Tin House's Rob Spillman Talks East and West Berlin, and the Trials of Communist Laundromats
Some kids spend their childhoods playing T-ball and eating paste. Rob Spillman spent his in the wings of West Berlin’s opera houses.
Spillman, who would go on to be cofounding editor of Portland’s Tin House magazine, was born to American parents in Germany. After they split, he spent most of his time with his (closeted) gay father, a musician active in the multicultural, bohemian opera world of West Berlin in the '60s and early '70s.
Spillman moved to the U.S. at age 9, and wouldn’t return to Berlin until he was 25 and married. It was 1990: the Berlin Wall had come down, but East and West Germany weren’t yet officially reunified. Spillman, who now lives in New York City, recounts his childhood and early adulthood in his new memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties. In advance of his April 5 reading at Powell's, he told us about growing up in the queer opera world, navigating Berlin’s legal limbo, and attempting to give lessons in capitalism to laundromat owners.
As a child growing up in West Berlin, you witnessed quite the contrast between tidy, conservative American military families and the artistic, bohemian culture to which your parents belonged.
It was very strange going from the Presbyterian Church, which was mostly Army families—neat, orderly, buttoned-up, kind of Norman Rockwell. All the men had crewcuts and dressed conservatively. The kids played baseball and had cookouts. It seemed very alien to me, compared to the queer opera world, which was anything but. The army and church world was very homogenous—they were officers and tended to be white, while the opera world was very multi-culti and all over the place.
What are your most vivid memories from that time?
Looking out onstage from the wings, especially in the big ensemble pieces like Aida, where you had 200 people onstage. The whole spectacle of that was pretty incredible. As I got older and we spent our summers in Aspen, I started going to more of the cast parties, and that’s where I saw more crazy behavior, a lot more drugs. I was probably around it in Berlin, but as a little kid I didn’t really notice. In that world, there’s not that much of a difference between people on drugs and people off drugs. People had really big personalities or were very flamboyant—they were either being a diva or they were on something.
When you returned as a 25-year-old, Berlin was in a limbo period—the Berlin Wall had just come down, but Germany wasn’t officially reunified.
It was really exciting. It was this lawless state. There was still this exuberance on the Eastern side from the citizens—they were liberated, and there was all this hope and potential. There was this legal and financial limbo, meaning that the police didn’t have authority to come over and enforce anything, but also that the lurking Western banks and investors and speculators couldn’t come in and buy up property yet. So ordinary citizens were taking over spaces and establishing these really cool things. There were all sorts of new bars and new performance spaces. Wherever there was a space and an idea, people would knock down the doors and create something. It was a really exuberant time to be there. But also scary—with the skinheads, for example.
There’s a great moment in the book where you’re set on finding a laundromat in the East rather than crossing to the West. And you finally stumble upon an industrial laundromat, but they’ve never done personal laundry—and they proceed to inspect every single item of dirty clothing.
It was torture. They literally looked at every single place of clothing, examined each sock. Like, really? Yep, both socks are equally dirty. They just had to inspect everything. That was just how they operated. It was so foreign to them—they only did one thing, which was bulk orders of uniforms. It was just such an alien idea to do an ordinary citizen’s laundry.
And after they inspected your laundry, they told you it would take eight days—eight days!—to get the job done. And you’d been so set on keeping your business in the East...
I had this delusion that the Easterners were going to be able to fend for themselves and create their own space. A lot of the people we met were really proud to be East German, and proud that they had overcome the government themselves—that they had peacefully demonstrated to the point where the government had shut down. A lot of us felt that maybe this utopian ideal would continue if East Germans could establish themselves enough financially. Places like the laundromat that were already established, all they had to do was tap into the local community, and they would support them. It was really frustrating to go in there and say, "Look, this is how you can survive." And they couldn’t see it. It was as if I was speaking a completely different language.
In a way you were—you were speaking the language of capitalism.
That was the most extreme example. Most places we were going, people had carved out some space, so they tended to be younger and hipper, and more entrepreneurial. Or they just weren’t set up to make a profit. They were like, Wouldn’t it be cool to pool our money to buy some wine and drink it out in public, which we could never do before? It wasn’t necessarily capitalist motivations.
You were in Berlin for about seven weeks at that time, and you haven’t spent much time in the city since. Do you feel like you got Berlin out of your system?
As soon as we left, and by unification, that utopian moment ended. It’s still a really exciting, dynamic city. But that moment of limbo was definitely a historical blip.
Rob Spillman is at Powell's City of Books on Tuesday, April 5.