Berlin’s ‘Newspaper Poet’ Walks in a Long Line of Eccentrics – New York Times

Along the way, Mr. Bleck has become a kind of cultural fixture, joining a tradition of beloved oddball Berlin characters that dates to the 19th century.

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Mr. Bleck picking up his stack of newspapers earlier in the day. Selling Die Welt is now his only job.

Credit
Gordon Welters for The New York Times

Back then, Jewish Berliners imported Parisian-style cafe and cabaret culture to their city, said Burkhard Meyer-Sickendiek, a literature professor at Berlin’s Free University. “It was a funny way of engaging with bourgeois Prussian society, and became an important part of Jewish intellectual life.”

In Mr. Bleck — whose recent rhymes include “Kiss kiss, smoochy smoochy, how embarrassing! It’s Scaramucci,” which works in German as well as English — Mr. Meyer-Sickendiek sees an heir to the Jewish humorists of that time. (One of those in the 19th century, Julius Stettenheim, had a routine in which he pretended to be reporting from the front during the Russian-Turkish War while wearing a bathrobe and drinking a beer.)

“Berlin loves these kinds of people,” Mr. Meyer-Sickendiek added. “People who don’t behave as you’re expected to.”

Mr. Bleck has a lengthy list of longtime fans. In one evening, those professing admiration included multiple waitresses; the deputy editor in chief of the giant national tabloid Bild, Florian von Heintze; and a former German defense minister, Volker Rühe. “I’ve known him for 20 years and I hope he does this for another 20,” Mr. Rühe said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Bleck still faces a nightly challenge of winning over the vast majority of his public, the tourists and local people who have never heard of him. “At first, I always stutter and stumble,” he said. “My self-confidence vacillates a lot, from day to day. Sometimes people think I’m homeless, selling this ‘street sheet.’”

On this particular night, Paris Moskau was almost empty. Mr. Bleck got into position next to a table — papers across his chest like a shield, eyes fixed to the ground — and, in his lyrical voice, began reciting. After a sale, he headed quickly to Zollpackhof, a riverside beer garden with a view of the German chancellery.

The first tables ignored him, as he urged, “Pay 250 cents! If not for the paper, then for the talent!”

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Mr. Bleck at the restaurant Il Punto. He has become a cultural fixture in Berlin.

Credit
Gordon Welters for The New York Times

By the fourth table, though, under a grand old chestnut tree, Mr. Bleck hit his stride: the guests beamed up at him, throwing their heads back with laughter. One drinker protested he was no longer capable of reading the paper. “You’ll be sober in the morning!” countered Mr. Bleck. A quarter of an hour later he had sold 16 papers and was off, walking briskly through the darkened government district toward more lively streets.

At the upscale wine bar and restaurant Lutter & Wegner, the manager, Sasha-Michael Gruel, smiled at Mr. Bleck as he came in. “Anyone who comes to Berlin, or lives here, they recognize he belongs to traditional Berlin,” Mr. Gruel said.

While it is not entirely clear that everyone who buys a paper from Mr. Bleck ever reads it, Ulf Poschardt, editor in chief of Die Welt, is happy that Mr. Bleck now sells his exclusively. “I was always fascinated by him,” said Mr. Poschardt, who said he always buys a copy from the poet when he sees him, but has never told Mr. Bleck that he actually runs the newspaper.

“We all know the future is digital,” he said. “ But people like him show all the romanticism of old journalism. He makes this effort we put into our newspaper really poetic.”

Poetry initially played only a small role in Mr. Bleck’s life. He won a poetry prize as a teenager in East Germany, but he dropped out of a poetry club out of boredom and moved on to other things.

Trained to operate an offset printing press, he became so nervous before his qualifying test that he failed. Later, having passed the test, he found the work unbearably dull. “If you’re creative, it’s really monotonous,” he said.

Mr. Bleck began by selling newspapers part time. His first night on the job, he sold only 20. “The guy I was working for said, ‘That won’t do!’” Then Mr. Bleck remembered the Christmas poems he had to recite as a child before he could receive his presents. “I decided to make a poem, out of desperation,” he said. It worked, and his unusual career began.

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Mr. Bleck counting up the receipts from a night’s work. “Sometimes I worry that I have nothing saved,” he said.

Credit
Gordon Welters for The New York Times

It was only in 2008 that Mr. Bleck discovered he had ADHD. “I thought maybe I had it,” he said. “I’m chaotic, sometimes I have a hard time sending in my bills on time. I know that I dumbfound people.”

Ultimately, he decided against taking medication, reasoning that he was happy with his current life, working three hours a day, five days a week, and living in a small, unrenovated apartment. “I’m getting older,” he said. “Sometimes I worry that I have nothing saved, and think I should get a different job, not just live from reciting poems for people at night.”

As the night stretched on, the poet found his flow. In low-lit dining rooms and at sidewalk tables, the responses grew warmer and warmer. “It touches the heart,” said Sabine Dozel, visiting from Hamburg, as she bought a paper from Mr. Bleck at the French restaurant Entrecôte.

“He should be the press speaker for the White House,” said Christian Sommer, a movie industry lobbyist who was sitting nearby.

Outside Borchardt, where the creative class drinks champagne, a woman in silver high heels asked Mr. Bleck if he had another job. “No,” he said. “That’s why I can really blossom here.”

At the end of the night, Mr. Bleck rested at the bar in the back of an Italian eatery that has a standing order for one copy of Die Welt. He admitted he often feels he has not accomplished enough, that his fear of larger, cabaret theater-style audiences can be debilitating. Still, he said, he is happy with what he does.

Setting down his Coke, Mr. Bleck picked up one of the few unsold papers. “Studies show it’s much easier to concentrate on the printed word, that you can pay a lot more attention without things flashing at you all the time,” Mr. Bleck said. “In our world, everything is too fast, it’s all rushing by us. But a newspaper, it’s something you can hold on to.”


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