Taking drugs on the U8

Berlin's U-Bahn can be both a market and shelter for drug addicts. Ruvi Simmons takes a trip into his past.

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Berlin’s U8 U-Bahn line, which runs between Hermannstraße in Neukölln and Wittenau. Photo: IMAGO / Olaf Wagner

A decade after scouring Berlin’s U8 platforms for heroin, Ruvi Simmons revisits his nocturnal haunts, encountering misery, poverty and an increasingly divided city.

It is 3am when my alarm bursts into an atonal clamour. I am out of practice; I fumble with my phone clumsily before it returns to silence, slide out of bed and pull on my clothes with the autonomic movements of a habitual sleepwalker.

I am waking up deep in that stretch of night when experiences leave you unsure whether they were actually real or just some fragment of a displaced dream. The reason is related to something I saw a few weeks earlier when, after a night out with friends, I was sitting alone in one of those deserted trains that operate long before even the earliest commuters stir out of bed.

We were pulling into Moritzplatz U-Bahn station when I looked up and saw a group huddled around one of the metal benches, half-hidden behind a vending machine at one end of the platform. They were shuffling to form a circle in their heavy jackets and tumbledown sneakers when their faces were suddenly caught by the flare of a lighter and the glint of foil.

Further along I saw a youthful figure, keeping himself at a distance, aimlessly pacing the platform before coming to an abrupt halt by a poster vitrine, as if struck suddenly by news of The Black Crowes in concert or the Staatsoper’s production of Così Fan Tutte.

There it was, almost exactly as I remembered it from almost a decade before. If I think about the thing I most associate with Berlin at night, it’s not the dry-iced shapes of strangers dancing in some legendary club. It is this: people gathered along otherwise empty U-Bahn platforms, temporarily transformed into subterranean drug markets for the city’s addicts.

Deserted streets

I am all too familiar with this semi-secret world because I was one of those customers myself, a decade ago when I was still relatively fresh in Berlin. Having gotten myself clean, I moved to Leipzig and for several years only returned for brief visits.

Now, however, in the process of moving back, I have been reacquainting myself with the city and the many transformations that have taken place in my absence: the major construction projects, neighbourhoods suddenly buzzing with new life, Mexican street food and modern office blocks crouching along the Spree like terrible automata.

I remember someone injecting heroin as he crouched by the top of the steps in the pallid, pre-dawn light, and how, as his blood dripped onto the pavement, a sleepy worker passed by trying to look anywhere but down there.

There had been so many changes that it seemed almost unbelievable that this illicit world of dealers and addicts should endure at stations underneath some of the most sought-after, affluent neighbourhoods of the new Berlin. As memories from my own past came back more and more insistently, I decided to investigate. And so I found myself, several weeks after that first unexpected vision, stepping blearily into the deserted streets while the city around me felt doused in a slumber, densely fogged with dreams.

Searching for Roses

I get on the U-Bahn and look out at the familiar stations as we pass by. As an addict years earlier, I would go up and down this stretch between Mitte and Neukölln on the U8 as if trapped in a glitch – up to Voltastraße, then right back to Schönleinstraße, where I would thrust my hands in my pockets to shield them from the cold sweeping down from the streets above, counting the minutes before the next train arrived to take me back exactly the way I’d just come. Up and down, I would position myself by the carriage doors, just so I could half-hang my body out and look each way down every station, searching for a sign.

I am reminded of the dealer I nicknamed Mario Roses, after his preferred station, as we pull into Rosenthaler Platz. Instead of loitering on the platform, customers would wait for him in one of the corridors leading to the stairs. When he was late, which he always was, they would grow anxiously expectant while they stood around together like autograph hunters outside the stage door of a popular theatre.

Now, there is no sign of activity, no customers waiting for the train to take them home, just the shape of a figure laid out asleep across a row of seats, the movement of his breath so muffled by heavy layers of indeterminate clothing that it takes a moment to make sure he is breathing at all.

The tide of affluence that has displaced the genially disordered pace of life in areas like Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain has been accompanied by a similarly rising tide of deprivation. Since returning, I have seen for the first time the tents huddled beneath elevated U-Bahn lines, their nylon surfaces crusted with toxic pigeon shit. The beggars working their way through train carriages no longer a steady number of familiar faces, but an endless procession too numerous to keep count or properly remember. Along Maybachufer, a homeless encampment clings to the same grassy bank where couples sit to enjoy the warmth of an autumn afternoon.

Memories of Moritzplatz

The train keeps going. At Jannowitzbrücke I see two more prone and vulnerable figures with their heads covered in an effort to filter out the relentless throb of the lamps, like otherworldly orbs set into the ceiling above. We stop at Heinrich-Heine-Straße, and for a moment I hesitate over whether or not to get out.

