Escape Chronicles: Moscow, Ladispoli, New York

by

01/19/2006

Orchard & Houston St., NY 10002

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

“If you want to tell a story – start telling it. It might come out OK. It might not. At least you tried – better than leaving it in the fridge of memory. Sooner or later, like all man-made things, fridge will stop working and all goods will rot.”

–Some guy on the steps near Ganga in Varanasi, India

1.

Coming to New York first time is very exiting, right? Even if you are disoriented, jet-lagged and poor. Every newcomer had a first time with New York, was grabbed by the ass, shoulder or wallet, kissed in the lips, smacked in the guts. You’ll be mugged, hugged, caressed or gang-banged; the sequences of events, the paces different, but you’ll get all of it. Unless you learn how to use it. Of course, you could read Zagat and Voice, learn about the cheapest latte and free museum days, visit no-fee yoga seminars or listen to free opera in the park. But I am talking about using your city without your city using you. Still don’t have a recipe.

So in the winter of 1989 I landed in JFK, sick with exhaustion. I spent the previous night waiting for my flight at Leonardo DaVinci Airport. I arrived to New York with no documents aside from my white refugee card and name tag, pinned to my chest. I had long way to go and city narrowed its eyes to take a better look at me before shoveling through the gates with the others.

In my pockets I had roughly 50 bucks and 1000 liras. I had no idea how much money I wiould need in New York. Living in Italy with almost no money was relatively easy since I worked in the hotel, where I ate and slept. I did not need much. Back there I even had a vehicle. Actually, two, counting Vespa moped. I was rich by some people’s standards.

Car with full tank of diesel was left for me by one of the Russian crooks who fled in the middle of the night with the promise to get in touch later. I heard he was killed a week later somewhere in Napoli over money dispute (Never heard of these guys being killed in poetry reading contest!)

Anyway, in this 3-bedroom apartment in Ladispoli thirteen people occupied all imaginable corners and spaces – former nurse from phsychiatric ward, Genya, with her family of five, whom she hated passionately. She complained about them to stray cats, hordes of which came to the kitchen every morning; former director of construction company from Latvia with pretty wife and knowing eyes; ex-colonel of Soviet Army, David, who lived in the wardrobe closet in the corridor due to total luck of funds, as he claimed; hairdresser Anna from Berdichev with heavenly beautiful 12 year-old Lolita of daughter, student from Moscow, and me. Director and his wife were decent and even educated people from Riga, Anna was slutty, but kind, Misha – quiet and useful. I suspected that Nurse stole my tee short, left unattended on the clothing line, knew for sure that colonel took sealed box of perfume from my suitcase to sell it on the flea market and ease his financial strain, but none of it was important. I still had to get up early and go to hotel, where eventually I started to stay overnight to avoid madness of refugee camp at home.

That’s what we were – Russian refugees, stacked in Italy, waiting for interview in American consulate. All of them – except Misha, Lolita and me – had had pretty tough former lives and adjustment to new ways was more painful due to hardened fossil of clichés – comparisons with previous rules and surroundings.

I’ve met hairdresser with daughter and student in Austria, in the refugee camp. Don’t take me wrong – it was almost luxurious children’s summer camp in Alps, with heated floors and delicious breakfasts, tours to Vienna and pastoral landscapes. It was Italy where reality settled fast.

Listen, it was kind of tough for me, to make my way through it alone, but I had no fear. I had no idea what was ahead of me, and did not think much about life I left behind. If you could call it life. It was good to be young, self-absorbed and travel lightly, blind arrogance of youth was helpful too – so I was OK, really. I could recall bad and good days. They were all mixed together, as they usually are.

On a good day, which turned out to be bad and then back to good, I rode to market in Rome and bought food for whole freaking dysfunctional temporary family of mine – nurse, colonel, student, director, hairdresser and cats. Then my moped got stolen near Round market together with loads of food. After spending 2 hours at the train station square, trying to figure out how to get back home I spotted little bastard, who was turning around the street on my moped, with food still unpacked. And like the three guardian angels, gigantic sweaty hairy Karaims from neighborhood stopped at the same intersection next to him – I jumped in their track, we followed weasel to distant warehouse and took my staff back without speaking the word. He is probably still there; one look at these three monsters (gentle, kind Jewish guys from Crimea) could leave anyone paralyzed for life.

Once on a good day I was given a key to the empty villa and lived there for a week with hairdresser, student and Lolita without being caught before finding job and this apartment with its crew of crazy clowns.

Once on a so-so day I got proposition of sexual nature (there could not be any others at that time of my life) from fat little hotel owner and had to refuse very politely instead of laughing in his face – and kept the job because he was too embarrassed to harass me further – it was not a rejection, just pure amazement from my side. Guy was like 5 feet tall, really.

