Tag Archives: poverty

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!”

If it snowed on New Year’s, it would have to mean good luck.  That’s what the old folks said.  Or, so my motha told me.

To me, it would just mean magic:  That no matter how dry the winter promised to be, we could wake up to an already sleepy town, with mellow women and hungover men; and we would move ever so slowly — ever so gently, for a change — through a brand new sheet of snow.  It would mean a clean slate.  A promise of a new beginning.  A hidden prayer — for a better year.

The only citizens of the town still giddy from the night before would be the children.  For us, the first of every year meant gifts under the sparkling pine trees in the living-room.  And it meant truce, for all of us:  for the tired adults, tortured by survival; for unhappily married parents; for the intrusive force of poverty, uncertainly and chaos. Truce, on just that one day.  Truce.

The preparations for the celebration at midnight would be in full swing, in almost every household.  Motha would prepare for it, weeks before.  She’d start with a new haircut, and possibly new color on her nails.  Regardless the tight budget affected daily by inflation, she’d manage to whip out a new outfit for herself.

The hunt for foods would begin several weeks before the holiday.  Things would be preserved.  Money — borrowed, portioned out.  And just a couple days before the actual Eve, the cooking would begin.

School, of course, would be out for me; and I was expected to help out in the kitchen for that week.  Nothing crucially important though:  Peeling of potatoes or scaling of pickled fish.  I would boil eggs and root vegetables for the layered Russian salads.  I’d roast parts of chicken or grind the meat for the stuffing of cabbage parcels.  I would battle with pots of rice that took forever to get soft, and then would burn immediately.

Some days, I would be trapped inside while watching pots of stews or motha’s reinvented borscht.  And as I tended to the burners, I studied the darkening sky for any promises of snow.  Because, despite the obvious presence of poverty and chaos in our lives, snow on the Eve would still mean magic — if not some better luck.

On the last day of preparations, motha would be chaotic.  All day long, she would run out in her leather, high-heeled boots:  to get her hair done, to pick-up a missing spice from a girlfriend across town; to drop off a gift to a high rank bureaucrat at the City Hall.  But mostly, she’d keep picking-up “deficits”, all over town:  produce, not necessarily delicacies, that we normally would not indulge in, any other time during the year.

Victorious, she would return:

“Hey, little one!  Look at this here!” she’d holler me out of my bedroom.

Just by the sound of her voice, I knew she was in a good mood.  I would emerge, with Tolstoy under my armpit, and find her beautiful flushed face in the hallway.  She’d have her make-up done, and for New Year’s, it would always entail sparkles.  The smell of crispy frost would intertwine with her perfume.

“So beautiful!” I’d think, and with my father’s eyes I’d understand the power of that woman’s witchcraft.

And then, I’d see the fox fur collar of her coat glistening with tiny drops of moisture.

“Is it snowing yet?” I’d say while motha, still in boots, would begin passing to me the tiniest jars of caviar or cans of smoked anchovies.

“I think it’s about to,” motha would respond, flirting.  (So beautiful!)

And for the first time in weeks, she’d suddenly remember that I was still a child.  And children only need magic, for survival.  Not wads of cash, or cans of “deficit”.  Not banners of protesting citizens against the old demagogues or the faces of the newest heros.  We do not need untimely compassion toward the vices of our parents.  We wish to know no gossip and no strife.

Just truce, if only on one day for every year.  Just the simple magic — of truce.

Motha would retreat into the kitchen and immediately start banging metals.  I’d brace myself for more work.

“Hey, little one!” she’d holler.

Here we go!

“You should check out that snow, outside!”

I would run out, in an unbuttoned coat.  On every flight of stairs, new smells would smack my nose from every household.  To call upon my friends would be useless on that last day of the year.  Like me, my girlfriends grew up way too quickly and would be cooking in the kitchen until the arrival of their guests.  But in magic, I rarely needed company.

I wouldn’t even go very far:  Just to the lawn in front of our apartment building.  I’d watch the waltz of snowflakes against the darkening sky.  They would catch the light of egg yolk foam colored street lights and descend onto my mittens of rabbit fur.  There would be not enough snow on the ground to make braided patterns with me feet yet.  But just the sight of a new beginning — would be magical enough.

Before heading back home, I’d look up to our window and often see my motha’s face.

“So beautiful!” I’d think and understand the magic of truce, if only once a year.

“All the Lonely People: Where DO They All Come From?”

She always comes in here, right around this time (which probably says a lot about her, and the same — about me).

And when she appears — she is impossible not to notice.

You can tell a lot by the way a person enters through the door. Some come in with certainty, as if they own the joint.  Some have indeed been here before:  They call out to the sleepy cashiers or the slightly baffled manager, and the rest of us are meant to take notice of the commotion they’ve created.  Others slip in quietly:  They tread their ground with no presumption; and I would like to think they spend their days causing the least amount of damage, in the world.

Local young couples come in here, to play out yet another day in the perseverance of their love.  It’s them against the harsh world — together.  Them — against us!  And I don’t blame them:  Togetherness — is hard enough.  So, I watch them seeking refuge in each other’s company, because they still haven’t lost their love’s ability to hear — to receive each other — completely.  They still haven’t taken the privilege of their intimacy for granted.  Lucky kids!

Other times, this is the place for friends:  buds and girlfriends, best friends.  And they vent to each other about the little injustices in their relationships and lives; and expect alliances from the people at the other end of the table.

