Monday, November 30, 2015

Red Ticket: Lenin's Brain

Soviet Cheese
The man looked like trouble, with his long black coat and pinched face. I should have just kept walking.

I had walked up to the metro station to buy bread from the back of what was not technically a bread truck. The man in the coat approached as I walked away from the cluster of customers, clutching my oval-shaped loaf of frozen brown bread.

He blocked my way and opened one side of his trench coat, exactly the way they do in movies. Tied to the inside lining of his coat was a long tube of plastic-wrapped something. “Pssst, devushka,” he hissed out of the corner of his mouth, his eyes darting around nervously, “Hochesh seer?”

"Hey girl. Do you want cheese?"

That’s it? Cheese? Not drugs, or jewelry, or counterfeit money? How ignominious for this poor man, the first black-market cheese-pusher I had ever encountered. His children would never be able to grow up and write a memoir, or a country song. “Daddy Sold Black-Market Cheese” just didn’t grip the imagination the way some other things might. And anyway, wasn’t cheese legal? Why all the cloak and dagger?

The absurdity of the situation was quickly eclipsed by the fact that I very much did want cheese. “Da,” I whispered back to the man. We stood close together as he untied the industrial-sized tube of white cheese from his coat. He passed it to me and I stuck it under my sweater and gave him the 60 rubles he requested. I went home ecstatic to have something to eat other than bread, the cold plastic of the wrapper pressing against my stomach.

Now, you might think that buying purloined cheese from a mysterious stranger on the street was not a good idea. In normal times, in normal places, you would be absolutely correct. However in Moscow, in 1993, people sold any and everything they could think of to make ends meet.

Just the day before, for example, I had gone to a market after school to try to find food. I had finally managed to have a serious talk with Galina Petrovna, my teacher, about the fact that I was starving, and she had looked at me like I was an imbecile and had said “go to a market.”

Of course, a market! I remembered going to an outdoor market in the summer of 1991 with my classmates. The Russians there had sold everything from honey to farmer’s cheese to pickled garlic, all of it homemade in their dacha kitchens. The government at the time turned a blind eye to these farmers’ markets, which were the first attempts at non-black market private industry since Lenin’s failed New Economic Policy of the 1920s.

Unlike the state-run grocery stores with their withered potatoes and murky jars of whole tomatoes, the farmers’ market offered fresh, beautiful, high-quality produce, dairy, and meat. My trip to the market in 1991 had been one of the high points of my stay in Moscow during my first visit, but it had never occurred to me to go to one this time. It was the dead of winter in a bleak and hungry city. If people had something to eat, surely they’d eat it themselves. Who on earth would have spare vegetables to sell?

But Galina Petrovna told me to go to a market and so, after class ended, I hopped on the metro. Galina had said that markets were everywhere, that all I needed to do was find a train station and follow the people. I looked at the map in the metro and randomly chose a station in a part of town I was not familiar with. Twenty minutes later I emerged from underneath the Yaroslavski train station, and, obeying my teacher, followed the people.

She was right; they led me to a market. But not the kind that sold food, unfortunately. This market, which was packed with worried-looking vendors, sold items that were sometimes difficult to identify, but which definitely were not edible. A middle-aged woman stood in front of an upended cardboard box, on which were placed four dirty porcelain round things that might have been insulators. A man beside her was holding a small black rubber contraption that turned out to be a toilet tank float. Beside him stood another man, selling an actual toilet. Another family stomped their feet and rubbed their arms, trying to keep warm as they waited for a buyer for the loops of used wire they were peddling. Some of the items – like the wire and the insulators – were small. Others, like the toilet, or the chandelier, were larger, and appeared to have been ripped directly out of whatever they’d been attached to.

The people in this market were the opposite of the sellers in the farmers’ market. Whereas those vendors had yelled to you as you passed, talking up their bags of walnuts and bloody chickens, these folks were grim and silent, sad.

A middle-aged man was standing next to me in front of the row of vendors. He was watching me watch the sellers, I noticed, and when I looked at him he smiled wryly at me and raised his eyebrows. His look said “Yep, this is a fine how-do-you, all right.” He seemed friendly so I asked him, “Kakoy rinok?” (What kind of market?)

“This is the Jew market,” he replied.

“What?” I looked around, alarmed. I had heard about the high levels of anti-Semitism in Russia, was familiar with this country’s terrible pogroms from my studies of Russian history and from repeated viewings of Fiddler on the Roof, but this was too much. “What? They sell Jewish people here?”

“No no,” said the man, laughing, “These people are emigrating. To Palestine.” He gave me a knowing nod.

I looked at the people in the market again, seeing them with fresh eyes. They were selling every last thing they had before they left, up to and including, literally, the kitchen sink. No wonder they looked so sad. And we, the buyers. Were we helping them by buying their stuff? Financing their trip? Or were we vultures picking over the shabby detritus of these people’s dashed hopes for their homeland?

I turned from the man and began walking around aimlessly, looking more at the people doing the selling than at the goods they offered. This ad-hoc market under the rusting bridge reminded me of terrible stories I had read about what happened after towns were “cleansed” by the Nazis in World War II. About how the neighbors would assemble after their village’s baker or butcher or banker and his family had been carted off in the middle of the night, and would argue over who got the piano. Of course this was different; these folks were leaving voluntarily, and there was no violence. But to say that the scene was peaceful would be utterly wrong.

As I was leaving, I passed a woman sitting at a table near the exit, away from the rest of the vendors. This woman seemed different from the others, somehow. For one thing, the table she was sitting at seemed sturdier and more permanent, like this was a place she came to regularly. There was even a little sign attached to the front advertising the goods for sale. And instead of a haphazard collection of fixtures and do-dads, this woman was selling only one thing: light bulbs.

