Good luck finding a good watering hole in Batumi, Ajara's grand Black Sea port city. There was a pleasantly sleazy little pool hall a few years ago but it has since vanished. There are, however, several stimulating plastic table cafes along Gogabashvili Blvd, just across the street from the harbor, that serve cold cheap beer and girls.
Some time ago, I stumbled into one of these places for a cold one with a Ukrainian friend. The proprietress introduced us to a young woman she said worked at the cafe, also Ukrainian. It didn't dawn on me then that she wasn't exactly a waitress. Later that night we returned, but my friend was cursed with the wretched constitution of not being able to hold his liquor, which I only discovered after watching him drop to the ground like a bowling pin.
His brain basket hit the pavement first with a disturbing, cracking thud, but nothing leaked out. The thick skulled Ukrainian was coherent. With no blood anywhere, several other men came over and helped put him on his feet. I grabbed his little camera bag from the table and stuffed him in a taxi. The camera of course, was not in the bag.
It was no accident that I found myself at this establishment again. Seedy joints might sometimes be boring but they are rarely dull. An elderly woman had come to find her husband slouching with his friend at the table next to me. She wouldn’t cut him any slack. She stood there for half an hour, reminding him what a drunken, worthless man he was. He did the noble thing and ignored her while sipping his beer. She sat down and looked at him in disgust, got up to yell again but just smacked him on the bean instead and walked away.
A prostitute clutching a wad of cash showed up with an entourage of liquored wharf rats and decorated the plastic table with peanuts, juice and rotgut cognac. They were having fun, much like the tourists across the street, only differently.
One woman, however, was not having fun. She was a pretty redhead, sitting inside the booze hut, worrying about her boyfriend. Her birthday had been the day before and he never called her. She asked to borrow my phone since he no longer answered her number. She called and the boyfriend predictably hung up on her. She called again, again, again and again, but he wouldn’t answer. Then she called his mother.
“No wonder he dissed her,” I thought, but the poor thing was desperate. She began to cry.
“Buy her a drink?” the owner said.
Sonia looked like she could use one.
She asked for a little bottle of vodka. The owner, a large unkempt woman whose sleepy disposition is just a facade, wanted something to drink too. She had been waiting for a sucker like me to show up since the last time I dropped in there. Sit me down next to pretty girl and hustle me for vodka, juice, champagne, cognac, shashlik – the whole works - and then give me the fat bill, that’s the gig. The best part was that my “date” was in tears. I flipped for a bottle of mercy vodka for each of them.
Sonia’s story was not uncommon. Born in Batumi some 30 years ago, her husband left as soon as their daughter was born. She has no job other than hanging out at this hustler’s oasis getting whatever crumbs the owner throws her. With no education and very little prospects for legitimate work, Sonia's only hope is to wait for Mr. Right to come along and rescue her while she's still pretty.
Needless to say, in a cafe designed for the Wrongs, Sonia won't be meeting Mr. Right anytime soon, but I do give her credit for not being cynical enough to stop dreaming. A single dream at this sad playground for adults is worth more than all the dreams in all the booming nightclubs for the young and beautiful put together.
Walking home that night I thought about the road less traveled and how it did make a difference, especially to the owner of the dive and to Sonia, who didn’t go home in tears, or hungry.