But she always comes in here alone, right around the same time. It is her voice that I hear first:  It sounds like baby-talk that comes from a child who’s having a hard time growing up.  I’ve often heard that voice from children with newly born siblings.  They aren’t ready to share their parents’ love yet, and they still cannot comprehend where their self-importance has gone.  So, they regress, even if only in their voices.  And that’s exactly how she sounds.

Her clothes are simple, most likely begotten from a thrift store:  A pair of loose jeans of no particular label and a long-sleeved crew neck sweater of pastel color.  She wears thick, beige socks around her perpetually swollen ankles and a pair of nursing shoes.  It’s not that she appears poor, just not well-off.  And for that, the rest of the joint finds her at fault.

Or maybe, it’s her face:  Something is not right with it.  Her brown skin is deeply lined, although there is an overall puffiness on her cheekbones, forehead and neck; and under her eyes.  The distance between her ears and chin has collapsed due to her absent teeth; so, she protrudes the lower jaw and smacks her lips a lot.  The eyes are bulging and big, striking in the lightness of their hazel color.  They make you lower your own gaze when confronted with hers.  They are fully present, no matter how far and how long her mind appears to have been gone, by now.

“Can I sit here?” she’ll say, in that baby voice, asking for a group of girlfriends to move their purses from the chairs at the table she prefers.

That table is the worst!  It’s right by the door, in the outer row, with the draft hitting her from both the outside and the overhead vents.  When sitting there, there is no way she wouldn’t get in the way of people, coming over for their refills of coffee and water; and I’ve seen a few act discombobulated by her positioning.  But she is sitting right by the door, as if already apologizing for not fitting in here. And before we notice — she will be gone.

The girls always act rushed when they move their bags, and they get uncomfortably silent once she finally sits down.

“Can I have some ice for my drink?” she’ll ask the Mexican fry cook, from behind the glass counter.

It’ll take a few tries to notice her:  She is tiny, plus, she’s got that baby voice on her.  And sometimes, if the kid at the fry station is new, he cannot understand her while he studies her face with embarrassment.

And I suspect it is her face:  We all get stuck on it a little.  Something is not right — with her face.

She’ll then sit down quietly and eat her meal so methodically she betrays her lack of family and money.  Only the people that have known poverty eat like that.  And I wish to apologize to her — for all of that pain and injustice; and for the shunned reactions of others.  They think if something isn’t right with her face — something must be not right with her.

But her only fault, really — is the lack of beauty.  She is not exotic, as retired youth has a chance to become.  Neither is she dignified from the excess of money to take care of herself.  She is simple, plain and just a little strange.

She comes and leaves alone; and while completely alone, she starts and finishes her meal.

One of these days, I shall strike up a conversation with her (but only if she’s willing to let go of her loneliness), and we’ll share a meal.  And we may even share a silence.

Because she always comes in here, right around this time, alone; which probably says a lot about her, and the same — about me.

“Those Were the Days, My Friend…”

Back in those days, we would rise early — to get the fields on time.

It would always happen in the fall:

“Time of harvest,” they would tell us.

We didn’t know any different:  We weren’t supposed to.  We were children, still. Besides, to us — it would be just another adventure.

Most of us (if not all) had seen our parents working on land for their entire lives, tending to the whims of nature just so they could have a little extra to live on during the winter.  It didn’t matter if you were a villager or one of those city people who thought they were better than the rest:  Everyone worked, in those days.

The villagers had it a little harder, especially in terms of prejudice.  They were the simpler people, with more obvious needs and uncomplicated vices.  Most of their children would never finish their education either due to their parents’ alcoholism or because of being bullied, brutally, in school.  Those kids wore poorer clothes than us and carried lice in their overgrown hair.  They smelled of manure, tobacco and liquor:  They smelled — of hard life.

For as long as they could tolerate their young lives’ injustices, they would become outcasts; our plebeian jokers.  Soon enough, though, they would give way to their shame, drop out of school — and grow up way too early.  And the hard life continued to loom, above our unknowing heads.  But the ones that lived by land knew it earlier than the rest.  

In any city apartment, one could find a tiny garden on a balcony.  Radishes and tomatoes were planted in flower beds, upfront.  And in the spring, after the soil would thaw out just enough, our grownups would begin to leave the city, for the weekends.  They would take the trains into the suburbs — and they would return to their land.

Of course, somebody always had to be paid off along the way:  Such was the Russian tradition.  And we didn’t see any malice in that, or any particular injustice.  So, we bribed the city officials to get the better patches of land.  With the owners of live stock, we bartered in exchange for cow dung.  The drivers of tractors were paid off in vodka.  To each — his own.  

Summers seemed a bit easier:  Even if the money was tight, there was always at least some food in the home.  The early months were spent on gathering; and for the entire length of August and September, each woman busied herself with making preserves for the winter.  So, they would work — our mothers — rising early, tending to land; then, spending the rest of their days on mere survival.

But we, the young ones, would always turn it into a game.  In groups, we walked each other home; and as we climbed the stairs of our apartment buildings, we sniffed the doors on every flight:

“Ooh.  Strawberry jam!  Most certainly, strawberry!” we’d smell the lusty sweetness of slowly simmering fruit, then say goodbye to the comrade heading in, into that doorway.

“This one — is pickling cabbage.”

“She is always pickling cabbage!” the disappointed child would grumble and knock on the door of his forever disappointing mother.

