Chapter 4 - When Oskar 'establishes' himself as a writer...
Chapter 4. In the City
In the train surrounded by strangers, I did my best to look important. I was very uncomfortable. I had only been in the city three times in my life: once with my father as a boy of seven, once with my godfather, and once with my brother Lenz for Oktoberfest.
It was the question of lodging that troubled me at the moment. During my last days at home I was continually searching the papers for available furnished rooms. And now in the train I also sat immersed in the paper looking carefully under the heading: “Rooms for Rent.” I went back to the beginning again and again, partly from nervousness, partly anxiety. But when I thought of my money and of all the treasures I had taken with me, I grew more comfortable. I pictured for myself a pleasant life as a poet. Something like this: a room with a sofa – nice and warm. I do my own cooking and write poetry. Very soon my books begin to appear. My family hears about me; they are amazed and come to visit their distinguished son.
Three hundred marks! That seemed to me an inexhaustible sum. One could live on it for years.
The trees rushed past. The fields spun by. The evening mist rose from the valleys. The train roared.
At the station I exited the train, went up to a man with a red cap, and asked where I could get someone to carry my luggage.
“I can do that for you, “ he said and felt the weight of my suitcase.
I looked at the paper and said, “Take me to 59 Augusta Street, second floor.”
“Have you rented the room?” asked the man.
“No, I haven’t, but there it is,” I said with hesitation and looked at the man, who now had my suitcase. “Look, the room is available at any time …“
The man smiled. Obviously he saw that I had come up from the country. I was completely disarmed. I said helplessly, “What shall I do then?”
The man took my arm good-naturedly, picked up my portmanteau, and said cheerily, “Look here … just put your bag in the cloakroom, and then go into town and have a look around. Wherever you see a placard saying, “Room to Rent,” go in and ask if you can have it. When you have found a room, come back and tell me. Then I will bring your luggage… That’s it… Here is the ticket… don’t lose it. Good-bye.”
I looked at this man in silent admiration, gave him a tip of five marks, and went into town.
I was dreadfully uneasy. For the first time in my life I had an inkling of what it means to be homeless. A miserable, restless feeling sent me hurrying through the streets and alleys. I looked greedily for a placard announcing rooms to rent. I saw one in Zweig Street. I read it hurriedly, ran up the steps, and rang the bell. There was an enamel plate with the words “Crown Prince Private Hotel.” A little waiter in a dress-coat opened the door, looked me up and down and asked what I wanted.
“Do you have any rooms to rent, please? I want one,” I said with embarrassment.
“Yes, please come in,” said the waiter and motioned me to follow him. We passed through a long corridor to the back of the house, up several flights, then along a dark, narrow passage, and at last the man opened a door and stepped into the middle of a rather bare, cold room.
“This would do for you – it is plain and not too expensive,” he said.
“What is the price?” I asked, and felt for my purse.
“Thirty marks a month,” he answered.
“Very well, I will take it,’ I said without stopping got think, and gave him a hundred-mark banknote.
“How long do you want the room, sir,” asked the waiter formally, taking the note; he drew a writing pad from his breast pocket and wrote something down.
“Well, for three months. But I don’t know exactly …” I stammered in confusion.
“Ah! Good, for a longer time then?”
“Yes, go ahead and take the rent for three months,” I said, and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Just as you wish,” said the waiter intently and stared at me so strangely that I lost my self-assurance.
“Is there heat in the room? And my luggage is still at the station,” I said in a daze.
“Oh yes, we will send for it … the house porter will see to that,” said the waiter in a conciliatory voice; then he continued more informally, “We will light the stove, if you like. That costs one mark, and then – what was I going to say? – of course you give the chambermaid a small tip every month for doing your room, and also me for serving your meals – just as it suits you, sir.” He glanced at me sideways and made a ragged face. He smiled obsequiously.
“What does all that cost?” I asked and took my money out again. “I will give it to you now and you can settle everything with the others.”
This surprised the seemingly experienced waiter, and so he continued.
“Dear me, one always gives three of four marks to each,” he resumed without hesitation, smiling civilly, and he was about to give me ten marks change from the hundred-mark note.
