The restaurant was on basement level. Joachim just needed to take a step off the busy street, through a pathway framed by overgrown fences and a steep descent down the dusty, worn-down stairs that looked like they were built in Roman times. The massive oak-wood door felt appropriately ancient as well. As did the the sound in the air, when the door silently surrendered to Joachim‘s weight and slowly swung open.
Misty was the word to describe the place. There was an open kitchen just behind a narrow bar. With only the tiniest of windows on top of the rough stone walls, the kitchen fumes had nowhere to go. They were not thick enough to obscure anything, but it gave the whole place and especially the tables – tiny candle-lit islands inside a shallow pit – a dream-like ambiance. And they were definitely intoxicating.
Floating on a cloud of sizzling meat and stewing bolognese, Joachim‘s path was blocked by a smiling waiter. A short and stocky old man with a heartily protruding gray full-beard and an immaculate white shirt.
“Do you have a reservation?“ he asked. He sounded like an Italian fairy-tale uncle and had one of his thick short fingers on a leather-bound ledger in front of him.
Joachim blinked. What had been the headhunter‘s name again? It was one of those names that people say at the beginning of a phone conversation where his brain made the decision if this was a stranger or not and then if this was important or not. A name spoken on the phone was something to be categorized, not remembered.
He blinked again. The pressures of the work-day had left him in a daze. Did he have his name in an email somewhere? He shoved his hand into his jeans pocket trying to coax out his phone.
“Are you Herr Schwartz?“ the waiter asked.
“Yes,“ he said, looking up gratefully.
“Follow me,“ said the waiter.
The waiter went three steps ahead, then turned around halfway in friendly expectation.
All right then, Mr. Mysterious.
They navigated around the round tables and the other diners on their conversation islands. The place was half-full with guests, a few of them, blessedly, dressed a bit worse than Joachim was (sweaty purple polo shirt, dusty jeans that had crawled under a dozen desks today, the uniform of IT people all over Germany). At the other end of the restaurant was a single booth that looked like it was carved into the rock. A small sturdy table stood in there with a single chair in front of it, its back to the room, and a small bench on the wall-side.
The table looked different in design and making from the rest of the furniture. It was massive, while the other tables and chairs had thin legs. Its top was covered by a copper plate, all battered and historical-looking.
“Herr Sanft has not arrived yet,“ said the waiter.
“Yes, I‘m tragically early,“ said Joachim, trying to smile in a friendly way, getting an even friendlier smile in return.
Joachim sunk down inside the chair. The wood moaned softly underneath his weight. It wasn‘t padded, yet the wood was flexible enough to pass for comfortable.
He stared at the empty bench across from him, when he noticed somebody beelining for his table out of the corner of his eye.
“Good evening, Vittorio,“ said a sonorous voice. “Did your daughter get better?“
Joachim could see the waiter – Vittorio – bow slightly as he shook an old man‘s hand.
“Yes, she did,“ said Vittorio. “And you will never guess the first thing – the very first thing – she asked when she got better!“
“What was that,“ said the voice.
Joachim felt like he was eavesdropping at this point. They were standing behind him, but he enjoyed listening in a little bit too much. He had trouble making emotional connections. People who did it with ease fascinated him.
“She got up and smiled and said ‚Papa, can we go to the orthodontist now?‘. Can you imagine? An eight year old girl excited about getting braces?“
A thoughtful pause.
“She is a fascinating kid, your daughter.“
“That she is,“ said Vittorio. “Your guest tonight has already arrived and I took the liberty of opening your customary Gaja Barbaresco for you.“
With a jolt, Joachim stood up at this, nearly knocking back his public monument of a chair.
Turning around he saw a man that was as tall as Vittorio the waiter was short. Hairless and wrinkled he looked like a seventy-year-old on his third round of chemo, yet he had the easy posture of a much younger man. The suit the man wore was a thing of wonder. An elegant combination of a jacket, a vest, a shirt and a tie in black, blue, dark green and white, with accents of silver holding it together. Each layer was thick and expensive-looking and obviously made by someone who had cared deeply about his craft. The man wore it effortlessly, the fabric hugging the figure of a dancer.
