“This is the place,” said Lou.
It was the end of a long pub crawl through Prague, and Lou and I were
already quite drunk off strange hitherto untasted liquors as we stood there on Wenceslas Square under a neon sign casting a green glow on the pavement, loitering in front of the entrance to the Café Continental.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” I said. “Are we going in or what?”
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw inside: the barrage of light, the noise and smoke, the sparkling, dazzling expanse of high, coffered ceilings, mirrors, gold rods and cornices, tapestries, velvet curtains, everything coming together like in some overwrought dream of the fin de siecle. There were potted palms and Persian carpets, black and white clad waiters serving drinks on silver platters, beautiful people in all manner of costumes and exotic attire circulating around the hall, each one more spectacular than the next. There were dandies in velvet smoking jackets and long pomaded hair, exotic women in Babylonian jewels, crinoline and old fashioned hairstyles. To me it was the vision of Prague I had been waiting for.
All the luminaries of Prague society were there that night at the Café Continental. There were the entrepreneurs and entertainers, speculators, wheeler-dealers, journalists, bankers, adventurers, merchants, Mafiosi, whores, touts, tarts and pimps. Many of the guests were foreign. There were Americans, Russians, Germans and Italians. Though Czech predominated, the café was filled with the din of at least a dozen languages. People were trading tips, intriguing, drinking, debauching. This year it was Prague – next year, who knows? Chingtao maybe.
“Oh my God!” Lou cried. “Look at all what we got here tonight! The pretty girls are a-winkin and there are whores a-go-go. Oh, lordy, lordy, lordy!”
The owner of the establishment greeted us, and directed the both of us
to a lounge in the back, along the way greeting people, shaking hands, kissing hands, kissing cheeks, bowing, salaaming; the very picture of charm itself. Under a gilt framed painting of a satyr ravishing anymph, Lou and I sat and ordered drinks from a waitress in a skimpy black lace apron. Lou scanned the room with a cool, disinterested gaze, observing the other guests in their dinner jackets as they moved about the bar.
“Here in Prague you can tell just by looking at a guy if he got rich overnight trading currency, speculating, making secret deals, whatever,” said Lou. “See that guy there in the tux by the bar? Started out as just another small time Prague hustler, now he owns most of the casinos in Prague. Strictly Mafia. No question. He won’t last long. Gunned down in the street. Or maybe a car bomb will get him. Who knows? And that personage over there in the corner, with the glass of champagne in his hand – five years ago he was just a two-bit Prague stock tout, now he’s a major currency trader, basically lives on the terrace of the Hotel Yalta; this guy can break the entire Czech economy. And over there, the one by the bar in the pin striped suit and shades. Supposedly he is an ex CIA agent, who started a revolution in some central Asian banana republic, was responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall, and invented the Marlboro Man. Personally, I have my doubts.”
The waitress came with our drinks. Lou took out a bill and scrawled his telephone number on it before slipping it to the waitress.
“Give me a call, eh?” said Lou, putting his thumb up to his ear and little finger to his lips. I sipped my drink and stared at the beautiful people. Something seemed to be calling me. Some undreamed of possibility. What would happen to me in these coming hours? What rare, marvelous person would I meet?
At the table next to us a short fat guy with a bald head was holding forth to a table of admirers; a real character. The man wore an expensive, sheeny black suit, gray shirt and white silk tie. Not many people could pull off the white tie thing. This guy could, and for that you had to give him credit. A thick gold bracelet hung loosely around his pudgy wrist. A gold signet ring inset with a blue stone sparkled from his little finger.
“That’s Kozinsky,” said Lou, noticing my attention.
“What does he do?” I asked.
Lou opened his eyes in surprise. “Kozinsky? Do you mean to say the name means nothing to you?”
“Not a thing,” I said.
And so Lou told me a bit about Kozinsky, the famous, the infamous, the colorful, the eccentric, art dealer extraordinaire, bon vivant, world traveler, man about town, the prime mover and shaker in the Prague art world. Lou explained how he had come from a well-off Prague family, had grown up here in Prague and after various activities in the Czech underground, brushes with the police, stints in jail, lost everything, fled the country in a daring escape through the Bohemian forest, and made it to New York, where he rebuilt the family fortune and achieved quite a success dealing in Russian icons. Following the Revolution he came back to Prague, took up his Czech passport once again, and made a killing on the art market, buying up works by hot young Czech artists at cut rate prices before hyping them up in Berlin and selling them in New York.
