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Greece’s new Russian vultures


If it weren’t for the mopeds and cars that raced around me, my shriek would have risen to the top of Mount Olympus.  I was crossing a street in Athens.  I squeezed through two parallel-parked cars.  My right foot fell into a pothole that the shadows of the cars had concealed.  This evil pit–the cruelty of its depth, the utter nefariousness of its placement–dislocated my lower leg from my knee.  My one good leg buckled.  I could not support my weight.  I was in a sudden freefall.  I slammed by hands against the hood of the car behind me.  I should have known then that if the God of Public Works was not on my side, perhaps a great deal more were against me. 

Great.  What an idiot.  I rolled my eyes.  Not only had I nearly lost my leg, but I managed to vandalize a car in the process.  There were two palm-sized dents in the hood.

I dragged my body–my shin flailing somewhere behind me–up to the sidewalk.  My priority was to flee the scene of the crime.  I needed to walk to do this.  I pulled myself up to the curb and held my lower leg.  I slid it towards the knee until I heard a crunching sound.  I made fists and started banging at my knee until I heard a snap that unequivocally signaled the restoration of the tibia-to-patella connection.  I lifted my lower leg with my hands and guided it.  It bent the way it was supposed to.  It worked.

I crossed the street with newfound respect for smooth asphalt and with an acute awareness of all things unleveled.  I saw the famous golden arches.  I ordered a McBacon meal to control the swelling.

After McDonald’s, I decided to walk back to my hostel.  I had walked carefully; each deviant step popped my lower leg out of my knee.  I’d have to stop mid-stride, pop it back in place and then bang it around until I heard that snap.  I had to walk in a perfectly straight line.  When I arrived at my hostel, I submerged my knee in a tub of cold water.  Then I took a nap. 

I had a dream during this nap.  I was in a doctor’s office.  The doctor was a Greek woman.  She placed a new sheet of wax paper on the examination table and had me sit on it.  She looked at my knee and said, “Jose, your leg will be OK.  Keep running cold water on it to control the inflammation.  In the next few days, try alternating hot and cold water.  This will increase blood flow to the affected area.  This will make it heal faster.  At this rate, your knee should be fine in two weeks.” 

I have unconscious consultations with medical professionals all the time.  I’ve seen psychiatrists.  I’ve seen optometrists as well.  But their prescriptions, unfortunately, are not honored by real-world pharmacists.  Comforted by my prognosis–my dream doctors have always been right–I woke up with a mighty appetite.  I could feel the weight of my right knee.  During my nap, it had ballooned to the size of a cantaloupe, relative to the grapefruit that was my healthy left knee.  The wrinkles were stretched smooth by the swelling. 

I staggered out of the hostel and into old Athens’ tortuous roads.  Almost immediately, a conman saw my limp and identified me as weak prey.  He wore black jeans, a plain white t-shirt and a black bandana.  He had a pointy goatee any conman would be proud to own.

“Hey friend,” he said.  He shook my hand.  “My name is Mike.  Where are you from?”

“Los Angeles.”

“Ahh, Los Angeles is a beautiful city.  Have you tried ouzo yet?”

“No not yet.”  Ouzo is a licorice-flavored alcohol that tastes like expired cold medicine.

“Well, how about we go to a bar right now, and I’ll treat you, as a form of hospitality.”

“No thanks,” I said. “Maybe later.” 

There would be no later.  I knew that Mike would be able to find his sucker soon after I left him.  There were hundreds of tourists that flocked to this section of Athens, dozens of candidates whose naivete was ripe for exploitation. 

I found a restaurant in a large plaza.  A waist-high metal fence enclosed the tables from the public space.  I ordered two large skewers of grilled chicken and a carafe of red wine.  The chicken was meant to replenish the energy my body was using to heal my knee.  The wine was meant to take away the pain.  My sensibilities dissolved, my defenses crumbled.

“Hello again my friend,” he spoke over the gate.  Mike found me as I was finishing my meal.  He walked to the entrance of the restaurant and approached my table.  “Are you ready for your drink?”

“Yeah, sure!” the wine spoke for me.  I didn’t realize it then, but Bacchus was on the side of the conmen.  “Why not?”

Mike led me through several alleys and wrong turns until we arrived at a bar.  The front wall was made of solid glass.  I looked through and saw beautiful people holding martini glasses.  Their faces glowed under purple lights.  The lustrous floor of black marble reflected the upper class of Athens.  I was flattered by Mike’s daring trap but I knew I couldn’t afford to be conned in this establishment. 

“We’re going to go to this one, OK?”

“Ooh, I don’t know, my friend,” I said, “I don’t think I’m dressed for this.”  I was wearing shorts; my melon-sized knee could not fit into my more formal cargo pants.

“Well, no problem.  Athens has plenty to offer.”

I knew that Mike walked quickly and was taking wrong turns on purpose.  And it worked.  I was drunk, I was preoccupied with the perfect alignment of my knee, I had no idea where I was.  I had no idea how far I had gone.  I had lost sight of the Parthenon, which I used to orient myself.  I arrived in Athens at 4AM earlier that day.  The bus from the airport dropped me off in a part of the city that fell outside of my map.  It took me two hours to find my hostel on foot.  It would have been easier, certainly, if the dogs and drunkards helped instead of chased me.

