"Stop every few meters and wait until the dog finally poops"
Only late in an eventful life has Norbert Molitor arrived where he actually always wanted to go. As a lusty chronicler, he documents the sluggish meandering life in the small North Rhine-Westphalian town of Neviges.
Text: Andreas Molitor
Photography: Chris Rausch
– You could say that some things work out in the end in the life of Norbert Molitor (no relation to the author). The thing with Anna, for example, found a real happy ending. She was married, her husband earned a decent living, and she served him for many years. She did everything he asked, cleaned, ironed, cooked, did the laundry and raised the two children. In gratitude he treated her like a piece of furniture. Never was there a little attention, never a kind word. "She was his property," Norbert Molitor will write about the woman’s silent suffering several years later.
At some point, Anna gathered all her courage, separated from her husband and expelled him from the apartment. When he left, the first thing she did was go to the chicken man at the Neviges train station. She had never been able to resist the sweet smell of crispy fried chicken skin and peppers. But whenever her husband brought one home, all that was left for her were the shriveled wings and the scraps of meat on the bones. Now she could finally buy as much chicken for herself as she wanted. She ate the first two right in the car. By the end of the day, she had eaten eleven whole chickens. After that she lay down in bed for two days. She was in a bad way, but she didn’t want to go to the doctor. What should she have told him? That she had eaten eleven chickens?
More than ten years later, Anna Molitor is pouring red wine, she’s dished up roulades, based on a recipe from her native Italy. She is of the opinion, she says between two bites, and she is absolutely right, that the apartment in the listed, 340-year-old house on Nevigeser Kirchplatz, with a view from the bed directly onto the Protestant house of worship, urgently needs a new coat of paint. Norbert Molitor, sitting next to her, is of the same opinion. The smoke from probably more than 100,000 filterless Roth Handles, all of which burned up in his ashtray, has covered the walls of the two-room apartment with a yellow-brown patina. There are always a few unopened packs in the living room as a reserve. "But you can’t get a painter," he says between stubbing out one and lighting the next cigarette, "when you order them, they don’t come, but they don’t cancel either, or they charge 5,000 euros right away for the couple of square meters."That would actually be a topic for his blog.
Molitor and his future wife Anna met shortly after the chicken episode in the waiting area of the local hospital. He wrote down her story, three pages into his book "In the Hamlet of Good Hope," published in 2016. They have been a couple for ten years, married for just under three years. Anna still goes to the chicken man now and then, but she only ever eats half a chicken, very rarely a whole one.
Molitor has finally arrived. He found a woman who doesn’t criticize his smoking and doesn’t punish him with stern looks when he looks at a woman in high heels – "I just can’t help it". He found a place to live that he wouldn’t trade for any other in the world: Neviges. And he has his blog – so there’s always something to do.
The raw material for his Internet diary "42553 Neviges" is supplied, after he has slept into the morning, by the daily forays through a precinct that includes only a few streets, mainly the pedestrian zone of the small town. Molitor walks around just like that, he always has the small Leica camera with him, it belongs to him like a bunch of keys and cigarettes, he sees something, talks to people, takes pictures, writes a few lines about it at home. There’s usually nothing new, or there is: The paper containers at the train station have finally been emptied again. The S-Bahn to Wuppertal and Essen is running again. Netto has been out of plastic bags since Saturday. The miniature golf course takes a winter break. Volker Munchow wants to be back in the state parliament. Once he met a group of Vietnamese in the pedestrian zone. What brought them to Neviges? "We’ve been looking on the Internet for a place where there’s nothing going on."
Norbert Molitor in his apartment. Filterless Roth handhelds and the small Leica camera are his constant companions
He always wanted to live there
Neviges, population 18,550, located in the triangle of Wuppertal-Essen-Dusseldorf, is not even a real town, but only a district of Velbert, incorporated in 1975. Norbert Molitor has lived there for 30 years – at first, when he still owned a prosperous trade fair construction company, in the "high-income neighborhood" between doctors, pharmacists and lawyers above the Mariendom, a huge concrete church from the 1970s, later he moved to Kirchplatz. Even as a young boy, he regularly drove with his parents from Wuppertal to the Marian pilgrimage in Neviges. "I always wanted to live there," he says today. "I found Neviges to be the most beautiful place there is." That must be enough as an explanation.
