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Berlin’s ultimate survivor says goodbye

From the dumpster of a squat to the wheel of a company car, his idiosyncratic rise and MacGyver-esque instincts have set him apart from the Ausländer pack.

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Photo by Maia Schoenfelder

From the dumpster of a squat to the wheel of a company car, his idiosyncratic rise and MacGyver-esque instincts have set him apart from the Ausländer pack. The man known in the scene as ‘Kalle’ arrived in the ruins of the former East and spent nearly 16 years of his prime in an area that gentrified faster than his facial hair. Then in October, he switched off the lights, left a five-word goodbye on Facebook and quietly flew home to Virginia.

It’s four days before his final departure. Kalle, a 36-year-old bachelor, opens the first-floor door of his Neukölln Altbau flat– just a hurdle west of the trending Weserkiez – and politely asks us to remove our shoes.

“You don’t realise how many days of hard, non-stop labour actually go into sanding and renovating original hardwood floors,” he states with a wink.

The two-room interior has the feel of a smartly renovated curb-side dump, a DIY-shrine to salvaged treasure with old retail light boxes dimly illuminating rooms lined with finely detailed, refurbished furniture.

Kalle’s slim physique, chain-adorned wrists, long, dark, wavy hair and bearded face bring to mind a youngish Dave Grohl. He pops open a glass bottle of Sprite and squirts the last third of squeeze-bottle imitation nacho-cheese goo on a small plate of tortilla chips.

“I didn’t go to prom and skipped commencement,” he says, placing the chip on his tongue and chomping down. “I took my last exam and moved to Dettenhausen with my German girlfriend on December 24, 1994.”

After a year in Tübingen and five months working at the local McDonald’s, he and his girlfriend broke up. Kalle travelled to Berlin with his friends and moved into a squat house on Auguststraße – just a stone’s throw from what used to be Tacheles – in the winter of 1995.

“It was minus 25 degrees that winter, the coldest I’ve ever experienced,” he recalls. Being a squatter back then meant living without heat, electricity or running water.

“It was pretty fucked up. We found some scraps of wood on the street and built beds directly over the coal ovens to keep warm. There was no electricity, no bathrooms, no anything. I built a shower and sink in my apartment.”

Kalle, a learned electrician, gets up and proudly opens a set of double doors to a narrow, army-green metal storage cabinet, revealing shelves of nuts, bolts, drills, saws, hammers and heaps of other tools that only a Bauhaus floor rep could properly identify.

His luck fell hard at first: he was unable to find a job without a work permit. “The McDonalds in Berlin wouldn’t even take me,” he says. Through a connection, Kalle managed to earn some pocket money archiving clippings from English news articles, all the while hunting for a new home in Berlin.

Kalle licks the dip from his pinkie. “I was hanging up flyers around Berlin, looking for a new place to live. I just had been dumpster diving and the next thing you know, I turn around and see some scruffy-looking people rummaging through my bag of clothes!” he laughs, “I turn around and yell, ‘Hey, get out of there!’ They were like, ‘Oh, we’re sorry,’ but, actually, they seemed friendly, so I was like, ‘go ahead, take a bag’.”

Eventually, the strangers took Kalle to a squat in Friedrichshain’s Kreuzigerstraße called the K12 and kicked down one of the doors. “I asked how much it was, they told me it was free and I remember looking in at the mess and remarking, ‘Hmm, I don’t know, kind of pricey.’”

But soon enough investors began moving into the neighbourhood and evicting non-paying tenants. Kalle and his squat-mates resisted the planned renovation with the determination of freedom fighters. A couple of clips on Kalle’s table – Der Tagesspiegel in 1999 and Zitty in 2001 – bear testimony to those fighting years.

But soon enough, they had no other alternative but to agree to the renovations. “I was given money to move out, but I refused.” Following a one-year legal battle, Kalle finally had to leave the house – by then, they had added balconies and new floors and windows – in the spring of 2010. K12 had lost its last squatter.

During his Friedrichshain squatting years, Kalle played bass in a few bands and, with his fellow communards, managed to build and launch Shrine, a nightclub and live music venue on the ground floor of the squat. As his success as a promoter increased, so did the number of attendees, and eventually he moved his parties to larger locations: first Bastard Club and eventually, Maria am Ostbahnhof. The club parties led to a temporary fill-in gig at the coat check, then jobs behind the bar and at the door, eventually earning him a seat in the manager’s office.

Through his parties, Kalle also became a self-taught graphic designer: “I originally had someone do it for me, but it was so horrible that I had to postpone my party for a week, because there was no way I was going to hand out this dude’s flyers. So, I got a book on Photoshop and took matters into my own hands.” Soon he was doing graphic design for clubs and tattoo shops around Berlin.

Contemplatively glaring at the ceiling, chewing slowly, Kalle recalls further memories: DJing at White Trash, Karneval der Verpeilten and Bar25, working for Philip Morris (the only job he ever applied for) and modelling.

“At the beginning we were so strapped for cash that our unofficial house mom organised nude modelling jobs for all the guys there. It was like she pimped us out to the art students – only we kept all the money,” he laughs.

Kalle’s modelling career culminated when he was approached by an agency, he says, sliding a wrapped CD and the 2002 issue of Summerlove, a Love Parade-themed party pamphlet, across the table: a young Kalle striking an angelic pose graces the cover. “Yeah, I thought modelling was a pain in the ass and I felt kind of stupid doing it.”

Kalle stopped hosting parties in 2004 as bigger opportunities rolled in: he began doing sponsorships for Smirnoff Vodka, helped install the light and sound system at Watergate and, for a short period, became the doorman there until one of the city’s first post-Wende hipster-havens, Conny Opper’s Rio club, offered him the official guest selector position.

Another nightlife job fell in Kalle’s lap when the legendary Tresor club reopened on Köpenicker Straße in 2007. “I set up the bar and hired my own crew – which were, of course, all my friends. That didn’t last too long because the guests didn’t like us – we just didn’t fit in with the hardcore Brandenburg scene.”

Kalle remembers his nightlife days fondly, waxing nostalgic about early run-ins with local luminaries, like Peaches: “I first met her in Bastards when she did her debut record release… I was sitting on a ladder setting up projectors, when this shy polite girl asks me whether I could show her slides. ‘Okay, what are they of ?’ ‘My crotch,’ she said…”

After rising through the club scene, Kalle became more serious about his career. His relaxed networking style, decade worth of connections and southern charm eventually led him to marketing and sales management positions: he was a city manager for the Mitte marketing agency Häberlein und Mauerer and went on working for big corporations like Puma, Philip Morris and several local beverage distribution companies. Transportation was no longer limited to bikes, trains or scooters: he was now behind the wheels of BMWs, Land Rovers and classic convertibles.

His e-ticket reads: “Oct 6, Berlin – London – Washington DC”. “It’s only a two-hour car drive to Richmond, Virginia. My dad’s picking me up,” says Kalle.

So, after finally grabbing the good life, how can he leave it behind? “The main reasons are my family and my roots,” he says. “And I really miss the friendliness and openness of Americans.”

He takes a deep breath. “I’m going to miss a lot about Berlin as well, because I’m moving back to a place that’s small and conservative: 1:30am they serve the last drink, 1:45am they grab the drink out of your hand and 2am everybody is standing out on the street. Then there’s the lack of culture…”

There’s a long silence as Kalle contemplates his departure from a city that’s captured his heart. “It’s nice to kind of stopat the top of your game,” he says, “I just want to go back to see how it is to carry out a normal, American, adult life.”