Saturday, June 11, 2005

Interesting day today…

I got a letter from Shmuli Raitman. I mentioned Shmuli’s name in chapter 15 of the book Being Had. He was one of two young Chasidics I had met in Poland on the day I had gone over to Auschwitz. We have sort of kept in touch since then and he had written me just a few days ago.

The timing of that letter by the way was ironic because I have recently started to work on an article about the local Hasidim here in Pinsk and the school they have and what all their organization is about. This of course is my way of filling in the bureaucratic blanks for that visa of mine. It is funny how these things work out. But in response to my mentioning the article, he sent me along a couple of internet addresses to check out. The first was a website for the group,
And specifically the page devoted to this town. This was really helpful with the homework I have been doing prepping for the article. But then he also sent along a link to some texts that are offered on the website because he thought he had found something in a text called The Ethics of the Fathers by Pirkei Avot (Just click the link if you want to have a look), that he said he thought applied to me.

“Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated (Psalms 128:2): "If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you"; "fortunate are you" in this world, "and good is to you" in the World to Come.”


But this was in the morning. Yesterday was the big day we were waiting for as far as that other great bureaucratic function was concerned. This bureaucratic function is of course the gaining of my document that will allow me to remain here in Belarus. This is the document that I have been speaking of for the last while. We have been waiting for this day specifically because we had been held up as far as this last stage of the processes was concerned waiting for the completion of Anya’s passport. The idea of waiting was initiated by Vasili Annonyavich, one of the head guys over at the passport office and specifically the fellow who had given us this whole deal in the first place.

Up until now, he would not even tell us about the steps necessary to do my leg of the deal, the actual work needed to acquire the stamp itself, until Anya was registered as a Belarusian citizen, registered in the house and complete with a passport. We had tried to go and speak to the man earlier several times about what exactly was needed to obtain this stamp he would never even speak to us until all of Anya’s documents were in order. This was his specific instruction. So yesterday was the big day because yesterday was the day Anya’s passport came in. Or at least was supposed to come in. Anyway, we had to wait until the afternoon before going in.

And of course there was a mistake. I was the on who caught it. And if you read and write English, it was easy enough to spot. You simply had to read the name given in romantic figures on the Passport:

Anya Hudman.

If you don’t speak Russian or if your computer will not allow for Russian figures, please bear with me.

Now this is not so completely wrong if you were to look at it in a certain way. This is her Belarusian passport and therefore her name primarily is in Russian and Belarusian. And they spelled those versions of her name correctly, Анья Гудман. But in Russian, though the letter “Г” is supposed to be like an English “G” with that hard ‘Good God! Got to Get it on!’ sound, it is also often pronounced softly like an “H”- As in if you were here, you might want to get a ‘gamburger’ while waiting to see the new ‘Garry Potter’ film. And so, I suppose, if you were the bureaucrat in charge of such a document and if you were to start with the Russian version of the name as being the definitive version of the name, AND if you were to ignore all of the documents stating clearly that the father was an AMERICAN (Who would not discuss his ethnicity) then the TRANSLATION OF THAT NAME WOULD NOT BE SO IMPORTANT. However, in this case, as the father is an American by birth and as English is his native language, phonetically translating the name to something that sounds like it is a reference to a Paul Newman movie just doesn’t work.

And then of course Tatyana started to get upset. How much more would we have to pay? How much time would this take? Why did we have to wait the extra week anyway? We had been told that all of this was supposed to be ready last week and then we had to wait. And now you are telling us that we have to pay again and that we have to wait another several weeks and where is the end Adam, where is the end?

And of course when she starts to get upset she starts to make mistakes. Now the people there at the passport office were all pretty good about it. It is just that everyone describes things in their own way. And of course everybody interprets things in their own way. And when you throw in some strong emotions, well, you get to start in on a game of passport post office where the joke is exactly how much we don’t get.

