He comes at me like a small windmill of anguish, arms churning the air as he rolls forward. And he does seem to roll rather than walk. His chubby torso moves up the narrow sidewalk as the background slides away. There are two planes of focus sliding in opposite directions, each sharp and defined. I am trapped in a Spike Lee movie; an extra in one of his double dolly shots.
It seems an unlikely setting for an ambush, and even less likely that it would be filmed by Spike Lee. I am ambling through a quiet Vienna backstreet, far removed from any tourist destination. It is late morning on a warm summer’s day. The sun is shining on the plaster and stone façades that rise directly from the edge of the narrow sidewalk. Five storeys of reflected sunlight warm the street. My ambusher has a sheen of sweat across his ebony forehead.
My first reaction is to wonder what hidden den he has popped from. Is this man an apparition sprung to life out of the concrete sidewalk? Just a moment before, I was blissfully alone, admiring the camera porn displayed behind a plate-glass window.
I am standing in front of the Leica Shop. This is the wellspring for photographers’ wet-dreams; a Freudian font of camera envy. Beautiful visions of vintage Leica cameras are artfully arranged on miniature Plexiglas pedestals. The gem-like cameras hover in pools of light, sparking covetous desire in the hearts and souls of the most jaded photographer. And beneath each pedestal, bearing a meticulous calligraphy, is a price tag that crushes all hope. As my eyes turn from the last display of unobtainium, he springs his trap.
“Excuse me Sir, but do you speak English?”
The voice is rich and resonant; an Oxfordian English dressed in the rounded musical tones of West Africa. Everything about the man is round. His face is round, as are the cheeks below his round eyes. Tiny round beads of sweat glisten on his forehead. He is a study in navy blue and ebony, overdressed for the warmth of the morning. A dark blue windbreaker, navy polo, midnight blue trousers; he looks like a middle-aged parking attendant who has wandered from his post.
A cautionary pause: If one is walking the streets of a foreign city, even if one lives in that city, the words “Excuse me Sir, but do you speak English?” are a sign of things to come. What is to come is the doling out of money; your money. Please do not interpret this as the voice of a jaded ex-patriot. It is, rather, the voice of experience. Tourists rarely ask this question, not until they are lost beyond all hope of rescue from their guidebooks. On this day, I had forgotten to wear my disguise. I was sporting my favorite straw porkpie hat, a faded tee, and frumpy jeans. I looked like what I was: an American strolling down a narrow side street in a quiet corner of Vienna, Austria.
“Excuse me Sir, but do you speak English?”
He is in front of me now, blocking the sidewalk. There is scant room to dodge. Those hands are still floating in the air between us, as if to cut off my escape. To retreat would be silly. I have a momentary vision of him pursuing me, all the while chanting, “Excuse me Sir, excuse me Sir!” I resign myself to being well and fairly trapped.
“Yes, I speak English.”
It is done. My walk interrupted, I have signed on for the duration. Since I have no destination in mind, one seems to have been appointed for me.
So it begins. The words pour out of him, agitated and aggrieved. Where are you from, Sir? Ah, the USA, that is good. I am from Nigeria, in Africa. It is hard living here, hard for a poor man in this city. These Austrians, they treat one so badly. I am only a simple man, poor and hungry. I ask only for money for food, because I am hungry, but they ignore me. It is hard, Sir, very hard. He is off and running now, into his story; the words a well-regulated torrent.
His hands dance in the morning sun, punctuating his words. Emotion quivers in his voice. Those round eyes glisten and blink. I am convinced that this man is going to burst into tears right there on the sidewalk. The performance is almost masterful. Then he delivers his emphatic summation.
“I am not an asshole.”
The words fall like the coup de grâce that they are. I imagine the scene as he has portrayed it: Cold and heartless Viennese ignoring his pleas, uttering a muttered “Arschloch!” as they brush past him. But it is only a scene, however well presented. The Viennese are at least as generous as any other city dwellers, and more generous than many. Yet he has painted me into a corner as the Good American, a savior compared to the Bad Austrians. What hope do I have against such an onslaught? He looks at me, expectancy and the beginnings of tears in his eyes.
