Friday, May 20, 2011

Which Pocket Do You Keep Your Money In?

"Which pocket do you keep your money in?"

That is how I was customarily greeted on Vaci Street in Budapest by the man employed to steer tourists into the neighboring strip bars. He'd been on the job for more than a decade. When we first met he invited me to break into his girlfriend's apartment and rape her, and dangled a key before me. Maybe some other time, I said.

I keep getting into conversations on the subject why everyone knows the world is getting more corrupt and nobody seems to care. In Hungary this year a new government was installed which in one of its first official acts set up official censorship of newspapers, magazines, television, radio, the internet. They were also this year's host to the rotating Presidency of the European Union, of which they are a part. A few member states made weak complaints, said obviously this was not in accord with European Union law, but did nothing. Like in the United States we have a Patriot Act obviously inconsistent with the Constitution, but the world goes on as usual.

The man on Vaci Street in Budapest works for a mafia which controls the whole territory. For more than a dozen years girls in couples have been patrolling this street, approaching tourists with the question, "Do you speak English?", getting into conversation, suggesting they have a coffee at a restaurant. Once hooked, reeled in to the restaurant and ordering drinks, they are presented a bill for 500 Euros, 1000 Euros, or more. Large men appear to guide them to automatic teller machines to withdraw the money.

If this kind of thing, now in its second decade, can go on in the center of a European capitol without stop, perhaps we have false expectations of our democratic governments.

Read Shakespeare or other old books in the right way, and we realize that people have had a chance for happiness under political conditions far more unfair than our own. When we are more or less content, we may be inattentive to politics. What we know is wrong is just not that important. Politics is not our thing. Love is.

Let's get back to our story, the reason the man on Vaci Street in Budapest greeted me as he did. A long time ago he asked me what I did for a living, why year after year, after long periods of absence, he saw me again walking down the street in Budapest. What was I up to? Spy? Criminal?

- No, nothing so romantic. Only buying and selling old watches.
- And no one robs you? Says meet you on Vaci Street, show me your watches, shows you his gun and says thank you very much?
- Hasn't happened yet. At least not like that.
- What's happened?
- Last year a dealer I'd known for a long time came up to me at Petofi Czarnok, the flea market, asked what I had for sale. I'd nothing at the moment, sold what I had already. He invited me to his grandmother's house for real Hungarian goulash. It had been simmering since early morning. I should come. I did, and we sat down at the dining room table to eat -
- Where was this?
- An apartment just around the corner from here. The food was good, in fact. But when I had thanked the watch dealer and his grandmother, left, and was walking down the street I realized that my jacket seemed to be light. My wallet was not in its usual place, the inside breast pocket. I took out my phone, called the dealer: had my wallet fallen out of my jacket when I was at his grandmother's? How much money was in it? None. I keep money separate. Where was I? Just down the street. He'd look, and send me a message. I heard nothing for a half hour, then got a message, go to the police station at the corner. Maybe they have it. It was just in front of me. I asked at the police reception, did they find a wallet? My name? Yes. A moment. Sign here. The next time I met the watch dealer, he asked if I found my wallet, then said, Which pocket do you keep your money in? It became a standing joke with us, he said it every time we met.

And after I'd told the man on Vaci street he did the same. It was the funniest thing he ever heard.