I lived in the basement of a bare-bulb Midtown Kansas City apartment building. My place qualified as one of those dim dwellings landlords build into the bowels of their buildings to squeeze the last dimes out their real estate. It had two rooms, a front room with a kitchenette and a small bedroom.
During the day, outside light dribbled through narrow, filmy, cobwebbed windows at the very top of the walls. A sewer pipe ran through the front room about a foot and a half below the low ceiling. Anytime I stood up or went from room to room, I had to bend at the waist to avoid banging my head. I suspended a goldfish bowl in a cheap macramé plant hanger from a bend in the pipe just to give the pipe purpose. I kept a discarded toilet as an umbrella stand, though I had no umbrellas. I just thought it funny. I lacked air-conditioning during the pounding-hot summer of 1985.
Larry’s voice mercifully intruded on that solitary night. “Why don’t you come to Germany and travel for a while?” he asked. “You talk about getting a job in a vineyard. Why not come where the vineyards are?” In my depressive state, I felt little to begin with and even less after getting good and drunk. Only fear of unemployment and being on the street kept me going to work every day. Something clicked in my head during that phone call and said “jump.”
As Larry talked, I kept thinking, why not go to Germany? He caught me at the right moment. My life empty and lonely, I drank harder as time unfolded. The grind had grown too burdensome, the job increasingly dreary and loaded with drudgery. I fulfilled the duties of a warehouseman and junior wine and liquor salesman but couldn’t see a future in them. I’d never developed a notion of a career. I only knew manual and menial labor. I had no idea what working in a place like Germany meant.
I needed a new excuse for dodging responsibility and leaving the life I had. I came to in the morning and stumbled about until time to go to work. Days in the warehouse dragged on. Intense physical labor associated with the job absorbed the heights of mania and depths of depression. Summer descended on the vast open space beneath the warehouse roof with a vengeance. I packed box upon box with pints and half pints. I carted and heaved cases of wine and hard liquor. I loaded trucks and unloaded shipping containers. I came home every night dehydrated and on the edge of heat prostration.
The sewage treatment plant next door to the warehouse only made things worse. Stench filled the superheated building every day soon after we opened the loading dock doors in the morning. I smelled of sweat, stale booze, and the excrement of an entire city. No amount of laundering removed the smell of sewage from my clothes. My nose had become so used to the pong that I smelled it all the time no matter how far from the treatment plant. Flowers smelled like sewage, as did my food, wine, and beer. I gave up on flowers and mostly on food.
Looking back on all of this, I realize I had nothing to stay for. Besides the dead-end job, certain triggers set off mania and depression, but most of my episodes arose for no obvious reason. Sometimes I would cycle quickly from mania to depression and back up again. Then, I would often go months without experiencing either mania or depression. Regardless of my condition, I couldn’t imagine a future for myself.
In the end, alcohol and manic depression ruled my life. And that’s why, when Larry said working in Germany would change life’s trajectory, I took to the idea. When he declared I should be in Germany rather than in what he called a backward Midwestern city, I believed him. He made the notion of selling my meager possessions and packing a backpack seem like the best idea I ever had. I pictured myself laboring in picturesque vineyards, learning the winemaking trade. I imagined myself in candle-lit cellars, standing next to ancient barrels and tasting wines with rotund Kellermeisters. I would learn to be a real expert, one who knows from experience and not from books or from mimicking others.
By the end of the conversation, I’d decided. My trip to become a winemaker wouldn’t resemble a youthful European frolic, the likes of which I’d read about in books or heard about from my acquaintances. I’d find a job in a Mosel or Rheingau winery. There I’d start my grandiose journey to a career as a respected maker of fine wines.
Getting busy soothed depression. I quit my job and sold my meager possessions in a Saturday sale on my street corner. With the day done, I threw away what remained in the dumpster behind the building. I bought a one-way ticket to Luxemburg on Iceland Air. I planned to take a train from Luxemburg City with Larry to Trier and then to the village of Wawern, where we would stay with his friends. I had $400 in cash, most donated from my grandmother. I used my last check, the proceeds from my sale, and what I’d saved to buy another $400 in travelers’ checks. I folded them into the back of my large wallet behind my passport, just in case the Germany experiment failed and I needed a way back to Kansas City.
Three weeks after my friend suggested I go to Germany, I boarded a plane with a backpack and a sleeping bag.
I’d put no thought into what getting a job in a foreign land would take. I gave not one moment of contemplation to the complications of securing work visas or paying tax authorities. Germany would solve my problems, plain and simple. It would save me without any effort on my part.
Little did I realize at the time that Germany really would redeem me but not in the way I thought.