People Crackers

Moments when the façade of personality seen by the outside world reveals its cracks

I created eight texts and designated them collectively “People Crackers” (a shout-out here to my writing buddy Laurie Taylor from my early writing days, author of Said the Fly, who in fact came up with the name!), defining them as being about encounters, tough moments, turning points in people’s lives—including my own. A people cracker is a moment when the façade of personality seen by the outside world reveals its cracks. I created a performance of People Crackers, playing fragments of piano music in between them, which I performed twice in Berlin and once in San Francisco (2012-13).
I’ve included Franz verliebt sich and Verzaubert (originally Franz’s Affair and Bewitched) among my texts in German. Here I share two more:

My Motorcycle
Moving Insurance – Here you can see me performing this in German – please take a look!


My Motorcycle

I got my motorcycle license in May, left my husband in June, moved to Holland a few months later. I bought my dream motorcycle, a Yamaha Virago in black and silver—I liked to call it a ladies’ chopper—in a language I hardly spoke.

I was not a natural on a motorbike. I did like moving quickly. I did like the immediacy of the tires hugging the road. But I had no confidence in my body’s abilities, no sense of oneness with a purring machine.

Perhaps driving school teachers the world over share certain personality characteristics. Mine at least was blunt and dismissive. I could feel his disdain for the 35-year-old who’d gotten it into her head to learn to ride a motorbike. He was a squat man with reddish-blond hair, his typical stance arms crossed in front of him—in disbelief at the unending dilettantism of his students, I assumed.

A row of eight traffic cones just a few meters apart, the challenge to weave around them in gentle infinity curves at a continuous speed of 30 kilometers per hour. I felt scared. I had no body sense of the angle to tilt in concert with the bike, first to the left, then to the right. Switching direction at the end of the row, I tipped over. The weight of the hot bike suddenly pinned my left leather-covered leg to the ground.

“I knew that would happen, I just knew it!”

“Your job is to teach me how to ride, not to pass judgment on my mistakes after they occur! I’m not 17, following my body’s impulses. I’m an adult. Adults learn new things rationally. Your job is to explain to me what I need to learn to be able to ride a motorcycle!” I was proud to have confronted a self-proclaimed authority figure. I immediately wanted to switch driving schools. But then I would have had to start the lessons all over again. Under his tutelage, I passed the driving test. On my second try.

Buying a motorbike was an act of thumbing my nose at my ex-husband. He owned a big BMW Boxer. I sat behind him slightly raised, but I was much smaller. I could see nothing, not a traffic light changing as we approached. If he unexpectedly sped up or slowed down, our helmets crashed into each other, and then he would yell at me. When I got the license we were still together. The plan was to start exploring the Ruhr area on two bikes. When I bought the bike, we had split up. It was my way of saying: I can do this without you, I can do everything without you!

Central Holland is flat with many canals. Most roads are straight, and as you pass down the asphalt the view doesn’t change. Traffic proceeds uniformly, and everyone remains close to the speed limit. Dutch topography does not lend itself to motorcycle adventures.

I decided to travel over Easter to the south of France—Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, and the hills behind. I longed to feel the spring before it reached Holland. On my own, no plans, no hotels reserved. I drove south all afternoon through a slice of Belgium, and then loaded the bike onto a car train in the ugly port town of Calais. Actually, to be honest … I missed my reserved train after I lost my orientation repeatedly on the small roads of southern Holland and Belgium. I had to put up at a cheap hotel and travel the next day. I told myself that killing time in an unpleasant post-industrial landscape was a small price to pay for the utter freedom I was experiencing.

My guidebook on the south of France was in Dutch—I didn’t understand the details, but the photos were beautiful. I travelled as light as I could, two black leather panniers mounted on the back. Most important: rain gear. It rained for many hours nearly every day. Close to the sea, the towns were full of cars and people sitting in cafés. In the hills behind, I was often alone on the road, only French motorcyclists zooming by me on their racing bikes.

One hot sunny afternoon I chose a winding road up into the hills. The further up I got, the more land around each property. The bright flowering trees were much further along than they’d been in Holland. Coming around a curve I’d be hit with a new intense aroma of spring flora. The incline got even steeper, the road’s serpentines shorter. I fell into my learner patterns, driving so timidly around the curves that the bike would sputter and almost expire.

It had been half an hour since I’d seen another vehicle. Heading very slowly around a curve to the right, I spilled over, the weight of the bike on my right leg. I was pinned to the ground. I reached over and turned off the motor, which clicked for a while. Then all I could hear was faraway tractor sounds and voices carried by the wind. Screwing up my physical courage, I managed to push the bike off my body and inspect the damage: just bruises and scrapes. The next step was to prop the bike upright. I tried again and again. But it was too heavy—my upper arms weren’t strong enough. I sat down again, tried not to panic. I had all the time in the world. No one would be concerned about me, only if I didn’t show up at work a week later.

