Monday, November 14, 2016

Dictator Minute

Not enough people know about dictators, but Dictator Minute aims to fix that. Take a minute every day to learn something new about dictators. You’ll be glad you did!

3. Dictators Don't Like Treaties

After WWI, the Germans had this treaty they had to live with, the Treaty of Versailles?

Lots of Germans hated it. It crushed them economically and made Germany dependent on hostile foreign powers for its survival. It was humiliating and unfair, said many. They called the establishment leaders who signed the treaty criminals and backstabbers.

Hitler also did not like the Treaty of Versailles. He called it “the greatest villainy of the century” in Mein Kampf.

"The millions of German unemployed are the final result of this development,” he said in a speech in 1933. Hitler wanted to get rid of the Treaty of Versailles and, a year after he became Chancellor, he did!

Party Tip

Want to be a hit at parties? Read more about The Treaty of Versailles.


2. The Journalists Were Wrong

Journalist Dorothy Thompson initially thought that Hitler wasn’t a threat. She believed he wanted to be a dictator, but, c’mon. Him? In power? She called him “Little Man”; wrote that he was insignificant. She was convinced the public would see right through him.

“Imagine a would-be dictator setting out to persuade a sovereign people to vote away their rights,” she wrote in 1932.

When Hitler became Chancellor a year later, she changed her tune and tried to warn people. She documented the brutality and terror she saw as the Nazis consolidated their power. But it was too late.

Like most dictators, Hitler did not like to be criticized. In 1934 he revoked Thompson’s credentials and threw her out of Germany.

Party Tip

Want to be a hit at parties? Read more about Dorothy Thompson.


1. Don’t Underestimate Dictators

Germany’s leaders didn’t take Hitler seriously until it was too late. Establishment politicians thought they could appease him. They believed that if they named him Chancellor of Germany, he’d have no choice but to fall in line with business as usual. They told themselves that others in the government would influence Hitler and mitigate his power.

Instead, wily Hitler gave himself absolute power through the Enabling Act of 1933! Germany’s institutions failed to protect it from a dictator, as many had hoped. Hitler simply passed laws dismantling those institutions.

Party Tip

Want to be a hit at parties? Read more about the Enabling Act of 1933.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

My Other Hobby

If you think my hobbies are limited to reading about 1930s world history, writing poems to trade magazines, and thinking about maritime disasters, think again. I also enjoy cross stitching.

Here are some of my favorites.

This is the first in what I hope will become a series of safety-icon cross stitches. I call it "Corrosive."

 This one is called "Abu Ghraib." I did it back in 2003, when the story about torture at the notorious prison, where people were kept for years without charges, broke.

Maybe I was thinking something deep about persecution based on religion, but I think I was just struck by the form of the image of the man on the box, wires attached to his outstretched arms.

It seemed archetypal to me back then, like it referenced something more than what it was.

This one is called "Jesus," because it's an image of Jesus.

I'm very sad that I can't find the finished cross-stitch of this pattern.

The pictures and detail I left the same, but instead of the words you see, I substituted "Happen Is Happen" (above the blue flowers) and "Pee Is Pee" (above the beehive)

This was a sort of motto for me for a while. Sadie's dad was a cab driver in NYC for 13 years, and used to tell the story of an Indian cab driver he knew who, whatever befell him, would shrug his shoulders and say "Happen is happen."

If he got mugged? Stiffed? Splashed with filthy water? "Happen is happen."

Then, many years later, I took a rug into the dry cleaners to see if it could be saved. It had been stored in an outbuilding for years and was filthy. The Indian man behind the counter asked me when I brought it in, "Something has peed on this rug?"

"Yes," I said. "A cat." It occurred to me that I really had no idea what had peed on the rug while it was in the outbuilding. Why was I so sure it was a cat? It could have been anything. Would this make a difference? Like, with what kind of chemicals he might use to clean it?

"Actually," I said. "It might not have been a cat. It could have been a dog. Or even a raccoon. Does that make a difference?"

The man patted my hand so kindly and said "Pee is pee." I felt so relieved for some reason, like there was nothing at all to worry about.

So: Happen Is Happen. Pee Is Pee.

Finally, this is my favorite one. I call it "Doxology."

During the time that I was working on this one, I took my co-worker to get a colonoscopy (and it wasn't even Take Your Co-Worker to Get A Colonoscopy Day!).

I had about 3 hours to sit in a waiting room before my friend was done, so I pulled out this project and got to work.

With me in the waiting room were four elderly ladies, probably waiting on their husbands. They were in their late 70s, it seemed like, and as soon as they saw that I, a young whippersnapper, was engaged in a lost womanly art, they became very friendly and talkative.

"Oh, that's so nice, dear," said one of them. "I did not think any young people were interested in that anymore."

"Oh yes," I said. "I love to cross stitch!"

They cooed about this for a while and then another one said, "What is it?"

"The Doxology," I said.

This really got them going. Here is a young person at the gastroenterologist's office, and instead of snapchatting or planning to cohabitate with someone, she's cross-stitching the Doxology! Maybe the world will be OK after all! They all jumped up to come and look, and that's when things went awry.

I have and always have had letter-color synesthesia, a harmless condition where I "see" letters and numbers in color. Here are the results of my synesthesia test, if you don't believe me:

So, technically, I was stitching the Doxology, but instead of representing it using the letters of the prayer, I was doing the colors I see when I look at, think about, or sing it. Like this:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

Interestingly, two days ago Merrill was screaming and Sadie turned to me and said "That is such a blue scream." Huh.

That's it! I'll post more as I finish them.  

Friday, October 28, 2016

Red Ticket: The Pizza Sluts

I was riding the escalator up from the Kievskoe Metro, on my way to my first date with Alexei, the Russian I’d met the night before. 

“Where will he take me?” I wondered. I was scared it would be Pizza Hut.

I’d been to the Moscow Pizza Hut before, in 1991. This was right before the coup that led to the dissolution of the Communist Party and the collapse of the USSR. The coup plotters wanted to lock everybody down again, to get rid of Perestroika. But these people weren’t about to be locked down. These people were hungry for a taste of anything that wasn’t battleship gray, and Pizza Hut became a totem for them, a window into everything they’d missed for the last 75 years.

The paper menu liner from Pizza Hut trays, with its photographs of engorged breadsticks and lashes of bright red sauce? This was a high-status item. People --  educated, serious people -- added the framed liners to the décor displayed in their living room hutches, so guests would see. Muscovites stood in line for 7 hours, 8 hours to get a seat at this table. But they’d do more than stand in line.

We called these girls the Pizza Sluts. That’s unkind, I know. But we were young, and it rhymed. We were sitting at a table next to the big plate glass windows that wrapped around the restaurant. At the table next to us sat four large men in suits. Outside the window, five feet away, the line snaked back and forth around poles that had been set up and then disappeared way off down the block. The Russians outside had been standing there, staring at our pepperoni pizza as it disappeared into our mouths, for 20 minutes. It didn’t seem right to talk.

Six or eight girls pushed their way through the line and stood right up next to the window. They spread out so all the diners could see and hiked up their acid-washed miniskirts, fixing their stockings. Leaning forward from their hips, they applied lipstick, puckering their lips at their reflections. A few of them even stepped forward, spread open the collars of their blouses, and pressed their cleavage to the window. They jiggled and wobbled, smashed up against the glass like that. My classmates and I sat silent, slices drooping in our hands.

Two of the men at the table next to us stood up and went outside. They returned with two girls from the line. The girls immediately plopped down and fell on the pizza. Nobody at the table spoke, and after a while the whole party got up and left together. As for the girls who weren’t selected, they scooted further down the window and resumed their preening.

I was appalled by these girls, who would sell themselves so cheaply, and to anyone. It never occurred to me that they might be buying something more valuable than substandard pizza. All I knew was that under no circumstances did I want to have my first date with Alexei at Pizza Hut.

Alexei did not take me to Pizza Hut. He took me to a vast room that took up the entire upper floor of an otherwise decrepit Peter-the-Great-era building. There were chandeliers, and glossy parquet floors. Mirrors in gilded frames and plush, heavy furniture. There was no sign of it at all from the street, just a burly man standing in a courtyard. This restaurant, hidden in the middle of a collapsing city, was definitely the fanciest one I had ever been in.

The only other patrons were two men who were sitting across from us. They were methodically, silently drinking vodka. The bottle they’d already finished sat on the table beside them, next to their guns. They were small machine guns, and I could not stop staring at them. I had never seen people bring guns to fancy restaurants before. Who were they? What were they doing here? One of the men looked up and caught me staring at him. He held my gaze, his face expressionless.

“Robin, stop looking at those men and look at me,” said Alexei, his voice a warning. “Do you like your sushi?”

I looked down at the octopus tentacle that lay there on a rectangle of rice. I had never eaten sushi before; never even seen it. In North Florida, where I came from, fish was fried and served with ketchup, period. I’d heard that sushi was raw fish, and so I was intrigued. Now that it was really here, though, I was having some trouble. I had no problem using the chopsticks to pick up the tentacle, but it was so chewy. There was no way to bite through it. I had already tried, twice, gnawing at it like a river otter before giving up and setting it back on the plate. Was I supposed to stuff the whole thing in my mouth at one time? I was willing to try, but it would take two hands. And that was the problem.

I’d had my left wrist in my lap the entire time and was not about to move it. It was still wrapped in the same white bandana and was so swollen that I could no longer get it through the arm of my coat. If Alexei had noticed that I wore my coat like a half-cape, with my left arm hidden inside, he hadn’t said anything. If I could just keep my arm down, maybe he wouldn’t see. But then, how was I going to eat this octopus tentacle?

I sat there not answering Alexei’s question about how I liked my sushi, staring at my plate. I’d had this burn for three days, and not only was it not healing, it was getting worse. It was soaking through the bandanna every few hours, and the skin on the edges of the burn was a frightening grayish-green color. Also, and it was very hard to think about this but there was no denying it, my arm was starting to smell. I had to do something about this and I had to do it now.

“Alexei,” I said, “I need some advice.” 


I refused to show him the burn at dinner, so as soon as we got back in the car (which was a shiny black town car, with a driver who had waited for us during our meal – “who is this 20-year-old boy?” I kept asking myself all evening), he demanded to see it. I unwrapped the bandanna and he made a sharp sound of disgust. During dinner he’d been talkative, and funny, but now, on the ride back to my dorm, he just stared out the window in silence, a stern look on his face.

When we got to my dorm building, I gathered up the roses Alexei had greeted me with five hours before, when it looked like the evening might go well, and struggled to open the car door.

“Well,” I said, looking back over my shoulder into the car’s interior. It was empty. Alexei had gotten out and now stood on my side of the car, pulling the door open for me. He took my arm and helped me out of the car.

“I have to walk you to your room,” he said in a wooden voice. “These dorms are not safe.” 

We waited for the elevators in silence, Alexei staring hard at the ground. I was not scared of Alexei, but I didn’t want an escort to my room. Obviously my oozing injury was so disgusting that it had changed the equation. He wasn’t going to help me, probably didn't ever want to see me again, so why drag it out? I was already busy thinking about tomorrow, and where to find a doctor, when the elevator finally came.

When we got to my door Alexei put his hand on my good arm and squeezed it in a friendly way. He looked relaxed and cheerful again, like he had at the start of the night. He looked like he had decided something.

“You must meet me at Prospekt Mira metro tomorrow morning at 11. If you do not come, I will come here myself and get you.” He leaned in and kissed my cheek, then turned and walked down the hall into the darkness. It looked like Alexei was going to help me after all. I unlocked my door, trying not to drop the roses.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Red Ticket: The Interview

It was the strangest doorknob I’d ever seen: a brass hand sticking straight out of the main door to the building. To get to the lobby, you had to shake. I grasped the hand and just stood there for a minute, seeing what it was like. It felt unsettling, like I’d struck some kind of deal with this building.

The lobby was decorated in what could be described as Rio-era Duran Duran. Everything was black and gold, with lines swooping everywhere. I sat there, waiting for Jason Stanford, the Moscow Guardian's Managing Editor, to come down and meet me. I was wearing my “nice sweater,” the dark green wool one, and a pair of jeans that had a conspicuous yellow stain on the left thigh.

Not interview shoes.
On my feet were the only shoes I had, a giant pair of blue LL Bean rubber duck boots. Around my left wrist, over the burn, I’d loosely tied a white bandanna. This was never going to work. Jason would see me and think I was a lumberjack, or a Flashdance fan. Not a writer. My resume would confirm this. One of the three items on it was “camp,” as in, “This one time, I went to camp.”

Reading our 'zine.
The other two items weren’t much better. “Editor for Cutting-Edge Music Magazine, 1986,” referenced the time when I was 16 and Dee-Dee got me and Elizabeth and Shaula to help her create an “underground ‘zine.” Dee-Dee's friend John stole some paper for us and we ran it off on my stepmother’s copy machine. We only produced 3 issues before our final release nearly got us all thrown out of high school.

Then there was the summer that I was bored and had answered an ad seeking a photographer for "Spiff," a new arts magazine coming out in our town. So what if I was 16 and still in school? I’d get this job, drop out of school, and photograph the residents of Jacksonville in all their Diane-Arbusy glory.

I went downtown with a stack of photos I’d printed and met with a flamboyantly gay boy who was not much older than me. We spent the rest of the summer walking around the abandoned downtown, chatting up bums in Hemming Plaza, rooting through dusty rolls of film in the building next door, and reading to each other from a copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook that we’d found at the local Army-Navy supply store.

Photographer for local arts publication, 1986 
Editor for Cutting-Edge Music Magazine, 1986
Brevard, NC Fine-Arts Camp (Writing and Drama), 1985

That was my resume. This was never going to work.

“Are you Robin?” A man exactly my age was standing halfway down the staircase. I’m sure he looked friendly and professional and confident, but all I saw was that he had an enormous black eye. It was a real shiner, all blue and gray and lividly swollen. I’d never seen a black eye that bad before, definitely never at a job interview. I felt a little better. Maybe this would work out after all.

We walked down the purple and mauve hallway into the Guardian’s offices. A man in his mid-twenties was crouched on the floor, his hand curled around the handle of a filing cabinet drawer. “Hey!” he whispered at us, waving us over. He pulled open the bottom drawer, which was labelled “S-Z.” Inside the drawer were a cat and her 5 kittens. The cat lay there, nursing and purring. “They should have filed this under C,” said the man.

Jason and I sat down at his desk. “We need a new writer because our last one ran off,” he explained.

“Ran off? Where?”

"With Madness.” Jason shook his head like it was a shame.

“Madness? The ska band?” This was precisely the trajectory I hoped my own career would take. I wanted this job so badly I felt nauseated, and dizzy. I felt like I might start crying.

I pulled my story out of my coat pocket and held it out to Jason. “Here’s the story I wrote,” I said. “It’s about Russian home remedies.”

I sat there and watched Jason read through his one good eye. Was it ok? Was it bad? Did he like it? I shifted around nervously, and noticed something. My left thigh was wet. Again. I’d had my arm resting on it the whole time, and the wound had wept through the bandanna completely, stiffening my pants leg with pus. I was mortified. I scooted my chair closer to Jason’s desk, so my thigh was underneath the top. Maybe he wouldn’t notice.

“This is a good story,” said Jason. “But you really have no experience at all as a writer.”

“Yes!” I said forcefully, hoping I’d follow with a big, convincing “but.” But I couldn’t think of anything to say. Jason was right, I had no experience.

“But look,” I wanted to say, “I can write about the pillaging Azeris, the siege of Leningrad, the poisoned cheese, Lenin’s brain, Volodya the TV repairman, naked old people swimming in ice, the woman at the market selling burnt-out lightbulbs on purpose, the perfect irony of McDonald’s in Pushkin Square, the family living in the dorm or the block of buildings that exploded because someone left the gas on. Which do you want first?”

Instead, I said, “But I have a really interesting life. You’ll see.” It sounded pathetic and not at all convincing.

Jason stared at me for a second and then unlocked a drawer. He put a $100 bill and a copy of TheElements of Style on the desk. “You can be freelance for now,” he said. “We’ll call you.”

I don’t remember what happened after Jason said “We’ll call you.” Did I fill out paperwork? Did I say anything about how I didn’t have a phone? Did I even remember that I didn’t have a phone? I don’t know. All I knew was that someone who was not related to me had liked my writing enough to give me $100.

I staggered out of the building and stood on the sidewalk in the snow, trying to stay calm. I felt psychotically exuberant over this turn of events. It would not do to be alone; I needed to talk to somebody. I decided to go to the Irish House Bar and Supermarket. I could get a beer there without having to bribe somebody.

The Irish House was packed with oil executives, lawyers, and managers of construction companies. They were from all over Europe and North America, and nearly all of them were men. There were very few Russians in the place, but I wound up next to one of them at the bar.

Right: One of those new Russians.
We stood there, waiting for our Bittburgers. He was wearing an elegant gray coat and was bobbing his blonde head in time to the tune on the Walkman he was wearing. This was one of those New Russians I kept hearing about. I should talk to him, maybe take some notes.

“Excuse me,” I said, tapping him on the shoulder. “I’m working on an article and wondered if I could ask you what you’re listening to.”

He took the speakers out of his ears and smiled at me. “Howling Wolf,” is what he said.

Monday, August 22, 2016

WTH? Athens: Meat Sales and Butt Smears

"Your receptionist tells me you don't experiment on any of the meat you sell to the public."
"Well, sometimes we do," he replies.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Potemkin Villages

Let's say you manage a McDonald's across the street from the bus station, on the rough side of town. You show up one morning to learn that the CEO of the company -- that's right, the whole international corporation -- is coming to visit your McDonald's in just a few days. On a "fact-finding" tour, it says.

"Fact-finding my eye," you think.

You know the real reason the big boss is dropping in for a visit. It's because, somehow, you, General Manager #5308429, and the leader of this iconic company had a hot, torrid romance a few years back. Yes, it's true. It was doomed to end, obviously, and it did. Badly. And that's why your boss' boss' boss' boss is coming to see your store. To wallow in your embarrassment. In your obvious lack of achievement.

You look around at the smears on the windows. Some of them must be ketchup, but you can't be sure. There's Dwayne, the homeless guy, over in the corner with his newspapers and his already empty small coffee. There's Sheila, the fry cook. She's high on some kind of solvent, and the hairnet has fallen off her beard, again. You sigh. The franchise you manage is definitely a hole. But what can you expect? It's out on the edge of an already edgy town. Your main customers are the Greyhound bus passengers and the ladies from the dialysis clinic. This ain't no Chipotle. What are you going to do?

This is almost exactly the situation Grigorii Potemkin found himself in in 1787, except the company he worked for was called Russia, the CEO was named Catherine the Great, and the particular shithole he was in charge of was called the Crimean peninsula. When he got the memo that Catherine, empress of Russia and his ex-girlfriend, would be stopping by, he took extreme measures to fancy up his franchise. He drafted the thousands of peasants sitting around with their newspapers and empty cups and forced them to build elaborate, false building fronts. The facades were painted pastel green and blue, and had cute little wooden curlicues decorating the windows and doors. Passing by, peering from a carriage window, you'd never be able to tell they weren't real houses inhabited by content residents. At least that's what Potemkin hoped. At night, while Catherine and her retinue slept, Potemkin’s army of peasants dismantled the fake villages and moved them to a spot further up the empress’ planned route.

Whether or not Catherine noticed that all of the gleaming villages looked suspiciously alike – indeed, whether or not any of this actually happened or is just malicious anti-Potemkin gossip – is up for debate. What is true, however, is that "Potemkin village" is still an expression used today to describe an elaborate, carefully planned whitewash. A beautiful mask covering an ugly face; an artifice, a fraud.

I've always found this story compelling because America, where I live, is a country that is committed to pretending that our difficult, often shabby reality is something other than what it is. We venture out of subdivisions named to evoke exclusive English hunting clubs to restaurants built to look like Spanish missions, where we consume microwaved entrees that the menu assures us are house-made and authentic. We vacation on purpose in places that are built specifically to look like somewhere else, like Disney World, or Las Vegas. And we choose media that show us what we want to believe about ourselves and others, instead of the more confounding, more convicting reality. We are heavily invested in euphemism in America, particularly if the topic is something -- like ageing, or illness, or dying -- that we don't want to think about. And so I was extremely excited when I stumbled on one little corner of America that is taking a stand against all of this obfuscation and admitting, straight up, that it's lying about everything it's pretending to be.

Potemkin Senior Village is a retirement community in the military town of Warner-Robins, GA, which, as luck would have it, is about two hours from where I live. When I stumbled upon it on the internet I considered it a gift from the universe directly to me, and spent many happy hours imagining the circumstances behind its existence. What would I find if I went there, I wondered each night as my husband drifted off to sleep next to me. A few well-fed elderly people prominently positioned, knitting, in rocking chairs, while the rest of their co-villagers sat in a drafty warehouse painstakingly unraveling stained mattress covers so the thread could be sold at a 200% mark up to t-shirt factories in China? It has to be something exactly like this, I told myself.

Or maybe, I thought as I handed my four-year-old her sippy cup and told her to go watch My Little Pony, maybe Potemkin Senior Village is not an actual retirement community at all, but instead is an art installation put together by some rogue gerontologist who has decided to construct an impossibly, over-the-topply cheery version of ageing which will, thanks to its highly competent staff, engaged community volunteers, and incessant parades, shame us all into reevaluating our treatment of the elderly. Wouldn't that be awesome?

But then, I reasoned as I stood in the grocery store, staring at the avocado display, it's way more likely that Potemkin Senior Village is some kind of terrible mistake made by someone who started out as a realtor, or something, and found herself in charge of marketing because she was married to the owner's cousin and knew how to use Photoshop. Yes, yes, that makes much more sense. I could picture her, hunched over a glossy, tri-fold brochure, an empty space at the top where the name should go.

"What should we call it?" she'd think. "How about Madison Ponds? Or Bridlebrooke Manor?"

And then she'd half-remember a phrase she'd heard once -- where did she hear it? Oh well, it doesn't matter. What matters is that it has the word "village" already in it, see, and also sounds vaguely European. And everyone knows that Europe is both classy and also comforting in an old-world, return-to-your-roots kind of way. And so:

"Potemkin Senior Village it is!"

 Eventually, the speculation became too much for me. "Call us for a tour!" begged their website, so I did. Twice. I left a message both times, practicing beforehand so I'd sound normal when I said the name of their community. But both times, my message was ignored, as was the email I sent. Finally there was nothing to do but go down there, so I strapped my two-year-old in the car, cranked up the AC, and lit out in the direction of Macon.

Warner-Robins is a terrible town, way more terrible than most. The treeless, 6-lane main drag is chock full of Linens and Thingses and Toys R Usses and Red Lobsters, and even the older side of town, which at least usually has more interesting sineage, looks cookie-cutter and pre-assembled, like they're phoning it in. I drove around for a few minutes and immediately became hopelessly lost. Eventually, I pulled into the parking lot of the public library, which shares its space with the campus of South-Central-Western-Middle-Georgia University. The doors were flanked by two cop cars, their window tinting so dark that it was impossible to tell whether they were occupied, or just put there to dissuade potential readers.

"That's OK," I told my two-year-old, "We'll just go in here for a minute and use their computers to look up the address."

But the sign on the door told me it was not to be. "Due to recent criminal activity, internet has been suspended," it said.

Trying to focus on the task at hand and not get derailed by wondering just what kind of criminal activity at the library had led to the disabling of the internet, I approached the front desk, where two librarians stood. They were both staring raptly at a large monitor, which showed various shots of the library taken by security cameras. I stared at it, too, watching as a grainy 5-year-old pulled a book from a shelf and dropped it on the floor.

"Hello," I said, finally. "I'm trying to find (I looked around and lowered my voice, embarrassed) Potemkin Senior Village."

Neither librarian flinched. Dismayed, I said again, louder this time, "Did you hear what I said? I said I'm trying to find Potemkin Senior Village. POTEMKIN (senior) VILLAGE!"

"We heard you," said one of them, looking bored. She kindly printed a map out for me, and I pointed my car down the streets she'd highlighted.

A few minutes later, I passed by the Omi QuickMart #3, the Instant Money You Keep Your Title store, and a giant pile of mattresses resting in front of a dumpster, and pulled up at the large iron fence surrounding the community. Beyond the automatic gate, the buildings gleamed. In front of the tidy bungalows, which were painted a sophisticated taupe color, mounds of pink impatiens and coleus bloomed in planters. The streets were clean and wide, no crushed possums or fast-food cups in evidence at all.

"Man, these people are good," I said, punching the "office" button and asking to be let in. Inside the combination sales office/community center, a few comfortable couches sat empty in front of a large television screen, which was showing Judge Judy. I could see the sales office and the person in it out of the corner of my eye, over to the left, but I pretended to be confused and wandered around the lobby instead, looking for evidence. The pink marble floor was shining like a mirror under the dust-free chandelier. The fresh coffee was steaming on the burner over at the hospitality station. The peace lily in the brass pot next to the window was real, its leaves green and glossy. There was no dirt anywhere, and the air was free of the typical smells (disinfectant, hopelessness) I associate with old folks' homes. Now actually confused, I walked over to the office, where Letitia smiled at me from behind a Louis IV reproduction desk.

My toddler chewed on the camera I'd brought with me while we talked. Letitia, the sales manager, told me all kinds of stuff, like how there's a one-year waiting list to get in, because people like it here so much that they don't leave unless they're dead, and how the residents get together to exercise and watch TV and do crafts on a regular basis, and how the people who live here are not all white folks, oh no, there's a bunch of different people here, all kinds of colors and from all kinds of places, probably because of the military base.

It was time to get down to brass tacks. "Well, Letitia," I said, prying the camera from my toddler's mouth and fixing her with a penetrating gaze. "That certainly all sounds far too good to actually be true. I have to be honest with you. I'm really here because I'm interested in the name. 'Potemkin Village.' It sounds kind of, uh...foreign to me. Do you know anything about it?"

"Oh, I know all about it," snapped Letitia, rolling her eyes and leaning back in her chair. "It is foreign. It's Russian. It was this guy, Potemkin. When Queen Elizabeth came to visit he installed all these fancy houses, but behind them, everything was just ugly. Dirty. They called it a Potemkin village."

"Ah, ubb," I stammered, surprised. "So, uh, what must you think every day, then, coming to work here, at Potemkin Senior Village?"

She laughed and shook her head. "I think, 'I better keep the insides of these buildings really clean.'"

"Uh huh," I laughed, too. "And how do you know all this?"

She shrugged. "I looked it up on the internet."


"Because people kept asking me about it."

"What people?"

"The residents, the family members. Everybody. I got curious and looked it up."

"So, you mean, the people who live here know what a Potemkin village is, and they know they're living in one?"

"Yep," nodded Letitia.

"And they don't even care?"

"Nope," said Letitia. "They don't mind. They know it's nice here. I mean, it really is nice."

"Huh," I said, deflated. "Well, who named it? Where'd it come from?"

"It was the owner," said Letitia. "He's the one who picked the name."

"Ah. So he's the one who doesn't know what it means."

"No, he knows."

"You mean, he knows because you told him. After he named it."

"Naw. He knew beforehand."

"What?" I shouted at Letitia. "You mean the owner knew that he was naming his complex after something that pretends to be nice but is actually really terrible, and he went ahead and did it anyway? Why? What was he thinking?"

"I know, right? I guess he just liked how it sounded. I guess he doesn't care what it means. But you know, the next I see him, I'm going to ask him." she nodded decisively. "Yeah, I'm just going to ask him about it."

"Well, you should," I said. "Somebody should."

I said goodbye to Letitia and walked back to my car through the quiet, well-maintained entry garden. I'd thought about asking Letitia if I could have the name of the owner so I could ask him myself, or requesting to speak to some of the residents, but in the end, I decided not to bother. Because really, what would would they say? 'Yes, we know all about Grigorii Potemkin and his fake houses. We may be old, and stuck here in Warner-Robins, Georgia in between the Omi QuickMart #3 and a bunch of trashed mattresses, but that doesn't mean we're stupid. Where would you rather we live? Incontinence Acres? Loneliness Town?  Now please quit pestering us so we can live out our final days in some kind of peace."

And they would be right if they said all this, I realized. The joke was on me, not them.

At the curb, I got out of my car and snapped a few pictures of the sign. A disheveled-looking man digging through the dumpster eyed me curiously, wondering what around here was worth photographing. The cheery houses of the community that was named after a fraud grew smaller in my rearview mirror and I turned onto the main road again, into the sea of fast-food restaurants and chain-store logos that is real life in America.

Monday, June 27, 2016

My First Alternative Boyfriend

This is a picture of my first alternative boyfriend. I will call him Jay, because that was his name. I was 15 when I met him on August 15, 1986. It was a Friday.

I know precisely when I started dating him because I stopped dating him exactly one week later. We broke up forever right before Henry Rollins took the stage at Einstein-A-Go-Go, a legendary club in Jacksonville Beach.

Even though we’d not gone out anywhere or even spoken to each other during the 7 days of our courtship, the breakup still stung. I was so excited to finally have a boyfriend who understood me – the real me that most guys my age thought was weird, and ugly.

But not Jay. He also loved that Nemesis song by Shriekback, and not only could but actually would cut quite a step when the DJ put on Love and Rockets’ Ball of Confusion. At last, I had an actual boy to dance with instead of the cloud of shuffling girls I was usually a part of. And that was what we did the first night we met; the first and last time we saw each other before our relationship shattered. We danced.

But that wasn’t all. Jay wore eyeliner, and skirts, and shirts buttoned all the way up to the top button. I was absolutely sure that this indicated an artistic, creative bent, and probably also familiarity with or at least sympathy for the fringe dwellers of the world. This was someone who would not ask “why?” when I announced I wanted to break into an abandoned building, see if I could find some homeless people who would agree to be photographed, or fall asleep listening to Psychocandy. He’d be right next to me, holding the crowbar, lens cap, and record player. This was perfect. I was 15, and I was so excited about my first alternative boyfriend.

There was only one problem.

“Robin,” said my friend Christine when I told her the news the next week, “Jay cannot be your boyfriend. Jay is gay.”

“That’s so racist, Christine.” I said. “You think just because he’s wearing a skirt, and make-up, that makes him gay? Way to stereotype, there.”

It was true; I was right. This was 1986, when the most desirable guys around looked like this:

and this:

and this:

See? Wearing a skirt.
And then there was our very own beloved DJ and notorious local hottie, Jay Totty, who looked so great in a skirt in 1986 that he even made the front page of our newspaper’s lifestyle section. 

 Everyone agreed, Christine. Even the Florida Times Union. Wearing a skirt or eyeliner definitely did not mean you were gay.

“No but,” said Christine, “I know Jay. He’s gay. He’s definitely gay. I know because he told me. And I’ve only ever seen him date guys. Look, I know he’s gay, he knows he’s gay; you are the only person who doesn’t know he’s gay.”

I looked at our mutual friend Billy, who was standing there in the heat with his Salvation Army suit coat and amethyst brooch. “Could this be true?”

“Oh yes, it’s true. It’s not a secret. He’s very open about it.”

“Well, huh,” I said.

A few days later, on Friday, it was time to meet up with Jay again for our second date. This was going to be an absolutely fantastic night, I told myself, not only because I was going to see Jay, my love, but also because Henry Rollins was going to read his poetry. I’d never heard him read anything before – he had just started doing it. But I’d seen him leading Black Flag the year before, and if that show was any indication, this would be something to see. This would be a night to remember.

Black Flag. Jeez, mom, what were you thinking? 

Christine’s news about Jay bothered me not at all as I Aqua-Netted my bangs and pulled on my silk pajama pants.

“Hey,” I told myself, “I am a tolerant, accepting, worldly person. So what if my boyfriend only likes boys? This was a problem, certainly, but one that could still be overcome. It’s not like Christine revealed that she’d caught him listening to Huey Lewis and the News, or something. Now that would have been it. But this?”

This is what I told myself as I pinned my beanie to my hair and waited for Jackie to pick me up in her shiny red Hyundai. But deep down, I knew this was not true.

The fact is, Jay could have been a desk caddy, a serial killer, or an avocado, and that would have been just fine with me. Because what mattered was that, whatever else he was, he was someone who liked me. Me, you see. Like many other unfortunate people, I was years out of my adolescence before I understood that “well, he likes me,” is not actually the most important attribute on the list when it comes to potential partners. Back then, with my braces and my funny way of dancing and the awful memories of being fat in middle school still defining who I was, just liking me was enough. And Jay did like me.

I showed up at Einstein’s that Friday, August 22, 1986, insides a-flutter. Jay was there already, wearing a different skirt this time. And guess what? He’d brought me flowers. A big bouquet of gladiolus and lilies. No one had ever waited just for me to arrive anywhere before. No one had ever bought me flowers and hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. And in 15 minutes, I’d be sitting with my gay boyfriend and my flowers and we’d be listening to Henry Rollins together. This wasn’t absolutely perfect, sure, but it was still pretty good. The only thing was, where was Jay?

I walked outside with my flowers, outside the clove-scented air of Einstein’s and into the syrupy heat of Florida in August. The low-slung buildings around me were closed for the night; the streets, deserted. I walked a few blocks, aimlessly, looking for Jay, I guess, but also trying to think now that I was away from the lights and the music. I believed that what Christine had said was true, but that wasn’t what was bothering me. What was bothering me was what this obviously meant about Jay. He’s going to talk to me for a whole night about music and movies and concerts and art-type things and all the things he likes, but he’s going to leave out that piece of information? What else is he not telling me, then? What kind of boyfriend is my first alternative boyfriend, exactly, I belatedly began to wonder.

My thoughts were interrupted by a snuffling sound coming from a recessed doorway up ahead. I got even with the entryway and there, in the alcove, leaning up against the locked glass shop doors, was Jay. He was deeply involved in kissing someone, I noticed. He was facing me but his eyes were closed, his head turned to the side. I stood there for a minute, and then I guess Jay sensed something, because he opened his eyes and saw me. This broke the kiss, and the person he was sharing it with turned around and saw me, too. It was a boy, of course, a boy wearing eyeliner and hairspray, just like Jay, just like me.

“Aw, man,” I said, setting down the flowers and turning back in the direction of Einstein’s. I was snuffling, pitiful, not so much because of what I had seen, but because of what I feared it meant about me. I wasn’t mad at Jay; he was obviously gay, and so he should just go be gay and try to be happy doing it. But jeez, why did he have to pick me? Why me?

You know that Smiths’ song that goes “how can you stay with a fat girl who says ‘Ahhh, would you like to marry me, and if you like you can buy the ring?’” As I took my seat on the floor at the front of Einstein’s stage, I realized that even though I thought I had lost all the weight, I was still the fat girl. I was the girl who was so – what? Weird? Stupid? Needy? – that I’d never have a straightforward, healthy relationship with anyone. Didn’t this pretty much prove it?

I sat at the very front of the stage as Henry Rollins launched into Family Man, and cried into my hands. I cried through Art to Choke Hearts and Pissing in the Gene Pool. I cried through it all, I tell you, his whole first set. (These are actual pictures from that very night, by the amazing Jim Leatherman.)  

Cried through Family Man.
Credit: Jim Leatherman
Cried through Art to Choke Hearts.
Credit: Jim Leatherman
Cried through all of it.
Credit: Jim Leatherman

When the set was over, I was still crying. I felt a hand on my shoulder and, sure that it was Jay, looked up, ready to tell him off. But it wasn’t. It was Henry Rollins.

He was squatting down next to me, right at eye-level, and he held a slip of paper in the hand that was not on my shoulder. He shoved the slip of paper at me and shook his head sympathetically.

“Hey,” he said, patting me. “I don’t know what he did to you, but here’s my phone number. If he does it again call me and I will come cut his penis off.” He patted me one more time for good measure, stood up, and strolled off to the bar. I was confused. My gay boyfriend and I had just broken up, and that was bad, but then Henry Rollins had just given me his phone number. And that was good. I stared at the slip of paper, my week-long relationship with Jay forgotten. “Maybe I’m not the fat girl who says ‘Ahhh,’” I thought. “Maybe there will be other alternative boyfriends sometime in my future. I’m only 15, who can really say?”

I shrugged and shoved the note in my pocket, then stood up and danced.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Red Ticket: Moving Day

“If I jumped from this height, I’d definitely hurt myself.” It was the third time in an hour I’d had this thought, and I looked up at the vapid Orlando sky to dispel it as I rubbed my palms on the thighs of my jeans.

Moving to Moscow had seemed like a fantastic idea when I’d been stuck dusting Gator souvenirs back at the Florida Bookstore. But now that it was here, I was scared. I’d never even seen snow before, and now I was moving to Russia? In January? Also, I’d been to Russia, and knew that unexpected things happened there all the time. That was part of the allure when I thought about it in Gainesville. But I wasn’t in Gainesville any more. I was in Orlando, waiting to go to the airport. It looked like I was really going to do this thing.

I leaned on the railing of the hotel balcony, peering at the reedy man-made pond 15 stories below. The sun glinted off the giant swans on the resort across the way, extruded plastic winking.

Unable to bear the pastel hotel room, our family fled to a nearby Shoney’s. We stared at each other grimly, inserting French fries into our cottony mouths. I looked around the restaurant at the dusty hanging baskets, the steaming breakfast bar, the sunburned tourists sticking to their booths as they shoveled in biscuits and gravy. I became maudlin; sentimental, the way people in books do before setting off on epic journeys. What was I doing? How could I leave all this behind?

One of my best friends, Jeff Totty,
visiting me the day before I left.
I'm on my way to get The Perm. 
The day before, I’d been so antsy and nervous that my mother gave me $50 and sent me to the hair salon. “Go get a perm!” she commanded, “It’ll take three hours.”

“Great idea!” I thought, forgetting in my agitated state that I’d always considered permanents a Very Bad Idea. I went as if sleepwalking to Shear Pleasure, a salon sandwiched in between a shoe repair store and a desultory Orange Julius in the deserted local mall. Flopped down in the chair and asked for $50 worth of permanent – I didn’t much care what kind. The stylist lifted pieces of my nearly waist-length hair and asked sympathetically, “Time for a change?”

“Well, I’m moving tomorrow,” I said, and instantly regretted it. People reacted in all kinds of ways when I told them I was moving to the lair of our former enemy by myself in the middle of winter, but few of them were very affirming.

“Oh, how exciting!” she crowed, plucking at her appliqued sweatshirt. “Where to?” Conversation underway, she began wrapping my hair around tiny pink rollers.

“To Russia.” I said.

“Aw honey, it must seem like a long way away. But wherever you’re going it can’t be that bad!” She dowsed me with chemicals and exiled me to a hairdryer. When I emerged one hour later, the stylist reflexively touched her own frosted bangs.

"Oh my," said the stylist. 
“Oh my,” she said. I looked in the mirror. My hair was enormous. Ten thousand frizzy spirals competed for space on my small head, blowing and shifting in the non-existent breeze. I paid the frightened stylist and silently thanked my mother. Suddenly, leaving the country seemed like a pretty good option.

Fourteen hours and a plane change later, we bumped through the snow to rest on a Moscow runway. I shuffled through customs and met Sergei, my pre-arranged ride from the airport.

“Your bag, it is missing,” he said by way of greeting. Relieved not to have to stand in another line, I followed him to his car. It was 4:30 p.m., and already fully dark. We drove in silence with the windows rolled up, globs of snow flashing in the headlights.

He looked at me suddenly, arching his eyebrow. “There is bad smell,” he declared.

“Oh.” I rolled my eyes, embarrassed. He was right. The smell of chemicals coming from my hair was still pretty strong. “Permanent,” I said, pointing to my head.

“Maybe you see doctor,” advised Sergei. “Who knows? It might go away.”

The dorm.
Sergei dropped me off at my new home, a gray concrete dormitory located on the howling outskirts of the city. I collected my key from a woman in the lobby, and went up to my room. Unpacked my carry-on luggage and spent some time arranging the contents: 3 small cans of tuna fish, a change of clothing, a giant bag of condoms, a toothbrush. My Katzner’s Russian-English dictionary, a spiral notebook, and a bouquet of ball-point pens. I fished out a picture of my mother posing with my grandparents and another of Henry, the Boy I Left Behind, and propped them against the Kruschev-era desk lamp. Then I sat on the narrow bed and stared at the violently red astroturf covering the floor until it was time to go to sleep.

Hours later, unable to sleep from jet lag, I got up and opened the room’s massive double-paned window. I sat on the sill with my legs dangling out, smoking and watching Moscow appear and disappear behind blowing sheets of snow. Twenty-three stories below, an official-looking van crept through the empty streets, a nest of gray megaphones bristling from its roof. In the white night silence a cloud of noise traveled with the van, a scratchy male voice repeating a message as it progressed from street to street. When it finally passed by my building, the message floated up to me.

“Emergency!” said the man in the van, “There is a gas leak! Everyone must extinguish their cigarettes now!”

The van continued its slow tour through the streets, the man’s voice bouncing off the sleeping buildings. I smoked my cigarette and wondered what kind of country I’d come to.


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Monday, June 13, 2016

Red Ticket: Moscow Remont

Flaming Penguins, Compromised Condoms, and Other Broken Promises

There are a variety of ways cities tell people that something is broken. An “out of service” sign, for example, or “closed for repair.” Depending on where you live, the sign might even apologize for the bad news that something you need doesn’t work. “Sorry for the inconvenience,” it might bleat. “Please pardon our dust!”

But not in Moscow in 1993. In Moscow there was only one sign: "remont." And as the collapse of the government, industry, and economy deepened, that terse little word could be found on everything. A million doors, lifts, metro cars, pay telephones, streetlights, sidewalks, water mains and sewers; all of them bore signs alerting residents that the things around them that they once took for granted could no longer be counted on at all.

As winter turned slowly to spring and the melting snow revealed the extent of the city's problems, I saw that sign everywhere. It got to where I expected Yeltsin to be wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word when he appeared on television, and I was certain that if I opened my atlas I'd see it stamped in crude black letters across the whole country.

Remont was so ubiquitous that I started to think of it as kind of a civic motto. Just as Floridians have to put up with "The Sunshine State" being plastered on everything, I anticipated that soon some kind of tourism campaign would be launched to capitalize on the one thing my adopted city was becoming famous for. "Moscow: It's Broken!"

Worse, I was starting to take the sign personally. I started to be offended by it every time I saw it (which was all the time), started wanting to argue with it, or tell it to knock that nonsense off. If remont had meant "out of order," it wouldn't have caused me such existential angst every time I saw it. But it didn't. Remont meant "repair." As in "under (or in the process of) repair."

It’s bad enough that the whole city is broken, I thought. Does it have to also go around making promises it knows it’s never going to keep? "That gas main? Oh, yeah, we're working on it!" "That listing water tower? No problem! Repairs are occurring as we speak!"

Liar, liar, pants on fire. That gaping pothole you are claiming is "in the process of repair" has been there so long that the bones of tiny dinosaurs litter the bottom of it. And look, your civic works committee is so non-existent that the remont signs themselves are broken! It was immediately obvious that no repairs of any kind were occurring, and that none would ever, ever, be forthcoming. Repair? By whom? With what? What for?

I was not the only one who was bothered by the situation. The other Americans at the Moscow Guardian were tired of seeing the broken, fading signs attached to nearly every immobile object in the city. And so, with typical American can-do naiveté, they resolved to fix things themselves.

At our next weekly staff meeting Jason announced the birth of a new section of the magazine. "MG Remont" would be our effort to pitch in and assist the city we both loved and hated. Each week, we’d locate something under remont, and would remont it ourselves. We'd change the light bulbs in the underground subway crossing, unstick the door to the public library, patch up the sidewalk in front of the Kremlin. We'd publish before and after pictures of our work, and exact directions to it, so that readers could go view the repairs and pretend, just for a moment, that they lived in a city that was not falling totally and utterly apart.

This sounded like a fine idea to me, and I was moved by the fact that, under all the snark, Jason had hopes that the column would inspire others to take the care of the place they called home into their own hands. But I knew this plan would never work, for about a million reasons.

First, consider the cookie vendor. I'd stood in line number one at the grocery store and gotten a ticket from the assistant to the woman weighing up the cookies. The ticket said that I’d asked for something (it didn’t specify what), and I took it to line number two, where I stood for a while, repeating “a half-kilo of cookies” to myself over and over so I wouldn’t forget what to say to the cashier when I finally reached her. Twenty minutes later, I got back at the end of line number one, this time holding another ticket certifying that I had paid for my cookies.

After some time, I came to the front of the line again and held my ticket out to the assistant. I was nervous. What if all the cookies had been purchased in between my first visit to this line and my current one? What if the assistant or the cookie-weigher decided to go on their state-mandated “pererive” (break) right then? If either one of them did, we’d all be left standing there, helpless, for 30 minutes, because neither one of them would do the other’s job.

But all seemed well. The assistant took my ticket and said “half kilo” to the woman weighing the cookies. She put a scoop on the scale and stepped back to view the weight. The needle sat at .48th of a kilo. The weigher picked up a new ginger snap from the barrel and broke it in half. She put one half on the scale, and threw the other half away. When the half she'd put on the scale tipped the weight over to .51, she removed the half-cookie from the scale and threw it away, too. She picked up another cookie from the barrel and broke it in half. Threw one half away, and put the other half on the scale. Point 49. No good. Into the trash with the cookie half.

There were so many things, as she threw the ninth cookie away and the line stretched out endlessly, patiently, behind me, that I longed to say to this woman. But I knew that even if I could have figured out how to say "break that half a cookie in half and see what happens," it would have been pointless. Russian culture is not a culture that values efficiency, or an individual's time, or the conservation of ginger snaps.

In the end, body vibrating with impatience and eyes brimming with tears, I begged the lady, please, please, it's all right. Just give me my cookies. Please. But it was not to be. I had paid for .50, it said so right there on the ticket, and so .50 I would get.

And then there’s the young man I’d stood in line behind at a metro kiosk. These kiosks were little aluminum houses that had started to spring up everywhere in Moscow. They sold useful items like electric toothbrushes, soft-core porn videos, mohair-trimmed boots, cigarettes, and condoms. This is what the boy wanted, he told the Tadzhik woman behind the plexiglas window, “That one right there.” He pointed at one of the several different brands of condoms that were pinned, unwrapped, to a piece of cardboard in the window.

The woman removed the cardboard from the window, unpinned the specific condom the boy had asked for, and handed it -- still unwrapped -- to him. The boy handed the lady back some rubles and went away, satisfied that all appropriate precautions had been taken.

It took me a minute to process what I’d just seen. I had thought the display of condoms in the window was just that: a display, so that discerning customers could really get a good look at what kind of condom they were about to buy. But no. This was where the actual condoms for sale were kept. They were pinned, with a tack, you see, to the cardboard. And this was not one of those high-tech “smaller even than sperm” thumbtacks they’re making these days. Nope, it was just a regular old tack with a big old rusty “come-on-in-boys” hole-poker at the end of it.

Do you see where I am going with this? Do I have to tell you the problem with this scenario? Or do you, like this boy and the kiosk woman, think that there is no problem here at all? Perhaps you think that attempts to prevent unwanted anythings – births, deaths, dictators, floor shows in restaurants involving Queen songs and full-frontal nudity – are pointless. Perhaps you believe that every gesture is really merely a symbolic one meant to appease (if you’re lucky) forces you can’t control. And maybe you are right that our fates are already written, and so I, with my insistence on intact prophylactics and accurate signage, am the one with the problem.

And let’s not forget the gum. As the ruble continued to plummet and hard currency became more and more valuable, dollar stores (establishments that only allowed people to pay with Western money), began to give change for purchases not in coins, but in chewing gum.

I remember the first time this happened. I was buying my Old El Paso taco kit at the Irish House Bar and Supermarket, and instead of the 63 cents in change I was owed, the cashier handed me several sticks of Wriggley's spearmint gum.

"What's this?" I asked her, confused.

"No more change in money," she said. "Exact change only, or you get gum."

It seems that these dollar stores had wisely decided to hoard every bit of hard currency they collected, and thus had instituted the "gum only" change policy. This made a certain amount of sense, if you thought about it. For practical, survival-oriented reasons, these businesses weren't going to relinquish their hard currency, but they still had to give their customers change. There was no way they could give change in rubles, though. With one dollar now fetching 5000 rubles, the building was not large enough to store the amount of rubles they'd need to give out change to a day's worth of purchasers.

In a place where most money was worthless, where mint-green and taffy-pink rubles came to not just resemble but actually behave like play money, substituting candy for currency was utterly fitting. No one responded to the collapse of the monetary system by standing up on the counter and saying “Listen, people, we’re getting our change in gum now don’t you think that’s a sign of bad things to come?” Instead, they just shrugged, and adapted.

Things had changed before, and now they were changing again. What were you going to do about it? And, said my ever-practical Russian friends, at least gum is easy to carry, and tasty, and can be traded for other things. And unlike rubles, gum is popular, and can be used to fix things. Things could be worse. We could be getting no change at all, or change in beets. Quit complaining.

And finally, there’s the flaming Penguin. I’d seen it the week before, when Julia, the Guardian's translator, and I were walking on a downtown boulevard. We passed an ornate, 12-storey building, the top two floors of which were completely engulfed in flames. The residents on the lower floors stood on their balconies frantically hurling their possessions over the railings to the busy street below, where a crowd of onlookers had gathered. Julia and I stopped across the street and watched.

"Another one," said Julia, sadly. "What a shame."

"What are you talking about?" I asked her. Was this something that happened on a regular basis?

Julia explained that it was common, with desirable locations like this one, for the mafia to decide to buy and renovate the building as an investment. They'd approach the residents of the apartments in the building and make an offer. The residents would decline, aware that inflation and a housing shortage would make it difficult for them to find other places to live. The mafia would nod and go away, and then a week or so later would return and set the top floors of the building on fire, forcing the residents to flee. "Why the top floors?" I asked Julia.

"Well, they don't want to burn the whole building down," said Julia. "They simply want the residents to leave. They're going to refurbish the building anyway, and sell the apartments to foreigners. It's enough to just burn the top floors."

"OK, but, where's the fire department?" I asked.

Julia laughed. "This is a mafia fire, Robin. There will be no fire department."

Then, suddenly, Julia brightened. "Oh, look!" she said, grabbing my hand and pulling on it, "A Penguin!"

Julia was pointing across the street at the burning building, which had on its ground floor a "Penguin," a Western-owned ice-cream chain that was very popular in Moscow. Indeed, a steady stream of customers entered and exited the store, licking at cones of green pistachio while they dodged the blankets and clothing raining down on them from above.

"Julia," I said, shaking off her hand, "I'm not going in there! That building's on fire!"

"Yes it is!" called Julia over her shoulder as she abandoned me on the sidewalk and flitted across the street, "But the Penguin's still open!"

“Hey,” she seemed to say as she pulled open the door and disappeared inside, “No one can protect us from anything. That’s just a foolish notion harbored by people lucky or wealthy enough to insulate themselves from the way things really are. But we know that for us, there is no assurance we’ll be here tomorrow. Which makes ice cream today all the more important!”

So you can see why, as I watched the Guardian’s American writers prepare for their first foray out to remont something, all I could do was shake my head. Moscow was not going to be fixed – if indeed it was even really broken – with something as simple as a hammer and a nail. Maybe it was better to just hang up a sign and wait for things to right themselves somehow. And maybe that sign was not really a lie. Maybe it was actually an affirmation of hope in a future where everything made perfect sense, and nothing was irreparably broken.


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