I'm in a dive in Krakow, luxuriating in the rare experience of being a rich man. I understand the economic principles that allow a poor American to feel like a rich one when abroad, and I acknowledge that the cost of getting here was subsidized via business expense, but it's impossible to not marvel at a four course dinner for $18.
It's an interesting place. A punk rock joint that's been there for, from what I can tell from the bottom layer of stickers and graffiti, at least 20 years since the last time it's seen serious remodelling. The music is the stuff I listened to as a kid in the high desert of California during hot, dry nights spent doing your standard hoodlum shit. I was the second or third person to roll into the place, behind a guy that looked like he might be trouble if the right circumstances arose, and a couple of locals who were busy trying to explain, via obnoxiously loud speakerphone, to the rest of their group how to get there. I originally intended to just have a look and a beer or two, but it was fun, relatively relaxed, the beer was cheap, and I had the bar corner to myself for long enough to not mind when the seats around me started to fill up.
The crowd was thin, a mix of expats and locals who seemed determined to keep the 90s underground alive in fashion and perhaps in spirit. And so the conversation among strangers in a bar turned inevitably to the subject of work.
"What do you do then?" the British cokehead asked me as the local girls he had been chatting up lost interest. He had already told me about his gig as a recruiter for English instructors, and had pitched me a few times on sharing a rip on the gear he was holding. He was a little incredulous that someone would turn down free coke from a stranger in a foreign country, but eventually relented, doubtless thinking me some sort of fool.
The Brazillian kid and his girlfriend to my right and the bartender, a tiny twentysomething goth girl who knew exactly how to work the expat crowd, tuned in for the answer.
"I'm a very expensive pair of hands," I said, pointing to the empty glass in front of me and winking at the bartender.
In the moment after it became clear that that was the entire answer, the cokehead scoffed and said "Come on mate, what does that even fucking mean?"
I absolutely could not help but smirk a little bit as I poured the bottle of fruity sour ale into the glass I'd been using all night. If these people had any idea...
"Well it's like this. Sometimes, someone reliable has to go put hands on things on short notice. Usually because the first guy on the job fucked something up. So, sometimes my boss calls me and asks if I want to go somewhere and do something boring that isn't worth his time."
"Well what are you doing here then," the cokehead says, flicking the pinhole and the train tunnel of his pupils over to the departing local girls and then back to me.
"The last guy left some equipment here, and we can't be having the client do our work for us, even if it's as simple as having them hand it to the FedEx man. So, my boss says he needs me to fly to Krakow on short notice and pick the shit up. We dicker over how long I get to stay and enjoy myself, I wander out of the woods for a week and get trashed with you guys, and then I go back to being a hermit."
"That sounds like a pretty good job," the Brazillian kid says.
"It has its ups and downs," I say, shoving a memory back down into the bottom of the filing cabinets. "The last trip was god awful. This one's turning out to be pretty nice."
The cokehead splits off to the bathroom for a gear check.
The guy who looked like potential trouble was circling back around to my corner of the house. Tall, stocky, beer gut, maybe fourty. Haircut in a local tough-guy style that I learned a little while ago is associated with a certain kind of Nationalist politics in parts of Europe. Hobnailed boots and a Polish army blouse with a bunch of Crusader-themed shit stitched to it. He'd been circulating among groups, wedging himself into conversations and being made unwelcome in stages. The bartender had been keeping an eye on him for a while, and earlier in the evening, when his behavior nudged from nuisance into boorish, I had asked her if he was a regular.
"Unfortunately," she said. "He'll run out of money soon enough."
A local woman, a regular who'd been sipping Wild Turkey since about half an hour after I had rolled up, spoke up for the second or third time in as many hours. The only other things she'd said all night were to politely decline, and then politely accept, offers to go burn one in the alley.
"It sounds like either the mafia or a Fortune 500 company, yes?"
I laughed. "Somewhere in between I guess. Small company. Technical work. But sometimes the smart guys fuck up and that's why my boss keeps a dumb guy on call. I'm cheaper than the smart guys I guess."
Out of the corner of my eye I see the cokehead coming back, and trouble shouldered right past him to come inspect the conversation in my corner. As I'm about to speak, trouble is suddenly behind me and clapping me hard on the shoulders with both hands from behind. If I hadn't seen it coming in the bartender's face, I probably would have whipped around, which might have escalated things. Instead, I just scooted my stool in a bit like I thought he wanted to get by, even though there was nowhere to get to.
He yelled something at me. My Polish is nonexistent, but Belligerent Drunk was untouched by the fall of the Tower of Babel.
I turned on my stool to face him square, setting my feet on the floor, weight ready to spring. "Sorry," I said, smiling, "Only English."
I've learned to tell a lot about someone by their reaction to that one - Sorry, only English.
"AMERICAN," he sneered.
Here we go, I thought. He'd been eyeballing me off and on since I got here, a stranger in a space he obviously felt was his, the territorial instinct of those who feel they have nothing else, or feel that they are owed something, or both. I knew the cokehead and the bartender would have my back if I ended up having to talk to the cops tonight.
"That's right, filthy American," still smiling, nodding sharply now, watching his eyes struggle with the jerky movement.
I could smell the Jaeger he'd been drinking out of a pocket flask between beers.
He tried to circle behind me, hands coming up to grab, but I knew I had him if I moved first. I stood up fast, launching up with an assist from one hand on the edge of the bar as he angled, too drunk to realize he was backing himself into a corner. He startled at the sudden movement, and looked down as he realized the toes of my big stompy boots were pressed right up against his. I could see that I was bigger than he'd thought. I do have a bad habit of hunching when I sit.
He took a step back and realized he only had half of one before there was nothing but wall. I could see him thinking, but I couldn't tell what. He was off-balance, one heel pressed awkwardly against the brick. I'd stepped between his arms when I jacked myself up off of the stool , and while they weren't pinned, it would have been a very awkward (and slow) reach for him to get them back between us.
"NO PROBLEM" he finally said, sliding along the wall towards the exit, feet shuffling like a goaltender, knees bending as he sidestepped, most of the bar watching him walk through a hand of darts on his way to the door.
The bartender's hands came up from behind the counter and I relaxed my grip on the heavy glass.
The cokehead, oblivious, pulled out another round of Winston Blues and passed them around. His pupils had evened out.
"I hate that fucking guy," the cokehead said.
"I think he was going to start a fight!" the Brazillian kid said.
"Nah," I shrugged. "Probably just trying to get in on the next round. Will you fill us up when we get back?
The bartender smiled and said she'd save our seats.