Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Tale of Two Bogdans

So there were these two guys named Bogdan. I was living in New York City at the time, studying at Hunter College, and I met them in one of my classes. I like to think of them as Bogdan 1 and Bogdan 2 -- in order of preference.

Bogdan 1 was a well-mannered, soft-spoken guy. The kind of guy you'd introduce to an attractive new girlfriend to gain her trust. Bogdan 2 was pushy and oafish: one of those guys who says "You're my best friend in New York" the third time you meet him. Meanwhile, you're shuffling madly through your mental index cards: Bragdon? Bogram? Boxy? I suspected he would ask me for something sooner or later. People like that always do.

The Bogdans were both from the country of Poland, where the name Bogdan translates to "beloved of God" or some such. I thought that they were best friends; and this was not the only way in which I was naive. In any case, I often found them talking together in Polish.

I knew neither of the Bogdans very well. We went out for an awkward drink once or twice and it seemed to me that Bogdan 1 was very ill at ease. As the semester wound down, I saw less and less of them. When classes ended, I figured that would be the end of our friendship. I wouldn't have minded staying in touch with Bogdan 1 but didn't at all mind leaving the second one behind.

By early summer, Manhattan had grown stale for me. I have always had a knack for knowing when a social scene is about to collapse, and my gut told me my current one had run its course. To stay ahead of the curve, we had found a new apartment in Boston and my girlfriend had already installed herself there. Our boxes were half packed in our upper east side apartment, and I was tending to the final details. In a week I would leave the city behind. I was stuffing red and white, dutch-print dish towels into a shoebox when the phone rang.

"Hey, it's Bogdan."

"Oh, hey. Bogdan 1 or Bogdan 2?" I asked?

"The tall one." he replied.

My heart sank. Bogdan 2 never could keep my numbering system straight.

"I've got a favor to ask," he continued. There was a long pause. Sometimes it is better just to keep quiet and hope for the best. "I mean, if you don't mind," he said, ending on a painfully high note.

Another pause.

"What do you need Bogdan?" I finally said, regretting the words as soon as they hit the receiver.

"Well, you know you're the best friend I have in America." he said. "And I am getting married."

I was surprised. Who would want to marry Bogdan 2? "Well congratulations. I didn't even know you had a girlfriend."

"I met her two weeks ago. We are getting married next week." He said, as if that were a perfectly normal thing to do.

I figured he was going to ask me for money. Maybe he couldn't afford the ring. Maybe he needed a security deposit for a new apartment. I didn't really care because I was flat broke. He couldn't have gotten a dime out of me if he had held a gun to my head. So I was completely unprepared when he asked me to be his best man.

I won't bore you with any more dialogue -- not just yet, anyhow. Suffice it to say that I agreed, very reluctantly, to witness the ceremony. These were my caveats: I would not pay for a bachelor party and could not afford a tuxedo. I would go out for drinks with him and any other friends he could muster and would buy him a drink or two but that would be the full extent of my contribution to the festivities. He agreed gratefully -- almost too gratefully. This was going to be the best day of his life and he was so happy that I could be a part of it.

Unfortunately, the wedding was set for Wednesday, June 18, my birthday. Usually I am more selfish about my birthdays but I had already agreed and saw little point in protracted negotiations. I would have to skip out of work midday and take the 4, 5 & 6 to city hall but that could be done. None of it was ideal but at least it would be over quickly. Or so I thought.

On Tuesday evening we all met at Mc Sorley's Old Ale House, a little bar in the East Village where they serve two kinds of beer, "light" and "dark", and where women were not allowed until after a 1970 court order. I figured that was as good a place as any to begin a bachelor's last night out.

With Bogdan 2 was Bogdan 1 and one other guy who turned out to be the wedding photographer. Everyone except for me was from Poland. Bogdan 1 showed us pictures of his betrothed, a lovely Polish girl with long blond hair and a stunning figure. That was the first surprise of the night: Bogdan 1 was marrying a knock-out. The night was going well and everyone seemed to be relaxed and enjoying themselves. Conversation flowed freely.

If you have any sense of 20th Century European history, you are going to think I was a complete idiot. I suppose I was. Honestly, though, the connection never really occurred to me. You see, after Mc Sorley's, my second favorite bar was a hip little place called the KGB Bar. The location had once been a speakeasy for ex-pat Ukrainian socialists and was decorated with communist propaganda posters. It was now a hangout for an up-and-coming crowd of artists and writers, all happily oblivious to the horrors of Stalinist rule.

