History is a truth that in the long run becomes a lie, whereas myth is a lie that in the long run becomes truth. — Jean Cocteau.
When we were second to no one
Not even clergy stood between us and God. Only we could make groin vaults, domes and buttresses, without which — without us — the masses wouldn't come to hear His word. They'd huddle at home, away from the cold wind and rain that only He could make. We were architects. Creators. We were second to no one. When we lived six hundred years ago.
When we were second to many
In 1991 our patron saint was the U.S. military, which —without us — would find another handful of architects — wearing corduroy sport coats, turtlenecks, round black glasses and pleated slacks, squeezed into some other subterranean office in some other city — to design thirty-six warehouses.
When not serving our master
We took what our basement office windows gave us, a worms-eye view of things better than our own: shoes, pants, calves, places to be. If not better, different: a white leather coat, white leather boots, and a gap of pale skin in between.
When she comes now now
Her gait was mechanical, more rusty than robotic. Gerald called her a transvestite. Brian called her a fag. Eric and the other Brian called her a freak. Carl and I, the student interns, called her Nico, of The Velvet Underground fame, because of how she sang in deep, German-accented English. When her renditions of Sinatra or Doo-wop faded out, I heard Lou Reed's voice fade in. Now, if she ever comes now now, if she ever comes now now, if she ever comes now-w-w.
—She lives above the 7-Eleven, Carl said to me.
—Is that so.
—Gets coffee at Café de Marché.
—Good to know.
—She's a Mengele baby.
When Carl and I took a walk
Carl's math seemed right — Nico was probably born in the early 1940s — as well as his amateur ethnography — German born, exceptionally Aryan. But it was her "defects" that convinced him she was born from Nazi fertilization experimentation.
—What defects, Carl?
—Go to the cafe and you'll see.
I didn't believe Carl, but believing wasn't the problem. The problem was being nineteen and wanting to believe Carl.
—You know they called him Uncle Joe, right?
—Who's Uncle Joe?
When I staked out Café de Marché for three days
Nico didn't come in. Being angry with Carl was easier than being ashamed of myself and put an end to all that believing and wanting. But on the fourth day, beneath the clanging brass door bell, Nico stood six feet tall and wore Jackie O-style sunglasses with her blond hair pinned in a bun. She sat one table over and Mrs. Lisbek placed a glass of water and cup and saucer on her table, said Hi, Dear, and poured coffee from a carafe. Nico dipped her napkin in her water glass, leaned over and buffed a scuff from her boots. She removed her sunglasses and a navy neck scarf. Four metal posts anchored her jaw to her collarbone. I starting believing Carl once again.
When I went to the library
I fingered the card catalogue for Mengele (Josef), Himmler (Carl), and their mad friends. From the labyrinthine stacks I pulled all the titles I could find and went home, waking the next morning with the gristle from The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide in my teeth.
When Nico became Rachel
Back at Café de Marché my guten morgen didn't come out the way I rehearsed it. Nico's Adam's apple bulged.
—Sprechen Sie Deutch? she said, smiling, knowing I didn't. —Come! waving me to her table.
Nico dug through her handbag. Our eyes met, her's so blue, yet warm, yet shivering from side to side from something neurological, unsettled, yet gentle. On the table between us was a cassette player and earphones.
—You like muzeek of all kinds? her trapezoidal jaw moving animatronically beneath high cheekbones, as if it had only a set number of positions it could snap to. She took my hand, hers the larger of the two, wrinkled like her eyes but soft like a child’s. She placed a cassette in mine.
—Zis is my muzeek. I make all zee pictures.
The cassette insert was a collage of photocopied imagery — tanks, fighter planes, babies, birds, an ocean, an American flag — and handwritten song titles — Womb, Twins, Madness, Joy, God Bless America. She said her name was Rachel.
—You keep, yes? You listen?
When I returned to the library
Mengele was a destroyer, not a creator. The Nazis never achieved artificial insemination and Carl was full of shit. So-called "Mengele babies," conceived in petri dishes and injected into unknown wombs, lived only in minds like Carl's, and the sticky auger of lore.