I followed Mike into a side street.  There was a three-story building whose basement entrance was lit red.  There were three men in leather jackets.  They were smoking.  In the hierarchy of the con industry, these men had been promoted to a level above Mike’s.  Their salaries afforded them slicker uniforms.  These men were mafiosos.  Mike and I walked through them and into the building. 

“Please have a seat here,” Mike said.  He walked towards the bar.

I sat at the edge of the room.  The bar was beautiful.  Two middle-aged men were the only other patrons.  The men sat separately.  They smoked cigarettes with fat fingers.  They loomed over emptied glasses.  Their massive torsos dwarfed the circular tables.  They looked towards an empty stage.  I don’t mind lecherous surroundings.  The wine-colored walls and chairs complemented the dark wood of the bar.  These colors, along with the tarnished brass of the stripper poles, comprised the sordid but nonetheless attractive palette of this moral vacuum.  Stubs of candles lit every table.

“OK, welcome to Greece!” he said.  “Here’s ouzo!”

He came over with Katia, a stunning blonde from northern Russia.  We raised our short glasses of ouzo and toasted.  Katia stared right at me.  She wore a short skirt whose side slit crept all the way up to her waist.  She wore a too-small tank top that struggled to contain her breasts.

“So how old are you?” she asked.

“I’m 23,” I said.

“Wow, really!  I am 23 too!” she squealed.  She was delighted.  And for a few seconds I believed that Katia and I shared not only the same age, we probably shared many more things worth discovering throughout the night.  I mentioned my plans to visit some islands in the Cyclades and the Dodecanese.  I had just a couple weeks in Greece before heading off to Turkey.  And wouldn’t you know it, she said the islands I had chosen were her favorites.

“Would you buy me a small drink, just a small drink for my company?”

I looked over at Mike.  He got up and walked away.  He began speaking to the bartender and to an older lady who stalked the end of the bar.

“Oh I don’t know,” I said.  “I wish I could, but I don’t have a lot of money, plus I am very religious, so I can only drink two or three alcoholic beverages a night.”

Within two minutes, Katia was gone.  The woman Mike was talking to, an elegant Eastern European in her 50s, ran the joint.  Her neck was traced with fat pearls and she wore a black cardigan.  She was smoking cigarettes the way they do in old movies, the only way a habit of such dire and unquestioned consequences becomes alluring.  She was the grande dame.  With a few indiscernible gestures, this woman commanded Katia, my blonde soulmate, to leave my table.

Mike came back to me.  “My friend, these women are just trying to make a living.  You’re not going to sleep with them.  We can go somewhere else for that, if you want.  It is only polite to buy them a small drink.”

The grand dame produced an even more striking woman, this one a brunette from Belarus, named Sveta.  Sveta approached more aggressively, with an unabashed sexuality that, within three strides, made clear once and for all, what this bar was really selling.  I needed Herculean strength to resist her advances.  Instead, I felt like I was Sisyphus, pushing against a force that would eventually win.  She let me stroke her hips.  The small bones of her pelvis ached to be touched.  The beautiful flatness of her stomach.  She unfastened her belt.  She put her weight on me.  She confessed certain things that only highly compromised strangers and the deeply committed can say.  And in the soft clicks of her accent, in the good-faith pronunciation of dirty English words, I lost control.  

I looked over her shoulder and saw the grande dame.  She stared at me hard and cold.  She stared like an angry man.  She came over to my table and brought two drinks.  I didn’t touch either of the glasses.  By the time the grande dame returned to the bar, another woman had appeared.  It was another blonde, but not at all like Katia.  Even Aphrodite would covet this woman’s beauty.

I had to leave before that woman came to the table.  But I knew that even if I raced out of the bar, I would lose my lower right leg within three steps.  I’d have three hot ex-Commies chasing me, plus Mike, plus the grande dame, plus the three mafiosos outside.  At my most fit, I could outrun the old lady, maybe.  But I knew she had a strong arm and deadly aim with her shoe.  She could throw her right pump and knock me out.  The three women from the former Soviet Union were tall and thin.  Before the dissolution of the USSR, these women had certainly been training to become Olympian sprinters and rhythmic gymnasts.  They could chase me down and use their long legs as vices to restrain me.  I was not so concerned about the mafiosos.  I knew they didn’t do much running.  Their duties included pistol-whippings, old-fashioned bullying and other stationary methods of intimidation.  They had big bellies as proof.  If my right leg held together, these men wouldn’t be able to catch me.  Strangely, I felt that Mike would let me go.  During our hours-old friendship, he had grown to like me.  I knew this in my heart. 

“You’ve both been very nice to me, but I am leaving now.”  I said to Mike and Sveta.  I held my breath and lifted swollen knee over Sveta’s flawless legs.

I burst out of there.  The grande dame, who had resumed her spot at the far end of the bar, rushed to block me.  But I slipped past her.  Mike got up.  He could’ve grabbed my arm.  Instead, he followed me out of the bar.  The men in leather jackets were gone.  Sveta and Katia barely moved.  I never looked back.  I don’t know how far Mike had shadowed me before he too gave up.  It was divinity that liberated me from that bar.  I accomplished drunk and lost what I wasn’t able to do during moments of total clarity–I made it to my hostel without a single wrong turn, without a single pause.  It didn’t matter that both the God of Wine and the God of Public Works had been against me–I had the God of Near Escapes on my team.  I hobbled all the way back, with my money still in my pocket, with my legs still attached.

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