The level of lunacy here has reached such heights we don’t notice it any more. It’s like indigenous people in the Andes who have developed barrel chests to allow more oxygen in their lungs to account for the lack of oxygen at higher altitudes. People here have a larger category of what’s funny in order to metabolize the lack of mutual base respect people have for each other. I recall my Russian teacher in NYC telling us horrendous stories of death and calamity between cackles at the humanity of it all. I never understood how she could laugh but now I’m starting to see that there is sometimes nothing else to do. My first Russian friend here from the synagogue told me a story of his first landlady. He was giggling before he uttered his first word and crying, he was laughing so hard by the end. It seemed he had an ever-escalating series of quarrels with her that led to her stealing most of his furniture, but he kept living there and they are still acquaintances somehow. This story was in response to my problems with our new landlady.
She is named Maria (the most common name here strangely) early to mid twenties, pretty, fond of plastic rubber duckies, square – pants sponge bob paraphernalia, and lying. Married to a 50 something burned out hippy from Oregon who told us a twenty-minute story about trying to find good cinnamon buns in Saint Pete. Anyway, we were eager to move into their apartment. A sponge painted firelight fresco of yellow and orange usher you into a large sun drenched kitchen overlooking one of the main squares right next to the subway and with a splendid view of the ever present golden arches. Mickey D’s in the house – so to speak. They even let us pay in dollars and included all the utilities even Internet. Sounded perfect. They would be moving to the states and it seemed only fitting to rent their flat to compatriots. (She would soon become an American citizen)
The catch was that there was a lot of stuff they needed to move into the “storage room” (their bedroom) and Maria would be doing that for the first few weeks after we moved in. Fair enough. Those weeks stretched into months. She came three times a week and rearranged our dishes, left the vacuum out as a hint I assume to vacuum more often. It was true that we could have been keeping the house tidier but with our heavy schedules it was very difficult to motivate to mop. It wasn’t so bad if we didn’t see her, but that changed too. . .
One Saturday night I stayed late at my studio working on compositions for our upcoming abxot which is like an exhibition of our work for the teachers to grade. It was 9 pm and I hear an unfamiliar loud and slurred form of Russian. I look up and see a wet smile spread across a pockmarked ruby face as a drunkard takes three unsteady steps into my workspace. Behind him I hear the high-pitched shrieking of the babushka who may live in the room next to my studio where they fire the sculpture. She is lucking at the staggering man to get out at once! He reaches a grimy gnarled mitt into a paper bag and retrieves a bottle of wine. In retrospect I think I should have noticed Bacchus knocking and invited him with open arms after my 12-hour work day (on Shabbat no less) , but instead I was filled with furry which I barely contained. I politely declined his offer and gently ushered him to the door. He never spoke and never lost his smile except once. Five minutes later I had settled back to work trying to learn the anatomy of the bull for my composition of Gilgamesh’s battle with it. I heard the familiar frantic fretting of the babushka and the shuffle of unsteady feet. I was using a knife to better model the heavy musculature of the bull’s shoulder girdle when he entered the room again.
Someone is angry with me every day. The teachers for having to repeat themselves, the models for having to sit still, the woman behind the counter for having to count out tokens at the subway. They hate you for making them work. They hate you for making them take your money and give you change. If your currency is in too large a denomination they sometimes will flat out refuse to sell things to you. Lines are not the shortest distance between to points here, they are a mass of people pushing and elbowing like school children. It is difficult to overstate the lack of common courtesy here. It just doesn’t exist. In the face of this onslaught of stress, work keeps me sane and my studio is a sanctuary.
With the defilement of that sanctuary a floodgate of frustration loosened and impulsively I rose to my feet, knife in hand. My opponent’s wet smile dried up quickly. The man regained his brand of composure and implored me to join him in revelry. Again I should have seen this as one of the many pies in the face we receive here and hastened to taste the burgundy custard but instead the bull sculpting knife led the way. I bellowed for him to get out now, speaking more with my blade than my tongue! Finally I had to physically throw him out of the studio and slam the door shut, frantically locking it as he pulled and twisted the door handle from outside.
To me it was Russia on the other side of that door jerking the handle trying to get in. I felt invaded in the one place where my treasured peace and focus in work can go largely uninterrupted. 10 deep breadths later I was trying to channel wrath into the bull’s attack stance. The subway stops running at midnight so I went home eventually looking forward to a little peace there finally.
10 minutes after getting home and starting to work on a drawing I needed to finish by Monday I hear the peculiar and familiar noise of the door unlocking. Now Ilya my roommate is on vacation in NYC and the only other person with the key is Maria. Did I mention that personal space is also a rare commodity? “Surprise” is how she introduces herself and her friend who will be spending the night. Now in retrospect I see that again I could have played this differently. By now I could have been drunk and here are two young Russian girls at my door after midnight on Saturday, but all I’m thinking is I want to work and why am I paying this woman rent if she thinks she still lives here. At this point I completely flip out and scream at Maria telling her she has put me in a terrible position as I don’t want to put to young women out on the street on Sat night, but this can never happen again. She has the expression I’ve seen on many 3rd graders after I’ve told them to go to the principal’s office and the two quiet girls apologize and tiptoe into her :storage room”
Gabriella, the French/Italian girls, had her own housing problem, which makes mine pale. She lives with another young French girl in a flat with a shared bathroom. They share it with a crazy old babushka. Many of the old people here are truly insane as their world has changed too fast and perestroika left little room for social welfare and really created the worst form of capitalism here. At any rate this old woman began to believe that these young French girls work for the KGB and were spying on her. As a good citizen I suppose she decided to call the police who actually showed up and demanded to see their documents. In the end they had to move and then move again 2 days later because when Gabriella went to brush her teeth in her first new place her sink crashed to the floor killing one of the many rodents in her new abode. I haven’t seen her newest place but I hear its more fitting for a couple of French/Russian spies.