“In his latest coup he took over the Czech Museum of Modern Art at the bequest of the Minister of Culture, privatized it, single handedly turning the institution into one of Prague’s few real success stories,” said Lou. “He is now a very rich man. I’m surprised you haven’t heard about the various scandals. There was a big to-do several months ago; someone found dead in his apartment. Killed with Kozinsky’s gun at a party. Big court case and all. Quite a cause célebre. Kozinsky said it wasn’t his fault; they were just horsing around; the gun went off quite unexpectedly. Somehow the matter gets resolved and Kozinsky is acquitted. Everyone says Kozinsky bribed the judges. Whatever. You hear some strange tales about Kozinsky. Wild bullshit rumors in my opinion. What does this shit add up to anyway? It’s circus crap. Insider crap. Bullshit people could care less about. You know how people talk. Hell, who cares? I prefer not to inquire too closely into what the man does. Come on,” said Lou. “I’ll introduce you.”
There were four at the table including Kozinsky: a thick, heavy set guy with porcupine hair, a thin blond man with pale indifferent eyes and an aquiline nose and a pretty brunette who looked like a floozy bar matron from German cinema, circa 1930. Kozinsky was busy regaling the table with a story of which I understood virtually nothing. Now and then an English word or phrase popped up like a window flashing open in his speech. “Yes I want it”, “no I do not want it” was all I could understand. Everyone laughed hilariously. He was evidently talking about some business deal. After he was finished he turned to Lou and said, “Well, if it isn’t my good American friend.”
“Mr. Kozinsky, this is an American friend of mine,” said Lou. “He’s just arrived in Prague. Fresh off the boat. A Prague virgin.”
“Marvelous,” said Kozinsky, reaching me his hand. “And what do you think of Prague so far?”
“Very dramatic,” I said.
“Prague is the maddest city in Europe,” said Kozinsky. “Oh, but you don’t know the half of it. You have got so much to see. Are you planning on staying a while?”
“No plans to go back just yet,” I said.
“Good. You ought to consider settling here permanently in Prague. You’ll find Prague very pleasant with a nice Czech girl, eh? Much nicer than girls in America I think you will agree. Oh, how I wanted to see your American girls when I was younger! The lovely American girls I see on television and in the movie magazines. Most beautiful girls in the world. But then I go to America, and ach, faces like this, and noses like so. With all respect to your great and marvelous country, you must admit that the girls in Czech are better – although, I must say the girls in the nightclubs in New York are very nice.”
A tray laden with glasses of some viscous, bile colored liquor arrived and we were each invited to take one. Kozinsky reached me a glass and placed his arm around my shoulder. “American, we drink,” he said. Our glasses touched.
“Oh, how I envy you young Americans, you know,” Kozinsky went on. “What a wonderful thing to be a young American in Prague. As free as a bird; not a care in the world. Seeing Prague for the first time. My, my, my. You will find you have an advantage here being American. People will talk to you; magically, doors will open to you. All you have to do is mention those enchanting words: ‘I am an American’, and voilá, people will do everything for you. You may not realize this, but you are in a very privileged position, my friend. Here you have the freedom of the foreigner. I assure you, you will see that you have entrée to places which a poor citizen of Czech may not enter. You Americans with your naïve optimism and charming ways will always be welcome in Prague. Drink a bit more of our Czech specialty, my American friend.”
Another glass of greenish-yellow liquor was placed in front of me.
“Bottoms up,” said Kozinsky. Kozinsky drank it in a go and Lou and I followed suit. Kozinsky then called for another round and bent his head closer to mine.
“Of course, you may say that things are not here so magnificently beautiful and marvelously nice here in Prague as I make you believe,” said Kozinsky. “crime is up; our country is beset by monetary chaos; inflation is skyrocketing; there are pyramid schemes and many swindles; state owned business are plundered by businessmen with political connections; banks lend money to businesses owned by banks owned by former members of the secret police; assets are stolen from businesses and sent abroad; people are robbing banks – I mean, when I say they are robbing banks I mean they are tunneling banks, which is not exactly the same thing, although it amounts to the same. And the police, they can do nothing because the legal system has completely disintegrated and there is wholesale corruption at every level. And so on and so on, und so weiter , etcetera. Yes, we are going through maybe uneasy times of a transitional period here in Prague. But all this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is an interesting time with many great opportunities. The vagueness of these times fascinates, and I like this madhouse quality of Prague. It is sublime and magnificent, and I only hope it stays that way.”
