Excerpt: Travels And Travails Of Small Minds

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By Daniel Falatko

SLAVA. This is the word that every Russian ex-military member or former prisoner has tattooed somewhere on their pale, muscled bodies. In most cases the word is etched unevenly onto the forearm or the upper-shoulder, relegating its public appearances to the strangely tropical summers that clamp down on Moscow, when the sleeveless Ts and fake platinum chains that make up this type’s standard hot weather uniform come out on full display. It is never good to lock eyes with these men on the streets, not due to fear of being attacked, but because they are likely to beg you mercilessly for a cigarette. Best to stare straight ahead, focused on a point a thousand yards into the distance, though from the corner of your eye you can never help but catch a glimpse of those foreign block letters in blue or black ink, peeking at you from atop a skull with flaming eyes or a crooked knife with a snake wrapped around it. Slava. I’ve been told it means “Glory.”

I’m Nathan and aside from these men’s army dorm and jailhouse tats, my life is presently devoid of any glory, directly lacking the essential tools from which to milk it. Just a grey flat with wood-grain-patterned wallpaper and floorboards that sag and squeak violently with my footsteps. Mice the size of rats gorge themselves on the generic brand Pop Tarts I found at the open-air market, no matter how high up in the cupboards I place them. I could hang the box from the ceiling and the acrobatic little bastards would still find a way to gnaw on them before they reached my plate. The flat is unrelentingly hot in the summers, a box-like oven. Sleep is impossible and sweat covers the body in a draining, constant soak. In the winters, which are impossibly long and unfathomably cold, steady gusts of pure wind find their way through the walls, rendering the space heaters useless fire hazards. Directly outside the flat’s lone, film-encrusted window, on the corner of the barely paved outer-district street, lies a small yet insanely bustling business hawking pirated DVDs and computer software burned onto blank discs. I’ve seen titles on the store’s shelves a full year before their official Hollywood release dates. Often, the queue up to the front door stretches down the poplar-lined boulevard and out of sight, dozens of men in fake black leather jackets and buzz cuts sucking greedily on unfiltered cigarettes as their teenage-looking girlfriends appear bored-to-death on their arms, all straight blond hair and leopard-print skirts and penetrating, almost Asian eyes. Like the majority of Russian businesses, the store also sells vodka; from top-shelf Stoli to unlabeled “Spirits” bottles that cost very little and taste like turpentine. Unlike the DVD/Computer Software section, which is made up of open shelves for browsing, the vodka stash is locked down and protected 24/7. Glass that appears to be bulletproof encases the selections. Bottles are passed to customers through a secured slit like the one utilized by Hannibal Lecter’s guards in Silence of the Lambs. Many a drunk has attempted to shatter that glass, using empty bottles, rocks, boards, beating upon the panes with their fists, begging for a bottle, sobbing uncontrollably. These are the nights when Mariska, the blond, leopard-print-skirt-clad teenager who works the night shift, yawns disinterestedly and hits the speed dial for Pasha, the store’s owner and my landlord who resides on the next block. This will inevitably bring The Pash screeching up in front of the store in his road-salt-streaked Lada, brandishing a baseball bat or, on special occasions, a gun to chase the drunks away. The Pash, who speaks exclusively in a nearly impenetrable storm of Russian slang, is built like a grizzly bear, complete with sweaty tufts of neck hair and club-like hands with fingernails so long they resemble claws. One of his forearms is easily the size of my head. A tenant on the next floor, an addict named Maldo with yellow jaundiced skin and a surprising but rudimentary grasp of English, tells me it is rumored that The Pash had, many years ago, murdered his own father with an axe. I always make sure to pay the bi-weekly rent far in advance.

It boggles the mind how quickly $25,000 can vanish in Eastern Europe. Last year it was coach compartments aboard the Eurail, mid-tier hotel rooms with coarse carpets and angular-pattern mock-designer curtains, a year’s sublet on a small but cozy furnished apartment with a partial view of the Moscow River and the factories pumping black liquid that bursts through long pipes into the icy waters. It was many a night indoors, safe from the cold, up early for a brisk run over the ice and hard-packed snow, breath steaming and wheezing from a newly developed minor smoking habit, down through the underground walkways that stank like frozen urine, past babushkas selling potatoes from cardboard boxes and small children peddling Ritalin pills for two Euros each. It was breakfasts at the Black Earth Diner, hypnotized by the English language papers, huge cups of coffee and bronze busts of soldiers with demented eyes outside the double-paned windows. It was Learn Russian in 90 Days! books and countless hours of pirated DVDs (how I first met The Pash) with English subtitles. It was all a smokescreen, an attempt to blend, to become invisible, far from the reach of Dr. Behr or whatever ghosts had taken his place. It was turning off my mind completely, coasting along on autopilot, not just ignoring all of the facts that had led me to this isolation but relegating them to a place where they didn’t exist at all. It was just a year in the cold with nothing to do.

An expensive year, as it turned out. Life’s basic necessities, things such as food, drink, shelter, smokes, reading materials, DVDs, and especially the dozens of bribes handed over to various members of the militsiya when stopped on the street with an expired passport, did not come cheap in Moscow that year. They suctioned themselves to the money satchel stashed in the tank of the apartment’s toilet and, by the time spring rolled back around and the snow thawed into black rivers of toxic sludge on the eight- lane streets and the student came back from Nizhniy Novgorod to re-claim her apartment, they had successfully drained a good chunk of the $135,000 I had to my name. Large stashes of money tend to become albatrosses when their possessors have no income whatsoever, just sitting there unprotected while a little more gets chipped away as each day ticks to a close.

