Thursday, November 01, 2007

Belarus; September 19, 2003...

Have been doing some work on the new book which is about living The Life in Belarus. Here is an excerpt:

None of this was necessary. I should never have had to have been on this train, the fight that morning that put me on this train never needed to happen and the extra money I was spending to be on this train would have been much better spent elsewhere. I was not at all happy. Eventually this train would take me to Luninits, from Luninits I would then take a different train to Baranovichi and then another from Baranovichi to Minsk. My train to Vilnius would leave Minsk at 4:00am or so and I would be in Lithuania sometime the next morning. And then, I would get to wait. This was an awful lot of work just to feel miserable.
I was doing my best not to be angry at either Tatyana or the situation as a whole and I was trying to make myself as comfortable as I could; my feet were up on the seat in front of me, I was reading Hemingway’s “Fiesta” for about the fifth time. There was nothing to do but take it easy. And then my bike fell off the train.
The train had stopped for a minute at a small village called Parahunts. The bike, my red Schwinn fixie, was sitting in the area between the cars and an 11-year-old boy had been pretending he was a bike racer when someone passed him on the way off the train. He had let go of the handlebars out of fear of being caught and when the door opened, the bike rolled out the door and onto the tracks. I heard him yell and looked up in time to see the rear wheel disappearing out the door. I jumped up and ran over but I got there just as the doors closed and the train began to move. I asked the boy in Russian what he had done but he only started crying. I ran through the cars of the train trying to find the conductor. I found the ticket agent lying down on a seat, taking her break and I screamed at her that my sport bike had just fallen out the door and onto the tracks. She pulled herself groggily to her feet telling me that there was nothing she could do at the moment. I ran all the way to the front of the train and started banging on the door to the engine compartment. I guess I had passed the conductor along the way because he came up from behind me and asked what was happening.
I told him about the bike and he laughed as if this was a pretty funny thing. I yelled at him to stop the train. He nodded and waved and the two of us started walking towards the rear again. I noticed I still had the Hemingway in my hand.
By the time we got to the last car, we had arrived at the next station. The boy was still there crying. The conductor ducked behind the door of the rear compartment. I don’t know what I was thinking would happen but after a minute the train began to roll again. I started banging on the door, yelling at him to stop. We were between the cars and a woman standing there smoking pointed to the “Pull this lever to stop the train” lever. I pulled it. Nothing happened. She told me to pull it harder. The train began to stop. I wish I had known about that a few minutes earlier. I quickly grabbed my bags and jumped off the train. The conductor was saying something to me out the window of the rear engine but I couldn’t hear him over the noise of the train. I made a face at him and started marching back toward the last stop. He waved and wished me good luck as the train rolled away. The boy was standing at the station and I slapped him on the back of his head as I passed him.
It didn’t seem like it had taken more than a minute or two for the train to get to the next station so I didn’t think it would be that far of a walk. It was a very warm September afternoon. I could feel it was getting towards five because the mosquitoes were starting to come out. The gravel around the rail-road ties was loose and the ties themselves set unevenly so the walking was difficult. Up ahead in the distance I could see a structure that I took to be the station. Of all of the stupid things to have happened…
All of this began because there were too many people living in too small a space. I simply couldn’t understand why Tatyana and I couldn’t have just gotten the damned apartment last month instead of sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that things were going to change. Her friend Olga had told us about a nice place we could have had but Tatyana had balked at the idea out of a sense of fear and had done nothing. It’s not like it costs a lot of money and all I wanted was some breathing room. Of course there was another fight; anybody could see that that was going to happen. Did she think that her mother was just going to all of a sudden change the way she had been living? Did she think that I was joking about how I felt?
