I have the great fortune of being able to begin this week’s column in the same way as I began last week’s column, as once again I found myself cold and alone in the streets of Moscow, only this time it was in the middle of the night. My companion Oscar, who happened to have the only key to the apartment complex in which we were staying, had failed to meet me as planned, and so I found myself wandering the large section of city between the bar where we were supposed to meet, and our apartment complex.
The streets of Moscow at night are a little scary. At one point a scruffy man jumped out in front of me, shouting in Russian and gesturing threateningly. I kept my head down, made a wide radius around him and kept walking. Needless to say, he wasn’t exactly thrilled about this, but he must have been too drunk to do anything about it. As I continued on, his shouts faded into the distance. A little bit later, a shadowy figure up ahead on the opposite side of the street saw me and jogged over to meet me. There’d be no avoiding him. We exchanged pleasantries, and before long he was yelling and had grabbed hold of my arm, pulling my sleeves back to examine my bare wrists. He seemed disappointed and stomped off furiously. I’m still not sure exactly what happened there; either he was hoping for a Rolex or he was just really enthused about the prospect of finding out what time it was.
At any rate, I decided the safest thing to do would be to lie low somewhere and wait for the morning. I found an adequate park bench on Chystoprudny, a treed boulevard near the apartment complex, and settled in. Every once in a while footsteps would pass by in the darkness, and I’d listen intently as they gradually died away. I fashioned a thin newspaper blanket and huddled under it for warmth, but I couldn’t fall asleep. Two more sets of footsteps approached, their owners talking loudly. They passed by, and I listened for them to die out, but about ten steps past me the footsteps stopped. The loud talking turned to an exchange of quiet whispers, and then the footsteps began again, softly and in my direction. Bad news.
I knew I had only a second to act; I could get up and run for my life or stay and try to negotiate my way through it … in Russian. Before I could decide though, a hand shook me. Negotiation it was. I sat up and looked at them; they were two kids about my age. “Щазийс яюфыг?” one of them asked. I shifted, reaching into my back pocket, and both of them tensed. I tensed in response, looked at both of them, and then proceeded to pull out my Russian phrasebook. All three of us gave a sigh of relief. After much handing back and forth of the phrasebook and some impromptu theatrics, we finally established that they were selling marijuana.
“Nyet,” I replied, and they seemed to understand. I was relieved, and looking forward to trying to sleep again, but then one of them took the phrasebook and leafed through it. Handing it back in frustration, he paused thoughtfully, and then mimed the action of putting a syringe into his arm, followed by a questioning shrug. Oh, well thank you. I didn’t want weed, but some heroin would really hit the spot right now.
“Nyet,” I replied again, but this time they weren’t as understanding. “Юущьоп допская!” they shouted angrily, among other things. I managed to calm them some, and after another twenty or so minutes with the phrasebook, I told them I’d love to buy their drugs, but my wallet was in the apartment and so I couldn’t buy any until later on. They seemed satisfied and gave me their phone number before leaving on good terms. I was just thankful they didn’t think to check my pockets.
I managed to doze off for a bit, and when I woke up it was beginning to get light out. I looked around; the park was a mess. Garbage, newspapers, and bottles were strewn about, literally everywhere. There were still some small clusters of people drinking in a few places. In the morning light, I began to see the city’s alcoholism for what it really was: not a nonstop, lifelong party, but rather a societal disease, reminiscent of a turbulent past and impeding progress towards a better future.
This revelation was driven home when I got up to explore the park. A few benches down from mine, a man had passed out awkwardly on his side, his arms spread out wildly and his legs twisted down as though he was sitting upright. ‘Man, he’ll feel that in the morning,’ I thought to myself. As I drew closer, a fierce stench hit my nostrils. Dried vomit ran from within the man’s mouth, down the bench and into a puddle on the ground. His skin was pale purple and bloated. His eyes were half open slits, waxy and still. No, he wouldn’t be feeling anything in the morning after all. He was dead.