29 March 2013

On the Tram

I hold onto the gray rubber strap knowing it is useless. As soon as the tram stops the strap will slide and I will stumble. Not that it matters. There are so many people on the tram I won’t be able to fall far; an inch this way or an inch that way. I will mumble, “Sorry,” even though it is not my fault. Perfunctory apologies are big in English. You learn these quirks when you teach the language.

The man in the seat beside me stinks. He is strumming on a guitar and growling out Czech lyrics in a Tom Waits voice. He seems to be the front man for a homeless jam band. They aren’t asking for money. They are content to sing and stomp and take swigs of Bohemian moonshine from 1.5 liter Coca-Cola bottles. They all stink. I try breathing through my mouth but the thought of eating their stink disgusts me more. I settle on breathing only when I have too.

The tram stops at Hlvani Nadrazi. The main train station is 300 meters away through a pretty tree lined park. The park is a haven for hoodlums and homeless. The locals called it Sherwood Forest. If it were summer the band would depart to entertain the bandits. It is winter. The doors fold open and air rushes in bitter cold. The band plays on. They have seats. They have warmth. They can ride until the rot-gut runs dry.

The guy with the guitar has a matted beard and missing teeth. The skin on his face and neck is mottled with dirt. He seems to be molding. He has a dog. The dog is pristine. I wonder why that always seems to be the case with the homeless and their pets.

The band has a groupie. She is sitting across the aisle a couple of rows back. She is big and drunk and she brays a lot. I don’t understand the language but I understand the word “Elvis.” The King translates. Her braying has finally caught the attention of the guy with the guitar. He stops his Czech tune mid-strum and switches to “Only Fools Rush In.” He plays the song well. He starts singing. He sings the lyrics in Czech. The braying woman is not pleased, “Ne originál. V angličtině ty idiote!” I understand. “English you idiot!” translates.

The screeching of brakes marks my stop. Dozens of people are waiting on the median. Elvis sounds sweet and for a moment I consider riding it out one more stop. I let go of the gray strap and let the crush of people push me forward. It is always the same—a bunch of people squirting out like a plop of toothpaste.

I stop at the potraviny adjacent to my flat. I buy tomatoes, chocolate and beer. I need the tomatoes. The chocolate and beer not so much, but once I get inside I don’t intend to go back out into the confounding cold of a late Prague winter. I hold the beer bottles under my arm hoping they won't fall and shatter before I can open the door.

The door swings open. Behind me the tram roars past headed in the opposite direction. I wonder how long it will take the band to make the loop, to run out of songs and booze, to seek shelter against the wind with the bandits in Sherwood Forest.

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