Monday, June 05, 2006

Garden Politics

Have you ever seen the movie Brasil? It is one of my favorites. But since I have been living in Belarus, I can’t help thinking that this was the place where the idea was taken from. OK, I guess I could probably think that they were referring to the whole of the USSR, but as we are a museum for said entity, I am still on the point.

What got me to thinking about this was coming home the other day to find a group of workers digging a trench through our yard. I didn’t remember reading any notices that there would be any trench digging taking place. Of course I didn’t see the notice that said they were going to turn the hot water off for 10 days in a row either, this I had to find out about that one evening after returning from the dacha filthy and sweaty and realizing that there was nothing but a cold shower to clean up with.

But in any case, things like coming home and finding three workers pounding away with picks and shovels in your front yard inspires curiosity so I stopped to ask them what they were doing.

“We’re digging a trench.” Was the “ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer” response.

“Yes, but why are you digging the trench?”

“Cable.” Actually, this answer came after several really stupid jokes which I have omitted. The one word answer came after I only stared at them and didn’t laugh.

“What kind of cable?” I asked. More jokes and laughter and after a bit more staring from me, this one guy sheepishly offered that it was to be for electrical conduit. I followed their trench back to its origins and saw that it was coming from the large apartment building next door to our little home. The trench went across their yard, under the new concrete fence and was now cutting across our yard.

“Why don’t you take your electricity from the street on the other side, on Sovietskaya? You can see where it is marked.”

“We have to take it from over there. That’s why we are here. We are digging 75 meters to that box over there.” I followed his arm and saw that he was pointing to Leningradskaya Street and across a stretch of our neighbor’s gardens and another plot which is not particularly used as garden since the police decided to order the Cannabis plants cut down (I have my suspicions about whose they were). However, the actual trench itself was now curving to the right and was heading up towards our garden, a different street location entirely.

“Are you planning on cutting through our garden here to the right?” I said noting the curve.

“No, we are going over there.” He pointed again towards Leningradskaya.

“Then why are you digging towards our garden?”

“I’m not, it’s just that the cable is flexible.”

“I see. But is there necessity to make a right turn here?”

“No, not really.”

“Don’t you think that in the end, making an unnecessary right turn might just be more work?”

He looked and nodded that I might have a point.

“Then why are you doing it?”

“We’re not. It is just that this is how we dug it.” I noticed that the shoveler I was speaking to was wearing rubber shower-shoes over white socks. I wonder who would be more angry over this in America: OSHA or whoever does his laundry.

Realizing that the conversation was obviously over my head, I went into the apartment to speak with Stepan Ivanovich to tell him that the workers were (theoretically) heading over to his garden with this trench they were digging. He nodded and toddled down to speak to them.

Actually, I don’t know why I went to tell him anything. His wife, this amazingly repulsive monster has been giving everyone problems lately. Her latest escapade started over her trying to get some of the other tenants to do her corridor mopping chore for her. Every body takes turns cleaning the mutual corridor and landing once a month. But instead of simply asking for help due to her bad health, the monster who we call the red woman because she is all freckles, died red hair and silver capped teeth, a real nightmare, instead tried to pull some kind of legal maneuver on us saying she was going to make a protocol against us to the doma provlenya people. I came home during a screaming match over this and sticking my nose into things, came up with the king Solomon-like conclusion that really, everyone should just do their own work and if friendly accommodations were needed, they could only be made between friends and not recipients of protocols. The red woman responded to this by spreading rumors that I either killed or sold children in America.

In any case, I did tell Stepan Ivanovich and he went out and spoke calmly in his toady fashion to the workers, who agreed to do be careful not to touch his tomatoes on the way through his garden.

I then told Nina, another neighbor whose son I tutor in English. She was just coming out of her house with her mother, an incredibly slow moving Babushka who had come for a visit. I told Nina about the trenchers and that they were heading at least obliquely towards her cabbages and potatoes.

Now, we gave Nina a small plat of land on the other side of the fence this year. The reason we did this is that we had no particular use for it this year as Tanya’s mother, now a year out of the apartment, has decided to quit gardening here. However, when Dom Pravlenya pulled down the amazingly shabby fence that Nina’s son had built in order to claim the aria, Nina simply walked away from it figuring that what garden space she already had would be enough. Now however, the trenchers were threatening those potatoes which have not yet begun to pop up and making her decision not to plant on the other side of the fence an expensive one.

But for some reason, she didn’t put much emotion into receiving the news. Strange, but not really my business.

About twenty minutes later though, I realized that Nine had held her calm in deference to her probably stone deaf mother. Now, dressed for work, Nina was screaming bloody murder at these workers, demanding to see their papers, to know who was the director of the project and why they had come through our yard and garden with their crooked trench without saying so much as a word about it earlier?

By this time one of the directors had come over. The director was young, maybe in his early twenties, a smirking crew cut in baggy slacks and shirt, shifting weight right and left while talking and eating and spitting sunflower seeds between sentences. Perhaps this was an example of Lukashenka’s “work for the government to pay off your student loan” plan, I couldn’t say for sure. Affecting a sarcastic calm and winking at the workers, he told Nina that they had their orders, this was a necessary thing and they would try to be as gentle as possible on the garden spaces.

A series of amazingly direct epithets then came like a tornado from Nina. I defiantly could see that this director was not prepared for how sharp and to the point Nina’s argument was. His men are obviously fools, they dress like fools, they talk like fools and they work like fools. Any half-idiot could see that they were bumbling asses and that this boy-director should standing there in his disco clothes, spitting sunflower seeds and for all the world looking like something his mother would be ashamed of, should be apologizing for them and not waving papers that should never have been signed without notifying the tenants. Now, unless she got an explanation as to how they had gotten their permit without telling anyone, she was going to the doma pravlenya, the mayor’s office and the police and then she was going to write in his book that he was a fool, incompetent, disrespectful, broke several labor and safely regulations and was probably working drunk

“We did notify you.” The boy, and now we could clearly see that he was a boy, pulled out a paper, pointed to the signature and offered a shrug.. Her eyes then shot directly to Stepan Ivcanovich.

“Why didn’t you tell us that they had come to you about digging before I put in my potatoes!?”

“I didn’t know myself,” The todie answered

“But this is your signature…”

All eyes went to the red lady. “

“Why?” Nina screamed at the red woman, “Why didn’t you tell us? Because we wouldn’t clean the corridors for you? I don’t even live on the second floor! The gardens for them are over there!” She pointed to our spaces. Who knows, maybe this is what that right turn was for.

The red lady made a face as if she had eaten something terrible and waddled back into the house.

Unfettered, Nina went right back into it. She needed to know damned well where this trench was going, it had better be dug accurately, it had better not touch one single cabbage or potato plant, there better be a place for us to walk and for the love of g-d, they had better straighten out that stupid, drunken right hand curve and start digging like they knew what they were doing. And by G-d they did. She sat there, hands on hip for twenty minutes and made them did in exactly the places they needed to so as to avoid each and every plant. At one point, one of the laborers looked up and said that a right angle was not possible.

“The cable is flexible!” She said and the worker, even though he was probably right, made a sharp left hand turn along a canal and then another right, effectively missing a row of tomato plants.

We take our gardening seriously here in Belarus. And our housing politics.