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

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.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

Their Love's in Jeopardy

From 2007

“Ignore the girl in the mohair bikini,” I told myself, sitting down on the lounge chair and pulling the stack of vice presidents out of my purse. She was the only other person at the pool on this Tuesday afternoon, and she’d waved at me when I’d come out of the hotel onto the patio. She looked harmless enough in her hot-pink get-up and orangish spray tan, so I waved back.

She continued to wave.

“Just ignore her. You’ve got to study,” I thought as I rifled through the cards, but this became harder and harder to do as her gestures, which I could see out of the corner of my eye, began to look less like friendly how-dos and more like the kind of flailing a person does right before going under for the last time. Finally, I looked over at her.

“Hey!” she yelled. “I’m glad to see somebody. Would you like some wine?”

Would I like some wine…Well, yes, actually, I would like some wine. And what could it hurt, I thought. I’m sort of on vacation, and it is only 3:00. I’ll just have a glass of wine with this lonely, waving girl, 2 at the most, and then I’ll get right back to Elbridge Gerry (1813–1814) and Spiro Agnew (1969-1973). It was still early. I had plenty of time.

I stashed my notecards and went and sat down by the girl. She put aside the self-help book she was reading and signaled the waiter, who had emerged from inside when he saw me walk over. “I’ll have another,” she said, pointing at the almost-full glass of white wine she was holding, “And bring her one, too.”

We sat in silence for a minute, me waiting for her to ask me what I was doing at this hotel in Savanah so I could tell her. I couldn’t wait to tell her. I wanted to tell everybody.

“I’m trying out for Jeopardy!” I’d yell, clapping my hands. I’d tell her about how it was a lifelong dream of mine, to be on Jeopardy, and how exciting it was when I passed the online test and got the email inviting me to the regional auditions, which were being held the next day at the conference center.

I’d tell her about how I’d splurged on this fancy hotel we were sitting at now precisely because it had a pool, and how I had a strategy to be as prepared as possible. I’d rest by the pool during the afternoon, reviewing my state-flower notecards until it was time to take a long, relaxing bath and go to bed – early! I’d tell her how I’d wake up in the morning and eat some scrambled egg whites, or something, and then go for a long, peaceful walk to get my brain working.

I’d tell her that after a year of caring for an infant and thinking only about that, this was my big chance to get back out into the world and prove that I was still a person and not just an udder. “And hey,” I’d remind her, “Not just any person.  A person who is trying out for Jeopardy! Yes!”   

She’d be excited, too. Of course she would be! Everybody loves Jeopardy! And maybe in spite of her mohair-trimmed bikini and matching pumps and expensive tan, maybe she was a mom, too. Maybe after we finished discussing Jeopardy we could laugh about mom things together, about how hard it was, and how many bodily fluids were involved. There were tons of things we could talk about. It would be fun! Taking a break to drink wine by the pool with this stranger was a great idea, I decided.

But the girl didn’t say anything. She just sat in the sun in silence, taking long drinks of her wine. She seemed calmer now that she wasn’t alone. The waiter came back with full glasses for both of us and she still didn’t say anything. So finally, I said, “What are you doing here by yourself at 3:00 on a Tuesday afternoon?”   

She sighed and said, “I was on the way to Jacksonville from up north, but my car broke down. Last Friday.”

The patio. 
“You’ve been here, at this hotel, since Friday?” I looked over at the converted gothic mansion that loomed over the patio and pool. Through the big windows in one wing, I could see waiters putting fresh white cloths on tables. Later in the evening it would get crowded as people in sparkly clothes arrived for dinner. But by that time, I’d be in bed. “What have you been doing?”

“This,” she said, lighting a cigarette.

“Wow,” I said. “Why were you going to Jacksonville?”

She squinted at me as smoke got in her eye. “To start a line of wheatgrass stores.”


“Yeah,” she said. “You know anything about wheatgrass?”

“No,” I admitted. I didn’t know anything at all about wheatgrass, but I did know something about Jacksonville. Should I tell her that I was pretty sure Jacksonville was not yet ready for even one wheatgrass store, much less a whole chain? I watched her as she launched into what would turn out to be approximately 90 minutes of talk directly and tangentially related to wheatgrass, and realized two things.

One: This girl, who I will call Julie, was in serious trouble. I cannot imagine what caliber of problems I’d have to have to make “move to Jacksonville and start a chain of wheatgrass stores” sound like a reasonable solution, but they’d have to pretty bad. Especially since she had never been to Jacksonville, had no friends or family there, and no experience running any kind of business. All she had was a broken-down BMW and a matching bikini set and a dream.

Two: This girl was very, very drunk.

How long has she been out here, I wondered as the waiter brought another 2 glasses of wine and Julie rambled on about the health benefits of raw green foods and the successes that awaited her in the place she’d never seen. It was now 5:00, and the early cocktail crowd was starting to gather at the bar inside. Someone had turned on the little white lights in the topiary trees next to the patio doors. I was tired of talking about wheatgrass, which was probably not even going to be asked about at the auditions tomorrow. It was time for me to go.

“Well, Julie,” I said, patting her naked shoulder, “I’m gonna head out.” I stood up. The two glasses of wine I’d had were making me feel dizzy, and sleepy. “I’ll settle up with the waiter inside.”

“Oh, no, no!” slurred Julie, pulling on my hand. “Just have one more. Really, it’s on me. Just have one more and then I’ll take you to dinner!” She waved her arms in the direction of the restaurant and a different waiter emerged.

We’ve been here for two different shifts, I thought. This isn’t what Jeopardy champions do. Is it? I looked down at Julie, who was sitting there blinking up at me hopefully. The waiter stood there, waiting.

“OK,” I said, sitting back down. I looked at the waiter. “I’ll have one more, please, and will you bring the check when you come back?”

I don’t remember what we talked about while I drank my third and last glass of wine. The book she was reading, maybe? She was starting to become incoherent by this time, looking off into the middle distance and mumbling to herself. There was no way I was going to dinner with her, of course. Nobody was going to dinner. The thing to do was to pay the check, go upstairs, and go to bed as soon as possible. I could wake up early and review state capitals and still pull this whole thing off.    

I picked up the check and was horrified to see that the total was $198. I had had three glasses of wine, I realized, wine which cost $22 a glass. This meant that she had had…6 glasses of wine? “Uh, wow,” I said numbly, reaching down for my purse, “That was good wine.”

“No!” she batted my purse out of my hand and reached in her tote, pulling out a checkbook. “I got it. I told you, I got it.”

“Well that’s real nice, Julie, but I can’t let you do that. This is a huge bill.”

“Not to me,” she spat. “I’m the governor of XXXX’s daughter.” She named a large, important New England state that most of you have heard of.

 “What?” I said, stunned by the coincidence. Darn, I thought, if I had known this earlier I could have maybe avoided all the talk about wheatgrass. “Really? Well, you know, that is just an amazing coincidence. You probably know my friend, because she is dating your brother! Isn’t that crazy?”

It was crazy! A few months before, I had attended a wedding and had had a long conversation with one of the guests about how she was dating the governor of XXXX’s son. And now here I was, talking to the very same governor’s daughter! What an unbelievable coincidence! Even Julie, soused as she was, could not fail to be impressed by this.

“Did you hear what I said?” I repeated, reaching out and rocking Julie, who had an indecipherable look on her face, back and forth. “My friend is dating your brother!”

“Yes,” slurred Julie, looking at me murderously and staggering to her feet, “And my brother’s wife hates her.” Then, I guess, she tried to hit me.

“Oh no,” I thought as I watched her arm flop in my general direction. “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Instead of studying for Jeopardy I’m being assaulted by an orange drunk woman in a bikini who is also the governor of XXXX’s daughter, plus I’ve just found out that that Erin’s sister-in-law, who seemed so nice at the wedding, is dating a married man and going around bragging about it to everyone she meets. Should I tell Erin? Does she already know?” I felt confused over what to worry about first.

