Friday, January 13, 2012
Vending Machines, Driving with mirrors, and stray cats.
Living in Nagasaki in a residential neighborhood we became acquainted with our surroundings. Twenty-four hour vending machines literally everywhere sold everything. Rice, eggs, beer, dinners, breakfasts and even sodas. The ancient foot paths of pre cart Japan – for some reason there was a law restricting the use of wheel drawn transportation so everything had to be packed on the backs of peasants and carried – the introduction of cars in the 20th Century brought a serious challenge as the cities now so densely populated. The lanes through residential areas are for the most part one way and so narrow that the use of mirrors at driveway junctions were everywhere to see around blind corners of house, building, shack and hedges. You got used to the 'moon' chromed looking circles hung conspicuously as you did driving on the left side of the road or you died. Just kidding. Even the cars of Japan have a unique feature for the tight fitting ways - retractable side mirrors to give you that extra three inches on either side for those really narrow lanes. Another thing we came to notice was how many stray cats there were and how healthy they all seemed to be and one other noticeable fact. They were vicious.
Natalia who grow up with cats and liked them discovered how vicious they can be. Living on the sloops of Nishiyama valley in Nagasaki there is quite a labyrinth of drainage canals and ditches concreted in with various sized storm drains. This whole system seemed to have become the home and network system for all the stray cats that lived on rodents and for more clever ones fresh five claw discount fish. Case in point. Sitting one day at a stop light we saw a prowling cat moving stealthily along the street having emerged from a alley seeming to know exactly where he was going and what he was going to do and sure enough before the light had changed for us he was high tailing it very fast from whence he came, 10” fish snatched from the table of a vendors 'fresh fish' display and now clenched securing into his or her jaws as proud as anyone has ever been. Sashimi! Free Sashimi at that!
We had a genuine hardy laugh, the light changed and off we drove.
One evening and then two and then three we were woken on each occasion by a stray kitten in the canal just below and along side our house. After the third night Natalia took it upon her self to discover the source of this discourse and explored the canal to find the cute little monster without apparent means of getting out of the canal. Being the ‘cat lover’ now with asterisk attached – (except Japanese stray cats), she managed to catch the cat. Big mistake! This little cute looking kitten was kung fu master with – yes we all know that cats have claws.
Seeing her all disarrayed and heading to the bathroom to clean her scratches and teeth marks I asked her, what does the kitten look like? “Fine!!!”
Monday, January 9, 2012
If you think education is expensive consider the expense of the alternative.
Preface: The name 'Leninville' is a play on 'Leningrad' for which St Petersburg is presently called in Russia. St Petersburg was named after 'Tsar Peter the Great' in 1703. When the Communist over through the Russian Monarchy in 1905 they changed the name to "the city of three revolutions" and then upon the death of Vladimir Lenin the city was renamed "Leningrad". The city is now renamed to its original St. Petersburg.
One of the principle definitive characteristics of Communism is everybody works. Everyone has a function. But there was little to any latitude as to work. You were given a job and that was it.
Dimitri and a boiler man assistant, Sasha. This was their work in 'Leninville'.
The dim light of a very grey cold overcast winter morning is filtered through the small single dirty window. A couple of hand print marks after summer flies. A build up of grim and dust is the base and corners. The natural light is meager illumination. What little light entering the dark room falls on a wooden desk and chair, just under the window. These are the only visible forms in the otherwise dark. There are indiscernible shapes further in that require some concentration in order to make any sense of them.. Suspended dust particles float in the light weightlessly above the rough wooden desktop. There is absolute silence. Even the dust and lint particles seem to be at rest.
A door next to the window opens suddenly. A man wearing a dark thick coat of raw wool and a well-worn cap pulled snugly down to his eyebrows steps inside with a flurry of snow. He's enveloped as he stands there in a rushing mist of cold air sweeping past him from outside which easily intimidates the lazy specks of lint causing them to scatter and swirl. Silhouetted by the outside light behind him, the man stands motionlessly in the doorway looking to get his bearings. For his eyes to adjust. He inhales deeply. Each exhale sending forth a plume of warm, steamy air. With the flow of cold air billowing in from the outside, the man searches the room with his eyes trying to see in the low light. Without turning around, the man reaches behind him and finds the door handle and slams the door closed behind him. He tugs on it several times to confirm it will remain shut.
Holding up his hands in front of him he yanks on each of the fingers on his winter gloves standing there as he removes each. Similarly he removes his wool cap, and tucks them all together inside a pocket of his coat. He cups his now exposed bare hands over his mouth and blows on them while his eyes continue to adjust. Now discerning familiar objects, he steps toward a small pile of coal stacked high in the corner of the boiler room. He pushes aside a few lumps which roll to the floor, to reveal a brown paper sack underneath which he tugs free from the rest of the pile. He moves across the room and sets the paper bag on top of the desk.
