I got an early morning flight out of Athens and was on a street corner in Copenhagen drinking red wine by two in the afternoon. I was watching the battalions of impossibly beautiful and impeccably turned out blondes on their bikes. They rode almost in formation. There was a Teutonic martial feel to the whole thing as if their running shoes might easily have quickly morphed into jackboots and all the giddy sportswear might turn into a Mussolini shade of brown. They were quiet, deferential, and painfully civilized. It was as un-Greek as one can get and still be in Europe.
Every summer I get to the islands and wait for my brand of proof that I am back in the Aegean. And that evidence always comes in the shape of a man, smoking a cigarette, two or three kids hanging on the handlebars of the scooter and Dad’s Belt as they pass by the cafenions and the tavernas and ouzerias, waving and exchanging insults, jokes, and threats. There isn’t a helmet in sight. The cops are all drinking iced coffees (frappe ma gala), smoking hand-rolled black tobacco, and generally holding forth as if in court surrounded by applicants, mendicants, wannabes, and the secretly but-universally-known-to-be guilty, trying to hide in plain sight. Traffic patterns are complicated by horse carriages, donkeys, trucks, mopeds, and tractors. There are people walking wherever they want or can. There is Greek air and light and pistachio shells in the gutters. It is vibrant, unpredictable, and, no doubt, dangerous, which is a string of words one could also use to describe life here there and everywhere.
I’m telling you all this because I got a ticket for jaywalking on State and Cota the other day. I was clearly guilty,” spaced out” as we used to say, watching the tourists and the college students in their summer dresses in a sultry January. There was, in my defense, much to distract, entice, and inform, but nonetheless it was mid-reverie that I was apprehended and became a criminal, a scofflaw, an outrider beyond the pale.
The cop was wearing a cop shirt that was a marvel of the ironer’s art. There were big and little pleats and a great perfect expanse whereon his name, rank, and serial number were displayed. He must, I thought, get a haircut a week. He belonged to a gym. He seemed more embarrassed than me, and so soon I wasn’t embarrassed at all. Rather, I started thinking about the copspeak he was speaking (vehicles instead of cars, multiple instead of many) and Athens and feeling a stranger in this strange land.
The regulars were on the street: the guy in the wheelchair who seems to own nothing but a constant stream of cigarettes, the little woman bent like a comma over her keyboard playing endless repetitions of the same chords, beating time with mismatched shoes. There was the young generation of bums learning a few of the ropes, all raucous, tattooed, and hung over in the ponderous and seductive aroma of The Habit.
He told me that his boss, a captain or something, had given strict orders to increase ticketing and the revenue it conjured up.
I said, “Can they do that? Can they even say that?”
He didn’t answer but gave a thin smile shot through with rue and awareness of the innate silliness of so much that we do, crawling as we do between heaven and earth, making do and trying to justify this whole laughable gig to ourselves. He gave me a ticket and some advice, and I went to a movie.