We were all just trying to survive.  Although, for a while there, we didn’t know how difficult it was, for our mothers:  We didn’t have to — we were children. And to us, everything — was an adventure, just for a little while longer.

My doorway always gave off aromas much more complex than our young palettes could’ve known:  Green tomato jam, prune compote with red currants, garlic-stuffed cucumbers.  Motha — was always a bit of a witch, at the stove; and I couldn’t hide my thrill at her being so different.  And I couldn’t wait to find her in the kitchen:  What could she’ve possibly come up with, that time?

She would rise early, back in those days.  And by mid-day, several cauldrons would be boiling, simmering, stewing on the stove.

“Here!  Try this!” the woman with curlers in her hair and sweat on her upper lip would order me while shoving a tiny saucer with pink or purple jam foam into my dirty hands.  She wouldn’t even say hello.

Despite the occasional sand on my teeth, “MMMM,” I’d mutter.

“Good! Watch the pots!  I’m going out!”

Motha would depart into the bathroom and emerge in five minutes doused in perfume and sparkles.  I didn’t mind her departure.

In the fall, after the first month back in school, there would be field trips — to the fields.  Normally, they would happen on a Saturday; and we would have to rise early, showing up to the already busy school yard in our best peasant attire.

Most of the time, the children of the villagers wouldn’t show:  They had their own land to tend to.  Still, we would judge them a little, while shuffling ourselves in between the seats of a school bus, waiting to depart at sunrise.  We would be taken to the fields:  to gather freshly dug-out potatoes or to gather sugar beats, for live stock.

The labor would be hard, and we would overhear the upper class men complain about such an injustice.  But we still didn’t know any different:  We didn’t have to — we were children.  It would become much harder, soon enough.  But for just a little longer, we could be children — and life could be much simpler.

“Somewhere, Someone’s Calling Me, When the Chips Are Down.”

(Continued from September 30, 2011.)

So, that day, when motha decided to bring home a coconut, I didn’t even wonder if she had to stand in line for it.

“Where did you find this thing?!” I asked instead, while clutching the coconut to my chest.  It felt prickly.

I knew she must’ve gone to some fancy store in the capital.  She had taken a bus and probably a couple of trolleys; and then another bus, packed with other mothers — in order to bring this thing home:  A coconut!

In the midst of the last days of the Soviet Union, she had brought home — a coconut!

In response to my question, motha would start telling a story.  But motha sucks at storytelling; and soon enough, long before delivering the punchline, she started laughing and flailing her arms around, completely unaware of her vanity (and considering motha always knew the effect of her beauty, such abandonment — was quite endearing).

She tilted her head back, as if in the midst of some private exorcism, and she hollered and yelped in between her words.  Tears started glistening in the corners of her eyes.  And she would smack me every once in a while, as if taunting me to participate in her hysteria; and even though she stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground, motha could always pack a mighty punch.

Pretty soon, things in her vicinity started falling down to the floor.  Motha crouched down to pick them up; but then, she just stayed there — laughing.

I don’t know what the gist of her story was, at first:  I just kept clutching the coconut.  I wasn’t really sure how breakable that thing was, and I didn’t want motha to knock it over by accident.  Sure, I’ve seen those things before, most likely on some Mexican telenovela or in a film about rich American people, in a pretty town, on some pretty shore.  Both genres would have been narrated in a monotone male voice of the translator, yet I still managed to get addicted to these latest imports on our television screens, full-heartedly.

Because in the last years of the Soviet Union, the world suddenly became much larger — and not as intimidating as it had been previously assumed.  And despite the utter chaos, my own homeland began to seem much more human.   

And despite the last days of my innocence — the last days of my childhood — it was impossible not to laugh along with my motha, in that moment.

I think she was trying to tell me about her asking for a tutorial from the cashier woman at the store.

“And why are you asking ME, lady citizen?” the bitter woman had responded.  You’d think she would be happy to work in such a fancy establishment, with more access to deficit items the rest of us could only see on some Mexican telenovelas or in an American film.  But apparently, Soviet cashiers were bitter regardless of their situation.

“Do I look like I’m married to an apparatchik, to you?!” — the disgruntled woman attacked my motha.  (I have a feeling that interaction didn’t end well, for the cashier; because with motha — it’s better not to push it.)

Bitterness — was the worst consequence of those days.  The flood of unexpected hardships was actually quite easy to understand, because poverty had always existed in my Motha’land.  But while we were all poor together, it must’ve bugged the grown-ups less.  It was when the distance between the new wealth and the old poverty became obvious that Russians began to express their discontentment.  (And we aren’t really a happy bunch, to begin with.)

“So, it’s up to you and me, rabbit!” motha concluded and marched out into the living-room.

She wasn’t too keen on tender nicknames for me, so I just stayed in my place and waited:  With motha — it’s better not to push it.  Something heavy fell down in the living-room.  I heard my motha swear.  The thought of our neighbors below made me cringe:  Daily, the poor bastards had to endure the heavy footsteps of this tiny woman who stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground.

Motha reappeared in the doorway.

“How about it then?!”

Her face was still flushed from laughter, and her chest was heaving.  In one of her manicured hands, motha was holding an ax (oh, dear Lenin!), and with the other, she was waving a hammer and a screwdriver above her head.

“Oy, no!” I said.  And, “Bad idea!” — I thought to myself.