I stopped and looked at the wide array of bulbs she had on display and then, noticing something, picked one of them up and shook it gently. The filament inside the cloudy gray glass rattled slightly. I looked at the rest of the bulbs and noticed that the one I had picked up was no fluke. All of them were burned out. I stepped back and looked at the sign. “Light bulbs,” it said “5 rubles.”

Even though I sensed I would be sorry, I had to ask. “Why are you selling light bulbs that don’t work?”

I will spare you the details of our actual conversation, which lasted about 15 minutes because I kept repeating my questions, certain that I was misunderstanding the woman. But at last, I had to admit that the story she was telling me actually did go just like this:

“I am selling burned-out light bulbs because light bulbs are difficult to find in Moscow. So, when someone is at work in their office, they will take a working light bulb from there to use at home. They don’t want to just leave the office light empty, though, so they come to me and buy a burned-out light bulb to replace the one that they took.”

Scarily, I was momentarily satisfied with this answer. “Oh,” I thought, “That explains it.” But then, wait. I stood and thought carefully for a few seconds, trying to find the flaw in my logic. “OK,” I said to the woman, patiently, “But why doesn’t the person just replace the bulb they took from their office with the burned-out one from their house?”

The woman looked at me like I was some kind of monster. “Because,” she exclaimed, “That would be stealing!"

So people in Moscow sold all kinds of seemingly useless things that, upon closer inspection, had significant value. To turn away a man just because his cheese was of uncertain origin would be foolish, I knew. I sat on my windowsill and watched the snow blow around as I devoured half of the foot-long tube of cheese, savoring the delicious smoky flavor that blended so well with the rough Russian bread.

I passed the day happily, nibbling on cheese and studying, or writing in my spiral notebook. I was in a great mood, not only because of the unexpected cheese treat, but also because I had plans for that evening. Betsy had moved in with Nadejda Alexandrovna, the elderly mother of our Russian professor, and I was going to visit them. I was happy to have a destination, and a new person to meet. Plus, I was curious to see the inside of this woman’s apartment, where she’d lived for 50 years.

Late afternoon came and I took the metro to Taganskaya, an older area of the city where Nadejda lived. Betsy met me at the metro and as we walked to her new place, she handed me a bottle of Madeira wine. “I bought this for Nadejda,” she said, “But you should say it’s from you. She frowns on drinking because of her religious convictions, but secretly, she enjoys it. If a guest brings her wine, she’ll have to drink it so as not to appear rude. She’s upset right now, and could use a drink. Her cat ran away.”

Remembering the light-bulb vendor, I nodded. In the cosmic game of rock-paper-scissors, politeness to a guest trumps even God, I guess.

We got to Nadejda’s, which was on the ground floor of a crumbling pre-Revolutionary building. The door opened into a long hallway with a threadbare oriental carpet running its entire length. The bedroom/living room was papered with rich red brocaded wallpaper; a graceful chair with overstuffed satiny pillows posed by the window. China knickknacks stood on the windowsills next to small jungles of succulent plants.

The tiny apartment was filled with the smell of the soup Nadejda had prepared, and we sat down at the table in her high-ceilinged kitchen and opened the wine. Nadejda was an elfin little woman with sharp bright eyes and a gray pixie haircut. She loved to laugh, and to talk, and she immediately began asking me questions about God. Betsy had told her that I had majored in religion, and Nadejda took this to mean that I intended to enter the priesthood.

I spoke with Nadejda carefully, not wanting to insult her with the news that I approached the study of religion the way a forensics expert might survey a crime scene. After a while, I decided it would be wise to change the subject. Let’s see, what to say…

“Nadejda Alexandrovna,” I began, “I am so sorry to hear that your cat has run away.”

“Yes,” she sighed, looking bereft. “Old Tom. How I miss his snoring! Nu ladno, tomorrow I will go down to the brain institute.”

“Oh,” I said sympathetically. And then, “Um, what?”

“Yes, the brain institute,” she repeated.

After much questioning of Nadejda, the story that emerged was this: Apparently neighborhood cats had begun disappearing from the surrounding few blocks at a rate that could not be attributed to vicious dogs, speeding automobiles, or 8-year-old boys. The distraught pet owners, I was charmed to learn, behaved exactly the way people in the US who have lost pets do. They posted flyers on telephone polls and in shops, and asked their neighbors to keep a lookout.

But then, something strange began to happen. It wasn’t like this with everyone – most of the people never saw their cats again – but it occurred often enough for a definite pattern to emerge. Some of the cats would return days or even weeks later. They’d be seemingly normal, but the grateful owners would soon notice that all of the prodigal cats had bald spots on their temples, right in front of their ears. Someone had shaved these cats and had released them after they’d done whatever it was they were doing to them. When the second cat in a row returned with plastic circles stuck to its temples and EKG wires trailing from its head, the jig was up. The neighborhood was scandalized – up in arms! The brain institute, they realized, was kidnapping their cats and experimenting on them!

The Brain Institute (Joy Neumeyer)
Suddenly droves of worried cat owners descended upon this institute, one of Russia’s preeminent locations for the study of cognitive processes, demanding to know what had happened to Mishka, and Pou-Pou. And tomorrow, Nadejda declared, she would add to their numbers. She was going to march right down to that brain institute and demand that they hand over Tom, her fluffy orange companion.

I squinted at Nadejda over my wine, overwhelmed by this information. “Wow,” I finally said. “So, when the cats come back, are they normal? Do they have any special powers? Can they talk? I mean, what exactly are they doing with these cats down at the institute?”

“Well,” breathed Nadejda, clutching her wine glass by its stem and leaning forward conspiratorially, “My friend works there, mopping the floor. And she says that they have a secret room there where the cats are taken. She’s going to let me see it one day after the others have left, she says. And do you know what is in this room?” Nadejda raised her eyebrows and widened her already wide eyes.

