IntroA fuzzy recollection of arriving in America. Also, the first piece written for Logodrome.
November 15, 2002
Memory is my scrapbook; I can choose a particular snapshot and hold it up to your view. Some pictures are dull and grey, others are rich and colorful; some invite you to join the tableau with the promise of a good time while others repulse you with images of pain, shame and embarrassment. As it usually goes, all these themes are blended into one endlessly flowing cocktail; only the proportions change. Happiness is thus reduced to finding a drink with the least sourness and bitterness mixed in.
The snapshot I see in my mind’s eye right now portrays me stepping off a plane. I have just come back to the States after spending a summer back home. It is the August of 1994, and New York is hot and humid. A particular smell, made truly potent by summer heat, grabs your nostrils when you emerge from a planeful of captive Russian air into New York. It is incredibly complex and foreign, a smell of food, exhaust, beauty products and god knows what else, a smell that more than anything else drives home the oppressive idea that it’s strange air you’re breathing now, champ, and strange people thinking strange thoughts surround you. This is a world unlike your own, the smell says, so watch out! It was when I stopped noticing the smell, after having lived in the country for years, that I realized I had grown fully acclimated.
On that particular occasion I was accompanied by my second cousin, Ruslan. We were college students eventually bound, he for Arizona, I for upstate New York. Our uncle, a Russian nouveau riche, was paying for our American education. His business partner Boris (what business made them partners I still don’t know) was meeting us at JFK. The day before, we called Boris’s Staten Island residence from Moscow and surprised him with the news of our impending arrival.
“You should see that fucker,” Ruslan told me admiringly. “He’s crazy. He wrestled with Ripper when he visited us in Alma-Ata last year.”
Ripper was a vicious purebred Doberman Pinscher Ruslan’s family kept. They usually locked him out on the balcony when people were visitng for fear of maulings.
“Ripper sees him come into the room and goes clean through the balcony door, glass and all, charging at him,” Ruslan narrated with a gleam in his eye. “Boris just laughs and tackles that bitch. He would have gotten hurt except my Dad pulled them apart.”
I drank in every word Ruslan said and observed his every mannerism, taking notes. He was a year younger than I, shorter, and undeniably cooler. We were both skinny but where I came off gangly, he managed to convey an impression of lanky lazy hipness. I knew from his demeanor that he was prone to fighting and thus probably belonged to a raion (an Alma-Ata version of a gang, a raion, roughly meaning “neighborhood”, is a chunk of city claimed by pugnacious youth of predominantly high-school age who spend their free time mugging passersby, getting high, and fighting other raions in huge scheduled brawls called baklany; many stories of mine go with this topic, but I’ll save them for another day). He had small hazel eyes like gimlets and curly dark-blond hair that clung to a broad, flat forehead. He was by no means ugly; in fact I personally observed girls taking to him, and he had already bedded many, by his own as well as others’ accounts. In my virginal nineteen-year-old mind his sexual proficiency had elevated him to the lofty status of a “person in the know” (that is, someone who knew when and how to get laid)—a category that increasingly seemed to include everyone in the world but myself. That’s why I was watching him closely. A recipe for getting pussy was hidden somewhere in his words and actions.
“Russian chicks don’t like it when you come on them,” he would enlighten me. “I fucked this girl back home, and got a little carried away, big deal! So instead of pulling out in advance and jerking off to the side, I pulled out just in time to come on her stomach. She just went eeeww! I was like,‘Hey, you could be swallowing it instead!’” He shook his head ruefully. “I hope American chicks are more agreeable.”
And there he was coming alongside me, catching his first glimpse of American chicks in their native habitat. It was my second trip to the States, his first. I knew by his loud sniffing that he had noticed the smell, too.
We ran into Boris just coming out of the passport check and customs area. He waited for us with his son Roman, who spoke bad Russian and, unaccountably, equally bad English. From my cousin’s stories I imagined Boris a strapping jolly giant of a man. On close inspection, he resolved himself into a typical fidgety Russian emigré: a short pudgy Jew with thinning dark hair, sallow skin and a bulging nose. His son was unexpectedly tall, blond, and blue-eyed, although there his claim to good looks ended.
“Hello, guys,” Boris said and gave Ruslan a hug. “How are you, Ruslan? How’s your Dad?”
“He’s good,” Ruslan said. “He says hello.”
“What took you guys so long?” Roman asked.
“Those fucking passport control people,” I said. “Asking all sorts of stupid questions, like we’re some kind of terrorists.”
“Welcome to America,” Boris remarked cheerfully and gestured for us to proceed to the garage. “The traffic is a nightmare but I think the Belt Parkway isn’t too bad.”
