Guest Post: Red Ticket, chapter 1

In which Robin Whetstone travels to Moscow to make things harder

Got something special for you. Every weekend, we’re going to be serializing Robin Whetstone’s memoir about living in Moscow in the early ‘90s. As we’ve seen from her earlier contributions to The Stanford Newsletter Experiment, she has a remarkable comic voice, but what makes her memoir unique how it retains that voice while describing the peril she finds herself in.

Chapter 1. When Everything Is Easy

I craned out of my dorm-room window, 23 stories above the frozen outskirts of the city. The snow whirled around my face, a kaleidoscope of icy crystal. Four blocks away, I could see the metro station, a squat building surrounded by piles of slush. A panel truck idled in the small plaza, its exhaust graying the air. A clutch of men in black coats stood in front of its open back door. Were they buying or selling something? Was it something to eat? 

That’s what I was looking for on this sub-zero January morning, my first in Moscow. I was hungry, but I didn’t want to use up one of the three small cans of tuna I’d brought in my carry-on bag. Maybe from this height I could spot a place to buy food.

The boulevard in front of my dorm building was wide and empty, the snow in the street unmarred by cars. Across the street was a row of abandoned shops. I could see remnants of signs over each shuttered door, and I spent some time filling in the gaps in the blocky Cyrillic letters, practicing my Russian. “цве ы,” that one said. Must have been flowers.

My side of the street was empty except for my dorm building, which stood next to an iced-over retaining pond. All around me it was gray and white. Quiet.

I leaned as far as I dared out the window, even though it was well below freezing. Everything smelled so strange and new. The air around me was tactile, furry with floating ice. I was from Florida. This January morning in Moscow was the first time I’d ever seen snow. I was staring at the frozen pond next door when four old people in heavy coats shuffled onto it and began hacking at the ice with shovels and picks. They were stiff, slow, but they kept at it, snow collecting on their backs. 

I recalled what my college courses had taught about the crushing poverty of post-Soviet Russia. Communism had collapsed two years earlier, and state farms and factories sat empty, their workers unpaid. Russians who had spent careers as engineers and professors now picked up cigarette butts on the street, collecting shreds of tobacco to re-roll and sell for a few rubles. Elderly people like the ones cutting a hole in the pond lived on monthly pensions that would buy not quite a kielbasa. Shortages of basic necessities meant that want and hunger were widespread. 

This is why those folks were out there, even though it was only eight in the morning, even though it was three degrees Fahrenheit under the gray Moscow sky. They were trying for food, hoping to coax a fish out from under the ice for their breakfasts. People of their generation had endured the Nazis and Stalin’s Siberian camps, not to mention 75 years of Communism. They knew how to survive. They knew something about struggle. I was elated. “This is exactly why you came here,” I thought. “To learn from the Russians about real life.”

In Florida, where I came from, people were happy about the fact that we were ruled by a cartoon mouse who lived in an extruded plastic castle downstate. They didn’t care that almost everybody around them was from somewhere else, or that people came not to live, but to escape real life until they died. True, the North Florida military town I grew up in had more in common with south Georgia than with Disney World. But even in my hometown people seemed to prefer the artificial over the authentic, the convenient over the meaningful.  

“When everything is easy, one quickly gets stupid.” Maxim Gorky said it, and when I read it, I knew it was true. I could see it in the late-night glow of the televisions in everybody’s bedroom window, in the long lines at the drive-through. America was a shining mall upon a hill, and it made me angry that everybody around me seemed okay with this. “Americans are too content,” I thought, “Too lazy, and too soft.”

 But not those old Russians out there by the pond. They had finished their hole in the ice and now stood around it with their hands on their hips, surveying their work. Then all at once, they began shrugging out of their heavy coats. They folded the coats onto the snow at the edge of the pond and went to work on their shirt buttons. The women stripped down to their bras and underwear; the men stood with boxer shorts flapping around their doughy thighs. One by one, they lowered themselves into the rectangle of slushy water. I watched, snowflakes clinging to my eyelashes, as they splashed in the freezing water, then heaved and rolled in the snow as they pulled themselves out of the pond. They stood around laughing and chatting and stomping their feet, not yet reaching for their clothes.

“There are naked old people frolicking outside,” I said. It seemed important to say it out loud, to get it on the record. I pulled my head back in the window, and the ice that had collected in my nostrils melted down my face. 

I’d been wrong about what those old people were up to, I thought, but not about Russia. If the nudists outside (who were now passing around a flask and laughing more boisterously) were any indication, Russia was going to be interesting. And this is what I really wanted, even more than authenticity. I wanted a life worthy of the kind of book you just could not put down.

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How we’re getting through this

Confessing.

Telephoning.

Lookin’ good online.

Filling out the census.

Lung exercises, apparently.

Listening to fewer podcasts.

Getting less social affirmation.

Considering the “Cootie Effect.”

Following A.K.’s 10 rules for creatives.

Learning the math behind social distancing.

Extending the life of groceries. Here’s even better advice.

Discovering how isolation brings up bad memories for ex-cons.

KBO.


What I’m reading

Protocol, a tech newsletter

Got some reading suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter. Have a book to promote? Let me know in the comments or email me. 


What I’m watching

Loved Too Funny to Fail on Hulu; I laughed.

Loved the Schitt’s Creek series finale; I cried.

I don’t know why I waited to watch a movie about losing a home until I was homebound. Ann Hornaday said it was great, and yet I resisted. Barack Obama put it on his list, and I resisted. But last night, I relented.

People, this movie connected at the speed of a dream. You are not defined by the walls but connected to each other. You can’t go home again. People aren’t one thing. And we all need courage to see beyond the stories we were born into.

People, see this movie.

Got suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter.


What I’m listening to

The original Hamilton cast signing “Alexander Hamilton” via Zoom to a little girl who had tickets to a show canceled due to the pandemic? Yes, please.

Got suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter.


RIP

Chynna

Mort Drucker

John Prine

Linda Tripp

Hall Willner

I would like to pay respect to those we lose along the way. If there is someone you would like to be remembered in future newsletters, please post links to their obituaries in the comments section or email me. Thank you.


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