“Whoever doesn’t take risks — doesn’t drink champagne!” motha declared and proceeded to march into the kitchen.  I, the coconut, and our offensively obese red cat followed her.

The operation that unfolded in the kitchen was less than graceful:  Crouching down in her miniskirt, motha began pounding the screwdriver into the poor piece of fruit.  But the problem was she was whacking it through the side, and the thing kept rolling out of her grip.  And she:  She kept laughing.

“Hey, rabbit!  Come help!”

Motha’s orders were never up to a negotiation, so, I obeyed.  The thought of the screwdriver being hammered into my palm with my motha’s clumsy maneuver was a lot less intimidating, than her wrath.  Yeah:  With motha — it’s better not to push it.

But first, I examined the fruit:

“Let’s trying breaking in through these three dimples,” I suggested.

The task would have been accomplished had motha stopped collapsing into fits of laughter.  And I thought:  If there was ever anything more dangerous than an unhappy Russian woman, it would be a woman in throws of hysteria, holding a hammer.

Motha reached for the ax.

“Oy, no!” I rebelled and leapt to my feet.  This whole situation was starting to stage itself as some Greek tragedy.  And most of the time, those don’t work out well, for the children.

Motha got up, while still holding the now scuffed up fruit.  With tears and make-up running down her face, she reminded me of a young girl at a Beatles concert.  (The images of such strange life elsewhere were beginning to flood our press, from all parts of the world.  And somehow, that world seemed much larger, less intimidating — and quite wonderful!)

“Rabbit, catch!” she threw the coconut at me.

I ducked.  The fruit bounced off the doorway behind me and hit the floor.  Our offensively obese red cat dashed out of the kitchen.

Motha and I lost it entirely, and when the neighbors below knocked on their ceiling, we lost it again.  The glimmer of joy, dimmed in my motha’s eyes in those difficult years, considered reigniting.  No matter the chaos, this beautiful woman who stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground, refused to grovel.   And even if it took hysteria to remember how to laugh, she wouldn’t give it up.

“Somewhere, There Is an Ocean: Innocent and Wild.”

So, there was this one time… 

“Show me — don’t tell me,” my brother always warns me.  He, himself, is a performer and a painter; so his stories are visual.  But the recipe works though, I’ve tried it:  My storytelling works best when I paint a picture instead of lining-up some words.

So, there was this one time, when motha had decided to bring home a coconut…

Motha sucks at storytelling.  When younger, she was anxious to teach me how to read, so I would stop bugging her for bedtime stories.  Nowadays, she tells me stories all the time, and she tends to tell the punchline long before I can wrap my head around all the characters and their histories.

Arizona Muse

And when it comes to jokes, motha — is the absolute worst.  She cracks herself up, and it is impossible to make out a single word through her roaring and yelping laughter.  She tilts her head back, as if in the midst of some exorcism, and soon enough things around her start flying onto the floor while she flails around her arms, utterly unaware of her vanity.  And it is also impossible — not to laugh with her, in return.

So, there was this one time, when mother had decided to bring home a coconut.  We were living in the Soviet Union at the time…

I’ve got a lot of stories, but I suck at delivering them.  I would much rather write them down.  When writing, I can relive them.  I  can get the details out.  I can get them right; or even fix them, now that I know their endings.

But I am not really good at reliving stories in front of others.  Unless, of course, they are someone’s else stories, then I can perform them:  “show, not tell”.

Anyway.  There was this one time, when mother had decided to bring home a coconut. 

We were living in the Soviet Union at the time, and coconuts weren’t much of a typical occurrence on our dinner table.  No, it was all about potatoes instead:  Fried potatoes, boiled potatoes — with skin and without.  Roasted potatoes, potatoes in a soup.  Early spring fingerling potatoes in a salad.  Potato pancakes.  Mashes potatoes:  Those motha always insisted on mixing with bits of semi-fried onion, and I would spend more time picking it out than actually eating (which didn’t thrill my mother much).  And even when we would go camping, potatoes would appear in various formats when it was time to eat:  Potatoes baked in foil, roasted over an open fire potatoes.  Potatoes in a soup.

A serving of macaroni would spice things up a bit.  Macaroni usually meant my parents got paid, and we were living it up for a while.  But then, the macaroni would be recycled too:  Macaroni swimming in milk for breakfast — fried macaroni for dinner.

But this one time, mother had decided to bring home a coconut.  She had been trying something out, with the family:

“A Piece of an Exotic Fruit — per Month,” was the name of the program motha had come up with.

The Soviet Union was on its way out.  We didn’t know it at the time, but the country, as we knew it, was over.  The economy was in the crapshoot:  Folks not getting paid on time, the worth of pensions decreasing down to laughable proportions.  The price of bread was growing every single day; and food was being sold in rations, according to a monthly handout of coupons.  But to get that food at the market, one had to show up right after its delivery.  Because, for whatever reason, there was always fewer rations than the actual people, in town.  So, we would have to line up by the store, hours before it would open.

It helped that I was finally of the age to stand in some of these lines.  I would get there before motha, often right after school.  Later, she could take my place, and I would go home to do my homework — not to play — then, start prepping dinner.  Because I was definitely past the age of innocence:  I had long stopped bugging her for bedtime stories.

Sometimes, I would stand in line for long enough to get to the front of it.  Soon enough though, the cashier would start announcing the lowering numbers of rations.