In "42553 Neviges" the 75-year-old takes his readers to the stage of a small town "where absolutely nothing happens" and which is "closed on Wednesday afternoons and on all other days from eighteen-thirty". In which, however, nothing remains hidden: "Unemployment, sudden wealth, new lover, driver’s license gone, illness, bankruptcy, wild weeds in the front garden, dirt on the stick or in the hallway."
Molitor dissects "the backwater" with relish. With a press of the shutter and a few strokes of the keyboard, he chisels miniatures out of text and images that tell of the small pursuits of ordinary people, of oddities such as the turtle of the greengrocer Mesut, which supposedly only eats liver from the organic butcher, and of the seemingly unstoppable desolation of small-town life. As a chronicler, he is on hand when a new store opens. What rarely happens. And when a store closes. Which often happens. He can immediately think of more than a dozen stores that have closed for good in the past two or three years. The curtained shop windows in the pedestrian zone bear witness to this. Recently the pharmacist Bellers and the store of the junk dealer Heringhaus have given up at the monastery. The small-town chronicler mourns the small Gassmann department store most of all, "where there was simply everything, i.e. bras and stockings, birdseed, shoe polish and individual screws".
Norbert Molitor, born nine months after the end of the war in Wuppertal, ten kilometers away, already visually does not fit into the Neviges mainstream ("mostly poorly dressed, the beige phase begins"). The man, whose thin, almost fragile body barely fills out the carefully selected clothing, wears the loop-white remnant of hairstyle defiantly long on the sides, the brown hue of fingertips and moustache tips betrays the decades-long chain smoker. Life has cut deep furrows in his face.
Blog entries by Norbert Molitor; photo source: nevigeser.blogspot.com
A piece of counter-publicity
As he strolls through Neviges, leisurely, because his heart has only a third of its former capacity, he reminds one of a slightly shaggy dandy – and the fact that he has always been well received by women is something you immediately take from him. He could pass for a painter or a sculptor, specializing in nudes. Only from the voice one is a little disappointed. One expects a whiskey-soaked abysmal bass, like Tom Waits’, but Molitor speaks softly in a medium pitch, the street noise almost blowing the sentence fragments aside.
Almost daily Molitor despairs of Neviges, but this little despair is at the same time his elixir. Mostly his little side blows oscillate somewhere between gracious and mischievously flirtatious. His book "Im Kaff der guten Hoffnung," literary companion to the blog, is subtitled "A declaration of love for the province". Sometimes his style reminds of the cabaret artist Hanns Dieter Husch. "Whoever joins takes decades to get along, whoever moves away longs for decades to get back, but can’t say why." – "The Greek, oh, that’s more like a french fry place. Has no lamb at all. A Greek without a lamb, what is that?" Molitor is nevertheless a regular guest. But why so many of his fellow citizens get a dog, he can not understand with the best will in the world: "In rainy weather pudelnass run through the place, stop every few meters, wait until the dog finally poop."
Molitor does not like to accept obvious nonsense. He sees "Neviges 42553" also as a piece of counter-publicity, jibes to his heart’s content. There’s always a good subject: the opening hours of the citizens’ office ("always only on Thursdays"); the new fountain, which in his opinion is completely disfigured, costing almost 700,000 euros, for which beautiful old trees were cut down and which in the end doesn’t even work most of the time; local politicians who spread themselves in a peacock-like manner because they have enforced a 30 km/h speed limit in their residential area.
The birth of the blog was a decluttering campaign in 2008. "Everything you haven’t had your hands on in the last few years now goes in the trash," Molitor told himself. While clearing out he came across a box full of photos. "My whole life since childhood on such small photos, vacations and such, I have thrown it all away."One would have to take photographs in a completely different way, he thought, not only for himself and above all not in color, but in black and white. But what? "If I’m going to start," he approached the solution, "then at least I’ll photograph something that can’t really be shown to anybody. Namely Neviges. And then I write a few lines under the pictures."This is how the first blog entry of 4. October 2008 about a Franciscan service with blessing of animals (a parrot, a longhaired dachshund) in front of the cathedral.
In the beginning, a few dozen people at most read his entries every day. And that’s how it would have stayed, if the jury of the Grimme Online Award hadn’t taken notice of the blog of the oddball. In 2014, Molitor was awarded Germany’s most prestigious media prize for online publications. "Photography and text are effective due to their simplicity and the deliberate omission of extra gimmicks," the jury found. "With an affectionately critical eye and a charmingly ironic writing style, Molitor creates a literary and visual panopticon of a small-town tristesse that simply has to be called a ‘pleasure’."