When I finally got the Virago back to a standing position, I pulled out the map. I couldn’t imagine continuing up that road—my arch-enemy—any longer. I would head back down to a broader, less curvy, better travelled road.


Moving Insurance

I followed all the rules, all the German conventions. But on an emotional level, my planned move from Berlin to London in the summer of 2000 was chaotic.

Why did I want to, why did I have to move again? I’d been back in Berlin for just nine months, after four difficult years in Düsseldorf and Holland.

Well, because of a guy. Because of Tom I applied for a job in London. When I told my German boss I was planning to leave, he created a job for me there so I wouldn’t switch to a competitor. Because of Tom I looked for a flat, or actually two flats: first a temporary one, then one to buy. Because of Tom I terminated my lease with my landlady three months in advance, found the next tenant, arranged a moving van for my Steinway grand piano, another one for all the rest of my stuff, reserved storage space outside of London.

Just four days after I met Tom at an assertiveness seminar, he began a campaign: “I see you in a long white dress, a big diamond on your ring finger. Tom and Nancy, Nancy and Tom—we’re gonna be great!” With the English Channel between us, we talked on the phone often. “Your words, your words!” he’d say, “It’s so amazing to talk to you …” I didn’t necessarily feel understood, but at least admired.

Thirteen months later, his phone rang and rang. I knew he was on vacation with his children at his time-share in the Canary Islands. I forced myself to try just twice a day, though I was going crazy: there were so many details to coordinate, and I wanted to get it right. Where the hell was he? Did he really want me to come to London at all?

A few months into the relationship, he said, “If I could just get out of debt, I could get my head clear and focus on the things I really want to do.” So I loaned him—I insisted—the money I had gathering interest in an account: $12,000.

Tom’s flat in London had a broken closet door, a beat-up futon as living room sofa, a motley collection of dishes and glasses, a broken shower spigot. He was an executive at a TV network, selling ad spots, proud of having broken the £100,000 a year mark. It just didn’t add up! For months I wondered why I could never reach him there.

One Friday night, just after I’d arrived from Heathrow, she showed up at the flat. Banging on the door, she shouted that she’d brought the kids along so they could see what a terrible man their father was. When he finally opened the door, she tried to pummel him with her fists. He just scoffed at her. I said, “But Tracey, since you’re divorced ...” She laughed a desperate laugh: “What lies has he been telling you?”

With my suitcase and laptop, we headed out into the park behind his house, then checked in to a London hotel and drove out to the countryside the next day. I was at the end of my wits. He hadn’t said in so many words that he was divorced (I had), but he’d implied it. That weekend he spent hours assuring me that every word he’d said about his feelings for me was genuine, that he was stuck in a terrible mess but that he believed in us. For months I tried to understand how Tom had married this woman he claimed to hate (“the uneducated bitch”). To advise him on whether she could really deny him access to the kids once they got divorced, I started reading the fine print about divorce law in the UK.

After we got back from a two-week sail on the Atlantic, he called me, upset because his wife had been sorting through his clothes, and had found his and my boarding cards in a shirt pocket and had given him hell. “Wait: you’re filing for divorce from this woman. She will inevitably contest any right you have to see the kids. You still bring her your laundry? How could you be so stupid, playing into her hands like that?” Tom said evasively: “You remember how I got tar on my jacket. She’s so good at getting stains out of stuff.”

The Berlin apartment emptied out. I gave away the television and the answering machine, figuring they wouldn’t work in England anyway. The day of the move approached. And yet I no longer knew why I was doing the whole thing. My Berlin friends were warmer, more present in my life than ever. London seemed expensive and loud. Besides, the public transportation was crappy.

He started cancelling one planned weekend after the next. When we phoned, he deferred the original dream of living together in Chelsea: “I don’t think I’ll be able to move in with you at the start—there’s just no way I could explain it to the kids. But … coming by 3 or 4 nights a week is just as good, don’t you think?”

When he finally answered his phone after his vacation, explaining that he’d forgotten his cell phone on the back seat of the car at the airport, he had a response to each of my plaintive questions:

“Why didn’t you just call information and get my number?”

“How would I have handled a German-speaking operator?”

“What about dropping me an e-mail? There must have been an Internet café in the town.”

“I didn’t see any cafés. And I didn’t know your e-mail address.”

“But we’ve been writing several e-mails a day for months!”

“I didn’t think it mattered so much.”

“But I’m picking up and moving house for you, to a country I’ve never lived in before—don’t you see what a big deal that is?”

“Well, actually … Tracey was along for a week.”


I broke up with him over the phone, telling him I’d met someone else. Using the opening I’d given him, he called me a slut. I cancelled the move to London. As if nothing had happened, my boss gave me back my original job. I had to find a new apartment in Berlin, though the next tenant let me stay in the old place for one more month.

A year later I filed with a debt collection agency to get the money back that I’d loaned him. They took their 15%.