Now for the story...
I had been in Kochani since Wednesday. Gjorgi’s mother served me delicious food and I had all the freedom I wanted to walk the hills surrounding Kochani and drop in on friends whenever I pleased. I had enough time to get lost on hikes and still get back to town without missing anything. It was a great visit home to Kochani.
Around six o’clock Monday night I arrived at the bus station in order to get back to Skopje. As I waited, a taxi pulled up and dropped off a passenger. He was a nicely dressed man--clean shaven, salmon colored short-sleeve dress shirt tucked in, neck tie. It had been about eleven years but I thought this man could be Tome Filipov, a former colleague of mine. A moment after he got out of the taxi another man in jeans and a tight red t-shirt approached him, shook his hand, and engaged in conversation with him. The man in the t-shirt was big, muscular. Half the men here are brawny as if they work at strenuous physical labor for a living.
In talking about Tome, people often referred to him as “Tomchaki.” In addition to teaching he owned a small change office and travel agency named such. He was not a loud or boisterous man, but everyone in town knew who he was. Tomchaki not only arranged vacation and business travel, but represented the town’s folk group which toured internationally. He may also have been trying to get into the textile exporting business. One time in telling me about his desire to draw international tourists from the United States--he insisted that Macedonia was a great destination for international travelers who enjoyed Greece--he got me to agree to check out businesses when I got back to the US that would be able to import Macedonian towels. He had a stack of products in his office and politely insisted I run my hands over a few to see that Macedonian textiles were world class. I certainly had no grounds to disagree, but I had no grounds for agreeing either. I tried to tell him I was neither a textile expert nor a business man. As much as I wanted to contribute to Macedonia’s growth and success, I had no business connections. When I returned to the US I did stop in a friend’s store that specialized in international fair trade and impoverished artisan cooperative products. I tried to get back to Tome through email to tell him that I’d asked but had learned that in the US textiles were nearly impossible to import due to high tariffs and the flood of cheap Chinese products already in the market.
My unsureness of this man being Tomchanki was compounded by my surpirise at seeing him at the bus station. A man of his stature riding a bus? Surely he would have his own car. Not only that, but more so I’d heard rumors from two friends about him. The word on the street was that Tome had gotten himself involved in shady business deals that fleeced many Kochani residents and he had become the town’s persona non gratta. I wasn’t sure what I’d heard was true though. I’d heard that the courts suggested he relocate for his own safety. One person thought he was in exile in Bulgaria. Another said his passport had been revoked, and to avoid those in Kochani who wanted to break his legs, was at Lake Ohrid, Macedonia’s tourist location, selling souvenirs and folk costumes trying to eek out a living.
No one I talked to knew for sure why, maybe it was gambling debts, maybe it was blind greed, but Tome had been taking money from friends, neighbors, and colleagues for investment. Apparently he promised people to invest their money in short term deals and give them twenty percent returns. Few people apparently suspected anything despite the unbelievable rate or when he refused to disclose what the exact investments were. People are said to have not just deposited their own money but also had taken out loans--thousands of dollars at a time--from banks to get in on the action. Like any scheme, the deal paid for a short while in order to entice people and bring in revenue. But then Tomchaki started to run short. Perhaps he was using one investor’s money to pay back another with interest. Whatever it was, it could only run into a deficit sooner or later and come up empty. One friend told me that when the scheme fell apart Tome was fired from his job teaching, had to close up shop, and move out of town. If he really had wronged the people of his town, he was taking quite a risk being out in public.
On second thought however, it may not have been Tome. That’s what I told myself. Tome was always kind of a glad hander and would always go out of his way to formally greet me no matter where I ran into him. I assumed with how few people were at the bus station that he probably would have seen me if it was really him. I am rarely mistaken for a Macedonian. Even in large crowds of strangers someone always comes up to me and tries to speak German to me. I may not be correctly identified as an American, but everyone knows I am a foreigner. If it was Tomchaki he would have noticed me and come to say hello.
But what if that was him and the rumors were true? What if he had lost or stolen so many people’s money? I didn’t want to go over and act like nothing was wrong. I had heard what he had done. I couldn’t pretend like I didn’t know what had happened.
Not only that, but what would the strangers think if I walked over and greeted a criminal? It is a small number, but a loud minority of people here who harbor anti-American sentiments. I hate when I have to tell people I’m not German but American. There is always a chance of being barraged with a rant about what is wrong with my country. Despite the overwhelming hospitality I am normally shown here, instances stick with me of the times people have yelled yell at me on the street for being an Albanian lover, a killer of their Serbian brothers, or even once, a spy whom they intended to kill, all for being American school teacher. I have lost count of how many times I have been lectured on my ignorance of Yugoslavia’s glory, independence, prosperity, and benevolent political leadership. What would the other waiting passengers’ opinions be of me if I, the obvious foreigner perhaps recognized as an American, was perceived as a chum to a domestic outlaw, a criminal against his own people?