“How far is Staten Island?” I asked, settling into the back seat of their Buick. I am too tall; back seats and I do not agree.
“You’ll see,” Boris said with a laugh and off we went, cutting through the thrombi of traffic clogging airport exits to emerge onto the broad expressway that girds Brooklyn’s swollen underbelly.
That ride to Staten Island has blended in my memory with all the other rides I took down the Belt Parkway. It comes up grey morning air, winding lanes, concrete, ocean on the left and ugly apartment buildings on the right (I have always wondered about who lives there). Verrazano Bridge, Staten Island are a blur. Boris’s house was conjoined on the left with another house, like a Siamese twin sharing a side, and I found this arrangement very peculiar and uncomfortable but got used to the idea soon enough. We didn’t spend much time there anyway, for after we had a shower and a change of clothes, Boris and Roman whisked us away to the City. They needed to run errands, we needed entertainment, and New York to us unaccustomed visitors was a giant roaring amusement park.
We made a stop at a Russian restaurant called Moscow on the Hudson, where Boris talked with the owner about some party that night while we hung around hungry. Then we went to the Diamond District. I was too overwhelmed by the sights and the sounds around me to appreciate the interesting actitivies that were taking place. Ruslan’s mother wanted a diamond necklace and the design was ready; all that was needed were proper materials and a master to work with them. While Boris ran off to take care of some other matters, Roman lead the way. “Just go to this address, go inside and tell them who your father is,” I remember a surly Armenian jeweller telling him. “They’ll take care of you.” “This address” was around the corner and they did take care of us, promptly and obsequiously. I spent most of my time watching the people passing by on the sidewalk and the conversations that took place inside the store had escaped my attention completely.
Time passed quickly: culture shock and sensory overloads play with one’s internal clock, compressing hours into stretched-out breathless minutes. Exhausted as I was, there was still more to come, for the night was young, the party at Moscow on the Hudson was on, and we were invited.
The party delivered a shock of its own. The Russian immigrant culture in New York is strange to say the least. Like a sapling cut and planted away from the mother tree, it derives from the old seed but grows a new trunk. Its carriers look back on their origins with a curious attitude: haughty yet nostalgic. They often treat their visitors from the old country like naive bumpkins while bitching to them how stupid Americans are in comparison and thirstily lapping up Russia’s worst pop-culture effluvia. Nor is this immigrant culture exclusively Russian. Soviet Union was a melting pot in its own right and nothing attests better to the strength of the alloys it fashioned than the purifying acid baths of foreign surroundings. In the US, my Tatar shoulders have received brotherly embraces of Uzbek, Ukrainian and Jewish arms simply for my greeting their owners in a language common to all of us, and native to none.
I observed and digested these curious patterns over the course of many years. That night at Moscow on the Hudson, I knew only that the whole affair was weird, all the more offputting for coming packaged in a seemingly familiar wrapping. The party was thrown on the occasion of someone’s daughter’s twelfth birthday and organized in the usual manner of newly monied ex-Soviets, emigrant or not: with ample pomp and scant taste. A black-clad band enthusiastically abused their instruments on a small, dimly lit stage as two dancing Latino couples, incongruous in the Slavic setting, lit up the makeshift dance floor. Ruslan and I watched with fascination the swaying hips and large, welcoming breasts on a tall, sultry brunette. “I’d like to get a taste of that,” Ruslan told me as the squinting compasses of his eyes faithfully tracked every move of the graceful magnet. “Black chicks and Latino chicks, I’m telling you. Oh, man, how I would do her!” So would I. We shared sympathy for each other’s lustful misery as the party thundered around us.
“I just don’t get it,” I would tell him, words slightly slurred with vodka binding my tongue, “Why the hell do they serve pancakes with caviar here? Every fucking Russian restaurant I’ve seen here considers it a must-have item on the menu. I’ve never seen pancakes with caviar at home. It’s either one or the other; they don’t mix. This is stupid! This bothers me deeply.”
“I know, man” Ruslan would reply. “Her tits are just bouncing up and down, man, I don’t think she’s wearing a bra.”
And we would stare with open mouths at the bouncing tits for a while, pancakes and caviar forgotten. The guy sitting next to us followed our gaze, gave an approving nod, and winked at me.
Later that night as we filed out of the restaurant, the brightly lit street swam before my eyes. I wasn’t full-out drunk but pleasantly tipsy, right at that delicate stage where you know your behavior may be inappropriate but go ahead with it anyway. A homeless Negro approached us, insouciant and deferential at the same time. “Godblessya, spare any change?” he mumbled, looking at each one of us in turn.
“Why don’t you find yourself a job?” Boris said with casual contempt, scanning the street over the bum’s shoulder trying to locate our parked car.