Julie failed to recover from her attempted strike. She lost her balance and pitched forward, toppling onto me.

“Oh no,” I said, struggling to remain standing. I locked my hands together and half-dragged half-carried her across the patio, towards the doors of the lobby. I could see some people standing there inside, at the entrance to the restaurant. They all stared at me.

When we got to the patio doors, the sight of the lighted topiaries temporarily revived Julie. She fought herself away from me and tottered on her feet for a second. “We’ve got to go to dinner!” she insisted. She swatted at me again and then pitched herself backwards into the topiary.

She was laying at a sort of angle to the ground, the small tree underneath her. I reached out and actually picked her up in my arms and carried her through the doors, which a terrified waiter was holding open for me. She was heavy, and boneless.

“I need to take her up to her room,” I said to the man behind the desk, gesturing with my chin at Julie, who was now completely unconscious. “But I don’t know which one it is.”

“Here,” said the desk man, handing me a key. “302.”

I carried Julie up to her room and laid her on her back on the bed. I got a glass of water from the sink and put it on the bedstand next to her. Then I sat down on the edge of the bed, my back to her. I tried to think. Should I roll her over? Was she OK? No, she was definitely not OK.

I heard her move behind me and turned so I was facing her. She sat up and looked at me blearily, like she didn’t recognize me.

And then she said, and if I read this in a blog post I would roll my eyes and go “oh please,” but I’m sorry, this is actually what she said. She said, “I had a son, once.” Then she kissed me on the mouth.

I pushed her gently backwards and she fell over, asleep again. I got up and let myself out.

The next morning I drank a cup of black coffee on the patio while taking a last look at popular arias.

 “Please don’t let them ask about governors,” I thought, as I stubbed out my cigarette and walked to the car.


A few years after this happened, I told my friend Erin about this incident. I said, "Did you know that your sister-in-law's boyfriend, the son of the governor of XXXX, is married? Did you, huh, did you?"

And she burst out laughing and said, "Oh no, Robin, my sister-in-law is dating the son of the FORMER governor of XXXX. FORMER!"

"Is he married?" I wondered.

So it was all just a big, hilarious misunderstanding brought on by me leaving out that one little word (FORMER). And it was just a terrible, terrible coincidence that poor Julie's brother really was having an affair with someone, but not Erin's sister-in-law, thank heavens.

Diane Trapp
Sadly, I did not make it to Jeopardy, even though I won the practice game pretty handily. I think I must have looked...haunted, maybe, at the audition. Is that the word I'm looking for? Not TV ready, anyway.

I met the lady who did go on Jeopardy from our region, a really nice, very smart librarian at UGA named Diane Trapp. I was excited when she went on to win! Here's the story about her.

And don't worry, I'll try out for Jeopardy again one day. I've learned a lot since then.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Truly, I Have No Boobs. Intimacies Says So.

Freakishly long arms and no boobs, but he did OK. Source.
From 2003, the snakebit year.

Saturday in Little 5 Points was a lonely, lonely day. Nothing like going to a giant Halloween parade by yourself to make you feel freakishly isolated. This morning I was determined not to feel blue, so I did what I knew would chase away my existential doubts and fears: I went to Target. I went there bent on finding some low-priced yet fashionable sweaters for my upcoming trip to Norway. And boy am I glad I did, because I saved the day! Yes!

I had just walked into the store and was heading for the down escalator to the women’s wear/fishing tackle section. I had to wait for a second before stepping on the escalator because of the two women in front of me and their approximately 15 children under the age of 8.

These two women were struggling with a huge shopping cart that was loaded down with Halloween booty. They had tons of candy, orange and black streamers and lights, 10 or 12 Power Rangers costumes, a big plastic tombstone to put in the front yard, and a giant plastic sparkly pumpkin the size of a small igloo. The kids were shrieking with excitement about the impending escalator ride, and the moms were trying to position the heaping cart onto the belt in between the escalators that carries the shopping carts down.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of these things, but they are pretty nifty. It’s a long rubber belt that has teeth in it that close around the cart’s wheels. The cart gets carried down next to you while you ride down the escalator. This is a fairly new thing in Atlanta and people are still kind of scared of it. They haven’t quite got it figured out yet. Case in point: the ladies finally got their cart secured, but failed to consider that the cart would be tipped at about a 45 degree angle as it made its way down the belt. As soon as the teeth closed around the cart and it began making its way down, it became clear to everyone what would happen.

The women screamed and grabbed at the handle of the cart, but there’s no way to get it loose once it begins its way down the belt. Miraculously, the only thing that fell out of the cart was a medium-sized box containing the Halloween lights. All of the people who were backed up waiting for the escalator watched as it bounced down the belt and became wedged about 6 feet away from the bottom of the moving belt. We all looked at each other in terror as we contemplated what would happen when the cart made its inexorable way down and bumped up against the box. Would the cart upend itself and spill everything else out onto the belt? Would it become jammed too, and cause all the other carts behind it to crash into it? What would something like that sound like? Would there be a fire?         

As I stepped onto the escalator, the women and their brood raced down the steps screaming.

“Oh my god, oh my god!” They screamed to everyone and no one, “Stop the belt!”

“Mom!” hollered the 15 kids at both the women, “Our lights! Our lights!” The man behind me turned to the yuppie couple behind him and bellowed “Stop the escalator!” and, somewhat unhelpfully, “Run!”

I was halfway down the escalator, heading into the yowling clutch of women and children at the bottom. I looked down into their horrified faces and couldn’t believe it when one of the kids, who must have been about 7, began climbing up the belt towards the lights.

“Tony! Stop!” cried one of the women. But Tony kept right on going. This was getting serious, I realized. Tony was going after the lights and was clearly going to either be a) crushed by the oncoming cart, b) crushed by the metal teeth closing around his ankle, or c) sucked underneath the conveyer belt. As soon as Tony began climbing the belt, all the adults around him, even the ones who were on the floor and had not been privy to the original events, began screaming.

“Stop the belt! Stop the belt!” they shrieked. In spite of all the screaming, though, nobody moved. Except me.

In my best “Stop poking that quail!” voice, I bellowed, “I’ll get it, Tony!”

I raced down the escalator and, when I came even with the jammed box of lights, threw myself over the side and tackled that package with both hands. My legs stuck straight out behind me as I lay on my stomach trying to wrench the box free. The box anchored me in place, but the motorized rubber handrail kept moving, pulling my shirt up around my chest and leaving a big red chafe mark on my stomach. I turned my head to the left and saw the cart bearing down on me, the big plastic pumpkin grinning. I saw the man who had yelled at the yuppies turn and begin running up the escalator to avoid crashing into my scissoring legs. I pulled as hard as I could and the box came free.

“Yay!” screamed everyone, “Yay!!!” I landed on my feet and held the lights over my head as I descended down into the waiting throngs. “Here are your lights!” I presented them to the beaming mothers, who hugged me as the kids clung to my knees.

“You have such long arms!” cried the overjoyed mothers, “Your arms are so much longer than ours! Thank God!”

“Yes!” I shouted, triumphant, “I DO have long arms!”

The rest of my Target shopping experience was like a beautiful dream. “There she is,” I imagined the customers saying as I perused the ribbed merino sweaters (Mossimo, $12.99), “Look at how long her arms are!”

At the cashier’s I stood all the way back from the register when the clerk told me how much I owed. “Here you go,” I said from far away, my back pressing into the gum display, “Here is my credit card.” I held the card out to him at arm’s length, looking down at him and raising my eyebrows impressively.

“Uh, thanks,” he said, leaning over the counter and gingerly taking my card.