The structure I had seen was not the station but a trestle supporting a bridge over a small river. I crossed, walking on two pieces of wood nailed to the center but on the other side I still couldn’t see the station. I adjusted the load. The bags were heavy and I was starting to sweat. That was another part of this: I had to carry all my things because there was a possibility I would not be able to return. My old visa was at an end and I either had to go completely or get another to return. If we had settled the living space issue a month ago, there would have been no problem; I could have just gone to Minsk like I had the last time and been back the next day. But now I had to go all the way out of the country just to sit and wait to see what would happen.
Poland would have been the normal choice but I couldn’t take the chance of being blocked from returning or loosing my passport again. I even had friends there with whom I could stay, but even after eighteen months there was still a possibility that the courts or the police would do something sneaky and shitty to mess with me. There was no way I was going to Poland and so now I had to go to Lithuania, a place where I didn’t know anybody. And to top it off, it now looked as though I would be showing up in the dark. Tatyana knew all of this a month ago. What a waste.
The thought crossed my mind that the bike might have been crushed under the wheels of the train and that I could be making this hike for nothing. But then I thought that because I’d had no money to fix anything for over four months, the bike had fallen into such a state of disrepair I could barely ride it any more anyway. That’s kind of ironic: Crushed or not crushed there was very little difference. And yet here I was marching down the train tracks for it. And what was also ironic was that this whole mess had started because I tried to open a bike shop in Belarus. It was really hot. I decided to carry the bike with me to Vilnius even if all that was left was twisted steel. I had been through too much with this bike to leave it behind
I readjusted the weight again, but when I swung the bags into a new position on my shoulders, my glasses slid off my nose and into the brush. I could see the temples sticking up through the grass but when I leaned over, the shoulder strap my duffle bag snapped. You get what you pay for. The bag was garbage when we bought it but Tatyana had insisted on hand sewing the strap back on in Poland after the first time it broke. She refused to pay for another. That’s Belarus for you. I lifted it up by the hand straps and continued walking. After a minute a train went by going the same direction. It occurred to me that what the conductor had tried to tell me that I didn’t need to walk because that there would be another train along shortly. Right; at least I could see that I was close to the station. The march had been eight kilometers.
The lady working at the Parahunts station was very nice. She told me that she had the bike under lock and key and that I could ask at the house next door for the key. She said that everyone had thought this was all rather interesting. I asked her about the train schedule and she told me that the next train to Minsk was the 11:30pm train from Luninits. I asked her if this was the same train as the 12:30am from Pinsk and she said that it was. I told her about Tatyana and asked if there would be any difference catching the train in Luninits or in Pinsk. She told me was no difference except for the cost of the ticket back to Pinsk. I asked if could use the phone. She smiled and let me into the operations room. The phone was next to a huge lighted board which electronically showed everything that was happening along the train line. I called Tatyana and told her about the bike and asked her if she wanted to get together for a couple of hours at the station. She told me she would be there. I asked the lady to reissue the tickets for the later train, but she told me that I didn’t need a new ticket and I could just use what I had for the next train later that evening. I thought she had been very nice.
I walked over to the house next door. A lady there was hanging clothes out to dry and told me the man with the key would be along shortly. I hung out for about 45 minutes before he finally came along. We shook hands and he introduced himself as Lenye. As we were walking back to the station he told me that there was a problem with the front wheel and my heart sank a little. OK, only a wheel, but now I had to add the cost of that to this trip. I told Lenye what I was thinking about and he said that about 90% of his life fell into this category.
The bike was ok though. Lenye thought the broken spokes had been caused by the train and was happy to hear that it wasn’t. I thanked him for grabbing the bike for me and asked if there was something I could give him. He shook his head no and then clicked his neck with his finger, asking if I wanted to drink a little. I thought that that was about the best idea he could have had. He asked me to wait a moment and returned a few minutes later with two friends and a bottle of white wine. He showed me the bottle. The wine was called “two flutes” and the men all whistled and imitated playing flutes. They said it was quite bad and offered me the first drink. I said it tasted like medicine and everybody laughed.