Most of the time though people are indifferent toward my nationality. Often people are curious as to which state I am from. People always ask if I am from New York of California. It isn’t uncommon when I tell people I am from Ohio they tell me they have a relative in Cleveland. Often people tell me with pride about their children or nephews or nieces who work or study in the US or Australia or other English speaking countries.
I thought about going over to say hello to Tome--if it was him--since I hadn’t seen him in nine or ten years. And if he was in criminal trouble, the man talking to him might be giving him a hard time. The man in the red shirt seemed to still be holding Tome’s hand from the original handshake as if to keep Tome from walking away. Maybe I should kindly interrupt and help Tome out, I thought. He’d always been nice to me and I thought I owed him that much. In the past he had changed traveler’s checks for me in a matter of minutes without a fee when banks would take huge cuts or make me wait an hour for their approval. Despite the rumors, Tome had been good to me. I should at least go over and ask if it was him.
Maybe it wasn’t Tome Filipov though. I still hoped it wasn’t. It’d be easier to stand here and have nothing to think about. I couldn’t hear what the two men were discussing, but it didn’t sound angry. If my friend was right, that people wanted to break his legs, it seemed the conversation would be loud and aggressive. But that certainly was turning into a long handshake. I looked across the bus compound where a group of men sat at a table drinking outside a snack bar. They were all staring at the two men locked in a handshake. People near me who were waiting for the Skopje bus were looking on as well. I wanted to ask some one if that was Tome Filipov but I didn’t want to do anything that would change the situation one iota. I was realizing it had to be Tome and that the stories must have been true. Why else would people be staring? But at least there was no violence.
Then I heard the man’s voice elevate, the man who initiated the handshake, and he screamed something about two thousand Euros. Everything was true. The man in the salmon shirt and tie was Tome. He had done something wrong. Now I knew I didn’t want to talk to him. Even though the man in the red who was crying for his money was acting childish, he knew he wasn’t going to get his two thousand Euros back this day, I felt disgusted by Tome and his criminal greed. If he was going to show his face in public, to return to the scene of his crime, he had a lot of audacity to show up dressed so nicely. Wasn’t he supposed to be getting punished? Whatever the courts had done to him, why didn’t it look like he was suffering? He looked as neat and clean as a dozen years ago. For Christ sake, put on some sack cloth and ashes. Show some remorse, I thought.
As much as I wanted to condemn Tome, I didn’t feel so good about myself either. I felt ashamed that I had been talking about him with friends. Some part of me had enjoyed being surprised and laughing at the gossip. I heard someone once say that in America we love a rags to riches story, but we love a riches to rags story even more. There is something about judging others that is at once both satisfying and shameful however, and I wished it wasn’t Tome here at the bus station. I wanted but didn’t know how to ignore everything that I knew. Goddamn, I thought. It’s six forty-eight p.m. The bus was supposed to be here three minutes ago. Where the hell is it so we can all end this scene and pretend like it never happened?
Still holding Tome’s hand, the man turned around to no one in particular and cried out, “Police! Police!” This was turning ridiculous and ugly. Tome was already under orders to report to the police. What was this man trying to prove? To shame him? To put it in Tome’s face that he had wronged him? He knew. I thought about calling to Tome from across the space between us. Interrupting, distracting, changing the subject might be appropriate at this point. But did I have the nerve? Back in the US, often I have to break up arguments between students in the halls or classroom or commons. I was used to it as part of my job. But these were adults, a criminal and a victim. I was a foreigner. I wasn’t part of the situation. I had no right to butt in.
The bus came around the bend and down the drive to the peron to pick up its passengers. I thought I’d feel more relief. I threw my bag into the bus’s cargo compartment, but when I turned around I felt compelled to put my eyes back on the confrontation. It was getting louder and they were moving towards the bus. The man was shouting now for his money. They were close enough that I could see that while Tome remained calm, a trace of fright was building in his eyes.
That’s it. This was stupid.
“Tome!” I called. I’m not a kid anymore. I needed to do something, I thought. The man in the red was running out of time. Now that the bus was here his chance to make his point was slipping away. He moved his hand from Tome’s hand to the back of Tome’s neck as if to pull him closer. His posture looked like he was ready to lunge.
“Tome. How are you?” I asked and offered my hand to shake. The man talking to him was big. Solid arms and thick body. I couldn’t do anything but interrupt. Tome looked at me. David! he said calmly as if he had expected to see me. Something else also came out of his mouth but my own fear was growing in me now and I couldn’t hear what it was.
Was this going to work? I worried that taking this step would make the man holding Tome’s neck turn and take a swing at me. I’ve never taken a punch before. What was I doing getting involved? This wasn’t my school in America. I didn’t have the right, the authority, or the physical power. Who was I to defend a criminal? I hadn’t been robbed. I wasn’t a victim like the angry man was. I had no understanding of his position.
The man turned to me with a version of pain and anguish on his face and said to me in English, “Call the police.”
“I know, but I need to talk to this man too,” I said in his language. Maybe he would think I had a gripe with Tome. If I did, if Tomchaki had ripped off a foreigner, maybe he would let me have a turn. All of this was just wrong.