OK, so I’m exaggerating a little, but not about the critical escalator details. I saved the day! Go me!

I was feeling so great that I decided to go across the street to Phipps Plaza, the toniest place in Atlanta, and buy a new bra. To understand what this means, you must first know a couple of things.

One: Heather (my step-sister) one of the most status-conscious people I know, STILL has not gotten over the fact that I once bought something at Phipps. When, 6 years ago, she saw my shirt and asked where I got it, she choked on her Chardonnay when I innocently said “Phipps Plaza.” (I’d just come from South Beach Miami, where K-Mart is more expensive than Phipps Plaza.) 

“Pri-CEY!” she yelled, and then “Probably more than you can afford!” (Incidentally, this will explain why I always yell “Pri-CEY!” and “Probably more than you can afford!” whenever anyone says “Phipps Plaza.”)

Two: Douglas (my ex-husband) once went to buy me a sweater at Phipps Plaza for Christmas. Unbeknownst to him, all Christmas shoppers at Phipps are treated to all-they-can-consume champagne and strawberries. So what did I get for Christmas that year? A string of pearls! Probably more than we can afford!

Anyway, I went to “Intimacies” in Phipps Plaza to buy a bra because I once saw my friend Erin take her shirt off. “Erin!” I said, “Are you wearing a padded bra?”

“No,” she replied.

“Well then, where did you get those boobs?”

“Ah,” she nodded sagely, “I went to “Intimacies” in Phipps Plaza.”

“Pri-CEY!” I yelled.

“Uh, yeah,” she said. “But you know, most women are wearing bras that are the wrong size for them. It’s hard to find a bra that fits correctly. But if you can find one, you look a lot better. Like me.” Erin showed off her satiny boobs. 

“Hmmm,” I said, tucking this information away. Since then, I have eavesdropped on many girly conversations involving Intimacies at Phipps. So today, I decided to go there. “What will happen?” I wondered. They apparently measure you, or hook you up to electrodes, or something. I envisioned a refined, humorless 66-year-old librarian type in a grey smock with a chignon and a tape measure. “Lift your arms!” she would demand in a vaguely Teutonic accent. Good thing I shaved today.

So I went in there, not knowing what to expect. “Hello!” As soon as I walked in a very bubbly, somewhat pudgy saleslady who was probably about my age bopped up to me. She had dyed blonde hair and was wearing a very snug sparkly brown sweater. “I’m Angela! What can we help you with today?”

“I, uh…I need a bra that fits me,” I whisper to her, looking around furtively at the empty store.

“OK!” she yells, “Let’s just go in here!”

We go into a very tiny, very pink dressing room. It’s so small that we are standing right up next to each other. “What kind of bra were you looking for?” Angela shouts, “Demi? Padded? Plunging? Strapless? Backless? Crossover?”

“What? What?” I feel completely panicked, cornered by this round woman in a space the size and color of a Pepto-Bismol bottle. Plus, why is she yelling? We’re talking about UNDERWEAR here, Angela, please exhibit the appropriate amount of shame and embarrassment. “Uh…I, uh, have no idea. I just want something that fits.”

“OK!” she screams, “What size are you?”

“36B maybe?” I offer hopefully.

“Oh no no no,” she snorts, “Your back is too small! You’re really skinny! You’re definitely no more than a 34! Maybe even a 32!”

“You can tell that just by looking at me?” I say, somewhat defensively. “Don’t you have to have a tape measure, or something? Plus, look at how long my arms are!” I fling out my arms, causing Angela to duck.      

“Well, honey, there’s only one way to find out. Let’s see ‘em.”

I roll my eyes and lift my shirt. Angela gapes for a while at the red welt on my stomach and then proclaims, “34A.”

“34A?!?!” I shout, forgetting that one is supposed to be quiet when surrounded by underwear. “34A? You’re downgrading me?”

“I’m sorry, sugar,” drawls Angela, reaching out to pat my shoulder. “But this’ll fit you much better.”

I pace back and forth in front of the mirror while Angela disappears to find a suitable bra for me. I suck in my stomach, puff out my chest. 34A? What, am I ten? Truly, I have no boobs. Intimacies says so. I consider getting breast implants. Could I do it? Would it be worth all the pain and health risks just to be able to go into a bra store and have the salesladies nod their approval at my C cup? I squeeze myself together and blow some hair out of my eyes as I look into the full-length mirror. “Probably more than you can afford,” I say out loud. 

Angela bangs on the door and opens it before I can say anything. “I have a great bra here for you!” she enthuses. I take the flimsy piece of cloth she’s holding out to me and am surprised to see that there are no cartoon characters printed on it. It does, after all, seem to be an actual adult bra. I try it on, and am impressed when it looks good, and makes me look good. “Hey,” I say, “This looks OK.” I twist around, looking for the price tag. “How much does this cost?”

“$200.96!” gushes Angela, clasping her hands together and jiggling up and down in various places.

“What!?!” I scream, completely unhinged. “Listen, Angela, thanks to you I’ve just found out that I don’t even really NEED A BRA! And now you want me to pay 200 dollars for one? Are you crazy?”

I realize that I am sweating profusely and am topless and have backed poor buxom Angela into a hot-pink corner. I run my hand through my hair and try again. “OK. Look. I’m sorry. But do you realize that this bra costs more than my car payment? That it’s ¼ of my MONTHLY RENT? Surely there is something here a little more REASONABLE, given the NEWS you’ve just given me and the SMALL AMOUNT OF MATERIAL I will actually be paying for.” Angela scurries away and returns moments later with two more reasonably priced scraps of fabric. I try them on and find them suitable. “OK,” I declare to the disappointed Angela, “These will do.”

I purchase the bras and peel out of the parking lot past the valet parkers.

“Fuck this noise,” I decide as I speed south on 85. “Who cares about bras? Not me! What’s important to me, anyway? Doesn’t it count for anything that I just rescued two families’ entire Halloween experience? Let’s see Paris Hilton do that!”

I realize that I need some kind of mental sherbet to make up for the realization that I will truly never be able to do internet porn. I need a palate cleanser, something to remind me of my non-bosomy roots. I remember suddenly that a movie I’ve been wanting to see for a long time, the Ramones’ “End of the Century,” is playing at a theater near my house. Great, I think, that’ll put me right. I steer the car into the lot and go stand at the end of the line to get my ticket.

I’m standing there waiting when a swarthy man in a sharkskin suit approaches me with his mousy blonde date. “Ehhh, excuse, please, me,” he says, tugging on my sleeve. I look at him and immediately realize from his vowels and his footwear that he is Russian. Oh boy, I think, what now? “Yes?” I say, raising my eyebrows politely.

“Ehhh, can you be explaining to me please what kind of movie theater is this?”

“What?” I say.

“Ehhh, where is the place to see the regular movies?”

“Ohhh,” I say. “The closest regular movie theater is at (ironically) Phipps Plaza (pri-CEY!).”

“I see. And what kind of movies are they seeing here?”

“Oh, well, these are art films.” He looks at me blankly and I can see that he doesn’t understand what I mean. I try again. “These are movies that no one wants to see.”

“What?” he says, understandably confused.

I can see that I am getting nowhere, so I take a big deep breath and launch unexpectedly (to him and to me) into Russian. “Well, my friend,” I say, completely changing personalities and clapping him warmly on the back, “These are the films that are made by the man who is concerned with the creative side of his head. Who sees the unusual side of life and says, ‘Why not me?’ Who films the things that ordinary people are scared of. They say, maybe my job, maybe my home, maybe my family, but the man who makes these movies says ‘No! I love the sadness!  I love the music! I love the dreams! I love the death!’” 

“Boje moy!” said the man after I finished my tirade. “Ehhh, thank you.”

