We were standing on the platform amongst the crowd when the doors swung open. Everyone charged the damned thing like a herd of spooked cattle. Fran, my bartender friend visiting from New Jersey, doesn’t like enclosed spaces. He may be scarred for life. Takayo was perched at the top of the stairs on the top level. We’d lost sight of Michael, Fran’s coworker, somewhere in the crush. How do you tell a mother, “Your son’s been trampled to death by clowns?” We were packed in with the bastards shoulder-to-shoulder, along with pirates, aliens, captains, etc. Everyone had a painted face and wig on. You couldn’t even raise an arm. The smart ones were intoxicated, holding their beer overhead. This included nearly everyone but us.
Cologne, or Köln as the Germans spell it, is usually 30 minutes by train from Düsseldorf. However, during Carnival, the drunken celebration prior to Lent, it felt longer than a wet week. The air was vaporous with booze breath. I had been baby groped several times. Silly looking heads blocked by view of the window, and it was too loud to hear the stop calls over the loudspeaker. I asked King Drunk, who was squashed against the door, what stop we were at. We would soon have to transfer at the Mülheim station, and there was still no sight of Michael. Fran, Takayo, and I squeezed out the train at our stop. Just before the doors slammed shut, Michael popped out like a zit.
“I don‘t know,” said Fran, shaking his head. “Being packed in a train like that…in Germany.”
At least it had been warm on the train. It was below freezing outside. We checked into the hotel and ditched our bags. This was crucial for Fran and Michael, whose grossly overstuffed packs could have clothed an entire gypsy clan. I made an inventory list between the two: 20 pairs of socks, 18 pairs of jeans, 18 pairs of underwear, 10 button-up shirts, 6 hooded sweatshirts, 1 suit, 1 pair dress shoes, 2 windbreakers, 2 toiletry bags, 2 iPhones, 1 iPod Nano, 2 speakers, 3 one-liter bottles of liquor, 3 bottles of cologne. Early on, the theme of this trip was “Consume like an American.”
And consume we did.
When we arrived to the Cologne main station it was positively trashed. The only people occupying it were bands of brightly dressed youths beating bucket drums. We gravitated outside, admiring the nightmarish spires of the Dom cathedral. We found a beer tent with a massive flaming spit dripping with steaks and wieners. Roving mobs chanted drinking songs that spiked loudly and ended abruptly. The sound of braying horns echoed through the cobblestone streets, giving the impression of elk in heat. “Oh, I need that,” said Fran. I found a pair of aviator sunglasses on the ground by the wiener stand, fashioned them back into shape and stuck them on my face. It began to snow when Fran bought this red and white plastic horn. The thing looked like a peppermint tornado. It took him a couple of tries before getting it to blow right.
We were in the downtown shopping area. Large men in industrial overalls boarded up storefront windows with slabs of plywood. This would protect the shops from the parade of drunks scheduled for Monday. I led everyone to the Altstadt, or old town, to a bar renown for having rude servers. There was another wiener stand set up outside the bar, attracting all types of night creatures. A band of latex-gloved surgeons handed each of us a bottle of beer. To thank them, Fran blew the horn. The surgeons and drunks within earshot went wild. A man with a handlebar mustache began speaking to us in German. He was wearing short pants and looked like the Goodwill Ambassador of Bavarian Fruitcakes. For all we knew, he might have offered to lop off our ears for us. We just said “Ja! Ja!” to everything and he handed us a post card that had a picture of him and a similarly dressed man standing together at a cabin.
My night vision was pitiful on account of the shades. We found a narrow bar to thaw out. The mood was a cross between Halloween without the spooky, and Mardi Gras without the graphic nudity. Like so many bars in Germany, there was 80’s rock blaring over the speakers. One group of girls all carried whistles. For the girl in a ladybug costume, the whistle replaced all verbal communications. She made a warbling bird call to order a beer, and a shrill squawk when she told Fran “go away.” Unfazed, Fran leveled his horn within inches of her face and blew. The girl answered back with a bitchy shriek. The bartenders stopped pouring to frown at them both.
