I kept glancing up at the tall Gothic lamps spaced out every so often on the trail gently curving through the gloom of the Plänterwald. I knew from past runs that these lamps would soon disappear from the side of the trail as I made more progress. The run up to this point had been almost disappointing in its lack of drama. I was amazed at the feeling I had of my feet and legs knowing the way all on their own without much input from me. This was my regular run, but I was also a beginner and had probably only done the route fifteen or twenty times. That was enough for my body to go on auto-pilot. I'd come through the little park fronting the Spree River and headed up over a railroad bridge toward Treptower Park with a postcard view of Berlin's comic TV Tower, the iconic Fernsehturm, looming a few miles downriver, its dimpled dome making me smile with "Jetsons" associations. As an American living in Berlin I never got tired of the "Let's do the Time Warp" feeling of looking at the TV Tower and feeling pulled back into the past. It was as if it was October 1969 again and, Communist Party leader Walter Ulbricht was celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic by all in one day marking the opening of the Fernsehturm and then throwing a switch to bring color television for the first time to GDR residents. Modernity had arrived! Somehow that eager embrace of the future, that hungry pursuit of progress in technology, felt so sad and funny, from the perspective of so many years later, so forlorn and misguided. Putting such thoughts aside, I was glad to veer sharply left at the far end of the bridge and run along the bank of the river.
I had been carried along by the giddy sense of release that came with doing something I didn't think I would do, running at night, even though the largest obstacle through the first miles was that of feeling like a loser. Whenever it's summer in Berlin there are always legions of people out enjoying themselves, beers in hand. I kept passing little groups of these types who would look at me sideways and smirk or say something rude to the gray-haired loser jogger dude out for a run at such an hour. I'd run about four miles, the last of it along a pebbly stretch of tree-bounded trail that was completely dark, when for the first time I had a sense of foreboding. I could hear snickering and something like caterwauling up ahead.
I kept my eyes moving, not really scanning, since when you're looking around in the dark you really don't see much of anything, but keeping them moving anyway, just in case. As I kept running I caught glimpses of the glow of a fire, eight meters back from the trail, and of forms huddled around, clinking beer bottles and making the loud, growling sounds that for some reason young German men with beer in their bodies like to make. It is an unnerving sound, embarrassing in the way it calls to mind the desperate need for release that explains bursting forth with a sound so feral. It is also of course a sound that advertises menace or threat. This was mostly an abstraction, since street violence of any kind was basically unheard-of in Berlin. For someone who had lived a year in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, a block away from where Biggie Smalls used to sling crack (and this before gentrification started to transform the neighborhood), there was something deeply comic and ludicrous in the idea of German boys from middle-class families trying to look tough.
I smiled to myself at the Bed-Stuy comparison as I kept running. But I'll admit, my pulse quickened. I had so loved the feeling of being alone in the quiet night of Berlin, it felt like a small violation, these loud revelers. Then I was past them and it all seemed so stupid. They didn't care about me. I didn't care about them. Losing yourself in a run meant never having to care about any of that. On a purely practical level, I was warmed up and in gear and if anyone felt like menacing me I could sprint past them and off into the night in seconds. This was an aspect of night running, the feeling of venturing into some new realm, where what would normally alarm you might soothe you instead and where what would soothe you most of the time might seem suddenly alarming. But I was still going. The night was still enveloping me in its pregnant calm. In almost no time, as I ran deeper into the dark along that riverside trail, the memory of the fire and the rowdy little group flickered into a point of recollection and then vanished.