Friday, January 25, 2008

Coming out of the Lenin Closet

The following is based on true happenings - some names have been changed, timelines condensed and characters combined but everything is true.


The driver is alternately pulling at his chin, squeezing at it like the bulb of a turkey baster and pointing to me sitting in the back seat behind his right shoulder. Now he points to his face then at me again and right now at the cap I am wearing – "Lenin, Lenin", he laughs. He thinks I look like Vladimir Lenin, who am I to argue? If a cab driver in Almaty, Kazakhstan – former capital of the soviet republic which launched sputnik along with the virtual payload of the cold war in a gray plume rising from the steppes through the stratosphere - thinks I look like Lenin I'm taking his word for it. Especially since he is behind the wheel and I don't have a clue how to get back on my own. I'm laughing with him, nodding that yes -yes I am the spitting image of the bourgeois bashing Bolshevik who had Trotsky exiled then summarily offed by poisoning the former comrade's hat.

Perhaps this resemblance is why I am not having a hard time as I pass through the crowded open air barraholka marketplace. People give sway to a man who dispatches his political enemies via deadly headgear. Headgear here is not optional when the temperatures outside can only aspire to reach zero on the Fahrenheit scale. I am not on the receiving end of too many of the shoves or line cuts of which I am forewarned – then again I am not above meeting a bump with a melinky more force than which it is delivered. Moreover for the most part I am not being paid the critical eye reserved for foreigners in characteristically non tourist destinations, I like to think to myself that as long as I don't open my mouth I am passing as local. The fact that I am just another piece of the nondescript mass of bundled humanity and de-saturated landscape all fading to gray in the same atmosphere of smog, fog, breath, bureaucracy and state controlled central heating is probably closer to the truth.

Sasha flicks on the little black and white television set bolted to the dashboard of the car, it is the size of the loaves of hard dark bread that I regret not buying at Oskers grocery shop – everything here is hard in one manner or another and covered with a crust. The screen sputters as if it were fueled by diesel -rolling and reacting to the potholes in the road, shaking the antenna extended like an accusatory finger toward the back seat where I am sitting. The image settles in on a Bolshevik style soldier belly down at the crest of a small grassy hill. He looks to be about my son's age. The soldier is tripod propped on his elbows as if he were the sniper rifle strapped to his back and he is eating a sandwich while he watches through field glasses a gaggle of local girls skinny dip.

Cabs aren't hard to find here, all one has to do is hold out a hand because anyone behind the wheel is a potential hack, hitchhiking has taken on a skewed capitalistic angle in this post communistic state, jump in negotiate a price and away you go to your destination; hopefully. My driver is not one of these freelancers though, his Russian built Lada Taxi actually has a sign on top and a company logo emblazoned across the doors. The folks I'm working for managed to lease his services from a US based multinational in order to cart me downtown and back for souvenirs today. Sasha is tall and thin of local Kazak stock which appears to be an intermixing of Asian and Caucasian features resulting in a paler lanky version of American Indian. He is wearing a light blue fleece jacket nowhere near substantial enough to combat the bitter cold outside but his hat is rocking. A fur ushanka, the stereotypical head covering ubiquitous of the Soviet Socialist Republic and spy movies is like a black bear cub curled atop his skull brushing the car's nylon headliner above his seat 'til it shines like a samovar. Five'll get ya ten it cost him over a month's salary.

Outside of our vehicle folks are huddling up at bus stops, or moving down the roadside avoiding the unshoveled walks. Their overcoats splash color in an otherwise grayscale landscape. The sub-zero air is perfectly still, there is no wind whatsoever; an escaped balloon would rise straight up with guide-wired precision. This complete lack of breeze also assures that all of the pollution being emitted by the unregulated burning of leaded gasoline, diesel, straight coal, and industrial emissions is hanging in the air like the butchered horsemeat on hooks at the green market. My eyes are burning and my lungs sting from a sinister combination of jet lag and the implacable smog.

Unfortunately I make eye contact with the cop waving his orange baton at us so now Sasha is pulled over talking to the "civil servant" in rapid fire Russian. To me the language sounds like it is being spoken backwards and reminiscent of spinning vinyl records in reverse on my parent's turntable to hear secret messages – "Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him, miss him." The driver slips the uniformed officer some cash and we are on our way again. "Bribe," Sasha says – rolling the R so that it sounds like a playing card swiping bicycle spokes. This is the only English that he speaks during our hour long ride. He points at his eyes then out the passenger window then at me vehemently shaking his head nyet. I put my hands up and nod that I get it – don't look at the cops. We pass another trap and both stare absentmindedly away from the frantically waving police officer who quickly gives up on us to try for an easier mark. Sasha looks in his rear view mirror, and breaks into a great smile – gold teeth intermixed in his grin like chess board squares. I smile back, we both enjoy getting one over on the man.

"Lenin, Lenin," – he chuckles to himself as he shifts gears rocking me back into my seat.

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