“No,” I whispered, on the edge of my seat, “What is in there?”

Nadejda looked around the kitchen, savoring the information she was about to share. “LENIN’S BRAIN,” she intoned. She sat back in her chair and folded her arms over her chest, satisfied.

“No!” I gasped.

“Da, da,” said Nadejda, mildly, “My friend says she has seen it herself.”

What could this mean, I thought to myself. What kinds of nefarious plans could those brain scientists be hatching? I had seen plenty of movies about this very thing, and knew that it almost never ended well. Had these Russians, buffeted by their changing fortunes and their demise as one of the world’s two great super-powers, decided that an immortal leader was too much to ask for and that maybe one with only nine lives would have to do? Would a neighborhood cat appear soon, stroking its chin and asking “what is to be done?”

My mind was on fire with the possibilities this story suggested – surely the world had to know! – but Nadejda would say no more. Nu ladno, oh well, it was 9:30 and we had eaten Nadejda’s soup and drunk up all the wine, and it was time for me to be on my way.

“Excuse me,” I said, getting up and walking towards the tiny room that housed the toilet. I felt a tad unsteady as I walked down the hall, which I attributed to the wine and the warmth and the story.

Forty-five minutes later, I woke up on the uneven concrete floor of the bathroom. My cheek was pressed to the cool floor and I was freezing despite the fact that my black coat was thrown over me. A horrible, sulfurous stench thickened the air and the front of my sweater was wet and warm. I moved my head slightly, looking past the base of the toilet to where Betsy sat on the floor, reading Stephen King’s The Green Mile.

“Betsy,” I moaned, “What’s happening?”

“I have no idea,” said Betsy. “You went to the bathroom and then after you didn’t come back for a while I went to see what happened. I found you lying on the floor, covered with vomit and shit. What’d you eat, anyway? Anchovies? Cat food?”

At the mention of anchovies and cat food my stomach rolled over sickeningly and I groped across the concrete floor to the toilet.

“Agh,” I said, lying on my face after five minutes of vigorous barfing, “The cheese. It must have been the cheese.”

I lay on the floor, sweating and panting, then chattering with chills into an uneasy sleep, only to resurface every ten minutes to resume throwing up. I had had food poisoning before, but this was the sickest I had ever been, I knew. That’s Russia all right, the land of superlatives. I cursed the cheese man as I vomited up the soup that Nadejda’d used her scant pension to buy, then lay on the floor crying over the calories I had fought so hard to find and could not afford to lose. I lambasted myself for my incompetence and ineptitude, and for ruining poor Nadejda’s house.

“She’ll have to move,” I thought, as I felt another wave work its way from my stomach to my throat. “No one could live here after this. They’ll have to raze the building."

And Betsy, I’d never be able to look at Betsy again. I think one time back in Gainesville I might have bought her a beer at Market Street Pub, but this certainly didn’t oblige her to spend all night sitting on the concrete floor of the toilet, holding back my stinking hair as I threw up my liver. Did it? And if the vomit were on the other foot, so to speak, would I be able to do what Betsy was doing, or would I just board up the bathroom door and run away? I honestly didn’t know.

A while later, Nadejda Alexandrovna’s voice said, “I am going to call an ambulance.”

“No, no!” I cried, waking up suddenly and curling into a fetal position. I had been explicitly warned by people who had reason to know that under no circumstances – even if I got my arm caught in a wood chipper while delivering quintuplets – was I to go to a Russian hospital. It was widely known that since the collapse of the USSR, hospitals had fallen on hard times and were reusing syringes, spreading HIV, hepatitis, and all kinds of other nasty diseases. If they got their hands on me in the state I was in, God knows what they would do. “No doctors! No doctors!”

More time passed and Nadejda again appeared, this time with a glass of water. “Robin,” she said, grabbing the neck of my sodden sweater and pulling me into a sitting position. “You must drink this.”

Ah, water. I took a small sip. It was boiling hot, and had what tasted like mustard stirred into it. I swallowed it and immediately began throwing up more violently than ever. “What are you doing?” yelled Betsy, “What did you give her?”

“This is mustard water,” said Nadejda. “If she refuses to go to the hospital, she must drink it. The mustard will draw out whatever poison is in her. And she has to put something in her stomach so she’ll have something to throw up. Otherwise she’ll rupture herself.”

I lay on the floor or on the edge of the toilet seat well into the night, vomiting. Finally, around 4:30 am, the spasms stopped and I was able to get up and go lie in the bed that Betsy and Nadejda would have been sharing had they not had to spend all night awake with me, their dinner guest. I stayed in that bed, sleeping and running a high fever, from Thursday night until Sunday morning. I have no idea where Betsy and Nadejda slept during the time I took up the one bed in the apartment. The kitchen? The brain institute? I have no idea.

At one point I woke up briefly to find Betsy entering the room with a plastic bag. She sat on the edge of the bed and held out a white bottle with a colorful label. “Drink this,” said Betsy, “It’s a yogurt smoothie.”

“Where’d you go?” I asked her as I sipped at the bottle.

“To a job interview,” said Betsy.

“Ahhh,” I thought, as I fell back into sleep, “Betsy will get a job and take care of us all.” I dreamed of peacocks and cats riding on battleships, speaking Russian. I sweated through my clothes and every sheet in the house. Finally, I opened my eyes for good. The fever was gone, like it had never been there. I felt light and ethereal, transparent, as I tottered into the kitchen.

“You’re well!” said Nadejda, clapping me on the shoulder. She and Betsy were involved in some kind of complex task, unwrapping something large that was all angles and sharp edges.

“We have a surprise for you!” said Nadejda as she bent over and removed the last bit of tape and newspaper, revealing a sled. “We’re all going somewhere!”