“Citizens!” she would holler out.  Somehow, she was alway chubby and shiny; and so obviously in love with finding herself in a position of an authority.  “We only have enough for twenty of you!”

People complained, shifted on their feet uncertain if they should keep on waiting — or just go home defeated.  The frontrunners gloated in their places.  Quickly, the last of the fortunate would be counted off.  Oh, how it would suck to be standing right behind her!  (I say “her”, because most of the time, the job of standing in lines was allotted to mothers.)

Still, even then, most people would keep standing, holding their place in line.  Because hope dies last, doesn’t it?  It can even outlast despair.  

The cashier would start getting annoyed:

“I told you, citizens:  We don’t have enough produce for all of you!  So, don’t linger!”

She was obviously getting off.  But people stayed.

They stayed!  Perhaps, it took an incredibly unreasonable amount of denial to survive in such conditions.  But they chose not to hear the abusive remarks by the shiny cashier; and only the ones at the very end would start chipping off, muttering, complaining:

“What is this country coming to?!”

“Mama?” I would think at that moment, wishing she would get there and relieve me from my post.  I may have been long past the age of innocence, but I wasn’t yet ready to give up on my childhood.

So, that one time, when motha had decided to bring home a coconut, I didn’t even wonder if she had to stand in line for it.

“Where did you find this thing?!” I asked instead, while clutching the coconut to my chest.  It felt prickly.

I knew she must’ve gone to some fancy store in the capital.  She had taken a bus, and probably a couple of trolleys; and then another bus, packed with other mothers, in order to bring this thing home:  A coconut!

In the midst of the last days of the Soviet Union, she had brought home — a coconut!

In response to my question, motha would start telling me a story.  But motha sucks at storytelling; so, she would laugh and flail her arms around, dropping things to the floor.  I would keep clutching onto the coconut.

And despite the last days of my innocence — the last days of my childhood — it was impossible not to laugh with her, in return.

(To Be Continued.)

“Click, Click, Click, Flash…”

There are faces on the streets of this town that make me want to whip out a camera and take them home with me:  not the people — but always their faces, like yellowing Polaroids in my back pocket.  Every day, I drive by them, on routes that must lead to my dreams — or at least to survival in between the dreams’ happening — and I fight the urge to leap out of the car, leave the engine running, and steal a shot or two, preferably unnoticed by my subject.

But if they do see me, I hope they aren’t offended much.

“You’re beautiful,” I’d probably say, shielding myself with kindness, as if they were my lovers telling me of their final decision to depart.

(I’m such a fucking hippie.  Forgive me.)

There is a homeless man, in one of my regularly visited parking lots, who always reads a pamphlet, in a plastic chair by that neighborhood’s laundromat.  He rests here, maybe even lives, with his cart parked right around the corner.

Keith.  This is his spot.

The truth about Keith:  He is homeless — not a pauper (and you better know the difference).  He’s made that aggressively clear by the cleanness of his clothes and the presentable look of his laced-up shoes.  I had tried giving him money before:  I might as well have slapped Keith’s tired face with a wet towel full of sand.  But food, he’ll take food.  He’ll nod, humbly; thank you, and pack it away, so methodically and slow, it breaks your heart.  Because if ever you have known poverty yourself, you comprehend the deficit of dignity in it.  Organization and routine become your only saving graces.  And that’s exactly how you get by:  sweeping off crumbs of dignity from the kitchen table and into your hand; and methodically storing them away — for later.  

Well, Keith’s got his dignity in spades.  I can tell it by his face with carved out wrinkles and his not so poorly groomed beard.  In a striking juxtaposition to his African features, a pair of lime-green eyes overlooks from above.  Sometimes they freeze in a gaze of departure; and even though I’ve wondered a few times about where Keith goes when he goes like that, his eyes give out no hints.  I don’t trip out about that too much though:  Because the ownership of his story — is one of the few things a man should be allowed to possess.

His right eyebrow gathers into a poignant awning.  Not much of a frown, it ever so slightly changes the man’s face from solemnity to something grievous.  Just like that:  a little shift and the departure of his lime-green eyes — and the man’s face becomes a story.

“You’re beautiful,” I’d probably say.

Another man — another story — lives just a few blocks away from my street.  I am never sure where he sleeps, or where he stores his things.  But he is impossible not to notice as I run to the subway station, always late and always immediately embarrassed, when I notice him.

On a cold day, the man stands underneath an electronics store sign long closed down for sale.  In heat, he looms in the shadow of a bus stop nearby.  The accidental passengers waiting on metallic benches seem to not mind him more than they mind the exhaust fumes from the never-ending traffic.  Years ago, when I first moved here, the man used to ask them for money, while shifting on his feet.  But now, he just sways there, in silence, waiting for dumb charity by someone with a guilty conscience, like my own.  But mostly, he lets his life waste him away with the corrosive elements attacking his skin behind this bus stop.

Painfully thin, he sways too much when shifting on his feet, as if at any moment he can tip over and break into a thousand shards of something irreparable.  But whenever I can get past my embarrassment and actually look at the man’s face, I realize it belongs to someone long departed.  He seems calm, surrendered; almost smiling, with his eyes.  And if he can feel the scratch of my dollars in his palm, dried up to chalky whiteness, he shivers his head a little.  Those aren’t nods, but a dozen of little ones — like shivers.

Another story — another ghost — trails in the footsteps of a local woman that always sits by one of this town’s guilds.  She’s irate:  There ain’t no bloody surrender in her face.