Takayo and I slid into a booth behind a table. In a mindless act to give the crowd more room, a bartender came over and slid the table into our guts. A conga line had formed. Lizards and bugs -- even a cross walk sign -- slithered through the bar, sending glasses crashing to the ground. A drunk construction worker in a white tee shirt and suspenders took off his hardhat and handed it to Takayo. He gurgled something before walking out the door, never to return. Michael stuck the hardhat on his head, and I overheard Fran teaching a German girl to say “suck your mother dry.” When she said it, Fran lifted the horn to celebrate, but the bartender pointed at him. It was time to go.
By the time we hit the door, Fran was about to burst. He blew the horn till he was red in the face. This caught the attention of someone up the street, who reciprocated with a call of their own. This strengthened my association of elks in heat. We continued walking toward the call, each of them blowing in six second intervals, until a group of excited German youths stood before us. They couldn’t believe that their horn calls had seduced a group of Americans.
“Fuck zie Bush!” one of them shouted.
Steam rose up from their horns.
“Suck your mother dry!”
Again the horns echoed through the alleyways.
“Socks your moder droy!”
It had begun to snow again when we found an underground bar that looked like the inside of a cave. For some odd reason, I’ve never had good luck with cave bars. There weren’t a lot of people there, and if I had to guess, it was because of the Spanish techno blaring over the speakers. Takayo and I pressed our butts against the radiator. She took off her hat and put it on the table with the beers. We danced for a bit and came back to find that someone had lifted her hat. I ran upstairs to the sidewalk but didn’t see anyone wearing it. I cursed the cave, collected our crew, and then left.
We went into a convenience store for cans of beer. There was a short dark man dressed like a Mexican next to the beer cooler. He tilted back his sombrero and told us he was Iraqi, had traveled to the States, but now lived in Cologne. Fran could hardly believe it. “This guy’s from Iraq!” The beer prices were inflated on account of the festivities, so we each got one and said “adios” to the Iraqi. Outside we walked past a large man in a rainbow jester hat. The rest of his outfit was black leather.
“I’m going to talk to this guy,” Fran said. “I think he’s Russian.”
A few days earlier, Fran tried to convince me that he spoke Russian. He lived in a house full of Russian exchange students a few years back, when we had fallen out of contact. I had my doubts, but he seemed hell-bent on speaking Russian. He walked up to the man and uttered a phrase. It was like watching a kid ride a bike. As it turned out, Fran knew some Russian. He reported a piecemeal translation of border crossings and the man’s life as a widower. Everyone just stood around for a moment, pondering the most appropriate way to shake Boris Buzz-Kill. Eventually, he gave us a dismal-looking business card and we parted ways. Fran and Mike spoke with nearly two dozen people before reaching a consensus: Everybody in town was crazy.
“Oh, man. I could live here.”
People’s costumes were all but falling apart by this point. There was a collar here and hats in the gutter, as if a costume form of leprosy had fallen over the town. From seemingly out of nowhere, we stumbled upon an open street dance. Folks were stomping and dosey-doing to a hyperactive remix of “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” Empty kegs were piled up next to the beer tent like a tribute to the Pyramids. When the song was over, they played this sappy love song and everyone disbanded.
With the streets clearing out, we worked our way back to the train station. Mike snapped an eerie photo of the Dom cathedral. We stared up at its spires from the shadows and talked about how gothic it looked, trying to give ourselves the heebie-jeebies. It wasn’t too hard since we were already half-buzzed and shivering to the bone. We entered the train station, which seemed to be hanging on by a thread. Glass crunched under our every step. We passed street people collecting returnable bottles for, what must have been, the jackpot of the season. When the train pulled up on schedule, I could hardly believe it. Fran blew the horn one last time and I think somewhere in the distance, I heard the sound of an elk answering softly.