I’m feeling more than gun-shy as I walk toward the taxi stand at the Ring Center mall near the S-Bahn station on Frankfurter Allee, and I can’t see past the reflection on the windshield as I approach the first cab in line.
How does this go again? I wonder. It’s been two years since my last taxi adventure. What’s German for ‘I’m hungry and I’d like to go to your favorite place to eat’?
The man behind the wheel is large, overflowing in his seat more than sitting in it, smiling tentatively, wearing a t-shirt that matches the blood-tinted ax on the cover of the book he’s reading. His snowy hair is combed in a neat backward-sideward sweep.
I climb into the passenger seat and ask the cabby to take me to Alexanderplatz. He shrugs, then nods, when I ask if I can ask him some questions on the way.
Werner is his name. “I’ve been driving a cab for more than 40 years,” he says, pulling away from the taxi stand. Before that, he worked as a policeman, in what was then East Berlin. He quit that job after three years because it was “too political.” Too political, how? I want to ask, but I don’t. Bad journalist.
“What else am I going to do?” says Werner, when I ask him how he likes driving a taxi after all this time, “I don’t have a wife, my daughter’s married, I get bored sitting at home. I’m supposed to be retired. Can you believe I’ll be 65 in October? But I’d rather be out, working. In the taxi there’s always something new.”
We’re on Karl-Marx-Allee now, heading west. I glance out the window at the TV Tower, glinting in the middle distance. “Berlin has changed a lot in 40 years, don’t you think?”
Werner tugs on one end of his mustache. “When you drive every day,” he says, “You don’t see it. Every day there’s some small change, but I don’t notice it so much.”
There’s a longish silence. Our dialog feels a little forced, broken into non sequiturs, and I begin to lament all the time I’ve been spending at the computer, immersed in my manuscript, forgetting how to converse. He tells me he once punched a passenger who refused to pay him (and is not proud of it), that he played handball when he was young, that he likes to pick up passengers at the Ring Center taxi stand “because there are never any tourists there.”
When we get to Strausberger Platz, I ask him where he likes to eat.
“When I’m driving?”
“Or when you’re off-duty. Either way.”
“Well,” he slows down, merges into the traffic circle, “There is a Fleischerimbiss I like…”
We make a U-turn. Werner is smiling now, telling me how cheap, how fast this Fleischerimbiss (butcher shop- snack bar) is. His friend, a professional cook, showed him the place. Werner’s been eating there regularly for the past 20 years.
We’re on Warschauer Strasse, heading south, when he points across the street, “There it is!”
Fleischerei Domke: How many times had I walked past this place – it’s in my neighborhood, after all — and never thought to go in?
I thank Werner, wish him Fette Buete. (Translation: Fat booty. In taxi driver speak: ‘make lots of money’.) He tells me to try the goulash.
The little pigs on the wall are the first thing I notice when I walk into Domke. The little pigs, and the smells of cured pork and stewing pork, and the bounty in the display case:
Again I wonder how I’d never ended up at this Fleischerimbiss, or at any Fleischerimbiss, over the course of the taxi adventures. The Fleischerimbiss, the butcher shop-snack bar, is what you could call a bastion of democratic food. It’s the antithesis of a gourmet food truck. It’s a Berlin institution – practically every neighborhood and sub-neighborhood has one – a place where workers and students and taxi drivers go to get very full for very little money, where home cooks buy non-supermarket meat for a reasonable price.
Blood sausage with sauerkraut, meatballs with capers, Eisbein (pork knuckle) with sauerkraut, chili con carne, Bratwurst, goulash – the menu is comfort food, East German style.
And though there’s nothing spectacular (except maybe the portion size) about the 4.50-Euro bowl of pork and brown sauce goulash and noodles I end up with, I’m glad to be here, sitting at the stainless steel counter next to a pair of men in paint-splattered overalls and a green-haired girl who’s ignoring her iPhone. We eat in silence, pausing occasionally, then diving back into our goulash with what might be relief, or gratitude, or both.
Warschauer Strasse 64
10243 Berlin – Friedrichshain
Phone: +49 (0)30 291 7635
Open: Mon-Fri, 6:30am-10pm; Sat, 7:30am-10pm; Sun, 10am-10pm
Note: After some post-taxi adventure research (primary and secondary) I learned that Domke is one of the better Fleischerimbiss(es) in Berlin. They’ve been around since 1990, and the descendants of Nino Domke are still running the place, keeping prices low despite the rising rents in the neighborhood. No, this isn’t free-range, grass-fed, organic meat, but what you’ll find in the butcher case is generally superior to what you’ll find at the supermarket for the same price.