We sat outside and made a party of it. Lenye’s wife came over to the station and gave us some freshly picked green apples and the three of us sat and drank and laughed.
One of the guys tried to get me to say how the “state” of Miami ranked against the others. I had a hard time convincing him that Miami was a city and not a state. He demanded that Miami was a state just like Hollywood was a state. I was told he was always like that.
In a quiet moment, Lenye asked what America was really like. Everybody always asks this question and it has a specific meaning. People are pretty unhappy in Belarus; the economy is miserable, people are too poor to live and everything seems rather hopeless here. During the communist times people had been taught to remember and respect each other and to find ways in which to “live together well” but this new capitalism never seems to allow for it. What Lenye wanted was to be reassured that this new philosophy would eventually lead them back to a gentler, nicer time. I think he just wanted to know if they would ever get to go home again. I didn’t feel like lying to him. I told him that America had never practiced “living together well” and that Communism was a dirty word to us. He talked it over with his friends and he told me they expected as much was true. After a while, they all wished me good night and left to go eat supper. I lay back on the bench and looked at the stars for a while, waiting for the train to come.
Tatyana was waiting for me at the station. I could see that she was still tight with the emotion of the day. There didn’t seem to be many words to say. I told her I had better get this ticket business straightened out.
I explained the story as best as I could to the girl sitting at the ticket booth. I guess I expected a laugh but there wasn’t one. The agent told me that the ticket I had purchased to Minsk was good that day only, but because the next train was leaving at 12:30am it was now worthless. I got upset. I told her about the agent at Parahunts but she said that she could do nothing and if I had a problem, I could talk to the information booth. I walked over there and that woman reiterated what I had been told and added that it would have been wiser if I would have gone to Luninits instead of Pinsk because the late train had been there before midnight. The “the rules are the rules” she said.
I tried to re-explain. I told her about the Parahunts agent and what she had told me but the information agent told me that Parahunts was but a tiny stop and knew nothing of the schedules. I asked her to call but she laughed and said that they probably didn’t even have a phone there. I told her I had called from there a few hours ago. She advised me that the ticket from Minsk to Vilnius was also going to be bad very soon, that the amount of money I got for the ticket would be less the closer I got to the time of the train and that I really ought to change it quickly. I asked her to just change it for me. What difference does it make? Just change the tickets. She told me the system didn’t work that way. If I wanted another ticket, I would have to cash in the old one and then buy another. She explained that they gave less money because they would have to resell the ticket I would not use and with the time of the train drawing near, they would have a hard time selling it again. I asked if the train was sold out. She said there was plenty of space.
“If I am buying another ticket though, you are not losing any money. I am just going to get on another train.”
“But we would have to resell the first ticket.” She said.
“Why? It’s the same customer.”
“The rules are the rules.” She said. She did point out though, that if I could catch a bus to Ivatsavichi, another town along the line, I would be able to catch their train to Minsk and would be there in time to use the Minsk/Vilnius ticket without complications. She smiled warmly at us.
Tatyana and I started to walk over to the bus station.
“Why must you be so sarcastic with that woman?” Tatyana asked me “She was only doing her job.” I rubbed my head. I couldn’t decide if she was seriously asking or just trying to make me angrier.
“You know,” I said “this could easily be seen as your fault because you stopped us from getting our place a month ago. If you had not been so messed up over such a simple thing none of this would be happening.”
“How many times you need to say me these things?”
“I don’t know. How many times do I need to say these things?”
“You don’t want talking to me; you only want fight with this woman.”
“I don’t want to fight with anybody. But the ticket was like $20 and I don’t want to throw away money we can’t afford to lose.”
“Don’t spend money!”