On the stone fence of the building, she usually sits with her bags parked underneath her feet; and she mutters while scratching the matted hair, usually wrapped in a shredding scarf.  Her clothing is nonsensical, as if she’s rummaged through a vintage shop or a drag queen’s closet, that morning.  But you better be sure there’ll be some sequins somewhere on her body.  And it’s not the angry face that gets my attention every time:  It’s those fucking sequins!

She must’ve loved them as a little girl, as all little girls do.  And as all little girls, she must’ve found them magical, like fairy dust or sparkly refections in the water from the mirror mosaic on the bottom of a pool floor.  And she may have long departed — in her mind and in her face — but this child-like addiction is the only sliver of sanity that separates her from those of us, insane enough to give it up.

They are never dangerous, these faces; no more dangerous than the minds that hide behind them, storing away their stories of horror and loss from which the only sane thing to do — is to depart.  Alas:  The faces of the departed.  There are so many of them, in this town!  

Who knows what has brought them here, and why they never left.  Is it because hope dies last; but when it does, it leaves a person too exhausted to depart?  Or is it because they, like me, have nowhere else to go.

Because they are already — the departed, and this — is where they have departed for.  And this is where they continue to depart, dragging behind their carts and their beauty —  like cautionary tales for the rest of us.

“While You’re Gettin’ Your Cry On — I’m Gettin’ My Fly On.”

A cup of brutal coffee and a bath with a wrinkled Bukowski.  Who said that mornings had to be unkind?

These days of waking in a vacuum of unpredictability — they make me think of all the big dogs that have come and gone, and suffered for centuries before me.  Like my own fellow comrades — the big-dogs-in-the-making — they had to have wondered, at times, about where the next meal would come from, or the next rent.

They would hang, like poignant ghosts, at their regular spots, hoping the bartender would eventually remember their faces to comp a drink or two, just when they would be about do a touchdown with the rock bottom.  (Those moments — are the best, in life:  Three minutes before a suicidal thought or the a late afternoon phone call giving you a break.)  And the bartender would nod, quickly, familiarly:

“This one’s on the house…”  

(Actually, I’ll never comprehend the hopefulness of that post-midnight line; for I prefer to not suffer from other self-afflictions besides that hideous empathy of mine.  That’s a handful already.  Don’t hand me any more.)

Only at friends’ barbecues — or at other people’s office parties at Christmas — the big-dogs-in-the-making could get plastered enough on free liquor, to not mind their misery in sobriety.  But elsewhere, at all other times, they could never afford enough drinks to get them there.  So, they would loom on their scuffed-up bar stools, waiting for the bartender’s charity:  The wrathful face of Hemingway and the disappointed one of S. Thompson.

Or perhaps, if their beat-up faces were lucky enough to have appeared in black-and-white print a couple of times by then (they were the big-dogs-in-the-making!):  Perhaps, a random nerdy fan would come out of the woodwork — or from behind a ping ball machine — and start lapping up their faces with his star-fucking gazes; then offer to pick-up their tabs with a handful of sweaty cash.  The female groupies would be less useful at the bar, but better equipped to restore their ego elsewhere — anywhere! — like the backseat of their boyfriends’ trucks, or the nook by the graffitied pay phone, near the john.

Somehow, the big-dogs-in-the-making would gain enough swagger to bed a woman:  because there was always some wide-eyed girl or sinister-eyed widow in the mood for the struggling artist type.  But then, someone’s heart would get attached, then broken; and the big-dogs-in-the-making would scurry back to their crammed in joints, with other struggling types crashing on their couches or sleeping in their bathtubs; and they would write for long enough to finish a pack of cigarettes.  Or to run out of their typewriter ribbon.  Or to forget about a drawer full of rejection letters from agents and publishers:

“At this time, we must regretfully inform you…”

And what did they do, with all those regretful notes, by the way:  so insincere, yet always signed “sincerely”?  Did they glue them with gum, onto a white wall painted by someone with zero of imagination, during a sleepless night of annoying heat and warm beer, in a vacuum of unpredictability?  Or did they tear them up, like I do, just in half — never wasting too much energy on anger, for fearing the flip side of it — then burry the pieces under an aged coffee filter from the morning before?  And just how long would they sit in silence until trying their hand at yet another letter, yet another submission — another hand at that cunty luck:  Would it take them a month?  a year?  a trip to Brazil?  another broken heart of another wide-eyed girl?

And then, there were always those with annoyingly stubborn writing discipline:  The respected academic of Nabokov and the celebrity hermit of Roth.  Every year, their friends would catch them at yet another book deal, another fellowship, another grant.  And surely, the big-dogs-in-the-making would feel the envy on the other end of the phone, as thick as aged honey; and just as grainy:

“Oh really?…  Congratulations…  We should celebrate…”

They had to have hated those ellipses loaded with a strained goodwill of their “friends”.  So many!  So many had to get lost during this game of chasing the impossible, often self-destructive but hopefully somewhat self-redemptive career.  Several had to be dismissed face to face, in a drunken fight when these “friends” dropped their pretenses.  Others — would flake off on their own, with enough time and enough demands from their bratty marriages and whiny children.  But the most relentless, the slowest of losses were those acquaintances sticking around for years, only calling after picking-up a few crumbs of new gossip:

“Saw you in The Paris Review…  Congratulations…  We should celebrate…” 

And the big dogs would lie:  Yeah, we should.  But they never would.

