27 July 2009
If this measure fails me, I go to the convent across the street from my studio. A great, sprawling collection of buildings sits low behind the walls. The convent is being rebuilt. There are skeletons of spires, great piles of bricks, yellow cranes tall in the sky, clouds of fine dust, suntanned workers, upside-down wheelbarrows and countless flowers.
The flowers grow wild here, as well as in organized gardens. There are roses as big as cows, and hollyhocks that stand taller than a man. There are some small stone stairs that lead to three graves. Each grave blooms in a collection of rumashki (wild daises), and violets and pansies. I always stare at these graves for some time.
As I leave, stooping my head under sunflowers bending under their own weight, bobbing in the wind, I see the church. Inside it is dark, cool and quiet. You can buy candles for whatever price you wish to pay. Every inch is adorned with icons of saints, Mary, and the Christ child. There is a big metal container filled with holy water and a still-wet cup dangling from a handle. You can turn the spigot and drink as much as you like.
Outside, there is an embankment covered so randomly with flowers, it is as if a child mixed all of the seeds together and threw them there. Black-eyed Susans, foxglove, and jasmine all twist into each other. The air is most fragrant here, and I stand with my eyes closed.
Around the corner, past more construction and white stones stacked on top of each other is the khlebuchik (bakery). Behind a small window, a mysterious collection of breads is displayed. There are yablokei pishki (tiny apple-filled pastries), khleb monaster (dark monastery bread). There are elephant’s ears, and cinnamon-filled logs, and even pampushki (tiny brioche covered in garlic and oil). I always buy myself the little pishki, for 20 cents apiece and some of the cinnamon bread for E for a dollar. She has been known to eat an entire loaf in one sitting. I found out that this bakery uses no yeast or baking powder - only hops, that are grown on the grounds.
Leaving from a side exit, I cross myself as I leave – returning to the busy street, computers, clients, telephones…and eventually home, to my little girl.
20 July 2009
We were buoyant, as if we were traveling inside a balloon. The metro shuttled along, and I saw my reflection across the aisle. Little E sat on one of my knees in a bright blue dress, me in a bright blue shirt. We were laughing at ourselves.
The address we were going to changed from 30 Bolshaya Nikitskaya to 60 Bolshaya Nikitskaya. We were wandering on side streets on a Saturday evening. The sky bright above us said afternoon. We passed the cool spray of fountains, sweet smelling couples walking hand in hand. We passed the Brazilian Embassy, and tried to see inside the windows. There were jasmine bushes hanging low over the sidewalk that we pressed our noses into. E closed her eyes for a long time.
And now we find the place, under a different name – a yellow Osteria, a few hundred meters from The White House. D is waiting on the stairs and we enter together. Our clients are already there, nibbling on cheese. We move to a table on the veranda. E spreads her dolls in front of her, and grabs slender breadsticks from the waiter as they touch the table. I am asked to select a wine, and spy an Arneis on the list. We have $40 in the bank, and I order a $100 bottle.
One of the women wears a purple dress, and has such a big smile you can see the tops of her teeth.
The wine arrives, and I am overwhelmed by the first sip. I think of cool mornings, and the rich soil of Northern Italy. I feel so very human drinking this wine, watching the glass spin in my hand, watching the other faces at the table as they take their first sip.
We talk quickly about business, and then about our children.
The first bottle has evaporated it seems. I think to order a Verdicchio, and then hear a little voice inside me suggest a Bianca from Puglia. I have earned everyone’s trust with the last selection, and when it arrives and says Chardonnay on the label, I do not even raise an eyebrow. I am used to the announcements on the metro, and how they say one stop when we are really at another. The bright yellow splash in my glass tastes of the mountains, and wild things.
We are all getting drunk on empty stomachs. The women smile lopsided smiles, hanging their heads to one side. Two waiters now play a guitar and a mandolin, hovering around the veranda like honeybees. Little E has her dolls do a dance for us, and I see we are out of those breadsticks. I give up on worrying about the details of life, about the millions of equations that need solving. I surrender to my newly filled glass, and the black pepper on my fingertips.
The wine is finished, the cheese and honey and grapes long gone. E’s hair is plastered to her head, sweaty and limp. The woman in the purple dress picks up the tab, and we go our separate ways, saying the traditional Russian goodnight – “Shistliva” (literally, happiness).
Outside, D announces she is too drunk to get in a taxi. She pulls off her shoes and walks on the sidewalk. E does the same, happily shouting “basicom!” (barefoot). We slowly make our way home, crossing a bridge over the Mosckva River as the sun makes it’s way behind the white house, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
We need to buy cat food, and toilet paper, I remind myself.
13 July 2009
The midnight sun keeps me half awake. Going to bed at 2am feels like an afternoon nap, with the sky turning pale blue along the rooftops. The cats are playing with my daughter’s dolls, some sort of night hockey with tiny plastic purses and tiny plastic shoes. Crows jump from their nest into our balcony, looking for bits of food forgotten on plates we have left outside. I do not sleep long enough to dream, but enough to drink coffee and splash water on my face as I make my way to the studio.
On the metro, I usually sleep an extra eight minutes. Today, I see a pair of feet in Velcro strapped sandals as I close my eyes. They belong to an older woman. The nails are unpainted, and her toes are crammed on top of each other, the large toe shoved under the long one, the pinky below them all. These are feet like my mother’s. They always made me think of fruit forgotten in a bag, squished into a dark corner and then found later.
I have not had words with my mother in more than ten years. It’s not easy to explain how this happened, but I do accept that this is the way things must be. When I was a boy, she drove us to the village pool every summer day like this one. When my brother and my sister and myself all got too difficult, fighting in the back seats of the pale blue Dodge Dart one of us would call to her.
“I’m not your mother!” She would scream at us, swerving in the road.