My friends were polite, considering. I am sure it is hard to appreciate the clever irony of a place like that when your parents and grandparents were overrun, perhaps murdered by the communist army. They went in with me anyway as I blabbed on about the history of the place and led them into the little barroom decorated with kitsch right out of their worst nightmares. It took me about ten minutes to realize that the mood of the evening had changed for the worse. "You have to understand," Bogdan 1 explained gently, as if to a half-wit, "the KGB makes the Poles very nervous."
It was right about then that Bogdan 2 started feeling his alcohol. He began by talking about "the Jews". None of what he said was particularly original but it was all idiotic. I stopped him and told him that he could either drop the subject or I would be leaving forthwith. So he moved on to the subject of Poland. "You see," he began, "there are really two Polands. I am from the strong Poland and my friend here," he pointed to the other Bogdan, "he is from the weak Poland," I looked at Bogdan 1. He didn't seem at all surprised by this revelation. "And someday, the strong Poland will crush the weak Poland." He pounded his fist on the table for effect.

"OK," I said, "now we're done talking about Poland."

The rest of the evening was depressing and uneventful. We left the stifling atmosphere of the KGB Bar, found a corner pub and, after one more awkward drink, went our separate ways.

Now, nobody wants to be the best man to a belligerent anti-Semite -- except, perhaps, another belligerent anti-Semite. As I was nothing of the sort, this was one of the most disagreeable things I had ever been asked to do. But I have a terrible fear of letting people down. The following morning, the morning of the wedding, I simply could not call Bogdan 2 and cancel. My hands would not dial the number. Instead I put on my only decent suit, chose a tie that I disliked for its striped conservatism, and took the subway into the office.

At 10:00 a black forest cake arrived on my desk. It was from my girlfriend. Not being in New York for my birthday, she had done the next best thing. It was a wonderful gesture but I would have no time to share it until I returned from my distasteful task.

At the time, budget marriages were sanctified in New York City Hall. I arrived at noon and found the nervous couple in the middle of a small huddle in one corner of the waiting room. It was a hot day and there seemed to be no air conditioning in the building. The bride's family was present but Bogdan 2's family was not. She, the bride, was even more stunning in person. Her face was that of an innocent wax doll. In her hand was a bouquet of flowers. She spoke almost no English. I wondered for a minute whether I should warn her against marrying Bogdan 2 but decided against it. Perhaps she was looking to be the next Eva Braun. How could I tell? One only hopes that her betrothed had shared at least some of his shabby ideas with her in the two weeks preceding their marriage.

"Where is Bogdan 1?" I asked Bogdan 2.

"Oh, I don't think he will come," he replied.

I didn't bother asking why. I was disappointed but not at all surprised. The photographer, however, was present, so he and I sat together on a hard wooden bench and watched the eager stream of brides and grooms step into the private chapel and reemerge seconds later, shell-shocked and beaming.

Time passed.

After an hour, I started to wonder when I would get back to the office to eat my cake. I asked Bogdan 2 when we were scheduled to go on.

"They have a list. They will get to us soon."

Another hour passed. New couples came and went. I began to feel trapped in a hot, sticky limbo, butt bones aching, watching endless happy twosomes toddle off into the unknown.

"Are you sure you are on that list?" I asked.

"Yes, I am sure."

After another hour my patience was wearing dangerously thin. It was 3:00. The train back to the office could take thirty minutes or more. If the ceremony didn't happen in the next sixty minutes, I might find myself eating a very large birthday cake all alone in the middle of my empty living room floor. I had not eaten lunch and, if you ask my friends, they will all tell you that this is a very bad thing.

"Look Bogdan" I finally said, leaving off the "2" for emphasis. "I can't sit around here all day. It is my birthday. There is a big, beautiful cake waiting for me at the office. I would like to eat it with my co-workers before they all leave for the day. If you don't go up to that window RIGHT NOW and find out what is going on, I am leaving."

There was sudden silence in the waiting room. It was like being that guy in the old E. F. Hutton commercial. Without further protest, Bogdan 2 went to the clerk's window and returned with a clipboard.

"I guess I have to fill this out. Then she will put us on the list," he said quietly.
Forty five minutes later Mr. and Mrs. Bogdan 2 were joined in holy matrimony. I was not, actually, able to witness the event. There was only enough room for their family in the tiny chapel. Even the photographer had to stand outside. When the wedding party came out, the cameraman snapped a few photographs of everyone. I politely declined Bogdan 2's offer to join them for the wedding dinner and bolted out the door.

I arrived back at work at quarter to five, just in time to salvage my birthday celebration. The cake was delicious and I was happy to, again, be surrounded by my own people. That evening I called Bogdan 1 and asked him to discourage Bogdan 2 if he ever mentioned getting in touch with me again. Bogdan 1 seemed to understand.

So that's the story of the two Bogdans. Somewhere, on a mantle or a bookshelf, perhaps in New York, perhaps in Poland, is a picture of me, smiling through my pain, standing up as best man for a disturbed Polish Nazi sympathizer.

And that is why I can never be your President.

1 comment:

  1. Karl,
    Thanks for the link to your new blog. I do recall the double Bogdan's but had forgotten the details... enlightening and humorous... a shame about your political future though....

    Look forward to hearing more musings and yarns as they unwind themselves.


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