No, they’d rather save up their new money for a better hermitage on the coast of New York.  Or maybe even of Connecticut, if they got fed up with all that grime and despair — with that cunty luck — and if they could finally part with their superstition that well-fed artists lost their edge.

I also think of the new big dogs — the ones that are living and publishing now.  They are all quite belligerent — Eggers and Sapphire — shooting out their words with such discipline and urge, that even the confused and the lazy can’t dismiss their names.  The ethnically ambiguous have come through in this century:  The hilarious Diaz.  The empathetic Smith.  The diplomatically graceful Lahiri.  They are all still quite young — and quite beautiful, physically — surfing through their academic careers to earn the respect of the white critics; but then always bringing it back to the streets, back to where they’ve learned to how suffer and how to make use of it; to the rest of the ethnically ambiguous and ethically confused:  To the rest of us.

And somehow, I allow myself the vague hope that maybe, in this century, it needn’t be so painful, it needn’t be so hard to get to one’s often self-destructive but hopefully somewhat self-redemptive career.

Because who said that the mere human suffering — wouldn’t be enough?

And with an empty cup stained by coffee and a cold bath with a soaked Bukowski, who said that mornings — had to be unkind?

Money Makes My World Go ‘Round

Definitions, definitions.  This year has been all about definitions.

How I’ve gone through my entire life without defining my boundaries or my personal relationships, I haven’t had time to wonder.  Because I’ve been surviving, my comrades, up until recently:  maneuvering through a hormonal cocktail of adrenaline and testosterone that came from either my obnoxious determination or fear (both of which I often covered up with sex).  But it is now that I feel clear-minded and calm enough to examine my life’s choices and figure out my future ones.  

And according to numerous testimonies:  I’m right on time.  My 20s were supposed to be chaotic.  So, okay, I could’ve settled for a calmer childhood; but that is the very tragedy of children:  They don’t have a choice.  They survive whatever circumstances are granted to them, whatever chaos they inherit.  And I could hope that they come out as strong and compassionate adults at the end of it all.  But then, I’d rather spend that same hope on a continuous prayer that every child is granted a more peaceful, innocent childhood in the first place.  I myself no longer harbor any feelings of being gipped as a child.  Instead, I chalk it up to a lesson in my own better parenting, in the future.

One of the leading topics of the year — is money.  Or rather, whether or not money defines success, and how? I find that for most of my American contemporaries, this particular definition has been long established:  They are more at ease with cash; and many make it the ultimate goal of their living.  Which must be why there is no better plot to an American life than the one in which the pursuit of making a living — is often synonymous to making a life.  (And if there were any saving grace in the current recession we’re all still surviving, it has to be the necessary — generational! — reexamination of our values.)

Many of my friends with more traditional professions invest their lives in the purpose of their jobs.  For the sake of these jobs, they work insanely long hours, taking a few sick days here and there; and they rarely take vacations.  But even then, their typically American vacations don’t last long.  They are comprised of a quick, and sometimes stressful getaway to an exotic location — for just a week; while most European families I know won’t even consider packing their suitcases unless they have a near month to spare.

As for me, it has been ingrained in me by my own socialist childhood that money is merely the means, not the end.  But then again, I’ve witnessed my parents’ poverty; and let me tell you, my comrades:  There is no more brutal dehumanization or humiliation than that.  So, as far as experiencing poverty goes (for me or my folk) — I’m done with that one!  All set, thank you very much.  Good to know; but here, I’d like to think I’ve fulfilled my life’s quota, so I’ll just to join the money race now.  Where do I start?

My bohemian friends who manage their survival via freelance gigs and an occasional income from their artistic endeavors tend to define money as energy.  Many years ago, one of my first LA-LA comrades defined it this way:

“If you use your money to help people — not start wars — money becomes the force of goodness.”

However simplified, I had to write that one down; and thank Shiva I did!  Because back then, so painful was the lack of my own money, I could only be preoccupied with investing it in my basic needs.  But these days, as I invest endless hours in the pursuit of my self-made career, I’m also in a position to start defining the purpose of my money:  current and future.

A couple of days ago, a sensitive and inspiring young creature descended upon my evening, but nearly ended-up staying the night.  I have adopted her, you see, as my soul’s guardian.  It’s a two-way exchange:  I look out for her physical wellness, while she — continuously saves my soul.  (What can I say?  It is a habit of mine:  To walk through every chapter of my life while keeping an eye on a handful of young women.  “Feminism”, “a delayed maternal instinct”, “a comfortably bisexual orientation” — call it whatever the fuck you want:  I believe in helping those who, just as I, have been robbed of a peaceful childhood.)

While she vented, albeit gracefully, about a job at which she was underpaid but also humiliated on a weekly basis, I thought:  Bingo!  My definition of financial success must include helping my friends.  But then again:  My friends are my equals (which is why my friendships have always worked out better than my romances), so I wouldn’t go calling it “help”.  Rather:  I would consider myself ever-so-successful if I were soon in a position to hire my friends.  Of course, I am very careful about entering into any business ventures with acquaintances.  But what better way to pay it forward — for any possible success or prosperity of my own — than to eliminate unnecessary suffering from the lives of those I love, by granting them better opportunities?

