I got to know Robbi—as everybody called him—through friends of a friend in the same scene of musicians, artists, and aspiring bohemians, back in the Cologne of the 1970s. The last I heard of him, around 1979, was that he fell, or maybe jumped, through a glass door while drunk.
When I first met Robbi, who had probably tagged along with other people who were visiting me in my apartment, I thought he was funny, insightful, and interesting. We jammed together. I played a violin, holding the instrument Indian-style, and Robbi had his bongos with him. That was fun and exhilarating music-making. He had style, dressing in a colorful, silky Hippie elegance.
A friend warned me. He said that Robbi often stole from people, told stories that weren’t true, and had some other unpleasant habits. Apparently, he had taught himself to play percussion instruments and had come close to joining bands, but not more than that.
Nothing special, I thought. In those days, I knew colorful, incredible characters who were never what they seemed and had forgotten the truth about themselves if they ever knew it. But Robbi’s charm, talent, mendaciousness, thievery, and violence beat everybody else by many miles.
For several months, he and I were friends and companions, as best as we knew at the time. He seemed uneducated—he had probably never read a book—but very smart in his assessment of people. He understood music and was a talented drummer. Before encounter groups and my other adventures in therapy, he found ways to reveal me to myself without shaming me, and I was very grateful to him for that.
He also stole my rent money once, and my cigarettes, drugs, books, and record albums, repeatedly. Somehow, he was so charming, and I so naive, that I let this go every time. He also lied with compulsive, tireless creativity, and because he did so much of that and was unable to remember and reconcile his conflicting tales, he was often found out and confronted, which made him very angry. Very soon, I realized that his stories of playing with well-known local bands were never true. Women he called his lovers denied having spent time with him. Robbi told the typical lies people will tell to look more accomplished and desirable than they really are. He also lied for no apparent reason, for example, when he spun a story about some boring party at somebody’s house when he and I had been elsewhere during that time.
When I compared notes with other people who knew him, it turned out that he went by several names and did not have a place to live. I didn’t drink alcohol and did not go to the popular boozy hang-outs, so I only heard second-hand about his drinking—all paid for by others—and his fights when he became drunk and aggressive. Just like me, nobody had ever seen him eat or sleep. Some people had watched him shoot heroin, but supposedly he was not an addict.
Eventually, it became difficult to have a conversation with Robbi, because you could not believe a single word. Then, when a friend needed a new place to live, he conned him into moving to a flat that actually belonged to somebody else; the owner did not find out until the person had moved in with all of his stuff. While the unfortunate tenant looked for another space, Robbi stole and sold his stereo and other possessions. Shortly after that, he visited me together with a woman he introduced as his girlfriend. I still remember the dark, painful tension of that afternoon. She was afraid of him. He slapped her in the face when she looked at him in a way he did not like. I made him leave the apartment. Instead of calling a friend to pick her up or accepting my offer to take her somewhere, she went with him. I never saw him again after that.
I never understood why Robbi had to lie so much. With his talent he could have made his stories become true, earning a living as a musician. With his charm and sense of humor, he could have won people over without abusing their confidence. I did not know much about him, and neither did anybody else. I can imagine what brought him to act the way he did, just like I can imagine his life in the years after I distanced myself from him.
In a large cemetery in the south of Cologne, many hundreds of soldiers’ graves form endless lines of small, white crosses. They are in different sections—I forget whether they are grouped by war or by country—separated by low walls. At an opening in such a wall, two small, chapel-like buildings offer shelter from grief, rain, and sun. One sunny morning, Robbi and I ended up here, sitting in one of these stone huts, enjoying the gorgeous light on the beige and yellow walls. We improvised some music on violin and bongos, and were very happy. I treasure that moment.