The two of us stood there and looked at each other for several long, intense moments until the woman behind the counter yelled, “Step up please, ma’am!” I said goodbye to the man and his flustered date and purchased my ticket. Sure, I may have no boobs and freakishly long arms. But so did Joey Ramone, actually. And look at how far he came! If he could do it, so can I, I guess.

So all in all, a good day. A rescued family, a new bra, a punk-rock international experience, and some inexpensive yet fashionable sweaters, which is really what I hoped for when I set out today. Happy Halloween, everybody.

WTH? Athens: Logo A-Go-Go

I've spent a lot of time sitting at the red light wondering about this sign while nervously pulling on my own ears. I try to imagine other health care professionals, like dentists, or gynecologists, advertising their services in a similar way. What kind of "experience" is this store offering its users? What kind of mirror is this strange sign holding up for its potential customers? Read more >

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Red Ticket: Searching for Dmitri Orlov

From 2008

In 1991, I was a junior at the University of Florida, majoring in Russian and religion. That summer, I spent 6 weeks in Moscow with 20 of my fellow students. They had flown over as a group, but I was very fortunate to have been able to spend several weeks in Europe before going to Russia. So, instead of flying as part of my school group, I took a train from London to Moscow when it was time for the program to start.

This meant that at the end of our stay, I had to take a train back to London, to catch my flight home. I was dreading the 3-day train ride. I had never taken a train anywhere before this trip, much less to a Communist country, and had no idea what to expect. No one told me to bring my own food, for example, and if it hadn't been for the two Kazakh women I shared a compartment with, I would have gone hungry. At least this time I had packed food for the return journey back to London.

I waved to my classmates as their bus to the airport pulled away, and stuck out my arm. Almost immediately, a young man in a cream-colored Lada pulled over. He wasn't a taxi driver, but a regular Muscovite who wanted to make a few extra rubles by giving a stranger a ride. I asked him to take me to the train station, threw my backpack in the car, and off we went.

When we got to the station, the driver surprised me by offering to go in with me and “get my ticket sorted out.” This was above and beyond the 5-ruble service, I knew, but I also looked around at the hoards of people milling in and out of the station, many of them carrying duffle bags full of live chickens, and agreed. When we went inside, him carrying my bag, I was glad I had. The place was chaos. There were multiple ticket windows, all with inscrutable signs and surly staff, and every window had a huge clutch of people standing, mob-like, in front of it. My driver took a brief look around, grabbed my wrist, and pulled me to the front of one of these crowds.

I stood beside him while he and the ticket taker grouchily yelled at each other for what seemed like a long, long time. I could make out some, but not all, of what was being said. Finally, my driver turned to me and in English that was far better than my Russian, cheerfully said, “Well! There is small problem with ticket.”

“Problem? What problem?” I asked. Oh no. Perhaps there were no more compartments on the train and I would have to ride “platzcart,” sleeping on a bunkbed in a dusty boxcar with 50 other strangers. Perhaps instead of going to London the train had been diverted to some other city, and I’d have to find another way to get to the capital.

“Ehh,” said my driver, “Your train, it will be little bit late.”

“Oh,” I said, relieved, “How late?”

“September 25th,” said my driver.

“September 25th?” I did some fast, panicked math. “But. But. Today is August 16th. September 25th is over a month away.”

“Yes,” said my driver, unfazed. “You will come back then.” He handed me my bag and began to walk away.

“Wait!” I yelled at his back, “Wait!”

A month away? I literally knew no one in this city now that my school group had departed. Worse, I had no money at all save for a couple of useless traveler’s checks, and no place to stay. I pictured myself hauling my 70-lb backpack around the streets of Moscow for a month. Could I do it? No, of course not. Maybe in America I could lurk around in cafes during the day, or visit all-night diners, but in communist Moscow there was no place to go. Lingering and loitering, not to mention homelessness, were seriously frowned upon.

And then there was the matter of getting home to Florida. My plane from London was leaving in four days. I couldn't just stay here. I was supposed to go back to school the next week.

Now, normally what privileged college kids would do in this situation would be to get on the phone and call mom. Ask her to wire some money, or call somebody. But there was no way that I knew of to call overseas from Russia, certainly not from a pay phone. During our 6-week stay in the country we had been shepherded into the director of Moscow State’s foreign exchange program’s office exactly once and had been given the opportunity to call home to let our parents know that we were still alive. After 20 minutes of beeping and whirring and crackly static, I’d been connected to my mother’s secretary at her office in the local school board. “I’m sorry, but Gail’s in a meeting right now,” the secretary had responded.

“I’m calling from communist Russia!” I had hollered, “Please go and get her!”

Calling mom was out of the question, I decided. Besides, what would she do? This was clearly out of the realm of what even a mom could fix. Crap, I thought, does this mean I’m an adult? If that’s what it means, I’m in trouble. I’m obviously not ready.

My driver turned around. “What is it?” he asked.

I told him about my predicament, about how I had no place to go, knew no one, and had no money. His broad face became sly. “Well, you must come home with me,” he declared.

I realized that he was right. I must come home with him. There was no other option. This was before the fall of communism, before the days of the Russian sex trade, before the days of women disappearing and their credit cards turning up 2 years later in Turkmenistan. Before the days of me knowing anything about anything. “OK,” I said, unhappily. “OK. I will.”

I walked dejectedly out to his car and put my bag back in the backseat. He seemed cheerful. “My name is Dmitri Orlov,” he told me as we drove through the city, “And I am famous actor. You are 20, you say? That is well, I am 21! I will take you to my home, but first, I must make stop for gas.”

“Oh great,” I thought as he drove, “a famous actor.” Yes, right. We ALL know Americans are obsessed with famous actors. Hollywood’s in America, after all. You, Dmitri Orlov, in your crappy Lada with your scruffy face and your dorky white sweatshirt and acid-washed jeans. I am just so SURE that you are a famous actor. But you are also the only thing standing between me and starving on the street for a month so ok, wow, gosh, a famous actor. Neat.

Dmitri pulled the car off the main road and onto a dirt path, like the kind my grandfather walked cows down back home in Florida. A rutted road with 2 small hollows where car wheels had worn away the grass. The sparse buildings disappeared behind us. “Uh, what are we doing?” I asked him in Russian.

Here we go, I thought, already. This is it. We pulled up behind a dirty blue Olga, and Dmitri cut the engine. He sat in the driver’s seat, staring straight ahead.

“This is line for gas,” he said in English, looking over at me and shrugging and giving a “what can you do?” kind of look. “I’m sorry it is so long.” I decided that maybe he wasn’t an actor, but maybe he wasn’t a homicidal rapist, either. Maybe he was just a nice guy who was trying to help and who needed gas.

“Oh. Man…” I said, opening the door and getting out of the car.

“What are you doing?” Dmitri exclaimed as I climbed up on the hood.

“I’m seeing how long the line is,” I replied. The line of cars stretched for at least a mile, probably more; way off in the distance I could see some kind of edifice that looked like a toll booth, with people milling around. It was going to be a long, long wait. I got back in the car, reached in my pocket. “Can I smoke a cigarette?”

“No! Absolutely not!” Dmitri looked at me in horror. “Smoking is impossible! We will explode.”

I laughed. “Did you know that in Russian ‘not allowed’ and ‘impossible’ are the same word? It’s not just that something you’re not supposed to do is prohibited, here. No, here, if it’s not allowed it’s also actually physically not possible. In America, we make a distinction between those two concepts. Here, you don’t. Isn’t that interesting?” Dmitri looked like he was sorry he’d picked me up. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” I asked him, leaning forward and raising my voice just a little.

“Da, da, I understand,” replied Dmitri. “My English is very good because I have been in many films.”