“I see. Then here are twenty marks more, and now I have paid for everything for three months,” I said and gave him back the ten-mark bill plus a twenty-mark note as well. The man bowed elegantly and thanked me and then said in a business-like manner, “I will tell the house-porter to fetch your suitcase at once. May I have the ticket? … And then, of course, one gives small tips every now and then for one thing and another.”
“Oh, yes. Thank you,” I said and added, “When he brings me the suitcase I will give him something.”
The waiter said, “Yes, sir,” bowed again and left me alone. I sat down on a chair without taking off my coat and let my thoughts wander.
After a while there was a knock at the door. The house-porter brought in my suitcase, took off his cap and stood there, as though he were waiting for something. I gave him five marks. He thanked me attentively and left the room. While I was unpacking there was another knock. The chambermaid came in smiling, gave me a printed form to fill in for the police, put a pen and ink beside it, and said in a thin voice, “Will you kindly fill that in?” Then she tiptoed out of the room again. I hung up my clothes in the wardrobe, put the soup squares in the table drawer, placed the spirit-cooker on the stove and the bottles against the wall, laid my few shirts in the chest-of-drawers, and arranged things so that I felt at home.
There was another knock. After I answered the waiter came in and asked, “Will you have supper here, sir, or are you going out?” He was about to hand me the menu.
I said, “No.”
He said, “Very well,” and shut the door again.
I walked restlessly to and fro. It grew dark. I turned on the electric light, undressed, and got into bed. For a long time I lay there without thinking anything, and at last I fell asleep.
The next morning there was a knock very early, I think, and when I woke with a start and asked what it was, the chambermaid said, “Will you have breakfast in your room, sir?”
“Y-yes,” I replied, heavy with sleep, “but I am still in bed – a little later on.”
“Then please ring,” said the girl, and I heard her steps fade away down the corridor. I fell asleep again and woke up when the sun was already high in the sky. The noises of the city produced a strange atmosphere in the room. I jumped quickly out of bed, washed and dressed. I wanted to get out into the streets as quickly as possible. The strangeness of the place repelled me. I didn’t know what to do. I rang the bell. Breakfast came. I wolfed down my food in a hurry and went out.
The streets were filled with people. My first trek was to the shops. I poked around among the books, and when the attendant came I ordered a stack, said they were to be sent to the Crown Prince Hotel, and went on my way.
At the corner of Augusta Street I entered a café and sat down awkwardly. The waitress came, set a cup before me and asked, “Coffee, sir?” I nodded. She poured it out and asked again, “Cake?”
I said, “Yes,” stirred my coffee, drank it and ate the cake. Then I pondered. What should I do next? I couldn’t leave so soon. In the country, innkeepers usually look annoyed if a customer sits for a while after drinking only a single beer.
So I ordered coffee again. With cake. Of course. I kept on looking at neighboring tables to see how the customers behaved. They sat reading or playing cards.
Strange, I thought, strange, what a lot of coffee people drink! They sit there the whole afternoon and gulp down one cup after another. And I finished mine and ordered another. The waitress was beginning to look amused. But what was I to do? I couldn’t sit there for hours after having a single cup of coffee! And again I ordered coffee and cake, again and again, and ate what was set before me with a cool demeanor. The waitress was laughing by now. I called out loudly, “My bill!”
“Five cups of coffee and five cakes – that’s one mark fifty and one mark seventy-five, which makes three marks twenty-five,” the waitress tallied while holding back a smile. I made a hasty exit. Outside I had an idea. I walked back and forth in front of the café and looked in sideways through the window. And I suddenly saw a girl setting glasses of water on the table. I returned to my hotel satisfied. Aha, I thought, then one can drink water as well.
The next day I came back and ordered water.
“We only serve water with coffee,” was the answer. Blushing all over, I ordered coffee and left as soon as I had finished it. After that I didn’t visit a café again for a long time, and it was not till much later that I found out how one handles all these things.
But I did have one great triumph at this time. Before I was hardly settled comfortably in the city I had calling cards printed with the words, “Oskar Graf, Author, Munich.”
To me that amounted to a kind of identification card and a step forward in a new life. I was what I wanted to be. There it stood in ineradicable black and white letters.
I went back to the hotel and stuck my card on the door in a prominent place. I gave one to the waiter right away and said in the jovial manner of an honest fellow, “That’s that.”