Ruin Pub

"A Street at Vác," Adolf Fényes, 1904, Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, Budapest

Karina stepped through the cavernous space, squinting into dark side rooms decorated with Kádár-era posters, every sound giving her a start. Knowing that Andras was somewhere in the shadows didn’t assuage her jumpiness. Thin shafts of sunlight emitted from the back courtyard, where the dilapidated husk of a baby-blue Trabant sat, devoid of tires and steering wheel. Outside, the skies of Budapest were clear and sunny, a mild chill signaling the onset of autumn, but inside the air was stale. She wore black platform boots, loving the seven centimeters they gave her. In the third room to the right, Karina spotted the ragged figure of the proprietor curled up on a frayed, mustard-colored sofa, its cushions flat and depleted. A sour smell of decay came from the clammy, ink-stained walls, or possibly from Andras himself. It seemed laughable that she’d been frightened by him in her youth. He was alone now, his wife long passed and his children fled to points west. For weeks, she’d been savoring the irony: the former Party functionary who needed her capital.

Karina’s foot brushed up against an empty Palinka bottle and sent it skittering across the cement floor. “Andras, hey! Are you up? Remember, we talked about a rental agreement?” He gave no response. She rummaged in her bag for her lighter and flicked it on a few inches from his face. He was sleeping. She tapped a Kent out of its pack and took a luxurious drag, her lungs welcoming the warm smoke. Prodding his shoulder elicited no reaction. Back when Andras was an apparatchik with strong associations to the Education Ministry, there’d been no choice but to hold in her rage if she wanted to attend university. But now, one pillow over his face and he’d be no more.

She gave him another jab. “Andras, you old drunk! Wake up, we have an appointment!”

Andras swung his body into sitting position and flipped a light switch. A bare bulb illuminated the room, revealing his bloodshot eyes, shriveled face and a matted, ginger beard. “I’m getting up, you don’t have to shove me,” he said. In addition to the sofa, the room contained a chest of drawers with books and papers scattered across the top, a single chair, and a small card table holding a hot plate, a pot, some cans of goulash and beans, a few spoons, and a sardine-tin-turned-ashtray. He gestured for her to sit. He was a willowy man, and shrewd, very shrewd.

Somehow, shortly after ’89, Andras had engineered getting the deed to the building, long before it had ever occurred to her that someday she’d want to set up a pub here. In the 15 years or so since, as she’d studied and waitressed and bartended her way through university and graduate school, he’d let the interior fall into ruin. A shame because the exterior was in fine condition, its facade chronicling a familiar Budapest tale: the second-story windows depicted ornate stonework, but in the ‘50s, when displays of decoration were dismantled in favor of industrial design, the ground floor had been resurfaced with plain, ugly cement. The double irony was that the building had once housed a state-run educational printing press, and history textbooks were the source of her family’s troubles. The textbooks she read as a girl inevitably cast Hungary as the victim in World War II and said nothing about its four-year alliance with Hitler. They made no mention of the fact that Kádár himself had invited in the Soviet tanks in ’56 and was responsible for thousands of deaths, including those of her paternal grandparents and her mother’s only brother. And though the rest of the country seemed to suffer from collective amnesia, grateful to Kádár for easing restrictions and turning Hungary into the “happy barrack” of the Eastern bloc, Karina’s family had not forgotten or forgiven. Her father’s crime was urging the country to own up to its past. Andras and his cronies kept the family on extra-long wait lists for every material desire, and were behind the smear campaign that ruined her father’s mathematics career.

Now, a defining moment in Karina’s own professional life. At 32, a soon-to-be small business owner. She turned the phrase over in her mind like a delicious confection. Perhaps not as lofty as some of her grad school friends, who’d taken government jobs intent on righting the country’s monetary and fiscal policies, but small businesses were the engine of the private sector, pivotal to Hungary’s transformation.

“I drew up a contract,” she said, extracting the papers from her purse. “Very fair for both sides.”

He took the agreement, flipped through the pages without reading, and handed it back to her. “First of all,” Andras said, “the Trabbi in the back stays.”

