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Bar Scam


There is a story about a princess who found an injured snake and nursed it back to health. Shortly after recovering, the venomous snake bit the princess dealing her a fatal blow. As she died she asked the snake how it could do this and it replied simply, "I am a snake."

When traveling one should always remember that the world is full of snakes. Unfortunately we occasionally need to be reminded that this so let me share a short story as both a reminder and a warning.

Had we taken but a moment to read the travel advisory on the US embassy website none of this would have come to pass. It was all there. The women. The over priced drinks. Even the "I'd be happy to hurt you", muscle for hire. But the summer nights in Budapest made it easy to feel sweet on life like the fruits of our labor were within reach and we had but to reach out. Unfortunately, as it turned out, we were the ripe fruit ready to be picked. And when two young women approached us looking for a bar, well, we were already lost. I'd like to say that looking back it was all so obvious but it really wasn't. They were simply dressed and looked very much like the student tourists that they claimed to be. One was tall and pretty, distinctly central European, black hair and black eyes with a wide mouth like a fish. She spoke English with a heavy Hungarian accent and when she laughed it was a watchful gasping laugh. The other was short with blond hair and an unbalanced dwarfish face.

In order for the con to work the mark must be predisposed to believe that nothing is too good to be true. Had I been alone it would have been a less convincing situation. I am not the sort of guy that gets approached by pretty women for directions to a bar. Much less invited along. But I was with Johnny Jet. An athletic world traveler with a made for television face. It all made perfect sense. It took them maybe five minutes to suggest that we join them for a drink. And five more to "find" the bar. Now the girls had no idea where they were going, remember they asked us if we knew of a good place for a drink. The young Hungarian students were asking the American tourists where they might find a good bar for a drink. A promising bar turned up just around the corner and the girls suggested we check it out. It was called The Galaxy.

Now it turns out that sitting at the center of almost every known galaxy including our own Milky Way lies a massive black hole. You cannot see the black hole because nothing that falls past the event horizon can escape its gravity but its there, cold and patient, spinning at the dead center. The event horizon lay at the bottom of the narrow stairs that wound upwards from street level to a hidden second floor. A woman sat down stairs watching the entrance. She smiled as we entered and ushered us upstairs. A few days later that same woman would tell me that we could not go up stairs because they were having a "private party". What she meant was that the vampires are busy sucking the life blood from another innocent. You want in? Go find a vampire to escort you. So all unaware up we went and I have to admit that there was a twin peaks charm to the place. The décor was a black light journey through the solar system complete with glowing stars and moons. There was a long empty bar and ten small barren tables. The only person in the bar besides us and the female steroid pumped bartender was a waif of a woman who sang and played a halting strange Hungarian melody on an electric piano. It was surreal and so unexpectedly fun that I was set at perfect ease.

We sat at a booth and the bartender immediately approached for drinks. And here is where we made our one true mistake. We did not ask for a menu. To be fair, we were not supposed to ask. Everything around us was conspiring to direct our attention away from the need to see a menu. The black hole was turning and hungry and we were being drawn in. I really can't say what would have happened had we asked. Perhaps the jinx would be up and we'd be off. More likely there would have been some other hidden trap for we were already sliding down gravities well and were lost to the world until we came out the other side.

We ordered five shots of Palanka, a traditional Hungarian fruit based liquor, to celebrate Michael's immanent marriage, plus four beers and a bottle of water. The shots were terrible and the beer was stale, the water had gas. The music has changed and now the waif is playing Abba songs in a broken English and I don't know whether to smile with her or cry for help. The little one is asking me "what is you sign" and lamenting her poor English. Black eyed beauty is preparing to swallow Johnny whole. And then he pulls out his camera and lets a few flashes fly. Now things slip sideways. Black eyes, who shied away from the camera throwing her hands over her face, looks irritated and asks Johnny what he does for a living. She's not amused when we tell her he's a journalist. The little one is shifting uncomfortably and trying to make conversation while at the same time keeping her eyes on her master. She looks like a colt that's about to bolt.

Meanwhile the music changes again and the waif is gone. A new entertainer has taken the stage. He looks like he could wrestle for the WWF if he were a bit younger. The scars on the side of his face and head look angry in the stage light like they are fresh or very old and deep. He sits down at the piano and smiles and it is not a comforting smile. It's a bloody hyena smile. It is the last smile you see as you reach down for that bar of soap. He's playing a song now and he's very good. His think meaty fingers are surprisingly agile as he hammers out the familiar Bad Moon Rising that I remembered so well from an American Werewolf in London. Only now the werewolf is not the young American and in the Galaxy the bad moon is always rising.

Just a few bars in, almost choreographed, the bartender walks up to the table and informs us that its time for us to go. "The credit machine is broken and we will need to pay in cash. You maybe need ATM? "She hands us the bill and shock sets in. Shock, when taken out of context actually looks funny when on the faces of friends. The confusion in the eyes, the self doubt, the brain turning on itself searching for the critical system error. And then you take the bill and it hits you too. "Not 40,000 HUF. 4000HUF. That's 4,000 right? 1,2,3,4 no that's 40,000 but how much is that in U.S. Dollars?" The music is still paying and the bartender is flexing her muscles. And the werewolf at the piano is watchful and smiling. "That's over $250 US! That cant be right. Excuse me but there's a mistake." I say as I stand up to show her the bill. "No Mistake." She says flatly. And she produces a menu. And now I notice there are menus on all the tables. Menus that were not there when we sat down. "Why don't I call the police!" I say. But she just smiles, and as we both know this is a hollow threat. I don't even know how to call the police in Hungary and I doubt she'll let me borrow the phone. Running is not an option, as there is far too much experienced muscle between us and the door and besides we couldn't leave these nice girls here to fend for themselves. So we start digging for cash. The girls are simple outraged. Black eyes says "I feel so bad!" How can they do this? It is terrible." And with that she drops $10K HUf on the table.

In my heart I knew it was all a lie. But what could I do. We were not leaving without paying.


  • US Embassy to Hungary
  • Tourist Advisory For Hungary
  • US State Department
  • Dial 107 for the police. Or call 1/438-8080 which is a newly established 24-hour hot line in English for reporting crime.