“What? I’m spending money? What the hell do you think is happening here?”
“And why did you throw your bike off the train?”
“Who threw? Is this a joke?” I was getting angry.
“Be calm.” She said.
“Right…” The bus yard was locked and deserted. We headed back.
“Well, there went another 20 minutes.” I said, pushing my bike and bags along.
“And what do you want from me?” She asked.
“I don’t know. I just asked if you wanted to come and hang out for an hour. I didn’t think any of this was going to happen.”
“No. What do you want me to do about apartment?”
“Please get an apartment. Please… We had the money a month ago. How much is our sanity worth?
“And what will you do?”
“Did something change? I have to leave right now because my visa is over, right? And we either have a nice place to be together or we don’t. Do you want to continue at your mother’s house, with all of us packed in there and clawing at each other night and day?”
“No.”
“Well I don’t either. I just wanted some room to breath; I don’t know why it had to be such a problem.”
“I understand.”
“Now you understand…” I wanted to say more. I wanted to talk about the last eighteen months. I wanted to remind her of Poland and of why we had no money. I wanted to remind her of Zaremba and the courts and Borus and the embassy and all the problems. I wanted to remind her of everything we had been through, of everything we had done to simply try and stay together and make something. I wanted to but I didn’t because even the thought of bringing up “The Subject” again made feel sick. I wanted to scream. I smiled at her instead.
“Please, Adam. What will you do at the station?”
“I am going to try and get another ticket.”
“Adam, what do you want from them?”
“I want another ticket!”
“But the rules are the rules.”
“Please don’t tell me that.”
“How you like…” She sighed. I went back in and tried again.
I went to the ticket booth and asked how much they were going to give me for my old ticket from Minsk to Vilnius. I was told that they would pay me only 15,000 rubles. I choked. I had paid 10,000 for the ticket to Minsk and another 26,000 for the ticket to Vilnius.
“And my ticket to Minsk?”
“Garbage.” She said.
“The tickets haven’t been used, why can’t you just reissue me a new one?”
“It’s not the same train.”
“It’s the same train system.”
“There’s nothing I can do.”
“But your train system agent at Parahunts told me that I simply could trade it in for a new one.”
“Do you want to turn in the ticket or not?”
“Why do I have to lose ten dollars when the woman at Parahunts told me that all of this was paid for?” She told me to go to the information booth and closed the intercom. Tatyana gave me a look. I walked to the information desk.
“Why is a ticket I bought in good faith garbage?” I asked.
“The train from Pinsk is not until 12:30am. If you had gone to Luninits…”
“I understand that, but my point is that the agent at Parahunts told me that I would be able to get another ticket.”
“The agent was wrong.”
“Yes, but the agent was actually an official rail-road person. If she said something to me, this means it was an official rail-road statement. That means something. Call her and ask.”
“She’s probably asleep.”
“Then wake her up!” The woman slammed the window on me and left the booth. She walked over to the ticket window and asked us to follow. She asked the girl behind the glass to check the price of the Minsk/Vilnius ticket. Their faces were very strict in their concentration. There seemed to be a hold up on the computer. The information woman pointed out a few alternatives to try. They were really working. I looked at Tatyana and she looked at me. Her face had become drawn over the last few days. All of this had been torture for her. After a moment more, they clicked on the intercom.
“What do you want to do?” The information woman asked from behind the glass. I blinked a few times.
“I want you to trade a good ticket for these bad tickets like the agent at the Parahunts station said that you would.”
“We cannot do that. Do you want to trade in the ticket or not?”
“What I want is to trade this ticket for a good one!” I said that last bit rather loudly. They clicked off the microphone and the information woman left and walked around us to the other side of the building. She returned with the police a few minutes later. There were four of them. The Police were calm. The lead officer asked what the story was. Tatyana explained to them the whole of the episode from the bike to the agent to the wine to the tickets issue. She was very nice about it. The policeman asked what I wanted to do.
“It’s not what I want to do; it’s what I need to do. And I need to get to Vilnius because my visa is at an end.” I said this in Russian and the lead officer said in English with a mild laugh:
“This is not America.”
“I hear that a lot. Why must you laugh at me?”
“It is funny.”
“Why is it funny?” I asked. He made no answer for a moment.
“There is nothing you can do. It is our system. Do you want to go to Minsk?”
