Sunday, April 20, 2003

Chapter one- BEING HAD- The Book

Over the last year or so, while thinking about in the eventual writing of this book, I have always thought that I would like for it to begin on one warm September morning while riding my bike in Manhattan. I guess I could have started it at the airport the next February, waiting for my flight to Italy. Or perhaps this account could start on the train to Belarus about six weeks later. Certainly I could start it without any problems on May 15th 2002, at the corner of Solidarnoce and Andersa in Warsaw, Poland. But I think that Manhattan is as good a place as any to start because it was the day when everybody’s world changed a little and mine was no exception.

On September 11th 2002, I was working as a bike messenger in Manhattan. And although my weight and age would probably show people differently, I was actually pretty good at it. I was not the fastest nor was I the flashiest, but maybe like an old ballplayer, I was just clever enough to get the job done. I had been riding for the best part of two years in the city, and I had accumulated the basic goods for a bike shop of my own which was at that time, the whole of my American dream. As I said, I was a little old to be doing what I was doing, but my body was good enough to make the rides and I was serious about it. I am not convinced that bike messengering breeds the most dependable of people and I think that this was an advantage for a serious minded older fellow with something to prove. But at the bottom line there is or was money to be made. And this is what I was doing. I am a biker and I like to ride. And really, I did take pride in the fact that I could still do the job, day in and day out. But as an old biker, I had no use for the strokes or from the ego of playing a dangerous game like a lot of the youngsters: I wasn’t playing, I was working and I was making money. And so all in all, I guess I was happy enough riding in the city I think. It can be a pretty cool job. And at the time because the money was Ok I guess it was all enough to justify the pain.

I was also single when I lived in Manhattan. And although this is and of itself is not that big of a deal, it did mean quite a lot to me. I was with a girl in Wisconsin for a while but we simply had no money. Before then I was in the city and I was riding and working with the bikes and I was doing ok but again I was single. After ward, I could never get the girl from Wisconsin to come and be with me in the city, and there was simply nothing for me to do there. So, I stayed alone. I am not even sure looking back, that I was all that unhappy being alone in my little world on 174th and Broadway. I lived in a Dominican neighborhood, the rent was quite small, and I was not bothered too much by anybody. Maybe it was because I always had something to do, and I liked the bikes that I was Ok. Maybe I was just a little out of it socially, and simply never felt comfortable playing the Manhattan social game. I know I certainly never felt that I had the money to play these games. So, I don’t think I was so very unhappy. I was making some money, my bank account was growing a little and I had the best part of a functioning shop at my place. How much simpler could New York life be? And so I contented myself with simply working and doing the best that I could.

I was in the east eighties that morning, a bit off of the beaten path for a Manhattan rider, and I was dropping off three packages early. I was in an elevator going up to drop my packages when the elevator operator told me in Spanish that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I remarked that the pilot must have been pretty stupid, and the first thing I thought of was that it was a repeat of the plane that crashed into the Empire State Building in the fifties. I went into the lunchroom of the company and watched along with six or seven others the television shot of the smoke coming from the tower on the right. The window of the office was facing south but there was another building that was blocking the view. After a moment, there was what looked like a small fireball erupting from the left building. The shot was from too great a distance and you couldn’t really see very clearly. A moment later, we saw a closer view from another angle and I said it must be terrorists. I think about a week earlier, there was an attack made by the Israeli’s on some Arab target or other, and my thinking was that this was a response to that. Nobody spoke.

I stayed in the lunchroom for a few moments until the pull to go and to get back to work over took me. It is an odd thing about being a bike messenger in that the knowledge that everything depends of getting the packages to where they are supposed to be becomes a very compelling thing. I met another rider on the way downtown and we rode together. We talked about this as we rode, that even in the face of such an amazing moment, our pull to continue working was so powerful to us. Ahead of us, at the end of the Island, we could see the plumes of smoke billowing from the two towers. We talked about bikes and frames as if nothing was happening. We both were interested if the work was going to stop. I think it is an odd thing to be a bike messenger.

We stopped at 59th street and Fifth Avenue and stood with a few hundred or so people and watched the television reports outside. If you walked over to the street, you could view down Fifth Avenue and you could see the buildings in the distance. We saw them both fall from there. After this, I ride downtown. My company’s offices were on west 22nd street and I stopped there to see what they wanted to do. They said that they didn’t know at the moment, but hat certainly they were going to stop work for the day. I rode down town and stopped and talked with other riders along the way. One fellow told us that he was there this morning and had seen the whole thing. Another story was that one of our guys was in the building that morning but had left and was back at work about 15 minutes before the plane struck. The last time I was in the building was the previous Thursday when I made a delivery to a Japanese back on the 80th floor of WTC 1. I remember that the lady I had contact with was quite nice and we bowed to each other. I remember I stopped for a moment, like I always did, and copped a few moments of the view. I remember looking at Brooklyn a bit and admiring the great distance down to the square between the buildings.