The first woman told us that fixing the mistake would be without extra payment but then Tanya needed to speak to someone else. I don’t know why she did, but she did. The lady behind the glass motioned that we should speak to Alexander Adamovich, the boss of the passport organization, who just happened to be standing to our left. Alexander Adamovich is a tall man and a pretty straight talker. But like all Belarusians, he prefers not to have to shoulder blame. “No,” he said “there would need to be another passport. And yes, we would have to pay for it. Nothing is free in Belarus. We would have to pay the 7200 rubles.” That was the whole of the conversation. Alexander Adamovich walked away and so Tatyana, even more emotional than a minute before, went to talk to yet another Bureaucrat, who of course confirmed everything Adamovich had just said. Tatyana then came back, sat down, handed me Anya and started to cry. Money is one hell of a sore subject with us.

“They want us to pay for everything again.”
“I didn’t hear that. It was a mistake.”
“You didn’t understand what he said.”
“I thought I did.’
“I simply can’t Adam. Do you understand, I simply can’t do it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“They want us to pay for everything again.”
“But why should we pay? It was their mistake!”
“They don’t care that it is their mistake. They just want us to pay and to pay.”
“But that woman right there said it was “bez platna” (without payment).”
“But he is the “natchalnic” (The boss) and he said we would have to pay.”
“But it is their mistake!”;”
“They don’t care. This is Belarus. They just want you to pay and pay and pa and they don’t care who is to blame.”
“Well why the hell did yougo and ask someone else? If the first woman said bez platna, how much better of a deal did you think you would get?”
“But she said it would be another two weeks…”
“Would you just stop crying? It is not that bad.”
“I just can’t…”
‘Look, just go and ask Adamovich to be clear with you.”
“I am not talking to him again.”
“Why not?”
“Because I felt like crying when he spoke to me. Didn’t you listen?”
“Do we need this? What do you want from me?”
“You talk to him.”
“You want me to talk to him?”
“Did you understand what they said?”
“Most of it.”
“But not all?”
“Well I don’t know what I didn’t understand. I thought I understood.”
“Go and talk to him.”
“Why do I need to do it? Your Russian is better than mine.’
“Well I won’t do it. If you won’t talk to him than let’s just go.”
“Alright, alright…”
I knocked and went into Alexander Adamovich’s office. Vasili Anonyavich was in there with him.
“Excuse me please, my Russian is not perfect but we don’t understand why we must pay for this mistake in the passport and why there must be a wait.” And he spoke to me much as he had with Tatyana. He is the boss and he talks like one.
“What are you talking about? The cost of the blank passport is $3. What is three dollars to you? The wait is normal because they have to make a new passport. Where is there a problem?”
“Yea, you are right. I understand. Thanks for your time.” I went back out with Tatyana. I wasn’t sure if I had had my tail between my legs or not.
“Ok, next step.” I said.
“What next step?”
“Let’s just do it. There is nothing else to do about this.”
“What did he say to you?”
“He said not to bitch about 7000 rubles.”
“But 7000 rubles is…”
“…is three bucks! Next step…”
“What next step?”
“What else do we have to do here?”
“Nothing, we can’t speak to Anonyavich because the passport will not be ready for another two weeks.” This was why she was crying.
“Bullshit, lets do this already. We have been waiting too long.”
“Please: Talk to him” No, there was tail between the legs. I again knocked on the door and went in.
“Excuse me again, please. Vasili Anonyavich, could we please sit down and go over what we need to get the “Vitilne Zhitsva” document put together”
“But you have a problem with the passport.”
“We have decided for today to accept the passport.”
“But there will be problems if the name is not the same.”
“This is a Belarusian Vitilne Zhitsva not an American Vitilne Zhitsva. Her Russian and Belarusian names are fine.” He thought for a moment.
“Ok, Ok. Go and wait for me.”
“Thank you.” I went back outside.
“What did he say?”
“He said he was coming.”
“He is coming?”
“Yea, do you have a paper and pen?”

Anyway, I guess there is no money for free photocopies in Belarus and so Anonyavich handed Tatyana a copy of the Vitilne Zhitsva prerequisites and asked her to copy it all down before he would go over it point by point. We need copies of my passport and the documents that say that I am the father. I need a tuberculosis test and an AIDS test. And several other documents. I really do not know why we were not allowed to do all of this along the way. It would have saved time and lessened the stress of the situation. But this was simply not allowed.

