It was a crowded, smoky, illegal bar in the former East Berlin. We had reached its unmarked door by walking through the courtyard of a building that had survived both World War II and the USSR, and looked it. I leaned against the bar, which was the shape of a squirming amoeba, and stared at two giant glass cases flanking the low stage�they contained grisly-looking alien sculptures made mostly of wire. Occasionally, their bulbous eyes would flash red and their teeth would gnash together. A band of greasy-haired guys in shiny suits was playing semi-ironic American lounge music while the lead singer mumbled around a cigarette in his mouth, "I'm Martin Dean and I ... am ... clean."
A few seats away, in between several black-clad locals, I spied a man facing away from the band, quietly reading something that looked like a printout from a Web site. My guide in this foreign city, an incomparably charming hacker named Frank, followed my gaze and said, "That guy owns the biggest ISP in Berlin. He comes here every night, and he's always reading something interesting�tonight it's an article about how to run UNIX on a Game Boy."
"I always thought Game Boys must be good for something," I responded, wishing for the millionth time that I spoke German at a level beyond mentally challenged so I could actually talk to the people Frank kept pointing out to me. As if to intensify my linguistic frustration, he gestured toward a table near the stage, packed with boys wearing black T-shirts and wire-rim glasses. "That's a famous hacker group, very underground," he said.
Frank works with the Chaos Computer Club, a 25-year-old German institution full of geeks who are aboveground, though only slightly. Earlier that day he'd invited me to the CCC's office in the Mitte district, and a guy calling himself Starbug showed me how he'd perfected a way to fake out fingerprint readers using glue and a photocopier.
Berlin is a sprawling, mangy hodgepodge of brutally ugly Soviet architecture, crumbling 19th-century apartments, and utilitarian, box-shaped, post-World War II buildings. It's not a pretty place, and it's not crowded; nowhere I went had the hustle and barely repressed crowd psychosis I associate with urban life. It was like a suburb. Or a city after the apocalypse, with weeds overtaking every concrete structure and huge abandoned lots yawning between the buildings downtown.
But I later discovered that these vacant lots�called Hinterhofe�are one key to Berlin's beauty. They're part of what makes the city a haven for artists, politicos, and socially conscious hackers like the hundreds of people who make up the CCC. Unlike urban cultural centers in the United States, Berlin has real estate to spare. Rent is cheap, and thus the raw materials for meeting spaces are available to anyone who wants them.
This includes hackers like the ones who run a nightclub-laboratory hybrid known as C-Base. Located in a sprawling building right next to the river Spree, C-Base is decorated like a spaceship, full of repurposed airline seats, motherboards ripped from old East German mainframes and industrial metal sculptures. On the "bridge," which hovers above the dance floor, several computer workstations are devoted entirely to producing visual effects on party nights. Down a metal spiral staircase there's a room packed with equipment for creating electronic music, a hardware lab, and any tools you might want for hacking and art.
When we popped into C-Base around 9 p.m., half a dozen members of Berlin's infamous wireless group Freifunk were huddled around their laptops on some comfy sofas in the corner. As I ordered a beer in my shitty-ass German, Frank pointed out one of the main guys who works on the Gimp, a free, open-source graphics program comparable to Photoshop. "This is his main user base," Frank noted, gesturing vaguely at the bridge, "so he can respond directly to what they need."
After a bit we headed over to the Automatenbar, a tragically soon-to-be-closed venue where the hackish meet for pre-clubbing drinks. If you don't feel like looking out the windows, you can watch four closed-circuit TV screens that broadcast live images from the street outside. And when you need a drink�or some candy, condoms, CD-ROMs, or propaganda leaflets�you just head over to the old-fashioned vending machines lining the walls. Slip in a token and get a beer or something weirder�no need for a human to serve you! When you're done, just put your bottles on a conveyor belt that leads into a back room.
Frank regaled me with tales of Berlin's phone system, and Charlie played a boxing video game projected sideways on its monitor. I imagined hidden German robots with gnashing teeth eating our discarded bottles whole. Somehow it all made sense in this ugly, lovely city full of strange life-forms speaking an alien language and creating hacker community spaces that could never exist on my side of the galaxy.