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Ralph Martin
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Ralph Martin and I met on a Berlin balcony roughly the size of my New York living room. This was in the fall of 2007; it was Thanksgiving. Most of the apartments we haunted back then were, as Ralph describes, a particular kind of Berlin-nice. They were not the coal-moted blocks of the nineties. They were roomy to the point of cavernous and well-lit and, typically, underfurnished, because furniture, like food, existed for us on a strictly need-to-know basis, and we did not need to know the credenza. In any case, this apartment was not Berlin-nice in that particular way. This apartment was New York–nice; it spoke bluntly and eloquently of the unattainable luxury most of us preferred to have out of sight. In any case, there it was, and we were on the balcony. Somebody introduced us and Ralph asked how long I’d been in Berlin. I’d been there three or four months then.
Ralph said something along the lines of, “With all due respect, I don’t think I want to be your friend.”
“Why?”
“Well, you’ll see – or you won’t. It’s just not worth it. People show up and they hang around for an academic year and then they’re gone. You go back to New York or wherever and we’re still here. We’ve learned not to invest ourselves in the new arrivals.”
Ralph has no particular memory of this conversation, though he concedes it may very well have happened, and that it accurately reflected his (generally unvoiced) feelings on the matter of new arrivals. For what it’s worth here, less than a year later I learned what Ralph was talking about. Many of my friends were moving on, when it felt as though we’d barely gotten there. Ralph describes pretty well what that feels like. The main thing Berlin had had going for it was that it was practically impossible to stay too long at the party, because by the time one party ended another had begun in its place. But then all of a sudden your particular cohort has moved on, and the new people are intolerable because they so accurately reflect your own pretentious naivete. In any case, by the time that happened, Ralph had gotten over his initial reservations and we’d become friends. We’d become friends mostly because I’d been third-hand invited to a birthday party Ralph was having in the Tiergarten. The party, I’d been told, had a dandy theme, but because it was Berlin nobody bothered with the effort of a costume. Because Ralph had treated me with such disdain, however, I was nervous to show up in my civilian clothes. I wore a rather silly thin-waled corduroy suit I hoped Ralph might admire. I can’t imagine he liked the suit but he appreciated the effort as a personal gesture.
The following Thanksgiving was at Ralph’s house. My mother was in town to visit and we went. There were probably sixty or seventy bottles of nice wine for maybe twenty people. I’m pretty sure all the wine was consumed. There was the only goose-liver paté I can recall having consumed in my time in Berlin. Ralph had a rather imperious orange cat, and an adorable daughter who thought English was the secret code only her father new. Back then, like now, Ralph’s attitude toward his own bourgeois comforts was self-effacing. He wrote two drily hilarious collections of satirical essays on the cliche of his Prenzlauer Berg existence. (Frankly, they stand with anything David Sedaris has ever written, but for now they remain available only in German.) But what made those books so terrific wasn’t their satire – though that was always sharp – but their warmth, and their generosity. They were funny and moving not because Ralph despised his life in the bezirk of Swabian yoga-mütter but because, despite himself, he loved it. Ralph always worried that more fun things might be happening in dirtier, darker corners, but in reality it was the gaiety and liveliness of his hearth that felt much realer to me, in those years in Berlin, than another night of vaguely fun self-loathing at Berghain.
When Ralph’s son was born, sometime later, our mutual friend David said we should go visit. I was in no particular hurry; none of my friends, at that point, had kids to speak of, and the whole concept seemed retrograde and a little gauche. David said to me, “It’s very important to people that you go meet their children as soon as possible.” We went, and sat around with Ralph and his family until almost dawn. Everything was the same for Ralph, but just a little bit different. A few weeks later Ralph was allowed out of the house for the first time since his son was born, and we went to some Halloween parties in Neukölln and then the old Polish bar on Schlesische Strasse, its Halloween floor littered with broken glass, and ended up spending that dawn on the Oberbaumbrücke. At the time, it seemed to me that it was those nights I’d gone to Berlin for. It feels odd to say now, but I remember the nights at Ralph’s house much more fondly.
So take all of this as a kind of caveat. Ralph has written a very clever, wide-ranging, intelligent, witty, and poignant piece about real estate and speculation and the ambitions of youth. But it should be noted that he should not be taken strictly at his word. His written metier may be bristly self-satisfaction, but his lived metier is, from the outside at least, the adult model to which we might all aspire. It is, after all, that tension that makes his essay feel so vital, and so relevant. Have fun with this essay. But keep in mind it was written by a wonderfully unreliable narrator.

People
Ralph Martin
by Gideon Lewis-Kraus