So after, we went to a different bureaucratic place to rewrite the papers for the passport. This only took a few minutes and after, as it was time for Egor to be coming home, we divided up with Tanya going to the bank to pay the 7200 ruble fee for the new passport and me going over to our place with Anya to feed Egor and send him out to play. Tanya seemed surprised that this next lady did not charge us a fee for her work.

“They told you it was “bez platna.”
“But what about the 7000?” She really hadn’t understood. I went over it again that that was simply the cost of a blank passport.
“They are just doing their jobs.” I said “Things take time to get done. Let’s just worry about the next step.”
“OK. The next step is to bring the documents back to them. This is for you.”
“When do we have to do that?”
“You must ride back over there on your bike right now and turn in the documents.”
“I have to do this today?”
“If you don’t it will be three weeks wait instead of two.”
“Oh crap!”
“If you don’t want…”
“I’ll do it, I’ll do it. What time do they close?”
I checked the time: 5:05. I had 25 minutesto make the run.

Now, back in my riding days this would be called a quadruple rush. And at rush hour no less. How much money would I make for such a run as a bike messenger in New York?
“I gotta change my pants…” And then, as I was changing, I felt it. That excitement from long ago. That old feeling came over me. It was my alter ego. I remembered who I was.

I’m Batman

Pop the lock, bike on the shoulder, down the stairs and on the street. Bag on my back, package in the envelope slot, key and lock in place. In the saddle, on the peddles, toes in the clips. Let’s go! New curb, up and over, check the traffic to the left. Nothing; let’s ride. Don’t lean too hard on the busted crank; watch out for the ruts in the road along the square. Don’t they ever fix shit here? One bus at the stop the other coming the other way, judge the distance, do not stop, can be done, go, go, go, go. Made it. Pace, pace, pace- fast legs. Get behind this car. Wait for the other to pass. Stop light, look, look, look for the car…. No car! Go, go, and go. Fast legs, fast legs. Right turn onto the intersection. Three way stop. Where are the lights? Which way is that truck going to go? My way. Inside track, watch the lady; look at me, look at me. Whistle. Look up bitch! You see me, I am going left. Bam, no problems. No, no, no, do not run me into that ditch, bad road, 5 inches left on the right; put the tire on the line, there, I am an artist... Come on go, go, go No time no time. Let’s go all speed, nothing but speed. Who is he? Slow ass biker. Use him as a rabbit. Get him, get him. He is riding with me? You can’t ride with me. I may be fat and old but you CANNOT RIDEWITH ME! Come on, come on; boom, boom, boom! You are going to the left. Oh you don’t like that road? I see that. Look behind no one there. You still out to the left. I still got you. He is looking at me. You wanna race?! Come on; get your ass over on the right. That’s right, that’s right... And now... check this shit out: Ka Boom! Those are my legs. You feelin' me now? Smooth pace, faster but smooth pace. Just stroke em, stroke em. Look back, oh, you are trying? You ain't trying. This one was mine last week. My stop, left turn, across the lane, no traffic, hop the curb. Place is in the back, one more curb, bad road. Where do I lock up? On the rail, on the rail. Lock out, key in, open, around and under, lock the lock, shift the bag, grab the papers. Up the stairs, office to the left; am I on time?

Yes. God I loved being a bike messenger…

“Well, the great American returns.” General laughter. This was Alexander Adamovich. He was leaning on the door frame and smiling at me. “You returned quickly.”
“Yea, well back in the day, I was kind of a professional at this.”

I dropped off the papers and rode back.

And this was the end of our day. Back at the house before supper I started to read through “The Ethics Of The Fathers” again. I of course had simply copied it (The internet costs money). Interesting stuff. And then I found this:

“Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their own needs. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person at the time of his distress.”

Well, you know… we all have our jobs to do.

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More soon…

“Hillel would also say: A boor cannot be sin-fearing, an ignoramus cannot be pious, a bashful one cannot learn, a short-tempered person cannot teach, nor does anyone who does much business grow wise. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”