“Uh, where?” I said, eyeing the sled nervously.

Volodya the TV Repairman
“We’re going into the forest for sledding! Volodya the TV repairman is coming over; he wants to meet you!”

“I…I’m not sure it’s such a good idea for me to go sledding right now,” I said. People in America certainly did not cap off a debilitating illness with a vigorous bout of sledding. People in America lay on their couches, sucking on chips of ice and watching re-runs of “Good Times” on the TV.

“Nonsense!” chirped Nadejda. “It will restore you to health!”

I looked at Betsy, but she shrugged. Well, I decided, perhaps this would finish me off for good. We walked out the door and into the sparkling morning, heading for the commuter train station and our ride into the forest. I was light-headed, nearly floating over the crust of snow on the ground. The world around me shimmered, and everything smelled and looked and felt violently, noisily alive.

Nadejda beat a path through the people on the sidewalk ahead of us, pulling the sled by a rope, as Betsy and I lagged behind, walking in silence with our heads bent. Finally, Betsy snorted. “Nadejda Alexandrovna thinks you’re holy,” she said.

“What?” I was completely surprised by this. “Nadejda Alexandrovna thinks you’re a terrible guest,” or “Nadejda Alexandrovna thinks you can’t hold your alcohol,” or even “Nadejda Alexandrovna is planning to sue you” I could have imagined. But holy? “Why?”

Betsy sighed wearily. “Because, first, she thinks that you bought her that wine, and that somehow you ‘just knew’ that that was her favorite kind. Then, she thinks that you are studying religion because you plan to be a nun, or a priest, or something. And then finally, she thinks the fact that you survived your illness means that ‘God has put his finger on you’.”

“Oh, Betsy, I’m sorry,” I said. Betsy was the one who was holy, in my opinion. Betsy was indeed a savior. And what thanks did she get? Nadejda, who was quite a ways in front of us by now, turned around suddenly and shouted to us.

“Girls, girls! Come here!” we caught up to her and she handed the rope of the sled to Betsy. “We must not allow Robin to walk,” she said. “Betsy, you must pull Robin on the sled through the snow.”

We stood in a triangle around the sled, looking at each other. Finally, Betsy snorted again. “Get on,” she said.

I sat down on the sled and Betsy leaned forward, pulling me over the snow that glittered in the street.


More about the brain institute, by Joy Neumeyer.

Great footage of Soviet grocery store from the 1990s, by Rick Suddeth. This is what it was like.


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Friday, November 20, 2015

48 Hours at O’Hare International

From 2003

The man was going to talk to me, I could tell. I was sitting on a red girder railing outside the United terminal, smoking a cigarette. My back was to him, but when I saw him sit down out of the corner of my eye I could tell he wanted to talk to someone. And I don’t know why, but I knew it would be me.

“You know what gets me?” The other smokers ignored him, but I shifted slightly to look at him. “What gets me is that there’s a whole stand in there selling cigarettes – cartons of cigarettes – but there’s nowhere to smoke but out here.”

“Yeah,” I said, unsure of whether to commit myself to this conversation. “You can’t even smoke in New York anymore.”

“That’s what I heard! Man, I’m from LA, and that shit just would not fly there. It’s another example of the government, trying to fuck us. ‘What can we do to fuck someone today?’ they say. ‘I know, no smoking.’”

“Yep.” I didn’t want to discuss the various ways the government was trying to fuck us with this stranger. I had my own, rather lengthy list, but wasn’t sure he’d agree with the particulars. Instead, I looked at the man. He was compact, about my height. Wiry, with long arms that he flung wide to punctuate his pronouncements. Dressed simply in a gray t-shirt and jeans, both of which were very clean and appeared to have been pressed. Two small ears stuck straight out as if to disassociate themselves from his shaved, sunburned head. His blue eyes rolled and widened in his red face, and his mouth was a jumble of oversized, lopsided teeth. Overall, he looked like a man who had just been released from somewhere. I wondered if he had a destination. Somehow, I doubted it.

“I just got back from Baghdad,” he said. “My plane just landed. You are the first civilian I’ve had a conversation with.”

“Really.” I said. I could feel myself switching into journalist mode. I carry with me lists of questions I’d like to ask various people, if only I could meet them. “What was it like to have the terrible skin-eating virus?” “What were you thinking, downloading child pornography at work?” “How do you blow out your hair so straight when you only have two hands?”

Right now, “What is it really like in Baghdad” is near the top of my list, so I started at the top and worked my way down. “How long were you there?”

“Thirteen months.” He came around and stood in front of me, lighting a flaccid Newport. “I was in Kuwait first, then Baghdad.”

“Why’d you come home?”

“I injured my shoulder, carrying something. I’m on a 30-day convalescent leave. Physical therapy, then I go back.”

“What’s it like over there?”

“It’s fucked. It’s chaos. Everyone’s trying to kill us. It’s boring.”

“Who exactly is trying to kill you? Rumsfeld says there isn’t a guerilla war; that it’s just
disorganized Baathists…”

He cut me off. “I haven’t heard what Rumsfeld says,” he said, “I don’t watch CNN.”

“Me either.” I said.

He looked briefly perplexed. “These people have no idea,” he continued. “They have no clue what to do or why anything’s happening. Listen,” he leaned closer to me, “The entire population is armed. It’s legal over there for everyone to carry AK-47s. If they want us to stabilize things they need to disarm the population, for God’s sake. What are we supposed to do, shoot everyone?”

“Sounds like that’s what’s happening.”

“No,” he said grimly, “Everyone’s shooting us.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Bring it on.” I held up my fingers, making air quotes.

“Who says that?”

“Never mind. How long you think we’ll be there?”

“Oh, shit, we’ll be there forever.”

