The (Recycling) Empire Strikes Back
While his father was struggling with dangling participles and nonsensical verb structures, Ottawacker Jr. was tasked with picking up weeds from the patio in preparation for our very first “social distancing visit” tomorrow, from our friend Mike.
I’ve known Mike since I first arrived in Canada ’93-’94. He was also the victim of my greatest ever practical joke. Or maybe second greatest – but it was right up there. Let me tell you about it. Please.
I returned to Canada in late 1999 following a few excursions. I became coach of a soccer team and wanted to make sure Mike was available for the summer. The only problem was that he was living in Magdeburg, Germany, at the time, where he was teaching English and living the sort of prolonged hedonistic adolescence for which I so admired him.
So I called him one afternoon from Canada to ask him whether he would be available. He picked up quite quickly and so I started off in rapid and reasonably incomprehensible style”
“Ah! Guten Tag, Herr J. Dort sind Sie. Endlich. Wo waren Sie?”
Now, while I did study German, I was by no means fluent. And not having been to the country or spoken the language for a decade, I was more than happy that it had actually been Mike that had answered the phone. I was a little surprised to find out, given these facts, that he started answering in German.
“I was out back,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch who it was.”
So I did what any self-respecting bull artist would do in the situation. I improvised.
“It is the Central Immigration Authority,” I said. “We have no record of your current residency papers being registered with us, where are they?”
“Ah,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to do that, but I came back…”
I took pity, and interjected, saying in English – “Don’t worry Mike, it isn’t Immigration, it’s me, calling from Ottawa.”
To my absolute incredulity, he ignored me. And carried on offering excuses about what he had meant to do and why he hadn’t done it. There was no stopping him. It was as if I were his confessor and he was unburdening himself of 20 years of mortal sins. But instead of listening to his sordid tales of onanism, gluttony, and vice, he was filling me in on reasons why he had slipped into Germany from France, crossed the country on a slow train to avoid checks, moved in with his girlfriend, not registered with tax officials or the immigration department, and was seemingly intent on dismantling the whole apparatus of the Ossie state by living illegally in modern, welcoming Germany.
I, naturally, listened with great interest. When he finished his massive mea culpa, I started in, in what I hoped was a convincing Saxon accent (see 50 seconds in on this video). The essential gist of what I said was, “enough excuses, what the hell are you going to do about it?”
“I am so sorry,” he said. “I have just been so busy. I promise I will come down to the offices tomorrow morning, first thing, 9 a.m., with my passport and I will make sure I fill out all of the forms. I am really sorry, I just haven’t had the time to do all the things I should have done.”
“You understand, Herr J., that is unacceptable,” I said. “We understand there is a lot of paperwork to do, but coming into the country and not paying taxes is a federal offence,” I said, sending out barbs blindly, in the hope that one might hit the mark. “How long has it been since you paid income tax on your earnings as a… a… what exactly is it you do? We have records of you working as a teacher, but no actual record of why.”
“I teach English, sir,” he said.
“How long since you paid taxes?”
“I don’t know, sir,” he said.
“You don’t know?” I answered, trying hard not to giggle.
“I don’t think I knew I had to pay taxes,” he said.
“Well, I will tell you how long it has been, Herr J,” I said. “Precisely how long it has been. You have NEVER paid taxes.”
“But I have only really just started working, before that I was volunteering,” he said.
“And thus depriving an honest German teacher of a job? Someone who has trained and could have contributed to the system honestly, who would have paid taxes and helped with the costs involved with the reunification process? Do you not believe in the Wiedervereinigung, Herr J?” I asked.
“Yes, sir, I do,” he said.
“Then you will come down to the tax office at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning with your passport and all pay stubs, and we shall see what course of action we shall take,” I said. “Please take this reference number down carefully, memorize it, and show it to the officials: “EE-AH-EMM-AH-EFF-OO-TSE-KAH-EE-EN-GAY-EE-DAY-EE-OO-TAY.”
“Yes sir, I’m sorry sir, I’ll be there,” he said. And hung up.
That was the moment I started panicking. Because I had no idea that he would fall for it – and he really shouldn’t because I was really not that convincing. I had thrown in English words to see if that would help raise suspicions… but had naturally used a German accent to not make it too simple to guess. Plus, while I was doing it, I honestly thought the sheer nonsense of an immigration official ringing up at 9 p.m. and ordering him to the tax office the next morning at 7 would have raised a few red flags. Apparently not. Now I was faced with the prospects of my friend turning up at the tax office issuing a full and complete confession and them not having any idea what he was talking about. And then kicking him out. Plus, as anyone who knows the German alphabet can see, his reference number was in fact a subtle code: I AM A F*CKING IDIOT.
So I called him back. He didn’t answer. I panicked some more. I called again. He finally answered with a shaky voice.
“Ah, Herr J,” I said.
“It’s me, Ottawacker, how are you?”
“Didn’t you guess that it was me? Didn’t you suss out it was me?”
… more silence…
Then: “You effing effer, you complete c… I’ll effing kill you when I see you in the summer.”
He may have said more, but I was in hysterics at the time, probably more out of relief than self-satisfaction (although there was, as you may realize, a fair bit of that too!)
Anyway, he forgave me and we are still friends, and he is coming for coffee at 2 p.m. tomorrow. Which is why Ottawacker Jr. is clearing up the weeds.