by Manos Kasapis
“It was a cold day in hell.”
But I keep saying to myself that there have been colder, far worse severely daunting, frightening days… Oh, so many words to describe this day! If I could pick one, I’d say… morbid. The sky was a pale shade of gray, never fully raining but without any trail of sunshine. The city was its usual mess, the noises, the crowds, everyone always moving fast, not daring to look around because they knew what they’d see; damage — broken traffic lights, broken glass and, worst of all, broken people. The once glorious centre of Athens has now become a haven for homeless people and, by day, immigrant bench merchants. Although diminished, this city sometimes gives a pleasant vibe to my morning walk through the merchants cheerfully displaying their products — mostly knockoff purses and DVDs, to passers by. The street musicians do their best to entertain the crowd for their morning penny as everyone is rushing to class or work… I have to admit, a part of me likes this.
So, there I was, in this massive building, surrounded by big glass windows, gazing at an endless sea of gray; from the worn-out roofs of the flats that cover the entire city to that pale cloudy sky. The room I was in was plain: gray floor, white walls, a big white board with scribbling on it and an even bigger board, displaying some presentation. A woman was talking but I could not perceive sound at the time — just motion. The motion of her lips as she talked, the way she moved around the class, the waving of her hands and, more amusingly, the heads of my class mates hanging dejectedly as their legs began to shake, anxiously looking for a way to escape, perhaps even quietly praying for an earthquake. As I was watching, ever-oblivious to all sound, I started contemplating what I saw earlier.
The episodes had left the city in a creepy state of quiet, and disarray, like a battle field after the battle has ended. From a quick look, everything seemed quite normal. The thing that captured me though was the sealed gate of the Law School. Usually, at this time of day, it’s extremely crowded; students going in and out of the building with their bags, a few teachers trying to walk through the crowd of them, people handing out pamphlets and, of course, just outside, the homeless people that have made the park next to the Law School their residence. Today, the place was empty. Big piles of scrap metal blocked the gateway, the yard was trashed and there was absolutely no sign of students. People avoided looking at it, as if to look might bring on a curse. The homeless were gathered in the park in larger numbers than usual today. This gave me an abstract sense of danger so I had quickly continued walking, wishing I was a few feet back where the violinist was playing. He plays every morning just outside the subway stop. He is really good, playing what I suspect are original compositions. I always stop for a while, slow my pace and listen to him. And, if I can spare them, throw a few coins at his case. Today he was playing a slow, sad melody that was somewhat fitting in the general atmosphere but I was already in a grim mood and didn’t have any extra money to spare so I put something more cheerful on a crappy mp3 player I always carry with me and went on. Now, I regret doing that.
Suddenly, I snapped out of my trance when I noticed a sudden upheaval in the room; apparently, it was time for a break and everyone rushed outside for a bite or a quick smoke, chatting and laughing but I didn’t feel like talking to people. There is a big black piano in the room, the only object that stood out in this place and I sat there and played for a while. The melody I was playing was slow, monotonous, melancholic, much like the day. Eventually, the hours went by and it was finally time to leave. The day was coming to an end. There was no gray anymore, only shades of purple and black and the atmosphere had changed. People were now rushing home, or to a bar, to a friend, or to dinner or simply just trying to get away from the park. At this hour everything is different. The merchants have packed up their things and left and a generous portion of Athens’s drug addicts gathered for their nightly fix; people of all ages, from the homeless residents of the park to skinny high school girls – but they all looked the same to me – broken.
As I was walking down with a group of class mates, I stopped right before the park. Everyone was headed to the subway but when they all turned left, to the crowded street, filled with bars, stores and restaurants which were just a 2 minute circle away from the park, I remained where I was. “Come with us, I don’t want to go to the park, its scary!” a girl said and everyone agreed with her. “It’s faster that way” I replied, and kept walking right through. I lied. I didn’t care for the 2 minutes difference. And hurrying isn’t really a part of my character…besides; I didn’t have anything more to look forward to tonight other than drinking cheap wine while deleting my e-mail. The thing is, I didn’t really feel like talking to people and some part of me just couldn’t stay away from the park. I felt like I had to see this with my own eyes, even just once. So I went on.
There was a narrow path, covered in cement that passed directly in front of the Law School gate. An open space of benches occupied the center of the park forming a square. Another, identical, path was at the other end of the square. Passers by only dared walk on the first path, the “safe” one – everyone was instinctively pulling together, avoiding eye contact with anything other than where they were going. But I wasn’t. A mere few steps away from me, on the first bench, there was a man sitting down. From his clothing I assumed he was homeless. He wore a beanie, a torn filthy jacket, sweatpants and no shoes. He had removed one of his socks and he held a needle in his hand, searching his foot for a vein to inject. A larger group was near him and I was surprised to see a few very ordinary looking people among them, discreetly picking up something from someone’s open hand, from the faceless men with their beanies and filthy jackets. Those handshakes were only for a second and then everyone scattered. A few voices addressed me or someone near me, things like “Hey!”, “You”, etc. I knew very well not to look at those men because they were either looking for money, or trouble and I was interested in none of this. As I reached the intersection with a visible expression of relief on my face, I saw a few police officers standing nearby, observing in apathy. This didn’t surprise me though.
When I finally saw the entrance to the subway, a melody started playing in my head. It was the violin piece from earlier this morning, soft, sad…I instinctively looked at the violinist’s stand but he wasn’t there anymore. In his place there was a very thin, short woman, maybe around 25. Her hair was short and dark and her clothes looked expensive but filthy. Over them she wore a hooded trench coat and her look was anguished. There she was, crouched in the violinist’s stand, with a lighter in her hand, heating a spoon. As I saw this, I put my hand in my pocket and reached for the cigarette I kept there. Although I have been trying to quit it, at this moment I just felt the need, it was compulsive, an addiction as well “Fuck it.” I said to myself.