Last year on the S1

At Düsseldorf Flughafenbahnhof, on Gleis 5, a man is waiting on the S1 to Dortmund, though he is going to Duisburg. He is lean and toned and fortyish. And I take him for homeless. He has a large see-through plastic bin bag crammed full of empty plastic bottles and he’ll take these to a popular supermarket chain and cash them in. There’s a refund on plastic bottles and the airport must offer rich pickings. And although it may not officially be recognised as “work”, he is nonethelss gainfully employed, has an occupation, and keeps the rest of us from drowning by our own hand in our own throwaway shit. He is an eco-warrior. He is a freelance refuse collector. And so he boards the S1 with his uncashed cheques. He is thrown one or two dubious looks from commuters coming from office-work in the city. Others try deliberately not to notice him, which makes him an embarassment to them because, naturally, they had to first notice him in order not to notice him. But it is not embarassment. After all — it is not the self that is exposed to ridicule. It is shame. They are ashamed of him. And what does he think about it all?

I like to think he has pride in what he does. He is, after all, self-employed. But he hasn’t the necessity of filling in tax returns or looking for loopholes. His office is vast: it is air-conditioned and has extensive outdoor areas. He can stretch his legs in the summer and keep warm in winter. He knows others are ashamed of him, so speaks to no-one, meaning that his autobiography, his unity of self, remains undefined, at least so far as the polite world is concerned: No self really has completeness or stability, but we like to entertain the illusion of a well-ordered self-identity. Ordnung muß sein! No doubt he has a self-for-others recorded in official documents, a ready-made identity which can be referred to at a glance. But on Gleis 5, or else on the S1, if shame involves being seen, then he has no need of shame, for he is not seen. Though not seeing him takes practice. He does not sit, as others do, but stands near the doors, looking through the glass as fields and suburbs swap places repeatedly. How would we describe him in German? Einer von denen.

A year or two back, I remember — outside the Borchert Theatre in Münster — there was a man in a wheelchair, shouting angrily, a copy of Draußen held above his head like a reproach and, with great difficulty, pushing himself backwards with his other hand. Einer von denen. On Hafenpromenade, one or two people looked on with concern, while others found it hard to hide their irritation. Der Andere von Immer. But here on the S1, all is calm. I look at the plastic bottles in the plastic bag: bound for recycling, rather than to float like a barge on the ocean. And I think back to the 1970s when I used to wander the verges down towards the Leven, collecting glass cheques that we would take to various shops and, with our takings, buy sweets and, perhaps, another bottle, which afterwards we’d throw away. No-one retired early and no-one lived in luxury but for a day here and there we lived the high life until we made ourselves sick on sherbet dabs and tubes of toffo. We had no need of shame either, since we were only children. I can laugh now. I can confess all. We were not hungry. Greed has a sweet tooth. I look at my luggage and check the time. Check the platform number and time for my next connection: check the seat number too, to make sure I will be in my contracted place. The world goes on, inside and outside. Even here on the S1 we present only a microcosm of the whole.

Written by Gregor Addison

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