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Vienna is a quick place, small and agile like the tiny European cars they drive. The public transit system is the model of German efficiency, all clockwork and pre-recorded announcements and idiot-proof maps of the city.  The underground runs with a pleasant hum at all hours, pushing big gusts of wind from the pressure up the escalators and out onto the streets.

I’m standing at the UBahn station near Webster University. My backpack is clamped to me, and I’ve got bacon and cheese and jalapeño sandwich concoction from the local bakery in a paper bag in my hand. When I get home, I’m practically fetishising the upcoming toasting and eating of this wonderful treat.

I’ve got a cigarette in my mouth. In the underground station of the Ubahn, there is a strict no smoking policy, one of the few places in Vienna where you won’t see a handful of locals taking long, selfish drags. But here, at the above-ground platform, I see no signs prohibiting, and I’ve smoked here everyday, waiting for the trains to and from my housing complex.

So there I stand, with my food and my pack and my smokes, lost in my daydreaming and oblivious to the man who approaches me so fast on the open platform that I barely notice him until he is there.

Suddenly, he is 2 feet from me. He’s an older, scraggly looking man. He could be a shopkeeper at the convenience store downstairs. He wears plain blue jeans and a tan jacket a decade out of style. He’s unshaven and painfully plain looking. His hair is thinning and brown and unkempt in the wind. He would be too plain to notice, were he not staring right at me speaking in rapid German in a tone that one might describe as “less than welcoming.”

He quickly flashes some kind of ID at me, not police. It’s the kind I’ve seen on the public transit before, the controllers, the folks that work security, mechanics or randomly check passangers for their tickets.

“Kien Deutsch.” I tell him. “No German. I don’t speak German.”

He continues for several seconds in German, oblivious, gesturing and, I realize, pointing at my cigarette.

“You cannot smoke up here,” he says to me, far angrier than I thought rational for this part of the world.

I apologize, profusely in slow English. I lift my left foot and drag the smoke along the sole, knocking the cherry out and trashing what little remained. I flicked it into the can behind me and apologized again.

The ID he flashed is back in his pocket, and it occurs to me that he isn’t wearing a uniform. Is this normal? The others, the technicians, wore obnoxious yellow and orange uniforms that could probably be seen from space. Did the controllers, whom I knew only by reputation, dress in plain clothes, so as to move undetected?

Before I can formulate this thought in a proper way, his temper flairs. He steps so close I raise my hands up, palms out, in reflex, certain he is about to reach and grab me and that I’ll have to push him backward onto the tracks and suddenly explain to the Polizei why a local tourist killed a government employee. He’s barking again in German he must know I can’t understand.

I tell him I have no idea what he wants, and that I don’t speak German, doing my best humble-foreigner routine, as a crowd is beginning to gather and the train I was waiting for zips by.

Suddenly, this man’s English gets much better.

“You are throwing this into the trash? You can start fire, man. What are your problems?”

I’m suddenly very angry. The man’s English is mostly fine, passable, at least. He’s yanking me around, barking in German and then English like he is performing some hidden camera routine.

“I put it out, you watched me,” I say, raising my own voice and realizing that we are beginning to cause a scene. “I’m very sorry, I didn’t know I couldn’t smoke.”

Then, like they were teleported by aliens, two slightly larger men suddenly appear on my left. There are now three men speaking in angry German in a semi circle around me and my back is against the rear wall.

“What is problem?” The new man says to the old, plain-looking controller. “You are not smoking here. 50 Euro.”

“What?” I say. “I don’t understand.” Now I’m just being coy. These two new men haven’t shown me ID, and are just as plainly dressed as the first. 50 Euro is not something I’m just going to hand over.

“You must pay 50 Euro fine.” The new man — who is much taller than I find comfortable — says again, English improving like the man who came before.

Here now a multitude of thoughts run through my head. It is possible that one or all three of these men are legitimate members of the local government enforcing public transit regulations. Afterall, controllers can catch free-loaders on the train easier if you can’t see them coming.

But maybe not. Maybe this is some twisted creep who lifted an ID (which do not have pictures on them) and is scamming gullible tourists. And these two knew fellows, larger, more frightening, and clearly deriving pleasure from my language barrier, don’t seem like upstanding men at all.

I look back at the first, plain looking man who came at me.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know, but I’m not paying a fine to this him.” I point at the tall one, realizing it is entirely possible that I’m giving him an excuse to do any number of unreasonable things to me if I have misjudged the situation.

“I don’t know this place,” I say, dropping any hint of humility and adopting the American swagger of self importance that I find might suddenly be useful. “I’m very sorry, but I didn’t know. I don’t have 50 Euro.”

Suddenly, Plain-Looking man addresses his enforcer buddies in German, low and cautiously like he’s whispering on stage.

“Ticket,” the Plain Man says. I display mine immediately, knowing it is still valid.

He looks at it closely, like he is searching for an elaborate forgery. He barks at me again, high and mean and loud and all in German, which does me no good. I’m assuming he is just repeating himself for the crowd, or any eavesdroppers enjoying my plight.

He hands the ticket back and says “No smoking again, ok?”

He moves away quickly, barely letting me snatch the ticket and respond, the two big men following in tow. They get mere feet away and begin chuckling to themselves. It wasn’t until we got on the same train a few minutes later and I saw the Plain Man don glasses and gently ask for the tickets of everyone in my car like a genial grandfather that I understood the situation.

He was legitimate, and so was his tallest friend, who I also watched check tickets. The brief moment of mentioning a fine had been their little game, a way of making me nervous, to see if they could get me to fork over cash on reflex. A half-assed shakedown, and an embarrassment to real corruption. He just enjoyed hassling strangers, young people and presumably tourists, coming into his city and gawking and riding for free. Seeing him acting so pleasant toward my fellow passengers after he’d publically admonished me like I was some blithering schoolboy spitting off the bridge boiled my blood a little.

There was a sudden desire to walk over to him and shout in loud, wild English that “Asshole” was a universal language, and that clearly we both spoke it fluently.

I got home and ate my sandwich. It was a heavenly thing, and I forgot all about the plain little man and his hulking buddies back slapping and chuckling like high-school lacrosse players.


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