Aladdin flicks his cigarette against the wall of the station, narrowly missing an older man hunched on the stairs beside us. The man seems like he needs a hug, or at the very least, some liquor and a pill or two.
“You give me ten thousand, I go in, I come back, I give you 3 grams, my friend. I give you real grams, no street grams, real gram grams.”
I look up at Keleti pályaudvar [train station]. It’s beautiful, in an ancient sort of way; the architecture is relatively contemporary, compared to the rest of Budapest, but the peeling yellow paint and accumulated filth rob the station of its modernity. We’re standing at the feet of the ruins of a once-great hub of travel, now devoted to currency exchange scams and homeless Romani. Pigeons dance around, squirming around the feet of throngs of tourists. Daylight does not suit this place.
“I don’t want to give you the money in advance. You gave me oregano last week. I want to see it before I pay for it.”
He shifts nervously and pulls out another cigarette. A Japanese tourist walks by in a rainbow-colored “I LOVE BUDAPEST” t-shirt, blissfully unaware of the American student being scammed by the Syrian coke dealer for the second time.
“My friend, we are no filthy – what you call, gypsies. I do not steal, I give you gram gram. I tell you what, friend, you just give me nine thousand and I will get you same amount.”
I sigh. Frustration makes it seem like I won’t put up with his shit. Unfortunately, I’m sitting a few thousand miles from my nearest weed dealer, so I’m not exactly in a great position to bargain.
A police officer walks by, glancing at Aladdin only long enough to give him a smile. No doubt Aladdin was singlehandedly putting his kids through school.
“I’m not giving you the money until I see it, Aladdin.”
I momentarily reflect on the absurdity of his name. He grins. He’s always grinning.
“Fine fine. You go to KFC across street. I bring brother and we do business yes?”
I nod stiffly and sigh again, attempting to hide my glee at finally getting him to agree on something that really should have been non-negotiable in the first place. Desperation will do that to you.
Aladdin scurries off under the arch into the station. I followed him last time, to watch him pay a bathroom attendant and disappear inside, emerging with a cigarette pack full of some low quality Italian herbs; this time, I’d rather not risk pissing him off. I adjust my backpack, turn, and walk across the street, trying not to look like an easy target for mugging.
The twin signs of a KFC and a McDonald's wink seductively from the main road, with a Burger King not far behind. It always seemed strange to me that fast food was more accessible in this place than it was at my college in New Hampshire. I spend a lot of time at that McDonalds. The McChickens are to die for.
I head for the KFC and get in line. It takes vigorous pointing and re-pronouncing to order there. It had taken me several weeks to realize that “menu” in Hungarian means “meal”; total game-changer, really.
I manage to get some fries and a drink, enough to win the bathroom code and not look suspicious when I sit at the table near the windows at the front. The KFC is modern, and thankfully, much cleaner than the station.
I pass a few minutes nervously picking at fries.
Aladdin and his brother, Mohammad, arrive shortly after I finish my coke. Mohammad is wearing more Yankees gear than the average portly middle-aged man on a New York subway. They sit opposite me at the table and plop a cigarette pack down. It always astounds me how much attention they can call to themselves.
“This is best weed. So good. My friend, I smoke this yesterday, I don’t even remember what happen, it so good.”
His brother nods and grins as well, putting his index finger and thumb to his mouth to endorse the imaginary joint. A KFC worker comes by to clean up the table next to us; the brothers seem unaffected by her presence.
I pick up the cigarette pack and peer in to see what is definitely weed for once. I take a whiff. I don’t know how many “gram grams” it is, but I’m too excited by the fact that it’s actually pot to care. I take out my wallet and hand Aladdin 9,000 forints. He looks offended.
“No, we say ten thousand. I buy for nine, how can I feed my children by selling to you for nine? This good weed, expensive, I must make money too.”
His brother nods sympathetically. I really don’t like his brother.
“You just said nine, Aladdin. How did the price go up between then and now?”
He shrugs and grins, as if that counts for an explanation. I sigh again. The KFC worker is making me nervous, and Mohammad smells like a Colorado dispensary. I hand Aladdin another thousand.
He stammers something incomprehensible to his brother. They shake my hand enthusiastically in turn, grin happily and head for the door in a hurry. I put the pack in my pocket and leave KFC.
When I reach my apartment, I empty the pack onto my desk. It’s about a gram of weed; the rest is cooking-quality Italian oregano. I pause for a moment, and then start to pick apart a joint’s worth with my hands.
I guess oregano burns all the same.