, the conversation keeps circling and looping round and round, with no end and no outcome. No resolution either, it just keeps getting worse. After a while, the two of them come up with all sorts of potential scenarios involving vaccinations, tests and Covid status variants. They reel off all the rules they know, which makes me feel embarrassed at how little I know about all this. Their exchange now reminds me of those logic puzzles they sell in magazines at newsstands, where it says something like “Kniffelige Knobelaufgaben für Kluge” (“Tricky Brainteasers for Bright Sparks”), which I’d say aptly describes the present perplexity. The two of them keep at it – two experts have found each other here – though in a very friendly tone and with plenty of zeal. He keeps saying he’s just doing his job, carrying out orders. She keeps saying that she’s only pointing out that his orders are wrongheaded and then she explains why, whereupon he explains again... And it goes on and on like that. I stand there thinking to myself the whole time that all I want’s a cup of coffee to go, just a coffee, please.

“This is all utter madness”

The woman finally asks him who gave him these bizarre instructions in the first place. The head office, he says. Could they call the head office? She doesn't say this as pushily as it might read on the printed page: her tone is matter-of-fact, in earnest, and kindly trying to clear something up. The staffer hands her a business card, and each of them repeats several times that they’re not to blame: “It's not my fault.” “It's not my fault either, it's really not!” It’s no one’s fault, I think to myself indulgently. We all just want a cup of coffee. Well, at least this young woman and I do. “This is all utter madness,” says the woman. “I think so too,” says the man, so they basically see eye to eye – but she still can't drink her coffee inside. Shaking her head, she finally makes her exit.

No, it's no one’s fault. And yes, it's utter madness. Everything’s become so complicated that we could go on forever debating any number of questions about the point of it all, when actually all I want is a cup of coffee – and a story for my weekly column. I really do have simple wishes, it occurs to me, taking one last look at the comfortable leather armchairs that no one is sitting in today. I could take my pick, I could sit wherever I like.

Maybe things will be all right again in March, or April, or at the latest in May – whenever. At some point it’ll all be set right again, and I’m looking forward to the way when there won’t any need for added complications anymore. I found pre-pandemic life complicated enough already.

Then I pick up my son and we head home, walking through the station, where nothing special is going on anymore.
 

“Frankly …”

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly ...” column series is written by Maximilian Buddenbohm, Susi Bumms, Sineb El Masrar and Margarita Tsomou. In “Frankly ... social”, Maximilian Buddenbohm reports on the big picture – society as a whole – and on its smallest units: family, friendships, relationships.