My fingernails came off from using cleaning solutions without protection of rubber gloves – I was too cheap and did not spend my own money, owner too cheap to buy it for me. I got kind of fat eating daily spaghetti lunches in hotel. I started to despise brunettes – all of customers in the hotel had dark hair– it was southern Italy – no matter how hard I cleaned rooms and fixed bed sheets, hair was everywhere – embroidered into sheets, hiding behind bides, clogging drains. My own hair became flat and brittle from daily dust. Things I used to find under beds while cleaning rooms disappointed me in humanity, not that I thought of it highly before.

But after some time everything started to change – Nails grew back when I finally quit hotel job, my hair got back to normal with help of fresh air and good conditioner, I went to shop and bought decent clothes. I moved out of apartment, leaving almighty crew without regrets – besides, student already left for Chicago, hairdresser was living with Italian track driver, colonel was heading to Israel, rejected entry to US in spite of or due to the glory of his past in the Soviet Army. Crazy nurse forced everyone in her family to shave heads, claiming big savings on the shampoo and they were heading for San Francisco in a week, all five of them resembling Emperor penguins in shapes of heads, bodies and beaks. I was hired by some half-illegal agency to take Russian tourists to Venice, Florence and San Marino and it suited me better then washing bathrooms or making beds, although was equally tough. Have no desire to describe wonders and beauty of Italy. It’s all there; you can check it out for yourself.

Riding in the bus during 3-4 day trips I use to think – One day I will go back middle aged, more or less financially comfortable and will see these places again; will avoid insanely expensive coffee tables at St. Marks, going to the local places I remember instead; will dine by Round Market in one of these cheap ostessias in Rome. Will pretend not to understand Italian, just to hear comments on stupid American putana, who does not know her formaggio from fruppe. They are really OK, Italians. People speak same way about tourists everywhere. Almost same way. Almost everywhere.

I do sympathize with refugees, whom I now see on the news quite frequently. Since I had been one of them, I do remember this feeling of being lost and vulnerable, mute awkwardness of language barrier, clumsiness of manners, and inappropriateness of clothes – hell, these guys on TV sometimes have no clothes whatsoever. But do I hate humiliation of being poor. Will never let it happen to me again, which is a naïve statement by itself, knowing life’s funny ways, but still – I’ll try to keep this promise.

That day in JFK Italy lay behind me with its pale pastel colors of winter sky, dusty olive trees and lemons in the garden, warmth of sun on the steps of Piazza Navona, randomly memorized beautiful faces, framed by temples, bridges and valleys; it looked at my back absent-mindedly and wished me luck.

New York was in front of me. I hesitated for the moment and then went through custom gates. All my possessions were in the bag, a little bit of clothes along with framed photo of my fiancée, whom I had not seen for more than a year. He was supposed to be in the waiting area.

Only he wasn’t there.

2.

On the day of my arrival I knew 2 people in New York – including my fiancée. But he was nowhere to find. I managed to call him collect from airport, but his phone was not in service and I had to think what to do next. Taxi ride took 25 out of my 50 and there was no hope to tip driver with 1000 liras. Everything was greatly out of scale after Europe – colors, width of streets, height of buildings. There was a sense of total self-sufficiency coming from people on the street. Even crazy bums were confidently occupied with their daily routine. It was grey, windy and cold, with steam coming from under manhole covers as described in every book and shown in every movie about this city.

Steam is just a part of complicated entourage of smells, shapes and colors and you’ll stop noticing it after eating same visual meal every day.

I worked hard and made very little money. This must sound familiar for everyone who came to New York – with white refugee card. At least I was legal. And did not wash dishes or toilets – I worked in the Metropolitan Museum, just in archives, for laughable sum, but had no complains about my life, just wanted it to be a little bit more dynamic. I traveled for long time without having bed of my own or city, or country to call mine, to consider home. World was huge and non-assuming, my goals were same as everyone else’s in this city – to survive pace, fight own doubts and be able to be yourself. Last task was hard for everyone.

If you have good body, even cheapest clothes look good on you. Main rule – to keep it as simple as you can – white T-shirts usually lose shape after first wash, but you could buy a lot of them; you can find decent English tweed jacket in Salvation Army and other good vintage stuff. And jeans – after all, you are in America. Don’t put on cowboy boots though if you do not speak proper English– only people who manage to look good in them are cowboys and pretty girls. I was pretty, but not confident. And my English was crappy. Instead I wore my Italian riding boots. It was not cold this first winter in New York, so I could get away with little clothes I had.

In terms of money you don’t need much either – monthly rent, subway fare, Chinese food for hot meals once in 2 days, bread, coffee, milk and fruits unlimited. It kind of disciplines you as well. Only danger is – you’ll start to accumulate unnecessary stuff when money starts coming – and eventually will get buried under it. You’ll form attachments to unnecessary objects. And to people, who become part of your daily picture just because they are in the snapshot. But you learn all of it after experiencing it first. There is no way around – and they do not teach it in school. I would create class of some sort –like “Basics of Detachment” to educate kids while they are in the warm cocoon of family life. I would warn them that forming new attachments to people, places and cities could be a dangerous business.

