Shooting on the Sonnenallee

With only a couple of days left in Berlin, a friend and I turned the corner from the Sonnenallee in the Turkish populated neighborhood of Neukölln in search of late-night grub. It was here, while we were chatting away, that a man walked out from behind a car, stood next to us, and shot another man behind us several times in the chest (along with parked cars and building walls). My friend did not see the shooter clearly, but I did because I was turned to her and I watched as the handgun lined up with the height of her head.

I bring all of this up, because as I made a hot lemon yesterday to sooth my dry throat, I thought back to that night over a year ago. It’s a night that I’ve wanted to adapt into a short story for ages. But when I sit down to my computer, nothing beyond the words on the Sonnenallee are typed on the screen. I do not know what the form will take or if I’m not thinking about it from a removed enough place. For weeks following, I thought about how the man twisted around the car and found himself next to us. I did that thing you’re not supposed to do where you ruminate: what if I hadn’t left my gloves at home and we didn’t stop at the corner store so I could buy a pair of cheap ones, what if we went the other direction to get soup instead of making that turn to get pizza, what if that man had fired his shots earlier for the split second the muzzle was directed at us.

But back to hot lemon…it was what I drank immediately following the shooting. The polizei came quite quickly and my friend and I were told to wait in the bar at the corner. We weren’t allowed to order any alcohol. Besides water, all that was left was hot lemon and no one should drink water after something like this. Hot lemon is as close as we were allowed to get to comfort. We both drank them with plenty of honey and that was when I revealed my embarrassment. I had a bicycle with me that I pushed while we walked together. When we saw the shots and ran, I still pushed it until finally I hurled it aside as we looked for a corner to duck into. Also, being used to living in New York City where many films and TV shows are made, more than once I’ve seen warnings of ‘the sound of gunshots heard between 11pm-1am are for the filming of a television scene.’ Before we started running, I kept thinking: “where are the film cameras? where are the signs?”

a photo I took of a favorite part of the East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall.

We spoke to the police at headquarters for hours. I had to lockup the borrowed bicycle on the same side street where the man was shot because it wouldn’t fit in the police car. My friend and I were there for hours; we were given two Mars bars and interviewed separately. I looked at mugshots. Nothing of them matched.

Any time I make a hot lemon, I think back onto this horrorshow. For months, I felt embarrassment and stress any time I squeezed the lemons in to a mug, scooping out stray seeds before adding the hot water. My anxiety shot up into my throat as the memory played on loop.

When it comes to literature and other arts, I am always fascinated by the way characters remember or misremember things. Of course, that man’s face is etched in my memory but it has faded. I’m not quite sure of the color of his clothes anymore but I remember the matte black of his handgun. When interviewed by the police, they told me my friend had said she first became aware that something was wrong was when I yelled oh, shit! I don’t remember this. I’m curious to know if I remembered it at the moment. This oh, shit! hangs alone as if it’s something that is not part of me or as someone else’s memory trying to make room in my own.

More recent literature like Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane or Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending explore traumatizing and complicated events from the perspective of older narrators. Their perceptions and agendas have changed in their present view. Things are more obvious and details have been conflated or understood.

I know I’ve rambled on for far too long, but bear with me. I’m sipping the remaining drops of my hot lemon now as I type and think more about this story that still hasn’t been written. I’ve written short stories about other past travel experiences (both fun and horrible–traversing the Swiss Alps on a Moto Guzzi vs. days after leaving Berlin for London, my only remaining pair of pants caught on fire). This one, however, is far more complicated. When I do try to write something, it comes out cold and police blotter-esque (just the facts, ma’am). Instead of writing, I find myself sitting and remembering the images and feelings on a loop.

I can’t help but think about Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove,” which is divided by testimonies and confessions of the various witnesses and participants of a samurai’s killing. I feel most akin with Akutagawa’s tale and perhaps, I should take a lesson from the structure of his story. There were many people on the Sonnenallee that night. I didn’t see anything that happened behind me, but there were surely people who did and conversely, they did not see the detailed and up-close description of the shooter like I had or where he walked out from behind a car (or was it a van?). Together, we could weave a complex, multi-point of view tale or on our own, each present a compelling, yet unreliable story. As a writer, I can usurp their points of view and craft them into something of my own making, choosing when to punch holes in the plot and when to present a view–whether skewed or reliable–of the focused action.

I do hope to write this story one day and perhaps, next time I try, I won’t stare blankly at my computer screen. From witnessing this bizarre and horrid event, I plan to piece together a story of remembering and misremembering. When I make my next hot lemon–or heiße Zitrone–I will for once think clearly or not…whichever leads me to where I need to go to write the story I want to get down on the page. I wonder if it will be something realist or if it will swim in a surreal space. I’m clamoring to find out.

post script

I never found out what happened to the man who was shot. The newspapers in Berlin were alarmingly quiet save for one short article  (my theory is that they don’t often report on immigrants’ concerns in Germany). In English, Sonnenallee translates as the Sun Alley, which seems bright in comparison to the dark night I was there. Also, in 1999 a German film was made called Sonnenallee, which from what I’ve read about it, falls prey to Ostalgie for the former DDR.

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4 comments

  1. Wow.

    Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be a short story; I like what you’ve done with this post, where the incident is a touchpoint for other thoughts and meditations: the “creative nonfiction” route.

    I had an analogous thing happen to me, when I first moved back to San Francisco. An armed home-invasion robbery when myself, my husband, and another couple were there. I also tried at some point to turn that experience into a story, and I never could. Maybe some day I’ll know what to do it.

    We still live in that house, by the way.

    1. There is some block that doesn’t allow me to think of it in a creative way. I’ve always been curious to know how Anthony Burgess turned his horrible experience into A Clockwork Orange. I’m sure you have extra layers of creative anxieties with still leaving in the house that is attached to a violent, traumatic experience.

      I’ve never thought of myself as a “creative non-fiction” writer, but by the end, I felt that sort of twinkle (like, hm, is this that creative non-fiction that so many speak of??). Maybe this should be my route for future attempts at writing this moment. You’ve got me thinking now…

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