By the time I had gotten back to Vienna from my girlfriend’s place in Lower Austria, Tuesday morning had come and gone, and I stood across the street from my four-story apartment where I was subletting until the end of September. A Brazilian bar that played Turkish music and a musty record shop run by a wrinkled old man and his grandson sandwiched the gray apartment building, which stood on the corner of Margaretenstraße and Reinprechtsdorfer Straße, and neighbored a homely Japanese restaurant that was closed for the summer and that advertised a bevy of Asian cuisine that leaned on a liberal interpretation of “Japanese food.” An auto repair shop, which was located in the courtyard of the apartment, used the wide hallway of the main entrance to the apartment building as a way for drivers of Beamers, Jags, and Mercedes to roar in and out of the courtyard. I learned after the first close encounter with a black 2014 Jag to give the hallway a quick glance before walking in.
The apartment was part of the “ghetto” of the fifth district, a piece of information I learned from Maria, a woman with whom I met for a Besichtigung, or a viewing, of her flat. As I toured through her gloomy apartment with its lack of windows and the heard-but-not-seen flatmates that told her in Bulgarian that they did not want to meet me and during which she spoke in accent-thick English despite my repeated suggestions that we speak in German, she asked about my current residence.
“Same district as here – in the fifth.”
“Yes, but where in the fifth?”
“Margaretenstraße, close to the Pilgramgasse train station.”
“Ah. That is too bad. That area is a ghetto.”
“Sad to say it is, but yes. Quite ghetto. You know what I mean.”
I didn’t understand how a neighborhood with no crime, access to public transportation, and an organic supermarket could be considered a ghetto – in the States, that kind of neighborhood is referred to as “a pipe dream.” In the end I figured Europeans always knew best about not realizing how good they had it, and I let her talk trash about the area around my apartment for a few more minutes.
Back in my apartment building, I climbed up the staircase to the second floor, reached my end of the corridor, and heard the mechanic screaming at one of his employees in a thick accent, which was not quite Viennese. Even from my flat, if the windows were left open, one could hear the various insults being thrown by the workers at each other and wonder what one did to deserve such an oag residence. I stood in front of the apartment door, took my keys out of my pocket, and stuck the short, silver key into the keyhole. I jerked the key to the left and felt the key jam against the lock.
I had forgotten that I needed to pull the door towards me before turning the key. I tried once more, this time with my left hand gripping the doorknob and pulling the door. The key remained stuck and refused to turn. I took the key out, reinserted it, tried again, pulled it out once more, tried the other keys, none of which even fit the hole, and stood in the hallway for a few seconds staring at the door. I finally pressed the buzzer, then pressed it again, then in rapid succession, then held the down the buzzer for twenty seconds. After exhausting all other options, I resorted to the tried and true method of banging on the door with my fist while cursing the door, the person responsible for changing something about the door, and myself for not taking a dump before I had left my girlfriend’s place.
The sustained banging had piqued the interest of my neighbor, an elderly woman wearing a pink, cotton gown and matching pink slippers, who stuck her head out of her front door and cleared her throat a couple of times. I turned around to face her and prompted to vent my frustration out to her by way of sweating profusely and using the incorrect German articles for half of my nouns and applying the wrong adjective endings for the other half. I was in the middle of referring to the door as a male when the lady threw her hands up and shook her head.
“No… no German,” she replied. “Me come Bosnia. No German.”
“Oh,” my expression softened, “Well, see, the door’s broken.” I demonstrated how my key failed to go into the keyhole.
“Sorry, sorry. People? Hm? There?” She pointed at the door and then at the doorbell. I pressed it several times to show that no one was home, shook my head, she shook hers, and we stood in silence out in the cool, sun-lit hallway, awkwardly staring at each other, then at the door of my apartment, and then at our feet. After a few minutes I told her goodbye and headed outside to sit down at the row of benches facing the apartment. I frantically messaged one of the flatmates, Georg, who was out of town until September, of the situation and waited for his response.
In the meantime, I looked on as an Italian and an Austrian standing in front of the Brazilian bar began arguing in English about the best kind of music to listen to while partying with friends, an argument that relied more on hand movements than grammatically correct sentences. Several minutes later a child riding a scooter, his mother clad in black and wearing a hijab, and the woman’s husband strode past me in silence, the two adults fixedly staring at their iPhones while the child hooted and hollered as if he were a police car. Their walk led them past the categorized dumpsters that were separated depending on whether the trash was paper, plastic, glass, or organic, each with a large sticker that reminded the person taking out his or her trash to place them in the proper dumpster.
My phone vibrated, and I took it out to see that Georg had messaged about the door.
“Hey, Hans, I spoke with the landlord,” read the message. “He said that you just need to get some oil on your key and then it should work.”
“Get some oil?” I wrote back. “Does the landlord know if that’s actually the problem? Did he even check the door out? If so, why can’t he just let me in now?”
“Hey, Hans, I spoke with the landlord,” Georg answered. “He said that you just need to get some oil on your key and then it should work.”
“I know, I read what you wrote. But what I’m saying is, if he’s so sure that’s the issue, why can’t he accompany me and let me in? Or even let me use his oil?”
