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Justice in a Berlin Park

In 2010 I published a book entitled Notes From 39,000 Feet. In the introduction, “An American Breakfast In Taiwan,” I wrote:

"Each 'Note' begins with a title, location and date. I don’t mean to imply that each piece was written in that place and at that time, but rather it was there and then that thoughts were sparked into being and that some writing did begin. 

The 'Notes' are presented in chronological order, beginning in Reykjavik in 1986, passing through places such as Harare, Varanasi, Gaza City, Seoul, Istanbul, Prague and ending in London in 2010. Some 'Notes' are inscriptions of presentations and lectures given at international gatherings and events, and are thus textualisations of the spoken word…Some 'Notes' are journalistic-like reflections and others are more meditations…

While there is no central theme, there is a background hum that is, I think, hard to miss, a hum that hints at ethical, philosophical, theological points of view that in some way make up a system of meaning—thoughts, feelings, beliefs, observations, understandings, all of which combine to reveal a way of seeing the world and how we choose to live within it…

All these reflections, meditations, and essays are simply what I chose to write about. Others in the same place and time no doubt would have seen the world differently and would have had other things to say. As Clifford Geertz would say, they are 'but reflections, diffuse and refracted, in my own mind of the way of the world...'”

For the next several weeks I will be posting some of the shorter reflections in Café Talk. I hope you enjoy them.

Last week I posted Death in a Newcastle Alley. This week I am offering “Justice in a Berlin Park.

Berlin, Germany, June 1990

I awoke late on Sunday morning, showered, and left my hotel at about 11:30 a.m., wound my way to the news agent for the International Herald Tribune. The sun was shining and I found a small café in Tiergarten by the Neuer See not far from the Siegessaule. It was warm and green and the water of the small lake looked inviting,  just like in the tourist books. The café itself wasn't much to speak about, but served coffee, tea, orange juice sodas, donuts, cakes, and sandwiches. It was just one of those small white caravans with a small white yawning, several small white plastic tables and chairs, all overlooking the lake. The plastic tables and chairs you could find anywhere in the world. I imagined that someone somewhere were making them in massive quantities and shipping them around the planet.

I sat purposefully at a table in the sun. Directly in front of me was the lake and slightly to my left a park bench. Inbetween the bench and the lake was a footpath. The park was full of people enjoying the summer. Tourists and locals were intertwined in the new Berlin, a city without visible walls. As I watched the world enjoy this new summer, two couples approached and sat on the bench to my left. They had a picnic basket and the pleasant gleam of sweat on their bodies. They were young, healthy, strong, and beautiful. In the basket was bottled water, bread, cheese, and fruit. It was a delight to watch them set about their picnic, laughing and sharing.

As the couples ate, a number of pigeons attracted by the bread gathered before them on the footpath. First one picnicher, then the others, began feeding the pigeons with bread and good humour. Among the pigeons was an old slow moving pigeon, without the shine of youth on its feathers. Each time this old pigeon went for a bit of broken bread, its younger companions devoured it first. The picnickers noticed this too and began to go out of their way to feed the old pigeon. It was fascinating to watch, these young humans laughing and showing considerable concern for an old pigeon who only wanted a bit of bread. Finally, their efforts and sensitivity were rewarded and the old pigeon was fed. I smiled, they laughed and applauded.

Then, from up the path came an apparently old woman dressed in layers of rags. Over her shoulders and in her hands she carried paper and cloth bags of various sizes, all worn and filthy. She shuffled rather than walked, old black shoes sliding along the black paved path. Her body was slightly bent forward, as if to give some momentum to her movement. She wore a scarf over her head even though it was a warm sunny day. She looked weary, dirty, and hot, but I supposed that sleeping on the surface of the park in the cool of the night, she needed the layers and the scarf to keep warm. I wanted to know what she carried in her bags. Presumably, all that she possessed. But what did she possess?

As she so very slowly approached the two couples picnicking on the bench, she stopped and watched them feed the pigeons bits of bread. She no doubt saw their efforts and obvious compassion. She heard their laughter and pure joy when their compassion was rewarded.

She shuffled forward and the pigeons scattered into the air. As she moved slowly between the bench and the lake, she turned slightly toward the couples and began to extend her right hand toward them. What was this a gesture of? Hope? Further invitation to practise the virtue of compassion? The continued possibility of reward and laughter? It was, after all, simply a movement of her hand? Before she completed this motion, or even stopped her shuffle, one of the men yelled at her with an angry tone and face, and dismissively, almost violently, shooed her on with the back of his hand. The three others looked at her with disgust and anger. Without stopping, without any visible sign of hurt or humiliation, the old woman dropped her hand, turned back toward the path and continued her journey.

Copyright © 2010 Dale Rominger

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