Finally, more than three hours after we’d pulled up behind the Olga, we’d putted into one of the bays inside the station and purchased our gas. I had long since exhausted the questions I had for Dmitri about the gas station (How’d you know the gas station was here, anyway? It’s hidden down this dirt road, and there are no signs! Is this the only gas station in the whole city? Why are there so many people here? Why is this taking so long? Is gas rationed? Are there only certain days that you’re allowed to get gas? What if you had something else you had to do? Are you just supposed to sit here all day? This is a really bad system! Look, there are 5 bays to pull cars into! Why don’t they form 5 short lines instead of 1 long one? That would make things go so much more quickly!) Now I just stared out the window in grumpy silence while Dmitri, sanguine in the driver’s seat, hummed Queen songs and beat out a rhythm on the steering wheel.

By the time we climbed the steps to Dmitri’s apartment on Moscow’s Ring Road, it was dark outside. I’d set out for the train station at 10:00 that morning, I remembered; the whole day had been wasted arguing with the ticket lady and waiting in line for gas. I was starving, and exhausted. I didn’t much care what awaited me at Dmitri’s house. As long as I didn’t have to wait in a line, I’d be fine.

Dmitri opened the door to his flat and we stepped into a large foyer with a shiny parquet floor. The foyer led into a brightly lit hallway that went off to the left and the right. Directly in front of us, framed by a pair of open French doors, was a large living room stuffed with antique furniture. Two of these antiques looked up expectantly as we entered, a man and a woman of about 65. “Hey,” said Dmitri in Russian, “This is Robin. She’s an American girl. She’s going to stay with us for a few days.” The old couple nodded at me and Dmitri shepherded me down the hallway to the right, into his room.

I sat down on his narrow bed. “Dmitri,” I whispered in English, “Your roommates are certainly old. Where’d you meet them?”

“They are my parents,” said Dmitri, sitting down beside me and grabbing me in a tight embrace. “Mmmm, mmmm,” he said, giving me a big sloppy kiss on the mouth.

I tried to kiss him back, but couldn’t do it. He wasn’t unattractive, exactly, but his face was so stubbly, and his kiss was so wet and drooly. I felt bad. I pulled away from Dmitri and tried to look chaste. “Oh, Dmitri,” I told him, “I’m so sorry. Much as I would like to, I cannot kiss you. I have a boyfriend waiting for me back home.”

“Ehhh, is OK,” said Dmitri, shrugging. We sat for a few seconds in awkward silence. I looked around the room, which looked like the room of any 21-year-old boy anywhere. Piles of clothes, tennis shoes, record albums. Snapshots of Paula Abdul and Arnold Schwarzenegger taped to the wall next to the bed. OK, but wait. I squinted at the pictures, which I noticed were not cut from magazines but were actual snapshots, taken from an actual camera. And more than that, I noticed that the person in them giving Paula a big drooly kiss and Arnold a manly hug was none other than Dmitri, my Russian rescuer.

“Hey,” I said, tapping Mitya on the shoulder, “What are you doing in these pictures with Paula Abdul and Arnold Schwarzenegger?”

“I told you,” said Dmitri, looking bored, “I am famous actor. I come from family of famous actors. Is what we do. I was in, maybe you know this film, ‘Terminator 2’? I am second man who gets blown up in opening scene.”

“Wow,” I intoned, peering at the photos, “The second man who gets blown up…” I had indeed seen Terminator 2, though I didn’t remember this particular scene. “Mitya, that is really cool.”

“Yes,” agreed Mitya, “Is cool.”

I stayed with Mitya (a diminutive of Dmitri) and his family that Friday, and all through the weekend. I slept on the couch in the overstuffed living room while Nick, the family’s much-loved collie, slept on the floor next to me. These Russians were extremely kind to me, an anxious American who took up all the space in their living room, smoked incessantly, and asked way too many questions. Each morning when I’d wake up, I’d go sit in the sunny kitchen with Dmitri’s mother, talking with her in my halting Russian while she cooked me homemade bliny. My Russian was so bad at this point that it was difficult for her to understand me. We’d come to a certain point in the conversation and my brain would just freeze, exhausted from trying to communicate. “Ny ladno,” I’d always say at these junctures, “Oh well.”

Mitya’s mother would laugh. “Your Russian is terrible!” she’d tease, “But when you say ‘oh well’ you sound exactly like one of us. No accent at all.” Yes, I thought bitterly, perhaps resigned acceptance of one’s fate sounds the same in any language.

On Sunday morning, his mother sat down next to me and looked at me seriously. “Eh, Robin,” she began, “Will your family be coming over?”

“For what?” I asked her, confused.

At Dmitri's cousin's dacha ("push the camera button, hard")
“For the wedding!” she said brightly. Oh dear. I didn’t know what Mitya’d been telling her to make my presence in their home acceptable, but clearly it was time to have a serious talk with him. When we arrived home from his cousin’s dacha that evening (where he’d lent me his denim jacket with the Elvis Presley pin, his prized possession), I sat him down on my couch bed. I’d tried all weekend to get him to take me to the Aeroflot offices so I could see about a cheap one-way ticket to London, but every time I’d mentioned it he’d put me off.

“We’ll go after we visit the Novodevichy Monastery!” he’d say. “Turgenyev is buried there!”

Finally, I got my point across. “Dmitri,” I said, “Your mother thinks we are going to get married. You know that is not true. I have a boyfriend at home, and a family. They are going to be worried about me if I’m not on that plane on Tuesday. I miss my family.” I realized that was true, and started to cry.

“Tomorrow, Monday morning, is my last chance. Please, you have got to take me to some airline offices so I can try to get a ticket. If you won’t take me, I’ll have to go by myself. I have got to go home, Dmitri.” He agreed, and I went to sleep feeling anxious but relieved.

The next morning I woke up at 6:58 to the sun streaming through the living room windows. I lay on the couch in my long underwear shirt and tried to think about the warmth of the duvet and the way the light fell on the plaster wall, and not about what lay before me that day. But slowly the tension began to seep in. I tried not to wonder about what would happen if I could not find a ticket out of the country; tried not to think about failing and missing the plane that was taking off from London 22 hours from then. “You’re stranded in Moscow with no assurance you’ll ever get out, about to be married off to the stranger whose couch you’re sleeping on,” I thought. “Things really can’t get any worse.”

Literally 30 seconds after I formed this thought, the French doors to the living room flew open and Dmitri burst into the room. He was screaming at me in a panic, running in circles and pulling at his frizzy blonde hair with both hands. It was so surprising, and so out of character, that I actually laughed. I pulled the covers up to my nose and watched him, not knowing what to think. He ran around the living room a few more times and then stopped and looked at me with something like fury, or terror; I couldn’t tell which.

“Get up!” he shouted at me, “Get up and put on your pants! Now! NOW! We have got to get out of here!”

I grabbed my jeans off the edge of the couch and pulled them on. “Mitya, Mitya,” I said, totally confused, “What’s the matter? What’s happening?”

“There is war in the streets! Voina na ulitse!” he hollered, running his hands through his hair and gesturing wildly at the windows.

I leapt off the couch and ran to the window, pulled back the lace curtain. Below, the street was quiet and peaceful. An old woman in a black coat walked a terrier down the sidewalk. The air through the half-open window was cool and fresh. I turned around and faced Dmitri. “Dmitri,” I said sternly, “There is no war in the streets. What are you talking about?”

In his distress, Dmitri had apparently completely lost the ability to speak English. He burst into tears and yelled at me in Russian, “Gorbachev kaput! Gorbachev kaput!” And then, throwing his hands up in the air and resuming his running in circles, “Perevorot! Perevorot!” He yelled perevorot a couple more times and then fled out of the room, leaving me alone with the quiet morning. I grabbed my red Katzner’s dictionary off of my backpack and quickly flipped through it. This was a word I’d never heard before. I knew the prefix, pere, meant “around,” but I had no idea how to puzzle out the word’s exact meaning. Finally, I found it.

