Around 1980, a “Spiegel” cover showed one of the grimmer portraits of Luther in furs and the headline “New Little Ice Age?” Intricate frost patterns brocaded our windows. Back then, every apartment in Kreuzberg heated with coal. West Berlin’s government stored hundreds of thousands of tons of it in warehouses against the chance of resumed communist blockade. My coal merchant carried 100 pounds at a time in a wooden box on his back: he charged a D-Mark extra per floor climbed, and I gave him a tip and a Schnapps to salve my conscience, which was uneasy because I saved my spine at the expense of his. Once he came with his teetotaler assistant. After downing his own shot, he asked if he could have the assistant’s, too. When I emptied the ash into a metal bucket to carry downstairs to the trash, a fine cloud of it spread a dull, ugly smell through the room.
Once I stayed within a meter of my heater all day, sweltering on one side and freezing on the other, while feeding it two coal bricks an hour. That for a 16-m2 room. Next day, I left for work, all bundled up to walk where strewn salt had cleared the snow from the sidewalk (crushed rock came years later, and nowadays winter no longer means much snow). When I reached the street, I couldn’t seem to get any air into my lungs and I panicked: is this an asthma attack? That particular fear was allayed when, eyes smarting, I looked down the street. It wasn’t my lungs it was the air: thickly yellow with coal smoke, pouring down from the chimneys. When I descended the steps to the subway, the air got a little better.