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the white table

The days are not long. The nights are short. Guitars are hiding in cases, with scraps of paper tucked inside. The pen is full. There is a fresh notebook, with creamy pages. The little white desk is in the middle of the living room, a cascade of receipts and laundry perched on it.

I clean it off, have lunch as it stares back at me. This focal point, this fulcrum where my thoughts become real, this cheap folding table from Ikea. It is familiar, and patient.

What do you want to be when you grow up? (sucker punch)

The streets are ripped up, long bouncing paths of old boards weaving through them. There are nail heads poking out, people trying to navigate with baby strollers, dust kicking into our eyes. I am lost with E, late for a birthday party trying to find the entrance to the biggest toy store in the country. Her hand sweaty in mine, we crane our necks looking for street signs, any indication we are in the right place. Men are working on a hot Sunday afternoon, digging up old pipes. There is a stack of rusted out manhole covers, wobbling as people make their way.

We do eventually find the place, the opposite direction we had been going for the last hour. We stand in that first blast of air conditioning, dizzy and relieved.

The party is in full swing, at a sort of "who are you going to be when you grow up" theme park inside. Music is blaring from a thousand tiny speakers, young voices singing.

          Ole, ole, ole, ole
          Russian heroes! Russian Heroes!
          Ole, ole, ole, ole
          Russian heroes! Russian Heroes!

The children are wrangled by a young man in a cowboy costume. He asks each one for their name, and birthday as he creates a passport for them. Something turns inside me, that familiar outsider paranoia, that itch that will not go away. It is all so innocent, maybe fun for the natives. For me, it is a subtle lesson being taught, a stranger asking for your information the same as the real officers in the street who stop immigrants and tourists, with a salute and a sour face. I want E to give a fake name and a different birthday, and I know that is beyond ridiculous but the thought does occur to me. This is a country where information leads to weakness, and people protect their identities, their piles of stamped and registered papers with a fanaticism I have never seen anywhere else. To know where someone is registered is a door that opens, a vulnerability.

The children wander a miniature village under the fluorescent lights, here a tiny post office, a maternity ward with baby dolls in cribs behind the glass, a detective agency, a supermarket, a beauty parlor, a radio station. There are throngs of people milling around, and I stop counting after a hundred. Giant balloons pop with sounds like gunshots, and everyone jumps. The first stop for the children is to go to the bank, showing their passports and getting some play money. A little boy not older than five stands at the doorway, eyes staring hard at me and another parent leaning to see what happens inside. He wears a little vest, the name of a real Russian bank on his chest, their logo littered all over the tiny house. Another boy waves a toy metal detector, with "security" on his arm. My thoughts leap again, wondering what example this sets, this preparation for the real world. I grew up learning that "boys can be nurses" and "girls can be farmers".

I see the supermarket, with plastic food on the shelves and a collection of tiny children in smocks pushing miniature shopping carts. This reminds of trying to trick my brother into vacuuming the house. "If you're really nice I'll even let you vacuum!" I imagine someone asking "Hey kids, who dreams of being a cashier in a supermarket?"  My head reels. Maybe it is the sour hangover of someone raised on the American dream where no child is taught to dream of being a cashier. But the children are laughing, waiting patiently in line. I bite the inside of my cheek.

E and one of the other kids decide they want to be bank robbers, but that is not offered.
"Ok, I want to grow up to be Jon Stewart then." E chirps to me, and I smile.
Somehow I think he would really appreciate that, if he could be a fly on the wall here.

Children in more uniforms patrol the streets, with clipboards and pens tucked under their arms. They stop randomly, filling out questionnaires with other children about how satisfied they are with the activities. They take down their names, of course.

The cacophony of music and shouting may have overwhelmed the birthday party. The children retreat to a free room where they can play with dolls and cook pretend plastic food in a little kitchen.

I understand now, from E that to go and work somewhere you need to pay to do it.
"So, you buy your job?" I ask her.
She nods.
"I know what you are thinking pop, I know." She mumbles.

I regret being so critical, reminding myself how much I like the film Bugsy Malone, a messy, banana cream pie in your face mock-violent prohibition era fable of gangsters and morality played entirely by children. What is the difference, I ask myself. I think it is the fact that the only houses available are beauty salons, and the radio station stands empty. I think it is the fact that the pirate ship is not open and the bank is teeming with tiny workers. Maybe it is all a coincidence and I am being far too judgmental. E is running around, laughing, chattering with another girl. This is the life of an expat, especially one that does not assimilate. Every crack in the sidewalk becomes sinister. I do think the little boy in the bank working security has the same expression as his real life counterpart though. There is something so wrong about this to the outsider and so fantastic to the insider. This could be Willie Wonka-land, a land of pure imagination where a child finds that spark for the job they will pursue for the rest of their life. I know that one ride on a fire truck can make that happen. That nagging itch will not go away, that there is something dangerous going on here. Too much reality, not enough wonder for my raised-by-New-York-hippies taste. I was brought up on Free to be You and Me, big tough Rosie Greer telling us that "it's alright to cry".

After the cake and the cookies, the juice and the flash photographs of caught smiles and loose hugs we make our way back out into the bright afternoon.

In the metro, there are groups of police walking the platform, some with German Shepherds. There were not so many a few hours ago. It reminds me of a summer night in New York so many years ago, a Sunday too. I was in the metro going home and I got mugged at gunpoint, right in Soho. It was a sucker punch, a time and place so innocent that it never entered my mind what exit I should take.


liv said…
I love that children don't always think. That a lot of the time they just react with complete spontaneity, especially when they are happy.

We adults, we think too much and certainly if there is fear attached to the situation. They will get there in time, fear will enter. But they need to stay there, in that happy spontaneity for as long as they can and as long as we can let them.

Thinking and happiness are not always compatible.

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