Here, the porcupine haired man spoke up: “Not everyone is so happy, Mister Kozinsky. You forget the Communists.”
“Ach, the Communists!” Kozinsky laughed. “There are people like our friends the Communists who say, oh, what a pity no one has any ideals anymore and all people care about nowadays is going out and having a good time and getting rich from nothing and tunneling banks. They talk about the total lack of ethical perspective in our country. Ach! I say. So what? People in Czech today are sick of these old ideals. What did these ideals achieve, eh? Fifty years of dictatorship; executions; thousands of human lives destroyed; thousands of people forced into exile. I have suffered, too. I have spent most of my life under this totalitarian system. I faced it openly and I paid the price. I cannot count how many times I have been arrested by the police. I have been thrown in jail. Today if you are thrown in jail you are out the next day. Ten years ago you did not know. Next day, next week, next month, next year, next decade? Who knows? My American friend, you must know that to us Czechs this bitter taste of injustice which we all knew so well only makes us value our freedom more. This is why we want now to have a little bit of fun. This is why the Communists will never again be successful in Czech. Look at these people here tonight. They want to enjoy life, and I admire this. I admire their hedonism. They accept this country the way it is, and I think this is just great….Here, Mister Americhan, again we drink.”
And from this point on the rest of the night became a bit of a blur. I vaguely recalled looking down into my glass and having difficulty getting it into focus. The viscous liquid shimmered vaguely. I heard a voice droning on around me, but it seemed a far way off. A cold sweat broke out on my forehead. I closed my eyes only to open them again quickly when I felt the room sliding forward under me. I took out a cigarette and attempted to light it with a match. The match broke in my hand. Then the ceiling began to spin.
“I, uh….excuse me,” I said to Kozinsky and bolted from the table, staggering my way through the room past a couple dangerously dancing, myself drunkenly tottering under the influence of strange liquors, painfully conscious of an upwelling in my stomach and a wave of nausea sweeping over me.
How long I had been laying on the floor of the bathroom stall I don’t know. It must have been quite a while because I was suddenly aware of Lou hovering over me, looking on and asking me: “How are things?” Incapable of speech, I covered my face and waved him off.
Then Lou helped me up off the floor and escorted me outside, where I tried to steady myself against the wall. I spewed again. Lou hailed a cab for me, but when the car arrived the driver didn’t want to take me. However, Lou managed to prevail upon him, thrusting the driver a handful of bills. Lou held the door for me.
“It’s nice to see you and Kozinsky seem to have hit it off,” he said. “Evidently you made quite an impression on him tonight. It’s unusual that he talks so honestly with a stranger. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kozinsky could help you out. He is a very brave man, you know, and in many ways a man ahead of his time. He has a favor to ask you. Don’t ask me about the details. Kozinsky wil no doubt tell you all about it. He wants you to give him a call tomorrow. Here’s his card.”
I took the card and lit a cigarette. The car sped off through the early morning streets of Prague. In the distance rising on a hill like a mirage stood Prague castle, sea-green under the floodlights, while on Wenceslas Square neon signs advertising western products flickered from the rooftops giving the city a sham air of cosmopolitan glamour. It had just rained and the inky puddles in the street shimmered in the neon. A huge banner advertising Coca-Cola hung from a building. Neon logos pulsed. On the sidewalks white plastic chairs of a terrace café stood tipped up against tables, while on the square in front of the statue of Saint Wenceslas people waited in various stages of impatience and desperation for friends, lovers, connections.
The taxi stopped in front of the Hotel commercial. I got out of the cab and staggered to the door. Back in my room I stubbed the cigarette out on the night table and threw myself fully clothed on the bed, covering myself with my jacket. Lying on my bed I watched the window panes turn gray and experienced an immense feeling of well-being and satisfaction. Who was this Kozinsky?