“I want not to have to repay for this ticket.” He laughed again.
“We live with this every day.”
“But I do too.” I said in Russian. “Don’t you understand I have been around here for almost two years now? You don’t think I understand? How many days do you have to work for $10, two? My girlfriend must work three days for this money. Would you laugh, really, if this were happening to you?”
“You know him?” He asked Tatyana. She nodded. He spoke to her very quickly in Russian.
“Adam, they understand what has happened, but they are telling you that they can do nothing to change this system.”
“I heard what he said Tatyana.” She never believes that I speak Russian.
“What will you do?” the cop asked. I turned and walked to the window and stuffed the old tickets in the slot.
“I can’t pay you for this one.” She said referring to the Minsk ticket.
“Ya panimaioo.” I said slowly. I understand. The girl started counting money. I looked at the cop. He shrugged.
“You know Tatyana,” I said “these cops are only placating me.”
“It is our country.” The cop said in English. “What can we do?” The girl handed me a little more than 15,000 rubles.
“Where’s the ticket to Minsk?” I asked her.
“It’s garbage!” She said.
“It’s got a bicycle ticket on it!” I was shaking.
“Be calm, Adam.” Tatyana said.
“She wouldn’t even give me back my bike ticket” The ticket agent pulled the Minsk ticket from the garbage and handed it to me through the slot.
“We have very difficult times here in our country.” This was the policeman. “I am afraid there is nothing that can be done. None of us here has the power to change things.” He was proud of his English.
“You know I just lost 20,000 rubles. That’s $10. And I lost this money after hiking 8 kilometers, waiting four hours at the Parahunts station and being told that I had no problems. I simply don’t understand why I have to eat this ten dollars. I am right. And there is no reason why the rail-road needs to steal my ten dollars.”
“You have 15 minutes before the train. What will you do?” I felt like I was in a great chess game. I looked around. I was the center of attention. It was all very interesting.
“I simply do not understand why I must eat this?” Nobody said or did anything. I walked back to the window. “Ot die mnya billet do Vilnoos.” Give me a ticket to Vilnius.
“And how would you like to get there?” She asked. Every muscle in my body contracted at the same time. I looked at the faces of the cops and Tatyana to see if I was alone in the absurdity of that last moment. I’m not entirely sure I wasn’t.
“Seshass…priama…e deshevia.” Now… directly… and cheap. The cop laughed. The girl got it that time. I turned and asked him if, with all of what had happened, if he didn’t think that he might be nice enough to give Tatyana a ride home and save us the cab fair. He agreed that he would. I paid for the ticket while offering a selection of rather foul language under my breath. The cop chimed in that the situation was the “sum of the bitch”. I thought that that was about right.
The cops wanted to follow me to the train but I asked them if they wouldn’t mind giving Tatyana and me a little time alone. They agreed.
The train station was crowded and Tatyana wouldn’t hug.
“Thanks for coming anyway.” I said.
“I wasted my time here.”
“No, you helped.”
“I am nothing for you.”
“I don’t think that is true.” We were quiet a moment.
“Why must you be so angry?”
“Because it’s all so fucking stupid…”
“Adam…” She said this with great sympathy. “Only for you everything must change.” I hate when she says things like that. She told me that she would find an apartment. I told her I knew that she would.
“Don’t be so angry.” She said, a few tears starting to fall. The train was coming. I held her as tight as I could.

3 Comments:

Anonymous John Q Law said...

When was this written?

Friday, November 02, 2007  
Blogger BEING HAD said...

The exact date I am not really sure. I know it was written after I came back from Vilnius and that I had been thinking of using it as an epilog for the book being had. As of the moment, it might be a forward for the second book. I have a lot of material already and am probably pretty close to completion. I say it this way because frankly, and I know this sounds really foolish, but I have been waiting for a happy ending.

Friday, November 02, 2007  
Anonymous Jenna said...

I think this is a fine piece of writing. It shows the whole day really well and gives the reader a real feeling of what it was like in that day. I can see myself standing there in line and trying to get through to the ticket agents that you are being screwed in so many ways and you cannot understand why it has to be this way. You are showing what it is like for all Belarusians and really showing how they have to live. You are a brave author for writing about this. I really hope you have success with this book.

Saturday, November 03, 2007  

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