Turning back to the interior of the room once again, he walks the few steps across the small area, crushing cinders of coal under his feet as he goes, and grabs the handle to a furnace door. He twists it upward and pulls. It scratches out a metal-on-metal squeal. Bending at the waist he peers inside the boiler's firebox. With a metal poker leaning against the corner of the furnace he takes it and stabs at the glowing yellow heat. Redish-blue and yellow flames pop out amidst an array of white hot sparks. He moves to the coal pile and shovels random-sized chunks of it into a galvanized bucket and throws its contents through the furnace door. He jabs inside the firebox again with the poker until satisfied with his work. It is only then that he closes the furnace door shut and slides the handle firmly into its closed position.
He stands for a moment in the resumed quiet feeling the heat on his face and outstretched hands of which he turns slowly and then rubs them.
Suddenly from above this quietness an interruption of loud banging. There is pounding which is muffled, but the accompanied message is quite clear. “Heat, where is the heat?”.
There is more pounding. “Where is the heat?”.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” The man yells back, looking up at the barely discernible dark flat ceiling. His own loud voice offensive even to himself.
He now steps to the desk and sits heavily in the chair. He opens a drawer and withdraws a tablet and pencil, setting them next to the brown paper bag. He opens and removes a half empty bottle of spirits and a fist-sized piece of sausage. He puts the bottle down and places the sausage on top of the paper bag.
Scooting his chair closer to the desk he rubs his hands together with culinary expectation.
Grabbing the clear bottle with no label in one hand he unscrews the cap with his other, all in a single motion and lifts the bottle to his mouth. He lifts it to his mouth and tilts it back, fully taking in the clear liquid. After several quaffs, he sets the bottle down and glances down at the sausage. He lifts it, slowly... almost reverently, before tearing a large chunk from it with his teeth and chews it slowly. It would be difficult for a bystander to decide which of these two the man favored best.
On the desk rests the notebook. Flipping the worn pages open he leans over it to read in the dim light streaming in through the window. He reads for awhile and then lifts his head and ponders momentarily. He reads some more and thinks again. He picks up a pencil just as the door opens fully and another man steps inside.
At the desk, the man raises his head and says, “Sasha. How does it go?”
The man standing in the doorway looks down to his side, “Like that bottle on the desk. Let me make sure.” He pushes the door closed behind him to the sound of a rousing 'thunk'.
Dimitri hands Sasha the bottle. In a gesture reminiscent of a few minutes earlier, Sasha grabbing it, removes the cap, and drains it nearly to the bottom. He holds the almost empty bottle up in front of him towards the window. Staring at the bottle he declares, “Well, maybe better than this bottle. Let’s go find our new selves.”
“Wait. I want to read something to you”, Dimitri pleads.
“Please... maybe later. I am cold and I have a big thirst to match it. Do you have money?”
“So, what?”, Sasha shrugging his shoulders.
Replying with the same jesture, “So, we improvise, my friend. As always.”
Dimitri opens the desk drawer and carefully places his notebook and pencil inside. He pulls his gloves and cap from his pocket, putting them back on. He grabs the sausage and places it back inside the bag and shoves it into his pocket. Sasha waits patiently at the door. Dimitri nods at Sasha knowing full well he has been staring at him.
Dimitri steps towards the door and stops mid-stride. “Wait. I must fill the furnace.”
Dimitri fills the furnace with two scuttles of coal and closes its iron door.
“Okay! We go look for our new lives.”
Outside, the snow is falling. The two men turn their collars up and Dimitri leads the way toward the town's square. As Sasha follows, he withdraws the bottle from his coat pocket and opens it up. He takes a few sips before tapping Dimitri on the shoulder who turns and takes it. Dimitri looks at it as he walks, then drains it completely. He tosses it toward a fence where the snow has drifted high against. The music of propaganda from the Center grows loader as they make their way, crunch crunch crunch, toward it’s source. At the square, a larger than life size statue of Stalin is being painted by a man who they do not know. They stop and address the man, “What does this grand uplift mean? Have the Americans finally come to their senses and become real comrades of ours? The two men laugh but the painter fails to see their humor.
The man on the ladder doesn't miss a stroke as he rushes about. “The district bosses are arriving soon. The school wishes to be in their good graces, but I am getting the rubles, so if any of them sail to America we will maybe find out.”
“Yes, I am sure you are correct. We will most assuredly find out about that.”
Dimitri and Sasha continue through the open square, the megaphones now echoing against each other from their prominent roosts.