“Joachim Schwarz?“ he asked.
The man had no eyebrows, yet his creased face lost nothing of its expressiveness because of it.
Joachim smiled and extended his hand, playing his usual job interview persona. Friendly, professional, not at all under-dressed. Well, at least his wrinkly black battle-worn leather shoes were still passing for shiny.
The man shook it.
“Matthäus Sanft,“ he introduced himself. The professional smile that he mirrored made him look like a kind grandfather. “Please sit.“
He not so much sat, as eased and hovered down onto his bench. Immediately, Joachim held his hands up in polite defense.
“Look,“ he said. “As I said before-“
“You are here for the free meal,“ said Sanft, his tone amused. “I am aware. And it will be a good one. Won‘t it Vittorio?“
The waiter smiled and bowed slightly, just as much as his heavy set figure would allow.
“What would you like to drink, Herr Schwartz?“
“Just some water please,“ said Joachim, as Vittorio made his way around the table, placing silverware, a large plate and a heavy cotton napkin in front of each of them.
“Can I tempt you to try the wine?“ said Sanft. “You will not believe how good it is, until you have tasted it.“
Joachim made eye-contact with Sanft‘s dark eyes. He wasn‘t one to drink during important conversations, but… it was Friday. And he didn‘t want to be impolite. And one sip couldn‘t kill him.
“Oh well, it‘s the weekend,“ said Joachim. He turned to Vittorio, “and a wine glass please so I can try a sip.“
Vittorio accepted the order with a friendly nod and disappeared.
“What I‘m trying to say is: Fair is fair,“ said Joachim. “I will listen to your pitch and will consider it honestly.“
“Most kind,“ said Sanft. “You do realize that this is a job interview as well? I will be evaluating you, just as you will be evaluating me.”
Sanft placed first the napkin, then his hands into his lap and then seemed content to just look at Joachim.
Joachim felt awkward. He had suddenly forgotten why he had wanted to be here in the first place.
“This feels weird,” said Joachim. “Feels like I’m cheating on my wife.”
Sanft raised the eyebrows he didn‘t have.
“You are married?”
Joachim shook his head.
“No, I‘m not.“
Sanft fished for eye-contact and Joachim met his gaze.
“There is nothing wrong with exploring your options,“ he said.
Joachim smiled wistfully.
“This feels a step further than a Google search.“
“It doesn’t need to be anything else though.”
Vittorio arrived with the wine, letting it hover before Joachim, allowing him to read the label – it had a year on it and a bunch of fancy Italian words – then he produced two wine glasses with a flourish and gently set them down at what seemed to be a precise distance from either plate.
Vittorio poured the wine with an almost religious gravitas. It was deep and red and flowed into the glasses with the lowest of murmurs.
Afterwards he hovered about. Joachim looking up at him was enough to prompt him to speak.
“Herr Sanft has taken the liberty to order our signature four course meal in advance. Crayfish with avocado tartar on baby spinach, followed by home-made ravioli with spinach and ricotta, then either Saltimbocca alla Romana or sole in lemon sauce. As a dessert we serve panna cotta with hot forest fruits.”
“The veal for me, thank you Vittorio,” said Sanft.
Was Joachim going to have… Oh what did it matter?
“For me too, please.”
Vittorio didn’t write any of this down. He simply said: “Please let me know if you need anything at all.”
Then he left.
Sanft had gone back to quietly looking at Joachim. Was this really the same person who had called him at work three times? Or did they have cold-callers on payroll and brought people like Sanft in to finish things off?
“Look,” said Joachim, “I’m going to be honest with you.”
More staring. What was up with this man?
“I’m not sure I should leave my current employer this soon,” said Joachim. “I barely even worked there a year. How would it look if I switched now?”