The man turned back to his object of anger, placing his back between me and Tome. I don’t think I have ever been ignored more efficiently. I’ve had kids ignore me as an insult, literally wave me off like I was a nuisance, but this man was quick and focused. I wanted to say more but the man’s English threw me off and I could only think in my own language. I couldn’t articulate anything in Macedonian. I wanted to utter anything that would seem like reason and maybe shame him in front of others for not listening to me.
I placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. I hoped to God that if he noticed me behind him, his superior size would keep him from seeing my interruption as a provocation, but as a plea for just a moment to sort this out without trouble.
His shoulder was hard, solid. It felt tense and ready to commit violence. My hand looked so small and thin and useless against his stretched t-shirt. I was ashamed that I was so small and soft from making an easy living as a teacher and that I was on vacation while others worked, that I had waited too long before trying to do something. I felt stupid for being weak and ignored. But this whole thing was absurd and had to stop.
Tome backed away from the man, but the man, with his hand clenching the back of Tome’s neck moved with him, away from me. My hand fell away and an older man close to me looked me in the eyes and waved his finger. It is a motion that in the US means “bad boy” but here usually just means “no.” I couldn’t tell if it meant I shouldn’t meddle or if it was pointless to even try. Or maybe he meant that I was taking it too seriously, that this was normal.
The man in the red shirt then shouted and smacked Tome on the ear. It was a grotesque action. Tome winced and pulled away. The man was giving himself over to the emotion he had been working up. It seemed so primitive and self demeaning. Don’t we all know, I thought, even me, an outsider, that Tome is being dealt with by the police and courts? It isn’t anyone’s place to demand more.
Tome made to get away and the man took another open handed swing and struck Tome on the other side of the head. Free from the man’s grip, Tome backed away and avoided another swing. He turned and began to hurry away, not quite running. The man in the red shirt kicked at Tome and connected with his buttocks. If it wasn’t a physically significant hit, it was embarrassing to turn tail, to run, and to get kicked there. I felt ashamed for Tome, now high stepping in flight from this man. He began running up the driveway the bus had just come down. The man ran after him but looked slow. Then the man stumbled. His feet couldn’t keep up with the rest of him and he fell forward onto the pavement. His full weight came down with a smack. He didn’t even have time to catch his fall and landed on his face. Tome continued in his awkward, frightened trot out of sight.
What I know from seeing fights at school is that crowds often side with the winner. Regardless of why the last one remains, perhaps he or she held his or her ground, maybe he or she was simply the last one to be taken to the office or to get in the last word, no matter how stupid that word might have been, people cheer for the one who remains. Who would people side with here? Would they feel sympathy for the man, the victim of Tome’s greed? He had landed face down though, the victim of his own stupidity. Or would they side with Tome, the intended victim of the huge brute? Even though Tome was the last one on his feet, Tome was a cheat who skittered off like a dog with his tail between his legs. They both looked stupid.
I considered that they might have been looking at me thinking what an idiot I must have been, impotently trying to get the man’s attention. I must have looked like a child beating an intruder with his toys while his mother was assaulted. I don’t know what anyone else was thinking. I don’t remember even being aware of their faces. All I remember is turning to get on the bus and vocalizing my feelings under my breath about them and myself. Fucking stupid ass shit, I said. Goddamned stupid fucking shit. Everything--Tome, the man in the red shirt, me and my stupid “Tome, how are you?”--everything was useless and stupid.
I got on the bus. As I walked down the aisle to find an empty seat I didn’t lower my head for having failed to alter what happened outside. I pursed my lips and shook my head. I felt disgusted and wanted others to know it. I wanted them to know I was judging what happened outside--Tome, the man in the red t-shirt, myself and everyone present. We all sucked.
When I sat down I took a deep breath and thought about what I should have said and what I should have done differently. When the man told me to call the police I should have found the words, “Come on, the police already know where he is,” but I laughed a little to myself because I knew that he wouldn’t have listened. At least my second thought when I had more time to consider things was no better than my first. I didn’t feel so bad about what I had done and what I had failed to do.
That didn’t stop me from a stream of philosophical and moral reasonings against violence and vigilantism. I wanted to say that what Tome had done was wrong, but beating him would be a completely separate crime that would bring its own consequences. I wanted to tell the man that he would go from being a victim to a criminal. But thinking of how to say it in my simple Macedonian would have come out cliche and meaningless: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” The hardest part though would have been that the word for wrong is the same word for mistake. I didn’t know how to differentiate between the two, and I would have sounded like I was excusing Tome’s crime simply as a mistake.
The farther we drove from Kochani, the less it might have all mattered. Tome was only hit with what amounted to bitch slaps. He didn’t bleed and the man didn’t even catch him. No one egged on the man in the red t-shirt or looked interested in joining the fray. This was no lynching, no crime against humanity. To my knowledge, there has never been an instance of mob justice against an individual in Macedonia. This probably wasn’t anything anyone would even remember.