Down one street and behind another, Dimitri leads the way. He stops outside a high fence and turns to Sasha. “Wait here.”
Dimitri opens a gate and walks inside. In less than a minute or two at the most, the gate opens and he is carrying a fine wool coat under his arm. “Let’s go!” They move quickly toward the square as 'The Music of Progress' grows louder. Dimitri returns through the square, back to the painter they encountered earlier, and call out. “Look! You seem to be in need of a new, better quality coat and this is a great one. Try it on.”
The painter stops painting and looks down at the two men. Seeing that it is a good looking coat he says, “Please, one minute, Comrades. Wait! I am almost finished.”
“Sasha, do we have a moment for this comrade performing such a service?”
Sasha, who notices the man was in fact almost finished, says, “Yes! Of course.”
A car is approaching from the distance, kicking up a dust of snow. It is black. At it approaches the square it draws the attention of the three men. The painter throws a few hasty strokes over the head of Stalin and quickly descends the ladder. Dimitri grabs the ladder and while the painter runs with the bucket, Sasha and Dimitri carry the ladder in tow.
“Wait a moment more. I will get my money.” The painter runs to the back of the school head office and disappears inside. He returns and greets Dimitri and Sasha. Dimitri hands him the coat and the painter holds it up and inspects it. He then hands it to Sasha and removes his worn coat which he hands to Dimitri. Taking the coat back from Sasha, he puts it on and lifts his arms to full outstretched position. He rearranges his arms in various configurations and it appears to fit him perfectly. He hand brushes the coat and pulls it tightly around him. He buttons-up the coat, and once again stretches out his arms.
“I will give you one hundred rubles for it.”
“Two hundred and fifty. Nothing less.”
He starts to take it off and Dimitri says, “ Okay, one hundred and fifty.”
The painter looks at him and says, “I only received one hundred and twenty.. I must eat something.”
“Okay, for you... one hundred it is.”
The painter reaches into his pocket and pulls out the envelope containing the money he'd just been paid by the school. He hands-over five twenty ruble bills to Dimitri.
Dimitri hands the painter the wool coat. The painter nods and picks up his ladder walking off.
Sasha and Dimitri watch him go back to the square. As he turns the corner, Sasha says, “Well! To the shop.”
They walk along this same road for two blocks and into a shop where alcohol and tobacco are sold. They purchase two bottles of spirit and return outside where Dimitri opens one and presents it to Sasha.
“Salute Comrade. Too our improvised selfs”. Dimitri takes a stiff swig from the bottle and hands it to Sasha who does the same. Sasha holds the bottle and looks across the street into the square seeing a black Lada with five men standing in front of it outside the Building of Culture. On the steps of the building, a group of uniformed children stand facing the men. Even over the sound of the blaring speakers in the square, you can make out some of the famous words of gratitude to our mother earth and asking for her kindness and forgiveness.
Sasha points towards the children and presents to Dimitri, “To our mother!” He then pours a toast out onto the ground and takes one himself before handing it to Dimitri who also takes a large swallow. “To our mother.”
They walk toward the square where they sit on a bench and watch the children sing to the committee bosses, standing at attention as they are, before the Party bosses, who wait patiently so they can go inside.
Sasha and Dimitri see the painter as he emerges from a store and gets into a truck and looks back at them. He waves.
The two men raise their hands, Dimitri with the open bottle high in the air just as the painter reaches for something from inside the truck. It is a brand new bottle he holds in his own hand. The truck starts, the painter takes a swallow and drives away.
News is now blaring from the speakers in the square and the children have finished singing. The political bosses walk into The Building of Culture, the door being held open by the teacher. The children stand tall by her side. When the men are inside, the teacher calls out to the children who follow her around the corner.
Dimitri and Sasha pass the bottle back and forth between them. It is 9:12 AM and the snow continues to fall gently under the grey sky.
Dimitri jerks awake and laying on his side. He looks under a bench to see two sets of legs maybe five feet away. Each pair crossed. A mans pair in wool pants. A female pair in fancy stockings. He turns his gaze blinking upward to see the couples backs above the bench. The man has his arm around the women who is tucked under his arm. They are talking to each other in soft voices. Immediately in front of him and beyond the two sets of legs is ice and snow. The news is being broadcasted loudly as the couple talk. He lays there with his eyes open and starts taking inventory of his condition. He feels stiff. As he stretches he can hear the couple talking. They are talking about their new flat that they will get when they marry. Suddenly the news is over and a waltz is playing. The couple jumps up and holding each others hand run to the center of the square and start dancing in big circles and laughing. A yellow flower that must have been on the bench with them is now lying on the snow where their legs were. Dimitri gets up slowly on his elbow first from behind the bench having bedded in some sort of snow covered evergreen and uses the bench to help himself up. On his knees he leans over to pick up the yellow flower and gives himself a good thump on the head from the back of the bench. Recoiling a bit with expletives addressed to himself he approaches the flower from a lower angle and is successful. Holding the flower in his right hand as a reward, he grabs hold of the bench back and has completed two out of three maneuvers successfully. If he keeps this up he will be an American baseball batting champion. What will he think of next? He’s up!
