In the late afternoon on a sunny day in 1966 my ride from Paris dropped me off on the outskirts of Venice, and I found myself nearly flat broke, hungry, filthy-dirty, and exhausted in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I was fifteen years old, and was on my way back to Istanbul after flirting with all kinds of trouble (including a few days in Greece hanging out with members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang) while hitch-hiking around western Europe. I spent a miserable night sleeping rough in a cobblestoned alleyway between two overflowing rubbish bins, and at dawn I abandoned my lair to a pride of ravenous feral cats and headed for the magnificent heart of the city. I followed twisting streets and marched across narrow canal bridges all the way to the Piazza San Marco, aiming to splurge on a cup of coffee and a roll with my last few coins. A cafe on the square was raising its shutters as I arrived, and in I went like a starveling rat. The simpatico Italian staff didn’t raise an eyebrow at my disheveled appearance, or flare a refined nostril at my ripeness, although they did make a point of directing me to the furthest table outside. The sunrise was glorious, the Basilica across the piazza breathtaking, and the hot coffee and pastry were even better. These are the moments I relish from my wanderings, be it a frothy cappuccino and a freshly baked cornetto in an elegant Venetian cafe with a view of St. Mark’s, or greasy mutton broth of dubious provenance and a slab of unleavened flatbread served on a warped tin plate in a fly-blown Khyber Pass hole-in-the-wall.
A saturnine Dutch hippy with shifty eyes and a few wisps of chin hair masquerading as a goatee sat down at an adjoining table, followed soon after by a jaunty, freshly-shaven Canadian in a wide-brimmed hat. The Italians evidently wanted their foreigners all in one basket for ease of interpreting. After rambling introductions and story tradings we inexplicably agreed to split the cost of a three-bunk hotel room for that night. The Canadian had researched local accommodations diligently and had a fine list of cheap hotels, one of which he had underlined in red. It did boast half a star, which lifted my spirits. After my meagre breakfast I had three dollars left to my name, well-hidden in my crusty socks. Granted, this was in the “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” heyday, but Venice wasn’t cheap by anyone’s standards, Istanbul was a long way away, and after my dumpster sojourn the previous night I needed a decent place to sleep. The Canadian was obviously flush, but after pooling our cash to pay for our portion of the room the Dutchman and I had pennies left. I had already sold a family heirloom, my grandmother’s silver Ottoman cigarette case, to a seedy antique dealer in the Algarve weeks before, and had nothing else to sell.
We met at the hotel later that afternoon, checked in, climbed the four flights of stairs, and settled into our very basic non-ensuite room. The energetic Canadian immediately bounced out to eat and see the sights, maybe even take in an opera, while the morose Dutchman and I sat on our respective beds looking at one another, sharing his last hand-rolled cigarette. We didn’t have enough money between us to buy a loaf of bread. So he opened the Canadian’s bag and rummaged through it. A thick wad of American Express traveler’s cheques was inexpertly hidden in a zippered side pocket, over two thousand dollars worth, and he held it up like a prize. He looked at me questioningly, and I looked back at him with the same unblinking stare the feral cats had fastened on me that morning. Our dark agreement was left unsaid, but it was palpable. He peeled a twenty dollar traveler’s cheque from the middle of the bundle and tucked the rest of it back. We were baby criminals. I reckoned the Canadian would never even know it was missing until he was somewhere in the middle of India, and anyway, traveler’s cheques were insured, weren’t they?
It was disconcertingly easy to justify this larceny to ourselves, especially considering how hungry we were. We took turns showering in the communal washroom down the hall, draining the hot water until the boiler pipes coughed, then hit the street and scoped out a nearby upscale restaurant. We figured the proprietor wouldn’t be overly suspicious of two young, freshly-showered foreigners paying with an American Express traveler’s cheque. My stomach was growling from hunger, mixed with a nasty overtone of guilt. We ordered two steaming platters of spaghetti bolognese, salad, bread, a litre of wine, dessert…the top-of-the-menu combo. The food was delicious, but I had a rough time enjoying it, despite being so wolfishly hungry. We ate, avoiding one another’s eyes, a flickering candle between us, anxious about each mouthful. We mopped up the last of the sauce, gulped the dregs of the carafe of wine, and gestured for the bill, trying our best to appear nonchalant. The waiter appeared and presented it to us with a slight bow…the tally was well over ten dollars in Italian lira, and the Dutchman forked over the crisp traveler’s cheque in payment. He had countersigned it in the room, and I had agreed it looked passable.
The waiter trotted happily away, then returned moments later and held out a pen, asking for a passport number to validate the cheque. Utter panic! The hippy and I looked at one another in horror, until I blurted out, “Si, no problemo,” in my best latin and scrawled my actual passport number on the back. (If American Express is reading this, I offer my apologies. I always appreciated your poste restante facilities in Syntagma Square in Athens, which I used frequently. If you can find that twenty dollar traveler’s cheque I will reimburse you.) I handed it back to the waiter with a noticeable tremble in my hand, he delivered the cheque to the manager and returned with our change, which my sly companion immediately pocketed after leaving a barely acceptable tip. We slunk away like convicts; I was full in my stomach but felt empty in my soul. On the way out the Dutchman had the presence of mind to snatch the remaining rolls from the basket on our table and shove them into his shoulder-bag. I learned a lot about being on the road that evening.
