Monday, December 22, 2008

Second Cities

Once there was a dusty, grey city in the middle of a flat countryside, where almost anything went: prostitution was tacitly legal, white slavery was common practice, bunkos angled for your gambling money, tax-dodging was a local pastime, and corruption from organized crime reached the highest levels of municipal government. A hit could be put out on a rival for a pocketful of change, delivered by thugs who congregated around popular nightspots. Sound familiar? Welcome to Chicago before the turn of the twentieth century.

Of course this could also be modern-day Budapest. There are more general similarities between the two cities as well: both lie in the center of vast swaths of agricultural regions, both are waning industrial hubs, and both have experienced, at one point in their history, influxes of German and Polish immigration. There is a working-class feeling common to Chicago and Budapest, despite growing prosperity. More importantly, both cities wallow in their underdog status, and compensate with inflated local pride and grandiose architecture. In hearing how the daredevil Hungarian construction workers defied safety regulations in erecting the Megyeri Bridge, I couldn’t help but think of the perils of creating, not to mention riding, the first Ferris wheel, invented for Chicago as a landmark for the 1893 World’s Fair, or the completion of the world’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building on LaSalle.

Even at the most visceral level, upon arriving in Budapest for the first time, I felt it shared a kinship with my hometown. There was a gracious decay to the buildings’ facades, particularly in District VII and VIII, that harmonized with my memories of Wrigleyville and Uptown in the 1980s. It was gratifying to learn that a particular section of District VIII was referred to as Chicago, for its shady reputation and criminal element. And, lucky me, for the first several years in Budapest I lived on the outskirts of ‘Chicago’, observing the sleazier aspects of Rákóczi tér, and discovering, late one boozy night, a local speakeasy.

If you want to talk about vice in the USA, forget Vegas. Turn-of-the-century Chicago had entire blocks, neighborhoods, filled with nothing but bars and brothels, where girls from the countryside and from Europe were baited with well-paying jobs by the gangs of strongmen Johnny Torrio, Harry Cusick, and later, Al Capone. Even locals were not safe from the gangs that operated with impunity, due to large police and political payoffs: it was known that men sometimes sold their dates into prostitution from dance halls, or for girls to be kidnapped off the street and held captive. As we all know, institutionalized human trafficking has by no means disappeared; post-soviet trafficking must be one of the least policed abominations of recent times.

Other tactics modern vice seem to have been invented in Chicago, and perfected in Budapest. Chicago’s Mickey Finn was a saloon owner who was famous for baiting tourists and unsuspecting men with seemingly available girls, who would then drug their drink with knock-out powder. The men would wake up, sometimes totally naked, in an alleyway in the back, with no memory of what proceeded. Budapest's Váci utca, is home to any number of konzum lányok (drink girls) plying this trade, with scant notice from the law. And it is not just tourists who are targeted. Tales abound of expats having been slipped a Mickey Finn at such crime-neutral places as Cha-Cha-Cha, Sark Presszó, and A38 to name but a few. As for gambling: I love that card games designed to swindle unsuspecting Chicago gamblers were called ‘bunko’ games. For those that don’t know, bunko in Hungarian is a meat-head, or thug. I am not sure if there is an etymological connection, but there is definitely a shared spirit.

Everybody, naturally, sees associations where they choose to. I have heard Budapest referred to as the Bangkok, or even the Tokyo of the West. There are those who call it the Paris of Central Europe. Nairobi of the EU, anybody? Perhaps it is a touch of homesickness that causes me to see Chicago everywhere, even in the decrepit corners and seedier streets. That is fine: Chicago, and all its vice, daring, and pride, is an inextricable part of my personal history, and I bring it with me wherever I travel.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.


Vándorló said...

I've always thought of Buda and Pest as pretty much mirroring East and West Egg, though the points of the compass are reversed.

Mokus said...

V: I was kind of hoping you would jump on the 'bunko' passage and inform me of the etymological connection between Hungarian and Italian/American bunko-ism - come on - you know you want to.

Vándorló said...

@Mokus: Damn that Achilles' heel! I'm pretty sure this is a false cognate, as the Hungarian derives from the extension of a visual image, while the English meaning comes to us through a Spanish or Italian card game.

As far as I know its (bunkó) Hungarian meaning of 'thug, lout, bruiser...' is derivation from the imagery of its primary meaning of bunkó, which is for a short stubby object such as a knob (as in doorknob) or butt (as in blunt end of something). From which we get 'bunkóz' for a club, cudgel or bludgeon. It's not a great leap to attach this to the thickset types amongst us. As with almost any Hungarian word, we can then form the verb 'bunkózik' meaning get into a scrap or exchange blows - pretty much what you'd expect from a bunkó.

Apparently the English word bunko comes via bunko > bunco > banca > bank. So from one Germanic language (English) through Italian and/or Spanish, but ultimately from German. It still remains in some variations of casino card games such as punto banco baccarat.

Mokus said...

That's what I'm talking about.

viagra online said...

From which we get 'bunkóz' for a club, cudgel or bludgeon. It's not a great leap to attach this to the thickset types amongst us..