Now, I know I am remembering this incorrectly. I know that with this word, just like with every word in the dictionary, there had to have been ancillary information attached to it. An italicized “n” for noun, for example, and alternate meanings. But in my memory, I swear I looked at that dictionary and the translation of that word was there all by itself, in bold all-caps, a couple of font sizes bigger than the words surrounding it. I swear, when I looked at that word and its meaning clicked into focus, it made a noise that others could hear. Perevorot, it said: REVOLUTION.

“Ohhh,” I said, letting the dictionary slide out of my lap and slowly standing up. Suddenly, things had gotten a lot worse.

Push the button, hard.
I ran from the living room and turned right into the hallway, towards the kitchen. Surely Dmitri’s mother would be there with a cup of tea for me. Surely we could sit in her breakfast nook and talk about the upcoming wedding, or who we would visit that day.

On the way to the kitchen I passed Mitya’s parents’ room and skidded to a stop in front of the open door when I heard the blaring of a man’s caustic voice. I looked in to see Dmitri’s dad sitting on the edge of the bed, a radio cradled in his lap. His head was bent, and he was crying. To see this big, cheerful man who had laughed and joked while trying to figure out how to use my camera (“push the button HARD,” I kept telling him as we all doubled over with laughter) bent over a radio with tears falling from his cheeks was not right, I thought, it was somehow obscene.

I ran away from the room without saying anything and sped towards the kitchen. Mitya’s mother was standing at the stove over a frying pan of sizzling bliny, spatula hovering in front of her. She stared straight ahead, listening to the broadcast from the radio on the sideboard, where the same man made his bombastic pronouncements.

I turned and ran back into the hallway, towards Mitya’s room. He was in the living room, sitting on the edge of the unmade couch, watching the television. Finally, some information. What is this revolution, why is everyone crying, how can Gorbachev be “kaput”? I sat down next to him and clung to his arm. On television, in front of a blue-curtained background, a group of 8 or so men sat somberly at a curved oak desk. Several of them looked nervous and uncomfortable; all of them looked tired. The one in the middle was reading from a set of prepared notes in a loud, authoritarian voice. The tone of his voice was mean – even without being able to understand what he was saying I could tell that he was chastising us for our stupid mistakes. The jig was up, he was clearly telling us; it was time to set things right.

“What is he saying?” I whined at Dmitri, shaking his shoulder. “What is happening?”

“He is saying Gorbachev is gone,” replied Dmitri in a completely flat voice. “He is saying communism is coming back and things are going back how they were. He is saying is over.”

“Dmitri,” I barked, leaping off the couch and frantically grabbing my things and throwing them in my pack. “Listen to me. Listen to me. You have got to take me to the embassy. Do you understand? You have got to take me to the embassy!”

“Yes, OK. OK,” said Dmitri, getting up and walking out of the room.

The four of us stood in the foyer as Dmitri and I pulled on our shoes. Dmitri’s father handed him his keys and as he did he said to him, “Get her out of here.” Much as I liked Dmitri’s dad, I could not tell if he was saying that for my benefit – because he was worried about my safety and wanted me to get home – or for theirs. Because suddenly an American houseguest was not a novelty or a curiosity, but a liability, and perhaps a deadly one. I felt like a grenade with the pin pulled as his parents gingerly hugged me. As Dmitri’s dad walked with him out the door, Mitya’s mother pulled me aside and handed me a piece of paper. It was letterhead with Dmitri’s name and address on it, no doubt something he used in his career as an actor. “Take this,” she said, hurriedly folding the paper and thrusting it at me, “Maybe you can help us if you get home.”

We ran down the stairs and out to the car, not speaking. Dmitri drove several blocks to the embassy and parked on the street. “I will stay here,” he said. “Hurry.”

I jumped out of the car, showed my passport to the guard at the door, and pulled open the door to the lobby. A young man not much older than myself stood behind a counter. “Can I help you?” he said.

Usually, whenever I tell this story, the first thing people ask me is why I did not immediately go to the US embassy as soon as I realized my train wasn’t coming in. Isn’t that why the embassy is there, they wonder, to aid their countrymen? Well, no. At least, I never thought so. Sure, if you’re being pursued by the KGB, if you’ve got the microfilm that the world has to see, or the telegram that will avert WWIII, by all means, visit the embassy. But if you just had some bad luck, or your own stupid choices got you into your current mess, don’t waste the embassy’s time. The embassy is like 911. Don’t fritter away your credibility with them by calling because you’ve lost your car keys. Save it for a real emergency. Well if there’s any time to throw yourself on the mercy of US bureaucracy, I reasoned, a surprise coup by hard-line communists is probably it.

“I hope so,” I told the boy. “Look, you must know what’s going on outside. And I’m not here to ask you for money, or even for help, really. I’m just here to ask for some advice.” I explained the particulars of my problem to him. He listened with no expression. I finished my story and asked him, “What would you do if you were me?”

There was a moment of silence. Then he kind of snorted and said, and I am not making this up, “Dude. You’re fucked.”

I was astounded, but in too much of a hurry for his reply to really register. “Well,” I said, glaring at him, “Can I at least use your phone?”

“Do you have $4.00?” he replied.

I turned on my heel and ran out the front door. Under normal circumstances I would have been livid, would have demanded to speak to his supervisor, made lengthy speeches about how I am a taxpayer and a citizen and deserve better treatment, written a letter to the editor, etc., etc. But these were not normal circumstances. The clock was ticking, Dmitri was waiting in the car, and that option for help had simply been crossed off the list. I didn’t have time to get angry – if anything, this experience simply confirmed my worst fears about my own country and government. If I ever made it back to those two things, I’d deal with it then. Right now I had bigger problems.

“Where now?” asked Dmitri as I slammed the car door.

I sat for a moment, trying to figure out what to do. Then, “Dmitri, please, take me to British Airways.” I have no idea why I said this. I’d never flown British Airways, didn’t even know if they had an office in Moscow. But I’d been rejected by my own country, I thought, and if anywhere would be a safe place to ride out this bloody coup, surely it would be with the British. They’d have soft lighting and solid furniture in their office, and prints of spaniels. There might even be scones. And their response to any chaos would be bemused politeness, I was sure. I’d be all right there.

Dmitri started the car and pulled out onto the empty Ring Road, one of Moscow’s main thoroughfares. He’d gone perhaps 1/8th of a mile when a cluster of blue barricades blocked our way. Dmitri cut the engine. “Where are we?” I asked as he opened his door and unfolded himself from the car.

Ring Road and Moskva River in front of the White House. Source.
“This is Russian White House,” he said, “Where president lives.” I also got out of the car and we walked past the barricades and up the middle of the deserted boulevard. A small crowd of Russians – maybe 75 in all – had gathered across from the White House. They paced on the broad promenade than ran in between the Ring Road and the Moskva River, staring at the big, pristine building. On the other side of the Ring Road was a wide plaza that stretched about 500 feet to the steps of the White House. On this plaza, a couple of bored looking cops stood around, smoking cigarettes. Beyond the policemen, several men attached to large television cameras scurried back and forth, taking shots of the crowd and of the quiet fa├žade of the building. Surprisingly, there were no barricades.

Today, everyone knows what happened. Oh, we can say, more or less accurately, the collapse of communism was a good thing! Freedom won, democracy triumphed, butterflies and puppies fell from the sky! But right then, for me and for the other people standing there, and for the millions of people watching CNN for the three days it took the coup to fail, it was completely unclear that this story would end happily. For the people who witnessed it, it was terrifying. No one had any reason to think that the outcome of this latest experiment with freedom would be any different than Hungary in 1956, or Prague in 1968, or any of the other countless times that people tried to assert themselves only to be crushed by their own government. There was a profound resignation and sadness on the faces of the crowd gathered there; they looked less like people bent on protest and more like relatives come to identify the body. When I tell this story today, folks say “How wonderful that you got to witness this historic moment!” But right then, no one knew what was happening. We only knew it was bad.