We rode down as close as we could get to the chaos downtown, but the police and the military were already forcing people back and cordoning off the streets. You could smell the smoke already everywhere. I remember that the smoke and the smell were there downtown, even after when it rained for almost two months. I couldn’t give blood because I had hepatitis when I was young. There was nothing I could do. I started to ride back up the Island towards Hamilton Heights, 174th street where I stayed. I got a call from my ex-girlfriend from Wisconsin asking if I was all right. I said I was. And she said that she was worried about me and some other words to the effect that maybe we should have not been so fast about breaking up. I agreed with her and he decided to keep talking. My grandmother called and said that she was worried nd we talked if there was any family members that had any connection to south Manhattan, and she said no and that she was glad I was Ok. Then I got a call from Sara, a lady from Italy I had met some years earlier while I was living in Canada. She had also seen the news and wanted to hear that I was ok.

I rode into central park, electing to take the promenade around the park before riding my bike up the hill to little Santa Domingo. As it was a warm September day, there were many people in the park. Some were sitting on towels and chatting or sunbathing. I saw a couple of bikers, not messengers but sport riders in full dress out taking some laps around the park. I guess it had turned into simply another day off from work to some. Maybe it was simply the shock. Because all of the public transportation was shut down, there was a stream of people, thousands and thousands having to make the long walk home to wherever they had to go. All of this was as if it was in a dream to me, but I do remember thinking how nice it felt to be getting so much sympathy from ex-girlfriends. It was nice not to be a jerk for a change. I guess I wasn’t thinking too much about anything. Certainly not about what was going to happen tomorrow.

Day ten

I am not sure I see these things I have been writing as metaphors. I mean, I guess they are really more essays about life then they are journal entries but I am starting to think of them as metaphors because at the end of each day, knowing I am going to be writing about the previous day, I find myself looking for the meaning or some big idea to use as a theme for these writings. I guess this is normal for someone who spends a lot of time on something. But, when writing about Belarus, one is constantly drawn to one specific theme, and that theme is money. There is simply no two ways about it: The absolute bottom line about Belarussian life is that people here live at the absolute bottom line and they do so, day in and day out, four seasons a year, rain, wind, snow, sleet and hail every day whether they like it or not.

So, I was walking along the street holding a pane of glass under my arm yesterday, and I found I was laughing at the situation. And, while laughing as well, Tatyana asked me if I could understand that this is the way her people live every day of their lives? And really, it is something, the spirit… well, that is nonsense because people here have become as hard as stones over this, and the irony of their lives is simply that they keep on living. There is laughter, but I suppose there was a chuckle or two at the concentration camps as well. I feel pervers4e even saying such a thing, but really, I have to believe that it could have been so. I think human beings are like this in their lives, in that when things are at their worst, thy try and find something that makes them seem a little lighter in the heart, a little lighter in the mind. Even for one moment. Or maybe it is simply that it is spring, and in springtime everyone rises from the morass of the winter’s darkness and certainly smiles in the warmth of the delicate new season's sun. I see this everywhere. Irene, normally as grim of face as any woman I have ever met smiles these days and even allows herself a laugh at my jokes. The baba’s selling sunflower seeds seem almost girlish as they kibitz on the street corners. Young girls are in short skirts, and the winter coats are giving way to sweaters and warm-ups. The streets are filled with people and the sound of children playing is all about the town. Maybe things are not so bad, or maybe it is just nice to be warm for a moment. Blame it on the spring.

As I mentioned yesterday, Igor joined me here at the Internet cafй for his first international computer chess matches. Last night he asked me where San Jose was, and all I could think of was figuring out the damned Burt Bacherak song on the guitar (you are humming it now aren’t you?). After ward, we had a plan to go over to his chess tournament, which started at 2:30. So the plan was for the two of us to go and to pick up Tatyana at work, and then we would drop the kind off at the tournament, grab a bit to eat, and then get Tatyana back to work. This was the plan. Now, to start with, Igor is a pretty self-sufficient little kid. He pretty much can take care of himself here in town and pretty much helps out as much as he can. So there was no real need for me to need to go with his and do all of these things except that because he likes me, and because I can still beat him at chess (occasionally), he wanted me to come and to watch him play. Which is cool and I am into this because… well, because I like it, that’s why.

