An awkward man listens to rembetiko

My friend T sometimes tells me that my social awkwardness is a kind of narcissism.

“No, it’s not,” I protest. “I don’t think I’m so great. I worry in case I’m ruining the occasion for everyone else, and that makes me self-conscious while I try to figure out how to make it better.”

“How can you think you single-handedly have the power to ruin things for everyone else?” she says. “You’re not that important.”

I tried to remember that earlier this week in a basement restaurant in Athens. In search of live rembetiko music, I’d been pointed to an eatery called Wreck of Angels, in the anarchist area of Exarchia.

At 10.30 pm I presented myself at the door. A man with a cigarillo waved me inside. Rembetiko is the defiant, foot-tapping cry of the exiled and the criminal and the outcast, and I was expecting to find a dark, smoky den filled with sailors and gangsters and prostitutes and broken-hearted alcoholics, but it was oddly brightly lit and other than two guys at a corner table I was the only one there.

The guys looked at me and then at each other and shrugged and reached for their instruments. One started tuning his bazouki, the other his guitar, and I suddenly realized they were the performers, and now that someone had finally come in, they had to play.

“No!” I wanted to say. “Please! You don’t have to play on my account! I don’t want to be any trouble! I can leave!”

Too late. With an air of a couple of road-workers returning to their pickaxes and jackhammers, they were already strumming. I couldn’t walk out now – it would be too insulting. Oh, this was bad. I fixed a smile of pleasurable anticipation on my face while desperately scanning the door. Someone would come in, right? All these tables wouldn’t just stay empty? They couldn’t!

The song was beautiful and arresting – the moon reflected in a puddle of gutter water – but I couldn’t enjoy it because I was too frantically thinking what would happen when it stopped. Should I applaud? Wouldn’t that be excruciating, one hand clapping? But if I don’t, what about the silence? There’s nothing so silent as the silence after someone stops singing.

They came to a rousing finale, and I started clapping then became self-conscious and trailed away and sort of turned the clap into a weird handclasp. I sat there holding hands with myself, grinning and nodding like a dimwitted dashboard dog, wishing a fire would break out so that I could flee without hurting anyone’s feelings.

But then this was the worst: the guys smiled at me and said thank you and then as they started another song, I realised I would have to clap at the end of that one too, because otherwise they might think that I’d liked the first one but now I was disappointed. Now I have to clap every time, and they’ll have to force themselves to smile and say thank you. Oh god, what a nightmare.

I ordered dinner. With a knife and fork in my hand, I’d have a good excuse for not clapping, but I pointed to the wrong thing on the menu and accidentally ordered the salt cod. I don’t like salt and I don’t like cod, and the salt cod is a lot of both. So much salt. And then when you get through the salt, what’s waiting for you? Cod. So now I’m in a staring contest with two rembetiko musicians while simultaneously trying to wrap bits of salt cod in a paper napkin to slip into my pocket so that the chef doesn’t think his only customer hates his food.

Once two rembetiko musicians start playing for you and only you, how long before you can leave? At least an hour, but an hour’s too obvious you’ve just been waiting for an hour, so it has to be an hour and a half. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom – if I left, it would just be the two of them playing to an empty room. Would they try sing extra loudly so I could hear them in the bathroom? Oh, it was too terrible.

The weird thing was, they didn’t seem to feel the awkwardness. They were there to play music and that’s what they did, and they sang their sad, lovely, haunting songs as though this were the most natural situation in the world.

Finally ninety minutes elapsed, the clock ticked to midnight. They paused to light their cigarettes and scratch their beards. I called for the bill and scuttled off to the bathroom while I waited for it. I steeled myself in front of the mirror for the horrible moment of paying and walking out past them.

As I came up the stairs from the bathroom I heard something strange. Are those voices? Could it be … people? I stepped into a world transformed. There was a table of four in front of me, and a table of three against the far wall, and another table over there and more people were arriving. Had I wondered into some other venue in some other dimension? But no, there was my table, there was my jacket. Had they all been waiting for me to go to the bathroom? Was this some kind of practical joke? The waiter shrugged at me, “It’s twelve,” he said. “People come after twelve.”

The two guys just carried on playing, the same as before. Nothing had changed for them. They were just there to play music, and that’s what they did. I want to be more like them. I sat and waved away the bill and ordered another drink. The guy playing the bazouki looked across at me and winked.

The Times, 10 May 2018