That night was not an easy one in our shared hotel room; I couldn’t sleep a wink, and the next morning we all went our separate ways. That crafty hippy neglected to share the change from our escapade, and didn’t even offer me one of the leftover dinner rolls as he disappeared into a throng of camera-happy tourists.
Later that morning, I was fortunate enough to hitch a ride east with two furtive American military types in a brand-new VW camper van. They were either GIs on some kind of extended leave from a base in Germany, or outright deserters, and after a while I suspected the latter. We struck up a conversation outside the central post office and when they learned that I was fluent in Turkish they offered me a lift all the way to Istanbul. I didn’t understand why at the time, but I discovered their hidden secret a day later while we were driving through Yugoslavia. One of the two was short, dark, and wiry, brimming with nervous energy, and his sidekick was giant-sized, hugely overweight, pale, and ominously quiet. I couldn’t help but think of Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men when I first met them, but I really needed the ride.
The wiry one did all of the driving, with the bulky one riding shotgun beside him, while I was perched on the folding bed-seat in the rear of the van.
When I say ‘riding shotgun’ I mean it literally, because they had a 12-gauge sawn-off pump-action shotgun hidden in a tool box beneath the front passenger seat, and every so often the ‘Lenny’ one would take it out and play with it. They told me they were worried about being robbed while camping and had brought it for protection. They were relying on my linguistic skills to get them (and the shotgun) through the Turkish border without incident. The border between Italy and Yugoslavia was no problem in those days, especially if you were headed east, but the frontier between Greece and Turkey was always of concern, no matter which way you were going. The customs officials there had sharp eyes and suspicious minds, plus they augmented their measly salaries with bribes at every opportunity.
The highway through Yugoslavia and northern Greece was woefully uneven in places, marred by stretches of crumbling tarmac that went on for kilometres. The VW shook and rattled as we rolled along, every so often hitting a pothole with a jarring thump. We were almost at the Turkish border when I noticed a sliver of paper sticking out from behind the wooden moulding surrounding the tiny sink mounted on the side of the van. I leaned closer to get a better look, the van bounced over another pot-hole, and another piece of paper shifted into view. They were the edges of $100 bills, shaken loose from their hiding place by the bumpy ride. A few more minutes of driving over rough road produced several more $100 bills that partially slipped out from behind the sink’s frame.
Now I faced a predicament. All I had to do was lean forward, pinch the exposed edges between my fingers and tug them all the way out without being noticed by the shotgun-toting crazies up front. I was in the process of summoning up the required courage when I happened to glance to my left, and saw the corner of yet another $100 bill peeking out from the wood paneling that held the dinette table on the other side of the van. Holy shit!
The wiry, nervy driver dude rarely looked into the rear-view mirror, and the ox was usually slouched low in his seat with his pimpled elbow sticking out the window, and I was faced with $100 bills pouring out of every nook and cranny in the van’s interior.
I looked out the window and a sign flashed past: the Turkish border was just five kilometres ahead! If I didn’t resolve things pretty quick we’d all get busted for money smuggling and concealed weapons and god knows what else. So I told them. “Uh, guys, there’s something going on back here you really need to know about.” The driver’s eyes appeared in the rear-view mirror and the ox twisted around in his seat. I tugged four of the bills out of the woodwork and held them up. “Maybe we better stop before the border and fix this,” I said. The look on their faces was priceless! We shuddered to a halt on the shoulder, they grabbed the toolbox and commenced some quick retroactive carpentry, using glue as well as finishing nails this time. They trusted me now because I had told them their money was leaking from the half-cocked hiding places they had created, and they told me they planned to score a ton of hash in Turkey through a connection they had made in Munich, hide it in the gaps where the money was now hidden, and drive it back to Europe. Evidently they had thousands of dollars in cash hidden behind the panels in the van.
When we finally arrived at the Turkish border I chatted away cheerfully to the customs officials in Turkish, which delighted them no end and they waved us through with no hassle. My job was done, and we drove on. I asked to be dropped off on the smoggy outskirts of Istanbul, and waved goodbye as the van drove away into the heavy traffic. I reached down the front of my jeans and grinned as I pulled out the four one hundred dollar bills I had originally retrieved from the sink frame and stashed away in the confusion. This was altogether different to the twenty dollar traveler’s cheque my Dutch companion and I had lifted from our hotel room-mate. I felt zero guilt. George and Lenny were on their own. I guess I imagined I too was a hardened outlaw by then. I later discovered that the hundred dollar bills were all counterfeit, which subsequently resulted in spilled blood, but that’s a whole different story…
Lawrence Morgan was born in Miami, raised in Istanbul, and left home at the age of 15 to explore the world and have adventures. He currently resides in Scotland. His other writing includes Meal, Combat, Individual, Bottle Rockets, One, Two, Three, Hike, The River Guide Myth along with his superb pieces for Memoirist: The Curious Case of the Grandmother and the Frozen Mackerel, Island Fever, And Yener Danced The Visa Siege and Herat, 1968. He was awarded the Memoirist biannual prize in April 2020.