“Hey, Hans, I spoke with the landlord,” Georg’s message began, and I finally got the message.
“Fuck this,” I said to myself and turned my phone off. I stomped up the stairs of the apartment until I reached the end of my corridor on the second floor, but this time, I turned to face the door of my Bosnian neighbor and took a deep breath.
I knocked on the Bosnian’s door and took a couple of steps back. I heard the soft thud-thud-thudding of her footsteps from inside, and she stuck her head out just like earlier, except this time with the surprised look on her face of seeing me again.
“Hi. Um, do you… do you have any oil?” I stammered out. I made sure to look as friendly as possible and smiled. The attempt must have not come off as friendly as I had hoped because she cocked her head and made a face as if someone had farted in her general direction.
“Oil,” I repeated. “Öl. For my key. Für meinen Schlüssel.” I considered speaking Japanese in the hopes that it and Bosnian shared unforeseen linguistic similarities, especially in vocabulary related to oil, keys, and the application of former onto the latter.
“Mmmm. No, I no understand.” The lady shrugged her shoulders.
I took my key and held an imaginary bottle of oil above it. I began to lather my key with copious amounts of invisible oil.
“Oil, key. I need oil.” I said the phrase over and over again and poured an estimated gallon of imaginary oil onto my key. Despite the key dripping with the invisible liquid and the floor on which we stood being covered with it as well, the woman continued to eye me with part suspicion and part confusion. She understood, however, that I was not going anywhere until this issue had been resolved, my insistence on making my problem her problem paid off after a couple of minutes.
“I get my man, yes?” She left the door open, which gave a peek inside her cozy apartment with its pink furniture, curtained windows, and the living room where a man sat motionless while television blared in the background. I heard the lady’s shrill voice command her husband to get up off his ass and deal with the crazy Chinese lady who was speaking to her in English and German, neither of which she fully understood. Seconds later, a wheezing, grey-skinned Eastern European man wearing slacks and a white tank top emerged from within and stood before me. Most of his ghostly white hair was gone, his remaining crooked teeth were stained yellow, and in some spots a dark brown, and he dragged a portable oxygen tank behind him that rattled in staccatos against the tiled floor of his apartment. In his right hand he held a lit cigarette.
“I can speak little German,” he whispered in German. He coughed every few seconds, and his wife shot him a worried glance each time. “What do you need?”
I considered telling him that there was nothing for him to worry about, that he should probably go back inside and lie down, and that he should really do something about that cigarette in his hand, like putting it out.
“My keyhole is all messed up and I need oil for my key.”
“You need what?”
“Oil. I need oil. For my key” The man turned his head to his wife, who in turn reiterated how difficult this Chinese woman was to understand. I let out a sigh and took my key out and proceeded to pour imaginary oil onto the key for the second time. The Bosnian couple stood and stared at me silently, not understanding the significance of my pantomiming.
“Sorry, I do not understand what you are doing or what you need.” Looking defeated and mildly annoyed, the man puffed on his cigarette, let out a nasty cough, began to turn his back to me and go back inside his apartment.
“Wait! Wait, I got it!” I shouted, which got the attention of the pair. I crossed the index and middle finger of my left hand to form a slit between the two and, taking the key in my right hand, began to ram my key in and out of the slit. “You see what I’m talking about?”
This repeated thrusting of object-through-hole produced an audible gasp out of the wife, who put her hands to cover her mouth and uttered something in Bosnian. Her eyes tracked the vigorous penetration of the key in and out of the space between my fingers, her eyes growing wider and wider with each thrust. The husband, whose facial complexion had gone from a phthisical grey into a tomato red, looked at least twenty years younger, and his rapid breathing indicated that this was either good for his heart, or bad for his heart, or both.
Realizing that the couple had interpreted my actions in the most logical way, I bumbled out an excuse about how it had nothing to do with what they were thinking about, unless they were thinking about that, in which case, that’s kind of weird for old people like them to be thinking about, but really, if you really enjoy still doing that, it’s not really my business to judge, and hold on for a second, I just need some goddamn oil.
Out of desperation I jiggered my key into their apartment’s keyhole and tried for the last time to pretend to pour liquid onto the key with an imaginary bottle.
“Ah!” The man, whose face still retained a bit of redness, exclaimed. “Munira, the Chinese lady wants some oil! For her key!”
They both began to speak very quickly in Bosnian, and less than twenty seconds later the lady had told me to wait while she went and got another friend of hers. Munira trotted down to the other end of the apartment hallway and banged on a door. A younger lady stepped outside to greet Munira, Munira pointed in my direction and spoke for a few seconds in Bosnian, the friend nodded and went back inside before reemerging with a bottle in her hand, and the two walked back together to where I stood. The neighbor took my key in her hand, bathed it in oil, handed it back to me, and stepped back next to her Bosnian neighbors to watch me as I walked up to my apartment door.
I slid the key in, turned it counterclockwise until I heard a click, and pushed open the door. The Bosnian trio cheered behind me, I thanked them, stepped inside the flat, and crashed onto the couch.
“Glad that that’s finally over,” I said aloud to no one in particular with a tired grin on my face. The power in the apartment went out two days later.