Because of my rudimentary Russian, my family at home had a much better grasp of what was going on than I did. If I’d been at home watching television with my family, I would’ve heard something like “Early this morning a group of hard-line communists placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his dacha. The leaders of the coup assert that the reforms of Perestroika have gone too far, too fast, and have barricaded themselves in the White House to consolidate their hold on power.” Instead, all I knew was that eight weasely-looking men in bad suits had made my Russian family cry, and that something was happening at the White House that was important enough to interest at least three cameramen. I stood watching the scene with Dmitri and the other Russians, and then suddenly, I had an idea.

I broke away from the group and ran across the Ring Road and onto the plaza in front of the White House. Absolutely no one tried to stop me as I accosted one of the cameramen. “What’s happening?” I yelled at him, filling his lens with my frantic expression and grabbing him by both arms. “What is going on? Do you know? Do you know?”

“Non! Non!” yelped the poor French journalist as he shook himself free and ran off in the other direction. I turned and looked for another cameraman, and then another, running up to them as they filmed and demanding to know what was going on. If they were here filming, I assumed, they must have some idea of what they were filming, some context to put it in.

But each camera I approached was manned by a non-English speaker – a Frenchman, a Korean, a German. None of these people could tell me anything, and all of them desperately tried to avoid me as I blotted out their live view of history in the making. They’d bob and weave and attempt to detour around me; I’d feint and parry and block their path.

And strangely, instead of talking to the cameramen, I found myself every time looking straight into the camera and asking my questions. I remember thinking about the absurdity of this as I was doing it – about how the audiences at home in Seoul or Toulouse would react when suddenly a hysterical American filled up their televisions, screaming incoherent questions into the camera only inches away from their surprised faces.

“Hey!” I thought, pathetically, “I bet I’m on TV right now in some country somewhere!” Then, a much darker thought occurred to me. What if I’m on TV right now in my own country? What if CNN is here right now (I looked around nervously) and they film me, and my mother, who I was absolutely sure would be watching, sees me? I’m not supposed to even be in Moscow right now, and certainly not at a coup. If mom saw me on TV, I quickly realized, I would catch it when I got home.

I ran back across the street to Dmitri and tried to blend in with the crowd, which had grown considerably larger. Perhaps 500 people now stood across from the White House, and suddenly, all of them began to applaud. Since we had arrived early and were at the very front of the crowd, we had no problem seeing the group of men and women who tramped up the steps of the White House. They stood at the top of the stairs, blocking the doors, holding a long tri-color banner and chanting something. “What are they saying?” I asked Dmitri, “What’s that they’re holding?”

“Is Russian flag,” he said, not taking his eyes off them. “They are saying ‘We will sooner die than surrender our country’.”

The question of whether or not they’d have to floated between us as Mitya and I stood looking at each other. “Dmitri,” I said for the thousandth time that morning, “What is happening?”

This time, Dmitri seemed to know. He looked at me and spread his arms out wide. “You are witnessing the death of my country,” he told me. Then he began to cry.

We stood side by side as the crowd behind us swelled into the thousands. By the end of the day it would number over 100,000 and barricades would be thrown up, but then, at 10:00 in the morning, the only representatives of authority in sight were 20 or so traffic police. After a while, the chanting people went away and a man dressed like a priest walked up the stairs of the White House, which was obviously the stage upon which this drama would unfold, and began to address the crowd. “Dmitri,” I whispered in English, “Who is that man dressed like a priest?”

“He is a priest,” Dmitri whispered back.

The crowd became less silent and more animated. People towards the back began to shout things at the White House, things I could not understand. A very old lady materialized next me, and she seemed particularly angry. Every few minutes or so she would look at me and make an emphatic pronouncement, with which I would just as emphatically agree. More and more television cameras appeared, standing across from us and filming the crowd as it hollered and grumbled. I was afraid of the crowd, afraid of what might happen, and I knew my valuable time was ticking away. But it was impossible to leave. I had to stay, there was no question. I had to see what would happen.

What happened was this:

A half an hour after the priest had finished his speech, which was enthusiastically received, a single, terrified yowl went up from the crowd. To the right of us, trundling across the bridge and heading towards us, was a line of olive-colored army tanks. Twenty four of them (I counted). Twenty four tanks is a lot of tanks, particularly when you are right at the front of the crowd, right up next to the road the tanks will soon be driving on. The tanks made their inexorable progress towards us and we stood, frozen to the spot. Finally, the tanks pulled up onto the Ring Road, directly in front of us. They were so close to us that, as the crowd first moved backwards and, once the tanks stopped, surged forwards again, I was literally leaning on the front of one of them, the crowd pressed to my back. I had never been this close to a tank, but I took some comfort in the fact that the guns of the tanks, which were pointed at the crowd, stuck out way over the people behind me. If they fired into the crowd, I decided, they wouldn’t hit me. I began scrutinizing the body of the tank I was leaning against, trying to determine how I might climb up and over it when they started shooting.

It took about 20 minutes for the crowd to become used to the presence of the tanks in front of them. It was clear that they were there to fire on us, but it was also clear that they weren’t planning to fire just yet. We stood there murmuring to each other, wondering what to do now. Then, without warning, the old lady standing next to me did something astounding. Instead of trying to back away, or duck, or extract herself from what was obviously going to turn into a massacre, she reached up and grabbed onto the front of the tank and hoisted herself onto it. As I stood and watched, open mouthed with surprise, she scrambled up the body of the tank and began hammering on the hatch with her fists. “Come out!” she hollered, banging away, “Show yourself! I demand to speak to you!”

A few seconds passed and the hatch began to open. The old lady leaned back as the top was lifted and a white hand and arm lowered it back onto the tank. Then the head and shoulders of a very young, very scared-looking soldier emerged. The old woman wasted no time. “Vor!” she hollered at the young man, making a fist with her thumb inserted between the index and middle fingers. I had seen this gesture many times and knew that it was what Russians did when they were calling out a thief. “You are a thief!” she cried. “Shame on you, shame on you!”

The young man looked sheepish. Here he was, away from home and in the army, captain of a deadly, terrifying weapon, and yet try as he might he still couldn’t escape the criticism of his grandmother. In fact, I noticed, he actually called her grandmother when he tried to stammer out a reply to her wrathful charges. “Grandmother, grandmother,” he stuttered, “Forgive me! I don’t mean you any harm.” Indeed, he did look genuinely sorry. This had no effect whatsoever on the furious old lady, who continued.

“You are going to fire on your own people, yes? Is that what you are going to do? Shoot us? Shoot me? Shame on you, son,” she shook her head, “It is a terrible, terrible shame upon you.”

I was absolutely, completely flabbergasted by this woman’s actions. She conducted herself as if being menaced by tanks was a daily occurrence, gave the obvious danger she was in not a single thought. That’s it, I decided, if I ever get out of this and make it home, I am going to vote in every single election that ever happens. I’ll travel to other cities to vote in their elections, I swore to myself. Even if it doesn’t matter, even if it’s just supporting a corrupt system, even if it is choosing the lesser of two terrible evils, I will vote no matter what, and every time I do I will think about this unknown lady who was clearly just about to be shot by this irritated, embarrassed, terrified soldier. I will do this as a way to remember you, I thought, because it is something you want so desperately to be able to do. Desperately enough to die for it.