So, as we had a few hours to kill we went and did a little shopping. Irene asked me to pick up two kilos of flour so she could make something and there was no fruit or kefir in the house. So we went. The boy told me that the place to go was at this kiosk he knew, so we went there, which turned out to be a walk of what felt like 1000 miles. When ewe got there, we saw no flour, and no fruit, but there were some candy bars and some chips, which Igor told me would be a good thing to buy as they only cost a few rubles and would do him a world of good. I gave him a few chosen words about the intelligence of his ancestry and booted him back in the proper direction. We bought the flour and the fruit, and also four pieces of candy (why not?) and, while we were there I bought a small chunk of baloney for Shara (the Russian word for ball) the dog that lives in the apartment house.

Shara is a yellow dog, who is probably younger then he looks. Shara is always pretty cool, and he sometimes goes to school with Igor, but like a lot of people in Pinsk, he has not had too good of a winter and is simply not looking so good these days. He has also picked up a limp since last year, and this is adding to his looking somewhat desperate. I had been meaning to remember him for a few days now, and to give him a little something. When I handed him the chuck of meat, he snapped so fast that he grabbed half the paper as well, and he quickly ran several meters away to try and enjoy his treat. I took the trouble to count my fingers and found I was Ok. Shara was delighted at the gift, though the thought had not registered on him yet what had happened until this morning that he fairly jumped out of his skin to greet me we left the apartment. Tatyana told me I was crazy to spend money on the dog and that the meat could have probably fed at least two people if prepared correctly.

So, when the appointed hour arrived, Igor and I set off. When we passed by the chess club which is across the street from the theatre and on the way to the book store, Igor asked me if I wouldn’t mind if I just would let him go into the chess club and not go on to see mom. Now, I could have, and hen I think of the next couple of hours, I really wish I would have listened to the little self-sufficient guy who didn’t need to have his hand held or anything and was pretty much capable of handling his own decisions. But I said no because the plan was to pick up mom. And the kid t0old me…he TOLD me that we didn’t need to do this, but this was simply not in the plan, and so we both went to the bookstore to get Tatyana. We are there maybe five minutes and we are waiting for two o’clock which is when the store closes for their lunch break, and we are just talking about computer chess et al when we here the sound of breaking glass followed by an “uh-oh!”, which I think is a universal sound for every kid in every language, and we look up to see that Igor had leaned against a glass cabinet a little too hard and the glass had given way under his weight. Well this kid is in shock and the book store manager is a little pissed and Tatyana knows, and I know as well, that no one is going to say anything like don’t worry about it, because they worry about everything. So in a second I have the glass out of the cabinet and Tatyana is on the phone finding out where to get some new glass. She finds out there is only one firm in all of Pinsk that handles glass and she tells me that we must take the bus in order to get there and we leave immediately.

On the way there I was not feeling in a particularly good mood. I mean, Tatyana and I have been fighting of late, and the main thing we are fighting about is my most probable inability to stay, and this is not making her happy in any way and she has been going a bit crazy because of this. For the last several nights we have been having rows about this and the problem as always is about money. I tell her about the absolute economics of my life and what has happened as a result of Poland doing to me what it had done, and though I think that she understands this, and also about the rules for Americans staying in Belarus and the economics of that, it still makes no difference when it comes down to the harsh realities of day to day life without ones partner. She is seeing my inevitable departure as some idea of my own, and she is rethinking me every other moment, looking for more and deeper character flaws than are obvious to anyone at a casual glance. And so things aren’t getting any better as we are walking to the bus stop and I now have to pay… something, I have no idea what they are going to charge me, to pay for a new pane of glass for a display cabinet for Tatyana’s bookstore that was broken by her son exactly four minutes after he himself told me it wasn’t even necessary to take him there.

And so Tatyana is trying to hold my hand and make me feel better and all I m saying is that it is probably impossible and how we all have to keep a stiff upper lip and to be adults and other such nonsense that no one ever believes. The bus finally comes (Tatyana tells me that it would have been possible to wait all day for one of these busses. I think it only seems that way) and we pay the 200 Rubles each to ride out to the end of Pinsk. I am thinking about the logistics of what we are doing. The busses are not the smoothest rides in the world because of the condition of the roads in Pinsk, which are bad, as well as the condition of the drivers (vodka), which is worse. I am wondering what the chances of actually getting the glass back to the store unbroken, and for some reason this thought is amusing to Tatyana.

Anyway, we get off the bus and we have to walk about a kilometer to get to this store. We are sent around the back and are greeted by a lady who says that she will get the guy who can help us. So we sit and we wait a bit. I am pretty glum, and she is trying to be kind. She is telling me how she could have done this without my help and how it would not have been a problem for her, and how she always tales care of herself all of the time, and I am just thinking that I was so tired and that all I wanted to do was to get some sleep. The guy came and cut for us a piece of glass. He told up we could have the other two pieces that out glass was cut from, but we declined. I picked up the glass and grabbed a rag from a box of papers and such, tucked the glass under my arm, and we made our way to the register to pay for everything. The cost wasn’t too much, maybe a little more than 5000 rubles which is about $2.50, maybe a little more. And it was here as we were walking that Tatyana made her remark about how Belarussians live this way every day of their lives, and could I possibly imagine how tired they must feel?