“Like a better offer came along,” said Sanft.
Joachim nodded in mock appreciation.
“That is… confident,” he said.
OK, two can play this game. Joachim imitated Sanft’s gesture with the napkin and placed his hands on his lap. Then just looked at him.
A minute went by.
“So you are going to seduce me then?” said Joachim.
“I don’t know,” said Sanft. “But let us find out.”
Joachim perked up.
“Let me ask you a question, Herr Schwartz”, said Sanft. “Are you happy where you are right now?”
This did seem like a fairly standard question, yet Joachim needed to think about this, before he could answer.
“Well…,” he said. “Yes. Reasonably. I mean no job is perfect, but… I’m glad to have it. The people are great. So is the atmosphere.”
This sounded beyond lame. Joachim wanted to present himself as a rising star. Somebody who had been offered his dream job, with no offer in the world being able to make him err off course. But it wasn’t. It was just… reasonably good. And Joachim had a distinct feeling that he wouldn’t have had an easy time to fool Sanft on this point.
“Do you have challenges?” said Sanft. “Are you making a comfortable living? Are you moving ahead in life? Could you see yourself working there in five years?”
Could he? Another tough question. Though much easier to bridge his insecurities here.
“Yes, I could,” he said.
“Well there you have it,” said Sanft, gesturing towards Joachim with his long, thin, leathery hand. “If you have everything you need or want, what could I possibly tempt you with?”
That… made sense.
“Even if I wanted to,” Sanft continued, “nobody can seduce a happy person. What I will do is show you an alternative path your life could take. If I’m lucky, you might decide to seduce yourself.”
Joachim leaned back into the hardest backrest mankind had ever created.
“OK,” he said. “All right. Please tell me about the job.”
Joachim had been on some weird job interviews in his life. There was the consultant who had asked him what kind of salad he would be and why. Or the assessment center inside this bank where they tried to compete at a board game, but everyone only had a fraction of the rules. And also the software engineer who said he let Joachim ask the questions and use those to assess whether he was the right man for the job. Until this day though, he had never been interviewed by an actual, bonafide demon. It took him a while to recognize him as one, Joachim being an atheist and all.
All of this came back to Kukomu anyway.
Kukomu was the Nigerian version of your average Western bureaucrat. The kind of guy who does the filing for the guy who does the filing and basically stamps papers all day. Receding hairline. Thick moustache. The social charms of a stapler. He dressed like people used to dress in the sixties. Department store shirt in mauve, brown or stripes. Cotton pants. Black leather shoes at all times. Joachim worked in IT and even he questioned Kukomu’s fashion choices.
As a German who had grown up amongst white people all of his life, he found the color of Kukomu‘s skin fascinating. He was black. Not tanned, not brown, but pitch-black. The contrast between his skin and his eyes caused Joachim to stare at him to the point of uncomfortableness.
Kukomu was the quietest man Joachim had ever met. It wasn‘t just that he didn‘t say much, he also moved without making a sound, seemingly just appearing at places like a cat. Or a really suburban, African version of Batman. The night Joachim had met him Kukomu had pure helplessness written inside his eyes.
Munich Central Station looked like a an abandoned world war two airplane hangar. Huge walls and a tall roof with steel trusses, large enough for sixteen trains to drive in side by side. Large enough to hold a whole lot of darkness and loneliness.
The giant billboards showing color-rich shots somebody had taken on their new cellphone had been swallowed by it. The Starbucks logo had gone to sleep. Just a few stragglers shuffled through the emptiness of the space, along a tiled floor paved with flat chewing gum and stray newspapers, their steps echoing in the distance, joining up with Joachim‘s own. And there he stood.
Like a suitcase nobody had cared to pick up. His arms were extended in powerlessness as he tried to make sense of the arcane secrets of the Munich subway plan. His disheveled head turned as Joachim walked past him. He saw him. He immediately walked towards him. Joachim was having none of it.
