Bits of Bedlam

Below is an episode that seemed stylistically inconsistent with my novel Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe, which is more fabulist fiction and satire than slapstick humor. I took the initiative and edited it out before publication. Still, I miss the Chalkboard Cowboy, in fiction and in life.


The American Hospitality Center, a real estate company and change bureau, like many businesses during those uncertain times, hedged its bets with alcohol.  The front portion of their Old Town storefront was furnished with a bar, several white plastic sets of lawn furniture and a large bulletin board upon which travellers posted messages to lost companions, sought or offered jobs, solicited rides to distant places.  The bar served the summer’s standards: Pilsner, wine & Cokes, treacly Malibu rum and Black Death Vodka, along with tiny demitasses of bitter, chalky coffee whose taste lingered throughout the day.  Mornings, the bartender concocted “American Style” breakfasts from a hotplate; pancakes and bacon, though the bacon was at best Canadian and the pancakes were as thin and porous as doilies, slathered in a watery chocolate sauce instead of syrup.  What was precisely American about the café, except for its McDonald’s-like sterility and red, white, and blue paint-job, eluded John Shirting, though that did not stop him from making the bright yet droll place his regular haunt.

The bartender looked apprehensive as Shirting strode in and claimed a choice corner seat.  In recent days he had  been tutored by the foreigner in proper espresso drink assemblage, endured  a quiz on milk-to-coffee ratios, and subjected to numerous suggestions for the café’s improvement.  For Shirting’s part, he was greeting the morning with a series of espresso shots, replenishing the well-spring of optimism that caffeine catalysed in his mood.

He found that he was beginning to recognize faces in the crowd as he walked about town:  expatriates who stood out with their breezy stride that refused to acquiesce to any sidewalk congestion—cutting through throngs of natives as though by some subversion of physics they existed on a less material plane than the city’s own denizens, or were constructed of looser, less earthbound and worrisome particles, phantasmal in nature.  And to where were they rushing?  Shirting noticed the same faces in the few cafés that serviced this new class of moneyed roustabouts.  These foreigners, perpetually amazed by the purchase power of their dollars, pounds and francs, inured to the apathetic service by the sheer amount of cash they were saving.

Shirting noted that he was indeed being watched by one such man seated in the corner, a cowboy hat resting on the table in front of him.

“English teacher perchance?” the stranger asked, when Shirting gave an abbreviated toast with his demitasse of espresso.

“Germ of the system,” Shirting corrected him.

“What does that mean?”

“Laying groundwork.  I can’t really talk about it,” replied Shirting.

“Of course, if you were a teacher you’d know me.  Cause I’m the granddaddy of all English teachers,” the man said.  Shirting noted he was sipping a tankard of beer at this early hour.

“That so, partner,” Shirting said, unconsciously adopting the Wild West motif set forth by the stranger.

“They call me the Chalkboard Cowboy.  From kindergarteners to CEOs I’ve taught them all.  You say you need hours?  Look, I can get you a couple classes at a masseuse school I know of.  The pay sucks but the fringe benefits are great.”

“No.  No thanks,” Shirting replied.

“Okay, that’s not your speed.  A client of mine happens to be very high up in the government.  A certain Minister who likes to have a permanent English tutor on hand.  The beauty part is this: you don’t have to teach him a thing.  He just likes to show his tutor off in meetings—a status symbol of sorts.”

“Oh.  Um…no.”  said Shirting, kicking back the rest of his espresso.

“Look, you come work for me, and I’ll treat you real nice.  I only set my guys up with good, safe gigs.  You don’t like the client, you’re out of there.  No questions asked,”  the Chalkboard Cowboy said, mimicking Shirting’s gesture with his beer.

“What are you, some sort of language pimp?” said Shirting.

“I’d watch what you say.  There might be some time when the, um, germing business recedes, and you’ll have to take up the slack, know what I mean?  I’m just the man to help you out in that case.  You’re not religious are you?  Cause I don’t represent Mormons.  Totally undependable.  One minute they’re preaching the gospel that next they’re on a train to Istanbul with their favorite sophomore.  Not that I don’t discourage the student-slash-teacher angle.  It’s a known fact that language, better thought of as a virus than a discipline, spreads quicker in nuptial and prenuptial relationships.”

“The direction this conversation is taking does my mood no favors.  I will take my leave and wish you well,” said Shirting.

“Hey, not so fast, baby.”

“Excuse me,” said Shirting.

“I feel compelled to add that I don’t think this town’s big enough for the two of us,” said the Chalkboard Cowboy.

“Like fun it’s not,” said Shirting, getting ready to go.