And then, of course, there are those beloveds whom I have adopted as my family (which includes, by the way, my own old folks).  There aren’t very many of them, but they are my very truth — the very gist of my worth; and for them, I wish my prosperity were limitless.  I would dream of no better success than to be in a position to contribute to my goddaughter’s education, for instance, or her plans to travel the world.  It would thrill me with gratitude to contribute to my best friend’s first house downpayment or to purchase arrangements for my girlfriends’ getaways while they’re the midst of their undeserved heartbreaks. To buy a luxury vehicle for my old man — just so that nerd could take it apart and put it back together — it would break my heart with humility.  Because what better manifestation of a life well-lived than its limitless generosity?

Finally:  What is the definition of money for my own existence?  Easy-peasy, comrades:  MONEY — IS FREEDOM.  Freedom to pursue my own opportunities, to fulfill my own wonderings (and to pay for my wanderings), to chase my own dreams.  Freedom to have the privilege of time.  Because not every life may have the deficit of money — but the deficit of time does appear to be universal. 

So:  “Time — is money” it is, eh?  And considering I’ve already been quite successful at defining the ways I choose to spend my time, I’m right on time in defining the spending of my money.

Oops, I Did It Again! (and Other Psychological Disorders)

Crawled out of my skin last night, hung it on the door knob and, till this very gloomy morning, I haven’t put it back on yet.  Stark naked I write to you, my comrades — souls all over the world who share with me no private history but the common ground of humanity.  And every once in a while, completely unexpected (for my art needs no reason to exist), I hear your “Gotcha!” echo via an electronic transmission; and in that moment, you’ve gotta know:  you repair my very heart.  So:  Fuck yeah!  Fuck da!  Thank you for reading!

Still stripped and skinless, superimposed by the little girl I once was a few decades ago in a country that exists no longer, I am about to have a lil’ tete-a-tete on the topic of grief.  ‘Cause you see, you magnificent co-participants in the utter chaos of living — I’ve got me a shit load o’ that.  (“A shit load,” by the way, is V’s democratic solution between the metric system of her Motha‘ Russia — and the rest of the world — and that other one she still doesn’t know how to convert to.)

I haven’t lived long, my comrades, but certainly a lot; enough to accumulate some losses.  I’ve lived through deaths, heartbreaks, break-ups and a divorce.  I’ve commemorated violence — others’ and my own — by jotting it down on my skin.  I’ve been thrown around by historical turmoil and have survived poverty.  And although I still insist on calling upon humanity’s goodness, I have seen it at its very worst.

And that is exactly where grief comes from:  From its mama — the Loss. I wiki-ed it for you, my stubbornly good people; and according to wiki-wiki, it’s “a multi-faceted emotion.” A free-for-all, eh?  And emotional twofer.  A Round Table for your every feeling.  (A’right, V:  Settle down with those metaphors!)  Numbness, blame, sadness and anger — yep, I’ve done ‘em all, a shit load of each, to be precise.  But the part of grief that I still seem to be unable to reach — like the only dream I deem to be impossible — is acceptance.

I gotta tell you, I have managed my forgiveness of others, “for they know not what they do,” right?  (But that IS a funny one though:  forgivenessFor me, it rests somewhere between mercy and the resignation of justice. In other words, only when I’ve suffered enough and when I want to be justified or carry the weight of the mistakes no longer — I cry uncle and I forgive.  Sometimes, forgiveness results in dismissing the offender entirely:  leaving him to his own devices and never wanting to hear from him again.  Other times, my forgiveness is more peaceful:  It permits for a friendship after the shit storm settles; but boy, do I tread carefully there.)

But acceptance:  That one — is a bit of a moody bitch for V.  Just when I think I’ve tranquilized the ghosts of my past, some current player wakes them with his misbehavior; and off I go:  reliving the emotional free-for-all of griefs I thought have already exorcised and put to sleep.  (“Hush, hush, you little monsters!”)  And if I’ve learned anything from my relationship with my beloved shrink:  these above mentioned players — the hooligans that set me off — are here for a reason.  They are part of V’s pattern.  Kinda like that Britney song:  “Oops, I Did it Again!” — right?  So, until I figure my shit out — the hooligans will continue to pop-up out of my Pandora’s Box.  (Does that sound naughty, or is it just me?)

So, I am starting to gain some unsettling glimpses at the correlation between acceptance and self-forgiveness.

“DING-DING-DING-DING-DING!”

— I can forgive others:  Check!

— I can forgive my life for its sorrows:  Check!

— But can I forgive myself for my choosing all the wrong hooligans in the past chapters of my life?  Not so fast, you Russian gypsy!  Thus far, it’s been seemingly easier — messier, but easier — for the vagabond in me to pack-up and run away.  I am a woman with no country after all!  But alas, to stay and to deal with the hand I’ve been given (or rather, I’ve given myself) — that, my comrades, has been much harder.  Because at the end of it:  I must hold myself accountable. Isn’t much easier to blame others; to parade your scars and bad deals in order to earn the compassion of your witnesses?  Or to suspend your self-forgiveness via embarrassment?  Yep.  But in the end — I’m SO gonna go existentialist on my own ass here (no pun intended) — it’s between you and you.  Or rather, it’s between me and me.

Well, that’s enough psychology for one Saturday morning, nyet?  I’m gonna go put my skin back on and get to work, my adored boys ‘n’ girls.  But in the mean time, allow me to leave you with this little bit of wisdom by another foreign comrade-in-arms.  (Shit!  We, foreigners, do like to get heavy!):