Joachim was feeling seven kinds of tired. His eyes burned. His bones creaked as they rubbed against each other. His back was a mess. He had carried a heavy side strap bag along the entirety of the Munich airport. After flying back from the other end of Germany. After getting up at silly o’clock in the morning. He had waited an hour for the suburban train to arrive there, had spent more than an hour riding back into the city and finally – finally, finally, finally – saw the comforts of his nerd cave appearing on the horizon, just a tiny subway ride, about fifteen minutes of walking and four stories up the stairs with no elevator. He could do this. He could do this. He could-
“Excuse me,” said a polite voice in perfect English. “Could you help me with this?”
Joachim tried to glare at him, but only managed a tired look. The better parts of his upbringing took over and he heard myself saying: “Well, certainly. What are you trying to do?”
It was his best helpdesk voice, too. Talking felt weird. The inside of his mouth was acidic with cheap airport coffee and at the same time sort of dry.
“I’m trying to get to this address,” said the stranger, pointing at a folded and battered stack of papers in his hand with said address circled. “What kind of ticket do I need to buy?”
Joachim took a closer look and his heart sunk.
The man was a refugee.
The papers were filled with stern bureaucratic Legalese. They instructed him to go to this location and not to err off his course while getting there. He had gotten here from Dortmund, which meant he had not travelled less than Joachim had today. And he had probably done it by cheap regional trains. The camp was in Feldmoching. Same subway that Joachim was going to take to get home.
Joachim glanced at him again. Nerdy shirt, dusty and sweaty, cotton pants and leather shoes that had seen better days. Not to mention the fear in his dark brown eyes and the skittish way in which he moved. He seemed utterly intimidated.
Stifling a sigh Joachim stepped towards the plan and pointed at the stops.
„Right here, you see? That‘s three rings,“ he said. Rings were the traffic zones the city used. Mixing those up could get someone stuck with a ticket several times the price of the one one could have used. Or with a sixty euro fine for buying the wrong one.
Joachim went through the entire plans hanging there with him, explaining it to him three times – which ticket he needed to buy, what train to get on, where to get off, yes one ticket for the subway and the bus is enough, trust me – but each time the stranger seemed to get more confused.
Finally Joachim operated the ticket machine myself.
„There,“ he said pointing at the dirty touchscreen display. It demanded five euros and forty cents for a one-way trip in stern, bold, black letters.
The stranger hesitated.
Here we go, Joachim thought, he was about to get scammed. Nobody talks to anybody they don‘t know in a German train or subway station, unless maybe to ask for directions. All the other conversations he had had were beggars, scammers and confused drunk homeless people talking incomprehensible gibberish that he – yes he! – absolutely had to listen to.
The stranger opened a strangely shaped leather wallet that didn‘t have a coin pouch and folded two more times than should have been necessary. When he opened it, all Joachim saw was a sad lonely ten euro bill.
„That‘s almost all I have,“ said the stranger.
Joachim kept his face straight. He couldn‘t let himself be moved.
„That‘s how much it costs,“ he told him.
His wallet filled with the seventy euros of a middle-class IT worker was feeling uncomfortably heavy at this point.
After a pause of several seconds the stranger finally fed the bill into the machine‘s greedy bill receptacle. Joachim gave him a brisk goodbye and was on his way.
The escalator downwards looked and smelled like somebody had chewed and peed on it. Maybe not even in that order. Joachim‘s brain was giving it this glow that only the promise of the comforts of his bed and maybe bootlegged American TV shows streaming through optic fiber could give. His legs stopped, suddenly anchored to the ground. It was that pang of guilt that he felt all of a sudden. The stranger might have been for real. Those papers sure looked legit. It‘s not like he asked for Joachim‘s credit card number. As long as he wasn‘t giving him money…
„Hey,“ Joachim said over his shoulder. „We are actually going to be on the same train. Would you like to join me?“