Karina laughed; he was delusional if he thought she’d agree to keep a decrepit old auto in the courtyard where she planned outside seating for the new pub. The Trabbi – if one could call that cramped, pollution machine a car – was the symbol of everything that had been wrong with the country for four decades. Her own family had to wait nine years for theirs, and when they finally got one her mother complained that they were endangering their lives every time they drove in it. With its smoke-belching two-stroke engine and a body constructed of cotton waste from Russia, the Trabbi had been dubbed the world’s worst car.

“Plus 20 percent of the profits for the first year.”

“Twenty percent? You’re insane!”

A sly smile came over his craggy face. “Fifteen, then. Plus the Trabbi. Do you think you’re the only one who’s approached me with grand ideas?”

“Something tells me you don’t have too many other offers.” She would not allow him to defeat her, not after all the plans she’d made for this place: who her first hires would be, where she’d get supplies, and how soon before she’d be able to repay the small business loan under the new “Dawn in Hungary” credit program. She’d laid awake concocting recipes for new cocktails and wondering if 550K forint was enough as an initial marketing investment.

“You said it yourself in our last meeting,” Andras said, countering. “This is a prime location.”

She cringed for having seemed too eager. But he was right about the location, which meant he was not as severed from current developments as she’d thought. Just off Dohany utca, a five-minute walk from the metro at Astoria, in the heart of the trendy Jewish Quarter, where locals and vacationers mixed in the open-air markets and admired the street art. And Jozef’s office was not too far; she could meet her boyfriend for lunch, and he’d promised to bring his colleagues around after work.

She ran through the numbers in her mind, feeling chastened that Andras had picked up the basic principles of free markets without a fancy degree in economics and a certificate in entrepreneurship. The 15 percent was negotiable. She took several more drags on her cigarette, studying his steely countenance.

“Ten percent.” She was unsure what he saw when appraised her: frightened little girl or independent, savvy businesswoman of the new generation. A lock of hair had come undone from her loose bun and now she tucked it behind her ear. “And you can forget the Trabbi.”

“Please.” His voice cracked. “It’s all I have left of my mother.”

She shook her head. “No Trabbi.”

They stared at each other, at a standstill for several moments. “I’ll go down to six percent,” Andras said, almost a whisper. “But the Trabbi stays.”

“Six?” Karina repeated, her ears disbelieving. “Give me a minute to think.” She retreated into the main space, the light from his room making it easier to see, to recalculate. She’d imagined turning the decaying walls into something colorful – hot pinks, fluorescent greens and blues, sunshine yellows – a bright pub for a bright future for Budapest’s young people. She ran her hand over the peeling columns and walked the length of the main room, glanced out to the back courtyard.

The central space was massive, five times the size of the entire two-bedroom flat in which she’d spent her childhood. Andras and his family had lived two floors above in a four-bedroom apartment with windows on the north, south and west sides; his reward for informing Mr. and Mrs. Szalai of 4C for writing subversive poems. Karina and the other children in the apartment block often waited for him to leave the building before rushing out to school.

Karina wanted the pub to symbolize their freedom, an atmosphere of openness and abandon, though it might be a hard sell – 15 years after the fall of Communism, the hope for a better society was dead. Many in her parents’ generation moaned of missing the mandated “family nights” each Monday, when the state-run television was taken off the air to encourage families to spend time together. One of Jozef’s mother’s frequent complaints was that working-class people could no longer afford to go to cultural events, which had been practically free under the former regime. Not to mention unemployment and inflation. The recent austerity measures made sense to institutions like the World Bank and business majors like Karina, but not to average Hungarians.

But what was his angle with the Trabbi? To Karina, it embodied economic disparity, the shortcomings of the Eastern bloc. She’d assumed Andras no longer posed a threat to her family, or to anyone, but now she was unsure. Was he still connected to some underground Party movement? She didn’t know if one existed – she’d never heard whispers – but that was the consequence of growing up in a Communist regime: conditioned to distrust.

She returned to the side room. “Why is it so important to you, the Trabbi?”

He took a few seconds before responding. “I don’t know if you can understand.”

“I’m trying to.”

“My mother was so proud when I was able to get her one. I’d never seen her happier.” He seemed to regain some self-worth from the reminiscence. His eyes shone and there was a hint of fulfilment on his sunken face.

