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the long way around

The living room is a forest of mic stands and cables. A cup of coffee, a large glass of water and a shallow shot of whiskey sit on the tiny white table. I alternate between them, making sure the guitar is in tune, trying to understand if the chair will creak when I lean my head back on the second chorus.  There is a hush in the room. I can hear my own heartbeat. The lyrics are printed out on a fresh piece of paper, large and thick so I can read them easily even though I sing with my eyes closed and will surely forget a handful of words no matter what I do.

The guitar sounds dry, perfect - even honest. I can play a simple D chord with a long strum, or the side of my thumb and it sounds so different. I record a few takes, barefoot in the bright room. I am going too fast in some parts, and my fingers are already sore from the chord changes.

And then all at once, I am thinking of a show I played in an old factory in Brooklyn, way back when I had just started writing songs almost twenty y…

пертсовка (pertsovka) and the happy worker

It's been over a year since I've written here. (I deleted those old fluffy postcards.) It’s not that I haven’t thought about it. Time after time, I have found myself in moments that could not pass quickly enough. The idea of documenting brushes with bankruptcy, these truly nightmarish and ugly stretches…was beyond my courage. I want to forget them.
Today was a national holiday, but I was working in our studio. It was one those vague holidays, like Labor Day - - there is a general idea as to what the day is celebrating, but there aren’t any parades. The Russians have a deep respect for holidays, and the thought of working on one is nearly unthinkable. The streets are empty, and most of the stores are closed. You can hear the grass growing, where there was ice and snow two weeks ago.
Our Lilliputian studio is on Ostoshinka, a sort of “golden mile” of museums, an opera house, a massive, gleaming white cathedral. The tiny room is white, with red leather chairs and glass tables. A crazy all-red finger painting my daughter made hangs on the wall, and a Cassavetes poster leans on its side next to the printer. I still haven’t decided where to hang it.
I work with the lights off, and play some new music. The Russian sun is always fooling me – it looks like afternoon outside but it’s still morning. The sun is still out at 9pm and I think it’s just one long afternoon.
One of the security guards knocks on my door. His hair is bright white, and he always remarks about a television project I worked on that involved tigers. He always acts like a tiger, with appropriate childlike enthusiasm when he sees me. He has brought me a plate of marmalat – sugar covered jelly candies, and a warm glass of white wine in a plastic cup. He speaks quickly, not really worried that I can only understand about half of what he says. He is telling me that I am “a happy worker”, and that all of the guards agree that I work more, and harder than anyone else in the building. He thinks it’s terribly funny that an American is such a happy worker. (We have hired a number of young Russians as our assistants over the last year, and they all suffer from a terrible apathy.)
One of the problems with keeping an office in such a prime location, is that the landlord can enforce all sorts of ridiculous rules – like charging us 50 rubles an hour when we work past 8PM, or if we work on weekends, and yes, holidays. The guards like our little studio, and often forge the papers or destroy the papers we must sign and stamp every time I work late. Last week, the owner studied the security tapes, specifically looking to see if we had worked over the weekend. He wanted his 500 rubles (which is about $10). So, now any guard who lets us work unofficially is taking a risk instead of just being kind. I remember studying Foucault in college, and his suggestion that “power comes from below”. I wish this collection of old men shuffling around in the dark, taking catnaps on an old sofa – I wish they knew they were wielding some sort of power by helping us save $10. In truth, they may be too lazy to file the papers.
He shook my hand, his grip as firm as a boxer. I went back to work, and then stepped out to buy some bread and salami. He was sleeping on a sofa by the main entrance, his face buried in a cushion. I bought some vodka to give him, for 165 roubles as a sort of bribe so he wouldn’t make me file the papers. This is how Russia works - with various equivalents of bottles of vodka, some chocolates, some cash. As they say, “it’s very Democratic”.
I woke him when I returned, and showed him the bottle. He laughed at me, and told me I shouldn’t have. Suddenly wide-awake, he brought me to the guard’s tiny side room. Another guard, taller and thinner than him but with the same bright shock of white hair sat there. He is very quiet, and I like to imagine he was in the Navy. He has a very good personality for a submarine, is what I always think of him. The little guard with the strong hands is pushing me into a chair. Their table is littered with the shells of hardboiled eggs, with giant uncooked knockwursts, and a tube of mustard. The vodka is poured – Pertsovka, which just means it’s infused with a hot pepper, or occasionally with wild honey as well. The tall one cuts apples and oranges in half and arranges them on a napkin. He speaks slowly, hoping I can follow him. They are toasting to me, the happy worker, the only one in the building with them today. The drink is thick and warm, yet terribly smooth. I swallow the glass in one choreographed gulp, then reach for half of an apple in slow motion. The tall one smiles to himself, the little guy has spilled some on his nice clean shirt. I press the apple to my nose and breathe in the spring smell before eating it noisily. I relax into the chair.
Suddenly I am not worried about saving $10, or about the work I should be doing right now. The guards are asking me if I have any friends in Moscow. I say no. They are sad, and shy but are trying to ask if we are friends – but it’s not appropriate to ask me directly. I pretend I don’t really understand them then change the subject. We drink again, to summer and to money. That old guard Pertsovka is smooth. I study the label, hoping I will remember it.
We talk about my daughter. The guards are smitten with her. We drink once more, but the little guy has just half a glass. The tall one gives me another small, knowing smile when he sees my glass is full. He is trying to tell me that “my glass is full” in his own cryptic way, and I understand him. He is happy, and now we all toast in silence and say nothing, because saying nothing says everything now.
The front door buzzer goes off, and they quickly hide the bottles. It is E, driven in the car to come and visit me.  The guards wear these faces now – like puppies in a window, watching us go back down the hall.
Later, when we decide to go home they are both asleep on the sofa.


The Expatresse said…
This is a lovely piece.

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