“I been tryin’ to fine a job, sir, but there ain’t nobody hirin’.”
“Is that right?”
“Yessir. My back got hurt the last job I had so I can’t work, and there ain’t nobody hirin’…”
“All right, all right,” Boris interrupted, handing him a dollar bill and heading towards the car. “There you go.”
“Oh, thank you, sir, God bless you,” the bum said as we walked past him to the Buick. Boris decided to drive while his wife took the passenger seat leaving Ruslan, Roman and me sqeezed in the back. My knees hurt but in my stupor I didn’t mind.
Boris, ever the gracious host, played the guide as he drove home. “That’s the Empire State Building,” he said pointing in an indeterminate direction. I would confuse the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings for three years afterwards. “And this is the Brooklyn Bridge. New York is a great city, boys. You should explore it more. How long are you staying with us again?”
“Till tomorrow,” I said, and Ruslan echoed: “Got a plane to Phoenix tomorrow afternoon.”
“Well, that’s no way to visit,” Boris said. “There’s all these places, the Statue of Liberty, the museums, the shops, the restaurants, the—what the fuck?!”
His expletive made me stop craning my neck trying to see the sky out the back window and focus instead on a bewildering situation. A yellow cab apparently had cut us off and was now hanging in front, slowing us down. It took Boris a brief second to explode.
“That fucker!” he hissed through clenched teeth. “That little fucker!” He floored the gas pedal, drawing an angry moan out of the engine. The Buick swung out into the lane to the left and gained upon the cab. Instead of passing Boris kept abreast of his adversary and lowered the passenger-side window. The cabbie, a youngish-looking black guy, stared at us blankly. His window was rolled down, too.
“You fucking nigger!” Boris screamed as we roared alongside the cab. “You goddamn black cocksucker!”
The cab driver turned away and stepped on the gas, trying to leave us behind. But there was no escaping Boris. He caught up, the powerful Buick purring like a pampered tiger. The two cars sped down Verrazano Bridge at about seventy miles an hour. In his drunken agitation, Boris paid little attention to the road. Our course grew sinuous.
“Borya, stop it,” his wife said quietly and tersely. Roman was giggling in the back seat.
“I’ll show him,” he muttered without noticing her. We were even with the cab again. “You fuck!” he shouted at the driver again right over his wife. “You stupid nigger fuck!” His Russian accent, thick even when he was calm and sober, now made his cursing almost incomprehensible.
Roman still giggled, whether with fear or delight I could not tell. Boris’s wife grew increasingly panicked. “Stop it,” she pleaded hysterically. “You’re going to kill us all. Stop it now!”
I watched them as if they were characters in a movie unfolding on a screen before me. Jet lag, exhaustion from a full day, and vodka made me sleepy and detached. I vaguely realized that we could crash and die but the possibility didn’t bother me; I was stumped but not outraged by Boris’s racial epithets. After all, it was a foreign country and he lived here and knew what was what. “This is how they do things here then,” I thought with cold curiosity. “When in Rome…”
Finally, Boris gave in to his wife’s pleas and slowed down. The cab tore away from us and fled down the first exist that came along. We spent the remainder of the trip in grim silence as a storm brewed over the heads of the husband and wife in front, ready to erupt as soon as they were alone.
I missed the fight because I collapsed into bed as soon as we got back; it was three o’clock in the morning and an elephant stampede through the house wouldn’t have kept me up. Yet five hours later I found myself sitting in the kitchen and staring bleary-eyed at the grey light outside, with a half-finished glass of orange juice on the counter and the cottony taste of exhaustion in my mouth. It was six at night back home, eleven in Zanzibar. My head felt light and empty. The house was quiet; finally Roman and Ruslan got up and we prepared to leave. Since Ruslan’s plane was in the afternoon, we decided that they’d drop me off first.
We made our way uneventfully into Manhattan, where I gave them both farewell hugs in front of the Grand Central Station, wrote down Roman’s number so that I could visit his family the next time I came down to the City, and finally watched them drive off. They turned onto Park Avenue and disappeared in traffic. I went inside and bought a ticket to Poughkeepsie.
A homeless Negro shuffled up to me as I stood waiting to board the train. “Godblessya, spare some change?” he mumbled.
“Where are you from?” I said.
I stared at him for a second. “I have a good friend from down there,” I lied finally and gave him the last money from my wallet—three crumpled singles. I needed to find an ATM.
“Thank you, God bless you,” he said as my train started boarding and I turned away without another look and ran to the front to get a good seat. Five minutes later, the train was pulling out of the station into underground tunnels, like a probe delving into the city’s bowels. I settled into my seat and watched the darkness outside. It was the beginning of a long year.