“What exactly are you doing over there?” I prodded, “Give me the details.”

“Nothing!” he yelled. He bobbed up and down in front of me like one of those toy wooden horses. Press the button in the bottom, and the horse collapses. Release it, and the horse springs back up. “That’s just it. We have no mission. We keep saying ‘What’s our mission?’ No one knows. I’ll tell you one thing, though,” he jabbed his third menthol at me, “We’re not liberating people. We’re not giving them their freedom. Freedom…fuck. You know, I’d get these letters from Boy Scouts, they’d be like ‘Thank you for giving the Iraqi people their freedom…” he trailed off.

“OK, so what are we really doing over there?” I asked, “Oil?”

“What?” he snorted. “Naw, man, we’re over there because this is the start of total war. Our move to rule the world.”

“That’s really what you think?”

“Uh, yeah. I mean, look at Afghanistan. People still getting their asses shot off. And now Liberia? What the fuck is going on? We don’t even have enough troops in Iraq!”

“This is very interesting,” I said. “Do you think other people over there feel the way you do? How representative do you think your opinion is?”

“Listen,” he said, backing up and flinging out his arms. “Absolutely everyone over there feels the way I do.” He laughed bitterly, raised his voice, “I speak for every man over there, you can believe that.”

“So, you think Bush will get re-elected?”

“Hell, I didn’t vote for him. I didn’t vote for him ‘cause I didn’t like his daddy.”

“OK, so let me ask you this. How can you go back over there? When you feel the way you do about our government, and the reason we’re over there? How can you do that?”

“Oh, I wanna go back.” He looked at me defiantly.


“Because of the boys. The kids over there. I’ve got to help them, gotta watch ‘em. The guy next to me in the hospital – there was no wall, no sheet, nothing. He was 22. He got shot, 6 bullets to the stomach. He put his hand up to hold his guts in, gets his fingers blown off. Then another one in the neck. 8 bullets, this kid took. He was 22. I laid there and listened to him, just listened to pain, you know, the pain of healing. When I left, he shook my hand. That was an honor.” He stopped his pacing and looked straight at me.

“What do you think is going to happen to us?” I said, “I mean, ultimately?”

“We’re going to get our asses handed to us.”


“Yeah. Really.”

“Will it be like Vietnam?” I was suddenly, inappropriately excited.

“Nothing’s like Vietnam.” His attention wandered to a limo at the curb, dropping off a woman and her golden retriever. “Airports,” he said. “I got 5 hours here and nothing to do.”

“Are you going to see your family?”

“No, I got no family,” he said. “That’s why I want to go back. No family, no kids, no nothing. I’m 35 – I can take someone’s place over there. So someone else doesn’t have to go. I’m easy to lose.” He smiled at me, looking genuinely cheerful for the first time.

“Dude,” I said, “You need a drink. If I were you, I’d start drinking right now and wouldn’t stop for the next 30 days.”

“No,” he said, “I’m an alcoholic. I sobered up for this war.”

I laughed. “Well, there’s always pot.”

“Now you’re talking,” he said. “You wanna go smoke?” I pictured myself, naked in a hotel room somewhere on the outskirts of Chicago, my shoulders bruised from this man’s twitching fingers. Sweating in the glow of a late-night television while he sat on the floor at the foot of the bed, shaking.

“Uh, no,” I said, “I’ve got a presentation. In fact, I better go to my gate.” I stood up. “What’s your name?”

He looked cagey, uncertain. “I don’t know if I should tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I’m still on active duty. My commanding officer said I couldn’t say anything about what’s happening. I’m not supposed to go around talking about things like this.”

“You can make up a name, then,” I said, “Plus, I don’t know your last name. And I’m never going to see you again.”

“OK,” he agreed. He coughed wetly into his hand and then extended it for me to shake. “I’m Mark.”

I took his hand. “Mark.” I said. “And anyway, you still have freedom of speech, right? You’re still an American.”

“Fuck,” he said, looking thoroughly miserable. “I’m a human being.”


I settled into my aisle seat, bound for Atlanta. My presentation was over, and I was going home. Across the empty middle seat, a kid looked out the window. His hands clenched and unclenched nervously in his lap as the other passengers filed on. He turned to me suddenly.

“Look!” he exclaimed, “These planes have headsets!” He brandished the plastic-wrapped package at me. “I’ve never been on a plane with headsets before!”

“Yes.” I replied. What kind of plane has he been on? I wondered. Don’t all planes have them now? He dropped the headset, distracted. “What’s this?” He scrabbled at the back of the seat in front of him. He pushed a button and the airphone fell to the floor.

“A phone!” he shrieked, delighted, “We can call someone in the air!” The boy looked at me, beaming. I noted his almond-shaped eyes set widely in his broad, fleshy face. A light brown mustache struggled at the top of a set of thick lips.

I closed my eyes, making a show of sighing deeply and stretching my legs as far in front of me as the space allowed, and feigned sleep. Beside me, the boy mumbled to himself, raising and lowering the window shade. “Do you want your light on?” I didn’t answer, and he left me alone.

A few minutes later, I felt someone sit down in the middle seat between me and the kid by the window.

“Are you sitting here?” asked Window Boy.

“Yep.” Said another young male voice.

“Goddamn,” said Window Boy. “You got your papers?”

“Right here.” I felt my seatmate lean forward and heard the ruffle of papers in the magazine pouch. “Right here.” The plane sat near the gate, engines ramping down as we idled, waiting in line to take off.

“Why are they turning off the engines?” Window Boy sounded panicked. “Why are we sitting here? What’s going on?” I could feel our row of seats shake as he turned to look behind him. His seatmate said nothing.

“Look!” said Window Boy, changing the subject, “We can call from the air!”

“In the plane?” his seatmate seemed doubtful. “How?”

