Thursday, December 3, 2015

“Just a Minute!”

Advent, Advent! This is our Advent calendar up to December 24. Today, on December 3, 1926, Kurt Tucholsky took over the helm at Die Weltbühne, the weekly magazine he was working for, after Siegfried Jacobsohn, the longtime editor and friend, had died. Jacobsohn was a left-wing theater critic in Weimar Germany, and Tucholsky became one of most important journalists, satirist and political writers of the Weimar Republic. He was an acerbic critic and an early warner of the Nazis, but most of all, he was a very funny writer with a huge audience; Berlin's Jon Stewart, so to speak.

So here is your gift: Not only do you get a free e-book with a Tucholsky-story about the inner workings of the Weimar theater business if you sign up for our newsletter at, here is also one of his stories about Berlin, written under one of his four pseudonyms, Peter Panter, translated by Cindy Opitz.

“Just a Minute!”

Peter Panter, Vossische Zeitung, January 1, 1927

It’s a wellknown fact that a Berliner, left to his own devices, will sit staring at the ground, deep in thought, and suddenly jump up, as if bitten by a tarantula, and ask, “Is there a phone around here?” If Berliners had never existed, the telephone would have invented them. It is above them, and they are its creation.

Imagine a bold young man trying to interrupt a serious businessman during some important negotiations. He won’t be able to do it. Halberds will block his path. Private secretaries will hurl themselves in front of the door; the only way through will be over their dead bodies; any attempt by that still-so-bold young man will fail. If he doesn’t call. If he calls, he can disturb the President’s governing, the editor-in-chief’s editing, and Madam’s fitting. Because in Berlin, the telephone isn’t a mechanical device: it’s an obsession.

When people pound on their doors, Berliners simply won’t open them. But if that little phone rings, they’ll dismiss the most noble visitor, mumbling in that obsequious tone usually heard only among pious sectarians, “Just a minute!” and throw themselves, keenly interested, into that little black speaker-cone. Business, midwife, stock exchange, settlement negotiations—all forgotten. “Hello? Yes? I’m__.Who are you?”

It’s impossible to talk to a Berliner for fifteen minutes without being interrupted by a telephone. How many punch lines fall flat! How much built-up energy flies out the window! All that negotiative cunning, coaxing, and beautifully devious planning in vain! The telephone wasn’t invented by Misters Bell and Reis—V-Vischer filled the box with all its treachery. It only rings when you don’t want it to. How often have I experienced the powerful speech of some visitor convincing the entire room, approaching the summit, victory within reach, hooray, one last step. . . and the telephone rings, and it’s all over. The fat man at the desk, already three-fourths hypnotized, his double chin sinking down over his tie, his lower lip jutting out, relaxed, an iron mask lowering over what he passes off for a face. His hand suddenly gripping the receiver, he forgets his companion, business, and himself. “Dinkelsbühler speaking; who’s this?” Zealously whirling in foreign waters, he’s entirely captivated by this other, unfaithful to his companion of just a minute ago, completely submitting to deceit and betrayal.

His companion is the stupid one. He sits there vacantly, empty, the pathetic, just-uttered word dribbling pointlessly from his mouth, like an old flag in an armory, the banner of some troop long gone. He sits there, ashamed, naked and disoriented, a dull, unfulfilled desire simmering inside. 

What now—?

Now the fat man at the desk talks for a long, long time, the way everyone talks on the phone in Berlin, and there’s only one person talking more: the person on the other end of the line, who must be gushing like a sizable waterfall. The man at the desk gazes thoughtfully at the blotter, his eyes wander to the inkwell, stare vacantly, and then stray to the bald head of the abandoned companion. He even starts doodling, stick figures and shapes, and judging by the quivering membrane of the receiver’s speaker, the guy on the other end must be shouting entire dictionaries into the phone.

The guest wriggles impatiently in his chair at the first signs that the conversation might be ending. “Well, then. . . ,” “All right, let’s plan on it. . .” The guest’s spirits rise, the way a concertgoer’s soul rushes ahead to the coat check when the orchestra gets ominously loud and the conductor flaps his wings to draw more and more brass into the din. . . but there’s still a ways to go. They continue on for quite a while, heading toward the end again and again, but the end doesn’t come. The waiting man feels a growing urge to hit the man on the phone over the head with the Commercial Code. “All right, then—good bye!” He says, and finally hangs up.

And that’s the worst moment of all. The light in the deskman’s eyes switches off with a nearly audible snap. He turns to his abandoned companion with a wink and a feeble expression on his face. “So, where were we?”

You start over from the beginning. You gather up the broken pieces of your conversation from the floor, take a deep breath, and try to get back into the swing of it. . . good night! The momentum is gone, the cleverness is gone, and the desire is gone. The discussion dwindles lamely. You’ve accomplished nothing. And this by her song’s sheer power Fair Lorelei has done.

The reader puts the book down with a quiet smile and thinks for a moment. He jumps up like a deer on the run. The Mona Lisa smiles up from the floor. He rushes to the telephone . . .

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