The Spy Who Was Turned Out Into the Cold.
When the Berlin Wall came down on November 11, 1989, the last effect Johnny B. expected on his life was to find himself standing in the Arbeitsamt at No. 6 Volta Strasse pulling a number from the dispenser above the unemployment counter. It was a cold, December day in 1988 with a wet rain whipping pedestrians into huddling masses at bus stops throughout the city. It was the kind of day when umbrellas are no good, as the wind quickly turns them inside out and snaps a rib, rendering them more a nuisance than an aid in the driving rain.
Once, Johnny B. would have had a car at his disposal on a day such as this, even one driven by a Party chauffeur picking him up from the office and driving him about the city. Now, he was reduced to taking a clumsy, articulated city bus outside his 3rd floor walk-up or going down four blocks in the rain and awaiting a crowded S Bahn for daily transportation.
Times do change and not always for the better, Johnny B. found to his dismay in 1988. In the months of his early, unexpected retirement from a desirable position of many years standing with the Staatssicherheitspolizei or Stasi, he found it difficult to adjust. Here is how this occurred, to the extent it can now be disclosed.
Johnny B. had served the Party bosses of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik for years and, could rightly, he thought, count on a comfortable retirement on the Black Sea. With the monthly pension he had calculated many times to be his due after 34 years of service, he expected to be able to buy a small holding on the Black Sea, where he could grow turnips for Borsht soup and plump strawberries for the frozen Dakaris he had come to love from his travels in the West.
There had been incidents and the inevitable complaints, to be sure, in his years with the Stasi. But, with 34 years of service, one is to expect such -- even the unjustified complaint, as many of them were to his mind. Ulrich Hildebrandt, his immediate superior, had counseled Johnny in 1974, as a kind of consolation, after calling him on the carpet for the first time: “Only those who do nothing and those who take no chances in this life make no mistakes, Johnny.”
Appreciatively, Johnny had taken his boss’s words and had them inscribed by an old woman in a kiosk at the Berliner Zoo on a black-on-white placard with citation to their author. The words of Ulrich Hildebrandt were not lightly disregarded in his office. Johnny B. mounted the placard above his desk and pointed to it whenever a colleague registered dissatisfaction with his efforts. Those words would quiet all except the most querulous accusations of indolence on his part.
The last time Johnny was admonished by his superiors for a lack of diligence, prior to the fall of the Wall, was when Johnny somehow lost a Polish diplomat whom he had been assigned to tail in Grado, Italy. While Johnny was taking a pee in the toilet behind the post office at Grado, the Polish diplomatic entourage in the seven black Mercedes 300s had simply driven away and disappeared in broad daylight.
Johnny had some explaining to do when the telegram of inquiry came from Berlin. “Where are the daily reports on the Polish diplomat?”, Berlin wanted to know. With considerable embarrassment, Johnny found it necessary to explain that there are simply no public toilets in Grado. Why this is so, he did not know – such a popular resort and not a toilet to be had for the public! He first explained this by reference to the lack of organization inherent in Italian society.
But, Berlin wrote back: “For God’s Sake, Johnny, Grado has been a Mediterranean resort since the time of the Caesars! How can there be no public toilets in this town? In Paris, you can find one on every corner. Unbelievable!”
It was unusual for Berlin to appeal to God in a telegram. Johnny B. took note of the exasperated tone and quickly replied, himself somewhat flustered by the sharp exchange. You must understand, Johnny wrote, Italy is not Germany. These people are simply not as efficient as we Germans. The Polish diplomatic corps had halted and gotten out of their cars and were examining some pottery in a niche in an ancient Roman wall nearby. I was on the job, I tell you. I was following them. But, they simply spent too much time at this sightseeing and I had to go pee.
There was no toilet in sight. But, there was a post office nearby. I left my car and went in, thinking they would allow me to use the facilities very quickly. But, you must understand, the Italian postal service is antiquated and a clerk must employ a dozen different rubber stamps of several sizes simply to dispatch a small package from one point to another no more than 10 kilometers distant.
I stood in this line for almost 30 minutes, Johnny continued, all the time peering out the window at the Poles. But, it shortly came to be that I could neither move forward nor back due to the press of the crowd. This post office was very small. It became more and more crowded as the minutes ticked past. I would have left, if I could have gotten to the door. But, once I entered the line, more and more customers pressed in behind me until it was suffocating. Italians smoke even more than Germans and not only was the air rife and stale with second hand smoke, they were pressing against me on all sides.
Eventually, I could barely breathe. I had to force my arms up into the air and hold them above my head just to give my rib cage more room to expand. There were so many of these people in this room and so many were smoking cheap Turkish cigarettes, I even had momentary visions of being transformed into a North Sea smoked herring! Just as I felt my bladder would surely burst, I finally got to the head of the line. But, then, the clerk slammed the window and hung a sign that I couldn't read in my face! From my position at the head of the line, I was no longer near the window. What the Poles were doing, I could not see. I shifted from foot to foot, barely suppressing the urge to urinate. I waited several minutes more, praying the clerk had not embarked on a siesta.
When the clerk finally returned, I asked permission to use the toilet at the back of the post office. But, she replied with a shriek: “No. It is not for the public!” I countered in desperation: “But, what is the public to do?” She shouted something back at me in the local dialect that I did not understand. Then, thankfully, with a look of profound disgust and distaste for the public on her face, she relented and threw the key at me from its hanging place beneath the counter.
Now, I had to press back through the roiling crowd to get to the only door out of the place. Amidst much resistance and loud grumbling, three men and an old woman backed out the door into the street, giving me just enough room to pass.
Finally, I was able to relieve myself. Such pleasure you will never know! But, by the time I returned the key and walked back around the corner to the place of the old stone wall, the Polish diplomatic entourage had simply disappeared. I tell you, I searched Grado the rest of the afternoon for them. But, it was if they had taken a wrong turn and driven into the sea never to emerge. That is the truth and that is why I lost the Polish diplomat.
For days, Johnny B. nervously awaited a response. Germans make up with their own efficiency and ruthlessness for the lack of organization and insouciance that Italians lend the human race. Knowing this, the unexpected delay in a response worried Johnny B.
Grado, Italy, from the air
On December 7, 1988, in Berlin at the Staatssicherheitspolizei headquarters, Ulrich Hildebrandt read the last telegram from Italy and dictated to his secretary: “This is our final embarrassment with Johnny B. Let him see, if he can do better on his next job. Issue to him an ausserordentliche Kuendigung and one month’s pay and close his file.”
You may think the story ends here. But, Johnny B. had, if not the last laugh, at least some satisfaction. For less than one year later, the DDR collapsed, the Berlin Wall was knocked down and the Stasi was disbanded. Ulrich Hildebrandt now resides in Spandau prison, convicted of spying on former West German politicians.
Johnny B. did not get his pension and he is not in retirement on the Black Sea. Instead, as he preferred and as he was trained to be in his spying years with the Stasi, Johnny B. has become once again a nameless, unnoticed face in the crowd. Now, at age 69, he is living in Potsdam, a small city 19 miles outside of Berlin. You will find him working the night shift there as a store detective at the new Wal-Mart. If you see him, tell him I said, “Ciao, Giani!” He will get the irony. Copyright 2011 Frank D. Taff.