I looked around for a way to escape the crowd and the tanks. Up until now this had been an interesting experience, but something I myself was not invested in. I was witnessing it, sure, but this was not my country, and these were not my people. But I had stood next to this old lady for the last hour and had spent it thinking about her, about where she came from, and how she found the courage to come down here. I looked into her angry, wrinkled face as she swore at the soldier and the White House and the usurpers inside of it. When this boy finally grew tired of being berated by her in front of all these strangers, he’d pull out his army-issue pistol and shoot her in the face, or the chest. Most certainly he would. These were his orders. She would fall off the tank, limp and bloody, and I and the people next to me would catch her to keep her from hitting the ground. This would cause the crowd to go crazy, I knew. They’d riot at the sound of the gunshot, even if they never saw who it was meant for. The soldier on the tank would climb out of his hole and in terror and remorse would begin firing his pistol directly into the crowd at his feet. The tanks would begin shelling the thousands gathered there. People would scatter, jumping over the low wall and into the dirty Moskva River to try and escape, but it would be too late. I had to get out of here, now.

As I looked around fruitlessly for a way to escape, I saw something unexpected. All around me, on every single tank in the line, people were climbing up and talking to the young soldiers. I saw a man in a cheap brown business suit, ridiculously still clutching his briefcase, engaged in heated debate with a soldier. I saw a group of housewives, tired-looking women, sitting around the hole of another tank talking to the boy inside of it like an errant child. Interestingly, all of the people who climbed on the tanks were old or middle aged. There were no people the soldiers’ age berating or challenging them, just an older, wiser generation of Muscovites who had lived their entire lives under the slow rot of communism. These people, it was clear, were trying to talk sense into their offspring; they were engaged, quite literally, in the argument of their lives.

Finally, the soldiers’ patience ended. An older man in uniform several tanks to the left of me popped out of his hole and stood on the tank. “Enough!” he hollered to the crowd. “Get back! Now! Now!”

The people scrambled off the tanks as one by one, 24 engines flared into life. The crowd grew absolutely silent, and I bent my head and flattened my body against the humming tank, waiting for the verdict. A minute passed and then, slowly, the guns on the tanks began to move. They swept slowly over the frozen crowd and kept on rotating until they were pointed not at their uncles and grandmothers, but at the strangers in the White House. An immense cheer went up from the crowd and I burst at once into hysterical, gasping sobs. Dmitri, who had been standing beside me the entire time, grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me towards him. “Come on!” he hollered, leading me through the ecstatic crowd, “We must get your ticket!”


I never knew what happened to Dmitri after I bought my ticket at British Airways and made it home to Florida. Even after I moved back to Moscow, 2 years later, I never saw him again. But I have always wondered.

And so, in 2006, I Googled him. I used the “image search” function of Google to try to find a picture of him. If he’s an actor, I figured, there might be some photos of him. My search returned some results. There was a mention of a Dmitri Orlov who acted in the 1920s and who might have been his great-grandfather. There was a current Dmitri Orlov who definitely was an actor, and I grew excited and hopeful, but this Dmitri was dark-haired and way too handsome. But then there was another Dmitri Orlov. He had the same unruly blonde hair and might have been the right age. But it was hard to tell. In the pictures, he was giving a speech in front of a large auditorium, and the picture-taker was way in the back. And what was this Dmitri Orlov speaking about? I scrutinized the results and found that he was talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union, something I knew both he and I knew something about. Could this be him? I read some of his essays, and found that instead of thinking about the coup that was more than 10 years gone I was thinking about my own family, my husband, my baby daughter. What if something like that happens here, I thought? I knew what it was like, I thought. I had better prepare.

So perhaps Dmitri Orlov has saved my life twice, as I get out of debt and become more self-sufficient. It is fitting, and unbelievable, that Dmitri Orlov has been next to me during two different collapses. Dmitri, if that’s you, if you are the one currently writing about how we can navigate our own slow dissolution of faith in the way things have always been, I thank you. I thank you once, and I thank you, once again.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Lenny's, Atlanta, GA 2003

Lenny's, July 4, 2003

Have you ever had the kind of year where you felt snakebit? The kind of year where everything hard that could happen, did? 2003 was that year, and I spent many afternoons of it sitting in a random bar that was down the street from my house, a place where nobody knew me and I didn't know them either and we were all just fine with that.

Lenny's was in a blighted, forgotten area of town, a single-wide trailer welded to a shack squatting in an ungraded clay lot. It sat across the road from the spaghetti sauce factory, and at 4pm the shift would change and black men in white paper jumpsuits and hairnets would come in to play pool. They'd mix with the regulars, some of whom had been there since 10am, when the place opened. Cowboy, Al, Steve and the others whose names I can't remember didn't hang out there to drink, exactly, though they did that, too. They hung out there to play cheap pool, listen to the excellent jukebox, and discuss various schemes and injustices.

I would sit at the bar and eat stale nachos and listen to David Allen Coe while the other patrons ignored me. I was a good 15 years younger than everyone else, and would often come in wearing the suit I had worn to work that day. I looked and felt like someone who didn't belong, and I liked feeling that way.  
One day, this woman asked me to play pool with her. I don't know what her real name was, but I called her Queen. I was a terrible pool player, but she still played with me nearly every afternoon for a year. We played in absolute silence -- I don't think I ever heard her speak to anyone -- and I know nothing about her other than that she was an excellent shot. After a few weeks of playing pool with Queen, I started to get better.

I brought my camera to Lenny's and photographed the patrons. I don't think any of them ever knew my name; they all referred to me as "that girl with the camera." For once in my life, I wasn't there to talk to anyone.

My favorite time of day at Lenny's was what I thought of as "hipster twilight," the hours when the daytime crowd and the nighttime crowd overlapped. The black men from the actual factory would play pool with the white boys trying to look they'd just come from the factory, and the good-old-boys would clog to the music of Dearhunter. It was good times.

I didn't quite fit in with this evening crowd, either. I was a good ten years older than most of them, and would sit there in my business suit, which by this time would be smeared with blue pool chalk, and watch them breakdance, or fiddle with their Moog synthesizers.

I was not exactly a daytime alcoholic, and not exactly a nighttime scenester. I had a foot in both camps, maybe. But Lenny's didn't care.

I loved Lenny's because it still, to this day, was one of the most integrated places I've ever seen. Not just racially, but every other way, too. And I loved Lenny's because when Steve Miller died, they gave him a wake.

Steve was a homeless man, a Vietnam vet, and he lived at Lenny's. He slept outside, on a folding beach chair. He lived off a diet of bar food and borrowed PBRs, and would light up when asked to pick songs on the jukebox. One afternoon a pretty girl gave him a haircut, and everyone was surprised by how handsome he turned out to be.

One morning in January the regulars arrived to find Steve frozen to death outside where he slept. The next afternoon, they threw him a party to say goodbye. The regulars brought casseroles, and fried chicken, and set it up on the bar for everyone to share.

There was even a personalized cake. A few of the older guys went with Steve down to the potter's field where he was buried. According to them, Steve had no family. Or at least if he did, nobody knew where they were.

Eventually, Lenny's was featured on a local TV show. I was there the afternoon the aggressively well groomed blonde lady came to interview the bartender, and the bartender, along with everyone else, looked unhappy. They knew what it meant, I think, and they were right. After the show aired Lenny's began to get more crowded, intolerably so for the regulars, and a few years after that the bar relocated to Decatur. The regulars didn't relocate with them. I don't know where they went. Well before Lenny's closed, I had moved on, too.

Here are some of the pictures I took of Lenny's, the bar that gave me the exact kind of refuge I needed at exactly the time I needed it. If you recognize any of the patrons or the bands, please let me know.

And if you'd like to read more about Lenny's, which apparently is now known as "the CBGBs of Atlanta," this is a good place to start.