“Just slide your credit card.” Window Boy sounded smug, a jaded aviation expert.

“Wow,” said his friend. “I don’t have a credit card.”

“Me either,” said Window Boy.

The plane finally began to taxi to the runway. “Goddamn,” said Window, clapping his hands, “Fort Benning, here we come!”

His seatmate sighed. “I hate takeoffs.” I silently agreed with him, my eyes still closed.

“Dude! Takeoffs are the best!”

“How fast you think the plane goes on takeoff?”

“What? I dunno. I’m not into all that funky stuff.”

We lifted off and the boys were quiet, the only sound the static of music from their headphones. Soon, the one beside me slumped into my shoulder, asleep. The kid by the window began snoring. I opened my eyes as the drink cart passed, and ordered a red wine. “It’s on us,” said the flight attendant, looking at me sympathetically.

After a while, the boys began to stir. They watched me drink my wine, looking around thirstily for the vanished stewardess. 

“Look out there,” said Window Boy. “I wish I had me an F-14. You could cut right through those clouds.”

I turned to them. “Are you two going to Fort Benning?”

“We sure are. There’s a war on, ma’am.” Window Boy became serious, suddenly, helping me across the street of my own ignorance.

“We’re going to be mechanics,” his friend said.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Wisconsin,” they answered in unison.

“Do you mind if I ask how old you are?” They both said they were 18.

“Have you ever been out of Wisconsin?”

The kid beside me shook his head. Window Boy said “I have. To California, for the Rose Bowl Parade with my school band.” He stroked his fuzzy upper lip. “I played French horn,” he said gravely.

“Oh,” I said. “Gee, Fort Benning’s going to be a big change for you. Are you scared?”

“Yes,” the boy beside me said simply.

“No way!” said Window Boy, “We’re gonna kick some ass!”

“And where will you go after Fort Benning?” I knew the answer already.

“Iraq!” said Window Boy. His companion folded his hands in his lap and stared straight ahead.

“Hmm.” I said, wanting for some reason to hurt him. “I just met a man back from Iraq. He said things are not going so well. He said we’re going to get our asses handed to us.” I realized that the kid beside me was staring at me in terror. “I mean, not to disparage your whole military thing, or anything.”

“Oh no.” the boy beside me fluttered his hand in front of his face, shrugging politely.

“Pfft. We’re not gonna get our asses handed to us! That’s bullshit! Listen,” Window Boy leaned across towards me, licking his wet lips, “I support our president. He’s doing the right thing. He knows what’s going on. After the Cole bombing, we didn’t do anything!” He snorted. “But after 9-11, we went out there and bombed the shit out of those Iraqis. And now, no one ever hears about Al-Qaeda. They’re gone! And it’s just like little random fire in Iraq.”

“OK.” I said.

Window Boy looked away, satisfied that I now agreed. His friend stared at me, waiting for more.

“Look,” I said, “I know you didn’t ask me for any advice. But I’m going to give it to you anyway.”

“OK.” They both seemed a little too eager.

“When you get to Fort Benning, the best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut. If you listen more than you talk, you might be OK.”

“Oh yeah,” Window Boy waved his hand. “My whole family tells me that.”

“You might have a problem,” said his seatmate, turning to look at him.

I laughed, patting his shoulder. “You’ll probably be fine though.”

“You think so?” He really wanted to know.

“Fuck.” I said. He raised his eyebrows, surprised at my language. “You’re a human being, aren’t you?”

Thursday, October 22, 2015

WTH? Athens: Car Wash Curry

Who among us, after spending a sweaty hour at the self-service car wash vacuuming and scrubbing the family roadster, does not look forward to cracking open a cool bag of fenugreek leaves and settling down to a steaming plate of Palak Paneer? It's a cherished summer ritual we all enjoy. But frustratingly, our options for accessing the flavors of Southeast Asia while washing our own cars were woefully limited in Athens. Until now.

WTH? Athens, Car Wash Curry

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Red Ticket: The Sadistic Couplets

A kindhearted uncle
Helped with a match
No, he won’t finish the construction
He was numbed with paralysis
I’ll be dreaming for a long while
About her blue eyes on a pine tree 

I lurked by the chain-link fence surrounding the kindergarten, waiting for one of the tiny Russians playing in the yard to approach me so I could recite the bits of poetry I’d so carefully memorized.

Unfortunately, none of the children even looked in my direction. The adults minding them, however…that was a different situation entirely. The women in charge of the class stood by the school’s doorway and watched me with stony faces, wondering why I’d come back to their fence for a second day, and how long I’d stay this time. I tried to allay their fears, squinting up at the leafless trees like a disoriented birdwatcher, checking the non-existent watch on my wrist like someone with a reputable place to be. When the older teacher bent towards the younger one to whisper something, never taking her eyes off of me, I figured it was time to leave.

Bad things happening to children.
My Russian professor in Gainesville was either mistaken or had deceived me, and now I was in trouble.

“Oh yes,” he had said, when he told me about the Sadistic Couplets, “every Russian knows of them. They are very, very popular. With everyone!”

We had been having a casual discussion about Russian versus American humor, and I had trotted out something I was sure would shock him: the dead baby joke (you know, what’s red and white and goes round and round?). He blinked placidly and responded with something that did actually shock me. The Sadistic Couplets, he explained, were mordant verses obliquely describing the deaths of hapless peasants or whole countries full of innocent bystanders. He recited a few of them to me and I was immediately hooked, not so much for their humor but for their subtle violence and absurd perspective on tragedy. In my first staff meeting at the Guardian I suggested a piece on these troubling ditties, promising that I’d find out where they came from, what they meant, and why they (according to my Russian professor, at least) had such a hold on the Russian imagination. My idea had been enthusiastically received and I’d set out full of determination, but now, on my third day of research, I was starting to worry.