Ice creams from Dairy Queen were all we needed to smooth out these moments. Dilly Bars were my favorite.
My parents got a divorce when I was finishing college. The collapse of their 25 year marriage in a matter of months was a complete catastrophe. I was not present to witness it. My mother quickly became a stranger to us as part of this. In a short span of time, she changed her last name to Aubergine, gave away most of her worldly possessions and became an American Indian. You might say that she wanted to become someone else at that point in her life.
I tried and tried to maintain some sort of connection with her. At that time, I was the spitting image of my father. I was even mistaken for him when I answered the home phone. I am sure that when she saw me, all she saw was him. I had completely ceased to exist for her, and had been replaced by a fountain-of-youth version of him. At one point I had to accept that this would never change. The more I saw her, the farther she pulled away.
As a teenager, my mother was considered the black sheep of her family. She ran around with a mafia boyfriend who was killed in a car bombing, then got a scholarship to SVA. She met my father there, and she never went home again. She found out her mother had died many years after the fact. She has a brother none of us have ever met.
One of the reasons I became an expat was to get as far away from my family as possible. I am sure it sounds cruel and heartless from the outside. From the inside, it is a last ditch attempt to live my own life with my wife and our daughter on my own terms. When you come from a family like mine, it is almost impossible to break the patterns that direct your life. By putting a twist on the slash and run legacy, and an ocean between us I feel at peace.
As the train pulls into Alexandrovsky Sad, I open my eyes and try to see what side of the track we arrived on today. The woman with the Velcro sandals is looking at me. She has short black hair and a calico dress. I motion for her to go in front of me. She nods, and smiles in approval.
In Russia, they do not have any expressions about black sheep. They say that in every flock, there is one white crow.
06 July 2009
There is a street that runs through the heart of Moscow that is often called улица жизни (the street of life). At one end of Peregovskaya, there is a cluster of maternity wards, and at the other – hospitals for the elderly, morgues and funeral homes. In between these two points, all of life takes place according to Muscovites.
In truth, a great deal of traffic takes place between these two points.
Sitting in Peregovskaya probka (traffic) it is impossible to just listen to the radio. You feel a sort of responsibility to examine life. The teenagers with guitars strapped to their backs. The old man curled into some kind of snail shape, leaning against his cane. The pretty girls that travel in threes, smoking cigarettes and tucking magazines into their purses on their lunch break.
I see workers pulling white pansies from the earth, and replacing them with purple and pink ones. The white ones are perfectly beautiful. They are far from dead.
I had a tenor saxophone when I was in high school, and I painted it purple and pink one strange afternoon.
Playing ska in a bar band was a real escape for me. The rest of the group were college guys. We didn’t make much money, but we met a hell of a lot of girls. The keyboard player liked to perform in white face, like Peter Gabriel. Well, we did practice in his family restaurant’s basement, and we did drink Genny Cream Ale for free there.
Trying to get past the obvious ska covers, we attempted a punk version of “Hungry Like the Wolf”, but people just thought we played it really bad. One night, we got to open up for The Reducers. “Let’s Go” - their biggest hit, was already part of our setlist, so we were on obvious first act for these minor punk legends. That night, my horn literally started falling into pieces during the show. A support for the neckpiece popped off during my part of “Save it for Later.” Next, everything that let me play F# stopped working entirely. The Reducers were impressed that I kept going.
My horn did get repaired ok with an acetelyne torch in the basement. A vintage Buescher is a sort of tank that just happens to make sounds.
The pink and purple horn saw a good amount of action in college, even some charming recordings on originals like “Spot, My Dog”. The horn played at student protests, and above the dining hall two nights a week. If you play the saxophone, it’s how people identify you. You’re not the guy who plays the sax. You are the sax, with a guy around it. Of course, I enjoyed this and took a lot of liberties. Sax players can get away with murder.
After college, the Buescher sat in a case for years. I lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn then the East Village, then in Williamsburg - all in the early 90’s, when you couldn’t buy a cappuccino to save your life in Williamsburg, and when the only language spoken in Greenpoint was Polish.
I had a beautiful, cosmic girlfriend. We had a smart dog, and rented a floor of a brownstone for $650. There were great views from all of the windows, and we decorated the place with furniture we found on the street. I spent months sanding the floors down, with plastic draped over everything. The dust got everywhere, and we lived like this for 9 months I think.
We were both young, sort of like two kids playing house. She bartended at a trendy outpost in Tribeca. I was her long-haired blue collar fellow, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the celebrities who dropped in every night. Whenever we started arguing about something, she had a habit of stripping naked and posing on our red velvet couch that had three legs. Lopsided, like her smile I felt pretty silly arguing with her. We had some dinner parties, and ate a lot of garlic. We took a vacation in Greece for a month.
I bought us a used car for $500, and it got stolen the very same night. She lost her job, and I supported us. Some months went by. We weren’t having fun anymore. She smoked a lot of pot, and painted flowers in the corners of the pages in my books all day long. The house was still covered in sawdust and the damn floors were still half-exposed. I knew I had finish them.
I stayed up for three days, sanding some parts by hand in the middle of the night so she and the dog could sleep.
I woke up on a rainy fall morning, and took the purple and pink sax out of the case. I played it for the first time in that apartment, with the windows open and a stiff breeze flipping the curtains around. The dog came and rested her chin on my knee.
In one single motion, I took the horn out to the East River. It was really starting to rain. I played the horn for a few minutes - - tried to remember some Mingus I liked a lot. I threw the horn high up into the air, and watched it flying above the water. It went down with a tiny splash.
I moved my stuff out later that day.
I found out she had the floors painted, the same color as they had been when we moved in.
I still don’t understand why those workers are ripping those white flowers out of the dirt. They’re perfectly fine.