Interpol Didn't Save My Life
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because being sloppy in a world rife with consequence is never the smart play.
By Eugene S. Robinson
It’s only later, when faced with very real life and death issues, that you notice all of what you should have noticed on the first go-around. In this case, absent the zap of international travels and far-flung locales with even more far-flung locals, I’d probably have caught it all. But I got sloppy.
“My mother wants to know if she can have your email.”
I was in Austria. A friend from Hungary who I was staying with had suggested I come along and meet his mother. She lived alone. He was harried and busy, and I had not been doing much, other than sitting around, so I welcomed the diversion. He had to check to see if she was OK.
So we drove and chatted, finally pulling onto a nondescript side street. Kids were playing, dodging cars, chattering. His mother came to the door in a blue housecoat and slippers. They spoke Hungarian. She looked at me through her hair. He kissed her goodbye, I waved and we left.
“I will KILL you, Eugene Robinson. I will kill you.” I recognized her voice. I also recognized that I probably shouldn’t have passed along my phone number …
Uneventful in the extreme.
The next day we were eating. “My mother wants to stop by for a bit. Join us. OK with you?”
Why wouldn’t it be?
The mom who showed up though was not the mom I had met the day before. The mom who showed up was kitted out in a cowboy hat with cowboy boots and a fringe vest. She had done her hair and her makeup. These were signs for sure but only signs for people who notice signs.
And I’m notoriously sign-blind. Even if she was younger than me. And single. I wasn’t single and moreover was knee-deep in fathering three daughters. Plus I was in Austria on a book tour. So my focus? Books.
She spoke to him briefly before leaving. He rejoined me at the table, laughing.
“My mother wants to know if she can have your email.”
And then he said, “Stay away from my mother.” I laughed off the latter. The tour ended, I returned to the U.S. and my life. Until, an email arrived.
It was tentative and struggled with the language, but it was nice, like it’s always nice, to be remembered. I wrote back. I recalled, as a child, my mother had always tried to interest me in pen pals. “You could write people in other countries!”
It sounded snoozy to me as a kid, but the internet is all about that and fundamentally lets you broaden your vistas without ever leaving the couch. Or your phone. I don’t say this is good, or bad, it just is. And it is in a way that evolutionarily we’re still not used to.
“Angels sent you to me.”
She wrote that. I laughed and brushed it off. I’m always writing to people and this is not the strangest thing that’s ever been said to me.
Days later my phone rang. In a very modern way, a ringing phone always seems like an intrusion and so I let it go to voicemail. I checked the voicemail after someone left a voicemail.
“I will KILL you, Eugene Robinson. I will kill you.”
I recognized her voice. I also recognized that I probably shouldn’t have passed along my phone number either. But like Allen Ginsberg once said to me, “Dharma gates are endless,” and so I figured initially I might find some meaning here too.
But the voicemails started to pile up. The same dark growl of a threat against my life, a desire to stab my eyes out. They came at night, they came whenever. I had to nip it in the bud so one day I just answered.
“I will KILL you, Eugene … ”
“And that’s going to solve your problems?”
She paused. Never expecting a real voice but the pause was brief and she launched back into the killing. And calling me a peasant. I guess this must sting in Hungary. This was not the first time my life had been threatened though and it probably wouldn’t have been the last, and so I was to the battle joined.
I heaped vitriol on a voice that was maybe understanding nothing but tone, and she continued in Hungarian, in English. This lasted for … months.
And then one day: “I will kill your children.”
Bibi Netanyahu once said something along the lines of “given the history of my people on this planet, if I have the choice between underreacting and overreacting, I’m going to choose the latter.” And I concur.
I called her son. “Hey, fuck you. I told you not to do this,” he said.
“You’re right. I wasn’t listening. I’m sorry. In all fairness though I also didn’t know she was mentally ill.”
I contacted Interpol, the organization, not the band. But the refrain was eerily familiar: they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do anything. Words, it was reasoned, had never killed anyone yet. So, suck it up, buttercup.
Then, a thought: with all of the talk about immigration, how easy was it for a Hungarian national to establish residency in Austria? Something the folks at Austrian immigration cleared up for me quite nicely. Nicely enough so that next time she called I was ready.
“I will KILL … ”
“Your son is working very hard with immigration to keep you there, isn’t he?” She stopped talking. I stopped talking. And like someone sliding back underneath the water, the phone just went dead. Years have passed and I have, thankfully, not heard from her again.
“She said angels sent you to her?” A friend of mine trying to make sense of it had just walked through it. “She never really said which angels though.” Which was true enough, and just another sign I had missed.