Not knowing how to say “Buzz off” in German, I consented when the taxi driver insisted I put my briefcase in the trunk. I was in a rush—I had a meeting at a government ministry. Almost from the moment the taxi began to move it was clear I had made a mistake.

It was a new-ish Mercedes, neat as a pin. Like every other Berlin taxi, it was a wan yellowy-beige. The upholstery was the same color. It would show any stain. Hence the cabbie’s rule against my briefcase, which had been sitting on a puddly stretch of sidewalk when I hailed him.

I was less prepared than I wanted to be for my interview, so I’d intended to spend the taxi-ride going over my notes  …  but then I realized they were in the trunk, with my passport, my phone, my books, and anything else I could possibly fill up the time with. I thought of all the world-traveling bores back home who rattle on about how, “Ooh, the taxis are so much better in Europe.  … Why, in Berlin, most of them are Mercedes!” How misguided this all was. Our system—where beginning drivers from Ethiopia and Sri Lanka tool around in repainted police cars from the late 1980s, with their broken shocks and squealing brakes—is better. You can bring what you want in the back seat, which usually features bulletproof glass, herniated upholstery with foam popping out, and Christmas-tree-shaped air fresheners swinging from the clothes hooks. If you’re lucky, the last customer will have left something to eat.

I was already frustrated by the time I discovered my driver was not just a neatnik but also a psychopath. I should have remembered the passage from Peter Wright’s Spycatcher in which Wright described J. Edgar Hoover’s desk as being one of those tidy things that are the sign of a profoundly disordered mind. The first time my psycho driver shouted, “Arschloch!” (German for “@#$%^&!”), I looked around, wondering what he was yelling about. Psycho was staring at a guy on a motor-scooter who was weaving ahead through the traffic we were stuck in. He rolled down the window and shouted it again. About a hundred yards further on, once we’d started moving again, a car crossed into our lane. Psycho let off a barrage of long German words, half of which began with “Scheiß-,” and pummeled the dashboard. Then he turned around to me. “The man is an Arschloch,” he explained.

This continued for another ten minutes. Almost nothing that you would encounter in an ordinary drive across a city in mid-afternoon failed to provoke a comment, from an unexpected red light to an old woman (“verdammte Schlampe!”) skipping across the street ahead of traffic.

When I began to recognize that we were in the neighborhood of the ministry, I told him he could let me off anywhere, really, right up here at the corner would be fine, nice talkin’ to you, have a good—

“Can’t stop!” Psycho blurted. “Can’t stop!” Apparently if he were to stop where his fare asked him to, some Arschloch might ding his car. He insisted on barreling down the road at high speed and veering sharply into the heavily barricaded main driveway of the ministry. We were stopped almost immediately by two policemen at an antiterrorism barrier.

Sometimes you approach a government building and realize that if you are, say, President Obama or Chancellor Merkel, you can proceed, but that otherwise this is the point where you show them your passport, start calling everyone “Sir,” and tell them your business.

I gave the police my name and hopped out of the taxi. I paid Psycho and asked him to pop the trunk. I recovered my briefcase and headed for the pedestrian entrance on foot. I was through with the guy.

But the gendarmes weren’t. They told him to back out of the driveway. Maybe he was under the impression that he had just dropped off a person of too high a rank to allow him to submit to such an indignity. He had a better idea: He would pass through the antiterrorism barriers, swing in front of the main steps, and exit two hundred yards down the street.

I was almost out of earshot, but got the gist. The cops kept saying “Nein” and Psycho kept saying “Arschloch.” When I took a last look around before going in the door of the ministry, he was bent, red-faced, over some intercom box with his hands cupped in front of his mouth, shouting imprecations at someone inside the building.

I approached the guard who was sitting at reception. His eyes didn’t leave me as I walked across the lobby. I handed him my passport, told him the name of the person I was looking for, mentioned his extension, and said, “He knows I’m coming.”

“I daresay he does,” the guard said.

Christopher Caldwell

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