I raise my hands in supplication and defeat.
“Okay, okay, take it easy.”
I have loose Euros in my pocket, a necessity in a coin-based society. My left hand dips into my jeans; his eyes follow. I come up with four Euro; two coins of silver bound in golden rims. Bad luck for me. Five dollars is too much to pay for this story, but the coins are already in sight.
As I drop the coins to the palm of his outstretched hand, he makes another play.
“Sir, I need twenty Euro to eat.”
The word “Arschloch!” pushes against the back of my teeth; I can see now how the word might be applicable. At the same moment, I admire the man’s audacity. But it is a beautiful day, the sun is shining, and I have paid fairly for this performance. I will not, however, pay more. I smile at the man, shaking my head.
“I am not giving you twenty Euro. I am a poor man myself. Have a good day.”
I have paid fairly for my passage and I take it, slipping past him without a backwards glance. My morning is my own again, walking in a wash of sunlight. Sleazy bars, shuttered tight against the illumination of day, announce the edge of the Gürtel; the outer arterial, the ring beyond which old Vienna ceases. This is where the real blood flows, and where the tourists don’t. Sex shops push in amongst phone kiosks and run-down cafés.
I step from narrow stone canyons into a wide swath of ground. Four lanes of traffic flow past either side of a central median. The U-6 line rumbles under the pavement; below the wide median, below the tram lines and trees. The narrow bulk of a modern building juts high into the air; the long, rectangular island of the Vienna Main Library. Its concrete cliffs part the opposite currents of traffic flowing past on either side.
Overlapping wings of giant white canopies stretch above the tram turnaround; white wings reaching to the feet of the Vienna library. The library doors hover on a platform high above the street. Concrete stairs climb to the platform, stairs as steep as those of a Mayan Temple. I scale the stairs under the full noon sun, as if climbing to a blood offering. The steep concrete is littered with bodies. Not sacrificial victims offered up to the Mayan Death Gods, but living, sun-worshipping Viennese. Old and young, students and lounging workers, they soak up the sun, smoke, laugh. Finding an empty bit of stairs, I join them. To the South, the cityscape of Vienna blurs into a shining haze. The sun bakes the concrete, reflecting the heat over me as I bask like a lizard. I smoke and squint into the bright haze, content and thoughtless; an anonymous body amongst a litter of bodies, blissfully alone.
* * *
Later, at home, I tell my Tobias the story of my day, of my explorations through his city. He laughs when I expostulate on some mundane square I have found, or when I claim to know a small street or shortcut that he does not. I ask him questions about his work day; questions which he leaves unanswered.
Then I tell Toby about the crying man, about paying four euro for sidewalk passage and a bit of a story. His forehead gets that crinkled look that he has when he is searching for a memory.
“A short man, round, very dark? I think I remember him, or someone like him. It was the same sort of technique, as if he were trying to invent a common enemy.”
I ask where he might have seen the man, where in the city.
“Well, it sounds like the same man. I remember now. It was outside my office, near the Hauptbahnhof. I was going for lunch, I think. You know, around the bahnhof, lots of people ask for things. I wasn’t really paying attention, but I remember him saying something about not being an asshole. That must be his standard line. When he said that, I waved him off. It was my lunch hour, so I did not have time for foolishness. Sure, it must be the same guy. But it is a long way from my office to your camera shop. He must cover a lot of ground, your Crying Man.”
We laugh, eat our dinner, go for a walk in the park. From our favorite bench we can see the bats as they come out to hunt, silent shapes fluttering over the quavering glimmer of fireflies.
The long summer passes into Autumn, and with it goes the main tourist migration. The herds of sightseers go back to schools, back to jobs, back to families. Walking in the old city becomes a little easier. Autumn turns to winter. Cold, grey fingers snatch away the sun. The bats of summer evenings go into hibernation; the fireflies disappear into the frozen ground. Cruise boats cease to ply the waters of the Danube; or the Donau for locals. Vienna is quiet, a dormancy before the next tourist invasion.