Little boy
Sits on his father’s knee
What a lovely red button, he says
Madagascar was a nice island 

 I’d started, quite logically I thought, by walking up to random children I saw on the street and saying, “What do you know about the Sadistic Couplets?”

This had produced interesting, yet unprintable, responses. The kids, bless their little hearts, were loath to talk to a frizzy-haired, hunting-boot-clad stranger on the street about much of anything, and gave me a wide and mainly silent berth.

I’d decided I’d have more luck talking to kids if I had an official sponsor, so I resolved to go to the local kindergarten, win the trust of the teachers, and interview the entire class at one time. This proved more difficult than I’d counted on, however, perhaps because I got off on a bad foot. Afraid to walk in the front door and ask for an interview about the Russian equivalent of dead baby jokes, I instead haunted the fence outside the playground for several days, hoping someone would come close enough to hear me.

Now I was walking briskly down the sidewalk, looking over my shoulder for the policemen I was sure would soon be pursuing me. I hated to go home. I’d never find the answer to the Couplets’ origin there. But where else could I go? I walked towards the new apartment I shared with Lyosha, a 2-room flat in a gothic building that sat across the street from one end of the Arbat, Moscow’s pedestrian shopping street.

I stood on the corner outside of my building and gave it one last try. “Excuse me!” I collared random adults as they hurried by, “Do you know about the Sadistic Couplets?”

To my surprise and relief, every person I spoke to stopped dead in their tracks. Some would gaze into their childhoods with misty eyes, others would hop excitedly from one foot to another, beaming.

Nearly every person I accosted responded to my initial question by happily rattling off a long rhyming stream of Russian. My teacher was right; adults of a certain age knew all about these poems. Sadly, though, not one of them could tell me where they came from. “Stalin’s daughter made them up!” they’d say, or “They were passed down by the tsars.”

Everyone agreed that they’d known them since childhood and never given them much thought. They were part of the landscape they inhabited; noteworthy the way unusually shaped rock formations are, and worthy of about as much analysis.

I knew from their answers that I was on to something with these Couplets. I’ve always believed that the things that are so ingrained in your consciousness that you no longer see them are the things most worth looking at. They give you clues about why you think the way you do, why you believe the things you do, and why you value the things you do. They are the canvas your day-to-day experience is painted on, these things you take for granted. Maybe I was reading too much into perverse doggerel, here, but I really thought that the Couplets said something important about Russians and Russian culture.

It’s one thing to respond to oppression or terror or poverty or to the slow grind of a life you’ll never control by popping a cap in its ass or posturing as someone who’s made it to easy street. It’s quite another to enshrine the brutal waywardness of existence in a handful of bloody children’s stanzas. That’s life for you, these poems said; you may think everything’s going along splendidly but even the most innocent of gestures by those with the purest of motives eventually result in cinematic disaster. And what can we do about this, these poems seem to ask? Just laugh. Ultimately, that’s all any sane person can do.

Two lovers lay
In a field of tall wheat
Quietly, quietly comes the combine
Grandmother spits out the cloth
She has found inside her bread

Excited by the response I received from strangers on the street, I decided to press on. I’d go up and down the Arbat, I decided, and see if I could find something more interesting than military watches.

Though I usually avoided the Arbat with its aggressive vendors of cheap tourist trinkets, today it seemed like a reasonable place to research. The Sadistic Couplets would be a very difficult topic to discuss with my limited Russian. Perhaps on the Arbat I’d find people who could speak English and would not mind talking to a foreigner.

I walked down the middle of the street, looking for a likely target for my questions.

“Devushka!” yelled a man at one table who was brandishing a string of amber beads, “Special price for strangers!”

I stayed away from everyone who hollered at me or attempted to menace me with commerce, but about halfway down the street, I stopped at a table displaying black lacquered jewelry. The eight boys behind it ignored me completely as they drank their Troika beer and hummed along to the guitar that the one in the middle was playing. It was relatively warm for April in Moscow, the sun was shining, and these boys were enjoying their day.

I poked at the pins for a while and then the guy with the guitar stood up. “You would like a pin?” he said politely, in perfect English.

Shaun Cassidy
I looked at him. He was a bit younger than I, probably 19 or so, and with his flybacked shoulder-length hair and even features, he looked like Shaun Cassidy.

“Well,” I said in English, “I’m writing an article about something called the Sadistic Couplets. Do you know anything about the Sadistic Couplets?”

“Oleg,” called the boy, turning his head towards a guy near the edge of the table, “Do we know anything about the Sadistic Couplets?"

Oleg surveyed me for a few seconds and, apparently finding me acceptable, stood up. “Of course we do!”

The boys all began talking to me at once, peppering me with verses which I struggled to write down in the small reporter’s notebook I was carrying.

Suddenly their leader, the Shaun Cassidy boy, waved his arms at us. “Quiet, quiet,” he hissed, “Here come some customers. You,” he pointed at me, “Come back here behind the table and we’ll finish in a minute.”

I stepped around the table and stood in the midst of the group as a fanny-packed, sweat-suited clutch of older folks made their way towards us. When they were still a few tables away, Shaun Cassidy picked up his guitar and began to sing. The other boys joined in.

“Esli znali vi, kak mnye dorogi, podmoskovni vechera.”

As they sang the plaintive refrain and ignored the approaching group, I realized what was going on.

If Russia had a theme song, the tune they had chosen, Moscow Nights, would have been it. In the same way that “Take Me out to the Ballgame” is closely associated with “things American,” Moscow Nights evokes Russia for millions of people. It’s one of the very first things you learn when you start learning Russian, and you practically have to sing it to the customs guards to be allowed in the country. Even for people who are hearing it for the first time, the song somehow sounds like Russia: beautiful and haunted. These clever boys were bringing out the big guns to attract the group to their table, luring them over by creating an Authentic Russian Experience the tourists could talk about on the bus back to the hotel.