I liked living in America. First year, opening my eyes in the morning, I could not believe this fact and had to do whole routine of reminding myself where I came from and how. Things worked well here. Goods were on the shelves, trains came regularly, along with bills in my mailbox, which was frightening, but manageable.

I realized I forgot many faces and places I wanted to forget. New things surrounded me, life was simple and I had clean record in many ways. Dynamics of life were totally different. Times were changing fast. Back in Moscow I thought I’d never see the change.

My expectations then were very limited, almost nonexistent, which is never healthy when you are young. After modeling and studying at the same time, after having several flings with different, but strangely similar men, I suddenly looked around and realized that I was doomed to the same life pattern as everybody else. That gave me shivers. I just imagined faceless husband and kid in the tiny apartment somewhere in the un-pretty post-Soviet suburbs; job for peanuts and evenings in front of TV. I could have it any time. Later I realized I could have it anywhere in the world, not exclusively in this northern Asian capital. Or I could try to make it better.

In the murky reality, among crudeness and dirt of everyday existence, with slim chances of having decent future in the country, which was munching absent-mindedly on its own children and intending to stay on this diet for a long time, I suddenly saw window of opportunity – to leave dreary place once and forever. And never have to deal again with ugliness of everyday existence. Not that I was so intensely delicate or fiercely political – no; reasons were my aesthetic senses, which were insulted daily. Tired faces of people in the subway, predictable rudeness of clerks, smell of urine in the elevators and stairs of apartment building, absence of future prospects in the darkening air of coming months and years. I did not want to ride in the stinky elevator let alone make it a habit to urinate there. All these small snapshots of reality slowly, but persistently, covered images of my Russian childhood. Unlike Nabokov, I never went nostalgic for paradise lost. Probably because it never was a paradise.

I did not know at the time that I described almost every other country in my long list of complains – in some aspects daily existence is the same everywhere – aside from permanent smell of urine and constant rudeness and total lack of prospects daily life gets to you everywhere – just with different dosage of things mentioned above. You just can’t compare it with anything else, without a chance to see other places.

Just do not give me usual bullshit about mysterious Russian soul. I saw these souls close enough and have to tell you – mostly there is nothing mysterious about them, and they are not that pretty – if that’s how soul could be called – pretty. If you really want to study it ask to be reborn in your next life in Russia and you’ll have a good sense of it.

Russia will be part of me forever – can’t do much about it – but let’s not make a big deal out of it, OK?

In those days in Moscow people were walking on the street carrying radios with live transmission from annual Communist Party forums. Usual sleepiness of such events was interrupted by unthinkable speeches, anger was ringing in words and facts; confess and came clean, they shouted to themselves and that was shocking and promising. But I had no desire to sit through it all. Performance promised to be long and without clear ending.

When I was interviewed in the regional police quartets about motives of my departure, corridors were full of people, planning to reunite with their fake or real foreign relatives. At the time, only Jews, Armenians and ethnic Germans were suppose to have such connections abroad. I was none, but eventually had it easy.

TV was working on the table in the office, where two tired officers were sitting. They could not take their eyes off the screen, one was exclaiming from time to time – how could they say that openly! – I can’t believe this! They questioned me for 15 minutes without much interest and half joked about never ever letting me back into the country when I crawl back to Russian borders after experiencing horrors of capitalist jungles. Threats sounded all the more like cartoon for what was coming from TV, and they dryly smiled at they own words.

One of them said – Oh, for heavens sake, let her go, let her have her own taste. He meant well. We all had no idea what was coming in the next 10 years – I wonder what happened to all of them – these tired officers and exhausted people in the corridors, how did they make it. Trust me; it was better to keep moving instead of trying to wait things out.

In early fall of 1988 I received my visa and was stripped of my soviet citizenship – it was a rule for people leaving country forever – not that I worried about it. It was good not to belong any more. My steps were light with anticipation of change. Sleepless night – first of many to follow – in the smoky Moscow airport in the lane of hundreds people with baggage and body-search, custom officers with the eye color of silverfish – none of it made me nostalgic or sad – I was honestly hoping never to see this place again.

Pleasantries of idyllic cherry orchards, swan lakes, music of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, books of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky have very little to do with such moments – when you are waiting in line to be strip-searched. It mostly resembled Archipelago Gulag and luckily I’ve read in this book not to be scared or intimidated.

All of it mixes in the air around you on the molecular level – real Russia with it’s greatness and wretchedness – you’ll find it in the taste of your tea somewhere far away from home, in the yellowed pages of your Grandmother’s birth certificate, in the sound of winter winds and in the view out of your dacha’s window –Russia will surround you, if you let it.

Nevertheless, I had very little tolerance for all these talks about nostalgia – it’s nothing but old collection of postcards and love letters from the past, you read them in the attic on the quiet evening, but you do not carry them with you everywhere. There was no personal message in the mixture of what suppose to be a fabric of your own national identity, although it had its value. My personal message was written on the pages of my visa – head of the family, traveling alone. It is still true and I might just stay this way.

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