Steadying himself he stands erect. He takes a deep breath. ‘Do these count for anything?’ He now takes the flower and sets it in his breast pocket, stem first. “Imagine that!”, he says to himself. And all this to a waltz. He brushes himself off with random sweeps of his hands. He looks around for Sasha who is not to be seen. He inspects the evergreen home he … he what? Nevermind, No Sasha. He stumbles a pace or two on the snow and ice and makes his way back to the boiler room opening the door stepping in. Everything is very deliberate. He closes the door behind him and walks to the wall next to the pile of coal and feels for the door to the interior room and opens it. Light from this room fills the furnace room. Before entering the lighted room, Dimitri steps to the furnace door and opening it. He looks in and walks to the pile of coal and fills the bucket three times throwing the coal in. Each toss successful. He closes the furnace and now walks into the lighted room which is very bright. He turns and closes the door behind him. It is a clean room and there is a bench with open cabinets. He removes his coat and hangs it on a wooden hanger next to one of the cabinets and in turn removes his gloves, hat and scarf which he set into the cabinet. He now removes his cloths and grabs a nicely folded towel and walks into the shower room, turns on the shower until he is satisfied with the temperature. Stepping in and under it letting the hot water rush over him, washing over him and as he moves in a slow circle feeling all of the warmth. He takes a deep breath and lets the hot water run straight over his head and onto his face relaxing, letting all the tension wash away. Stepping forward he takes the shampoo and washes his hair. He rinses it and with the soap and cloth washes. He is feeling much better. Rinsing he turns the water off and dries. He walks over to another door and into a still nicer lit room with good quality chairs and a couch on carpeted flooring. There is another cabinet here. He puts on his suit and coat, checking that his gloves are there, hat, scarf. An attendant addresses him from the bar at the end of the room, “Dimitri, how are you?”
Turning to the attendant, “We come from some stock of people that should know, I guess”, shrugging his shoulders, “I am here.”
The attendant laughs and holds out Dimitri’s keys. He walks over and takes them and returns to his cabinet, opening a drawer with the keys. Removing his personal items he closes it and tosses the keys to the attendant. Dimitri now walks through yet another door and into a garage where his brand new Cadillac Seville is. Suddenly he stops. He then turns around and returns through the three rooms back to where his work cloths are and finds the yellow flower which he looks at and puts now in his suit breast pocket under his coat. Stem first. Amazing. Now returning to the garage he gets in and starts it and pushes the garage door opener and also pushing the stereo button. He is surrounded by soft classical music.
The garage door now open he drives out and pushes the remote for the garage door to close. Driving along the road crushing the snow and ice under his heavy vehicle tires he comes to the high way of which he looks carefully in both directions before pulling out and onto increasing his speed slowly but surely. He drives along for about fifteen minutes and then slows to pull into a supermarket. He gets out and walks in. He purchases some orange juice, milk and chocolate. Back in his car he continues home.
Walking into his home Natasha turns to him and greets him saying, “The Pravda reporter called just now and will be here shortly.”
“Thank you. I had forgotten.”
“Dinner will be in the microwave when you want it. I am taking Petra to the movies. We are meeting Alexa and Luba there.”
“Good. Have a nice evening. I will be home later.”
Natasha puts a towel on a hook, removes a dinner plate from the oven and puts it in the microwave. Dimitri now has his coat off and suddenly remembering the flower which he takes and sets on the counter. He sets the bag of grocery items on the counter. Opening the refrig he puts the milk and orange juice in. He sets the chocolate next to the flower. He reaches for a cup and fills it with water and places the flower in it. He goes into his study. Natasha is standing there looking at the flower and the chocolate. He can see Natasha in the kitchen. She takes it and seeing that it has a broken stem throws it in the trash as Dimitri sits in his chair watching her. She picks up the chocolate and takes it with her leaving. She goes out of the kitchen and is calling Petra. Dimitri gets up and walks back into the kitchen and takes the flower from the trash and rinses it. Cuts the broken part of the stem and sets it back in the cup.
The door rings and he goes to answer it. It is the Pravda reporter. He invites him in and they go to his study. The reporter sitting says: “Why do you do this?”
“Yes, of course, Leninville”
“It is important. To remember. What is the old adage? The ignorant are doomed to repeat their mistakes."