The Bums of Bonn

Bonn used to be the capital of West Germany; now it’s simply known for its university, a mile long stretch of worthwhile museum, and for being Beethoven’s home. Word had it, though, that it was so boring otherwise that even Beethoven’s corpse moved out. So I really wasn’t expecting the many bums I ended up running into. After all, I’d just been in much bigger and more cosmopolitan Cologne, and there the panhandlers and drunks weren’t bugging me.

When my subway train stopped at the end of its run at the Bonn’s main train station, I was surprised to find the area full of men simply standing about. The had the air and mien of immigrant day laborers looking to pick up a temporary day job, and I may have been right, because I overheard some of them speaking Russian. I, however, chose to approach a German woman walking down the street to ask her for directions to the Arithmeum. She told me it wasn’t far; actually right by the university; and directed me through a pedestrian zone.

As I was walking through that zone, a news story in a newspaper posted in a news window caught my eye, and I read about the “warning strike” the public transportation workers of Bonn had done the morning before. While I was doing that, a man who’d been standing across the street came over and asked me for 30 cents. I was puzzled. The classic German panhandler line was Haben Sie Kleingeld? (“Got any change?”), not a specific sum. I just shook my head, but wondered if I’d committed some huge faux pas. I was actually relieved when I saw him approach another woman and she responded the same.

The subway ride home to Cologne, however, at least the waiting for it in the subway station was scary. My train only ran once an hour on Sundays, so I had to wait for half an hour. I was sitting on a bench with some other women when I noticed a swaying man was by a subway train yelling Einsteigen! (“All aboard!”) He, however, did not get aboard, but continued playing ersatz train conductor until a leg emerged from within the train and kicked him.

“What’s wrong with him?” I whispered to the woman next to me. “Is he tipsy?”

“Drunken” she responded. I buried my nose in my copy of Der Dativ ist dem Gentiv sein Tod, and hoped the drunk wouldn’t talk to us.

No such luck. Drunks can’t resist unescorted women sitting on benches. First he started talking to the brunette at the end of our bench, who sassed him back, and told him to go back to the bar and get another beer. “Noooooo, I’m going to Colooooooogne!” he said. “Long live Coloooooogne!” Oh, f***k, I thought, he’s going to be riding with me on my train. I buried my nose in the book even deeper.

But that didn’t work. He moved down the bench. “Hey, look at that woman! That’s the prettiest darn gurl I ever did see! She could be my girlfriend! Hey, blondie!!! Come have a drink with me!” he called to us. I don’t know if he was talking to me or the woman next to me, but we were both mortified. I didn’t know what to say. Literally, I did not know what to say. I had yet to hear one German cuss another out, and jumping up and saying “I do not have the vocabulary with which I may properly insult you so please go away, sir!” could only have added to the ridiculousness of the situation. After a morbid pause during which it was clear none of the women on my bench wanted to be sociable, he offered to buy the brunette’s boots off her for 20 cents, and then staggered away.

My bench mates caught their trains, and the drunk got on a different train to Cologne, so I thought everything was ok. And then along came a couple that really made me wish I couldn’t understand German at all. A creepy man carrying a bag of empty beer bottles came in, followed by a young teen boy. In a deliberately loud and funny voice, the boy started a dialog about his sexual practices with the creepy man. It was really gross and once again I tried to bury myself in my book. To my relief, a tall normal German man came over to the bench, slouched himself onto it and ordered the couple: Setzt euch woanders hin! If you know German, that sentence is a wonder, since with only four words it tells people to go away three times. And to my surprise, Can Man and Butt Boy actually did so, and took their disgusting performance art into a darker part of the subway station.

Just as an aside, Germany doesn’t seem to have any laws such like ours against contributing to the delinquency of a minor. While it’s a pretty safe place for children in general, teens that run away from home can fall victim to the influence of degenerate types, and the best social services can do about it is send out a social worker to try to talk the child into coming home.

It was a disturbing way to end a good day, and I was happy to get back to my hotel. I drank 3 beers from the bar (the K├Âlsch glasses are small, so it was really just a little more than half a pint) and when I told my Croatian-born bartender about the incident, she comped me a glass of cognac as well.

I love Cologne, but it was time for me to head to quieter parts.

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