A while ago I was working on a story about poverty in Germany. I found out about a place called Kaffee Bankrott, where people go to get cheap meals and emergency shelter.
I went there one grey and humid afternoon. On the way in, a group of young men speaking a foreign language looked me up and down. I smiled at them stupidly. I always do that when I’m nervous.
The cafe was full. Some people looked down-and-out. Others were in suits. Everyone was staring at me.
There’s something despicable about walking into a place like that and telling people that you’re a journalist – working on a story about poverty.
But that’s what I did – I approached an elderly man with a long beard.
“No,” he said.
I looked at his friend.
But something about my polite response to rejection must have softened them.
The first man made a joke. “That guy’s a millionaire,” he said, pointing to his shabby companion. “He’s not what you’re after.”
I laughed. “That’s another story then,” I said. “I’ll be back for it!”
I began circulating again. I am relatively good and identifying an open face. There weren’t any here.
But then I spotted a blonde head bent over an A4 pad. A middle-aged woman was sitting alone, smoking and writing furiously. I was drawn to her like a magnet.
I told her who I was, what I was doing, that I was Irish. The latter is a bad habit I’ve developed so that I seem like more of an outsider. It cushions the blow when you act like an idiot.
“Well then we can talk in English,” she said.
I was too stunned to ask why she could speak perfect English and why it sounded as if she’d learnt it in America.
We made an arrangement to meet the following week.
This is the write-up of the interview which was published in an English language broadsheet last month.
Café Bankrott in Berlin’s Prenzlauerberg district provides cheap meals and a place to stay for people in need. 49-year-old Astrid Baty comes here nearly every day. She gets a coffee, takes out a notepad and pen, lights a cigarette and begins to write, furiously.
Her stories are based on the Final Fantasy video game series. But, she says, “I could easily write a book about my own life.”
Astrid Baty was born in Bochum in western Germany and grew up in the state of Saarland on the French border. After she left school, she trained to become a painter-decorator. There were 8 girls and 240 boys in the class. She didn’t find work in the area so instead got a secretarial qualification. From 1983 to 1990 she lived in the south-western state of Baden-Würtemberg and worked as an office clerk to a broker.
Then at the age of 26, she moved to the United States, where she was to stay for the next eleven years. Within weeks of arriving, she had found a job. She worked as a cartoonist, drawing for small newspapers, as well as for the Marvel company.
“When I arrived, I didn’t speak a word of English,” she says. “But within three months I picked it up. “I read the same Stephen King novel page-by-page in German and English.”
In the more than a decade she spent in the United States, Astrid Baty was never out of work for more than two weeks.
“It helped that I was willing to move 3000 miles,” she says, laughing. She lived in New York, Florida, Los Angeles and Oregon. Her favourite job was with the Salvation Army, helping victims of the Los Angeles earthquake.
In June of 1996, Astrid Baty got married. Five years later however, the marriage broke down. The collapse of her relationship and the election of George W. Bush were behind her decision to move back to Germany. “I began to get the feeling that people who were not born in the US were beginning to be pushed aside,” she says.
Back in Germany, she was offered a job with Lufthansa. “I was going to work at the counter because I had two languages,” she says. “But then September 11th happened and that was the end of that.”
Since then, life has been a struggle. She returned to Saarland and worked in a so-called “mini-job” cleaning a bakery, which paid €400 a month and supplemented her unemployment benefit.
But the job was humiliating. “I was the only one who’d come in every day,” she says. “Eventually I quit the job. I’m not a slave.”
She continued her job hunt but to no avail. “I always get the same response – we’ll call you if something comes up.”
The problem, she believes, is not lack of qualifications, but her age. “I’m not 25 and I don’t have the figure of Claudia Schiffer,” she says.
Still unemployed, Astrid Bates moved to Berlin in 2009. “Saarland was too small,” she says. “Berlin was like New York. I thought there would be more possibilities there.”
Her big hope was to get a job at the new Berlin-Brandenburg airport, which was due to open in 2012. But that project has been plagued by delays and the opening date has been pushed back indefinitely. “It won’t be open until 2075!” she says, chuckling.
Unable to support herself, Astrid Baty ended up on the street for a short time, before somebody told her about Café Bankrott, which is run by the Strassenfeger street newspaper group. The organisation provides emergency accommodation and Astrid Baty stayed there for six months before being provided with a flat from social services.
She volunteers in the kitchen at Café Bankrott and occasionally sells the Strassenfeger. Her impression is that people buy more from women than men. “It also helps that I’m not drunk or on drugs,” she says. “I always make sure I dress well when I’m selling.”
She thanks an old teacher for introducing her to a book which put her off experimenting with drugs. “At school we read Wir Kinder von Bahnhof Zoo by Christiane F and I’ve never forgotten it,” she says. It is a true story of a girl living rough in the area around the Bahnhof Zoo station of the former West Berlin who becomes a drug addict and prostitute. “The idea of selling your body to pay for drugs… it was a horror,” she says.
In 2012, Astrid Baty experienced what could be described as a horror. “I had a sore back,” she says. “But thought nothing of it.” The next thing she knew, she was in hospital. “I had no idea I’d had a heart attack,” she says. She spent a week in intensive care and went through three weeks of rehabilitation.
“They took good care of me,” she says. But in October of last year, she had more heart trouble. As a result, even if she were to get a job, she is now no longer allowed to work more than three hours a day. That puts her on an alternative disability benefit, known as ‘Erwerbsminderungsrente’, which is in the process of coming through.
Both of Astrid Baty’s parents are deceased and she has no contact with her brother. She’s lost touch with her friends in America too.
It’s a situation that would drive many to despair. But Astrid Baty insists that despite her plight, she is happy.
“What’s the use of whining?” she asks. “I overheard a girl complaining about the weather recently. What’s the point in that? We can’t change it!”
“I also have a hobby to keep my mind occupied,” she says. “I write.”
The notepad in front of her contains pages and pages of immaculate script. “I write fan fiction,” she says. “The stories just come to me – it’s like seeing a movie in front of my eyes.” She got her first games console in the United States and has been an avid gamer ever since. A search for her username, “Moonshadowcat” on Germany’s leading fan fiction site, http://www.fanfiktion.de reveals dozens of stories and also directs to a self-built website in both English and German which Astrid Baty uses to promote her services as a painter, translator and secretary.
But if she is cynical about anything, it’s politics. “We get support. But the problem is – while I live on €378 a month, the politicians are earning thousands.”
“Okay, I smoke,” she concedes. “But the money’s still not enough to cover everything else, like train tickets, heating, food, clothes and toiletries.”
She doesn’t believe much will change after the election. “For little people like us, it’ll be the same.” But, she says, she will turn out to vote. “I can’t complain about anything if I don’t vote.”
When it comes to the future, Astrid Baty is ambivalent. “I’ve no big plans,” she says. “I would love to go back to the US. But that’s not possible … I would like to find work.”
Her dream job would have something to do with computers and writing. “Give me a computer and I can do almost anything,” she says.
In the meantime, she plans to keep writing and coming to Café Bankrott, where she has made friends. “But who knows how long I’ve got left after my heart attack?” she says.
This is what slipping through the net looks like.
It’s not a sob-story. Astrid is resilient. And she is content.
The stories she writes are homo-erotic. She has suggestive lips and she laughs a lot. She views death relatively casually.
She has more dignity than most.
But her story represents the tragedy of lost potential.