Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bloody New Neighborhood

Dora and I woke up in our new apartment the other morning (it’s fantastic, you have to come visit so we can show off in a shameless and despicable manner). We made smoothies because we’re trying to be healthy without denying ourselves too much. We got ready for the day, and we went down to the car. Before opening the diver’s side door, Dora recoiled and said, “Blood.”
Sure enough, in a splatter pattern familiar to many CSI viewers, several small drops of blood had been left to harden on our car window and door.
Perhaps this would be a good time to describe the neighborhood we live in. Akácfa utca (which translates to Acacia Tree Street) is located in the very center of downtown Budapest. I mean, we are really in the thick of it here. Up above is a photo taken on my street during the 56 Revolution. That's a statue of Stalin being torn down.
And picking a place in the middle of everything was no accident. With the option of going out to the family house in Leanyfalu, there was no reason to search for an escape from city life. Anyway, being in the center of the city comes with its ups and downs. And those ups and downs are particularly pronounced on our little street.
The first thing people notice is that our building’s basement houses one of the more popular pubs in the city, Old Man’s Music Pub. While we don’t hear the noise from the bar itself, we do feel the effect of being close to such a hot spot. There are the occasional bursts of noise out in the street, but the bouncers (who are huge) consider keeping the crowd quiet one of their main tasks. And of course there are the bottles and glass which are cleaned from the sidewalk each morning by a little old lady with bad posture, who I believe has some kind of mental disability. She is kind, but seems to be a bit detached from the ah… well, everything really. She wears a vacant expression that is both harmless and creepy.
The next attribute of note is the presence of homeless drunks. Quite a few of them find a place to sleep somewhere on our street, mostly in the doorways of stores that have closed for the evening. Many of them are the piss-soaked incoherent men that make one wonder how a person can fall so far, but there is one gentleman reminiscent of the much-romanticized American hobo. He plays a bad harmonica and talks to every passerby with a half-drunk smile. The good news is that these men are harmless. They knock down the quality of life meter, but they don’t want to cause trouble.
If there ever is any trouble, it starts in the wee hours of the night. And that is probably when the blood found its way onto our car. Downtown Budapest is a lively place, and lively often translates into drunk. And for so many, drunk often translates into fighty.
I don’t want to posit any definite guesses as to how the blood ended up where it did, but its presence gave me a reason to describe some of the more unique aspects of my neighborhood.
It may even help to explain my previous post.
But don’t take any of this as a complaint. I do feel safe where I live, and I feel excited to be in a part of the city that is changing for the better. After all, if the entire world was clean, law-abiding, and void of gruesome street fights, what kind of drama would we seek to get our blood flowing?

Friday, April 13, 2007

People Suck

I can only assume that there are others who share my desire to live within the lyrics of a Tom Waits song. Though I can’t imagine it’s a universal sentiment. I certainly understand that there are some who’d question this desire, remembering the company of drunks and failures that make up the characters who populate Waits’ music. I, however, can’t help myself. Fortunately, life here in Budapest has helped me understand why I feel this way, which is funny because Tom Waits is such an American institution.

He is, in my mind, our version of Jacques Brel, telling the stories of people who are too close to the gritty-yet-vulnerable underbelly of life, and telling those stories with a straightforward nature that goes beyond earnestness.

Back to the city.

It is while I walk the streets of Budapest and ride the public transit system in this city that I am driven to the conclusion: people are despicable, foul, and dirty creatures. We are. There’s little use denying it. Our greatest institutions do nothing but point out our own failings. Science consistently proves that humans do little but sully our own environment, while religion serves as a constant reminder of our inability to attain the higher purpose for which we were placed on this Earth.

I was getting lunch at a Chinese buffet yesterday. One of the customers was complaining about his food. He maybe got a bit too emotional, but he wasn’t out of line. The cashier argued with him for several minutes. It was uncomfortable; I was standing there waiting to be served. The argument ended eventually, but it ended badly, the customer leaving in a huff. And that’s when the cashier called him a “dirty fag” in Hungarian. The customer was clearly gay, but the dirty part was the cashier’s own invention. She said it loud enough for the customer to hear, but she directed the comment at me and the person standing behind me. She said it with that conspiratorial tone, like, “You and me, we know what those kind of people do.”

I boarded the 4/6 tram the other night. It must be one of the most popular trams in Europe. It runs every two or three minutes and is nearly always packed. I was coming home from an evening lesson. When I got on board I noted the strong smell of paint-thinner, or something similar. It was a minute before I found the source. He was maybe eighteen years old, and had emptied a tube of glue into a grocery-store vegetable baggie. He would take three deep breaths of the fumes, take a moment to recover, and then go back to the baggie. His eyes were completely clouded over. He couldn’t sit up to allow other passengers to pass by.

When Dora and I lived on Vörösmarty utca, I enjoyed walking the dog along Andrasy út, Budapest’s grandest avenue. Tree-lined boulevards and palaces adorn the length of the street. I’ve seen quite a few sights there. I will always remember the image of an extremely obese and extremely drunk woman teetering at the lip of the curb of Andrasy út in the middle of the afternoon. She was shoving a gyro into her mouth. Yogurt sauce was smeared across her cheeks. After an especially sloppy bite, she pealed away some of the aluminum foil and flicked it off of her sticky fingers, flicked it in the opposite direction of the garbage can that stood beside her. She then pealed the napkin away from her gyro and dropped the napkin at her feet. Szóda tried to snatch it up.

Despite the barrage of reminders of how low the lowest-common denominator has fallen, I find myself drawn to the dregs, in a strange kind of way. I don’t hold any desire to become bigoted, wasted, or slothful. But to hear Tom Waits tell it, there is a sort of romance that only accompanies those who have regular brushes with desperation. As the gods envied the precious nature of mortal life, I envy the desperate man’s understanding of fulfilling a real need. I don’t want to come off as a wannabe. I know how much insulation there is between me and the people drinking out on my corner. But I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that those are people who are drinking out on the corner.

People may be despicable, foul, and dirty creatures, but only because we so desperately need things like acceptance, escape, and gyros.

I’m not sure I’d want to live a life without such things.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Rich, very rich

I’ve been without any internets for a week or so because Dora and I were moving out of our old apartment.
Needless to say, the last week has been a flurry of activities, not all of which were related to our apartment. Dora’s folks took us on a trip to France. We saw a bit of Paris and a bit more of the Loire Valley. The trip was spectacular. France is a hell of a country, but I think I’ll save that for another entry later this week.
Today I want to shamelessly brag.
I called home last night and caught them on their way out the door to brunch. I got passed around from my Mom, to my brother Drew, and then to my Dad. I could tell my dad was hungry and he wanted to get to that delicious buffet. I understood. I’m like him in that way. Once the promise of food has been extended, I don’t like things getting in my way. Anyway, I told him that I knew he was in a hurry, but I had news.
I explained that there’s been a change in plans with the apartment Dora and I were going to buy.
I meet a guy who told me that with $30,000 I could buy a nominal claim on a large block of real estate in Romania. I could then sell off the rights to smaller chunks of the property to investors. If everything goes well I should quadruple my money in less then a month.
My father asked , in a measured tone, if I had spoken to anyone else about this.
That’s when I said, “April Fool’s.”
It took him a second to recover, but I had him hook, line, and sinker. It’s the first successful April Fool’s Day prank I’ve pulled in a long time.