We used to stand at the top of the stairs beneath the long stretches of Plattenbau, feeling suddenly naked and exposed as we waited for a dealer. I remember someone injecting heroin as he crouched by the top of the steps in the pallid, pre-dawn light, and how, as his blood dripped onto the pavement, a sleepy worker passed by trying to look anywhere but down there.

I disembark at Moritzplatz which, 10 years earlier, was the busiest – and the worst – station. Instead of just disappearing, those who bought drugs would go to the far ends of the platform to consume their fix right where they stood. Body parts would poke out from behind columns as they contorted their bodies around foils or spoons. Even before the first dealer, there would be people arriving the moment the station gates were unlocked, warming themselves after half a night exposed to the elements.

These were people without shelter, the most vulnerable addicts in the city. There were familiar faces from the daytime, when they passed up and down train carriages selling the homeless newspaper, Motz, or extending a battered paper cup for change. They staggered into the station with their homes on their backs or slung over their shoulders, all tied up in a chaos of shopping bags overflowing with Pfandflaschen, biscuits, half-eaten packs of Frikadellen, a jumble of clothes and supermarket brochures offering 25% off holidays to Crete, Tenerife and the Austrian Alps.

Multikulti scene

When I first look around, I’m unable to see anything happening. It is only when I stand at the bottom of the stairs, with exits leading off in every direction, that I see figures drifting, as if waiting for something to happen.

I go up the stairs and see more people gathered than I ever remembered. The air is dense with desperation. Some of them are already going into withdrawals; you can hear them snivelling as they pull their hoods down low over their foreheads like medieval penitents. One or two, having arrived without any money, are hustling from person to person, hoping for someone to take pity and relieve them of their suffering.

Berlin’s most desperate addicts gather here in the middle of each night, having simplified their lives into a Groundhog Day of making money to buy drugs and then get high enough to numb its pain.

There are a multitude of ethnicities present and a bundle of languages being spoken, as if the growing internationalism of the city’s workforce and the inflows of capital, which make politicians glow with self-congratulatory pleasure, have been complemented by drawing together addicts from around the world. Yet in another sense they all seem alike, as if addiction has shaped them under the power of the same guiding star; their frayed clothes, the aimless movement of bodies – marked by long hours spent outside in the cold or rain – and the ravaged veins that make their hands and fingers swollen all seeming strikingly similar.

I think back to how I used to be amazed by the diversity of the people waiting with me. There were men in heavy boots and overalls scoring before they went to work. There were also older companions with wire-framed glasses who shared miniature bottles of Kräuterlikör like dissolute college lecturers, rolling unspeakably strong tobacco as they compared drugs or drug dealers the way their grandmothers once gossiped over vegetables at the greengrocer’s. Then there were the Mediterranean goths, with faces waxing white in make-up and meticulous leather outfits. Sometimes I would even bump into people I knew from the world above ground; we would smile bashfully, not sure what to say or who had caught whom in the middle of some semi-shameful, secret act.

Groundhog Day

Here, in the present, it seems impossible to imagine something like that happening. These people have been hardened by hardship the way a knife-blade is sharpened on a whetstone. Another change is also becoming clear from the sheen of sweat across many of their faces, from the sudden, staccato movements of their hands – cocaine addiction.

When I was an addict, you could only buy heroin from these night-time dealers, and that was all most of the customers were dependent on. I start to understand the intensified aggression and intimidating air of unpredictability when I see some of those unable to remain still or manically scheming how to get the most of both drugs for their money.

These are the signs not just of individual addiction, but the desperation and semi-suppressed violence of big city deprivation. Berlin has become richer and a lot its residents more affluent but, at the bottom, its marginalised communities have sunk into new depths. From the otherwise unendurable chaos of existence, Berlin’s most desperate addicts gather here in the middle of each night, having simplified their lives into a Groundhog Day of making money to buy drugs and then getting high enough to numb its pain.

I don’t know what it says about me, but back when I was still using I would make the journey here with growing excitement. The forbidden nature of what I was doing made me feel exhilarated. But I do not feel exhilarated now. I look over at a young man crouched beside the ATM. As he looks up I see that his face is streaked with dried blood, running from his hairline down to his stubbled chin. Close by, two friends are fiddling obsessively with a soot-covered crack pipe.

It is then that I feel a sensation so unexpected that I stand for a moment as if transfixed. It’s like being hypnotised by the ghost of a caressing hand. And then I realise someone is trying to reach into my pocket, straining their fingers for loose money or a phone, just like those claws that grab soft toys in a fairground machine.

I spin around as the hand vanishes. Already backing away, a man is looking at me with an ironic glint in his eye as if to say: Well, what did you expect?

In a way, he is right. What did I expect? The city has, in recent years, been transformed by an influx of capital, bringing with it fresh people and opportunities – but not for everyone. For some, the wealth is something you see happening to others while your own life falls apart.