Hamburg: Salt and Dark Colors
They should have mud on their licorice boots. Their somber fabrics—engineered for seashore humidity and cold—should be crusted in salt. The bricks should be crooked, with fingerprints in the mortar. Coal smoke should race down the warehouses to mix with the sea fog. Hamburg should taste like anise.
I keep expecting to see a mariner press a lover against a stark wall. I want to hear a hot sigh spike the wind, as the sun stretches like a searchlight and sends all the city’s sharp corners into relief—as their hips trace a circle.
This is just fancy; Hamburg fills me with longing. These days, it’s lonely in the Speicherstadt—the free port of Hamburg since Imperial times—now that the tankers are anchored farther down the Elbe, and the sailors have left. The only man I see sweeps the ends of cigarettes quickly into a shovel. I walk empty bridges and look far out to the city, where the treetops blur into the gray steeples. Closer, the warehouse windows are renovated, lucid, the outline a designer’s. Here, Hamburg is clean and sharp but has too little scent. The city has wrapped up its nets and lets other people do the fishing. It no longer stinks of herring.
In July 1943, the firestorm came, the city almost vanished, with close to a hundred thousand dead and injured. From under the doors of the Speicherstadt, molten sugar seeped and congealed into the channel. Speicher means not only “storehouse”—here are the world’s largest number, rebuilt after the war—but also a device to store memory. Is that why the old port is now full of museums instead of boats? I think memory must be kept somewhere in these lagers, and I wonder how it is stored. Solid and in cardboard boxes, packed liquid in barrels, or do the voices float free between the warehouse walls? Storage hangars always feel like cemeteries to me, with the inanimate stuffed behind doors, along meandering passages they cannot use. You follow one to the storeroom at the end then jerk back your hand, the doorknob burning hot.
Memory was stored, but the filth was tidied away and carted off with the rubble. Perhaps the surviving mariners, banished from the Speicherstadt, boarded vessels to Surabaya and Burma. I wonder if they have navigated back, and I look for them among the marauding youth of the Reeperbahn and in the mix of strangers at a bar in St. Georg.
I imagine the sailors holding fast onto the counter as they find their sea legs and weigh their chances for a kiss before setting sail once again to some colder port. Murmansk. Bergen. Or to Newcastle. Cloudberries for your English tea, and a shot of vodka to wash it down.
I see a man drink beer with both elbows on a counter, then imagine him on the ground on all fours scrubbing away the brine, his elbow moving back and forth. Suddenly he looks up, his neck twists to the sound of a bomber.
At the bar, I wait for a conversation, a paid drink, a suggestion. Shouldn’t every destruction be followed by rebuilding? As if filth and charm were thrown out to sea in a bucket, and on a long rope pulled back to shore.
[Read the full version in NER 37.3 in print or as an ebook.]