“Well you should know that you’re talking to the original Chalkboard Cowboy, not some Johnny-come-lately spin-off.  But I’ve met people like you before.  In my time here I’ve seen all kinds of shticks: back in ’89 there was Pierogi Perry; his thing was smuggling pierogi over the border from Poland.  Claimed they lulled the soldiers into such a carbo stupor that they couldn’t get the energy up to repel the revolution.  Real dissident.  Even now, I sit here waiting for the Perestroika Kid, who would dismantle you like so many satellite states.  So save the hot air and angst, there’s nothing new about it, you could practically host a convention.”

Shirting asked for the bill in his stunted Czech and fumbled over the unrecognizable change.

“You make me sick,” the American said as Shirting was getting ready to leave, “capitulating to their language.  You can’t fool me.  You’ll be back.  They all come back.”

Shirting nodded, he felt the familiar need to adjust his dosage.

“I’ve got my eye on you kid.  One more false move and-”  Shirting did not hear the rest, for he was already out the door and converging with the tourist traffic on Karlova, heading for Old Town Square.

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Budapest Writers’ Lab, Spring Sessions!

Budapest Writers’ Lab has an Advanced Fiction group starting up in early April. If you are around, and interested in joining a really talented, international group of writers, drop me a line at

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The Japanese Don’t Have Souls

That’s the title of this short film by Hungarian poet and film-maker Lili Kemény. And that’s me on one seriously freezing New Year’s eve dawn on Budapest’s beautiful Margít Bridge, feeding the seagulls.

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Where The Starbucks Used To Be

“This was a new ruthless breed of clerk,
more focused on globalized expansion than point of purchase
satisfaction, with moods more attuned to the fluctuations of
Capo Family Coffee stock price than with the customers’
expectations. These clerks exhibited the sort of malice that
rejoiced when a less predatory, mom-and-pop café nearby
closed down due to the ever-expanding Capo Coffee saturation.
It was rumored that they were even trained in handto-
hand combat to deflect stick-ups and keep overanxious
customers at bay.

It was not long before the larger, more accessible store ate
away at the smaller one’s profits and customer base, so like
a rat eating its own brood. Even stalwart regulars defected,
and it was soon announced in a store get-together (the Reg
breaking the news over deep-dish pizzas) that their modest
Wells Street outfit would be closing. Discarded like an
outgrown shoe.”  – from Keeping Bedlam At Bay In The Prague Cafe

Or, more succinctly, “There’s a Starbucks Where the Starbucks Used to Be”:

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Found Poetry, Re-Found!

The first issue of Pilvax, the literary review I co-founded, will have come out ten years ago from February.  Below is some found poetry from The Patriot Act I published under the pseudonym Mabel Sternly. Pilvax is no more, Ms. Sternly has disappeared into the ether of time, but The Patriot Act still lingers.

Presidential Authority

at the end
the terms directed by the President

liquidated, sold, or otherwise

Authority To Share

this rule
may disclose a violation
or other grave hostile acts

a United States person
actual or potential
is amended by striking
and inserting

end the following
by any means

Physical Search

a physical search
a foreign power
may be for a period
not to exceed 1 year

Authority To Share II

the defendant
whether or not
a United States person
is amended
by striking
by striking
by inserting
a foreign power
or an agent of a foreign power

Sec 411

the alien’s position of prominence
in an individual capacity
or as a member of an organization—
or other things of value

incite to commit an intention
by amending
an act that the actor knows

any individual who the actor knows
can demonstrate
in his sole unrevi
ewable discretion
without regard to the date

Notwithstanding by reason
The amendments
Can prevent an alien
on the ground
the first place it appears;
pro tempore

Sense of Congress

Congress makes the following:
Arab Americans
Muslim Americans
Americans from South Asia
nothing less

wrongdoing is sacrosanct
acts of violence
are perceived to be
so fearful

dress to avoid

414 Visa Integrity and Security

light of the terrorist
is the sense

ports of entry and exit
deliberate speed
with the Secretary

implement the system

and detain
in this section

individuals who pose
after the date
shall submit

414 # 2 Machine Readable Passports

Beginning one year after the date
and every year thereafter
the Secretary
shall submit
and inserting
at the end
with respect
if the Secretary
is making progress

Section 358

before the period at the end the following
the conduct of
shall be available
to protect

records of reports are exempt

Congress finds that
institutions have a high degree
of the Nation on and after
other reproductions
of the identity

such records may also have
a high degree of usefulness

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Out Today!

The twice Pushcart Prize nominated, Kirkus Best Fiction nominated, PEN Best Translation nominated collection of short stories Devil is a Black Dog is out today in the US. There is much more to say, but we are typing on a broken finger, and under multiple deadlines, so this brief message and best wishes for the holidays will have to suffice.

You can find The Devil is a Black Dog’s Amazon page here.

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