Thomas ducks into a hair salon to ask. I stand outside with our bikes, looking around to see if, by some chance, we’ve simply missed the sign. It doesn’t take too long though before he is back out on the curb with a stylist. She’s pointing, but her German is too fast for me to follow. I catch “across the street” and “first floor.” And, really, that’s enough.
As it turns out, there is no sign to miss. Just a simple buzzer among many. Very discreet.
We are buzzed into the ground floor. I am immediately impressed by the grandeur of the building. The carvings along the ceiling are ornate enough to be readily distinguished from the regulation style buildings typical of post-World War II Berlin. And the dark wood of the banister – smooth as silk under my stroking fingers – is, I think, rich enough to smell.
We climb to the first floor and our door. It is broad, thick and, like the buzzer downstairs, unmarked. Thomas fumbles a bit with the knob. Locked. But it’s the signal, I suppose, that the attendants are waiting for.
The door swings open to a crowded, narrow fork in the hall, spreading left and right like wide open arms.
One of the attendants ushers us in. The other shuffles a list at a softly lit hostess stand.
Thomas is taken aback. I take a guess that this is the first he’s heard of the need for a reservation.
There’s a guest list?
So much for the reading.
But whether it’s the clutch of people all pressing into the door with their ready names, the others who are busily shedding their jackets to get out of the way or my crestfallen look, the attendant decides to ignore our oversight and waves us on.
The interior of the Münzsalon is as impressive as the ground floor entry, with expansive floors and high ceilings throughout. But the rooms are studies in alternate periods of interior design.
One room has the feel of a 1950s library on a Hollywood set. It’s all dark wood and leather furniture. Guests lounging in their easy, relaxed poses. Cigarettes between practiced fingers and lips.
The main room, in contrast, is chic in a modernistic style. Low black furniture, long and sleek without ornamentation. The ceiling lights neither draping chandeliers nor recessed sockets but bold, black fabric rings with radiating metal spokes.
Throughout is the clatter of plates, the tinkle of glass and the low voices of guests taking their seats.
Thomas and I, our beer and wine in hand, settle back against our comfortably soft, black booth at the front of the room. Three others – two young women and a man – squeeze in on our right. The reader takes her place in a booth just to our left. She has a small reading lamp, a glass of water and a large printout of her script.
In short order, the mistress of ceremonies comes forward to introduce the reader, the author and the night’s events. It is all in German, so I strain to understand. The night’s reading will be the German translation of “Apfel, Huhn und Puschkin” by the Russian author, Julia Belomlinskaja.
The reading will be augmented by a soundtrack as well as images played against the wall behind the reader. Afterwards, the author herself will sing some Russian folk songs to us.
I think that is what she said.
Our mistress is seated for no more than a brief moment before the author rises to address the crowd. She knows very little German, so speaks to us in a broken and heavily-accented English.
I, of course, understand every word she says. More so than I did the far more eloquently delivered German introduction. And I understand more than enough to convey to Thomas – with certainty but in, no doubt, my broken and heavily-accented German – that the woman is frankly zany.
Her “verrückt-ness” is an asset to the book. I lose myself in both the reader’s evocative delivery and in the story itself, of a Saint Petersburg woman who has immigrated to good ol’ New York, New York.
And we are a part of it.
Of the gossipy neighborhood girlfriends. Of the crowded skyline. Of the musicians playing their souls out on the streets.
The reader shuts off her light to let the music of the scene play. There is an abstract sax player on the screen and he is covering Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.
The reader drops a coin into a theatre-prop cup. Clink! The author then leaps up and makes a grand show of putting in a dollar.
Thomas laces his fingers in mine.