Hanging out in bars as a regular has its advantages. Once people figure out you’re mainly there for their stories, they start telling you stuff. And if you’re really lucky, you get it from more perspectives. The bartenders are like parish priests. Earlier or later the stories always come out. But even a parish priest has to relieve himself off his burden. So they tell you. Because you’re nice, and you’re always around. And your buddy left a huge tip. And you know the owner. But really because you’re always there.
She knew I was familiar with the people involved, because the bar was where they always met. Before they went upstairs. To her apartment. Three times a week, the bartender told me. And she only knew because the woman told her. Complained to her really. One woman to another.
The woman was nothing. The kind who learned it was cool to play dumb in school, and capitalized on that act all her life. She was neither pretty nor ugly. A bit like the bar. A place that didn’t advertise much (if at all), because it was always chock full of the owner’s friends and assorted neighbors. The woman blended in just enough to not stand out. She was past her prime, in her late twenties, so no one was interested in her, considering the usual assortment of college-aged girls that were often around. She’d dyed her hair blonde. Not a beautiful blonde, something that told you straight away it was out of a bottle. A few years ago she’d try to trap a man by birthing him a son, but he’d left, hence her deep interest in Three-Times-A-Week.
When she had nothing to say, when she saw people were around, and she couldn’t quite talk to the barmaid, she’d talk openly about her son. Especially to those with degrees or still in college.
“He’s so intelligent,” she’d say. “So smart.”
She’d pause for effect, looking around. I willed myself not to look up from my sheet of paper until I heard her voice again from the other side of the room. This time she was going for sympathy though. This could take a while.
“It worries me,” she said. “I’m always thinking of whether I’m bringing him down. I’m far from intelligent. In actual fact I’m pretty dumb.”
She’d learned that somewhere, I could have sworn. Right at the moment she finished, I made the mistake of looking up. Straight at her. I’d like to think I got distracted, but I must really have a masochistic streak. She pounced. Verbally.
“Really dumb,” she repeated.
My friends have this thing with me that they demand I play nice. I had an unspoken agreement with the owner that while the neighbors and random customers were off limits, his group of friends wasn’t. They liked sarcasm and banter. We’d spend hours of fun like that. But I respected the rules: play nice with strangers. So I decided to reply in the nicest way possible.
“Doesn’t matter if the mother is dumb,” I told her. “If the kid’s intelligent she can’t ruin that.”
And with that I went out for a smoke. Because I needed a break from studying. And I was bored.
“Play nice,” the bartender told me when I came back. The woman had left.
“She’s had a hard life. Her lover’s so stingy he won’t even give her a present. Not even once. Jews are stingy like that.”
I looked at her and mentally counted to ten, reminding myself that where she was from the Jewish population consisted of . . . well, none. All she had to go on was what people told her. And this was Hungary, so it wasn’t that nice. Which didn’t mean she’d get a free pass.
I actually knew the guy. He was the business partner of a close friend’s business partner. A nice guy. Even asked me to interpret for him a few times. Always paid what we’d agreed on, including travel expenses and meals. His staff was really respectful and nice, too. Fun to hang out with. I hate when these two-bit hookers try to trap a guy, then badmouth him when things don’t work out. I hate the other side, too. The guys trying to control and manipulate their girlfriends and wives. I’m not a paragon of virtue – too few people are – but gold diggers and manipulators alwats get to me. I’m not judging one-night stands, I think you should sleep together when you feel the time’s right. For some that’s three seconds, for others it’s three months. Or until marriage. But don’t beg a man to come up to your place, not giving up when he clearly wants to be somewhere else, then turn around and demand presents, or alimony, or whatever else comes to mind.
“Look,” I told the barmaid. “I’d jump her bones without giving her a present, too, if she spreads them within five seconds of meeting. And forces him into it, practically dragging him upstairs. No guy in his right mind would buy her anything. Him sleeping with her is present enough.”
The problem is, the myth of the stingy-yet-money-grabbing Jew is prevalent enough. And it’s not just propagated by the lower classes or the ones who don’t know any Jews. I heard the same variation from university professors and some Germans employed by the German embassy. That one I’m ashamed to admit literally shocked me into silence. I lived in one of the most anti-Semitic towns in West Germany, so I’ve seen a lot. It’s also why I’ll never be able to completely trust or even like any Germans. I know you should not tar all people with the same brush, but childhood experience goes a long way in shaping your worldview. I managed to slightly alter one person’s perception that night. If she passes it on, and the next person does as well, we’re halfway there. At the very least it’s a good start.