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no gold (things will have to wait)

There is an old Russian expression for the inevitable moment when your neighbors begin renovating. "Searching for gold in the walls." They say, to describe the epic sounds of drills in ancient concrete. You might appreciate this odd humor, this dark joke, this survival tactic. I am not so graceful a man to wrap my thoughts around it. Those drills and grinders, they shake the very walls of our apartment. Early on Sunday mornings and often long into the evenings they go.

This has been going on for the last four months, maybe more. I stopped counting.

I cannot imagine there are any walls left, that there is an entire open floor below us, the wind whipping through the naked beams and nothing else. That is the only explanation. Or that they break down walls, build new ones, find a flaw, some grand mistake and then break all of the walls down again. Not swiftly with sledgehammers, but with one crappy old drill with a dull bit, mashing away, so that children hundreds of miles away…

promises


The snow comes, the way it often does in October. A minor threat, a few hard flakes that children spy and shout about. Parents lift their heads for a moment, maybe sharing in the excitement or like me they do anything to avoid looking out the windows. The flakes are giant, drifting around as leaves flip from branches in handfuls. The view from E's bedroom is white. 

This is life in Moscow, for natives and expats alike. The promise of winter is realized two weeks into autumn. Of course the flakes will go away. This is just an overture. But the next morning, the ground is spotted with drifts. Winter coats are pulled from the backs of closets, spotted with the early mud from last Spring. E hates her coat, or more the idea of having to wear it. I feel the same about mine, resenting its orange lining, angry at the zipper. 

I still have pickup shots to get for a story that takes place in late summer. I have found a strange building, an inspired bit of Soviet architecture. It is far from the center, half in the middle of nowhere. On Sunday I cram the camera in an unassuming bag, a tripod, and directions. There are flakes whipping around in the sky but by force of will I tell myself not to trust them, they are just to trick me into staying inside. They will melt away, and the sky will open up. They have to.

Ducking into the metro, there is a full-on snow flurry. The flakes are stinging my cheeks, leaving them wet and clammy. I take the trains, march with everyone else through the muddy hallways, the slick escalators, everything smelling of ammonia and horse sweat, of stale cigarettes and diesel.

Outside the metro I climb the stairs to the street, seeing I am in the wrong exit. Back under, through a labyrinth of boarded up corridors and then a different path to the street. This one is right, but it was labelled "polyclinic" so I had assumed it was the wrong one. The snow has changed to freezing rain. I make my way, the bag slung across a shoulder, my neck craning to see street signs and house numbers. Giant orange trucks roar past me, carting garbage. Eventually I see I am going the right way, and I walk slower. The numbers are climbing. I need to get to 63. 

Before I realize it, the rain stops. The wind falls. The building appears, but there are plenty of plywood boards across the fence around it. It is not in use, just a lonely yellow backhoe standing in the front lawn. I shoot from across the street for the hell of it, and then poke the camera through openings in the fence, tilting up, framing around tree trunks and avoiding the piles of dead leaves on the ground. We are still holding out for late summer, even if the sky is pale grey. The trees are full of green leaves. 

And then, the sky does open up for just a few minutes. Guards are coming out, one at at a time to ask me who I am, what I am doing. I tell them I am making art photographs, that I like this architect very much. They stare at me for a long moment each time, and decide I am harmless. By the time the fourth one comes out, I know I should get moving. The best is done, no need to linger.

On the way back to the metro I see the familiar red and white smoke stacks climbing from behind some buildings. They are from central heating plants. I wander into a small park, then find a set of train tracks, and barbed wire fences around them. A vista opens up, and a train is arriving. I set up the camera, my hands cold, fumbling with the tripod as I level it. There is a even a patch of blue sky. I record all I can, holding my breath. 








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