All at once, the number of his readers skyrocketed: To this day, an average of about 1000 people a day call up "42553 Neviges" – with half of them not living in Neviges or the surrounding area.
Things happened in Norbert Molitor’s life, long before the first blog entry, that might explain the deep furrows in his face. It’s a good thing that’s over, you think involuntarily when he tells you about it, otherwise the man would probably have been dead long ago. There are scenes that don’t add up to a movie, just crazy fast-cut sequences of images, as if the director had been on meth. Molitor still has them all present. Sometimes they start amusingly. "Once I picked up photos from the supermarket …" They were not his films, but he had not noticed that, but had put the sealed bags with the prints somewhere at home. When he came home in the evening, "they were all stuck to the wall with adhesive tape. The whole wall full of naked women." His second wife, the marriage lasted only a year, had found the photos. "These are not my pictures," Molitor tried to explain to her. That was even true. Has not helped. Whether part of the furniture was broken that evening or another time, he can no longer say for sure.
The films were given to him by Eugen, Molitor says, who had been his best friend for many years; they had met at a trade show at some point. "All those naked women, they were his sweethearts, I don’t know, some girls from South America."Eugen had gone there with a new identity, after it had become too hot for him in Germany. Eugen was a border crosser, "who probably got into the wrong milieu a bit" – a gracious euphemism for drug transports by yacht from Morocco to France. In Eugene’s life, there was plenty of everything, especially beautiful women and money, which Molitor didn’t want to know where it came from. Eugen drove a Bentley, spent a lot of time in casinos, drinking whisky and champagne. Many people he had to do with carried big guns, Eugen too.
Molitor continues: "Once, on the evening before Christmas Eve, which began for the two of them in a champagne mood with pretty girls in a night bar in Rio de Janeiro and ended in prison after Eugen got into a fight with a pimp, the pimp sitting in the same cell whispered to Molitor: "We saw each other for the first time today. If we meet again, you’ll be dead."Another time they flew from Rio to Sao Paulo, just to buy a copy of "Der Spiegel", which was not available in Rio. Eugen paid for the trip.
What has become of him? "Probably dead," says Molitor, "you don’t know for sure. Allegedly he fell from a ship. But his body was never found." Anna Molitor clears the plates.
Often, Molitor’s stories meander a bit. You don’t really know where they lead to. Whether they lead anywhere at all. And sometimes it is not really clear how far he has just dived into the past. When it was, the time with Eugen? "Yes, when was that with Eugen ..?"One puff on the cigarette, mostly he just puffs. "Even now I still go to church four or five times a year. You wouldn’t have thought it now, would you?"
Some things in his life did not go well. His first wife died after 18 years of marriage from complications following an operation. The son slipped into drug addiction, financed his addiction through theft and served time in prison. A woman, with whom he had a relationship afterwards, died of cancer. The second marriage – the wife who was not pleased with the photos from the supermarket – ended in a war of the roses, his eye blue, her glasses broken. She still got his white 5-series BMW in the divorce, he didn’t want to be like that.
His professional career was also like a roller coaster ride. The start was difficult, at 18 he already had a wife and child to take care of. He worked his way up from the bottom up in trade fair construction, he didn’t have the money to study. The jobs were more than adequately paid, he worked for clients of the first guard, Nikon, the Post, the Telekom and several ministries. That was enough for a large bungalow in Wulfrath, a few kilometers from Neviges. In his mid-40s, he founded an exhibition construction company. "I’ve always juggled at least a dozen projects," he says. At the end of the first year, he had already made more than one and a half million marks in sales.
Then things suddenly went downhill. His business partner, with whom he traded under the same name, had suffered a shipwreck with his second company. The customers did not keep it apart. "Molitor is broken," was the word in the industry; the fax machine’s output tray was piled high with cancellations of orders. The company in which Molitor’s entire savings were invested went bankrupt; for a while he lived on social welfare. Then he got back on his feet and worked for years as an employee for trade fair construction companies. He still does that today, on a mini-job basis. Two years ago he was blackened at the tax office. He had thought that as a pensioner he would not have to pay taxes. Now he had to find 14,000 euros in one go. Even that he managed somehow.
Molitor already has his next project in mind. A book about pubs. About drinking. He has hardly written anything yet, but he already has the title: "Let’s have one more drink, then we’ll go home." —