And sure enough, it worked. The small crowd bypassed the last few tables and walked straight over to ours. The handsome boys continued singing as the tourists began discussing the pins.

“Do you think Jennifer would like this one?” said one lady in an American accent to her husband. Without waiting for an answer, she held the pin out to me, the only non-singing, standing person behind the table. “HOW MUCH IS THIS ONE?” she said very slowly and loudly.

I had no idea what the pins cost, but I had an idea of what this American lady might pay. So, “1000 rubles,” I replied (about $1.30).

The woman blinked and jerked her head back in surprise. “You’re an American!” she said. “What are you doing here?”

I knew that “writing an article about the Sadistic Couplets” would only confuse her, so I put my hand on the shoulder of Shaun Cassidy, who had now stopped singing, and said, “I’m selling pins with my Russian husband to try to help finance his singing career. He is a musician, you see. And also an artist. Yes, he made these pins.” I smiled at Shaun lovingly and he smiled back at me, batting his gray eyes.

“How darling!” enthused the woman, who was my grandmother’s age. “Everyone, everyone, did you hear this? This American girl is married to this Russian boy and they are selling pins!”

For the next 10 minutes the 8 or so people in the group fawned all over the two of us, taking pictures of Shaun and me with our arms around each other, or with him kissing my cheek and me rolling my eyes at the camera like “Men! What can you do?” They patted me and cooed at me, a young girl so far away from her own grandparents. And happily, they bought several pins each.

When they departed, chattering excitedly about the story they’d purchased with their jewelry, Shaun and his friends looked at me in silence for a second. Then Shaun, whose name turned out to be Kostya, said, “What are you doing today? Would you like a beer?”

I ended up spending the rest of the day – about 5 hours – sitting behind the table with Kostya and his friends, drinking beer, singing Russian folk songs, and exploiting our non-existent wedding vows to sell loads of pins at a 50% mark-up to tourists from all over America and Western Europe. Several beers into the experience I was slouched happily in the warm sun, listening to the boys sing, when I suddenly remembered why I was there. As absolutely comfortable as I was with these people and with my new vocation, I still had to find out where the Couplets came from. Even though it was apparently my calling, I couldn’t just drink and lie and sell pins all day. So I brought the topic up again with Kostya and his friends.

“We know some Couplets,” he said, “but if you really want to know about them, you need to talk to Ivan.”

“Who’s Ivan?” I asked.

“He is…bezdomni,” said Kostya, flicking the underside of his jawbone with his middle finger, the Russian gesture that meant someone was an alcoholic, “He sweeps this street.”

“Will he talk to me?”

“Sure, if you buy him some beer.”

I handed some rubles over to Kostya and he in turn handed them to one of the other boys, with instructions to fetch both Ivan and Ivan’s beer.

After a short time, the boy reappeared toting a plastic sack of green bottles and shepherding a very old, very dirty man. The man wore a padded canvas jacket and stained green trousers. He was hunched over in a permanent stoop, and his hands as they reached for the bottle were purple with frostbite scars.

Nonetheless, he smiled at me wickedly, the bringer of beer, and proceeded to lecture me for several hours about his past as a ballet dancer, his time in the army, the indignities of homelessness, the sorry state of today’s youth (“not you, Kostya”), and his favorite dishes from childhood.

I had had a million conversations just like this with homeless people back in Jacksonville (minus the frostbite and the ballet dancing), and I was perversely grateful for the continuity poor Ivan and his suffering provided. No matter where in the world you go, I guess, when the costumes and accents and trappings fall off, what you really want is someone to talk to, to share a drink with.

With Kostya translating, I was able to collect several pages of Couplets from Ivan, who knew hundreds of them. But like everyone else, he could not tell me where they came from or when he’d first heard them.

I realized I’d never deliver on the promises I’d made when I first suggested writing about the Couplets. But as I sat in the fading afternoon listening to Ivan recite the poems as if he’d written them himself -- a little raised fist in defiance of his circumstances -- I realized I didn’t care. I had found what I needed today.

An old man found a grenade in the field
He went with his finding to the party district committee
Pulled out the pin and threw it in the window
The man is old, for him it’s all the same.

Read more about the Couplets
And also: Kuche und Kultur in der Slavia
And finally: More evil rhymes from childhood.

Moscow Nights


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Moving Day
The Sadistic Couplets
Moscow Remont
Lenin's Brain
Searching for Dmitri Orlov
Faith No More
A Simple Outing Goes Terribly Awry
Cat and Mouse

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Farmer Jason Likes My Chicken Tractor

From 2009

Farmer Jason
Farmer Jason showed up at my house yesterday. Sadly, I was at work and did not get to meet him, but the reports are that he likes my chicken tractor.

Those of you who don't have young kids may still know Farmer Jason if you know who Jason and the Scorchers are; namely, the shreddingist motherlovin' what-would-happen-if-you-put-Hank-Williams-and-Iggy-Pop-in-a-blender-with-a-half-cup-of-nitroglycerine-and-a-heapin'-spoonful-a-kick-ass band EVER. Well, one of them. I saw them in 1985 or 6 at UNF in Jax and my ears are STILL RINGING. Whoo!

And what a treat to learn that Jason Ringenberg is as nice as he is talented. After my 3-year-old stopped staring at him in stunned, star-struck silence, he sang Sadie not one but two songs AND complimented her on her monkey blanket!

Thank you for giving my kid one of the most awesome experiences of her young life, Farmer Jason. You are the best.




Even if you do not have kids, consider attending a Farmer Jason concert. They are REALLY FUN.