July 15, 2010

Over Soup in Budapest

I was fishing through a bowl of soup in a bar in Budapest. The waitress, a solid built brunette, didn’t so much take my order as make it for me. “This,” she said, pointing with her pen. “It’s traditional soup. You like.” It wasn’t bad, but there too, it’s hard to screw up a bean. Takayo and I found the traditional food in Budapest similar to that of Prague. If communism left a mark in Eastern Europe’s culinary world, it took the form of chunky soups.

It was a late lunch, and our table overlooked a residential street. Three men were trying to load window frames into the European version of a Ford Fiesta. The frames, like so many in Budapest, were handsome, six-foot tall formations. The two men in paint-splattered coveralls were being directed by the potbellied guy in the belly shirt. None of them seemed to have a clue as to what the other was doing. It was like watching the Three Stooges at work, minus the sting of an open-handed slap to the face.

We were lucky to have the show. Takayo and I were on our second week of vacation, and for the time being, our conversation had run out of steam. The men tried cramming the heavy frames in, first this way and then that. There was a crunch, and the workers winced. “Don’t worry about it,” I imagined the fat man saying. “I’ve got spray paint at home.” The men set down the frame and formed a semi-circle, discussing possible solutions for this life sized puzzle.

We were on the Buda side of the Danube, which, unlike the larger buildings of Pest, has more of an old-world feel to it. There was a sign on the wall that read: NO SPITTING ON SIDEWALK. $5 FINE. This was a novelty sign from the States, of course, from the days when every man on the street wore a fedora. There were honest deals to cut and butchers to over-tip, or so the old movies would have us believe. Who even had time to spit on the sidewalk? There was the town wino, but he was already locked up. Where were all the manual laborers? You know, the people for whom these no spitting signs were meant for?

When I was growing up, the family business was a three-hundred unit trailer park. I got to meet a lot of their employees, many of whom lived right there in the park. My father was always working alongside deeply tanned men, their skin often the same texture as their boots. It was only a matter or time before work followed my father home.

I remember walking outside one morning to find, what smelled like, a massive shit grave in our yard. The septic tank that lay four feet underground was backed up. Some workers from the park helped him dig the massive hole, but some time after prying the lid open, my father’s keys fell from the breast pocket of his Acapulco shirt into the raw sewage. And they would have sunk to the bottom, had it not been for the alligator case, which was surprisingly buoyant. My dad fished the case out with a shovel and flung it onto the grass like a drowned rat. After the ordeal, the men stood in a semi circle, their eyes fixed on the hole, discussing their next move.

Takayo and I had finished our soup, but the Caesar salad we ordered hadn’t come out yet. There was a gap in the wall behind my seat, which separated the dining room and kitchen. Our salad was waiting at the prep table. There was nobody around. To pass the time, I told Takayo the story about my father’s keys. The men outside were still strategizing, which somehow made the story seem more relevant.

But it was like that. There was always heavy pieces of equipment that needed to be moved, or dug up.

Some of his tenants thought it was clever to flush pork chop bones down the toilet. What they didn’t realize was that pork chop bones are unhealthy for plumbing. The trailer suffered the equivalent of a massive stroke. The tenants fled town shortly after their idea, and toilet, backfired. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen my father use a Ditch Witch.

By the time our salad arrived, the men had the frames off the street and loaded into the hatchback of the car. Ropes were brought out, and naturally every man had his own idea of the right way to tie a knot. When we asked our waitress for the check, the men were shaking hands, congratulating themselves for, I suppose, not crushing the ass-end of the car like an aluminum can.

Before Buddha belly drove off, each man rechecked his knot one last time. This interrupted the “shake hands, depart” sequence, so the men resorted back to standing in a semi-circle, talking -- like anywhere else in the world -- about god only knows what.

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