The Reeperbahn is a street in Hamburg St. Pauli district, one of the two centers of Hamburg's nightlife and also the city's red-light district. In German it is also sometimes described as die sündigste Meile (the most sinful mile).
My 6 years in Europe began with a trip across the Atlantic on the Yugolinia. a freighter. The cost was $108 to travel between Brooklyn and Casablanca. My companion was a casual friend who had relatives in Greece where we were headed. At the last minute she told me that they had not responded to her; leaving us without a destination. I remembered a friend from acting class whose husband was accompanying opera singers in East Berlin, and she was more than happy to welcome us to the then divided city.
Berlin, was and exciting place to be during volatile years of the early 1960’s. I had arrived penniless and quickly found work as hatcheck girl in the most popular bar and Discotheque in West Berlin the Old Eden Salon. Most everyone that I knew was impoverished living on pennies, some squatters in apartments that had not been renovated since the war ended and 80% of the city was destroyed. I soon learned that most of my friends had lost a parent on the Russian front and many had survived the bombings of Dresden. Once the war ended, it was back home to a destroyed Berlin where food was scarce and eating cats and vermin common.
It was at the Eden that I made many friends and Roy who became a constant traveling companion until he died of AIDS in 2002. Roy was very handsome, of Eurasian background, and had many admirers. The early sixties were a period of idolizing noir, and Roy and I found we dated young men of some disrepute. This was understandable in many ways because people born in what was East Berlin and had escaped often had no recourse but to turn to crime. These guys were small time crooks, like Jean Paul Belmondo played in Breathless. Ole and I became friends and were close enough that he invited me to an uncle’s house for Christmas. It turns out that his uncle had spent the entire war in Dachau for being against Hitler. This was a lesson to me. Here was a man who was a gambler by trade and had more courage than many by standing up to Hitler.
Roy and I went off to Paris for some months, where I sold the New York Times on the street. When we returned completely broke Ole suggested that we get a job at a new club called the Smoky Bar. Over the months that we were gone he had gone from petty crime to becoming a sometime- pimp. One might wonder at this profession, however, in Berlin all was accepted. Survival was a necessity living in a divided city where much was still bombed out -- remnants of the war’s end.
The only caveat of working at the Smoky Bar was that Roy would have to be in drag. Putting on makeup would be no problem, but clothes were another matter. Neither of us had an extensive wardrobe—a few handmade sweaters or straight leg pants fashionable in the era. We carefully prepared for the interview and were hired by Klaus who was the formidable host. He was particularly impressed by my cleavage, and told us that our job was to sit at the tables and entertain the men while girls performed. We would be paid according to how much champagne was sold. This was particularly challenging for me since I drink little or not at all. Klaus was proud of the club said the club was modeled on the notorious Reeperbahn of Hamburg.
Berlin had no closing hours and we were to work from 8 PM until 5 in the morning. That first night we dressed extra carefully and took the bus amidst German burghers to the club and entered a surreal environment. The floor was covered with something that looked like AstroTurf and tables circled a stage with a pole in the center. The same Beatles Girl song blared through the night over and over again.
Is there anybody going to listen to my story
All about the girl who came to stay?
She's the kind of girl you want so much
It makes you sorry
Still you don't regret a single day.
Other girls were seated at the tables and when the men arrived they could choose where they wanted to sit. My table was empty for quite a while until a few men from Scandinavia sat down. Being poor at small talk it was difficult to find things to say. The champagne flowed and I soon noticed that the other girls were very adept at throwing it over their shoulders onto the floor so another bottle could be ordered. This world was strange indeed.
The performances began, one very blond woman came out in a bunny costume and sang “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”, as she went from table to table. Another who I recognized slithered out as if a snake on the floor and came to the pole which she suggestively climbed to music long forgotten. Hours dragged on, the atmosphere become intoxicatingly hard to know what reality was. Even a little champagne left us tipsy.
I don’t remember how we extricate ourselves, on the bus ride home. I do remember feeling a blur and not recognizing myself. Not many nights after Roy and I decided that enough was enough. Klaus admitted that we were not successful but continued to tell me how much he liked my tight red sweater.