I held open Albert Speer's memoir, Inside the Third Reich, with one hand, and Rachel's cassette insert with the other, while listening through my earphones to her singing her song "Twins." Speer's tell-all book was a second act to his tell-all Nuremberg testimony that rewarded him with lenient imprisonment and a soft landing in the dustbin of history as "the good Nazi." Rachel sang in English, overtop orchestral recordings echoing in her room. I swapped out her tape for The Velvet Underground & Nico. The women's voices were of preternatural likeness.
A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.
— Jospeh Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda
When he was second to no one
Albert Speer was an architect. A creator. Only he could design the Zeppelinfeld, a 340,000 seat stadium for Nazi rallies, without which — without him — the masses couldn't hear the speeches only Hitler could give.
When the Zeppelinfeld filled to capacity
Hitler wanted more. He instructed Speer to design stadiums for half a million and reimagine all of Berlin in the Fürher's image. Hitler's closest confidant, advisor and friend was a creator.
When monsters got jealous
Speer's work caught Stalin's eye and something of a dictator-architect-dictator love triangle formed. Stalin wanted Speer, but Hitler wouldn't let him go, and promoted his architect to Minister of Armaments and War Production.
When Christa was born
Her father, Wilhelm Päffgen, abandoned her and enlisted as a Nazi soldier. Institutionalized with a bullet lodged in his head and no longer of any use, he was shot in the head again, this time by his commanding officer.
When Christa become Nico
After surviving the Allies bombardment of Cologne, Germany, Christa fled to Berlin with her mother. She grew to six feet tall, and with blond hair and high cheekbones found work as a fashion model. After giving birth to a son with French actor Alain Delon, she abandoned both for New York City, where she found Lou Reed and Andy Warhol. Päffgen became Nico, a Moon Goddess worthy of future biographies.
When Nico became an icon
Her bare racism was excused because she was raped at fifteen by an American Air Force sergeant in Berlin, who biographer and Nico bandmate, James Young, noted was Black. Young wrote that Päffgen testified at the soldier's trial that resulted him being "sentenced to death and shot." Young didn't note that Nico compared Blacks to animals and cannibals, or the oddly similar fates of the soldier and Päffgen's father.
Another Nico biographer, Richard Witts, wrote that he couldn't find any records of the alleged crime, trial or execution, despite thorough documentation of similar military crimes. Witts, Nico's longtime friend, opened the first chapter of his biography with, "Nico was born a liar." He also described her as a survivor.
When Nico performed in Berlin
Her rendition of the German national anthem included Nazi references banned since 1945. The German audience rioted.
When Rachel performed alone in her apartment
She sang and recorded God Bless America in English a cappella.
When I returned to the office
Gerald, Brian, Eric and the other Brian piled against the window.
—Here she comes, Eric said.
Now, if she ever comes now now, if she ever comes now now, if she ever comes now-w-w.
Reed wrote "Here she comes now" for Nico to sing, but she left the The Velvet Underground before recording it, so Reed sang it himself. Acquaintances described the departed Nico — addicted to heroin, with rotting teeth and gaunt eyes — as loving no one, especially herself.
Reed's voice in my head faded out and Kurt Cobain's faded in. Nirvana had just released a cover version of the song, three years after Päffgen fell off her bike, hit her head and died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 49. Three years later, after Nirvana released the album In Utero (originally titled, I Hate Myself and Want to Die), Cobain shot himself in the head at age 27.
—Maybe she survived a bombing, Carl. Or a car accident.
—I think I'm three degrees of separation from Hitler, Carl said. Maybe two.
When architecture internships end
We revert to students with creative desires unaffected by the destruction of many of our predecessors. Recent memories of subterranean offices and those who passed by our windows are replaced with distant fantasies of corner offices high above the streets of New York, London or Berlin. Professors dutifully break our egos. We build them back up. They break them again. We're tickled somewhere deep inside by our next-to-God ancestry from six hundred years ago.
When our education ends
Many of us go on to serve the elite and powerful, as we've always done, from the medieval clergy to the Medicis, from tyrants to God and the military. We create state prisons for senators' tough-on-crime re-election campaigns, and luxury condos where the poor once lived. While we create, we dream, degrade, and fetishize. We count the degrees that separate us from our past.
Jason Vrabel reports on housing, architecture and social justice issues for various publications. He's a recent writing fellow at Creative Nonfiction and is completing book of oral histories. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA.