FRIENDS OF FRED

April 19, 2010

© 2008 Michael Priv. All Rights Reserved.

By Michael Priv

Dedicated to Old Fred, my teacher.

* * *

An exuberant crowd of some two thousand future US Citizens from eighty countries of the world packed San Francisco Mascone Center that pivotal summer morning. To the vast majority of homo sapience it was just your not particularly newsworthy time of day between awakening from sweet or troubled slumber and propelling oneself enthusiastically or otherwise into the thick of daily toils. Not so for the bright-eyed crowd at Mascone Center. We were about to be sworn in as Citizens of the United States of America!

“Soviet Union!” I heard the call of the Master of Ceremony. About twenty people stood up here and there throughout the great hall soaking in applause and cheer. I stood tall there with the other Soviets waiting out the applause and staring at the American flag with a lump in my throat. The flag was staring back at me proudly. Beautiful flag and what a powerful symbol of Freedom! Freedom to create my own future the best I can and as I see fit. Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!

Half-listening to the speaker, in my mind’s eye I saw a different flag, different place and time, a red flag in the central square of a Ukrainian village Krasniy Oktiabr what seemed like a life-time ago.

* * *

CHAPTER ONE

A COUNTRY OF FOOLS

My name is Misha. It is an equivalent to Michael in English. Although “Michael” does not have any special meaning in English, “Misha” is the name for a “bear” in Russian. So for the Russian speakers I am a bear. I was born in Kiev, Ukraine, USSR, in August of 1960. That, by the way, makes me a Leo and a Rat, according to Western and Chinese zodiacs, in addition to being a bear by name.  A lion-bear-rat. Can you imagine the strange-looking animal I would make? Or the psychological personality problems such a makeover would entail? Fortunately, I do not believe in the Zodiac, brimstone, destiny or man-the-animal theory whereby we allegedly all descended directly from Charles Darwin or some other hairy creature. I do believe in myself. I believe in people. I believe that we are all immortal and powerful spiritual beings transcending our monkey bodies. And I believe that people are basically good and can always improve and become even better.

By birth I am a Jew, although that never made any sense to me. In the Soviet Union Judaism was considered a nationality passed to you by your father, not a religion propagated though maternal line as per the Jewish tradition. I started objecting to such an unorthodox interpretation of Torah at the tender age of three, at a children’s playground, in a sand box when mothers removed their progeny from my presence when I was brought in to play. That, of course, resulted in me having the entire sand box to myself, thus enabling me to learn for the first time to use anything I encountered to my advantage.

I remember occasional beatings at the school yard, ripped cloths, bloody nose and shiners through the years—all on account of me being a Jew. “Wait a minute”, I wanted to scream on numerous occasions, “I do not want to be a Jew! I want to be a Ukrainian, like everybody else!” Nope. Being like everybody else was not in the numbers for me. By the ambivalent powers of the accident of birth I was forced to make my choice to be a forever fearful second class citizen or do my damndest to outwit and outperform the crowd and soar high and free.

Besides, getting insulted and occasionally beaten up for no reason also gave me a perfect excuse to occasionally insult and beat up other kids for no reason too! Sometimes that was fun. Ah, the happy childhood . . . I had very few friends.

Our beloved Motherland, the Soviet Union, was like a mythical Goliath, the largest country on Earth, a nuclear, space-roving power, first in space, in fact. But Goliath’s gargantuan legs were really made of clay, barely able to hold his weight. The ever pervasive, state-instilled fears of countless American hordes sweeping from the West never took hold with me. What would Americans want with us? We had a lot of natural resources—all useless for lack of good roads and communication lines. And Americans would have to endure all our crap—our drunkenness, corruption and criminality, our infantile irresponsibility for ourselves and the country and our incessant whining. How hard would anybody want to fight for that much crap? Besides, the evil empire was about to fold under its own weight. The great clock of destiny had started chiming midnight already. The Soviet Union was about to turn into a pumpkin.

For me, as a kid, the epiphany of my forever drunk and hapless Motherland was the construction of a nine-story office building right across the street from the dilapidated five-story bee-hive that I called home. Having been started around the time I was born and completed very near the time I left the country some 19 years later, that office building construction became the backdrop to my entire existence. That construction project was bigger than life, the eternal natural phenomenon akin to wind, water, fire, moon and chestnut blossoms. My first step coincided with the foundation being almost dug out. My first day in school—the basement floor was almost completed. First kiss—the future office building shell stood tall, almost all there, black window openings agape. My first day at work—the almost completed landscaping was binging joy to my heart, with the fountain, its centerpiece, almost operational and already full of stale water. We used to catch tadpoles there, I kept a few in a large jar at home. Tadpoles—the almost frogs . . . There were also beautiful lotus flowers in the unfinished fountain in the summertime, too. I spent many an hour watching the construction through our kitchen window. A few drunk brick layers stumbling around, two carpenters carrying one board lethargically, occasional welding sparks . . .

I was usually home alone after school. Both of my parents worked, grandparents were dead. Both of my grandfathers were killed in WWII fighting Germans. I was named after my mother’s father who was an officer and a war hero. He had a regiment under his command. My grandfathers died honorably in battle, defending the world against Nazis. My grandmothers died early as well, one shortly before I was born and the other one shortly after. Other relatives were all exterminated with other Jews or died after the war. So I used to wear our house key around my neck to school on a string like a necklace. Mom used to leave one of the burners on the stove on just a tiny little bit and my soup in a small pot in the fridge, ready to be warmed up on the stove when I needed it. I would turn the stove knob clockwise slowly, just as my mother taught me, watching the tiny blue ring of the gas flame grow larger. Then I would place the pot on the burner for three minutes. I was about the same height as the stove at first so I could not really see what I was doing but I had a special box to stand on if I wanted to and, anyway, I was growing fast.

We shared our three-room apartment with a Ukrainian family. We had two rooms, they had one and we shared the hallway, bathroom and kitchen. The roommates had a daughter Ludmila, one year my senior. Some days we would come home at the same time, warm our food, eat and play together.

Perhaps I should write a whole another novel some day about life in our apartment number thirty eight. The husband in that other family was twenty-four years his wife’s senior but he liked to pork anything that moved any chance he had. From his explanations much later we gathered that apparently that innocent proclivity was just a quirk of his artistic nature. For that reprehensible quirk, his hefty and young but not as artistically inclined wife used to whoop his artistic ass mercilessly—and very noisily—on a regular basis.  Infidelity was not the only reason for his beatings. He used to piss her off in numerous other ways, too. Just to illustrate that point, one time he stopped by at the day care center on his way from work to pick up their daughter Ludmila but accidently brought home a wrong little girl! When questioned closely on that fact by his appropriately irate young wife, his defense strategy went along the line of “Oh, well, what’s the difference? Have to take her back to the day care center tomorrow morning anyway and somebody will bring back ours tomorrow, so what’s the problem?” In retrospect, I am sure he’d agree that it turned out to be a remarkably unsuccessful defense strategy.

Ludmila and I used to play together. She was bigger, quicker and smarter. I was the small and dumb one so I looked up to her. She used to even stand up for me occasionally against older boys who were picking on me. Then, totally unexpectedly, she developed boobs—the cutest things. That was a big deal. I liked to squeeze them but she’d get all weirded out. Ludmila . . . Imagine my surprise one night, I must have been eleven then, when I woke up abruptly just to find Ludmila sitting on my face, panting and gyrating most enthusiastically. She explained and demonstrated a few things about the birds and the bees to me that night in no uncertain terms. But that was later, just around the time they almost completed all of the building exterior walls. Yes, it is definitely a whole other story.

My parents would usually come home by six or seven or later, after a day of work followed by the daily food hunt and various food lines. They would usually bring home the bounty, although sometimes they would retreat to base empty handed—tired and frustrated, not always as patient and kind to me as they wished they were, I am sure. Then my mom would cook us a dinner and we would all set the table in the kitchen and have a dinner together, coordinating on the schedule with the roommates and either taking the first or the second sitting.

The dinners were an incredibly rich and meaningful ritual, my favorite part of the day. While mother was preparing the food, my dad and I would go over my homework. Then my mom’s battle cry “Eat!” would send us dashing down the hallway to the bathroom to wash hands and then to the kitchen to finish the setups. We would take our assigned places at the table with my father taking his seat first, then me, then my mother served the food—first to my father, then to me. We would then share the food and brief each other on the day at work and at school, all taking part in the life of the family. All too often the news were not good, the injustices and frustrations of life spilling onto our dinner table, unwelcome and trite but really just conversation fodder and something to shutter straight to Hell by the power of The Family. The dinner would end with dad’s and my “thank you” to my mother for the meal but the ritual would continue with bussing the dishes and cleaning up.

My assigned duty from about the age of six was washing dishes. My father made a wooden box to stand on because I was too short to reach the sink. I would solemnly drag my box from the closet and get on top of it in front of the sink and wash the dishes. Sink, warm soapy water, my brush, dishes—it was my kingdom. I was the King! My parents were bringing the dishes to ME to be washed and I washed them. I loved contributing to the family that way and I hardly ever broke anything—mother was tolerant even if I had.

Life was pleasant at times but usually it was kind of like a ride in an overcrowded Kiev city bus during rush hour in the worst of the summer heat—uncomfortable, nauseating, tiresome and you’d really like to get off but you couldn’t. The frustration, the constant struggle to stay afloat financially, food hunts and long lines, domestic frictions with the housemates caused by too much humanity stuffed into too small a space, fear of authorities, fear of violence and injustice against Jews, occasional actual instances of violence and injustice, fear of the future, frustration with simple things made difficult by that dysfunctional and cruel bureaucratic system . . .

Yes, my birthplace, Ukraine, truly was a dump.

I didn’t really mind it at first. I didn’t know any better. It was just the way it was. I guess I was kind of like a small bird who finds a fresh pile of steaming cow manure during a cold winter and burrows into it, feeling warm and snug for a while. Then eventually it looks around and realizes that it is just a pile of dung, even if it is warm. Perhaps this metaphor is a bit too olfactory but very true, nonetheless.

I became conscious of my disenchantment with the whole smelly aspect of USSR for the first time on a collective farm in the summer of 1977.

Once a year every able-bodied citizen of Ukraine had to work for some days or weeks on a collective farm to help provide food for the city. These were very large farms that belonged to communes of people who worked them or, to be more specific, they belonged to nobody at all. As with any possessions that have no owner, these farms were run into the ground to such a degree that they were no longer capable of supporting the nearby cities or even their own workers, who were the ones who ruined the farms to begin with. These hapless peasants then flooded the nearby cities to become police officers and high-ranking government officials. So here we had these incredibly huge farms but the population was starving. You probably perceive a subtle contradiction there. That country was one god-awful contradiction—always was and still is.

In 1977 all the students of my Culinary Tech School were sent on our annual farm duty to a farm called Krasniy Octiabr, the Red October, some 70 miles from Kiev. I always enjoyed the annual farm duty detail. Just think, you were all together with other guys and girls, enjoyable and healthy work, fun production competitions, great food, bonfires at nights, guitars playing, some dancing. Great life! Our Tech School girls were among the most beautiful and easily available females within at least a 70-mile radius. As future cooks, they were quite service oriented, happy and healthy girls. Needless to say, there was considerable amount smooching going on around those bonfires! It was all good healthy fun.

The work itself was enjoyable. It was organized as a competition. We were separated in teams competing against other teams while the individuals within teams were competing against each other. The score was kept on crates of picked vegetables. There were no prizes for winning except winning itself and a bit of back slapping and cheering. It was great!

On that fateful mission we were assigned to harvest cucumbers. That was apparently a record year for cucumbers. We were collecting cucumbers in large wooden crates that could hold about fifty kilograms of vegetables, about a hundred pounds.

I was working my two rows, filling up wooden crates that were set up along the isle for me. Being absorbed in my work, I did not even notice that I was ahead of everybody else! A local supervisor rode up to me on a bicycle and asked, “How many crates have you done so far?”

I counted them and told him that I had six full ones so far. He nodded appreciatively and wrote down “8” in his notebook. That dick!

“Hey, imbecile, are you deaf?”  I inquired politely, “Do you know numbers? I just said six. Why are you writing eight?”

“Knock off this tone of voice, kid! What am I supposed to do, follow you around every minute? You will have eight by the time I get over there and back, maybe even more. You want me to ask you every five minutes? Get back to work!”

That pissed me off. I was ahead of everybody, I was winning. He could go to Hell, that criminal! I was just about to explain to him why exactly it would have been better for his mother to do an abortion while she still had a chance when his boss, a fat lady, pulled up on a small tractor, yelling to him in Ukrainian over the huffing of the motor, “Skiki tsey zrobiv?” “How many did this one do?”

“Eight!” he shouted back.

“Oh, great,” she nodded approvingly and I saw her writing “10” in her notebook.

Holy crap! My production stats have just been falsified by 40 percent in under a minute! I never thought much about such matters before, but they sure got my attention now. The data from this field would go to the regional statistical bureau, then to the Ukrainian State Bureau, then to Moscow. Five-year plans for the entire country would include this number.

If this wasn’t just an isolated criminal act, the whole system was seriously flawed. I had a notion that the event unfolding in front of me was not an isolated event. You’d think that too if you ever tried to find fresh cucumbers in Kiev. Yes, most likely stats were falsified as a routine. However, the stats, being crucial for the Socialist planned economy, did not seem to make much difference in the short run right here and now. The purpose of the whole activity, right that very minute, was simply to supply cucumbers to the City so mothers could feed their families. As I just mentioned, we have not seen a lot of food in the stores where I grew up and fresh vegetables were no exception. Pretty much any and all food was in short supply, even bread at times.

Now looking at this profusion of cucumbers, I could not help wondering where they all went. Regardless of the false stats, there were actually a whole lot of cucumbers here. Not on paper but in this actual field. We ended up collecting probably ten thousand crates. We stacked them some six high in the area of a large city block. Our brave cosmonauts could probably see our cucumbers from space, for Christ sakes! Where did they go, if not to the city, as they were supposed to? Was somebody stealing them? If so, where did the stolen cucumbers go? They would have to surface somewhere, couldn’t just deposit them into a Swiss bank account! That was not clear to me.

Things got considerably clearer when it turned out that there were no trucks to take them out to the city. That summer was sweltering. Cucumbers started rotting and stinking up the place in a few days.

I went to see the supervisor.

“Where are the trucks, boss? The cucumbers are rotting. We need to get them to the city fast!”

“We’ll take care of it. We have seven trucks here. And Kiev promised to send us more trucks in a week or two. So just keep picking. Don’t worry!”

I worried. A week or two? And the seven trucks that the farm owned turned out to be 1.5-ton trucks—about 3,000 pounds capacity—and they were all broken. None of them worked! And why small trucks and not the semis? Each of these small trucks could take thirty crates max, a drop in a bucket. We were trying to feed two million people here!

Turned out there were no roads around for some miles in all directions that a loaded 18-weeler could navigate through. Okay, was there a mechanic around who could repair the 1.5-ton trucks or make at least one operational truck out of seven or something? Yes, fortunately, there was! But, unfortunately, he was very sick at the moment. I decided to go have a bedside chat with the sick mechanic, look into his eyes and hold his hand a bit. It was pointless to continue harvesting tons of cucumbers when they were all rotting there in the crates anyway.

Nobody was interested in coming with me except my buddy Tolik, a Ukrainian guy with a dignified nickname “Professor”, which he personally awarded himself because he liked it, and my sweetheart, Nadia, with her very nice tits and a personality to match. So Tolik, Nadia and I took a walk to the Motor Pool. It was a large barn about a mile down the dirt road. Inside the barn we found seven totally stripped trucks and a hopelessly drunk mechanic sleeping it off on the floor in the midst of a picturesque disarray that must have resulted from many years of diligent avoidance of any kind of cleaning.

Just to start my bedside visit on an appropriately sympathetic note, I woke him up by dumping a bucket of rain water on his head. I asked the mechanic politely if he was selling truck parts to buy vodka. He nodded. I punched him in the face, he yelped, blood splattering from his nose. Nadya jumped on me for that, so I backed off. Nadia was an angel. Tolik knew that I would not go against Nadya so he picked up the drunk and punched him hard in the stomach. The mechanic doubled up and puked. Nadia jumped between Tolik and the mechanic’s limp body yelling and glaring at both of us. Tolik and I both backed off. My sweetheart was too sweet a person to get all her knickers tied in a bunch for this scumbag. There was nothing else to do here. Tolik and I wisely used our last chance to kick the drunk on the way out. We still had no trucks. Our cucumbers were doomed!

We stopped working in the fields, it was pointless. The three of us hung around all day, feeling demoralized and irritated. I was doing some serious thinking. I remembered my past observations, the Construction, open lies in the newspapers and rumors about people disappearing into the mental institutions for raising their voice against the government. And I remembered shortages or absence of pretty damn near EVERYTHING I ever wanted. The socialist natural law of existence states “If you want to have it, you can’t but if you don’t want to have it, you will”. I remembered long lines for groceries and haggard women always carrying bags of something for their families, possibly bread and butter or even fish or meat, the rare booty they scored after hours of waiting in line. I remembered many things now, looking at them through the prism of my suddenly acquired new experience.

Next morning the manager ordered us to go through the crates and separate out all the rotten cucumbers, load them up on a flatbed trailer and take them to the cows. Our cucumbers could be used to feed the cows! Good cucumbers were to be packed in crates again and stacked up neatly.

We all piled up on this new task and ended up with a huge oozing pile of rotten cucumbers and a smaller stack of good ones in crates. Five of us hopped onto a trailer loaded with rotten cucumbers for our first run to the Animal Farm area. What I saw there was shocking.

Can you imagine a Nazi death camp for cows? The cows were dirty and wasted, you could count their ribs. They were starving. In fact, as soon as we showed up and it dawned on them that we had food, they stampeded the tractor. A tidal wave of mad cows came straight at us. You could see their eyes rolling in the sockets and Pavlovian saliva foaming from their mouths. Things looked bad for us, real bad there for a few excruciating minutes as a thousand cows pressed on the trailer from all sides trying to get to the cucumbers. I thought my end had come, mangled below tons of rotting cucumbers and ravaging cows. All that through deafening mo-o-o-ing noise and intolerable stench. We had to shovel the cucumbers as fast as we could, throwing them away from the trailer to diffuse the onslaught of the cows. The rotten cucumbers and all the slime were landing on cows’ backs and heads. Other cows were eating that slime off of each other! The push subsided. Trembling, we silently finished unloading the trailer and the tractor driver slowly took us out of the yard.

We came back several more times that day with food for the cows. They were not all that hungry anymore after a while. That made me feel great and Nadia was happy, but this food would be gone in a day. Then what? What did they do with the cows that died of starvation or disease? Sell the meat to us in the stores? Most likely.

Next morning at around 5AM we woke up to the powerful rumble of an 18-weeler idling right in front of the administrative building and dorms by the huge red flag they had set up there. Remember my Citizenship ceremony? Who drove the truck here and how did he manage to do that? As it turned out the farm manager diverted this guy from his route—illegally, naturally. This driver unloaded his freight some other place and drove all night to our farm on his way back to Kiev to make a couple of bucks and score some fresh veggies for his family. He claimed that nothing at all could stop him, he was a professional and he could make it through to the city with our cucumbers no matter what!

We happily loaded him up with some 60,000 pounds of good cucumbers. He asked for eight strong guys to go with him as volunteers. Everybody volunteered so he picked the guys himself. I was one of the chosen ones. We were to help him get to Kiev and then our farm duty for the year was over. We left an empty area in the back of the trailer for six guys (the other two were in the cab with the driver), loaded shovels and picks with us, red roadwork jackets and two signs MAN WORKING. The driver warned us that driving to Kiev was not going to be easy, it would take some hours. On that news the girls got us some meat, bread, a bucket of clean water and a tin mug for the road. We took off with the crowd cheering and Nadia blowing kisses at me.

We left Krasniy Oktiabr farm around ten in the morning and started on our seventy-mile journey to the city. We finally arrived there around six in the evening! When people said that a loaded 18-weeler could not make it through, they were right! It couldn’t! We had to zigzag in search of better roads, we drove straight through fields in some places, we had to do some road work along the way here and there just to get through. We were dirty, tired and pissed off as our ordeal dragged on.

At one point we had to patch up the road to get through. As we were working under the sizzling sun the driver suddenly had a nervous breakdown or, as Russians say “the roof has slid off his house”. He started laughing hysterically repeating the same words “strana durakov”, “a country of fools”, over and over again. Tears were streaming down his scrawny, unshaven and very dirty face. The vivid image of that crying very tired grown up man has haunted me for many years to come.

We finally made it to one of the Kiev distributor warehouses at around 6PM. We were filthy and exhausted. But at last we were on the finishing stretch! We were practically on the verge of going home, taking a hot shower, eating dinner and kicking back in front of a TV! Right? Wrong! The warehouse manager did not want us or our cucumbers! He told us to come back tomorrow because they were closing at six o’clock and it was almost six already so . . . The driver’s legs gave out and he slumped down by the front wheel silently. He had been up for over forty eight hours by then. He had to return the truck empty that day and was already overdue.

I explained to the manager that we brought thirty tons of fresh cucumbers to feed our citizens. I told him how we had collected them ourselves, how we had to find a truck to get them here before they all rotted. And that in spite of all the travails, here we were with our cucumbers that people could eat and be healthy and happy. He looked at me blankly and told me to fuck off.

Finally the driver bribed the manager into leaving us the keys and we would unload, store everything properly, lock the place up and then hide the key under a pile of crates by the entrance on our way home.

We spent the next six hours shoveling slime and rat poop from the warehouse corner and putting up boards and cardboard to prepare a clean space for our precious cucumbers, then unloading the truck and cleaning it up.

I was unable to think about anything at all by the time I got home. But I sure did a whole lot of thinking and looking in the weeks and months that followed. I heard things, I read things and I suddenly saw things. They were always there but I never noticed because I never honestly looked before. The idea that I did not want to contribute in any way at all to that pitiful nonsense called USSR was slowly crystallizing in my mind. I wanted out.  And if I wanted out, I’d get out! I pushed Tolik and Nadia away with no remorse. I was too young and foolish for remorse. I did not want them with me—not so much where I was going but more where I could possibly end up.

THE KGB LIEUTENANT

I looked into the bloodshot eyes of the gray haired, heavyset KGB lieutenant and wondered briefly who in their right mind would voluntarily come to a KGB officer inquiring about immigrating from the Soviet Union to the Free World. I was not in my right mind, I suppose. It was 1978, I was eighteen years old. I despised communists in general and this old toad in particular. And I knew that I had no future here anyway. Do you know another name for a condition of no future? Death.

“Stop horsing around,” lieutenant hissed menacingly, “What are you kids, playing chicken or something? Or drinking? Go home, sleep it off. And don’t drink on empty stomach any more, boy.”

He grimaced laboriously. Must either be a toothache or his best smile imitation. Can you imagine a life of an old washed out KGB Lieutenant? It must really suck!

“What do you mean “Go home”? With all due respect, Sir, it is written right here on this poster “To the Service of the People”. I am the people around here, I need service. I have a simple question, Comrade Lieutenant, “How do I get out of here legally?” I don’t like it here anymore, I want out. Do you want me to go ask somebody higher up?”

The annoyed lieutenant made me walk a straight line back and forth, then I had to touch my nose with my index finger, then I had to do it while standing on one foot with my eyes closed. Then I had to hop around on one foot with one hand behind my neck while touching my nose with the index finger of the other hand. Then I did it all over again. Finally he checked my arms for needle marks.

By that time he was already sweating and panting frustratingly. Not once during this entire procedure did it occur to this old fool that I may have been actually trying to get an answer to my question! He just kept trying to figure out why, really, I was standing there in front of him. What did I really want? And I thought I was crazy! He finally slumped down behind his dilapidated desk dejectedly and fell silent. Thinking didn’t come easy to him either.

Lieutenant suddenly turned even redder, whacked his fat fist on the desk and jumped to his feet.

“How dare you?” he yelled, his eyes bulging. “Do you know that when you were tall enough to walk under this chair here I was already an Internal Security Troops sergeant decorated with a medal? I fought bandits under the legendary Comrade Colonel Ilin himself! Who do you think you are to come here with your stupid tricks? Who sent you here? They think I am too old, don’t they? Speak up right now!”

I was taken aback somewhat at first but then slowly traced his twisted thinking. He thought his superiors sent me to test him. They are all morons, you know.

I cleared my throat, “Kh-khm . . . Listen, Vasiliy. . . You don’t mind me calling you Vasiliy, do you? No? Okay, thanks. Let’s be sensible here, Vasiliy. I am not saying anybody sent me here and I am not saying anybody didn’t send me here. I just have a simple question on immigration laws, for which I have been trying to get an answer from you for the last forty minutes. You just keep stalling! Should I just go ask somebody else?”

“No, no, Misha, its okay. Come here, sit down, let’s talk.”

He led me to the scruffy visitors chair with his arm around my back like a real friend that he was to me, I am sure. I sat down.

“As you know, my boy, we are the most humane country in the world.”

 

Yes, Sir, I know.”

“As you must also know, being the most humane country in the world, we signed Helsinki Convention for Human Rights on allowing families to unite. So anybody who wants to unite with their family abroad, can just go ahead and do so—provided, of course, that they in fact have relatives abroad, who are inviting them, and they can prove it beyond a shadow of the doubt.”

“Well, that shouldn’t be too difficult then!” I brightened up, “How difficult could it be to prove that you have a relative? Of course, if you really have one. There must be records, archives or something.”

“Oh, yes. Definitely! In these lands, however, that were under the German occupation during the War, it is not all that simple. Some archives were burned by our heroic retreating Soviet troops so they wouldn’t fall into the Germans’ hands. The rest of them were burned by the advancing Nazi barbarians for no reason at all. So, archives around here do not go that far back. And of course very few people left the country since 1945 so . . . “

“I see. So what would a proof beyond a shadow of the doubt look like then—without archives to prove anything? Have you ever seen such a proof, Vasily?

“No, can’t say I ever have.”

“Perhaps some letters from relatives abroad would do?”

“Are you kidding me? No way! Everybody would just fabricate such letters to get out!” Vasiliy lowered his voice, “You realize there are still some morally weak people in our beloved Motherland?”

One funny thing about Soviet Union was this mystical love for the Motherland. It totally excluded any love at all for any of the actual people populating that Motherland. That mystic love encompassed only really important and truly Russian things in life, such as birch trees, I guess. Russians are crazy about their birch trees. I love them too but . . .

“Yes, yes, I know, our beloved Motherland, naturally. . . What about family photographs or something?”

“No good. Could all be fabricated. Photomontage, you know. Those capitalists, they are e-e-evil bastards. They falsify things all the time!”

Yeah, right! They falsify things! KGB probably invented the whole concept! The word “falsify” probably didn’t even exist before Lenin! As an example, the largest Russian dictionary at the time, by Ozhegov, defined “human being” as merely a self-sustained conscious unit who could work and produce implements of production. Need I say more?

“I know, Comrade, definitely these capitalist pigs . . . So I guess, nobody can really leave the Soviet Union then?”

“You are not listening to me, Misha! You need to start paying attention! I told you that we are the most humane country in the world. Didn’t I tell you that? I told you that! Anybody who wants to leave, can just get up and go! They just need to prove they have re-la-tives a-bro-a-d who wanted to reunite with them. Clear now? That’s all!”

“I got it now, Vasiliy. Thank you very much for your help! I will recommend you to all my friends—I raised my eyebrows a bit at this point to his obvious delight. You are a true hero and a patriot of the Motherland. Even Comrade Colonel Ilin himself would be proud of you, Sir!”

I shook his hand. Vasiliy had an ear-to-ear grin on his fat face as he escorted me to the door with his arm around my shoulders. You know, bringing happiness to another human being usually makes me feel warm all over. This time was an exception. We shook hands for the last time and I safely went home. I failed to find the way out of this dump, called the Soviet Union, but I did get some important information.

THE BLACK MARKET

I went to my parents to find out about all our relatives abroad. It turned out we didn’t have any. You have a mother, you have a father, you kind of expect certain things from life, like relatives, maybe, but no! Not a single goddamn relative abroad! Thanks a bunch!

Well fine, if there was no way to leave legally, I would join the dissidents and use their help to leave illegally! It was common knowledge that they helped get people across the southern borders to Afghanistan and Turkey, or up north to Finland, or west across the Baltic Sea to Germany. Statistically speaking, the escapees had a 50-50 chance of survival. About half of the escape attempts were unsuccessful, the fugitives died en route, were killed by the Border Troops or captured. These were either jailed for eight years hard labor in very cold places, where some of them died, or thrown into psychiatrists’ den to be turned into vegetables by psych drugs and shocks. The other half made it to the Free World. Rather decent odds in any game, 50-50, the only trick was pulling up to the finish line with the right 50.

How do you find dissidents and get them to trust you enough to help you? I had no idea. Was there any way to be at cause over this? Logistically speaking, the one thing I needed that I could get right then was money. So first of all I would make some money to finance my escape.

The easiest place in the world to make good money fast was our beloved Motherland. The place was so backward and poor that EVERYTHING good was in short supply. In general, if you had anything foreign to sell, you could get rich fast. And I do mean anything, and I do mean fast! The junk didn’t even have to be new, could be old and used. Didn’t matter! All the foreigners who came to the Soviet Union for any reason were expected to have the almighty STUFF. If you had mascara or T-shirts or LPs or condoms or jeans or umbrellas or shoes or cigarettes or chewing gum or candy or even just goddamn plastic bags—just anything foreign—you could become an overnight millionaire. You could also get seriously hurt or, more likely, go to jail for three years, the Russian jail. You do not watch TV and play basketball in Russian jails, you just suffer all the time. The criminal charge was “speculation”, i.e., buying at a lower price and selling at a profit. Free enterprise.

The idea was, naturally, to buy junk from foreigners and sell it to the Russians. The first hurdle to overcome was finding and contacting any foreigners to buy from. There were other hurdles, such as having capital to buy with and having customers to sell to, but the first thing was first. I needed to contact some foreigners.

There were two breeds of foreigners in Kiev: foreign students and tourists. Foreign students were mainly skinny, slightly deformed and malnourished Algerians, Tunisians and other such hillbillies from Africa. The foreign students were not much better off than us. Whatever treasures they may have once possessed, such as a used pair of jeans, they already exchanged for food or blow jobs. They were too accessible. There was no point chasing after them.

Then of course there were tourists. A very different breed. They were rich, oh yes! But they were confined to their special “closed” hotels where every single hotel employee was a KGB informant! It was just a part of every job description in those hotels. And there were only a dozen of such hotels in Kiev. Soviet citizens were banned from those hotels. Any local caught there just doing nothing at all would get in trouble.

Here was an impossible logistical problem. Or so it seemed.

So how did one meet foreigners in the Soviet Union? Simple. Just be one! Just walk into a hotel looking and behaving like a foreigner, go up to any floor, knock on any door and push your way in as soon as it opens—or just leave the hotel immediately if nobody’s home—all in plain sight of a floor attendant (read ”informant”). Yes, there were floor attendant stations on every floor overlooking all of the doors on that floor.

How do you look like a foreigner? Clothes would not make you a foreigner, although a pair of Levi jeans went a long way. You just have to feel more careless, be more energetic, smile more, swing your arms more, add some spring to your step, wave to somebody, say “Hi!” in full voice, look people in the eye and smile wider, say “How are you?” and smile even wider still and that’s it! Nobody would doubt for an instant that you were a foreigner! And why wouldn’t anybody double check and ask you what you were doing there, just to make sure? Obvious! Totally Russian logic: because if you were a foreigner, you might get upset about somebody stopping you and asking questions and get that person in trouble. Who wanted to create bad PR for the Motherland and get in deep shit? Nobody. So who would try to stop me and ask any questions? Nobody. So how could they prevent me from contacting foreigners? They couldn’t! Just a minute ago it seemed impossible to succeed, didn’t it? Now it seems impossible to fail, doesn’t it? A land of goddamn paradoxes.

I bought my first pair of jeans from some Yugoslavs. I paid a hundred rubles for that pair, 32X32. Over half of the money was borrowed. I sold that pair of Levi’s for two hundred rubles to some friend of Ludmila same day. I made a hundred rubles. For comparison, my mother, an electrical engineer, was making 140 rubles . . .  a MONTH. See what I mean about paradoxes? I immediately turned around and bought two pairs of Wranglers in a different hotel.

Within four days I had over 700 rubles capital which was enough for seven pairs of jeans. I could sell them for 1400 rubles or as much as my mother was making in ten months. I could make that much in under a week with a starting capital of forty rubles. There is something obscene about that, if you think about it. 18X the investment in a week? On blue jeans?

By that time, the goons of the local Jean Lord, Gena Drozdov, were already looking for me. The word was out that he was going to break my legs for cutting in on his territory. I knew I was in trouble, although I most seriously doubted that he would actually inflict such a damage to my extremities just for a few pairs of jeans, especially since I knew Gena personally. Gena and I used to hang around together as we both went to the same school for a few years when we were kids. He did not know where I lived but if he really wanted to find me he would be standing at my doorstep same day. I did not want that. I had to do my last gig, make the 1400 rubles, or whatever I could, and drop down low for now. I had no idea if 1400 was enough to escape from Russia, but it would have to do.

I picked Hotel Bereza (The Birch Tree, what else?), a large, beautifully kept up high rise hotel, of course for foreigners. It was located within spitting distance from Gena’s house, so I could use that good old element of surprise that I liked so much. His people would never expect me in their backyard, especially after the word got out that he was looking for me.

I did not own a pair of jeans to look like a foreigner. I did not consider it sane to spend so much money on a pair of pants. But I had a successful “foreigner” getup nonetheless. It consisted of a pair of old snickers, old crumpled khaki pans, a slightly torn Led Zeppelin T-shirt and an old leather jacket. It worked fine. I got in okay, waved to nobody in particular, yelled “How are you?” in the general direction of the Gift Shop and marched to the elevator swinging my arms and smiling. Nobody stopped me. In the elevator I smiled, slapped a dejected looking elevator attendant on the back and said “Four”. I liked the sound of FOUR-R-R. I kind of rolled it in the end sounding very American. I liked that. I liked America a whole lot, the Land of the Free. Or at least the land where you could buy all the jeans and cucumbers you wanted without risking your silly ass!

I got off at the fourth floor, walked past the floor attendant with the words “Mah man” and a wide grin and knocked on the third door down the hallway, purely at random. While I was sweating out the wait by the door, I looked at the attended, smiled and waved. He smiled back politely while speaking on his phone. Who was the bum talking to? I sweated some more.

Finally the door opened. Stepping in fast and pulling it shut behind me, I found myself staring at six unshaven Arabs. They were a bit taken aback by my abrupt entrance but quickly understood the few English words I knew, “Jeans? Money-money!”

They were instantly all smiles. Yes indeed, they had jeans and they wanted money! One of them brought a notebook and wrote number “12” and another number “1600” next to it. They had twelve pairs and wanted 1600 rubles. I remembered what I read about the Arab culture. They spent some time fooling around with mathematics and medicine, I’ll give them that, but mostly they have just been selling used camels to each other for thousands of years. Okay, so let’s haggle! I took the note book, crossed out “1600” and wrote “400”. Ha! Show me the camels! In a few minutes of constant chattering, smiles and a lot of unfamiliar hand gestures, scratching hairy throats, rolling their eyes and crossing out numbers the Arabs agreed on seven pairs for 700 rubles. Then I drew a little map of our future meeting place in the park a few blocks from the hotel, wrote the time “1700” hours and marked the exact location. I knew the place, it was somewhat secluded. I tore up the paper and flushed it down their toilet after I was fairly sure they understood the basic concept of bringing the seven pairs of jeans to the park at 5PM today and I would pay them 700 rubles there.

I walked out as empty-handed as I walked in. That was the only safe way of doing it.

At five o’clock I was at the park to meet the Arabs at the designated place. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, blue sky, warm breeze, birds chirping and children shrieking hysterically at a playground nearby. Hiking to our rendezvous place I noticed that there were very few people around. Our meeting place was completely deserted. I felt a ping of apprehension, scanning the lush vegetation on either side of the path, searching for any indication of an ambush. Would the Arabs dare to attack me? There was nothing out of place that I could see but I felt alarmed, the ambience felt wrong. You know, sometimes you just cannot put your finger on it but something feels wrong. I read a book once where these perceptions that you could not quite define and explain were called “talking to the shadows”. I was talking the shadows. But at the moment shadows could not offer me more than just their usual meaningful silence.

Wait a minute . . . there was something wrong! I could not hear or see any birds anywhere near the place. Was that normal? Probably not. I turned around and scrammed back toward the park entrance when one of the Arabs suddenly bolted from the thicket straight at me. We both fell, fighting, when the rest of my former business associates fell upon me like a pack of wolfs, kicking and punching. Being a Jew I was always outnumbered so I was somewhat experienced in fighting loosing battles. The secret of winning while loosing is in picking a target small enough for you to chew up and then defeating just that small target. I managed to get on top of my assailant disregarding the blows. Nothing existed in the world except me and my enemy. I got a good hold of his lower lip with my right hand and yanked it down while clawing at his face with my left and butting him anywhere I could reach with my forehead and knees. He bellowed and heaved, shrieking in terror now, gagging on his own blood and splattering. The kicks were hailing on my body and head from all directions. I could not take up six opponents, I was not Bruce Lee, although I doubted that Bruce Lee could in a real life situation either with any consistency, but I felt deeply satisfied with my progress on one specific enemy who I was working on. Things were getting dim. Then somebody turned off the lights.

I focused slowly. Silence. I wiped blood off my eyes the best I could and looked at my watch. It was only 5:07. I was out for only a few minutes. Good news. My condition could not have been that bad if I was only out for five-ten minutes. My head ached as well as pretty much all the other parts of my body and my stomach was churning. I crawled into the bushes on all four and vomited. A little better. My assailants were gone. There was a stain of blood on the dirt path spot where I took my Arab apart. Well, Salamaleykoom, you will be eating with a straw and breathing through your mouth for a long time, I promise. I checked my pockets—yeah, the money was gone.  So they attacked me, roughed me up, robbed me and left me in the bushes nursing my bruises. On my turf!

Boy, was I pissed! Who let the stinky foreigners run amok attacking people? Who was in charge here? Gena Drozdov, that’s who! It was his territory! And he was chasing after ME?! He should be chasing after the Arabs!

I washed up in the overgrown irrigation pond nearby and went straight to Gena’s house.

He lived the same as anybody else, five-story dilapidated apartment building where somebody pissed in the lobby, the usual. He had a three-room very messy apartment full of expensive furniture. Located in a neighborhood that looked like every other—shoddy, crumbling streets lined with five or nine-story dingy apartment buildings that all looked the same and even smelled the same inside. Was I stupid to come here? Not really. I rang the doorbell. One of his goons opened the door and froze, looking at me incredulously. Then he stepped aside letting me in and pushed me through some room into the kitchen. Gena was having dinner. He was not a kid anymore, he was heavier, sweaty, wearing a dingy PUMA tank top and unshaven. When he saw me, he started yelling at me with his mouth full, waving his fork in the air and spitting food all around the kitchen.

“You?! Here? I’ll kill you!”

He has always been a bit theatrical. I could be too.

“Shut the fuck up, Gena! You good for nothing bum! You know what just happened? A bunch of stinky Arabs from the Forth Floor Bereza Hotel beat me up and took my money! 700 rubles! And kept the jeans! See my face? On YOUR territory, Gena! On YOUR territory! What kind of Mickey Mouse operation are you running here?! You have Arabs running around attacking people! You are all lazy cowards!”

“Serves you right, you bustard! Stay out of MY territory!”

“Don’t change the subject, Gena! Who’s in charge here? Stinking Arabs? I’ll tell you who! Nobody is in charge here! It’s just a total anarchy!“

“I am in charge!”

“Nobody is in charge! If somebody was in charge, there would be some order around here!”

I turned around and stormed out the door.

“Where do you live now, you crazy bum?” I heard Gena yelling behind my back.

“Kiss my ass!” I yelled back slamming the door behind me. Nobody tried to stop me.

Next evening Gena was standing at my doorstep. Somebody always pissed or puked in our lobby too.

So the door bell rang and Gena was standing at my doorstep—alone.

“Here,” he handed me a zipped leather shoulder bag. Very nice bag. Probably used to belong to the Arabs. I opened it. It had seven pairs of jeans and my seven hundred rubles neatly tucked inside.

“Thank you, Gena.”

“You sure did a number on one of those guys! You are even crazier than me.”

“Thanks for the compliment! You don’t know how much it means to me. And thanks to the Arabs for the jeans and the money. Much appreciated.”

“That’s what I told the Arabs too. I said thank you. They said they were sorry. I forgive them. What about you?”

“I forgive them too, Gena. Perhaps they were just channeling their psycho-bullshit tendencies into criminal acts of despicable violence, that’s all.”

“Ha! I’d say! They can go channel their bullshit somewhere else, like Sahara desert!”

“Exactly! Nice bag too, thanks. Sit down, Gena.”

“Thanks, man, got to go. I just wanted to know something. Do you want to work with me? I kind of enjoyed your crazy style.”

“Work with you or for you? No, I don’t want to. But I can promise you not to work at all for a few months. Will that do it for you, as a token of my deepest gratitude?”

“You want to know the truth, Misha? I don’t give a flying hoot. What are we talking here? A 1000 or 2000 rubles in business? Ha! I spend more on Zinka’s tampons! But you running around on your own just makes me look bad. Sets a bad example.”

“What if we were just old school friends?”

“Friends! I have not seen you for two years! How about when you are ready to go to work in a few months, like you said, you just tell me first and I organize some deals for you. Of course, I would want a cut. But you would use my contacts and purchasing power. You will make on each pair almost as much as you do now. And it would look good to others, set a good example.”

“I won’t work for anybody, Gena, nothing personal. But we could hang around together sometimes, get seen together, stuff like that. If you want.”

“Well, okay, I suppose I could take you to the Chicken Coop Bar with me tonight. Show you to some people. You wanna go?”

A bar? I have never seen one in my life, except in a few American movies I saw. Of course I wanted to go! Gena had a car, a tiny Russian Zhiguli, an astronomically expensive Russian coffin on wheels, a very bad replica of Italian Fiat—not a stellar car to begin with. We drove to the industrial part of town and parked next to some long and ugly warehouse.

“What is this?”

I expected something totally different.

“This is a textile factory or a warehouse or some crap like that, you’ll see. All kinds of huge spools and stuff inside.”

Incredulous, I followed Gena inside. We walked to the very end of the barely lit, dusty warehouse. It was full of some huge rolls of some cloth or something. We stopped by a door at the end wall. Gena knocked. The door opened to a dark space. I could suddenly hear some muffled music from somewhere. Some big guy, dressed in all black, stepped out from the darkness and shined a flash light in Gena’s face. The guard recognized Gena and waved us in. We stepped into the darkness. Gena opened another door. The place was dimly lit. It was a narrow long space filled with a long counter and bar stools next to it. There was a large TV set mounted overhead, some speakers, nice music, smell of good cognac. There must have been at least thirty people there, guys, girls, mainly guys. They were drinking and talking. The bar was set up behind a false warehouse wall. The walls and door of the bar were completely covered with exercise mats as sound insulation. Police absolutely had to be in on it, getting a cut of the action.

We went to the bar-tender and ordered two cocktails Beriozka (Little Birch Tree, wouldn’t you know?), half champagne, half French cognac, no ice. Russian style.

From that evening on, I often visited that bar, with or without Gena. There, at the Chicken Coop, I met black market dealers connected to dissidents. There was a lot of money to be made on equipping and channeling people across the borders, those people who would take their 50-50 chance but pay in full upfront. I wanted to be one of those dissidents and I found a path that led me to them.

DISSIDENTS

Some denim-clad dude at the bar arranged a meeting for me with Isaak, our local self-appointed dissident leader, a wiry and nervous middle aged Jew. We sat at the bar, drinking my beer and talking.

“Isaak, I want out”, I said.

“You’ll probably get yourself killed”, was his answer.

“Yeah, but can you help?”

“I possibly could by why? And you’ll be the first one to sell me out at a drop of a hat. People are garbage, no good deed remains unpunished, you know. So why bother?”

Why was I wasting my time with this loser? Isaak was a very bitter, sarcastic and cynical fellow like most of the other dissidents I met. A psychotic. Everything around was bad and impossible to improve and all people were bad and everything was hopeless. You know, as far as I am concerned, screw sarcasm and cynicism. They just indicate ineffectiveness. If these people were effective in life, they would get things done instead of being hopeless, sarcastic or cynical. For the most part the dissidents were psychotic. Either their life made them that way or, most likely, they were that way to begin with and their live did not help either. There were a few very good guys among them too, just as anywhere else.

I heard wild incredible stories about people making it across. Right before me, apparently, there was a guy, Misha, like me, who was hidden in a train parked in Kiev, which was supposed to go to Vienna. He was secured to some pipe above the drop ceiling in the bathroom. Misha spent some hours hanging from that pipe before the train left Kiev bound for Vienna and then some more hours while it was in motion. Then the hand ties broke and he was actually hanging there bound by his feet and holding on to the pipe. Finally his arms gave out and his head and shoulders crashed through the drop ceiling, while his legs were still bound to the pipe. Some passenger, who walked in to use the john, apparently found Misha hanging that way and raised hell. The unconscious escapee had missed the happy moment of police unloading him off the train. Austrian police! He made it to the free world. A little banged up but I bet he didn’t mind. He made it! Statistically, for every one who made it, there was one who didn’t.

At the Chicken Coop I also met a great guy, Yura, who used to be a merchant marine assigned to a freighter that was transporting goods in the Baltic Sea. Yura told me that a few years back he was totally prepared for his escape from the ship. He was supplied with a wet suit, a compass and a pair of flippers. He was given the exact compass bearing and the exact time at night to jump off the ship. Yura jumped overboard at night at the exact right time and started swimming toward Germany per the compass instructions he bought from the black market dealer. In a few minutes that course brought him in the darkness directly to a Russian gunboat that was waiting for him. The black market dude sold him to the KGB. He probably had to do such things sometimes to be able to get anybody across at all.

Yura was fished out, received his brisk but fair trial, most humane in the world, naturally, and was on his way to destinations far north within several days. He got the usual eight-year sentence, but, having repented publically, was let out after four years for good behavior. Yura denounced his actions, explaining how Voice of America radio station led him astray and how all that capitalist propaganda clouded his judgment. They let him go and he returned to Kiev to stay with his mother. That is when our paths crossed.

I asked Yura what he was going to do now. He told me with a straight face that he applied to get back his old Baltic Sea merchant marine job. I stared at him. He just smiled his toothless smile. He lost three front teeth in the labor camp and did not have a chance to fix them yet. That is how I remember Yura. As I later found out, his dead body had washed up on the German shore with his skull crushed in. The official story was that he accidently fell overboard on choppy seas at night, drowned, and the body got bashed against the rocks by the waves. Although, per rumors, there were no rocks there. And neither did that explain the wet suit, compass and flippers he was wearing. Nobody knows what really happened to Yura that night except he never made it to the Free World alive. Yura was a strong spirit, unstoppable—except by death.

I also met Kolia briefly, who was planning to cross over to Finland’s far north, the dreaded North Route. To succeed he would have to be dropped off about a hundred miles from the border, a couple of weeks worth of hiking. He’d then have to master a difficult track through the wilderness, mainly at nights, avoiding people. I came to see him off. It was an extremely low key farewell with at least thirty people gathered there to literally see him off at the park. We all pretended we didn’t know each other . . . or him.

I found out later that there was a letter from Kolia from Finland. He made it!

“Any special skills that you can use to escape?” Isaak eyed me suspiciously and went back to staring at the chess board during our second meeting. We were playing chess on a wet park bench, just the two of us, not a sole around. It was a miserable and grey day, light drizzle misting Isaak’s glasses, exaggerating the feverish sheen of his gaunt face. Just a couple of friends—or perhaps a father and son—playing chess under rain . . . I bet nobody would ever find it suspicious. Was it just me or was this guy totally nuts, in addition to stinking of BO? He took my horse.

“If you are as bad at everything else as you are at chess, you are doomed.” Abrasive. Why wouldn’t the authorities just let him go? He pissed me off pretty much every time he opened his mouth.

“I am a good swimmer, old man, and I am also pretty good at shaving and washing every once in a while, unlike you.” I snapped back.

“You are a fool,” Isaak retorted with a scowl, “you searched me out, not the other way around.”

He was right, of course, “Sorry, Isaak. What do you have in mind?”

“If you are a good swimmer, you could swim across the Black Sea to Turkey, I could get you to a good place, the shortcut, you’d have to swim maybe, oh, thirty kilometers. Can you make it? Are you really that good?”

“Don’t know. How is the sharks situation, I am nobody’s food.”

Isaak shrugged, “You are so bitter, sharks would stay away in droves. But in any case, Black Sea sharks, called catruns only grow to about a meter long, they are totally harmless. The sea is warm, no large storms. The only thing to worry about is border subs and gun boats. The place is inundated with hardware.”

Well, the chance for a gunboat to find a swimmer in the sea seemed pretty slim. I started intense training at my favorite public swimming pool. It was a 50-meter Olympic pool, great for serious training.

But . . . To be honest, I had my doubts about letting dissidents run my life and organize my escape. Isaak was crazy. Most of them were crazy. So why would I want to bet my life on them? There did not seem to be any other way to get out, that’s why. But as usually, an opportunity presented itself.

I have often been called lucky. I don’t believe in luck. I believe in making my own decisions about my future and then making those decisions come true.

THE INVITATION LETTER

One day, in the spring of 1979, I accidentally on our street ran street into an old friend of mine, Vitia, an electrician. He worked at the Exhibition of Soviet Technical Achievements. The Exhibition was a huge park with many exhibition buildings, where foreign tourists and the school kids were blessed with an opportunity to see all kinds of USSR technical achievements, such as nuclear ballistic missiles, milk bottling machines, proximity bombs and many other such interesting and useful things, all invented, of course, by Soviet scientists. I used to go to that park every year in February when they had Maslenitsa celebration there. Maslenitsa is a pre-Lent festivity—always before Ash Wednesday—similar to European carnivals. It is known for its food, especially pancakes. There was also horse sled riding around the park. I used to love Maslenitsa.

Vitia told me that next morning he was leaving to Vienna as a part of the setup crew of the Soviet Achievements pavilion at some international fair there. He was going to the Free World! Vitia literally danced with excitement, a wide smile on his plump face. Nobody I ever talked to went out of our dump and was planning to come back!

I invited Vitia to our apartment, took out a bottle of vodka, some boiled potatoes and pickled herring that I found in the fridge and we had ourselves a farewell party for Vitia. We drank to the success of his trip, then to his health, then to my health, then to all the scientific achievements of our Soviet scientists and finally to the health of Yuri Gagarin, posthumously. The first man in space happened to have been dead for about ten years by then. Vodka was almost gone. I thought the time had come to plunge in with my burning question.

“Vitia, see if you can find my relatives in Vienna, will you?”

“No kidding? I didn’t know you had relatives in Vienna! Let’s drink to your relatives in Vienna! To their health!”  Vitia filled the glasses with the last of the vodka, unsteadily.

“I don’t have relatives in Vienna—‘far as I know—but I’ll drink to that!” We drank. “Ah-h-h-h!”

Vitia stared at me with a potato sticking out of his mouth. He looked a bit like a snake who wasn’t quite done swallowing a mouse. It was an unsettling sight, I shuddered. Vitia mumbled through his potato, “How can I find your relatives, may they be healthy and well, if you don’t have any? That was a stupid joke, Misha.”

I got offended. “Have you ever been to the Free World?”

“No, never.”

“See? How do you know who you can find there? Are you sure you don’t have relatives there, hmm?”

Vitia brightened up and yelled, “Yes! To my relatives in Vienna! May they always have a good erection when they need it and may their children never be afraid of diesel locomotives!”  he grabbed the empty bottle in an enthusiastic attempt to squeeze a few more drops of vodka out of it—with quite disappointing results. I knew the feeling. Philosophically, a glass could be seen as half-full or half-empty but when all vodka was gone, man, the glass was just empty.

I continued, “So how do I know what relatives I have where? How can you be sure that you won’t find my relatives?”

Vitia scratched his neck, a bit confused.

“So what do you want me to do?”

“Oh, not much, really. Just take my personal data with you. Mine and my parents. You know, passport numbers, names, address, dates of birth, mother’s maiden name—things like that. See what happens.”

“But I think they search everybody at the border. That’s what I heard.” He stood up, swaying unsteadily, “I don’t want them to look for something up my ass and find something there!”

“I hear you.” Naturally, I had a bright idea, I would not be stopped. “Then we can write my data on the elastic of your underpants. Nobody will find it even if they strip search you. Just don’t change the underwear!”

Of course, Vitia thought it was crazy but went along. For me, drunk or sober, it was an obvious action. If I wanted something to happen, why would I go around looking for explanations why it wouldn’t? Whose side was I on? So I just did my best to not leave any stone unturned—very simple. Intention to succeed is the key to making things work in mysterious, yet highly satisfactory, ways.

We cut the elastic in his underpants and pulled it out, wrote all the data, pulled it back in and tied the cut ends into a knot. Vitia  left.

He returned two weeks later in shambles, “I knew I shouldn’t have listened to you! You are crazy! We are both dead now! What have you done?”

Needless to say, I got worried and pried out of him what actually happened there that got him so terrified.

It turned out that as soon as he arrived to Vienna, some very tall guy approached him at the train station and asked in broken Russian with some unrecognizable accent if he knew any people who wanted to leave Soviet Union. Vitia, startled, told him about his underpants.

The tall man took him to the nearest public bathroom where they cut the elastic, pulled it out, the tall guy thanked him politely and left with the elastic.

The question that was driving Vitia crazy was, “Who was that tall guy?”

There seemed to be only one answer—KGB. Who else could it be?

I had to agree. I just couldn’t think of anybody else who’d be interested. Nervous Vitia ran off somewhere, I never saw him again.

The next three weeks were hell, always expecting a knock on the door, expecting our life to be ruined forever, not just my life but also my parents’ life. And they did not even have a clue all this was happening! I was trying to be especially nice and attentive to my mother. She thought I needed money, of course. Typical.

In about three weeks a large envelope addressed to my father came by mail. It was from Israel. I was home and I was expecting trouble so I decided to examine it before my parents got home.

The letter turned out to be an invitation letter from the Israeli Government. It was signed by four government officials using ball point pens that were skipping and smearing a bit in some places, as such pens did. Boy, did this look authentic to me!

The letter had the same text in three languages—Hebrew, English and Russian. It read approximately this:

“Congratulations Mr. Privorotsky! Your cousin, Vlad Hertzel, has found you after 20 years of searching with the help from several international non-profit agencies that are listed below. Your cousin, Mr. Hertzel, is a citizen of Israel and has been since 1948.

As you may remember, in August of 1941 you and your family were evacuating by train from the advancing German troops. There was a lot of confusion caused by enemy air raids and artillery fire. As you may remember, near Korosten station the train was bombed and your little cousin Vladimir, who was three years old at the time, got separated from the family and was left behind in the mass confusion.

You may have considered him dead but he survived. He was adopted by another Jewish family, the Hertzels, who made their way to Palestine during the War. That explains Vladimir’s new name. He has been looking for you and finally found you. He is hereby officially inviting you to live with him and his family in Haifa, Israel.

Upon presentation of this letter, you become eligible for Israeli citizenship, the right and duty to bear arms in defense of Israel and for low interest Government loans.

Welcome!”

Holly Zeus! I realized that I was looking at the proof beyond a shadow of the doubt! This was my ticket out!

First of all, I went to see my father.

“Congratulations, dad! Your cousin has finally found you!”

“What cousin?”

I showed him the letter. He was a little incredulous at first, mainly because, as it turned out, his family never evacuated from Kiev but stayed under the German occupation. Then, of course, it turned out he never had a cousin by the name Vladimir, either. Who sent the letter and why? We would find out later. For now it was a mystery but I didn’t dwell on it.

“Shame on you, dad! You don’t even remember your little cousin Vladimir! How could you forget little Vlad? The poor guy has been looking for you for 20 years and you don’t even remember him!”

UP AND AWAY!

To make a long story short, my parents decided to take this chance and get the hell out of the Soviet Union. It was not by any means an easy decision for them. When you apply for the exit visa, just by the act of applying, you forever forfeit your life, career, even your apartment. If you were denied the exit permission, you would have permanently and completely ruined your life and gotten forced into the ranks of dissidents. If my parents were allowed to leave and left the country, they would forever loose their friends and relatives, even the right to visit their parents’ graves. The real reason they made their decision to leave was my compulsory military service that was coming up that fall, right after my graduation from the Technical School. I did not consider that reason truly important at the time. My attitude changed drastically a year later when the Afghanistan blood bath started. Who knows, who knows . . .

Meanwhile, the next step was a visit to old Lieutenant Vasiliy. I showed him the letter. He read it, then looked at the signatures through a magnifying glass and finally declared the letter to be authentic.

“Of course, Misha, you understand that we would have to actually find this guy Hertzel and double check his story, but otherwise looks good from here.”

“Great. So what do I do now?”

“You need to fill out and submit an application. Oh, it is easy. Just a few simple things to get the application ready.”

The simple things turned out to include collecting attests from all the libraries in Kiev that we did not owe them any books, for example. Then getting similar attests from every rental place. There were several other simple steps as well, all totally idiotic.

Collecting the library attests was a nerve-wrecking experience at times. You come to a library, located usually in a basement of some apartment building, and ask for an attest that you don’t owe them any books. You know how in America librarians are considered to be among the most helpful people in the world? Well, in Russia they aren’t. They are usually cranky old ladies. So you ask for an attest and you hear back that you should just bring back the books and stop fooling around.

“But I can’t bring back the books because I did not check out any books from your library. So how could I bring them back?”

“How should I know? Am I supposed to believe that?” ironic smile, “You think I am stupid? Return all the books immediately!”

“I don’t have any books! Can’t you check your records? You must have a card file around here or something.”

“Don’t you tell me what I must have, you criminal! Bring back the books immediately or I am calling police!”

After a few false starts and some careful consideration I worked out two approaches—a box of chocolates or impersonating an authority figure. The chocolates approach was an obvious one. Women like presents and love sweets. That includes any and all women. Just one of those profound, transcendental truths of existence.

I reserved the second approach only for those rare librarians who seemed especially forbidding. Russians are hysterically afraid of authorities. Possibly it has something to do with many millions of people who were taken away in the middle of the night in the old days never to be heard from again. When body count gets into millions, people start noticing in a big way, they get terrified. Good ol’ Uncle Joe Stalin. “Stalin” means “made of steel”. Made of steel? Homicidal shithead!

Of course, that said and being true, it would have been only a limited hypothesis of why Russians and all Soviets were so scared of authorities, the “victim” side of the equation, something that was done to them. People love the idea of other people doing them in. It keeps lawyers happy and gives all of us a satisfactory explanation for all our failures. But personally, I think “victimism” is all a pile of horse manure. In 1979 Stalin had been dead for twenty-six years. Let’s cut the old pervert some slack, shall we?

No, people were scared because they were committing constant crimes against the State. Something was done by them, not to them. Or they were led to believe that they were committing constant crimes. Or both. Of course, if life was so hard and the laws were not known and you couldn’t easily find out . . . You think the Government might have intentionally rigged it that way? So no matter what you did to survive, you either broke the law or thought you did? For damn sure! The life was willfully set up in such a way that most of the people always felt guilty for some real or imaginary transgressions against the State and so they were terrified of authorities.

So I would show up wearing a suit and a tie, with my clipboard in hand, the attest already typed up and just waiting to be signed. I’d walk around silently, look the librarian straight in the eye, take out a pen, ask her name weightily, ask if she was in charge here and since when, ask gravely how many books get checked out daily and by whom, write it all down solemnly, silently look through her records making notes, then take out the attest and tell her to sign it—while unwaveringly, and even somewhat accusingly, staring straight into her eyes. She would fall to pieces, start babbling about her family and sign it. Then I’d simply turn around silently and march out. It was brutal. There was enough brutality around already. I liked the candy approach much better. Deep down inside every cranky old lady was still a woman, just a pissed off one.

Interesting to note that getting attests from rental places, by contrast, was very easy. All the clerks there were men who, as everybody knows, simply do not give a rat’s ass about anything. They would just as well sign anything to get rid of you and get back to doing nothing.

One of the more difficult things I had to do was getting out of Comsomol, which was a mandatory communist youth organization. You turn fourteen, you join Comsomol and at the age of twenty-four you get taken off the list. I was not going to wait for five more years to be twenty-four.  Unfortunately, in order to leave the country I had to be expelled from Comsomol first.

I was a student at the Culinary Technical School at the time, Mechanical Department. I thought I wanted to be a vending machines technician when I grew up. I enrolled in that program because, supposedly, no university would accept me on account of me being a Jew. Don’t really know, though, I never tried. I never graduated from the Technical School either. Anyway, I went to our local Comsomol secretary, as she was called, and asked her to expel me. She just laughed.

Okay. I went to see the region secretary. After a long wait I was finally ushered into his office. I might have entered the hub of a very important and busy operation, like a factory or possibly a department store or something. But what was he producing there with all that business? What was the end product? Absolute zilch. I presented my case and asked him to please expel me from Comsomol. He laughed too.

I went to the City Comsomol secretary. Never even got admitted. Getting into Comsomol was easy, getting out seemed impossible.

I was trying to leave Soviet Union for the West. Wouldn’t that be a betrayal of Comsomol principles? There must have been a certain ideological base in Comsomol, it was a communist youth organization, for Christ sakes! I went back to my Tech School Comsomol secretary and asked her for a formal hearing, like a court. As a member, I was entitled to express grievances and be heard by a special jury.

They called the hearing together a couple of weeks later. My best guess, they were too busy wasting time to do it any sooner. There were four members of the court and I. One of them, a good looking young woman, asked me to be brief. I was. I told them very briefly how much I hated them all goddamn anti-Semites, and that I was immigrating to Israel and did not want to be a member of their moronic Comsomol any longer. That was pretty brief, I thought. Silence. Bulging eyes and slack jaws. Then one of the guys got up, smiled wide, went around the table and slapped me on the back.

“Come on, Misha! You fool! You are playing us! I thought you were serious for a moment. Let me ask you a question just to show you how far off field you really are. If you were an Israeli soldier, sitting in a trench, looking at the Arabs attacking your position, let’s say Syrians or Jordanians or any other damn rag-heads, would you actually shot at them? You realize of course that Arabs can’t fight well as an army, they are the worst possible soldiers because many of them want to die. How sane and competent could they be as soldiers? So, naturally, those soldiers attacking your positions would most likely be mainly Russian or Ukrainian boys wearing Syrian uniforms, like in ’67, just like your buddies that you grew up with here. Would you really kill them? Honestly now.”

“Are you kidding me?! Honestly?! Of course I would kill every one of them imbeciles with all the bullets I had! And if I ran out of bullets, I would jump out of my trench and hack as many of them as I could with my bayonet! Death to the anti-Semites!”

Dropping jaws and bulging eyes again.

“Do you now believe me when I tell you that you must expel me? I am totally wrong for Comsomol! Do you all want to get in trouble because of me?”

They all concurred that I had to go. I was out in a hurry.

There were other things to handle, such as returning our apartment to the government agency Zhek that was handling living arrangements. It was its own comical nightmare, blown way out of proportion by the local bureaucrats, driven, naturally, by their insatiable greed—in full accordance with the universal and eternal bureaucratic tradition.

Finally the application was submitted. In about four months we had permission to leave that hellhole.

We were allowed to exchange enough rubles to have sixty-five dollars and one suitcase per person and leave the rest of our possessions, jewelry, a car and money behind forever. We did. We also had to give up our Soviet passports. Those were burned. We were briefed that we were banned from the Soviet Union forever as traitors.

With that heartfelt goodbye we got our train tickets. We would travel to the border town, appropriately called Chop, go through customs there and travel by train to Vienna with 195 dollars and three biggest suitcases in the known universe as the totality of our assets.

As rumors had it, Chop was besieged by immigrating Jews and going through the customs could take a week. I mean, waiting in line for customs inspection could take a week.

On August 22, 1979, my parents sent me to Chop to get a place in line and let them know when they should come. I remember that day because it was my birthday. I turned nineteen. To celebrate that momentous occasion I got senselessly drunk in the train with some guys I met. I had three bottles of vodka with me and some food, they had some too. Our jubilations went on till morning. Can’t say I remember anything that happened that night or in Chop during the first day or two. But apparently I did alright. I rented a corner in some old barn for enough money, probably, to feed an entire African village for a month, signed up in the customs line and called my parents with the estimated time and date of our customs inspection. It was supposed to be in six days.

The customs went okay for me and my father. We had nothing to hide, except, of course, a bunch of rubles that we were both smuggling in our shoes and underwear. We thought we’d have a bit of extra money for a rainy day. We didn’t realize that nobody outside of the Soviet Union accepted rubles at all. We had nothing for a rainy day except each other! But there, at the customs inspection, we were illegally carrying some rubles. Nobody searched us. We got through very fast with all our useless rubles.

But not my mother, oh no! My mom must be the straightest, most honest, prim and proper lady in the world. She has never as much as j-walked in her life. She would have a fit if she found out that her slip was showing a bit and any time any man would try to get a second glance at her—as often happened because she was a very beautiful woman—she was immediately certain that there was something terribly wrong with her appearance, possibly even a run on her stockings or, God forbid, a stain or a lost button or something equally cataclysmic. You get the idea. So my mother was strip searched at Chop. That is not all of it. The bastards found something on her. She hid a worthless string of corals under her blouse, just for sentimental reasons. Of course they confiscated the corals.

Don’t know what exactly happened at that search but she kind of froze as a result, some kind of shock reaction. So we were helping my mother and dragging the suitcases into the train sweating and cursing. We were dirt poor, bitterly frustrated and dead tired. An appropriate ending for our life in the Soviet Union, the most humane country in the world.

CHAPTER TWO

INTO THE RAINBOW

After an all night sleepless train ride we arrived to Vienna, Austria. The Free World! How many thousands of people lost or completely ruined their lives trying to get right to this very spot, where we were standing now!

While my father dragged out my mother and a suitcase, I was struggling with the other two huge suitcases. In all the hubbub, I did not notice a very tall guy who was hanging around. I only noticed him when he leaned over and asked me softly if I had on me any names and addresses of people who wanted to leave Soviet Union. He spoke Russian with an unpleasant accent which I could not immediately place. I suddenly remembered Vitia’s story. This was the guy! Now I could solve the mystery of the invitation letter!

“Just a second!” I yelled, “Who are you? Hey, wait a second. I just want to ask you a question! Who are you?”

The guy already turned around silently and was walking away from me along the train. I ran after him screaming for him to stop and answer my question. He suddenly stopped and turned around. I ran straight into him. He was about a foot taller, so he bent down, looking straight into my eyes, and said softly, “I do not answer questions.”

As he leaned over me, his jacket hung down and I saw a butt of a gun in a shoulder holster right in front of my face. There was nothing I could do, or even wanted to do, against him. He helped get us out. As far as I was concerned, he was entitled to keep his secrets.

“I understand. You do not answer questions! Makes perfect sense to me, man! Why didn’t you say so? No problem. Thank you very much for all you are doing, whatever it is!”

The tall guy walked away. I went back to my parents and the luggage. I still had no idea who he was and how we got here.

By the time we made it into the waiting area we were sweating profusely. My father was pissed off for a wide variety of reasons.

“What now, smart ass?” he hissed, “Where do we go? And where is breakfast?”

Right then I noticed a neat old lady with a sign over her head with our last name on it written in English letters! We all walked to her. The old lady introduced herself in Russian as Madam Betty. She was a volunteer for HIAS, a non-profit international Jewish organization that helped families to unite across all kinds of borders. Not just Jewish families either, just any families, even Vietnamese and Laotians. While she drove us in her Mercedes to her house, she explained that she gave refuge to several families from Russia in her house, while she stayed at her other house. Apparently there were several houses for Russians here but hers was the only one with some room for us.

As soon as I got over the fact that I was riding in a Mercedes—and boy, what a nice ride that was—I got totally absorbed by the scenery around me. Vienna is just such a beautiful city and so obviously foreign! Wow, I have made it out, I really have!

Madam Betty’s house was a large three-story mention filled wall to wall with Russian immigrants. Several families? Room for us? There must have been at least two hundred people there! Old folks, children, men, women—all kinds of people. There were also several fairly large and tough looking Israeli soldiers in battle fatigues there, armed with Uzis. I noticed gun ports in the steel entrance doors and in the steel plates of the first floor windows, there were bars on the second story windows. There was a surveillance camera aimed at the entrance door, too. The front of the house had concrete bumpers so no car could slam into it. A fortress of sorts.

“So, do we get a breakfast here?” inquired my father appropriately.

“Yes, you do,” answered Madam Betty amicably.

“What about lunch and dinner?” kept pressing my father.

“No, I am sorry, honey, no lunches and dinners for right now. The funds got cut. But I can show you where to buy very cheap food, you know? Like perfectly good chicken and turkey feet, for example. People buy such things here for their cats and dogs, but that is actually good food. There is also bread and bananas that are a bit stale or moldy but still good, things like that. There are also some food donations sometimes from local Jews. Okay?”

“Yes, yes, okay, Madam Betty,” I butted in hurriedly. “Could you explain such security? Are we at war with anybody in particular that we should know about?”

“Oh, sure, honey, of course we are. We are always at war, we are Israelis! These soldiers are here to protect you. By the way, there is a curfew, they lock up at 10PM and do not open till 7AM for any reason. I am supposed to brief you on that, so here you go. It is for your safety. Do you understand?”

“Sure.”

“Such a nice family! You are going to Israel, aren’t you? You will be on the plane out of here tomorrow. If you don’t, you are pretty much on your own with no money and only one meal a day for several months here while you are applying for the US visa.”

Her obvious recruitment pitch with a dash of arm-twisting did not go by unnoticed but it didn’t mean all that much to us. Despite all the appearances, we did not really need her to survive. We only needed each other. Many thanks for all the help of course, very much appreciated, but . . .  The crucial point she brought up was, “Were we going to Israel or not?” That was an excellent question. I thought about it before and had to decline. I did not want to go to Israel. Being a Jew was shoved down my throat to my detriment, I kind of resented that. Also, I have to admit that all the hoo-ha with the Arabs was a bit distasteful to me. I definitely sensed a moral dilemma there and, right or wrong, I wanted to stay as far away from it as I could. My father answered for all of us.

“We don’t know yet, Madam Betty, we still have to figure it out as a family. We may still go to Israel but most likely we won’t.”

Madam Betty looked startled and hurt as if he slapped her. She nodded and silently wondered off. I was impressed by her love for Israel. Grand old lady!

“Dad, don’t you want to go to Israel?”

“No. Why kill Arabs? I only kill things that I could use in my sandwich.”

My sentiments exactly. My dad is a great guy with a great sense of humor. He is so Jewish, he is even circumcised. I heard the story of his circumcision many times, mainly at parties in front of a crowd of moderately drunk people. When he was twelve, some religious Jews apparently caught him in a little village in Ukraine and circumcised the hell out of him somewhere in a barn. It was, from all I gathered, a very trying experience. My dad, however, did not hold grudges and was actually very proud of being more of a Jew than most other Jews we knew. I think he liked being a Jew. I suppose he could learn more about Judaism in the US too.

Next hurdle was surviving while we were applying to the US Consulate in Vienna which would supposedly take a few months. Fine! Bring it on!

MADAM BETTY’S HOUSE

We got a corner on the floor in some room on the second floor. People were sleeping on the floors everywhere. There were three bathrooms with constant lines to each of them. There were little children, old people. The conditions were worse than I could imagine, the place smelled bad, but I knew we’d live through it alright. This too shall pass. A little BO never killed anybody. Having settled down, we had breakfast and went out for a walk.

Vienna must be one of the most beautiful cities on Earth. We wondered around staring at all the awesome European architecture and foreign cars hissing by. I observed with astonishment how beautiful girls in garters and high heels—and not much else—were sweeping in front of their bordellos, smiling and waving to sensibly dressed, polite natives who were walking their cute yellow spaniels. Hey, lady, nice tits, I mean lingerie! I knew I was right about coming here! Then the dog-walkers stole the show. These smug locals—undoubtedly all millionaires—were diligently picking up dog poop after their dogs! Boy, a morning in Vienna was sure different than a morning in Kiev in many ways!

We came back to the Madam Betty’s house by lunch time. There was no lunch. That hurt. My father was unhappy too.

I wondered around looking at other Russians. People seemed overwhelmed and unhappy. And hungry. I asked some slouch from Odessa how they got here.

“Oh, a cousin found us. Can you imagine, man, when he was just a little kid he got separated from a train around Odessa some place in 1941. It turned out he survived and found us now! So he invited us to live with him in Israel some place.”

“That is totally incredible, man! You are very lucky!”

What the hell was going on here? He also had a cousin separated from a train?

Some old lady in the kitchen was cleaning up a whole freshly plucked chicken by the sink. Various random body parts, including a chicken head, were stacked neatly next to the sink, probably for a soup, judging from the pot of water boiling on the stove. The Hell will freeze over before anybody in this house throws a chicken head into the garbage. Anything even remotely eatable gets eaten. The lady, up to her elbows in chicken gizzards, introduced herself as Aunt Faina.

“Have you been here long, Aunt Faina?”

“Oh, yes, over a month.”

“So I guess you did not want to go to Israel either, hah?”

“Of course not!” Aunt Faina laughed, wiping her dirty hands on her even dirtier old apron.

“Nobody here wanted to go to Israel. Those who wanted to go are long gone. We are all stuck here, Misha. It is no picnic, it is very rough. There is no money. And there are people everywhere all the time! You remember the word “privacy”? You can forget it now. You have to stay in line all week to take a shower! Did you notice how it stinks here? People just can’t wash or do laundry! But you know, you can always change your mind and go to Israel. They’ll accept you right away, they need soldiers, they want more Jews.”

“Okay, Aunt Faina, I’ll remember that. And how did you manage to leave Russia?”

“Just like everybody else, you silly boy. A long-lost cousin finds you. Mossad got us all out. Have you seen Ronny, the tall guy at the train station? He is from Mossad. You better not piss him off, he has a gun.”

“Yes, thank you, I met Ronny and his gun. Who or what is Mossad?”

“Mossad is Israeli Intelligence, kind of like Israeli KGB.”

“Really?! Why?”

“Nobody knows for sure but we think they are trying to create a stampede and overwhelm the Soviet immigration system. It is designed to be a very weak system.”

“But why would they want to overwhelm the system?”

“Who knows?” Aunt Faina shrugged her sizeable shoulders, “Maybe trying to smuggle some important people out or just want to embarrass Moscow. Israelis are like that. Do things just for fun. You noticed, they do it openly? Russians know about Ronny for sure but nothing they can do. The letters are authentic, only the stories in them are false but nobody can prove them false. The Russians could kill Ronny but there would be another guy there next day anyway. Some political game, I guess. Just say thank you and let it be.”

Sure! I’ll say thank you and let it be, no problem. Mossad, hah? Sounds good to me!

By the way, a couple of years later, already in the States, we contacted Vlad Hertzel, our fictitious cousin who lived in Haifa, Israel. He was very happy for us. He said that all that the single occurrence that changed our lives forever was a phone call from some government guy who asked him if he wanted to help bring a nice family out of the Soviet Union. He did. So he was instructed to just remember to say that he had relatives, a cousin, in Kiev, Ukraine, if anybody ever asked. And to never agree to give any names or details about those relatives. Then a couple of months later he received a phone call from Netherlands Embassy, supposedly. They were doing some demographic study locally and asked him to please answer several questions. He agreed. The survey was about twenty questions. Tucked in the middle of them was a question if he had any relatives in the Soviet Union and if yes, where. He almost answered negative but caught himself in time and answered yes, he had a cousin and his family in Kiev, Ukraine. And that was all.

I found out later that over fifty-four thousand people left Soviet Union in 1979. Don’t know how many of them were gotten out by Mossad. I would guess that most of them were. All immigration was cut off completely in 1980 when the Afghanistan meat grinder started. My hat is off to Israel and its soldiers, regardless of the purpose of their operation. Thank God for them!

THE GODFATHER

As I was trying to make sense of it all, I ran into a guy in the hallway who offered me to buy his Russian photo camera Zenith for 600 shillings. That was roughly $60 at the time.

“You are funny!” I laughed. “You know exactly how much money I have. Same as you, $65 per person. How could I afford your Zenith even if I wanted one? Go outside, sell it to the locals. They pick up dog poop from the street, I bet they would buy your camera, too.”

“No, man, it is not allowed. We can’t go outside and sell stuff. You need a license for that around here. Cops will arrest you, beat you senseless and deport your ass back to Russia!”

Nonsense! I mean the deportation part. The Russians burnt our Soviet passports. They would never allow any of us to cross back to the Soviet Union. A business opportunity suddenly started to congeal right in front of me.

“Okay, give me your camera. I will go outside and sell it for you.”

“You are crazy! It is too risky!”

“Watch me!” I winked at him. His eyes suddenly became very big and round. What a strange guy! I went outside.

I must have waited for oh, maybe about a minute before some older gentleman with a dog walked by me. I stopped him, gave him the camera and scribbled “800” on a scrap of paper. He studied the camera for a while and then showed me his watch indicating with his finger that he’d be back here in thirty minutes. I nodded, took the camera from him and he walked away with his spaniel.

A small crowd of Russians gathered near by. They were gesticulating excitedly and whispering between themselves. I could only catch something about mafia. I wondered what no good they were up to now.

Finally the Austrian man came back with the money. Eight hundred shillings! I went directly to the now well-to-do former owner of the camera and gave him six hundred shillings. I gave my father the other two hundred. My dad took the money and ran away. Probably to buy some dog food and rotten bananas, my best guess, if he had a chance to talk to Madam Betty some more. She’d teach him all about having a very difficult life. There was no need to suffer. For two hundred shillings we could buy some hundred and fifty pounds of chicken feet if we wanted to. Hmm . . . Should I set up a chicken feet business?

“Here he is! This one!” I was in our room surrounded by the excited crowd that I saw outside a minute ago. The former camera owner was yelling happily, pointing at me, “He is the gangster, he bribed the police! He will sell the stuff!”

About ten of them literally jumped me and started dragging me outside! Fully realizing the absurdity of the situation and not wanting to hurt anybody, I was fighting back the best I could, when suddenly I heard my mother’s quiet voice, “I gave birth to a gangster. I should’ve had an abortion.”

“Mo-om!”

The delinquents dragged me out, set up a rickety card table right in front of the house on the sidewalk, piled up souvenirs on the table trying to force me to sell their trinkets, totally disregarding my very vociferous, yet subtle but strangely offensive rejoinders and witty insinuations in regards to certain utterly reprehensible sexual habits of their mothers and other relatives. They were beginning to really piss me off, in other words. While we were fussing and carrying on that way around the table like a flock of overgrown sparrows, suddenly a nicely dressed couple, the locals, walked right up to us. The woman picked up one of the Russian wooden dolls, a matreshka, and the guy smiled and dropped some money on the table. Then they just strolled away! We all froze, staring at the money. Twenty shillings! Could somebody remind me what I was so upset about just a moment ago?

“Hey, idiots! Whose matreshka was that?”

“Mine! It was my matreshka! I am Iliusha!”

“Okay, Iliusha, here is twenty shillings. Go, bring me back five. Run!”

“Yes, no problem, Misha. Thank you! Thank you!”

He ran off with a happy smile on his face, full of hope.

Don’t know about all this hardship of immigration life. It was my first day here and I already made 205 shillings not even half-trying. Lots and lots of dog food! Of course man does not live by dog food alone. We also lived by chicken, fresh fruits and vegetables, delicious bread and butter, excellent juices, absolutely incredible dairy products, coffee, pastries and other extremely tasty things. I’ll take roughing it out in Vienna over good times in Kiev any time! I was selling souvenirs and occasionally Russian gadgets, cigarettes, vodka and champagne. I wasn’t making much but I was bringing home something. We started putting some money away for the airfare to America and we still did not touch our treasure of 195 US dollars that we left Russia with. We even took some city bus rides around town and to the famous Vienna parks and palaces. Beautiful place, Vienna.

Then two local cops elevated me in the eyes of all the citizens of our Madam Betty’s commune to the unattainable by mere mortals heights of Godfather, El Capone and the like.

I was selling my wares one day, when a Russian guy ran to me, wild eyed, screaming that cops were coming and I had to drop everything and run, run, run!

Oh, no! Cops! I got all flustered, thinking feverishly what to do. Most of the stuff was not mine. I could leave it and run, I would not lose anything much. Except my pride . . . which was not such a small thing to lose! Furthermore, why did this guy keep urging me to leave so insistently, hmm?

So I was still standing there when a police car pulled up right in front of me. It was a police Volkswagen bug! You know, I thought to myself, if these cops here drove such a funny little car, they have not seen a real criminal in their life! They were nothing but children playing in the sand against a hardened criminal such as myself! You know, I was right!

There were two of them, a young skinny guy about my age and a bit older, very pretty blond woman with a very nice ass. She was almost unbearably attractive to me. I immediately noticed—and stared—at her delicate face, taking in her bright, beautiful eyes full of life and laughter, the nice way that  golden curves of her hair set off her pleasantly rounded feminine shoulders, wrapped in starched uniform shirt—that same shirt that hugged her chest so tightly . . . My lascivious stare caught her unprepared. She instantaneously noticed it, quickly adjusted her hair slightly and put on that cold and forbidding mask that beautiful women reserve for our chauvinistic brethren to discourage ogling. But was that a spark of amusement in her eyes? Yes, definitely, she was amused.

All the ding-dongs on her gun belt did not do her any justice. Of course, one could conceivably remove the ding-dongs . . . the shirt . . . and pants . . . yeah . . . and the boots . . . and definitely her bra and panties, yes, DEFINITELY . . . the silky, supple softness . . .  I mentally slapped myself back to my current predicament. I was about to be crucified for my crime and what was I thinking about?! Concentrate, you fool! Focus!

It turned out they were not real cops, they were Community Relations cops and my pretty lady cop was not even that. She was a future criminalist, whatever that meant, who needed some police experience for her internship or something—but I only found that out later.

Both came to me smiling politely, girl’s eyes sparking mischievously as she bravely fought to maintain her forbidding frown. I smiled back, very politely, and waved. The guy politely told me something in German. I answered politely in perfect English that my pencil was long and yellow. They smiled and he politely explained to me in English that I had to pack my merchandize and leave. I explained in English, Russian, Ukrainian, a bit of Yidish and with a lot of gesticulation and facial expressions that my mama, my papa and I, as well as several hundred of our closest roommates, we all liked to eat three times a day. We just kind of got used to that over the years and so now we had a habit to support. But here we only had breakfasts so, obviously, we had to sell souvenirs to eat. Naturally! I think they understood. They both nodded but the guy cop kept trying to politely convince me to leave anyway. I kept politely refusing and glancing at the woman, laboriously avoiding staring directly into her eyes or at her lips and breasts. Not to mention her ass. Oh, did I mention her ass?

We were all politely smiling at each other and nodding. The guy went so far as to lift the corner of my card table a bit with his finger. I slapped his hand hard. He yanked it back with a shocked look on his youthful face. His pretty partner doubled up in laughter, her eyes watering, so he also started laughing.

They politely talked in German between themselves for a bit. Then the girl stepped to the table smiling, and . . . bought a souvenir from me! I asked her name, she said “Clara” and gave me a dazzling smile. Wow! Thank you for the smile, Clara!

Somebody just had to be kissing those lips on regular basis! So why not me?! Just because I was a short, pudgy, unwashed, stinking of BO, penniless Ukrainian immigrant sleeping dressed on the floor in a room full of strangers? So? Nonsense! I told her in Russian that my name was Misha and I would like very much to spend a couple of weeks in bed with her just to start on the path of getting to know her a little better. Of course she could not have understood a word I said, although, as I found out later, one could never be sure on that with Clara! She could understand way beyond mere words. She looked straight into me and laughed, her eyes sparkling most delightfully. They waved to me, smiled, got back into their bug and drove off. I did not want her to leave. I never even suspected that Clara was such a wonderful name!

From that point forward, even the most skeptical Russians at Madam Betty’s house were totally convinced of my mafia connections and that I bribed everything that moved on this side of the Rhine River. Fools! Nobody bothered to look at the facts. I was making pathetically little money. I could not possibly afford any bribes! Not to mention that I would not know how to even start approaching anybody with a bribe, I never paid anybody off in my life! Dealing in facts seemed to be way too confusing for these people.

Some shy teenager covered in acne came to see me, asking if I could please help get him launched into his criminal carrier with the mob. That schmuck! Then some granny dragged in her three-year old grandson and told him that now Uncle Misha himself would tell him that if he wanted to grow up to be a real gangster he must listen to his parents and grandparents and eat his cream of wheat. Then they both looked at me expectedly.

“Listen to your parents and grandparents,” I mumbled woodenly, “And eat your cream of wheat and you’ll grow up a real gangster.”

“See?!” exclaimed the delusional granny triumphantly, thanked me and towed her poor wide-eyed progeny away.

I felt very bad about this whole gangster thing, but it was much better than eating dog food all the time, I assure you! Not that I had to eat dog food often but that ugly scepter was in fact hanging right over my head at the time.

My father was a top-notch professional house painter, famous in Kiev, people waited for many months to have him paint their apartments. He knew how to make his own patching materials, primers and paints from scratch, he mixed his own colors. He even taught me how to make an anti-allergenic, anti-bacterial, spot blocking, insect-killing primer, he drilled me on the ingredients and the procedure. He could make any faux finish under the sun, moon and blue sky. He could paint a wall to look like any expensive wallpaper, wood, marble, granite or anything else. He was a true professional. So he managed to find a small job in some private house where he made in three days more money that I was making in three weeks! My mother managed to sew something somewhere and also made money. We were sure doing alright. We applied for an interview with the US Consul and were patiently waiting for our appointment which was scheduled for us about two months down the road.

MY ANGEL CLARA

The beautiful lady cop Clara, the cause of my severe sexual tensions, came back to see me a few days later on Sunday morning. It was her day off. It was one of the brightest days of my life. She found me inside the house, she saw how we lived—and how we smelled—and even exchanged a few words in German with a soldier. That was embarrassing but I quickly forgot all about that. Dressed in a simple light-colored summer dress, without the gun belt and all the ding-dongs, the sight of her, her eyes and her smile just made my head spin and my heart flatter somewhere in my throat. No idea why I kept reacting to her that way, I was normally much calmer in that department. Not with her! There I was once again, hiding my erection. And she wasn’t really picture beautiful and a bit too plump, objectively speaking. But who wanted to be objective? She said she wanted to ask me a few questions and I followed her into her small Renault. She drove me to a very nice café for breakfast! I knew right then it was going to be a day to remember.

She did have a question for me. Communication was difficult at first since I did not really speak much of any of the languages she knew. But somehow, miraculously enough, we communicated rather well with the few words we had in common and with a lot of hand gestures, facial expressions and especially eye contact. She asked me, essentially, if I had anything specific in mind when I kept staring at her the other day instead of being duly scared of police, considering my precarious legal footing at the time. I explained the best I could that yes, I liked her very-very much and would have liked to make mad, passionate love to her right then and there but I was a little worried about getting shot if I tried. She just stared at me smiling and obviously pleased. Having found a rather receptive audience, I pressed on, asking her politely if today she happened to leave her gun somewhere very far away, by any chance. She laughed and affectionately stroked my face sending electric currents to all kinds of organs of my body. She told me that she liked me too and yes, she did, in fact, leave her gun at home! Yes-s-s-s!

It turned out she was a graduate student, studying to be a “criminalist”, whatever that meant, and she needed police experience to graduate or something like that. She was not a real cop. This made me feel better. Buying souvenirs from an illegal street hustler, who she was supposed to put out of business, just to help him? I rarely met a person less suited to be a street cop.

Clara showed me her beautiful city, then we stopped by some incredibly gorgeous lake to feed swans and got a bite to eat nearby. Later we had lunch at a charming street cafe. She kept buying treats and paying for me at the restaurants. I was upset because I could not afford any of this. I found this gigolo setup very uncomfortable. What can I say? Poverty sucks. I explained to her, as we were relaxing in that street café, that I was not comfortable with her paying all the time and that I could possibly afford to pay here, at least for myself. She understood and explained that this little money did not matter, she simply wanted this to be a happy day for me to remember. She then elaborated further, a little louder than absolutely necessary, if you ask me, that she was willfully raking up a bill for me, plunging me deeper and deeper into the abyss of debt which I would have to repay to her with wild and passionate sex. She got up and made a few indecent hips-thrusting motions just to illustrate the point. Din suddenly subsided, people at the neighboring tables were staring at us. I blushed.

“Eat your schnitzel!” I snarled at a guy at the next table in Russian. Clara laughed. The din resumed.

Was this a dream? I ventured to suggest to Clara, in a lowered voice, to commence the pay-off procedure right away, since I had a lot to pay back judging by the shear volume of pastries, French toast and all the sauerkraut or whatever it was that she kept feeding me all the time.

She laughed, paid and we walked to her car, her hand in mine. We drove home holding hands. My back bone turned to jelly. I kept melting until my insides achieved a uniform maple syrup consistency. Her small apartment was very cute and smelled incredibly nicely. There was a very thick gorgeous carpet on the floor, a homey furniture set—everything was tasteful and cozy. Ah, home . . . some day I will have one too. The matreshka that she bought from me occupied a prominent place on one of her Bose speakers that looked expensive. She told me to get comfortable while she’d make some coffee for us but immediately changed her mind, came back from the kitchen and pushed me on the couch, her lips on mine, insistent and passionate, with one hand inside my pants. I was not wasting any time either. Well, I suppose I did not want coffee all that much right then anyway.

We made love for some hours in her small but very cute apartment, first in the shower and then pretty much everywhere else. It was just one incredibly sweet, hot and intensely pleasurable blur.

Clara was easy to please. And she had an abundant supply of both raw lust and sweet love that she just showered me with. I bet if she had a husband and kids, they would never go around unkissed, unhugged and unsqueezed!  She was on a wild side at times but mainly liked it gentle and slow, just like me. Finally, I begged for time-out on the grounds of running out of quarters to continue for now. We smoked, lying naked on the floor, my hand on her heavenly breast, exhausted and incredibly happy, her precious head resting on my chest. I asked where we stood on my debt to her for all the croissants and sauerkraut. She said that she got paid in full by the time we were half-done with the shower but didn’t want to tell me so I would continue. What an irresistibly adorable woman. She sure knew how to make a guy feel eight feet tall!

Clara gave me her very nice, thick wool scarf as a present to keep me warm. She also gave me a gold Star of David on a gold chain for good luck but asked me to promise to come back and find her in about ten years and give it back to her. She wanted to find out about all my incredible achievements in the US by that time. And I did! I was back there on a business trip in 1991, some twelve years later, looked her up. She was married, had two boys, six and nine. She looked soft and happy. To be honest, she looked even more beautiful. She was obviously much loved and allowed to love back with her usual abandon. How do you even find a man good enough for this angel? Well, I guess she found one. She loved her hubby dearly and adored the boys. Good! We had a couple of drinks, I paid this time. She was now a “criminalist”, whatever that meant, but most importantly, she did not do anything very strenuous or dangerous at work. I was very pleased to hear that. She told me I sounded just like her husband. Of course I did. I even know why!

That beautiful day was the gift from Clara. It is mine to keep forever. And the scarf she gave me has always been the warmest scarf in the whole world!

ON AMUSEMENT PARKS AND TERRORISTS

With Clara gone Vienna lost most of its luster. But then somebody told me about a totally fascinating place, an “amusement park”. There was one in Vienna, the Pratter. Finally I decided to go take a look at the Pratter. I was so happy I did! It was an incredibly interesting place! There were all kinds of rides and video games (and a porno theatre) there, I never even imagined so much fun before. I had a wonderful time for hours! And I forgot about the curfew. It was after midnight when I finally got home. The doors were locked, nobody responded to my knocking. The place was buttoned up for the night!

I cringed at the prospect of spending the night outside. I wanted to be inside, snug on the floor with my parents. If you want something bad enough, you make it happen. I wanted to be inside bad enough. Next thing I realized was that a couple of window washers were carrying a long ladder a bit down the street! The third story windows were open and they had no bars. One of them was behind the entrance surveillance camera in a blind zone.

I wrestled the ladder out of the window washers. Wrestled? I grabbed it and they simply let go. Just as their police, they were not prepared to deal with the Russians. They were just too civilized around here! I set up the ladder, it barely reached the edge of the huge rounded third story window ledge but it would have to do. I carefully climbed to the ledge, got on it with my hands and knees and crawled slowly to the window. Suddenly my hand slipped inside the room and I fell in head first.

In total darkness I landed on something soft and squishy. What the hell was that? Whatever it was under me suddenly shuddered and let out a blood curling yell, “A-a-a-a!” Damn, scared the living hell out of me! I landed on a very fat woman! I scrambled to get off her in panic but I couldn’t, I got totally bogged down. It took a second for my eyes to adjust a bit to the darkness inside the room, I saw bodies all around me starting to wake and stir, there was no room to step! I had my knee on the woman’s chest now and tried unsuccessfully to get some footing to stand up when suddenly I glimpsed a huge fist coming at me fast from the right. I only had enough time to turn my head slightly to the left and lean away a bit when the fist connected with a crunch. I rolled over several bodies with my head spinning and ringing and the right side of my face numb. I got on my feet and stumbled toward the door, stepping all over these people.

By the time I got to the door, there was a total mass pandemonium all around the room. I heard the word “terrorists” repeated several times over the screaming noise. Some guys were already swinging at each other in the darkness. In this confusion I flew out the door into the third floor hallway and immediately heard soldiers running heavily up the stairs. I got on my feet, turned, skidded, jammed through the bathroom door and locked it behind me. First of all, I checked my face in the mirror. It was numb and half of it was getting red and a bit puffed out. I knew it would get much worse very soon but for now it did not look too incriminating. My head was spinning. I wetted some paper towels with cold water and pressed them against my face, as if drying it, and walked out as calmly as I could.

The hallway was full of screaming people. Three soldiers armed with Uzis were lining people up and checking the rooms one by one. They were exchanging brief commands and responses in Hebrew. They were calm, fast and professional. I would not recommend anybody pissing them off for any reason whatsoever.

The soldiers got everybody out of the rooms. You know, lots of sleepy people in their pajamas and slippers, disheveled, shivering and scared ladies of all ages, kids with their teddy bears and pacifiers, most of them crying. A nut house! The soldiers lined us up against the walls in the hallways and stairwells in order to get the head count. I found my parents. My mother was terrified that I wreaked all the havoc and whispered wildly to my father and I, “If they ask, Misha was with us all night!”

The soldiers counted us till after 3 AM that night. They kept getting a different count every time! The old folks and toddlers with their mothers would wonder off to any available bathroom or their room, come out and join the line up in a different place after the count, some would fall asleep somewhere and get missed at counting, things like that kept messing up the body count. I was terribly sorry for all this trouble, I really was. Looking at the bright sides, though, we had an intruder drill! Presumably we expected an intruder so it was probably a good idea to have an intruder drill. Unfortunately, we all flunked. The soldiers flunked because I got in so easily. The Russians flunked because we were like a herd of cats, for Christ sakes.

The soldiers finally counted us by herding everybody onto the second and third floor and then, after carefully making absolutely sure the first floor was totally empty, they started sending people downstairs one by one to be carefully counted and then kept under guard. They finally got an accurate head count that way and we were all allowed to get some sleep.

I was woken up around 7AM by a soldier who asked me to follow him. He took me to the Security room in the basement. Their sergeant was there at his desk. He read my name and some other things from some file and told me as a matter of fact that I created a lot of extra work for them and upset the other Russians by violating curfew and climbing through the window. He threatened me with disciplinary actions. What could he possibly do to me? I told him to kiss my entire ass. We both stared at each other for a while. Another soldier was observing this from a cot in the corner. He finally got up, came over.

“Hey, Surge! How about I just take him out and shoot him? I have not killed anybody for several days now.”

“No,” Surge responded flatly, staring hard straight into my eyes.

“Ple-e-e-se, Surge, please, please, please!”

“Well, okay, tsidreiter. Just keep the noise down. We don’t want to upset the neighbors!”

“Oh, thank you, thank you, Surge!”

The soldier stuck his Uzi into my chest and ordered me to turn around and walk to the door. What an asshole! Of course I knew they were just joking but I hated it just the same. I stepped to my right, grabbed the tiny barrel of his gun with my left hand and yanked it forward pass me while stepping in with a punch into the guy’s kidney. I figured solar plexus was a hopeless target—inconveniently positioned from where I stood and, besides, he was too heavily muscled, these guys were in great shape. Of course, I was way off on the kidney too, I was not close enough—his arms were longer. So I botched it and ended up with the left side of my already throbbing face slammed down hard on the desk and my both arms twisted painfully behind my back. Even behind my neck, I would say, by the feel of it. Had no idea they could bend that far. They probably couldn’t!

“Let me go!” I drooled viciously all over the desk with my face pressed hard against it.

The Israelis laughed, helped me up and patted me on the back, “You are alright, man. Would be a pity to have to shot you if you do it again.”

“Okay, okay, I won’t do it again.”

“Alright. Good luck in America! You will need it when you get there!”

I came out of that basement with my pride severely hurt, pain in most of my bones in addition to the pain in my face. And didn’t I tell myself not to mess with these guys under any circumstances? I sure did. I wasn’t even smart enough to listen to myself! I was not a happy camper.

The breakfast was an hour later. The right side of my face was totally swollen, blue and painful and the left side of my face was not left entirely unblemished by the soldiers either. I could not chew. Looking that way, I came down for my usual coffee, eggs and two slices of toast with butter and jam. We had not been pampered with excessive breakfast menu diversity. Eggs and coffee were easy enough to chew, the rest was not for me right that very minute. While I was eating gingerly, a big burly guy of about fifty or so approached me, examining my face with a great deal of interest.

“You know,” he shared with me conversationally, “there were no terrorists here last night.”

“No? Who broke in then? What was that all about?”

“I saw what happened, I was there. Some guy jumped my wife! Wanted a piece of ass, I guess. But I was right there! I whacked him real good! By the way, he looked about your size, that guy, a little runt.”

“No kidding?”

“That’s the truth.” He eyed me suspiciously now, “Do you know anything about that?”

“No, I had no idea.”

“Where were you last night?”

“Sleeping of course, where else?”

“I don’t know where else. What happened to your face? Looks like you got royally whooped.”

“Me? Oh, this? Ha-ha! No, I just fell down the stairs last night in all the excitement.”

“I see.” The big guy chewed on his lip for a while assessing the situation. “I’ll tell you what, man,” he finally said weightily, “if you ever see the pervert who tried to jump my wife last night, please tell him from me that if he comes anywhere near her again, I will kill him with no further warnings. Okay?”

“Okay, sure, man, take it easy.”

He walked away. Jump his 400-pound wife? I felt flattered. It was simply a matter of reach. My hat is off to any man who’d measure up to jump on that piece of ass. Relax, bud, your treasure is safe with me, regretfully.

Same day the Israelis had the second camera installed in the blind spot and the bars went up on all the third story windows.

ITALIAN FASCISTS AND COMMUNISTS

We finally had our US Consul appointment. It went okay, I suppose. Each one of us separately was called in to talk to a couple of guys first, the Security check. I am pretty sure they were Israelis but spoke fluent Russian and worked for Americans. They seemed remarkably well informed about my life and asked a lot of very pointed questions. Amazing, actually, very impressive. They knew who I saw in Kiev, what time and what day. They were especially interested in all of my meetings with the KGB Lieutenant Vasily. They knew about him! I could not remember nearly as many details of my life as they seemed to know. Probably they made up a lot of stuff as they went just to confuse me. They tried to catch me contradicting myself or appearing to be in two places at the same time. It was definitely a very professional interrogation—bright lights, lots of yelling, a good-cop-bad-cop routine, accusations, threat. Then the show was finally over, they smiled, apologized for any discomfort they might have caused, shook my hand, wished me good luck and escorted me out of the room. I came out shaking and disoriented. Discomfort? I felt more comfortable when I was being bitten by a bunch of Arabs. If I were hiding something, I would have most likely spilled the beans.

I guess we all passed the Security check. We were reunited and routed to see the Embassy Counsel. He looked over our application and said that all we needed now to be admitted to the USA was a physical examination and we were all set.

We knew the routine. Other Russians went through this already. There was no way of getting a physical exam in Vienna without having to borrow a huge amount of money from HIAS. Their loans were low interest and had no set repayment schedule but nobody wanted to get into debt from get go anyway. Medicine was just way too expensive in Vienna. If you were a citizen of Austria, you had all medical expenses paid for you, but if you were an outsider, like us, you were totally screwed. A physical examination in 1979 was over a thousand dollars per person in Vienna. An astronomically high price for us. It would probably take us a year to stash away three grand.

The worked-out procedure for the Russians was traveling to Rome, Italy, where some hospital near Rome conducted free physical examinations for poor immigrants one day a week. The waiting line there was six to eight weeks as I heard.

We were in pretty good shape financially so we just bought the cheapest train tickets and traveled to Rome.

I believe, there is absolutely nothing on Earth more astonishing than Rome. Some places in Rome are so unbelievably beautiful and so incredibly ancient that they seem totally unreal. I loved Rome! And I loved Italians. They seemed to be always engrossed in an interesting and temperamental discussion with somebody, sometimes with several people at once. It seemed the discussion had no beginning and no end, it just kept on going, all parties picking it up at any point and carrying it forward through time, possibly ever since Romulus and Remus suckled the wolf.

We settled in Ostia, a small sea-side town some thirty miles from Rome. We rented a cheap one-bedroom apartment there with another Russian family, registered with the hospital and buttoned down for a long wait. We met quite a few other Russians there. It turned out there was even a Russian community center of sorts organized by local communists in the basement of some Baptist church. There was a guy always hanging around by the name Alberto who, as it turned out, was in charge of us. He belonged to a communist gang and was there to help and take care of us the best he could.

Ostia was politically divided into two warring camps—fascists and communists. Fascists supposedly disliked us because we were foreigners and came from a communist country and the local communists were helping us for the same reasons. It did not seem to bother anybody that we left the communist USSR and came here to a capitalist country despite danger and considerable hardship. We were not communists, not at all, not even a little! Personally, I did not want any help from any damn pinkos, including Alberto.

Our resources were severely depleted by the train ride and the apartment rental. So, walking down the beaten path, I found other Russians and put together a souvenir stand on the promenade. Ostia is a charming town with a wooden promenade by the beach. A promenade is just a wooden walkway, really, not particularly interesting in itself. However, dozens of street vendors imbued it with color, life and character. There were street musicians, craftsmen, some food vendors, selling such tasty things as hot chestnuts, caramelized apples and cotton candy, and there were souvenirs from all around the world. It was quite a nice place. The beautiful sea, good company, business was okay. I loved it to pieces! For about a week or so. Then we were raided by carabineers.

Carabineers are a branch of Italian police armed with short rifles called “carbines”. Who knows why Italians need carabineers. They don’t, if you ask me. Of course, nobody asked me. I was a complete nobody. Or was I?

In any case, carabineers raided the promenade in force with rifles on the ready one evening. These dicks must have had about a dozen police vans there! They beat people up with rifle butts, confiscated stuff, arrested everybody. It was ugly. Glaringly different from Austrian police. I could not even imagine Clara behaving this way or ever hurting anybody like this.

As soon as I saw the vans and cops with their stupid little rifles, I immediately walked away from my souvenir table. I just left it all there and took a few unhurried steps away from the table. I did not get roughed up or arrested. I watched from aside how the cops were beating the neighbor of mine on the promenade, an old black Moroccan guy by the name Joseph, the roasted chestnuts seller. A very nice old guy who treated me to his chestnuts all the time. He had to go to the bathroom a lot, so I watched his stuff, even sold some chestnuts to the tourists for him. Now the cops confiscated his burner and skillet and threw his chestnuts all over the road. Then they dragged old Joseph with a bloody nose into one of their vans. What has he done? Nothing. This was all very sad. And I lost all my merchandise and my income source. The dog food specter was dangling right in front of my nose now. It did not smell all that good.

Of course there was also the day labor route.

Next morning at 6AM I was standing by the Central Post Office in a small crowd of Russian men waiting for the locals to drive by and hire us for the day to do different chores. It was humiliating. Nobody liked it but what are you going to do?

Some old lady picked up a guy for some garden work or something. Nothing else was happening. Some Russian told me that he was there every morning for two weeks but only worked three days. Around 8AM suddenly an old rickety bus stopped next to us, enveloped in the cloud of noxious diesel fumes. We all hoped in and went to a different town about ten miles away. Somebody was building an eight-unit apartment building there. We had to dig the foundation by hand. There were about a dozen of us. Some local genius must have finally cognized that it was a lot more economical to hire a dozen of Russians than one backhoe with a driver. We each were promised two thousand lira an hour (about two dollars an hour at the time) and additional four thousand lira for each of us as a day bonus if we met our collective target for the day, plus free lunch and cigarettes for everybody.

It was hard work. The ground was clay and rocks, bone dry, very hard. How many thousands or millions of people poked around in this very dirt in the last 3000 years of local civilization? What about before that? Obviously, we were a lot more advanced now, theoretically we had all kinds of machines and automation—not available to us here and now, of course. We were using picks and shovels, probably about the same tools that Roman slaves used to use. Of course, unlike us they had three square meals and a free place to stay. . .  Civilization gets so over rated.

The mornings were cold. It was unpleasant work but, basically and essentially, it was just work. Work can always be made fun. It is up to me to make my work fun. I might as well for damn sure make it fun if I have to do it anyway!

The first three days we got our 16,000 lira per person a day (about sixteen dollars) but no bonuses, although we met the daily targets every day. We had our cigarettes but no lunch, just water. We kept working regardless because 16,000 lira would buy enough chicken feet and rotten apples to survive for several days for the whole family.

On the fourth day, around noon, a small Fiat drove onto the job site with four guys inside. They climbed out silently and went directly to the manager’s trailer. First a briefcase flew out the window, shrouded in glass fragments. It was followed closely by the phones, staplers, blueprints, binders, phone books, other crap, then a chair and finally a typewriter. Then the manager flew out the door and landed in a puddle with a splash. The four guys came out of the trailer calmly and proceeded to methodically kick the wet manager for a while. Then they overturned his Mercedes and bashed in all its windows and lights. Then they bashed the bus windows and cut the tires. They worked silently, never looking at us. We were just standing as a crowd, taking it all in and not believing our eyes. On the way to their little car, one of the guys said two words to us, “Brigada Rossa.”  They drove off.

Great. The Red Brigades! The violent Communist faction, terrorists. Damn!  One of us must have complained about the bonuses to Alberto. Who complained? Kill the snitch!

The manager got up limping and smearing dirt and blood all over his face. He announced that there was no more work for us here. He could not even take us back to Ostia because the bus tires were slashed.

He paid us in full for the fourth day—no bonuses as usual—and we walked back ten miles, mad as hell. The entire way home we were trying to find the complainer among us. If we had found him out, we would have killed him right then and there, that’s a fact. The traitor was among us but we never found him out. How the hell did we just manage to loose the only job in town?

The next six weeks I had a forced vacation. You know, the beach, Tom and Jerry cartoons at the Baptist church, chicken feet dinners and usually breakfasts and lunches too, stuff like that. Blah! My father and I did a bit of painting, my mother managed to find a job in the olive processing plant once. We were surviving but this unproductive tourist life was making me sick. And I missed Clara. Nothing I could do about that either.

We spent the entire October in Ostia and then most of November. It was rainy and getting very cold. I wore Clara’s scarf a lot—it still had her smell on it at first but it eventually disappeared. And the beautiful sea now looked ugly and downright boring.

One evening there were cartoons scheduled at our community center. I was busy doing nothing and so of course left home late. My parents did not want to go, others already left, so I went alone. Along the way I caught up with a girl by the name Lena and her little daughter Stella walking to the same place. We walked together. Lena’s husband and a few others found a construction job up north by Milan for a couple of weeks. Lena was very happy that I was walking with them. Ostia was not an especially dangerous place but nobody would call it a very good neighborhood either, especially for us, since we were so vulnerable and the fascists supposedly hated us so much.

It was about a forty-minute walk, already getting dark and raining. Conversing pleasantly with Lena and her little daughter, I noticed a guy hanging back behind us. Yeap, there he was. I took a glimpse of the guy once again in a shop window. I suddenly realized that we were being followed. We turned a couple of corners to make sure. Yes, no doubt, this guy was following us. We had absolutely nothing that anybody could possibly steal from us. So what was the attacker after? Lena got very scared for herself and her little girl. Damn! I told Lena to pick up Stella and start running. I figured I would use them as bait to ambush the attacker. It was risky because if I went down there was no way Lena could outrun this pervert with the little girl in her arms, we were still a mile away from the church. But I had no other good ideas to offer her at the moment.

We ran down the street and then turned the corner to the right into a narrow side street with the attacker in hot pursuit. As soon as we turned the corner, I found a comfortable-size stone and hid behind the inside corner, while Lena kept running clutching whimpering Stella to her chest. The guy turned the corner in full gallop and I smacked him with a rock full strength right on the forehead. He went down cold. I took his wallet and ran after Lena. I did not mean to rob him, I just wanted to know who he was and, especially, I wanted him to know that I knew who he was. Lena and Stella calmed down somewhat. We stopped at a small café that was still open, had some juice, ice cream and pastries. That took all the money the hoodlum had in his wallet. Out of all the robbers in Ostia I had to rob the one with five bucks on him! Pathetic!

We then watched funny American cartoons where a certain psychotic rabbit and a mouse repeatedly brutalized and seriously mutilated various other animals and even people. Deth-th-th-picable but funny, nonetheless.  Then we walked back home. We all lived in a large apartment building. I escorted Lena to her entrance and then went home myself. By my entrance I ran into a group of locals, I recognized Alberto among them. One of the guys had a huge bloody bump on his forehead. Could he be . . . ?

“Hey, Micolo!”

The rest was in Italian but I recognized some swear words and hand gestures. Oh, yeah? You damn commies!

“Porko dio! Avanti catso! Bandidos! Vafunkulo!”

I exhausted my knowledge of Italian except for my “rigalo per bambino” phrase that meant “present for the baby” from my few nostalgic souvenir selling days—but it did not seem appropriate.

I gave the guy with a bump his wallet back. He checked the wallet and seemed disappointed that his money was gone. He started yelling at me in Italian again, calling me crazy. Maybe I was crazy but I was not the one with a bump on my head . . . this time! I looked around and found a pretty good size rock. When he saw it in my hand, he stopped yelling and stood behind Alberto, very-very still.

It turned out these idiots sent this guy to protect us on our way to the community center but I knocked him out with a rock. And robbed him. The schmucks tried to make a huge deal out of it. Could happen to practically anybody!

When Lena’s husband Igor returned from Milan, all three of them stopped by our place with a bottle of vodka and some pizza and we had us a party. Little Stella danced for us. It was fun!

PHYSICAL EXAMINATION

Somehow we lived to see the day of our physical examination. It was a Saturday. Every Saturday this hundred-year old hospital held an open doors day for poor immigrants’ physical examinations.

When we came in the morning, men were separated from women. Men – right wing, women – left wing. I entered the right wing with my dad. This was an experience of a life time that I sincerely wished I never had.

About 120 or so guys of all sizes, colors, shapes and ages were waiting in a large hall. Then a stern looking old nurse came in and ordered us to completely undress and line up in one line. She spoke in Italian and then repeated the same message in English and then in French. We did not really understand any of these languages but the meaning became excessively clear when all the guys undressed butt naked and started forming a single file. Nobody was looking at each other. We took our cloths off and lined up with the others.

We received our folders and just kept moving single file from the large hall through some long corridor into another large hall. All along the way nurses and doctors were doing their thing on all of us at the same time. Along the way I was given a small empty jar with my name on it for the urine test. We were supposed to piss in it right then and there while walking and holding a file folder in one hand. I saw some guys turning in their jars empty. My dad and I did okay though, managed to drip a bit. Then we all walked by a doctor who looked in everybody’s throat and ears, then we walked by a doctor who listened to our lungs and hearts. At some point some doctor examined our genitals. At another point another doctor ordered us to face the wall and bend over and he examined our rectums. We went through the blood pressure stations.

Nurses were all dressed like nuns. That made things a bit easier, I am sure, but did not prevent a few embarrassing accidents since some of these nurses were young and pretty.  All these accidents were being laboriously ignored by the rest of us, not as embarrassed at the moment. We were all upset and humiliated but very determined to get through.

This physical examination eventually ended. We came out of there just as the second shift of guys was assembling in the big hall for their physical. Some were laughing and horsing around. They had no clue what was in store for them. And what about the doctors and nurses? Damn, what a crazy job they had!

My mother too made it through okay. We later got the results. All three of us were healthy.

The next step was seeing the Clerk at the US Embassy in Rome with our examination results. He said we were all in good health and asked where in the States we wanted to go. We wanted to go to San Francisco. No, no admittance to San Francisco. New York? Nope. Los Angeles? Sorry. Miami? ‘Fraid not. Dallas, Texas, where everything was big? Wrong again. We ran out of cities we knew and asked him to just tell us where we wanted to go. He made a phone call and announced that we really wanted to go to Pittsburgh, PA!!!!

“Pittsburgh what?! Where the hell is that?”

“Oh, its just north of West Virginia,” explained the Clerk off-handedly.

With that clear understanding, we paid everything we had to the last penny for our plane tickets, borrowed the balance from HIAS and left Italy. I had mixed feelings about Italy but, in any case, Italy was in the past. The whole huge bright future was waiting for us in Pittsburgh, PA, the magic and mysterious land just north of West Virginia, wherever the hell that was!

We were up and away to our new Motherland! We wanted to immediately become fat capitalist millionaires like all Americans! Red, white and blue, Jingle Bells, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson, Atlantic City and Los Vegas—America! My love for the baseball, mama and apple pie suddenly had no bounds. It was happening! I was going to be an American!

CHAPTER THREE

AMERICA!

On November 20, 1979, we landed in Pittsburgh. Not such a small step for mankind! The entire trip, including twisting librarians’ arms and all the other silly things we had to do, took about nine months, about the same as it took most people to get born. An interesting metaphor there, somewhere.

At the airport we were met by Aunt Rachel, a volunteer for the local Chapter of Jewish Family and Children Services, a very neat and immaculately groomed old lady. She was a Russian Jew, about seventy. Rachel spent most of her life in Pittsburgh, raised three kids, her husband died a couple of years back.

In her huge Buick on the way to our new home Rachel briefed us on a few things, such as taking showers, changing clothing and using deodorant daily and always answering “Fine” and smiling whenever anybody asked us “How are you?” It was all very interesting but not very relevant to us at the moment.  She also got us fully politically versed in the life of the country by explaining the three branches of US government and briefing us on the lame duck President Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer who, just as all Democrats, wanted to destroy our great country. I asked why she thought so. Such generalizations seemed unjust and unlikely. And how could such an evil peanut farmer get democratically elected? According to Aunt Rachel, no Democrat ever amounted to anything in terms of being of any value to this country and peanut farmers were a particularly conniving bunch. In life according to Rachel, Democrats were all ganif (“bandits” in Yidish) relentlessly bent on destruction of America, cowards and losers, wishing for nothing else than to see red flag flying over the White House. I pried Rachel to elaborate a bit more on that particular point. It turned out that this profound wisdom was imparted to us by her late husband Itsah who was, God bless him, an absolute genius. Rachel may not have been an excessively bright person but she must have loved her old man dearly and had been a great wife, probably much better than her hawkishly undemocratic husband deserved.

We were driving down Route 60, then I 279. Wow, wow, wow! This manicured highway did not seem to belong in real life, it was just too perfect, too much like a movie. It even had rather esthetically looking guard rails on each side and there was a similarly manicured ravine between us and the opposite moving traffic. Wow! Rachel’s huge Buick purred lazily down the asphalt river, effortlessly doing seventy-five. A real American car on a real American highway!

“Damn potholes everywhere!” Rachel suddenly muttered. “Why do we even bother paying taxes to these morons? Look at this!” Rachel pointed to some insignificant blemish on the surface of this otherwise perfect road. “You call this a road?” Rachel shook her head sarcastically. At first I thought she was joking. What potholes? I did not see any potholes. But she was serious. Poor American woman did not even know what a pothole was. She though this road was bad?

“Aunt Rachel, you are mistaken. All that American Coca Cola clouded your judgment. These are not potholes. A true pothole is when you accidently step into one during rain and you need CPR to get all the water pumped out and your heart started again. You see a car drive into one of those occasionally and you never see it come out! It’s just gone! Entire families vanish! The authorities frequently have to dredge the bottom . . .”

Rachel reached back to me with unexpected agility and slapped me a good one on the mouth. She explained conversationally that she threw the last smart ass not unlike myself, may he rest in peace, out of her car at full speed on this very highway. My parents laughed. I liked this old lady but I crossed Monongahela River in silence.

“This was the Fort Pitt Bridge”, explained Rachel on the other side. It was a beautiful bridge. “There are many bridges in Pittsburgh, some four hundred or more. It is called “The City of Bridges” or “The Steel City”. There are dozens of steel mills here, it is the metallurgical center of the country.”

Fascinating! Downtown Pittsburgh presented a very impressive skyline. Skyscrapers! We were in a great position now to see Three-Rivers Park with a huge stadium and two more rivers, a multitude of bridges straddling them most remarkably. Rachel explained that in addition to Monongahela River we also had Allegheny and Ohio Rivers here. Such wonderful names! “A-lle-ghe-ny”, “Mo-non-ga-he-la”, “O-hi-o”. In Kiev we had only one river—Dnepr—which of course was much wider than all these three combined but the name! How can you even compare “Dnepr” to “Monongahela”?

We drove through Downtown. I was dully impressed. The university part of the City, Oakland, dominated by the Cathedral building, was just perfect with its vast spaces and beautiful buildings. She drove us proudly through some expensive residential areas of Shadyside.

Never a metropolis of divine beauty, Pittsburgh in late autumn was not particularly at its best but I liked it. My parents, however, were not impressed with Pittsburgh although they too found some parts of Pittsburgh quiet esthetic. It is true that European cities are prettier. Pittsburgh looked altogether different but I was okay with it. My attitude was that USA was just exactly what it was. It was not how it compared with this or that other place or our feelings about anything. It just was what it was and it was exactly where we wanted to be.

Rachel brought us to an apartment building in Squirrel Hill, a nice Jewish area of Pittsburgh, on Beachwood Boulevard. The apartment building was surrounded by trees, lots of squirrels, some raccoons and even deer, as we were told—an incredibly nice and quiet place, perfect for us. It turned out we had a one-bedroom apartment, all furnished with brand new nice furniture down to a brand new TV set. All paid for six months for us by the Jewish Family and Children Service. All funded by private donations by local Jews! I had tears on my eyes when I found out. These people didn’t even know us but they all helped. They were including other people, whom they did not even know personally, into their plans, into their lives. Their value as human beings was so much higher than mine that I couldn’t even see that high!

Rachel showed us around the apartment. It consisted of two rooms, just as we used to have in Kiev, but these two rooms were larger, had nice wall-to-wall carpeting, new furniture and absolutely no roommates! The whole place was ours, the kitchen, the bathroom, huge balcony—everything! I loved it!

Then Rachel wanted to take us shopping for food to show where the supermarket was and how to shop there. She pledged to fill up our fridge at her expense and give us a hundred dollars cash to get us started, as a donation from her. I despise donations but what can you do if you are dirt poor? I stayed home.

“Misha, lock the door and use the chain”, Rachel told me on her way out.

“Why the chain, Aunt Rachel? Such a nice quiet place . . .”

“Just do it.” She waved her arm in the air dismissively. “I know better how nice and quiet it is. Can’t walk out of your house without getting attacked no more. My friend Lidia got almost raped in her own house just last summer, poor Lidia! So I know!”

“Did Lidia tell you about the rape? So why was she “almost” raped, hm? She has probably been decorating her window with fried chicken ever since trying to lure the rapist back but no luck so far.”

“Is this ganif really you son?” Rachel asked my mother incredulously. “Such a nice couple and such a hooligan for a child.” She shook her head sadly.

My mom just glanced at me in passing and asked my dad, “Yefim, who is this?”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you, honey,” my dad chimed in, “this is a comedian. He comes with the apartment . . . . no extra charge . . . he can wash dishes . . .”  I heard my father already outside in the hallway.

I locked the door and used the chain, smiling. We finally made it, the three of us as always. We’ll be fine.

I locked the door and used the chain. You know, I always try to keep my own council. I make up my own mind about things instead of listening to advices, especially negative, I really do. These advices are based on generalizations, thus creating huge chasms between the generalized advised reality and the truth. But in this case, I stupidly agreed that Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, PA, was a dangerous place full of criminals.

I was unpacking when the doorbell rang. My parents and Aunt Rachel were back. I unlocked the door but I could not undo the chain! It just wouldn’t come out! I kept yanking it and sliding back and forth. Nothing! My mother was getting hysterical, “Open up, Misha! Open up! What is going on there!? Are you hurt?”

“No, mom, I am okay! I am okay!”

“Open the door right now! Stop fooling around! Why are you not opening the door?!”

I just hate when this happens. I just hate it! My father and Rachel were yelling too. A zoo! I went to the kitchen, came back with a butter knife and just unscrewed the damn thing off the door!

About five minutes later, when all the snorting, hooting and honking noises of Aunt Rachel’s laughter finally subsided and she was pretty much done smearing mascara all over her face, she showed me how to push the thing in and the-e-en slide it over. Dah!

That was my first experience with vastly superior American technology. It occurred within hours upon our arrival and I was already in way over my head. Although I guess I could pat myself on the back—as far as I could reach—for confronting the superior technology with agility and resourcefulness, quite successfully, as any other uncivilized barbarian would.

THE COCONUT

Next day was very eventful. Rachel took us to the Social Security office located downtown. Downtown is where they keep all their crazy people and all their well-dressed corporate personnel who work in the skyscrapers. The place was incredibly congested with car traffic and pedestrians some of whom were dressed funny and were arguing noisily with their invisible opponents. Incomprehensible. I came back overwhelmed and with a headache. I felt completely lost. It was good to have Rachel with us!

Then she started us on a free English course at Jewish Community and Children Services. Some fifty people were gathered in a class room, all from the category of friendly foreigners and, of course, just like me, they were totally lost. Only about half of them were Russians and Ukrainians, the rest were all kinds of other people. I definitely felt a lot more a Jew with the right to be there than a lot of these other people, such as Laotians or some black people from Africa—although I found out later that they were actually Moroccan Jews. The instructor was a young bearded guy by the name James, extremely friendly like most Americans I’ve met. I was amazed to discover that I could pretty much understand him. My English was a little better than I thought.

Later I met up with Alex, a guy I knew in Kiev and then met in Italy. He was already here for a couple of months and dressed like most of the Russians here, kind of old-fashioned—polyester pants, some strange old shirts, inevitable pullovers. I found out later that all Russians bought clothing at the same Squirrel Hill Goodwill store. Fashions go full circle. I guess if you wait long enough with your old clothing, they will eventually be fashionable again. It is the half-circle points in time that are a bummer.

Alex and I spent an afternoon walking around the neighborhood, looking at the cars and girls. We found a fascinating note stuck to an overpass handrail “For a good time call Connie, your place or mine” and a phone number. We translated it with a dictionary. Wow! What a country! I loved it here already!

In the evening my mother sent me for some milk and Alex tagged along. We studied the supermarket like a museum of abundance, a shrine to Capitalism. Back home people would always want to buy things but they were unavailable or had to be hunted down first. Not so here. Here we saw total abundance. The trick was getting people to buy these products. That felt good. I had no money but I felt somehow acknowledged as a human being.

In that store we also found strange looking hairy fruits that, upon closer examination, turned out to be coconuts. We looked at the coconuts in amazement. We heard about them, of course, but I guess we never really believed they existed! So the palm trees, sexy sun tanned girls in bikinis, warm turquoise oceans and pina coladas were also true? It suddenly dawned on me: I WAS FREE! The whole world was open to me from here. Just an incredible feeling!

Obviously, instead of milk we bought a coconut. Just to see what was inside.

Immediately after my mom was done letting me have it for wasting our precious money on coconuts, we set down with Alex in the kitchen trying to figure out how to open ours. We tried various kitchen implements with no success. Then we banged it a few times on the floor until my mom kicked us both out to play outside.

Outside we banged it on the pavement some more. A small group of Russians surrounded us giving advices. We tried them all, including running over the coconut with a car. Nobody had a car yet but somebody had a relative with a car. The relative was urgently summoned. He proudly drove in on his huge Chevy. We placed the indestructible coconut on the road carefully and Chevy drove over it. First forward – bump, then in reverse – bump. Nothing!

Somebody suggested we squeeze it in a vice and cut the top off with a hacksaw. Nobody had a vice or a hacksaw. Then it turned out somebody had a relative across the river in Homestead who was renting a house with a basement and there he had a workbench with a large vice and a hacksaw.

We raised a buck—each—for the bus ride to Homestead and took off. We returned after eleven that night with the coconut intact. The vice wouldn’t open nearly wide enough and the hacksaw was an old broken piece of junk with the blade that rusted through.

Next morning Alex was at my bed at about 7AM staring at me with wild maniacal eyes, “I know what to do with the damn coconut, Misha! Let’s go downtown and throw it down from a skyscraper! I am telling you, the sucker will break!”

Yeah! Let’s break the sucker! Let’s see what’s inside!

We had to raise a buck more—each—miss the first English class and ride a bus downtown. There we had no problems finding a tall building. I was carrying the coconut in a plastic bag. We walked into the first tall building we found, I waved the security guard and smiled just as I did in Kiev during my black market days. It worked again! Nobody stopped us or asked anything. We took the elevator to the top floor, found an entrance to the mechanical floor above, went up the catwalk to the maintenance level and then ended up on the roof!

Department of Home Security, take note! That was my third day in the United States, I did not speak English, I had no connections or money. But I could sure find my way to the roof of a skyscraper in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during rush hour!

We went to the parapet and looked around. Everything looked very different from the roof of a thirty-five-story office building! Very clear, blue late autumn sky, clean crispy air, little toy cars with wisps of smoke trailing behind them, tiny people zipping between the cars. It was rush hour in a downtown of a major industrial city. What’s with all the hustling and bustling? Why not look at it all from high up and have a Zen moment, contemplate a coconut, for example?

I took out the coconut, waited for the red light, calculated the trajectory, so it landed in the middle of the street when it was empty, and threw it down.

We ran back through the motor room, down to the elevators, took an elevator to the lobby and ran out of the building!

There was a small crowd of people milling outside for some reason. I heard sirens blaring in a distance. We pushed our way through the crowd looking for the coconut. We found it. Right in the middle of the road there was an empty space with a huge wet spot in the middle of it. The coconut disintegrated leaving a huge wet spot! There was nothing else there! We looked at each other totally disappointed. What, just full of water?

People were chattering in English a mile a minute. Suddenly we both heard a familiar word, TERRORISTS, spoken in hysterical tone of voice. We looked at each other again. What we had done started to dawn on us. Alex cleared his throat, “Hey, man, do you think they still need us here?”

“No, I think they’ll be fine on their own now. Let’s go!”

We were both anxious to get the hell out of there before cops arrived. In the bus I was thinking about six o’clock news. I knew the coconut was going to be on the news. It sure was! The City government apparently even implemented some new security measures because of us, too! Alex was very happy about the whole thing.

“Wow, man! I spent two months here and nothing happened. And now look, you just came here and we made news already!”

Yeah, right!

BENJAMIN MOORE

A couple of days later, after classes we were studying English words at home when my father suddenly came up with an outrageous idea: “Hey, Misha, you know, somebody told me that here in America they have some stuff for men that they put on their faces after they shave. Kind of like perfume but it also soothes the face.”

“No way! Who could think of something like that? Perfume?”

“I am telling you, it is true! I would like to try it. Could you go find me some?”

“How do I find it? I don’t speak English, we don’t know what’s it called, what it looks like, where to look for it and . . .”

“Yeah, but your English is better than mine so off you go!”

Well, alright. I got three bucks and went out in search of the illusive substance that men on this side of Moscow River allegedly put on their faces after they shave. I wondered along Murray Avenue, the Squirrel Hill main drag, stopped at a few places. Everything looked unfamiliar. Nobody could understand what I wanted. Hell, even I could not understand what I wanted! Finally I resigned to walking back home empty handed.

On the way back I saw a colorful looking store that I passed by earlier. The cheerful sign on it read BENJAMIN MOORE PAINTS in bright, cheerful letters. What the hell was that about? I decided to look inside, see what they were selling.

They were selling paint and painting gear, definitely no place for aftershave. As I was walking out, the proprietor, a dark haired guy of about forty, with a huge handlebar mustachio, suddenly called out to me in English, “Can I help you?”

“I don’t speak English,” you know, the standard dumb immigrant reply.

“What do you speak? Russian?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, I speak a little Russian too!”

He switched to pretty good Russian! It turned out his grandparents were Ukrainian Jews who came here some seventy years ago. He was born here but knew Russian pretty well. His name was Steve.

“So what are you doing in my store?” Steve asked me in Russian.

“Looking for some kind of liquid you put on your face after you shave.”

“Why?”

 

“Why what?”

“Listen, man, this is the stupidest thing I ever heard! You come here to my paint store in the middle of working hours, which is when most people are actually working, but not you, oh no! You come to my paint store looking for aftershave! What’s wrong with you, man?”

 

“Nothing. I am new. I just got here five days ago.”

“So you already lost five days of production!” Steve was clearly an easily excitable type, “Get to work, man! Stop bumming around! Screw aftershave! Who cares about the freaking aftershave?! Do something with your life, man! Be somebody! Why don’t you, for example, become a painting contractor? Ha? What do you say?”

“A painting contractor? I am okay on that, Steve. But I don’t speak English, don’t know anybody here, don’t have any tools, don’t have any money . . . “

“Any more excuses?” I found his hand gestures and body language, exaggerated by his incredible mustachio, very funny. Now he pointed his finger solemnly in the general direction of Alpha Centauri and uttered in a dignified manner, “God will show you the way! Well, okay, you idiot, listen,” he proceeded in a significantly less dignified manner, “what do you need to start a painting company?”

“I don’t know. I never started one before! I guess God will show me the way, right, God?”

“Okay, fine! I will tell you what you need! We’ll put together the painting contractor’s starter kit for you here!”

Steve started pulling out stuff that I would supposedly need as a painting contractor from all around the store, piling it up in front. The pile contained several extension ladders and step ladders, a pair of sprayers of different sizes, several canvass tarps, an assortment of the most expensive bristle brushes, lambskin rollers, poles, hooks, a walk plank and a bunch of other stuff. He neatly wrote the entire list on an invoice form, including prices that added up to over $1600. The top of the form was blank because he did not even know my name and address!

“Hey, Steve,” I called out to him cautiously, “Did I tell you I only had three bucks in my pocket?”

“You tell me? Why would I listen to you? You walk into a paint store looking for aftershave! Shut up and stay out of it!”

He had a point there. I shut up.

Steve and I loaded the entire pile onto his pickup truck, he drove me and the tools to our apartment and we unloaded it all onto the living room floor. The extension ladders had to go in diagonally, they would not fit otherwise. My mother was not happy about the whole thing.

“What is this?” she scolded me, “Give him three dollars and send him out to buy some aftershave, he brings back a pile of junk and dumps it in the middle of the living room floor!”

“Its okay, mom, its okay, I will make money with this junk later!”

My dad came over and asked me softly, “Did you get the aftershave?”

“No.”

“I knew it,” he shook his head sadly.

We unloaded the starter kit, Steve took my phone number and name, gave me the receipt for $1600, wished me good luck and walked out.

“When do you want your money, Steve?” I shouted after him.

“Don’t worry, you’ll know!” was his answer. “Just get to work!”

STARTING IN BUSINESS

In a couple of weeks I got a phone call from some old lady from Squirrel Hill who spoke broken Russian. She needed her kitchen repaired and painted. Steve from Benjamin Moore store gave her my number. I had to take a bus to get to that kitchen. I felt a sentimental ping in my chest when I saw the crumbling lath-and-plaster. Ah, just like we used to have in Kiev. I let that nostalgic moment pass. That job took me two days and when I was done the old lady gave me thirty dollars. I thought I did pretty good. Basically the same pay as in Italy but the work was much cleaner and easier—and no commie terrorists to deal with.

Next week I had a call again, another kitchen, two days of work and forty bucks that time. I thought I was doing splendidly indeed! In those days, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in our family, with my mother at the helm seventy dollars went a very long way.

A few days after I was done with the second kitchen, I received a phone call from a Russian guy who introduced himself as Albert the Plumber. Albert the Plumber was a self-appointed leader of the Pittsburgh Russian contractors’ community that at the moment consisted of six unlicensed contractors. With ill concealed irritation Albert asked me if it was true that I was contracting work for two bucks an hour.

“Yes, I guess so. I made seventy dollars in four days. That is about two bucks an hour.”

“Listen you, schmuck,” the irate plumber retorted in his own subtle way, “I don’t know if you are retarded or doing this as a hobby or whatever, but there are other people here who are trying to feed their families doing this kind of work! You are underbidding the crap out of everybody! Knock it off!”

“Okay. How do I do that?”

“Just charge a hundred dollars a day and that’s it! It is a fair price. If they don’t like it, screw them. Do not work for any less. You can work for more but not less. Clear?”

 

“Yes, I understand, Albert, but what do I do if the customers say NO?”

“Do you speak English?”

“Not much. Just a few words. Why?”

“That’s what I thought. Okay, Misha, I will teach you some business lingo, very important. If you tell the customers a hundred a day and they refuse, you tell them the magic phrase. Ready? The phrase is “Up yours”. Repeat it back to me.”

“Up yours. What does it mean?”

“It does not really mean anything. It is just business lingo. And if you have a hard time finding work, I will hire you as a helper. We will clean sewers together! That’ll teach you to never bite your fingernails ever again!”

He wished me good luck and hung up. Well, great, a hundred dollars a day! A fortune! For me? How was that possible?

Next day I had another referral from Steve, another old Jewish lady who wanted to paint her son’s room. I told her that I worked minimally for one hundred dollars per day. She got upset. Her point was that I should be grateful if anybody paid me half that much since I was new, did not speak English and so on. I unleashed my newly acquired business weapon on her. She quickly hung up upon my pertinent “Up yours”.

Steve called me a few minutes later all upset that I tell his customers to fuck off.

“I did not tell anybody anything like that, Steve, I swear!”

“Yes, you did, you idiot! Mrs. Feldman just called me very upset that you told her to fuck off! Are you crazy?!”

“I said “Up yours”, I did not tell her to fuck off!”

“That is the same thing, you idiot! What is wrong with you?”

“That is what I was told to say. I am supposed to work for one hundred dollars a day, otherwise I am underbidding other contractors. And you knock off calling me an idiot or I will tell you to fuck off, you idiot!”

“Well, don’t get all tight-ass with me, boy! You want a hundred a day? You got it, genius! Should’ve told me earlier!”

I called Albert and told him to fuck off. He just laughed.

CHINESE RESTAURANT

My parents and I decided to celebrate our arrival to America by a dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Why Chinese? Two reasons. First of all, it was in a way a symbol of freedom. Chinese people could come to America and open a restaurant and we could also come to America and have a dinner at their restaurant. In the Soviet Union, just as a random example to illustrate the point, Chinese could not have come there at all and nobody could open a restaurant. And there were shortages of food there all the time, anyway. Therefore we never tried Chinese food before—which was the second reason.

We found a very nice Chinese restaurant nearby. Of course we couldn’t read the menu but we could competently and fluently operate within the three basic food groups: beef, pork and chicken. I had chicken.

We liked the food a whole lot. It was all just totally delicious! Everything! We never tried anything that good before or even suspected the existence of anything that tasty.

We were sitting around the table discussing these matters after dinner when it slowly dawned on us that nobody was coming over with our check or anything. In Russian restaurants the waiters usually show up right away to ask if you wanted anything else and bring you the check. Here nobody came to us. We couldn’t easily explain that phenomenon and we had no idea what was customary here or what was expected of us.

“Are they ignoring us, these bustards?” my father asked a bit annoyed.

“Don’t be silly,” said my mother, “I bet they just have different rules here. Probably . . . you know what? They are probably waiting for us to take our plates to the kitchen to signify that we were done! Misha, could you take the plates to the kitchen, please?”

“No problem, mom.”

We collected the dishes and I carried them to the kitchen. There was a stainless steel counter inside, I just set our plates on it and went back to our table.

Then we observed with considerable dismay how several waiters and who knows who else were running around us, chirping away excitedly in who knows what language.

Our polite attempts at not noticing their silly advances quickly degenerated into silly smiles and nods in all directions. We were rapidly losing our composure. My father finally ventured with his best guess, “Somebody probably stole something and now they think we did it. They will call the cops now. Maybe already have.”

Mom got all indignant between nods and smiles, “But we never even left the table, except Misha bussing the dishes! How could they possibly accuse us of stealing anything? Misha, what exactly did you do in the kitchen?”

“Nothing, mom! I just put the plates down on some counter and left.”

“And didn’t touch anything? Didn’t say anything to anybody?”

“No, I swear!”

 

“Strange.”

My father was getting increasingly more nervous, he has had enough.

“Well, okay, let’s try to just walk out. Screw them!”

“What about paying?” my mom has always been a virtuous and decent person, even in the face of terrible danger.

“Okay. So how much do we owe? I’ll just leave a twenty on the table. Should be more than enough. We are leaving! Misha, I take the point, you bring the rear. Let’s go!”

He left twenty dollars on the table and we made a dash for the entrance with my father in front and me bringing the rear. Some skinny Chinese dude in a black suite seemed to have tried to stop us. Bad idea. My dad bounced him off the wall in passing, I tackled him on the rebound with my shoulder, sending him over the counter dramatically, his legs flailing. Then we ran down the street expecting to hear sirens and cops shooting at us any second.

That kind of dining experience tends to create a very warm spot in your heart for home made meals. We have not gone to restaurants for a while after that. We especially stayed away from Chinese restaurants. Too much MSG.

THE MORGAN BUILDING

The winter dragged on and on. I have not been getting any more painting calls. It seemed that Steve had forgotten me but I knew he couldn’t have—I owed him money. A lot was going on in the mean time. We were studying English. I was preparing to enroll into the University of Pittsburgh to become a civil engineer. Meanwhile we were getting our food stamps, my mom was sewing every once in a while, my dad painted somewhere again. I worked for Albert a few times as a plumber’s helper shoveling shit for five bucks an hour, cash. Albert was right, I never had an urge to bite my fingernails ever since. Life packed a lot of hope for the future but it sure did not have a hell of a lot in store for us at that very moment.

My father got a referral from one of his painting jobs that he did. The manager of Morgan Building in downtown Pittsburg called him and wanted to see him at his office. If you are truly a professional, you’ll never starve! I tagged along as an interpreter. The Manager was a young blond guy with a broad smile and a firm handshake, his name was David. He wanted my father to work for the building as a painter for six-fifty an hour! My father’s little communication problem did not seem to matter much. Upon some consideration, however, David offered to hire me too so I could translate if needed. He decided to hire me as an electrician helper for four dollars an hour, twenty hours a week. What the hell was an electrician helper supposed to do? No idea. Of course I took the job.

Morgan Building was a twenty-five-story, very posh office building. You know the kind: lots of marble, bronze, mahogany, etched glass and leather. A totally fascinating place! Not just the various doctor’s, lawyers’ and jewelry offices and stores were fascinating, but the basements, the storage rooms and loading docks, the boiler room, the elevator motors room, the roof. It was a huge building! So much to see, so much to do! And being on the inside, I saw so much more than other people.

It turned out that the electrician helper was a person who changed light bulbs, starters and ballasts on fluorescent light fixtures. Let me clarify technical matters here. Light bulbs are self-explanatory, we all know what a light bulb is. Ballasts are black heavy boxes with six wires located inside the fixture. A starter is a small screwy gadget on the fixture that does not really do much of anything useful that couldn’t be done without it. Technology advanced and the starters have not been in use since about 1984, the second Reagan’s term. Could just be a coincidence, though.

Anyway, the building tenants would drop their Service Requests into the Service Box in the lobby. I would go through that box every morning, pick out the ones for me and go at it. I was reasonably busy, although I had some time to hang around the building and learn things from old Fred. I shared Fred’s custodial room in the bowels of the huge building. Fred was very hospitable, made me feel right at home.

Fred was an old black janitor, about eighty years old. The building was built in 1922 and that is when Fred was first hired there as a janitor. He was still there almost sixty years later. Fred was a local celebrity of great statue. He was broadly loved and admired. Not because of his wealth, his powerful position in the society, his impeccable breeding and education, his far flung personal connections or his incredibly vast and witty intellect. No. Fred was just an old janitor.

We all loved Fred for who he was, an incredibly decent person who loved people, understood them and wanted all people to do well and be happy. Nobody would ever think of firing old Fred. He has not done much cleaning personally for some years but he would train the janitors, inspect spaces and generally he was an executive over the cleaners. As the Crew Chief he definitely kept the building clean. Fred was a competent man with a heart of gold. He was also very smart, patient, a great listener, always ready to help. I guess for that reason some tenants would come down to his little custodian room in the basement on regular basis just to chew some fat with old Fred, tell him their stories, ask for advice. He knew whose children were doing what and where and even who broke up with whom. He had a good word for everyone.

The mornings would normally start with a cup of hot cocoa brought to Fred by Larry, the financial consultant from the twelfth floor. I was curious what could Larry possibly have in common with the old black janitor? Larry was Jewish, white, twenty years Fred’s junior and very wealthy. When I asked Larry about it, he just laughed and asked me why I was hanging around Fred. I guess he didn’t see that much difference between him and me either, not just between him and Fred.

Larry was the first person to ever formulate the lesson that Fred taught us all: “It is not what you do, it is not what you have, it is WHO YOU ARE.” Fred was the Man! Larry jokingly told me that there was a secret society of people in the world who Fred considered his friends. Larry called that society FRIENDS OF FRED. He promised that I would also belong to that society if I was good. But I had to remember that the membership was not so much a privilege but a responsibility, that it could be revoked at any moment with no warning by my own decision to do wrong, and that if I lost that most important membership, I could regain it easily by simply making decisions in life that would help other people and contribute to their well being, as well as my own.

Larry was quite an amazing man in his own right. He had a huge office with some twenty or more employees on the twelfth floor. He had a mahogany desk as big as our bedroom! His armchair was the size of a small car. He was running a multi-million-dollar business from that chair. But he would come by every morning with a cup of cocoa for old Fred, a newspaper and cup of coffee for himself to talk about news, politics, kids and this and that. They have known each other for about forty years. They even knew each other’s families. Larry showed me his first tiny office in the same building, currently occupied by a young and eager travel agent. Larry started his financial business before WWII in that office. Fred had other visitors too. David, the manager, would stop by regularly. Fred was a very special person.

Fred used to joke a lot. One of his jokes that I remember was that he and President Reagan had one thing in common, they both had beautiful wives. He showed me the picture of his wife. She was an old, ugly hag with no resemblance to Nancy Reagan whatsoever. I realized right then and there that it was all in the eyes of the beholder. Fascinating! Together they raised two sons and two daughters, who have now grown up to be grandparents themselves. Both of Fred’s sons had long and successful Navy careers, went through WWII. Fred was definitely one of those people who you remember for the rest of your life. Kind of like Clara, in a grander way. Every time I think about Fred, I am happy I met him.

Fred would never say anything bad about another person. Ever. But he did distrust one of the security guards by the name Cal. Fred never said it but I saw it. I distrusted Cal for that reason too, but it turned out I did not distrust him nearly enough.

THE ROOF

I spent a couple of months at Morgan Building, learning the ropes, learning English, learning about life, making a bit of money and tremendously enjoying the company of old Fred.

The manager, David, called me to his office one morning with an offer. They were planning to wash and scrub the grime off the building with water and vinegar, a restoration projects. They needed a helper up on the roof at nights with a radio to make sure nobody tempered with the safety lines and also to help the workers—lower down anything they needed, do whatever else was necessary. I got fifty cents an hour bump in pay and worked eight hours at nights on that duty instead of four hours that I used to work during the day. It was supposed to be a three-week job.

Fred got serious when I told him about my “promotion”. He explained about unions and that the workers the building hired were non-union. Pittsburgh was totally a union town. It seemed, David had a good reason to hire a “helper” to guard his two workers. Fred’s point was that if I decided to take on the responsibility, I was to be alert and ready at all times during my shifts. So unions were the enemy? No. He explained that union members also had families, they were not enemies, we all wanted the same things from life, actually exactly the same things.

What an astounding new viewpoint! He told me to remember that, but he also stressed the point that I had my right to defend myself if that was actually needed. Just for me to remember that any force used against another should be comparable to the force used against oneself. This he called “sanity”. I am paraphrasing, Fred did not communicate in these exact terms. But he insisted that it was far saner to underestimate the force to be used against another, than to overestimate it. This opened up a whole new world for me.

When I was growing up, I would always fight anybody who’d call me “zhid”, an insult for a Jew. I guess, since they were not hurting me physically, just verbally, I probably used too much force against them. I was not being sane! Wow! Come to think of it, I guess my tormentors in Kiev were not really my enemies, they just seemed to be through lack of communication and understanding. We were just kids. How could kids really be your enemy solely and exclusively on the account of the word “Jew” written in your passport? So what about other enemies such as war adversaries? What about criminals? What about terrorists? Could it be that we were all here together, we were all a part of life, sharing our streets, cities, continents and the planet? Kind of like kids sharing a sandbox and fighting for a toy? So most effective self-defense is more likely to be an action of communicating and helping others, not so much hurting others. H-m. If you stop and think about it, it is just shocking how deep the philosophy of this old black janitor reached into the entire meat and potatoes of our existence! Fred for President!

Anyway. The job on the roof was fun at the beginning. We rigged the motorized scaffolding platform, safety lines, closed off the sidewalk and one side of the street every night. The work itself was boring. I was walking around the roof, sitting around, looking at the stars, walking around some more, sometimes talking on walky-talky, releasing some more slack on a hose or lines when needed and helping the guys to get in and out, that was pretty much it. It went that way for a few days.

One night it was Cal’s turn to be the night security at the entrance door in the lobby. Around 4AM I received a call from him on the radio to use the landline. I went over to the roof maintenance shack and called him on the phone. Cal told me that something fell off the scaffold and I had to come immediately to clean it up before we got in trouble with the cops on account of the imminent rush hour, obstructions and all that. He said he’d turn on one of the elevators for me. I got down to the lobby. As I came out of the elevator I glanced on the bronze elevator controls board, noticing that freight elevator was moving up. That was odd. I got very alert but kept silent. Cal opened the entrance door, I looked outside and he suddenly pushed me out and tried to lock the door behind me. That did not come totally unexpected. I forced the door open, punched Cal in the nose, ran to the elevator that was still sitting at the lobby level and pushed the “25” button frantically trying to get back to the roof. It is amazing how fast things change.  When shit hits the fan, we are forced to do zero to sixty instantaneously or forever regret if we couldn’t. Most often we meet such challenges with various degrees of incompetence.

The elevator went up but stopped a bit short of the twenty-first floor. I guess Cal managed to get his fat ass off the marble floor and turn off the elevator. I sure hoped his shnouser hurt like hell. I pried the doors open, climbed out and ran to the stairwell. My attempts to raise the guys on the radio failed. Nobody was answering. I finally made it to the roof. There were two guys I had never met before running toward me, away from the rig. I yelled to them to stop and hit the deck face down. Yeah, right! The guys rushed at me, one of them swinging a bolt cutter. I was caught in a tight spot with the steel catwalk steps behind me, the two attackers in front of me and steel structures on both sides. The first guy tried to hit me but I blocked with my right, kicked him in the shin and smacked him a good one in the forehead with my left. He fell. The second guy was upon me with his bolt cutter that he swung at me. I jumped back a bit trying to avoid the bolt cutter and banged my head on some steel beam pretty hard. The pain momentarily blinded me, my legs simply went out of my control and bent and I slumped down. They jumped over me and ran away. I did not feel like chasing after anybody right that very moment. Warm blood was trickling down the back of my head. I ripped Clara’s scarf off and stuffed it in my jacket. Head wounds bleed a lot. Then I got up and stumbled to the rig to assess the damage.

The acid-wash and scrubbing of the building was being done using a motorized scaffolding rig. It had two motors, each one of them a wench. Each motor either winds the steel cable onto a drum raising its side of the scaffold up, or unwinds the steel cable lowering it down. Both motors have to be controlled simultaneously in order to keep the scaffold relatively level. It is difficult to always keep it level. For that reason everything on the scaffold gets tied up to it and the workers’ harnesses get tied up by independent lines directly to the roof. The ropes attaching the personnel directly to the roof are called “safety lines”. If the scaffold fell down, each of the workers independently would end up dangling on their safety lines scared out of their wits. There were two more safety lines attaching each end of the scaffold to the roof. This technology is long outdated, it was outdated even in 1980 when these events took place.

The union guys cut one of the steel cables, the corresponding scaffold safety line and the cable on the other side. This left the scaffold hanging vertically on one safety line. The hoods did not temper with the two safety lines attached to the workers. My guys were not answering the radio so I had to figure out what floor they were on, open the window and help them in. I estimated they were dangling at the sixteenth floor level, about five windows over from the corner. I ran to the sixteenth floor, figured it must have been the second office from the end, broke the office door and opened the window. The guys were dangling a bit lower so I pulled them in one by one. Boy, were they pissed at me! They thought I sold them out!

They were in no mood to listen to my explanation, even if I could make coherent sentences in English at the time—which I couldn’t. They did not even want my help with lowering the scaffold to the ground. They just wanted me out of there! That hurt. I went home.

I came back later that morning to talk to David. I knocked on the open door of his office and looked at him sitting at his desk expecting him to invite me in. He didn’t. He just stared back at me as if he’d never seen me before in his life and did not want to see me now either. My heart fell.  Then he spat three words hatefully: “You are fired!” I tried to explain what happened but he did not want my explanations. Cal already explained how I attacked him and let the union goons in. How he, Cal, tried to stop me and fought with me and how he had turned off the elevator. Lying bastard! Again it was so upsetting that I could not even say anything in English! David told me that they did not call the police because nobody got hurt and there was only very minor property damage, so they did not want all the hoo-ha with the cops. But he claimed that if they did call the police, I would for sure end up in jail! He looked at me with hate in his eyes and again told me to get out.

I finally formulated in my mind something sensible to say in English and asked him, “Why didn’t Cal call the police?”

“Get out, you scum!”

David escorted me to the basement to get my stuff, he did not trust me anymore and wanted to keep an eye on me. I went to the custodian room to pick up my coffee maker and empty my locker. Fred followed me around his “office” with sad eyes. I told him that I’ve been set up and that Cal sold us out. Fred knew that but was wondering why I wouldn’t tell that to David. I didn’t answer. He said he did not want me to learn any wrong lessons from this. He got up, walked to me, gave me a big hug and wished me success. David snapped at him for that. Fred responded with a verse from the Bible, I guess, or some poem but the meaning of what he said totally escaped me. Fred walked out of the room. That was the last time I saw Fred. David looked very upset. What did Fred tell him? Then David mumbled, looking away, that if I wanted to explain anything to him or apologize before I leave, he’d listen. I did not feel like explaining or apologizing and just walked out.

Admittedly, this was overwhelming and demoralizing. I lost my job but upon careful consideration I realized that I have not really lost Fred. Just like Clara, he is still with me when I need him.

What did Fred mean about wrong lessons? I went home. My mom and dad were at work. I needed to think about all this, about various lessons that I could possibly extrapolate from this mess. Not trusting anybody? Not a good lesson since it was a generality. Anybody at all? Really? Generalities are always wrong and that is the only true generality. You know, all cats are just not black, all Muslims are just not terrorists, all Irish are just not drunks, etc., etc., etc. So that wouldn’t work.

Not risking my life for four-fifty an hour was another possible lesson to learn. Not a true lesson either. A very wrong lesson, actually. I knew that I was not risking my life—or doing anything else for that matter—for four-fifty an hour. I was simply doing my job because it was my job. I promised to do it. Nobody forced me to take the job, I did not have to take it but I took it. I promised to do it and others relied on me keeping my word. I would not do anything differently if they were paying fifty dollars an hour. Four dollars fifty cents an hour simply went with the job and had nothing to do with anything beyond that.

David did not give me any data about a possible attack or sabotage, although he hinted on it. So a lesson could have been to always get all the data I needed to operate. Good, but . . . The truth was I had the data, I got it from Fred. But I knew I was onto something here.

The fact that I had no security procedure of any kind, no codified rules of the job, was not a small error on my part either. What do you do, for example, if you need to leave the post to use a bathroom? There was no definite job protocol worked out. So if I wanted to have definite procedures, wouldn’t I ask David? I should have asked. I never asked.

Finally I came up with the only intelligent lessons to learn—I should have called the guys on the scaffold before leaving my post. I could have verified if they dropped something, I could have told them about the call from Cal and I should have gotten a job description from David even before I started on this job. I did not communicate with them at all and I did not communicate properly with David before I took the job and at the time he fired me. The problem was communication. The lesson was to (A) communicate at all and (B) communicate adequately and properly. This was a jaw-dropping and life-changing lesson to learn. A priceless lesson! If it were not for Fred, I would have just walked right past it! This did not mean that my communication abilities suddenly made a tremendous somersault, instantaneously turning me into Socrates. No. But I definitely gained some valuable understanding of life and sensitivity there. The easiest thing in the world would have been just blaming Cal—ineffective but at least satisfyingly self-righteous. Surprisingly, did you notice where Cal was in my final calculations? Nowhere at all, just as the perpetrators, the union guys.

Thank goodness, my father was not fired. He actually received a raise to seven-fifty an hour and stayed at Morgan Building for about a year longer. He then started his long and productive career as a Union painter. He retired in 2002.

What really stunned me was that shortly after this incident David referred my mother to her first real job in America, also at the Morgan Building. Go figure! She got a job as an electrical draftsperson. From there she went to an electrical designer position and then electrical estimator. She retired in 2002 after a very successful 22-year long industrial estimating carrier in the United States. She traveled the world working for some of the largest American companies building subways and factories in places like Chile, Brazil, Peru, Canada, China and all over the United States. My five-foot tall mother in a hard hat would chase construction crews around to bring the projects home within budgets that she’d work out. Go, mom!

FRIENDS OF FRED PAINTING COMPANY

It was March 1980, our first spring in America. It was a so-so spring, as far as springs go, but it held a great deal of hope for me. My plan was to enroll into the University of Pittsburgh Civil Engineering program. Meanwhile I would get going on my painting business and make money to live the American Dream!

Steve called me with a heads-up on the upcoming season and to once again try to convince me to stop insulting his customers. Just joking, of course. Steve, by the way, bestowed his painting treasures on me in early December 1979, it was already March but he never asked for any payments yet. What a guy!

A few days later a lady called. She needed the exterior of her house painted. I told her that I would have to stop by, take a look and give her my estimate. I saw the house, figured out hundred dollars a day plus materials and gave her the price. I think it came to $1500. She agreed! It turned out Steve already told her that I would probably charge about that much and highly recommended me as an honest person. How did he know I was honest?

I barely started when I got another job, then another one. I was suddenly booked for the next two months and calls kept coming!

I paid Steve back for his starter kit. When I first showed up at his store with $500 cash he was happy but not surprised. He introduced me as his good friend to a couple of old Jews that were hanging around the store. I was pleased to hear him calling me a friend, especially since he normally called me an idiot. I also got a driver license and bought a huge old Buick to transport my ladders and pick up girls. Did I mention that it has always been my firm belief that nearly all good things in life come from women? Well, they do, think about it. And I do not just mean merely sex and food, I also mean friendship and sound advice, among other things.

It was bothering me that I was not contributing to this country of my choice by paying taxes. USSR was not a country of my choice, but this country was. I wanted to contribute! Neither was I organized to do much work, it was just me alone. So as the first step to expansion I registered a company. I called it Friends of Fred Painting Company.

In order to expand I also needed to hire a helper. How does one find a reliable helper? I asked around. The few Russian guys I knew did not want to paint houses, they had other plans. Alex flatly refused to do any dirty manual labor, he worked as a waiter and wanted to be a cook. So I went to the University, found their notice board and dug up a note there from a painter who was looking for work. His name was Abdul. I called him right away.

Abdul turned out to be an Arab from Syria, about my age, a freshman electrical engineering student. He was not an experienced painter yet, but neither was I. What a coincidence! We could become total professionals together! He was the first potential employee I interviewed. Probably there was no rush, I could interview at least one more to have a choice. Why rush into employing somebody you don’t know, especially an Arab? But I liked him. In my estimation, he could be trusted. I decided to hire him right then and there. It was the second great decision in my life. The first one was coming to America.

ABDUL ABRAHAM

I hired Abdul at four dollars an hour. I liked him. He was very hardworking, polite and cheerful, a pleasure to work with. He did not pray to Allah facing Mecca all the time or anything like that. The customers liked him, especially old ladies.

I remember a scene I observed on numerous occasions where some old Jewish lady would be feeding Abdul kosher lunch while showing him her old family pictures. I even witnessed our steady customer Mrs. Leiberman teaching Abdul some song in Yidish about a “sheine meidele” (a beautiful girl). Abdul used to croon that song while working now and then for several years to come. These old ladies loved Abdul. I guess they fed him because he was so skinny. They just liked to mother him to death! Nobody ever fed me!

I started making more money so I had some time to see other jobs and get some more work in. While I was out, Abdul kept plugging at it like clockwork. This was his main attribute—he was totally reliable. He quickly became my partner. How many of us would give half a kingdom for a totally honest and reliable partner? Just to reiterate and rub it in some more: I had a totally loyal, honest and reliable partner, he was a Syrian Muslim.

I made him my partner after he stole the show and saved the day. It happened a couple of months later, toward the end of spring 1980. We were just starting a new job. We brought in and set up the ladders in the morning, spread the tarps and got started on scraping the house. A car stopped by. An older guy in painters’ overalls stepped out, approached me across the front lawn and politely asked me to pack up and leave. He warned me that tomorrow at exactly 9AM his buddies, some local painters, were going to throw us and our ladders the hell out of here . . .  if we were foolish enough to still be around. I was so upset that the only thing I could master in English was “Up yours!” He shrugged, silently turned around, got into his car and drove off.

“Who was that?” asked Abdul cheerfully. “Anything important?”

“Not particularly. Tomorrow at 9AM his buddies will come here and try to beat the crap out of me and throw our ladders out. It’s okay. You stay home tomorrow, Abdul. I’ll handle it.”

“No, I’ll be here. I’ll come early to get the best seat!”

“Its okay, Abdul, take a day off. I will still pay you. It’s a paid day off! You will just get in the way, man. Stay home.”

“You are paying me for staying home now, sadik (that’s “friend” in Arabic)? I should get a raise for staying home! You want me to stay home for lousy four bucks an hour?! No way, Michael! I want at least five bucks an hour or I will go on strike and keep working!”

Abdul had a lot fun with the idea of being paid for not working. It seemed totally ridiculous to him. I guess he was not familiar with our welfare system yet.

In any case, I just did not want him here tomorrow. I am 5’7”, the only person who ever considered me a big guy was my darling wife Olga, but that was much later. I am really a short guy, nothing special. But I am hard to back down and can usually hold my own. Abdul was even shorter, a skinny little runt, delicately built like a girl. What could he do in a fight except get hurt? I was his employer. There were liabilities to consider.

Next morning Abdul was there! I called him a dirty Syrian dog. He panted with his tongue hanging out and explained, laughing, that since I was probably going to Heaven to meet Allah this morning, he just wanted to pick up his pay before 9AM! He thought it was very funny!

“Abdul, you are to stay on the ground at 9AM. Understood? No ladders. It is an order!”

He saluted with both hands, clicked the imaginary heals of his old sneakers and went to work.

At 9AM we were both high up on the ladders working away. I kept an eye on the driveway, though. As soon as I saw a van pulling up, I yelled to Abdul to get down, quickly got to the ground myself and ran toward the van.

The van stopped and half a dozen guys in dirty painters’ uniforms jumped out and rushed toward me. I dropped to the ground the first one I could reach and we started rolling around in the grass, ineffectually. The others did not pay any attention to us, they kept running toward the house. I heard one of our ladders falling down, Abdul screaming and cursing in Arabic. I kept fighting with the guy, managed to get some good punches through, knocking his wind out.

I could hear Abdul yelling in Arabic like he really meant it somewhere behind me. It sounded like a lot of blood curling “k” and “kh” sounds, exactly as we would expect suicidal Muslim terrorists to sound like! I could not see the house from where I was, but my opponent could. Suddenly I realized that instead of fighting me, he was desperately fighting to get away from me! I let him go, of course. I did not particularly want him here to begin with. He immediately bolted to the van followed by his terrified buddies with Abdul in hot pursuit. Abdul was cursing them in Arabic from the top of his lungs and whacking them with a broken roller stick!

The terrified painters piled up into the van and drove off zigzagging erratically over the curb through the flowers.

Abdul yelled some last curse in Arabic, shaking his fist after them, came over and helped me up. We sat down on a porch step to have a cigarette and calm down. I looked at Abdul with different eyes now. There was a strong spirit in that small body. Good man.  I slapped him on the back, “Thank you, Abdul, you did great! But could you please clarify to me why you were risking your life for four dollars an hour? I thought you were your mama’s smartest son.”

“Four dollars?! It is nothing! Ha! I spit on four dollars! But nobody can just come and tell me to get out! I work here! I do a good job. Those infidels! They can take my four dollars and stick them up their fat asses! But they don’t tell me to get out, Michael! You understand?”

Wow, Abdul understood pride, he knew Fred’s secret. He was a mansch! He was a Friend of Fred and did not even know that!

“I understand now. Great! I agree. Listen, Abdul, would you like to be my partner?”

“Would I make more than four dollars an hour?” he immediately calmed down and asked me slyly.

“Sure! 50-50, man!”

“Okay, Allah willing, we’ll make good money together, my wise infidel partner!”

We were best friends and partners for the next five years that it took us to get our Bachelors Degrees. I was never sorry I hired Abdul or made him my partner. Abdul was as reliable as a brick outhouse, totally loyal and totally honest. He was a truly honorable man. He was generally a very civilized person, too. Although there were a few situations over the years where I could see a certain wild and unpredictable streak in him.

For example, a couple of years later we were doing a demolition job. We were contracted to take down an old brick house on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, out in the fields. There were no other houses around and this house was supposedly abandoned. We arrived early in the morning, around 7AM, because we both had classes starting at 5PM and had to wash up and get ready. I was driving our old demolition truck which we lovingly called the Red Monster. It had a railroad tie attached to the front, great for ramming things. I rammed into the house hard just to get things started, backed up a bit and got out. It was a cold, wet and miserable morning. I left my coffee cup on the dashboard. Abdul was still inside the truck nursing his coffee, chewing on some pastry and shivering. He couldn’t stand cold weather, although he used to consider shivering good exercise.

I walked to the hole I made in the brick wall of the house, bent down and looked inside. It was totally dark inside but somehow light was reflecting a bit—in some strange way. I peered some more and finally realized that I was looking into a barrel of a shotgun!

I backed off slowly followed by a crazy looking black dude with a shot gun, you know, a barrel, one shell in it. The guy was yelling and carrying on about us destroying his home! Something about the Homestead law. I was not a lawyer and didn’t even want to be, but I was certain it wasn’t his house. Just a squatter! But he sure was the most heavily armed damn squatter I ever saw! I was looking into the yellow whites of his crazy eyes feeling rather unhappy about the whole thing. Boy, what a lousy morning!

As I was backing off slowly alongside our old truck and sweating profusely, I saw Abdul from the corner of my eye. He strolled unhurriedly around the front of the truck and was directly behind the guy now. He was still chewing something! He just walked casually to the guy from behind, reached over to his ear and gave it a quick tap!

“No!”

Too late! What is the guy going to do if you unexpectedly tap him on his ear? He is going to squeeze the trigger, of course! I ducked at the last instant when the barrel went BOOM above me!

As I ducked deep and the Homestead law expert fired his shotgun, two things occurred to me simultaneously. The first one was that his shotgun was no longer loaded. The second was that I had his balls right in front of me as an easy target! I punched him in the balls. Abdul quickly wrestled the gun from his weakened hands. We had it all under control in no time. We tied the guy to a tree with rubber cargo ties and sat down on the step to have a smoke and calm down. I mean I sat down to calm down, Abdul stayed cool all along and still chewing something!

The future lawyer was pissing me off with his incessant screaming so I wobbled over to him on shaking legs and taped his mouth shut with masking tape. A little better.

“Hey, Abdul, you crazy bum! Why did you startle him? Didn’t you know he was going to squeeze the damn trigger?”

“Sure. So? He did and his gun was not loaded anymore. I thought that was the idea,” Abdul continued in a sensible tone of voice, “You know, he shoots his shot, we take the gun away, tie him to a tree with rubber ties and tape his mouth with a lot of masking tape. No?”

“What about me, you camel lover? His gun was six inches from my nose! Did you think about that?!”

“Oh, that! I don’t care about that, man! You are too smart to die like that, Allah willing. You always land of your feet!”

“I fucking WHAT on my fucking WHAT?!”

“Well, didn’t you?”

What are you going to say to that? We went to work. The guy remained tied up to the tree. We let him go after lunch, gave him ten bucks, our leftover lunch, and some water and told him to run along. I kept the shotgun in the truck for a while, finally selling it together with the truck to some Mexican contractor later. He didn’t really want the gun either.

CHAPTER FOUR

THE WINTER OF UNDERSTANDING

Some months passed. The “Club Zoo” night club—the usual. Lucy was there. There was music, dancing, bar full of drinks. Everyone was there.

“Hello, Lucy,” I shouted at her avoiding looking into her eyes. The music was way too loud—typical—low frequencies reverberating through my intestines while high pitch sounds tore through my cortex. Strobe lights, a cacophony of colors, shadows darting everywhere, unbearable noise. The usual night club set up was not intended for humans. I was surrounded by bouncing and grotesquely twisting extraterrestrials. Sex was in the air. Anything with a vagina was my target, my goal to score. When will I finally get used to this American paradise?

“Hello, Jacob.” Lucy stared at me coldly. Yes, I know, my name is Misha but she didn’t know that. “I called you several times, you know. You could at least have the decency to tell me off in person, in my face.”

Lucy was one of the extraterrestrials with a vagina, my latest score, as interesting to me now as my yesterday’s lunch.

“Lucy, I am sorry. I really thought we sorted everything out last time. I enjoyed your company and I think you are a very nice girl but I just feel that I must move on. It is a phase I am going through. I am indebted to you. You helped me get closer to my inner self and I am profoundly grateful for that.” I heard it all somewhere before, possibly on TV, and now I shouted this nonsense into her ear, hoping it made more sense to her than it did to me. What I meant to say was, “Go away already, you bitch, you are here on the same terms as the rest of us, you know the score!”

Lucy shot me a glance that was supposed to turn me to cinders but didn’t. She walked away. I was sure she’d find somebody new to take home tonight. The lucky bustard was sure up for a great blowjob!

I glanced around the place. There were some people I knew but wished I didn’t and a lot of people I didn’t know and didn’t care to meet.

Victor swaggered my way smiling and waving his “Hi!” He was a homosexual, the flaming kind. His fervent explanations that if a man blew me I would not be able to tell the difference disgusted the living crap out of me the other day.

I nodded to Victor, excused myself and Becky caught my eye for a moment as I turned to leave. I liked Becky. She seemed like a nice and kind person. It was actually a pleasure making love to her. I remember the surprise I felt at some point that I meet such a girl at a disco club. I wanted to ask her but didn’t. Now again I almost said something to her but decided against it. There wasn’t much I could say right then to Becky so I went to the bar for a drink and set at the bar next to ravishing looking extraterrestrial with a vagina.

I tapped her on the slim, bare shoulder, “Excuse me please, I am from Denmark. Just recently arrived here. Will you help me please with these dollars? I want gin. Danke.” A strikingly beautiful woman. I gave her one of my most charming smiles. A little snotty but she sure had a great pair of legs and a bust on her. And she was on the prowl, I could tell. She was after any interesting extraterrestrial with a penis. Well, I fit the bill at least on some of these points.

She looked me over coldly with her incredible blue eyes, puckered her bloody red lips and told Eddy, the bartender, to give me a gin and tonic and threw at him some of my dollars from a pile on the counter in front of me. Well-groomed hands, nice nails, very nice.

“Oh, yes! Tuk! Dunke. My name is Lars. What is your name, beautiful woman?”

She smiled slightly, relaxing a bit to the complement, almost despite herself, “My name is Sophie.”

Mine Got! Sophie as in Sophie Loren?!”

“No. Sophie is in Sophisticated.” That she definitely was. “And you are Lars as in Lars Ulrich? You know, Metalica?”

“Yes. You recognized?” Modest smile. Eyes down. Pause. Eyes up. Broad smile. “No, just joking. I am Lars as in Larceny.”

She laughed. I laughed.

We drank what we had and ordered more. I hate gin and tonic, it tastes like my dad’s aftershave. Although I never drank aftershave, so who knows? Sophie paid for both of us from the pile of dollars in front of me.

We shared our stories, mine was totally invented, hers probably mostly wasn’t. I told her I was an exchange cinematography student at Carnegie Mellon. She was apparently a psychiatric nurse student. We had a few more drinks, I got Sophie to pay after the third one and put the rest of my dollars back into my pocket.

“It is cold in Denmark, isn’t it? How do you manage?” She asked slurring her words noticeably in about half an hour.

“Very cold. But our Danish women are very warm. Are American women very warm?”

“Sometimes.”

“What about you, Sophie? Are you a real warm bird?”

She laughed again. “Chick! Hot chick! I am a hot chick. Well, what do you think, am I a hot chick?”

“Yes, I think. I can feel the heat from here. What kind of men do you like?”

“Submissive and full of sperm”. Wow, not all that sophisticated, I guess.

“That is me! Except I am not very submissive . . .”

I suddenly felt her tongue in my ear and her delicate hand on my crotch. Electricity was shooting to all kinds of organs. It suddenly got very crowded in my pants. Sophie was pleased. She did not take her hand away. Why? She knew she was in control that way.

“Now, Lars, get down on your knees and kiss my ankle”, she whispered in my ear.

All red and grateful for inadequate lighting I got on one knee, took a shoe off her graceful little foot and kissed her toes.

“Yes, you are submissive!” she exclaimed triumphantly. “Cheers!”

She looked at me strangely now, kind of like a predator. I was the prey. “I am taking you home, Lars. Let’s go. You drive. Just bring me back here tomorrow for my car.” She got up unsteadily and led me by the hand out of the joint. I scored again!

I drove Sophie on my brand new Ford. She unzipped my pants, worked my penis out and was stroking it slowly with her left hand while fingering herself with her right hand and moaning slowly. I don’t think I had ever been this excited.  She was certainly not a shy type. Sophie lived in a presumptuous part of Shady Avenue, in a small house all to herself. When I parked the car Sophie went straight to the window which turned out to be unlocked and climbed in through the window.

“Hurry Lars, I want you RIGHT NOW, hurry up!”

With a great deal of difficulty I zipped up my pants and climbed through the window after her. Strange but intriguing. It turned out to be a kitchen window.

“Take your shoes off here. I got a brand new carpet, it is almost white, very classy.” That explained the window entrance. “I gota pee!” She kicked off her high hills, squeezed out a quick fart and danced off on her pretty little feet with bright red toenails. “Sophisticated” my ass.

I took my shoes off and left them on the tiled kitchen floor. Nice kitchen. The carpet was really nice too—white and classy, pristine, never trotted on by human feet, only Sophie’s pretty ones. I wondered around in my socks a bit until I found her bedroom. The walls and ceiling were painted dark red with black blaze reaching far onto the ceiling. There was a huge frightening face of a punk rocker, possibly Gene Simmons from KISS, painted on her ceiling. What a flamboyant way to decorate a room—to say the least!

Sophie returned naked. A body of a Goddess with a cleanly shaved pussy, erotic as Hell. We made out for a while on her huge bed, I was so worked up that I thought I was going to explode. Then she bit me on the lip and dug her nails into my leg. I yelped. There was blood on her delicate fingertips now. Sophie was beginning to really breathe heavily now and I noticed her eyes glazing over. She liked to cause pain. One crazy bitch!

“Do you want to see why I want to be a psych nurse?” She whispered seductively, breathing heavily into my ear and rubbing her exquisite hot snatch against my leg.

No idea. Did I really want to see why? “Sure” I answered uneasily.

“Here.” Sophie crawled to the edge of the bed, reached under it and handed me a whole wad of handcuffs, four pairs, to be exact. “Here, lay on your back, let me help you”.

I saw some serious cuff marks on the bed posts. This lady was really giving me creeps now.

“I don’t want to. This is too weird, Sophie.”

“You dare disobey Sophie?!” she yelled, pulling out a short bright red velvet whip from under the pillow and started whipping me. It wasn’t painful. The more she hit me, the more insane she looked. She started fingering herself, shaking and barking hysterically, kind of like a puppy. She was having orgasms. Boy, how weird but incredibly arousing! I suddenly realized that I was so turned on that I would do absolutely anything she wanted me to do for sexual release. Truly scary shit.

I let her cuff my wrists and ankles to the bed posts. Sophie was riding me like a horse, thrashing around and yapping like a dog. I was bleeding and smarting slightly all over from dozens of small fingernail scratches by then.

When she finally went completely exhausted and limp, I made her uncuff me and handcuffed her ankles and one wrist to the bedposts. She started thrashing around, thrusting her shaved swollen genitals toward me begging to be stimulated. But I’ve had enough. Self-service time. She understood and immediately stuffed most of her fingers up her snatch, barking up a storm again.

I found the bathroom and took a long hot shower. She had a huge rubber penis sitting on the little shelf in the shower next to a bar of soap. When I returned, Sophie was still at it, slowly and dreamily now, breathing heavily, eyes closed, strands of wet hair plastered to her alabaster forehead. I found my cloths, got dressed, found my shoes and walked out through the front door followed by her suddenly renewed barking. Sophie was completely oblivious to the world and did not notice me leaving. I just left the crazy woman cuffed to the bed and the entrance door wide open. I never came back although I promised her to drive her back to the bar next day to pick up her car. Another broken promise.

At home I took another shower as the first thing.  I was still bleeding a bit so I threw my old bedspread on the bed and stretched out on top of it. I was laying there in the darkness thinking.

American life sure went to my head like champagne bubbles, like poison. I was suffering from an acute case of America poisoning. I was not doing well as a person, I could see that. I had more money than I ever dreamt possible. I had credit cards, a new car, girls. It seemed I had it all. I even tried smoking grass, though I hated it. I even had a future now, I was going to be a civil engineer! This was way too much for me, actually. I was a different Misha now. In fact, I wasn’t even Misha anymore, I was Michael! Or was I Lars? Or Jacob? I was not sure who I was anymore. I did not like what I had become. Certainly my parents, Fred and Clara wouldn’t like me right now either. Things absolutely had to change.

Around the end of October the work stopped. It was getting cold. Painting and remodeling work is seasonal in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and this was going to be a hell of a cold winter. I kind of knew that but never took it seriously.

I was a twenty-one-year old engineering student at Pitt and lived in a nice small apartment of my own in Oakland, the campus area of Pittsburgh, at that time. I lived in the moment, kind of like a humming bird, not thinking about the future. I was spending all my money on one-night stands, other forms of entertainment and, generally, things I did not need or even want. I bought a brand new car with almost no money down, I rented an apartment and bought some furniture and a nice stereo—all mainly on credit.

It was all supposed to be great fun. I was splurging on the American dream of sorts and pretending to like it as hard as I could. But it was not really much fun at all. Furthermore, this way of life created all kinds of problems for me. The most pressing one at the moment revolved around the fact that I had some two hundred dollars left to my name and some twelve hundred in monthly bills as the cold settled in and my work dried up. It was also the beginning of the Pittsburgh Great Depression of 1981-83, when all thirty-four steel mills closed down, devastating the city beyond belief. Pittsburgh was dying. It would get much worse later, but it was already bad enough in November.

I did not believe it at first. What, no work? Nonsense! Of course there was going to be more work! But there wasn’t!

By then I had managed to cut all ties with my parents too, I stopped talking to them and moved out. At a certain age all the excrements usually rush up to one’s brain bringing about a serious debilitating condition of acute dorkiness, a plague afflicting youth all around the world. The aforementioned malady usually strikes its victims at the tender age of fourteen or fifteen. I caught that bug at the ripe age of twenty-one. I am not proud of that period of my life in the least and I am not trying to justify anything. These circumstances are simply relevant to the miraculous events that followed—events I will share with you now.

In November, after the work ran out, Abdul took off to Syria. He just did not want to tough it out through the coming winter in Pittsburgh. The meteorologists promised us a record cold winter and there was no work. He wanted to see his parents and other relatives anyway, he told me many times that he missed them and was putting away some money for his trip back home.

So when manure really hit the fan I was totally alone.

Getting increasingly alarmed, I decided to call Fred for advice. I scraped enough for a call. It was great to hear his quiet and reassuring voice. He went through eighty winters so far, some of them were probably very cold too.

Fred was happy to hear from me. I did not tell him the whole situation and even presented the problem as if it happened to a friend of mine. He thought about it for a while, invited me to come visit him. I refused. He finally gave me the scoop.

“Your friend,” he said slowly, “done hisself into a hole fair and square, you see? He is now looking at the bottom of the pit, boy, there isn’t much more to go any lower, this is it. He will perish or he will pull hisself out of there. But he can only pull hisself out by changing right now, this minute, to being an honest and straight man. I ain’t talking any better explanations or excuses here. I am talking honest and straight. You hear?”

I got it, I really did. Thanks old friend!

I had several short-lived sexual escapades over the past months. I was certainly not proud of them. Promiscuity really sucks, it is a lie and a trap. Honestly, I despised that moronic disco meat market, the pseudo-life, the humiliation of one-night stands. But I was considering going back to any one of the girls I left, especially Becky, with a cup in hand. Or go back to my parents with a cup in hand. Or go to Steve, the Benjamin Moore store owner, with a cup in hand. Or go to the Government with a cup in hand.

I decided against it all. As Fred pointed out quite correctly, I lost my friends and relatives fair and square by my own doing, I dug myself a good size hole and fell into it. Now was the time to climb back up, but Fred warned me that I could only do it by being honest. I could see the logic behind it. How could I dig myself out by piling up more and more dishonest and dishonorable actions on top of my earlier screw-ups? That would obviously be wrong for survival. I had to move the other way, I had to get honest and straight again—and soon.

So how do I crawl back up out of the hole? I just had to, first of all, immediately knock off the bullshit and, secondly, survive the winter, that’s how. I knew how to survive. I was pretty good at that. I tried various things such as calling my old customers looking for work, asking Steve for any referrals and hanging around his store talking to people. When the phone got disconnected for not paying my bills, I drove around knocking on the doors, asking for work. Every once in a while I would get some small jobs, ten bucks here, twenty bucks there.

Meanwhile in December the already cold weather got much colder. It was a 100-year winter, as the experts called it. The temperature would drop to minus thirty at times, strong gusty winds. My up to now reliable new Ford froze up and that was the end of it.

After careful consideration I scraped up all the change I could find and bought some bread and an onion.  Russians know that onions are rich in vitamin C, they are the easiest cure for scurvy. When things get this rough, it is a good idea to have an onion around. I had no money left. I was officially flat broke. I had no electricity, no phone and no car. And I had no work. I lived in an old building with gaps and cracks, freezing drafts were whistling inside the apartment.

A couple of days later I woke up to an absolutely incredible, unbearable cold. There was ice inside my apartment, my aquarium was frozen solid all the way through with my beautiful fish frozen inside in various picturesque positions. The temperature inside quickly hit the bottom, same as outside. Apparently the water heating pipes froze and burst. They could not be repaired in this weather. Our small apartment building consisted of four one-bedroom apartments. The other three tenants moved out right away, I stayed. I kept looking for any work, but could find nothing.

I heard from other students in those days that I was lucky because I was used to this kind of weather being from Russia and all. The truth, however, was that I have never experienced this kind of temperatures and for so many days non-stop—ever. Forget Siberia, the coldest place on Earth is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! Or so it definitely seemed that Christmas season.

I have to admit my courage faltered. Things looked bad, very bad. I had not eaten at all in a couple of days. I had a very bad feeling about all this. My parents loved me dearly and would do anything for me, but I was too stupid and arrogant to understand this. I decided to go see Alex, the coconut guy, remember? He was then a cook at a Mexican restaurant and lived with his parents. It took me over three hours to walk to his place. I did not even know if he was home. He was. I explained my situation and asked if I could spend the night at his house. He just shrugged and told me not to be silly, we all had our problems. He gave me two bucks he had on him and shut the door in my face. Probably went back to watching TV.

Well, he did not actually owe me anything, not to mention I had never helped him in any way or even stayed in touch with him. Damn! Looking at the bright side I had two dollars now. I thought about it for a while. I was within some hours of walking distance from my frozen apartment, not that I had any reason to rush back home. It was getting dark. I finally went to a pizza place down the street, bought two slices of pizza, then went to their bathroom and disabled the alarm on the bathroom window by closing the contact with a piece of foil.

I ate my pizza slowly, savoring every morsel, and then walked to the local supermarket Giant Eagle. It was warm there. The pizzeria was open till 9 PM. I went back there at ten. Everybody was gone. The place was buttoned up for the night. I climbed in through the bathroom window and spent the night there. I washed in the bathroom sink the best I could, it was great! Warm, clean. I did not touch anything much, just got an awesome night of sleep and some pizza crumbs and got out in the morning with the plan to come back next night.

Next night the window was locked. Somebody undid my innocent ministrations. My walk home took half the night. I still do not remember most of that walk, but I obviously made it.

I spent a couple of days trying to find any work again. At some point I was walking along some side street and saw a snow shovel leaning against somebody’s garage door. I took the shovel and tried to find any snow shoveling work in that neighborhood. I was unshaven and haggard. One glance at me was sufficient for people to refuse my offers to help, though some old lady tried to give me a few coins. Screw her and her forty cents! I walked back to the house where I found the shovel and leaned it against the same garage door. Things looked increasingly hopeless. What started as an emergency situation in a couple of weeks escalated to a full blown disaster and went downhill from there. Things were deadly serious now.

I knew if I didn’t do something effective right away, I was going to die. You see, the problem with cold environment in the absence of special equipment is that you don’t dare sleep. You fall asleep for any appreciable length of time, you die. But how long can you go with no real sleep? I was running out of solutions.

I knew I could no longer survive through a long trip on foot. I had to find some solution close by or leave my apartment and go sleep on some warm manhole cover like a homeless person. I just couldn’t cross that threshold.

DIMA

Going in my head through all the people I knew, I remembered Dima, a Ukrainian guy from Kirovohrad, about my age, maybe a year older. He was an Engineering student too, we took a class together once. Dima was scrawny, about my height. He was always fighting a losing battle with his blond curly hair which liked to just stick out in all directions regardless of Dima’s efforts to put it in order. We were not close friends, but I knew where he lived. Dima was totally intent on graduating. No girls, no parties. He lived in an abandoned house with no water, heat, electricity or phone and so no rent or any bills, either. Dima was a squatter. He used the showers at Lawrence Hall, one of Pitt’s buildings with a gym, about a block away.

I visited Dima only once, it was not a happy occasion then either. We took a class together. To everybody’s amusement that day he showed up to class dead drunk. I decided to get him out of there before somebody else did, like campus police, for example. I asked him where he lived and helped him to his house—carried him, essentially.

From Dima’s drunk mumble I understood that he escaped from Russia by the North Route. Remember I told you about the North Route? That route was deadly because of the rough terrain and extreme weather conditions, but there were few border patrols in that area so it was safer in that regard. Apparently he partnered up with another dissident. While walking through the snow across some ravine in a blizzard his partner fell and broke his leg. Dima tried to pull him out of the ravine but failed and finally left him there to die, kept walking alone and made it to Finland. Well, in those days for every person who made it, there was always one who didn’t. I wonder what that guy was thinking while freezing to death, all alone. And for how long?

Dima was a wealthy man now, he even had his own personal Hell he carried around with him everywhere. I suppose many people do. That is why he was driven so much in his studies. He had to become somebody, he had to make it all worthwhile, he had to prove to himself that he did not abandon his friend for nothing.

Well, alright, now the relevant part: Dima had a fireplace! The house was condemned, but Dima set up the living room nicely enough as his living area. He had a bed, a dresser, a desk with a chair and some bookshelves, there were even curtains on the windows. He had some photographs on the fireplace mantle. He used an old kerosene lamp and a couple of home made oil lamps for lighting. You know these oil lamps? They work somewhat but not really.

Most importantly, in that living room Dima had a fireplace. He lived only a couple of blocks away from me. I took my onion and went to see Dima.

I made it to his door alright and knocked. No response. I kept knocking for a while before Dima opened the door. Damn! Did I look that bad too? He looked like a French POW from Napoleon’s army. Russians took a huge number of French prisoners there. It was very cold. The prisoners were trying to keep warm by wearing anything they could find. That is how Dima looked. He was probably going through neighbors’ garbage on regular basis. He was also very skinny, unshaven with dark circles around his eyes. My heart fell. His fireplace couldn’t have been working if he looked this way.

“Hi, Dima! Remember me?”

“Sure, Misha, what do you want?”

“How is your fireplace, man?”

“Not good.”

“Can I come in and see it?”

He shrugged and stepped aside letting me in.

We walked to his living room. Damn! Everything was gone! He only had a mattress sitting on four bricks and a few text books on the floor. The desk, the chair, books, shelves, bedposts, even the fireplace mantle were all gone! He burnt it all to stay alive. And there was a pile of snow in his fireplace! All the dampers and spark arresters probably rusted out to nothing and so now there was snow falling unobstructed straight through the chimney into the living room. And there was this incredibly dark, thick and uneven ice all over his floor. What was that about?

I sat down on the icy floor with a sigh.

“You know we are going to die very soon if we keep going this way?” I asked Dima quietly.

“Have to die some day anyway, Misha. I am tired.”

“Is that why you walked through the snow for two weeks to get here? To die in this pitiful dump? Freeze to death in the middle of a huge city with a million people all sitting home watching TV right now?”

“Probably so. Anyway, how do you know about me walking through the snow for two weeks?”

“You told me.”

“What else did I tell you?”

“I am very happy you made it here, Dima. Now listen, dick, it is not your time to die yet! You are only twenty-two years old! Knock it off! You should be making love to a beautiful blond right now! And what are you doing? Look at yourself!

“Brunette.”

“What?”

“I should probably be making love to beautiful brunette right now.”

“Okay then, a brunette. I like that! You sure know your women! Do you have a brunette in mind? M-m? What’s her name? Does she have a sister?”

“No-no. I don’t have anybody. You see how I live. Who would want to hang around with me? I am a total looser.”

“You sure are if you say so, Dima. Listen, you decide who you are, not them. Looser? You made it through Hell, man, none of the smug brats you see walking around here ever came even close! So let’s live! Let’s make mad and passionate love to beautiful brunettes! Somebody will! Why not you? What do you say? Are you with me on that? Come on, man, let’s do it! Don’t make the girls wait!”

“What do you want from me, asshole?” Dima suddenly snapped back at me, “You come here, you insult me all the time! Bug off!”

I liked that. Pissed off. Much better. He was just about ready to roll over and die a minute ago. Boy, I was good!

“I need your help, man. I want to survive through this damn winter. You keep studying all the time, you are very smart. So use your brains and figure out how to get us through alive. Start!”

“Start what?”

“What is the frigging plan, man?! Brunettes are waiting!”

Dima stared at me speculatively as if trying to decide if he could trust me and if he should take another whack at surviving. I guess the vision of a naked brunette in the heat of passion, moaning, her tits bouncing most erotically . . .  Or was it just me? He might have been thinking about something entirely different, like getting an “A” in physics, for example. He finally averted his gaze and mumbled, “I did actually have an idea or two . . .”

“I knew it! What is the easiest one?”

“The easiest is probably to steal some phone books from the payphones around here and burn them in my fireplace and cook some soup.”

“You are a genius! Let’s go!”

We went around the neighborhood stealing all the phone books we could find. The place was decimated by recession. Things were downright ugly: boarded up houses, abandoned rusty cars, trash everywhere. The university buildings were alive with students, laughter, lots of light. We found some phone booths with books for us to rip off. This book hunt was exhausting but at the same time invigorating because we were doing something causative. We arrived back to his place with about a dozen books.

Burning these books could not possibly give us enough time to sleep. The wind was blowing through this place, you could stick your fingers between the walls and window frames. The place was full of holes.

“So, Dima, you just want to cook your soup, is that it?”

“That’s about it. We’ll also get twenty or so minutes of warm weather.”

“Okay, sounds great! What’s the soup of the day?”

“Tomato soup!”

“My favorite!”

Dima took out an empty ketchup bottle with remnants of ketchup frozen inside here and there. He had found it in somebody’s garbage, of course, where else? Some day we would remember all this and laugh. But not today. He also had a handful of onion peelings with bits of actual onion among the yellow peels. He would most definitely know about onions, scurvy and survival in the cold. I took my onion out of my pocket and gave it to Dima. He looked at me wide eyed. There was hope in his eyes now.

He even had a pot to cook in. We went outside and loaded it up with snow, avoiding any black and yellow snow the best we could in the darkness, compacted it, came back, made a fire in the fireplace and set the pot to boil on a metal grid of some sort that he rigged over the fire. It seemed he’d done this all before.

When the water boiled, Dima poured some of it carefully into the ketchup bottle, slashed it around vigorously and poured the pink ketchup water back into the pot. He added chopped onion and in a couple of minutes we had about half a gallon of the most delicious tomato-onion soup I ever tasted!

Meanwhile all the snow in his fireplace melted. Rivulets of very dirty water ran all over the uneven floor of his living room creating ponds here and there. In a couple of minutes all that water froze. The black ice. Nothing esoteric, a simple scientific explanation. We could play hockey in his living room. I used to like hockey when I was a kid. Now things were very different. If I had a hockey puck, I would have eaten it by now.

The phone books were all gone rather quickly. The temperature dropped like a brick back to our normal minus thirty or something. But now we felt a whole lot better! We were sipping our delicious soup and chomping on boiled onions. The warmth was flowing all through my body, clearing my mind and bringing hope. I was right about Dima, he was okay. We will make it, “Allah willing”, as Abdul would say.

“Hey, that was an awesome idea, man!” I slapped Dima on the back and wrestled him around a bit. He was so weak and insubstantial. . . “Hey, what was the other plan?”

“Ah . . . There is an abandoned house a couple of houses down the street. They left some furniture on their porch. I was thinking about stealing it and burning it but I couldn’t do it alone.”

“You are not alone! Let’s go!”

Having finished the soup, we went down the street to steal the furniture. It was wicker furniture, very light. We just grabbed a wicker sofa and carried it to Dima’s house. Wicker burns way too fast. I wandered briefly how much the owners paid for this useless piece of junk. At least we got six foam sofa pillows that we could possibly use to stay warmer or sleep on or something.

It was almost morning. We made it through another night.

ALKA

In the morning we were sitting in Dima’s living room on the icy floor, puffing on some cigarette butts we found and thinking. Obviously, our solutions so far have been inadequate. Yes, by some miracle we managed not to freeze another night. How long could we keep it up? We gained a bit of a short-term advantage but our solutions so far really did not make a slightest dent in  the overall doom of things. Instead of a concatenation of haphazard tactical solutions we needed a sound survival strategy. I explained my line of thinking to Dima. Of course he knew that already. He said he had a strategy, though it was a bit farfetched. I assured him that our situation was so bad that it, in fact, demanded a farfetched strategy.

His farfetched strategy was finding a girlfriend and moving in with her. Yes, I had to admit, under the circumstances it was a bit farfetched. Still, given our circumstances, we could not rule out any possibilities. I cleared my throat, “Hmm . . . so . . . do you know some girl who likes you?”

“No, I don’t. That is why it is a farfetched strategy.”

“I see. And how do you propose we implement this strategy, Dima?”

“I figure, we just walk to Squirrel Hill on Friday night, crash a Russian party, meet a girl and move in with her.”

“Who is “we” move in with her?”

“You. Me. We. Doesn’t matter. The main thing is that the girl must have an apartment with above freezing weather in it . . . and a mother.”

“Why mother? This strategy is already full of holes. Why are you adding more holes?”

“Well, sure! Have you seen any girls who cook? Have you actually ever seen any young female in the process of cooking?”

I thought about it carefully, sifting through my memories of various girls I met in my life.

“No, I never have. I just saw girls having fun in various ways or doing their nails.”

“See! They eat but they don’t cook! Where is the chow coming from? Their mothers cook! So we need to find their mother.”

“Brilliant! I like that thing on your shoulders! What day is today?”

“Friday.”

“How do you know?”

“I kept track! I was considering trying it on my own.”

“Okay. Dima, listen. We are out of time. We will most likely get one shot at this. We have to go in today, one of us picks up a girlfriend, we either both stay with her or at least one of us does. Then the lucky one takes care of the other. Agreed?”

“Yes, agreed.”

We spent most of the day brushing teeth, shaving and getting ready for our wilderness track to Squirrel Hill. By about 4PM we looked much better. Still haggard and exhausted but now at least shaven and acceptably dressed.

We walked to Squirrel Hill the shortest route, through Schenely Park. It was not all that much fun. Dead cold, lots of show and somewhat rough terrain but we made it in under three hours.

We finally staggered onto the Murray Avenue, the Squirrel Hill main drag. Christmas was in the air, street bustling with shoppers, cars on a prowl for parking spots, laughter and inevitable Jingle Bells. I got a distinct impression that everybody was having fun but me, my rather usual reaction to parties anyway.

“Okay, Dima, where is the lucky girl?”

“Lets find some Russians and ask them about any party. Somebody must have a party tonight, it’s Friday.”

We eventually met a Russian guy on Murray. He was also a student at Pitt.

“Hey, man!” Dima greeted him in an off-hand manner. “Where are the women?”

“I beg your pardon?” The guy was startled a bit by such an unexpected greeting.

Dima backpedalled, “Well, I mean . . . You see, we were invited to a party by some girl but we can’t remember her name or the address. Who is having a party tonight? Do you know?”

The guy thought about it for a moment. “Must be Alka then. She usually does a little get-together on Fridays.” He finally said. “I don’t recommend going there, though, she has a couple of really weird girlfriends, real man haters. They just sit around all evening watching TV. Nobody else but these creepy girlfriends there. And her mother is a freaking hussar, a monumental woman!”

 

Dima slapped him on the back most patronizingly, “Son, you have a lot to learn about women! If you get them to watch TV, you got them right where you wanted them! What is Alka’s address?”

He gave us the directions, wished us good luck and we were on our way to meet Alka.

We found the place, it was a run down red brick house, a bit better than Dima’s. There was light in the windows, though, that looked promising.

We went up the steps to the entrance door and knocked. The door was opened by one of the largest women I ever saw, about 6’4”. Her arms were much thicker than my thighs. The lady’s prominent mustache did not make her any less intimidating. I had to admit she’d make a great hussar, fit right in. Somebody, fast, give her a saber and a horse! My heart fell. Pull some wool over her eyes? Who were we kidding? She’d eat us alive!

“Who are you boys here to see?” boomed the woman about a foot above our heads.

“Alka,” squeaked Dima. He was also intimidated shitless, I could tell. We were doomed.

“Is she expecting you?”

“Not very much,” replied Dima stupidly.

“I am sure she would if she knew us better!” I yelled hurriedly trying to correct the situation. Too late.

The hussar lady was already closing the door. No! Dima jumped to the door and stuck his foot in, preventing it from closing.

“How dare you?!” he barked, stubbing his accusing finger straight up toward her chin.

Good start! Go get her, Dima!

“How dare you throwing your guests out into the cold?” Dima raged on at the monster lady. “You are violating all the laws of hospitality! How dare you?! We are zemliaki!”

Zemliak is kind of like a brother. The plural is zemliaki. It is a very interesting Slavic concept. Brothers are people who come from the same womb. Zemliaki are people who come from the same geographic locations. There are all kinds of traditional laws of Russian hospitality having to do with zemliaki and they are usually followed, it is a very close and hospitable society. Being zemliaki means a lot to people. In this case Dima implied that we were all from the same country which was stretching it a bit. Zemliaki are usually people from the same town or village.

“You are not my zemliak!” replied the lady noticeably taken aback. “I am from Kirovohrad!”

You know, NOBODY is ever from Kirovohrad. You could live your whole life in that country and never meet anybody from Kirovohrad. It is like, let’s say, Greensboro, North Carolina. It is just a rather insignificant city although most people have heard of it. But how many people from Greensboro, North Carolina, have you ever actually personally met?

“Kirovohrad?!” exclaimed Dima. “That can’t be true! I am from Kirovohrad too! Where did you live there?”

The lady opened the door tentatively with a grin forming on her face.

“We lived on Lenina! And you?”

“Right there on Tovarna! Neighbors!”

“No kidding! What school did you go to?”

“Number 14, of course!”

“Alka went to Number 14 too! Did you also have Irina Sergeyevna?”

“The math teacher? Absolutely! She sure was one mean hag! I bet Alka was glad to get rid of her!”

“Very true! Such a witch! Well, guys, come in, come in, it is cold outside! I have a table set up, Alka has a few girlfriends over.”

Zemliaki! The huge lady already led Dima inside with her arm around him. I tagged alone. The warmth and the smell of food almost brought me to my knees. Well done, Dima! It was not a freak of fate that he made it alive to Finland through that snow, no Sir! He was a true survivor!

A musty and creaky hallway with coats hanging on the wall brought us into a modestly furnished living room with a pre-historic TV set on a bookshelf. More to the point, there was a dinner table there with some incredibly awesome looking, even if a bit greasy, dinner leftovers! Then I noticed four girls sitting around the room staring blankly at the TV set, taking in the canned laughter and something about inspector Fish. Must be the Barney Miller show. Why would young and reasonably pretty girls sit around on Friday night watching Barney Miller instead of getting laid or living it up in some other satisfying way? No idea.

One of the girls was, ah . . . large. Yes, she sure was a big girl. She had a pretty face and very intelligent and penetrating green eyes but the rest of her body was on a heavy side. She wore unmistakable resemblance to Big Mama. That must be Alka.

The girls, except Alka, glanced at us briefly and went back to watching Barney Miller. The show could not have possibly been more interesting than two new boys appearing to join them out of nowhere. Must be real man-haters. That revolting attitude was not exactly conducive to our purpose for being here.

Alka was not a man-hater. She greeted us, looking straight inside me with her piercing large eyes, and told us to get something to eat. She asked no questions, expressed no surprise and did not waste any time on idle chatter or introductions. What an incredibly wise girl! At that time I didn’t even know half of it. I just got my first glimpse at the miracle we were dealing with here.

We walked to the table. Dima exchanged some pleasantries, politely took a plate, put a bit of this and that on it and went to sit next to Alka, nibbling delicately while introducing himself. I, on the other hand, at the sight of food immediately forgot all the manners that my mama taught me and hastily proceeded shoving anything edible into my mouth and then into my pockets. Some greasy potato dumplings called zrazi, beef cutlets—everything! I closed my eyes savoring the hasty meal. Grease was dripping down my chin. I suddenly felt something wrong and looked around. Everybody was staring at me. I hurriedly wiped my grease-dripping chin with somebody’s dirty napkin, then with my coat sleeve.

“He is hungry,” explained Dima, “He missed lunch today. He is a good guy really, he just can’t help it, being from a very small village in Carpathian mountains . . . well, you understand.”

They understood.

“What is your name?” inquired Big Mama politely.

“Misha.”

“Misha, would you like me to bring you more food?”

“No, thank you very much. Sorry.”

I felt terrible and quite apologetic for my unbecoming behavior.  Nobody was looking at me anymore. People with bad manners are shunned in any society. I felt really bad about all this now. And really sleepy too. So I set down on the sofa and immediately passed out! Russians have a saying which could be loosely translated as “Seven crimes—one punishment”. Since they already chalked me off as an uncivilized hillbilly, might as well snooze on their couch!

I was woken up by Dima’s insistent nudging. He was sitting next to me. I opened my eyes and focused on the clock in the shape of cat’s face on the wall right across the room from me. It was after 1AM! I felt like a truck hit me . . . but a very-very nice truck! I realized I was drooling. Damn, did I snore? One thing is to just drool in public, but drooling and snoring . . .

The table was now pushed to the sofa where I was droolingly sleeping in sitting position with  Dima propped up next to me. Alka was across the table from Dima with her elbows on the table and her chin resting on her hands. She was looking at Dima with unmistakable affection in her beautiful green eyes while Dima was bullshitting her about something funny. The TV was still on, I heard characteristic voices of Lucy and Ricky.

“Stop pushing me, Dima. What’s up?”

“Can I talk to you right over there, Misha?” replied Dima politely.

 

“By all means.” I smiled at Alka just in case but she kept staring at Dima.

We got up and stepped into the hallway to talk. “What did I miss?” I whispered.

“Nothing, man, we are leaving. It is just not working out.”

“What do you mean not working out? It has already worked for six hours just now! Did you see how she was looking at you? You should have practically married her already if you were an honest person! And she has a mother too! So what’s wrong?”

“Yeah, but she is fat!”

“WHAT?!”

“I’d rather die! I will not go out with her!”

“Just a minute, shithead! It was your bright idea. We never talked about her being skinny. And nobody talked about going out, either!”

“I know but I can’t! I just can’t!”

“How would you like to say that with a broken jaw?”

“Screw you.”

“How about a broken color bone, then?”

“I am leaving.”

Now what? Walk back in the middle of the night? For what? To freeze along the way or to freeze back home? To steal some more phone books? I had to think of something fast.

“Just one last thing before I kill you, you schmuck. I am just curious, what makes you think she is fat?”

“Of course she is fat! I can see that, I have eyes!”

“I have eyes too but I do not see her as fat. She is not a small girl, true, but she is a very pretty girl.”

“I can see! She is very fat!” Dima hissed, spattering. He was really worked up about all this.

“Hm-m. Strange. We just see two different girls. Let’s compare notes. Dima, is she pretty?”

“Well, yes, she has a nice face but . . .”

“Check! What color are her eyes?”

“Green.”

“You noticed! Check! Do you find her eyes beautiful?”

“Yes.”

“Three out of three! Now, focus! Does she have nice tits?”

“Well . . . I guess so but . . .”

“I take that as a YES and that is a check again! Four out of four! Next question, ready? Is she

a brunette?”

“Well, kind of, I guess, but . . .”

“And I take that as a YES again and you have six out of six!”

“Five out of five!”

“Shit, man,” I said with mock awe, staring, “You are so smart, sometimes it frightens me. Five out five it is! We are fully tracking!”

Dima was smiling now. He liked this game because he knew I was getting him closer to the actual truth here. Fat-shmat.

“One last, decisive question, Dima. It is totally subjective, just for you. Be honest. Did you or did you not enjoy talking to her for the last six hours?”

“I sure did.” His answer was immediate.

“Good for you! So what’s the verdict?”

“Well, I don’t know. I just think she is a bit . . . she is kind of, you know . . . overweight . . . or something.”

“Again?! Listen, idiot, you know that 16th century artist who used to paint naked very fat women all the time? What was his name? Rubens?”

“Yeah? Yeah?”

“Well, he would never paint Alka naked! Never! Can you imagine Alka naked? Well, can you? She is just not fat enough! Look at her! Nothing but tits and bones!”

Dima craned his neck and looked at her, then at me incredulously, “Do you really think she is not very fat or are you just shitting me?”

“I really think she is a very pretty and intelligent girl, a brunette, has large and accommodating tits—definitely something nice and warm for the winter—and, most importantly, she likes you. And she should! Now, are we staying or going?”

“Well . . . We’ll come back tomorrow, see how it goes.”

“Tomorrow?! Let’s stay here! Do you really want to plow through the snow again half the night?”

“Sorry, can’t stay. She is a virgin. Have to respect that.”

“How do you know she is a virgin? I have not seen a virgin since the 7th grade!”

“You did not grow up in Kirovohrad. Plus she told me herself. She is very real, you know? I feel like I’ve known her all my life. I want to be respectful to her.”

“Well, a thousand dead men and a bottle of rum, man! What are you gonna do? Let’s go home then.”

Dima just walked straight back to Alka, leaned over, turned her face and lifted it up a bit and kissed her gently on the lips! And he was in no hurry to stop either! She did not expect that at all and turned dark red like a beet but didn’t turn away or tried to discourage him in any way. Man, they liked each other! And what was there not to like? Dima was a good looking guy with curly bond hair that some women, I am sure, would love to run their hand through.  Alka was great in many ways but a little overweight. So what? There is a lot more to human beings than many and varied body peculiarities that we all have—except Angelina Jolly . . . MAYBE!

We walked home. It was a very difficult hike but it was a hell of a lot easier now after some good sleep and some food! We ate everything I had in my pockets by the time we got home.

We spent the next day preparing for our return visit to Alka. We shaved and found some sports clothing. We decided to go early that day and lie that we had a Phys Ed class just prior to coming over and did not have a chance to take a shower. That way we could take a hot shower too!

We made it to her house in two hours this time! Big Mama greeted Dima as a long lost son (or possibly as a much-awaited son-in-law) and nodded to me amicably but rather indifferently. I didn’t mind. Just let me take a shower and give me some food!

I took a long and lavish shower, washing my hair forever, leathering my body all over twice and washing the soap off, splashing and snorting in warm water. Who knew that showers were such a joy? Dima liked his too. Things were looking immeasurably better. After the shower we sat down to eat. Big Mama and Alka cooked a feast fit for kings for us. We had a tomato-cucumber-reddish salad with sour cream, lamb stew with potatoes and a special Russian desert drink, kompot—first you boil prunes, dry apples, dry pears, raisins and other dried fruits and then chill the liquid. Mmm-mmm, tasty!

This paradise lasted a few days. I regained some of my strength and moved back to my own apartment.

Then Dima came over one day, just as I was getting ready, and told me that he did not want me to come to Alka with him anymore for now. He explained that he and Alka hit it off really well, they were going out tonight, Big Mama gave Alka ten dollars for their date.

“Its okay, Dima, I can just stay home with Big Mama.”

“No. You can’t. She asked me not to have you there if I was not there. She is okay if we come together, but not just you alone. You have bad manners and all . . . you know.”

“Well, okay, man. I won’t go around ruining things for you. Have a great date! Don’t forget about me here in the trenches. You know how it goes.”

“I won’t, Misha. Thanks!”

He left! I stayed at my frozen apartment waiting for him to come back and save me as we agreed for what seemed like eternity. Really I was there for just three days but they were the longest and most terrible days of my life. It was extremely depressing. All my courage evaporated. I stared at my frozen aquarium pondering on the notion that I just could not go on. End of the line. There was nothing left anymore for me, no time, no space. Just deadening, unchanging, overwhelming cold and total solitude. Did everybody in the world die and I was the last survivor? Or the other way around—everybody else in the world was just fine, thank you, but I died? Did it matter? Was I dying because I gave up on surviving or did I give up because I was dying? I guess I was delirious or sleeping. Not sure. I saw my parents, my old friends, Nadya, Clara gently kissing me on the lips and smiling, Old Fred. I did not feel any emotions at all. I was just looking at them. Then a strangely inapplicable sensation of walking woke me up.

I opened my eyes and focused laboriously. I was walking! Then I realized that Dima was walking me around the room, just dragging me, really. I mumbled, struggling to turn enough to see him, “You came back, you bum, or am I dreaming?”

“Yes, yes, I came back. Sorry, I had to break the door.”

“Sorry? Fix the door!”

“Okay, okay, later. Right now Alka is waiting for us. She sent me to get you, I have taxi waiting.”

“She gave you money for a cab? You must have told her the whole truth then, hah?”

“Yeah. She gave me five dollars and told me to go get you immediately. Boy, was she pissed that I didn’t tell her earlier about you and left you here! Can you walk?”

I tried walking but my legs did not hold me and my head was spinning something terrible! I couldn’t feel my body much, either, except for some pain here and there. I think it was all frozen.

Dima half-carried me outside and loaded me on the back seat of the cab.

“Why did you tell her?”

“I needed her help to get you out.”

“So why didn’t you tell her earlier, you schmuck? You like funerals?”

“I wanted to tell her, man, but I wasn’t sure she wouldn’t just kick me out too. That wouldn’t help you either.”

“And what changed today?”

“We slept together last night! Alka put it to the family council, can you believe it? I promised to marry her. Big Mama blessed us and all. I didn’t think she would kick me out anymore so I told her about you this morning. Now I think I should have done it earlier. She understands things. But I was only gone for three days! How did you get so messed up so fast?”

“Thanks a lot anyway, don’t worry about it. Did she give you a blow job?”

“None of your damn business, Misha! Seriously!”

This was a very good sign. Men only talk about their sexual experiences if they don’t care about their women. Dima didn’t talk.

We arrived to Alka’s. Big Mama, Alka and Dima unloaded me from the cab, carried me into their apartment, took all my cloths off and threw me into a bathtub full of tepid water. And left me in it! It was all very embarrassing. I was sloshing around in the tub trying to get out but I couldn’t. Kind of nightmarish, like a turtle on its back. My whole body started hurting like hell, too.

Finally Alka and Dima came back into the bathroom, fished me out, wrapped me in a huge towel, rubbed me vigorously all over and brought me to bed. Then Big Mama and Alka fed me chicken soup with a spoon. It was very humiliating but I ate the soup. It occurred to me at that moment that I found new friends for life!

I spent several days there basking in attention and chicken soup and regaining my strength.

One evening Big Mama assembled us in the kitchen for a family meeting. The agenda was limited to one subject only—money. They didn’t have any. They had a huge refrigerator full of food and practically no money for the next two weeks, the Holiday Season. I could not stay here any longer. Big Mama asked us to find a real and workable solution for getting me through the winter. She left us in the kitchen to decide.

“Well, thanks a lot, guys. I guess it is time for me to move on.”

“No!” replied Alka. “Mother wants us to find a REAL and WORKABLE solution. Freezing to death does not fit the bill. What about your parents?”

 

“I won’t go back to them like this.”

She nodded her understanding. “You know what, we should find you a girlfriend! How about Rita? She is a nice girl but a bit of an airhead. She needs a good man. Would you mind meeting her?”

“Forget it, Alka. I can’t even sit straight, I can’t even talk straight right now.”

“So? Look at Dima! He sure swept me off my feet but he still can’t sit straight or talk straight, either!”

Dima just rolled his eyes, “Yeah, but can I fu. . .?”

“Shut up!” Alka yelled at him. Then to me, “See what I mean?”

I laughed. Then thought about it. A date with Rita just to live off somebody seemed to be in conflict with my decision to go honest and straight but then again there does not have to be anything unethical in a date, as such. A date is just a fun meeting of two people who are searching for a partner, a chance to communicate, learn something new, possibly make a friend or create a life-long relationship—theoretically.

“Yes, okay, let’s meet Rita. Don’t know if I am a very good man for an airhead but let’s give it a whack. Am I dressed okay or should I go home and change?”

“Oh, good! No, you look fine!” Alka clapped her hands in delight. “Just stick around, I’ll get Rita here! You could go to Zinger’s and have a cup of coffee or something. I’ll get you some money!”

Zinger’s was a bar-and-grill on Murray Avenue a few blocks away. They had music there too, my favorite kind of place. Alka managed to raise only five bucks for me. Enough for two coffees.

Rita showed up in about an hour, eyes sparkling with excitement, bangs of auburn hair jumping up and down on her unblemished forehead impatiently. Rita stood a trim 5’4”, about my age, very nice body. She had an incredible pair of legs under her, elegant high-heel boots, mini-skirt. Is this all for me? An excessively good-looking girl. At this juncture I felt out of my league next to this centerfold. It occurred to me that I have changed, it only took a few weeks for life to brake me. I sure had my ass subdued with a vengeance. I never felt out of my league before—not with Clara and not with Sophie or with any other woman. Regretfully, at the moment, I felt very uncomfortable under her wide-eyed, unabashed stare, full of awe. How did I deserver her awe? A crazy young girl. Who could ever understand young girls anyway?

Rita clarified things for me as soon as we stepped out the door.

“Misha, this is so exciting! Thank you for agreeing to take me out! I have always been so curious about car racing! And just think, I am walking right next to a real-life race car driver!” She literally danced with excitement on her incredible legs. Just a kid. I felt like an old man next to her.

Damn Alka! Race car driver?

“You should tell me all about it!” cooed Rita excitedly, staring at me wetly. “Just can’t imagine how you keep cool driving two hundred miles an hour! Such speeds! Tell me your mental trick, tell me!”

“Who, me?” I asked stupidly. What trick? “Oh, it is simple, Rita, I just close my eyes and hope that all other drivers keep their eyes open.”

Rita laughed and hooked her slender arm under mine. “No, tell me! Tell me more!”

“No problem, Rita, let’s get a cup of coffee at Zinger’s and I’ll tell you all about it.”

“Zinger’s?” she stopped cold in her tracks and asked with disappointment. “Couldn’t you drive me to a disco? I love dancing!”

I could if I had an operational car and a lot more money. At this point, however, I really couldn’t. And I really was not up to a night club torture. I still felt the aftermath of my recent freezing, starvation and lack of sleep. I remembered the unbearable noise of Club Zoo and shuddered.

“No, Rita, we are not going to a night club. I can take you to Zinger’s if you want or back to Alka, these are the only two places I’d go with you.”

Silence. Rita unhooked her arm, stopped and looked straight into my eyes.

“What is the problem, Misha? There is something wrong here. What is going on? No car? Don’t have money? Why are you taking me out? Who are you? What do you want from me?”

Damn it all straight to Hell!

“What do I want? What do you think I want? I want a blow job, of course! See here between these houses? Great place, come on!”

“You are such a weirdo! Is that how you talk to a woman? Fuck you!” Rita ran away from me gracefully on her high heels. Rita running in a mini-skirt, excellent view from behind. Too bad. Goodbye Rita!

No sleeping around or living off any women I didn’t love. I was going to go honest and straight and that was that!

“Back so soon?” Alka asked innocently when I stormed back into her living room.

“Why did you set me up? And what about Rita? You knew it was going to be a disaster!”

“No, I didn’t! What happened, Misha? Just tell me briefly.”

“You want briefly? Okay. She wanted to go to a disco and I told her to suck my dick. She left. How is that?”

Dima doubled up in laughter, hooting loudly. Alka turned bright red and smiled, “I see how you could characterize it as a disaster. No, I honestly did not expect such a speedy break-up. How long have you two love-birds been together? Under five minutes?”

“About three minutes or so, give or take a few seconds.” I smiled, feeling better already and somehow more alive.

“You have to agree, Misha, that a better handling was conceivably possible, no?”

“What? An even better handling than that? No, of course not. I think we just need another solution.”

Alka laughed and thought about it for a bit. Dima and I shut up and pretty much held our breath. We only recently met her but we already knew that when Alka was thinking, the best was to just shut up and wait. She finally announced that, in her opinion, the best solution was . . . to find me a job.

“Hello? Don’t you think I tried that for the last couple of month? There is no work, Alka!”

“I am sure you tried but your communication skills are vastly inadequate for the problem at hand, Misha, no offense. You have no contacts, no network. I am going to get on it right away and find you a job by this evening.”

“You are just full of it, Alka! What do you want to bet that you won’t find me a job?”

“Bet? How fun!” Alka clapped her hands and laughed, “Okay! If I lose, I cook you anything you like, an incredible dinner, all your favorite food . . .  later. If you lose, you will be Dima’s Best Man at our wedding! And, yes, okay, I’ll also cook you an incredible dinner later. How would you like that?”

News about his wedding turned Dima’s gaunt face even more pale. He mumbled softly with horror in his suddenly still eyes, “But I wasn’t planning to get married . . . just yet . . .”

“And now you do,” explained Alka in her most patient and reasonable tone of voice.

He shut up like a good boy. Honestly, he could have done a hell of a lot worse even if he was a multi-millionaire with a twelve-inch dick! And I am sure he knew that.

By the evening Alka found me a job . . . in New York. It was a remodeling job for some Israeli guy. It paid a thousand dollars cash and was supposedly a two-week job. She organized me a place to stay in New York for free, too. Alka just saved my life. Again! Profoundly grateful, I hugged Alka and kissed her warmly on the lips.

“Hey, you! Sir! Keep your hands off my wife!” yelled Dima waving his arms in the air.

I loved these guys!

FAR ROCKAWAY, NEW YORK

Alka found me a job in Manhattan and a place to stay in Far Rockaway, pretty far away, across a paid bridge. I was supposed to live for free in a basement of a duplex that belonged to some Russian friend of a friend of Alka’s. Basements are good because they always have hot water pipes in the ceilings that make them relatively warm. Apparently there was a bathroom, no shower. Somebody was supposed to set up a bed for me.

All three of us revived my car by pushing it down the street to some Alka’s friends house where we used five or six table lamps to warm up the engine. Then we jump started it.

Alka also managed to borrow seventy-two dollars for me from some other friends. I thanked Dima, Alka and Big Mama and left for a 350-mile drive to New York. I arrived there towards the end of the day, went to see the owner, the Israeli guy, first. He lived in Brookline.

I knocked on his door. The door was opened by a sour looking, disheveled and unshaven hairy dude in a dirty T-shirt. He just looked at me and grunted. My heart fell.

“You must be that fucking Russian from Pittsburgh . . .”

“Yes, I am that Russian. You are not Shloyme, are you?” I asked, full of hope.

“I hate Russians. You are all criminals, you know? Convicts. Fucking Mafia. The whole fucking country is one fucked up concentration camp. I would never allow you to work for me if it wasn’t for Naum. You know Naum?”

“None of your business who I know, slob!”

“Yeah, and you are all fucking rude, too.”

“And you are a Miss Congeniality!”

“So what are you going to do about that, Russian? You fucking shut your trap if you want the job!”

“Your job, you piece of dog shit? I don’t want your job! Shove it up your fat ass!”

“Do you know Naum? Ah! Doesn’t matter. You’ll probably quit anyway, even if you start, what am I worried about? Will just steal something and take off!”

“Screw you!”

Believe it or not but carrying on in that particular manner we somehow reached an uneasy understanding. We sure shared some of the same views on life at the moment. Practically soul mates! But by Alka’s arrangements this moron was supposed to pay me half up front and half upon completion but, as a direct result of my perfect handling and unsurpassed communication skills, I did not get any money up front. Not a penny. There was no written contract either. I just didn’t feel like bringing that point up. Shloyme gave me a key and a piece of paper with typed up address and scope of work. Then he closed the door in my face.

That scope of work contained removing a wall, replacing over 1200 squire feet of hardwood flooring and all new baseboard, a bathroom remodeling, some kitchen work, a bunch of new drywall and painting of the entire house inside. Two weeks? I’d be happy to get out of there in six weeks! How am I going to survive? I had about forty-five bucks left but I needed most of it for the bridge and gas, maybe all of it. So starving again? Is this terrible winter going to ever end?!

I drove to Far Rockaway to see my basement. It was alright. A few rats and cockroaches never killed anybody yet. Alka’s friends set up a bed in the corner for me, clean sheets, good blanket, even a night stand with a lamp and a dresser next to it! I never met the person who set it up for me but I was profusely grateful. Kindness of strangers never ceased to amaze me.

I walked out of my new home to see the place. It was a Puerto Rican ghetto at the time, full of gangs, drugs, prostitutes, fires burning on sidewalks in huge drums here and there, noise and music all around and no police at all, anywhere. I walked around gawking like in a museum. I never even suspected such places existed! Wow, what a shithole!

Walking around and staring that way I ran into a guy, a Puerto Rican, who stopped me and told me to pay him two hundred bucks rent for the basement that I just moved into. I did not understand at first and explained that Alka already arranged everything so I did not have to pay any rent.

“No, man, you don’ understand. You live here, you pay rent, we protect you. You don’ pay, somebody kill your ass, maybe we will. Very dangerous.”

“Who says it is very dangerous?”

“Pedro say.”

“Oh, is he the retard I met earlier? Kind of looking like this?” I did my best imitation of a mentally challenged quadriplegic.

The guy got offended, “Fuck you, man! You pay or no? I go back, tell Pedro.”

“You do that. Tell your retard owner. See if you can remember to relay to Pedro from me that he is a blood sucking criminal parasite and tell him to just go fuck himself. Will you remember all that or should I write it down for you, burro?”

“Yeah, don’ worry, I remember. But you are making a mistake, man, big mistake. So easy—just pay, but no! You stupid, man!”

Yeah, sure, just pay, easy! I kept walking around, taking in the extremely picturesque and unusual set up they had here, kind of like a set for a bad movie that I would never believe. Do people really get blow jobs right here on the street in parked cars? Why fall so low? Why? Why?

A small crowd of Puerto Ricans suddenly converged on me out of nowhere, about eight of them with my friend burro as their main speaker, “Yo, cabron! Pedro want to see you!”

Well okay, if Pedro wanted to see me, he would definitely find a way to see me sooner or later. So might as well do it now and get it over with.

“Okay, cretins, lead the way.”

We turned a couple of corners and ended up in front of a fire-barrel and a group of some twenty or so Puerto Ricans milling around it, including one very pretty girl dressed like a hooker. A Latina. They sure make fine looking women in that part of the world. A wiry guy with a greasy pony tail turned out to be Pedro.  He approached me. The guys who brought me to him moved behind my back unobtrusively. Pedro asked, “So you refuse to pay rent and insult me in my home, hah, cabron?”

“Guess so.”

 

“Why not just pay two hundred? You want to die? You will die, don’t worry. Why you so stupid?”

“I don’t have any money.”

 

“You are white, you have a nice new car. You tell me you no have a couple hundred bucks for me and my amigos?”

 

“Yes. I am white and I have a car and no, I don’t have any money. That’s why I will live in that basement with rats and cockroaches—for free. Clear?”

He gave me a long stare trying to decide how to take this. I guess he finally decided to get all pissed off and insulted. He turned red, suddenly pulled out a knife and started waving it in front of my face yelling something in Spanish. I found a good moment and pushed him hard with both hands. He stumbled backwards and slammed into the fire barrel, dropping the knife. They had a good size fire roaring in that barrel. Pedro grabbed the barrel with both hands to steady himself and burned his hands a bit. His men were laughing, although I couldn’t help noticing that I was fully surrounded and watched. They looked at me with amusement. There was no animosity in their eyes but I was certain they would kill me with no hesitation if Pedro said so. The girl was meanwhile cooing in Spanish, blowing on Pedro’s hands and kissing them while he was cursing loudly. He finally got a grip and walked back, looking straight into my eyes.

The moment of truth. To be honest, I could not even bring myself up to the point of caring at all. It was such a difficult winter already! I was dead tired, couldn’t go back to Pittsburgh and had no idea how to make it here for a month or two anyway.

Pedro came over and silently stared into my eyes. His gang stopped laughing. Everybody was quiet. I said silently goodbye to the few people I loved and asked my mom to forgive me. Suddenly Pedro asked in a totally different tone of voice, “So you really no have money, hah?”

“No, I don’t.”

“What’s your name?”

“Michael.”

“Miguel. No Michael here! Okay, Miguel?”

“Okay.”

“So, Miguel, what you will eat, hah? No money, no eat.”

“Don’t know, Pedro. I’ll come back and tell you as soon as I figure out how to eat with no money.”

“Miguel, here is your problem, man, right here! You see it? This is the 20th century, man! Wake up! People no starving no more, man! I am talking to you! You hear these sounds? That’s me talking to you! And you what? You no talking to me back, man! No communicating! You are fucked, man, you no communicate to people! You die because you no communicate! Try again. You have no money, how you will eat, hah?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

“And so . . .?”

“Well . . . and . . . and . . . do you . . . I mean, could you . . . give me an advice on what to do in such situation?”

“Help you? Si! Finally, man! You communicate! Miguel okay, Miguel communicate now!” he announced to his crew.

They were all laughing. I felt like a complete idiot. A bunch of Puerto Rican hoodlums were teaching me about life and THEY WERE RIGHT! I couldn’t stand it. So now what? Pedro continued, “We are here every night, around nine, ten or something. You come here every night, eat pizza with us. Sometimes we have other things. You like pizza?”

“Yes, Pedro, I like pizza very much.”

“Okay. See Giselle here? She is a hooker, you like her? She always bring us pizza, every night. Sometime subs, you know, sandwiches. You like subs?”

 

“I sure do. With pickles.”

“Okay. So every night! If you don’t show up, man . . . We know where you live!”

“Thank you, Pedro, thank you. I will come! Listen, any rules I should know? I am really grateful, I don’t want to accidently piss you off or something.”

“Don’t worry! You already pissed me off too much! You insult me, you burn my hands! It will get better now!”

I started working in Manhattan all day and eating a couple of slices of pizza every night. Sometimes there were other things to eat, even fruit. I liked these Puerto Rican gangsters very much. They were quite civilized among themselves. I have not seen anybody treating Giselle or each other with any real disrespect, the usual horsing around notwithstanding. There was definitely discipline and hierarchy in the gang. Pedro was the undisputed King, High Priest, President and God Almighty. He had a couple of lieutenants. Everybody was pitching in the best they could. I was a guest. I was impressed and very grateful to these bandits.

They’d meet every night at the same place which was the hub of their turf and they’d defend it against any and all intruders. Not much of a hub if you ask me. I’d probably give it away or, rather, just walk away myself. But this alcove surrounded by crumbling concrete and covered with trash meant a lot to them. It was their home. I wondered what their real homes were like.

I told the guys that I was remodeling a house to survive through the winter. The Puerto Ricans solemnly nodded, glancing at each other gravely. They looked kind of like family members gathered around the bedside of their terminally ill relative. They could not imagine working for a living but did not try to change me either. How could you help your terminally ill relative except by just making him a bit more comfortable? They were making me a bit more comfortable!

One of the guys, Pablito, brought me a sandwich once with some special salsa and asked me if I wanted a bite. Of course I did—surprise! So he stuck his sandwich into my face and I bit as much as I could possibly bite, doing my best to kind of unhinge my jaws like a snake. So somehow his thumb got in the middle of it all and I bit him on the thumb, just a little.

“Oy-yya!” yelped Pablito.

Pedro saw it, came over, raised his finger like a teacher and delivered a short but passionate sermon in Spanish.

“What did he say?” I asked the guy standing next to me.

“Pedro say,” the guy replied solemnly, “if you give man a bite from your sandwich, no keep your fingers so close to the end!”

I laughed so hard, I got hick-ups. Giselle came over to slap me on the back and tickle me so I stop hick-upping. They were all laughing.

Going was rough but the situation was survivable: the work was moving along and the owner Shloyme was surprisingly easy to work for. He was a total jerk on a personal level but at work he was not particularly picky. Shloyme observed silently my daily progress on one of his bathrooms, he’d just stand there and watch unnerving the crap out of me.

It started with demolition. He just stared silently and, in my opinion, disapprovingly, as I was breaking down about hundred and fifty years of abuse from that bathroom, including four layers of tile on the floor, rotten floors fortified by tin patches that could probably remember Mary Hunt and the temperance movement if they wanted to, cast iron bath tub on clawed feet, permanently stained ancient sink circa 1897 along with the rusty steel pipes, ripping out old wiring with it insulation eaten clean by rats or cockroaches over the years—everything. That fascinated him, I guess, because he kept coming back daily to watch me repair the bathroom framing with the lumber he bought, installing new copper pipes, modern wiring for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter outlets, an exhaust fan and recessed lights, insulation in the exterior facing wall and then closing off the walls properly with water resistive drywall. By the time I was half-way through tiling he started grunting approvingly and even brought me his wife’s cookies a couple of times, at her request, apparently. Women are better people than us, idiots.

This epic struggle would just end that way, quite happily, if it weren’t for the tragedy almost at the very end—cops impounded my car. With the survival margin this thin, any minor inconvenience, such as a towed away car, becomes a matter of life and death.

THE GREAT JOURNEY

I walked out of the house I was remodeling around 9PM. It was at the end of January or early February, at least four weeks into the job. I completed the scope of work Shloyme gave me and was already working on the punch list, the last-minute corrections and touch-ups. I was sure looking forward to a really good dinner in a couple of days!

I went out into the cold and damp breeze and walked to my car. It wasn’t there! I was a bit delusional from exhaustion and starvation so my first thought was that I simply forgot where I parked. I ran around the neighborhood for a while until it became abundantly clear that the car was gone. Then I noticed a rusty street cleaning sign hiding behind a tree. It had a phone number to call. Street cleaning? Damn governments! They ruin your life but give you a phone number to call. I had no money to even make a call. This was going to hurt, I could tell already.

I found a pizzeria nearby that was open, explained the situation to the proprietor, a Romanian Jew by the name Peter, and asked him to use his phone. He started by scolding me for being so stupid. Ah, New York! People here are very special, they will not hesitate to get all over your ass for things that don’t seem to be their business at all. They participate in your life that way. It is kind of charming in a hostile kind of way. Peter fit right in—he was a certified New Yorker now!

I called the number and talked to a black girl at the tow place where they had my car. I learned that my Ford was there waiting for me, but I had to pay a hundred bucks in cash to get it out. They did not accept any other form of payment because they did not trust their “customers”. I did not care. I was equally screwed no matter what they didn’t accept. The girl gave me the address. The place was far away, she told me to take a cab. I asked for walking directions, she just laughed and explained that I could not walk there at night, it was way too dangerous. I thanked the clerk and got directions from Peter, the pizza man.

“You must take a cab, dum kopf. You must.” Peter insisted. “You don’t know! Those places are death. You will never make it out of there alive, never!”

“Thanks, Peter, I understand, I just don’t have any money for a cab and I can’t wait. Besides, have you ever walked there at night?”

“Of course not! Do I look like a mishuge to you?” Peter snorted indignantly.

“See? Then how do you know it is death? Listening to all kinds of assholes telling you fairytales? At your age?”

“Bah! I never jumped off the Chrysler Building either! So what?”

“Goodbye Peter. Thank you for the phone.”

“Here, you schmuck, take some pizza. I am crazy! What am I doing wasting good pizza on you? You won’t need it in the morgue!”

I thanked Peter, took the pizza, my usual survival food, and went on my way. At some point the scenery changed drastically. Broken bricks and glass and all kinds of garbage under my feet, no electricity in some areas, gaping black windows, stripped or burned cars, loud music and screaming here and there, fires burning in barrels with some weird shapes hanging around, stench of urine and defecation. Nobody paid any attention to me. I wandered around and around, very obviously lost. It was after midnight already.

Could people really live this way? Evidently so. But why? They spoke English, they had roots here, family, friends—it was their country. They were definitely better off than we were when we arrived! They were just probably too tired. Like me and Dima just recently. They just gave up, that’s all. Giving up is a no-no! No, Sir, giving up is strictly prohibited! Verboten! Chop-chop! Step-step! Right-left! Keep moving! No giving up!

A sudden voice brought me out of my reverie.

“Hey, white boy! Come ‘ere!”

There was a barrel with a fire and three middle age black dudes stumbling around it with a bottle in a brown bag that they were passing around. I came over.

“Hello,” I said politely.

“Hi there, man!” One of them replied. “What the hell white boy doing here in the middle of the night? White boys don’t come here even during the day! You lost?”

“Yes, I am lost. But I am not a white boy. I am a Russian. There are Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Russians and drunks. I am a Russian. And you?”

“I am a drunk! You are full of shit, man, you playing me!” We both laughed, “My name is Mosses. I live here. Who are you?”

 

“My name is Michael, I am from Pittsburgh. I am walking to the tow place to get my car. Cops towed it away.”

“Oh, no! Damn cops! You know, the bustards after me from when I was born!  I never did nothing! Just stand there and don’t do nothin’ and shit and I go to the slammer! Were you on the inside?”

“You mean in jail?”

 

“Yeah, I mean in jail.”

 

“No, never. How long did you spend on the inside, Mosses?”

“Too long, man! Too long. Its bad! The food was alright, though. You want a swig?” He offered me their bottle.

“No, thank you very much. Do you have any food on you, guys?”

“We just got this banana, man, is all. Here, take it. Right?” He looked at his friends, they nodded drunkenly. I took their banana gratefully.

 

“Well, okay then, thanks a whole lot, guys! Better keep going. Do you know by any chance the way to that tow place? Here is the address.”

They knew where it was. I got detailed instructions that bordered on surreal. Like walk about a hundred paces that way, turn sharp left between two brick buildings, walk straight back to a chain link fence, go right till find a hole in the fence about yey high, crawl through it, cross the concrete water drain channel, go back up on the other side, find a hole in the fence, keep holding the large tower to your 10-11 o’clock, then sharply right at a dead tree then to a burned car . . . And so it went. Then Moses wanted to hear me repeat the instructions back to them just to make sure. I eventually did that to his satisfaction. Finally he said, “Okay, man, be cool! Don’t let’em give you any shit! If anybody stop you, tell’em Mosses sent you! Everybody knows me here!”

I thanked Mosses and his friends heartily and started counting paces as per instructions. What do you know! Some twenty minutes later I found the damn tow place! The instructions took me straight to it. Thank you, Mosses!

I walked around the lot once to get a feel for it. The place was brightly lit. It consisted of a small building and a parking lot surrounded by a single heavy chain. The only exit was blocked by a tow truck. I saw my car parked there. The keys were in my pocket, of course.

I went inside. They had a tiny office in the corner separated from the waiting area with  bulletproof glass. The waiting area was small but cozy with a fake leather sofa, a magazine stand and a coffee maker. Wow, coffee!

My inquiry regarding the car did not bring me any happiness. I had to pay a hundred dollars cash to get it out. No deals, no extensions, no exceptions. Just cash!

I poured some coffee and settled down, savoring the half-forgotten taste. Just a couple of months ago life was totally different. Seemed like a lifetime ago. Funny how quickly things drop when the bottom falls out. I suppose it stands to reason that things fall down, crush and burn faster than they climb back up the chute. That is the damn gravity law. Of course there are plenty of exceptions to that law. Now I was just enjoying the coffee.

The solution was obvious. I had the car keys, my car was parked outside. I was to ram through the chain, escape to New Jersey before morning, find a place there that would lend me some money for a few days keeping my car as a collateral, get back to New York on a bus, finish the job, get paid, buy my car back and go home. The plan was not entirely bulletproof but I couldn’t think of anything better at the moment.

The time was almost 1AM. I had to get going but I really didn’t want to move. The place was cozy and warm, the coffee was okay, the girl behind bulletproof glass smiled at me occasionally in no hurry to kick me out. I was reluctant to leave all this warmth and comfort behind and plunge into who knows what. How pissed will the cops get? Will they chase me and shoot? Who knows. And what about ruining the front of my new car in the process?

I decided to go at exactly 2AM. Now I was just enjoying the calm before the storm.

At about 1:45 the door opened and a slightly drunk Chinese boy walked in, sporting a 50-dollar hair cut. He was very fashionably dressed and smelled of expensive aftershave. He looked about twelve but with Chinese the age is often difficult to judge. He must have been older if he was driving a car.

“Hi!” He smiled to me and waved, “My name is Mike. What’s yours?”

“Hi. My name is also Mike.”

 

“No kidding? Isn’t that incredible? We are two Mikes meet here in Harlem in the middle of the night! We are both here now, we are not somewhere else in different places! Isn’t that incredible?”

“Yes, Mike, it is incredible.”

Mike told me that he was at a party that ran late. He liked some girl there by the name Grace and finally convinced her to go to his place to listen to some music. They went out only to find out that his car was towed away. Grace went home with somebody else to listen to their music instead. I only knew Grace through a brief third party introduction but she didn’t immediate strike me as a particularly deep or stable human being. Probably just another extraterrestrial with a vagina looking to get her whistle wet in an encounter of the briefest kind. And so was Mike, of course, with a whistle of his own to supplicate. I knew exactly how that went. What a blessing for Mike to get his car towed away from under him! He was too young to comprehend the sheer joy of spending the night at a car impound in the middle of Harlem with me instead. Who needs Grace? Of course, Mike and Grace could have turned out to be a real item—unlikely as it seems. In any case, Mike took a cab here. Apparently his brother was coming here to pay the fine.

“My brother is rich,” Mike explained, “He is a fashion designer on Fifth Avenue. What’s your story?”

“Oh, a similar situation. Walked out, no car. Since I don’t have any money or a brother, I will just ram through the chain and get out of town fast.”

Mike got very serious. I suddenly believed that he was older than fourteen.

“Can’t do that. Very bad idea, Mike. You must be from out of town, you don’t know. Around here the cops will just shoot you! They will just set up a road block and shoot you dead.”

“They might miss! And where do you get off, telling terrible things like that to somebody you just met? Go sit over there.”

“No, do not do it. I mean it. Just don’t do it. Call somebody or something. Do something else. Do you know anybody you could call?”

“Yeah. I know an Israeli guy who hates my guts. I also know a Puerto Rican gang but I have no way of reaching them and don’t want their money anyway. So here I am. Thanks and all that. Now leave me alone.”  He did.

Mike’s brother arrived, they looked almost identical. Same excellent cloths and expensive haircuts. Mike wished me good luck, his brother paid and they walked out.

I figured I had nothing else to do here, it was 2 AM already. I walked out to the parking lot and ran into Mike. He was standing there in front of his BMW talking to his brother. Mike came to me and handed me two fifty-dollar bills!

“Here. From my brother. I told him your story, he wants you to have this.”

My breath caught in my chest. I took the money and walked over to the brother. I did not even know his name. I really felt like crying.

“What is your name?” I asked Mike’s brother.

“Phillip.”

“Thank you very much, Phillip. Do you have a business card with your address? I will pay you back within a week or two.”

“Sure, Mike, here is my business card. But I do not want you to pay me back, it’s okay.”

“No, I insist. I am not a Cancer Research Foundation, I do not accept donations.”

Phillip and Mike laughed and Phillip said something that finally got me weeping for real, “I am helping you simply because I can. All I want in return is that you also help people, if you can. Deal?”

 

“Deal, Phillip, I promise!”

FRIENDS OF FRED

I got my car out, finished the job and received my thousand dollars from Shloyme. I actually received more, he gave me a hundred bucks tip! He said I was alright for a Russian and affectionally called me a gunif, a “bandit” in Yidish. Then I went to see Pedro and the gang one last time. I spent almost five weeks with them, I loved these guys.

“Hey, Pedrito! I am done! I got my money now! I am going back to Pittsburgh! I wouldn’t have made it without your help, guys. Muchas gracias!”

“Per nada, Miguel!”

“Hey, guys,” I suddenly remembered, “I can pay you the two hundred now!”

“No, it was a pleasure, man, come back any time and visit us!”

Pedro was happy for me. The other guys were slapping me on the back, Giselle hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, I kissed her back for once to her delight.

I returned to Pittsburgh a different man. I paid back the seventy two dollars that Alka borrowed on my behalf. I went to see my parents and asked for their forgiveness. They were more than happy to grant it. It was a joyous family reunion! Mom made a great dinner, we ate together pretty much as we used to do in the good old days, discussing things and charging up through the power of The Family. There was so much love around!

Dima got married to Alka. It was a traditional Jewish ceremony. Alka was the most beautiful bride in the whole world! Every woman is. I was the Best Man. It was a very modest but happy wedding.

Abdul returned from Syria in the spring and soon found a bride of his own, a strikingly beautiful and very outgoing Jordanian descent American girl by the name Gada. She was into fashions. Alka and Gada hit it off very well, they became good friends.

I got married to a wonderful girl by the name Olga, who I loved dearly. Olga fit in perfectly with Alka and Gada.

When all the dust settled, later in the year we all met for a little party at Dima’s and Alka’s apartment. Alka cooked up a storm! There was no room for any more dishes on that table. We ate, drank Smirnoff vodka, talked and joked a lot and sang songs in various languages—the usual Russian party. Although of course we actually were four Ukrainians, a Syrian and an American Jordanian. There were no Russians there. But we sure had no problem having a great Russian party together!

For the first time ever I told the guys about my adventures, about Clara, Italian carabineers, the Morgan Building, Fred, Phillip, Mosses and all the details of my recent winter experiences. I told them that I considered myself a Friend of Fred and always strived through the results of my actions to remain in best standing with the Friends of Fred Secret Society. When I finished the story, the table was dead silent for a while. Then Dima spoke to nobody in particular.

“I betrayed my friend and left him to die in the snow. He broke his leg. We would’ve both died . . .  It was just too hard. The terrain, the snow blizzard, the cold, the wind and all. I could hardly see anything, could hardly breath. So I just left him. He was still alive.”

Dima started crying. Alka came over, hugged him, she was also crying. Dima continued through sobbing, “I will never be a Friend of Fred now!”

“Thanks for telling us, man.” I replied, “You had an extremely tough decision to make there in the snow and you made your decision. We were not there. We will not be judging your decision sitting here all warm and cozy and drinking vodka. That said and being true, still, you betrayed your comrade there, Dima. Not because I say so, you understand? You just did. But you definitely show remorse now. And since that time you turned around as a reliable friend. That is most important. You delivered what you promised to me and to Alka. You promised to come back for me and you did. And you promised Alka you’d marry her and you did. That absolutely qualifies you to be a Friend of Fred! Any other votes? All in favor raise your hand.”

It took a minute but all the guys raised their hands one by one. Abdul was the last one to raise his hand. I know, Abdul, I know you would never leave your friend to die in the snow. But what can we do now? Can’t bring the dead back, have to care for the living. Thank you for reaching out to Dima, sadik.

“Dima, by the power invested in us as your friends, we declare our unanimous decision that you are herby forgiven for the death of your comrade. It’s over!”

Dima was staring at me and others with wide open unbelieving eyes. Tears were rolling down his cheeks. Alka kept hugging him ever so tightly. A fragile smile started forming on his face.

Abdul sighed sadly and said that he also wanted to be a Friend of Fred.

“I think I am a pretty good person,” explained my best partner in the world, “but I probably can’t be one, I am supposed to be a Muslim and all that.”

“So what?”

“Well, I am different. Old Fred was a Christian!”

 

“So? How are you different? You got two dicks?”

“No, he doesn’t!” yelled Gada, a bit drunk and always happy to do mischief. “Abdul, show them!”

“Well, I am sure glad we sorted that out!” I quickly closed the subject. “So, Abdul, tell me, do you usually include others in your personal plans?”

“Yes, he does!” Gada pitched in, “He is such a sweetheart!”

“Abdul, do you deliver on your promises? Do you help people when you can? Are you a decent and honest man? You are an honorable person, Abdul, I am very happy I’ve met you, anybody would. I think you fully qualify for the Friends of Fred Secret Society. Allah willing, of course.”

Abdul nodded happily and was grinning wide now.

Olga and Gada yelled “And me! And me!” jumping up and down and waving their hands. They also wanted to be Friends of Fred! They said they were good girls and happy to help other people. And they were! Alka was shaking her head and smiling at us patronizingly. She finally said:

“Look, guys, don’t you get it? EVERYBODY is basically a Friend of Fred! People make different choices at different times in life, some of them are wrong. But we are all BASICALLY and POTENTIALLY Friends of Fred! That is the whole Secret Society! It is just EVERYBODY! Who would expect to be treated so kindly by a bunch of Puerto Rican hoods? What about Mosses? What about Mike and Phillip—the rich kids driving BMWs before the age of twenty? What about Fred and Larry? And a bunch of other people who helped? Some of them have never even met Misha! So here is the truth: DEEP DOWN INSIDE WE ARE ALL FRIENDS OF FRED!

Amen to that and a thousand cheers! Let’s drink to that! There is hope and there is future for us all. You know why?

Because —

DEEP DOWN INSIDE WE ARE ALL FRIENDS OF FRED!

***

The Mascone Center Citizenship ceremony was over. I passed my test by making it here and by my accomplishments in the last seven years. And I gave my sworn oath. I am now a Citizen of the United States!

I walked out with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. What a feeling! Bursting with joy and pride I took out a twenty dollar bill and handed it to the first homeless person who walked by. “You don’t got no more?” was his disappointed reply.

That’s right! Always striving for more!

I love this country!

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One Response to “FRIENDS OF FRED”

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