The lady who takes the money on the busses told us it was against the rules for us to carry cut glass on the buss that was not in paper. This, as would any public charge of this nature, fairly embarrassed Tatyana, but we were allowed to make our ride. I guess the number one law that one has to do what one has to do is more important than some edict from the state bus company. We eventually made it back to the shop, and I installed the new glass and put the cabinet back together with the help of two pencils I used as shims. I left Tatyana there and went over to the chess club where I met Igor with some meat and two roles for our lunch. He declined the meat, but asked for a cherry Fanta, which according to his mom is pretty much the end of the world for Igor. After we ate, I fought my headache and stood by and watched him destroy a little girl who should never have been asked to play with him. She was a pretty little nothing who wrote meticulously the moves in her book but forgot to close her clock from move to move. I tried to point this out to her, but Igor shushed me and told me not to help her. I think officially, Igor won his match after using one minute and three seconds of his time against 26 minutes of thought for his young opponent. I left after this game as I was pretty much asleep on my feet.

When I got back to the apartment, I found Irene busily working in the garden and Victor upstairs in the kitchen. And all I can say is that he is simply not looking so good. In fact, his eyes seemed so vacant that I stayed and talked to him for about forty-five minutes about things. I know I have talked about how people seem to be dropping off pretty easily these days, and I think that I have great fear that Victor does not have so long himself. We sat in the kitchen and He was sort of half reading through an English/Russian dictionary we have. He doesn’t see so well normally, so making out the English was hard for him. And there are some sounds that are simply not a part of each other’s lexicon, and so we really didn’t make any headway. Last year he picked up on word from me “OK”. He asked me if "OK" was "xarasho", and I said yes, so now he says "OK" to me a lot. He is a pretty positive thinking guy. When I told him about all of the problems I had with the money and how I was probably not going to be able to stay, he simply reminded me that I was alive, and that sometimes this really out to be thought of as enough. Maybe so.

Igor met me half way to the chess club and told me that we shouldn’t go and walk Tatyana home and that it was better if the two of us went and played some football. I had to sit and think about this a bit… really, these choices are getting so hard. But after the glass and the bus ride and all, I though it was probably better if I listened to the kid,, and so we went and kicked the ball back and forth while we waited. Igor has got this taunting thing down to an art and he likes to wiggle his but at me and make farting noises at me while we play. He also learned a few hand signs recently, one specifically American one which employs a raised middle finger was somewhat unexpected by me but was wildly amusing to the kid.

Tatyana came home and we sat outside a bit before going up for food and bed. Igor has seen the movie jungle book (My suggestion) probably 50 times, and after he eats a banana he likes to put the peal on his head like the scene when Mogly dances with the orangutans (You-hoo-hoo, I wanna be like you-hoo-hoo! I wanna walk like you, talk like you, Scooby-dooby dooby-dooby dooby dooby doo wah!). But you know, life really does need to be somewhat serious and I asked the kid what were his plans for paying us back for the broken glass was. He asked about how much it costs, and we told him that between the four bus tickets and the glass that the cost was going to be about three dollars. He said that he had no idea where he was supposed to get three dollars, and I suggested that he should maybe do some extra work to help pay for things. He asked what kind of work he should do and Tatyana told him that he should maybe wash the dishes for a while. He didn’t like this idea and asked if he could make up the beds in the morning instead. I don’t know why this struck my as odd but I decided to explain to him the economics of the situation. I asked him really, in all honesty, how much time did he think it took to make the beds. He said about five minutes. I then asked him if he knew how long Tatyana had to work to make three dollars and he said no. her answer was about 12 hours. I did the math:

Hours worked in a day: 8

Average workdays a month: 21

Hours a month: 168

Dollars earned a month: 50

Dollar per hour wage: about 30 cents an hour.

Hours needed to earn 3 dollars: 10 hours.

Number of five-minute bed making sessions required to earn $3 at a normal Belarussian wage: 120, or about four months.

And when I told him that my two hours at an American wage would jack the bill up to about forty bucks, he would be looking at about 1600 beds or basically that he would be paying for this until September of 2007. He agreed to do the dishes for two weeks and the laugh was worth the waving of the rest of the penalty. This, and the kid is only three wins away from gaining a third level ranking in chess after only really one year of study. And I mean, what the hell, it’s springtime!