It is time to scale back, to conserve as much as possible, to live off the fat of the land. With no foreseeable source of income, this 110 grand will have to last for years, if not the rest of my life. So here I find myself with two shirts in a tiny closet, nibbled Pop Tarts and my rodent friends, four plates, two glasses, and a poster left tacked to the dirty wall by the previous tenant, some Russian hair metal band named Gorky Park. Each day brings with it the possibility of arrest and detainment by any one of the dozens of agencies, sister agencies, or satellite agencies that make up the impossibly complicated web of authority. There is the UAK, the PAC, the ULB, the UGK, the LESA, the MCM, even the AKUKESB, any one of whom could kick in the door or snatch me off the street at any moment. My passport is long expired. I have no visa. The Pash warmly refers to me as “The Invalid.” I only leave the building at night, out of fear of attracting militsiya attention in the daytime. No longer am I willing to cough up the cash for bribes. I would be cuffed with the plastic links utilized by the Moscow militsiya (steel handcuffs must be far out of their budget), marched into the back of a beat-up van, endure a bumpy ride with all the drunkards and gypsies and Chechens also rounded up that day, taken out into the forest far beyond the outer rings and, after a swift but severe beating, left to be swallowed into the savage provinces. Even worse would be the foreigner’s prison in the Center where all those unfortunate enough to not have their papers in order when being arrested for drug possession or homelessness languish for years with no legal counsel, no trial, no phone calls, fifty to a cell while tuberculosis breeds in the moistness on the cinder walls.

This is why I no longer leave the building during the days. Around noon each day The Pash will stop by from overseeing the shop, bearing a bottle of vodka for his “little invalid” that he will proceed to drink most of himself. After one or two shots I start feeling sick to my stomach and have to bow out, The Pash laughing at me while draining glass-after-glass, his “little lightweight invalid.” After The Pash sways out the door, I am left with the television, an old Japanese model that picks up a single station with the aid of tinfoil rabbit ears. The most interesting program comes on at 3:00, a show in which they pluck local teenagers off the streets and allow them the opportunity to win complicated-looking video game systems. But first they must get through a terrifying gauntlet which includes men in leather face masks rolling what appear to be solid metal balls at their legs. The metal balls rarely miss, sending the participants sailing head over heels into vats of steaming slime which, you can tell by the way the participants squint and gasp in near-agony, burns the eyes and irritates the throat if swallowed. Often times the participant will fall when escaping one metal roller, only to be hit full-on in the head by the next one. One day a girl with green hair and daisy duke shorts takes a hit so hard the metallic ping is audible over the static-prone TV speakers. The audience gasps. Before panning away, the camera catches the girl’s legs go limp. Only once have I witnessed a contestant make it past the masked men and their metal rollers, a fourteen-year-old named Vital with hair like Keith Richards circa 1971, who was immediately cast into a chaotic realm of dry ice and strobe lights. Temporarily blinded, his mouth hanging open in horror, pierced tongue wagging, he was almost immediately taken out by a swinging contraption, a mechanical spider arm that swept him into a river of purple sludge, only his hand visible above the surface as he was swept away toward a huge whirlpool. Most of the kids picked for the show are of the squatter speed addict variety, their pupils huge under the studio lights during the introductions, wiping their noses with nervous smiles plastered across skeletal faces. The host, a man in his 40s with blinding white teeth and eyes that gleam every time another kid gets smashed with a ball or swept away by slime, mostly shouts repeated catch phrases while sweating heavily. The skin shows through the open top buttons of his shirt, which is drenched by the end of the show. The video game systems remain in their glass cases. At night the station broadcasts the matches of a soccer team clad in dark red uniforms with half- crescent moons on the back whose fans are fond of wearing fake fangs and lobbing smoke bombs onto the pitch. The matches are often paused to clear out the smoke or because of mass rioting, during which the station runs advertisements for Shadow Hours, a local strip club, with a tagline I can roughly translate as “Get behind the Shadow.”

Late in the night is when I take my walks. When I lived near the river, the long, circular night hikes were a glorious path to wander. Kremlin lights could be seen, Red Square ghostly illuminated and strangely empty, the streets of Novy Arbat alive with neon and posh shopping malls and beautiful mink-coated women with their mobster boyfriends, the streets crawling with Mercedes and Bentleys, ominous black government vehicles with flashing blue lights cutting through the traffic, huge cathedrals with domed towers rising into the black clouds of congested night skies.

Out on the outer rings the scenery has changed. There are muddy vacant lots through which wild dogs run. There are dozens and dozens of identical cement tenement blocks stretching as far as the eye can see, their many windows illuminated with dim yellow lighting that gives the buildings a hovering, transcendent feel, like a pod settlement on an otherwise empty and forlorn planet. Groups of teenagers gather in the building’s courtyards at night, staring at me menacingly as I pass. An old billboard on the side of an abandoned apteka off the far end my street, an advertisement for a grocery store that I have never been able to locate, features a woman with high cheekbones and calm green eyes that remind me of Amy’s, but I try to put it out of my mind. The sense of isolation in these parts is thorough and complete. Carved up pine and birches surround each of the tenement blocks. Gone is the cell phone chatter of cream-skinned blonds and the controlled hum of black SUVs, left now to walk amongst shards of colored glass from smashed soft drink machines, listening to the gnashing of my own teeth.

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Find out more about Travels and Travails of Small Minds and Daniel Falatko HERE.

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