The generation gap was acute. For Andras’ and her parents’ peers, as well as their parents, owning a Trabbi had been a status symbol. Perhaps their own way of rebelling. She longed for her own mother, eight years gone. Sometimes the grief surfaced and struck Karina with the force of a mortar shell. Was it possible Andras was felled by similar feelings?

A sudden brainwave, maybe a brilliant one. Her entrepreneurship award wasn’t for nothing. Perhaps she’d had it wrong: the luminous colors in her dreams weren’t right for the pub. She could place the Trabbi in the middle of the space and turn the ancient auto into a centerpiece, with plenty of room left for the main bar and some seating. She could keep the Kádár-era posters on the wall and decorate the side rooms with other relics. Her mother’s tin milk heater, her father’s antiquated Remtor typewriter, photographs of her pre-teen self in the choir of the Little Pioneers youth movement, everyone dressed in identical white shirts, blue skirts, and red ties. The pub would not only offer drinks but also a sense of nostalgia, warm memories of childhood. A screen somewhere with Süsü the dragon and the adventures of Pom Pom playing on repeat. If some called it kitschy, she’d counter that it was all authentic: the ruined building, the remnants of a past period.

Beyond the décor, another inspiration began to form. Darker but more satisfying. She stubbed the butt of her Kent in the makeshift ashtray and extracted a new cigarette. Budapest was becoming something of a tourist hub for Westerners; she had a line in her marketing budget giving licensed tour guides discounts for the first six months. Attractions displaying the country’s Communist past were not-to-be-missed: walking tours of Communist Budapest, the underground memorial at Kossuth Ter, the House of Terror museum. And what better way to capitalize on the trend than by having her pub feature a living, breathing relic of the era?


He looked up at her, his eyes hopeful. “Alright?”

She gave a curt nod. “Six percent, and the Trabbi can stay. On the condition that you let me decorate it.”

He reached for her hand and grasped it with both of his. “Thank you.”

His skin was papery and wrinkled, but Karina didn’t recoil. His eyes closed and he mumbled something that sounded like a blessing. Her thinking was clear, and she was almost grateful for his insistence on the Trabbi. He had nowhere to go besides this husk of a building. Better, also, to keep him close, under her persuasive, watchful eye. She took a deep breath. “The Trabbi can stay,” she repeated. “And you can stay with it. I’ll give you one of the side rooms, in exchange for your help behind the bar.”

An authentic, old Party official telling stories at the bar would be a draw, an asset upon which to generate publicity and build the brand. She wasn’t sure what her mother would have said but her father would appreciate the irony, the way she’d engineered events. The perfect “fuck you” to Communism: taking the artifacts of the era – and manipulating those who were cogs in its machine – to make a profit. Any lingering doubts about her endeavor washed away – there was nobleness in her mission, not only because small businesses were the backbone of the nascent economy. This was bigger than herself. She’d dedicate one of the many side rooms to those who’d fallen in ’56: pictures of her grandparents, her uncle, the people rising. In doing so, she’d be helping the remaining members of her family move forward. Find compassion for their oppressors.

Andras blinked several times in rapid succession. He opened his mouth to say something but no words came out. At last, he shook his head in assent, his bloodshot eyes watery. His body seemed to quiver and he flicked off the light. She could tell he was weeping by his raspy breaths. The arrangement would be mutually beneficial, but was this exploitation, using him as a growth engine? How long would it take for him to work off her father’s 75-page file in the state security archives? They hadn’t taught such calculations in her business classes. The new age belonged to her generation. If her intuition proved correct – and she had a giddy hunch it was – more ruin pubs would sprout across the city. And competition was good for business and the burgeoning economy.

Karina reached in her bag for the bottle of apricot-flavored Palinka she’d bought to celebrate later with Jozef and their friends. Her lawyer had prepared the documents; once the rental agreement was signed she could officially register the company with the Hungarian Court of Registration. It would take at least a month to clean the place up, to air out the smells of mildew and stale potatoes and god knew what else, and then another month or two to construct the bar, decorate the space and train her staff. She flipped the light switch back on, feeling emboldened by her choices.

“Come, let’s have a drink, and I’ll show you the plans.” She gave Andras a warm, sincere smile, and tapped out another Kent from her packet, handing it to him. See, she wanted to say, capitalists can be generous.


This story first appeared in Crab Orchard Review.


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