* * *
Then it is the season of the Christkindlmärkte, the Christmas markets named for the spirit children that bring presents to good little children. Bad little children face a beating at the hands of the Krampus; hellish creatures that are half-goat and half-demon. They administer their beatings with wands of willow, which is perhaps where my maternal grandmother learned the trick. The Krampus come early in the season; Krampusnacht falls on the Fifth of December, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day. I like to think that there is still a chance for the bad little children, an opportunity for redemption. They receive their beatings early in December, with plenty of time to repent before Christmas rolls around.
The winter invasion begins, a flood of tourists far exceeding the Turkish invasions of old. They flood into the city, filing every hotel room, every café. Tourists ignore the Krampus, embracing the Christkindl instead. They come here for the Christmas markets, for a chance to stand outside in bitter cold, drinking hot punch and smoking. Christmas markets spring up all over the city; in squares, at churches, in front of palaces. It is the season to wear silly winter hats, drink steaming punch from mugs shaped like smiling pigs or chimneysweeps; to talk and laugh in huddled knots under a cloud of frozen breath and smoke.
* * *
We are walking, Tobias and I, across the immense interior courtyard of the Museumsquartier, the Museum Quarter of Vienna. An icy sleet is falling across the wide expanse that was once the imperial stables. Tiny balls of ice crunch under our feet. A slanting wind is bringing in more, borne on a sharp, frosty bite. Cafés and Punsch stands line the perimeter of the vast courtyard. It is not a fit night for even the ghost of an imperial horse, yet the stands are full of merrymakers.
We crunch across the flag-stoned space, my Beloved and I, laughing at it all. Our eyes search for a more or less sheltered spot where we might join the throng. That is when I hear the voice, borne on the bitter wind.
“Excuse me Sir, but do you speak English?”
It was, amongst the two million people of Vienna (not counting tourists) a most unlikely meeting. Yet there he is, swathed in an amazing quantity of coats, wrapped in scarves; a huge hat pulled down to his eyes. Before we can turn, he intercepts his own voice, as if he can exceed the speed of sound. He is in front of us, arresting our progress, hands imploring the air between us.
I would love to tell you that I took the higher road, that in that moment I saw only a poor man panhandling in a cold sleet. Alas, if I told you this, it would be a lie. I simply could not spurn the opportunity afforded me, karmic consequences be damned, I chose to take my chances on a beating from the Krampus. And so I did not speak the words my nemesis expected to hear; I did not resign myself to suffer his suffering. Instead, I launched into a verbal assault that was so earnest, so friendly, so malicious, as to stun the poor man. My unbridled New York accent rolled into the icy night.
“Hey, Toby, it’s My Guy! Remember the guy I was telling you about? This is My Guy. Hey, how are you doing?”
His imploring hands droop a bit, his eyes confused. I see him look to Tobias, as if to confirm that he is in custody of a madman.
“I am sorry, your guy? What do you mean?”
But I cannot be stopped, not now. My hand is outstretched, a welcoming gesture towards an old friend. I ignore his questions, still speaking to my boyfriend.
“Sure, you remember Toby, this is the guy from Nairobi, the one I met up near Burggasse.”
The poor man does not see the twinkle in my Toby’s beautiful eyes, nor the smirk that is concealed by his scarf. The Crying Man almost splutters, takes a half-step back.
“But I am not from Nairobi, I am from Nigeria.”
“Sure, like I said, Nigeria.”
Then, without pause, I close for the kill.
“We met on a street off of Burggasse, during the summer. You told me how mean the Austrians were. I gave you four Euro. You don’t remember me?”
I stand before him, smiling with all the innocence I can muster, while the sleet slants to the paving stones at our feet.
The Crying Man has lost the power of speech. His eyes shift back and forth between the two of us, confused, as if looking for some reference of sanity. He is defeated. He reels under the earnestness of my smile, knocked backwards another step. With a lurch, he wrenches himself away. As his back recedes into the sleet, I see him correct his course. He has fixed on a new target, another couple making their way across the sleet-swept flagstones. The wind carries his voice back to me:
“Excuse me Sir, but do you speak English?”
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