Wanting to Be in Archangel (Arkhangelsk (Russian: Арха́нгельск))
I was up early this morning and got a treat when I flicked on the teevee and up came an hour's worth of one of my fav teevee shows, "The American in Russia," with this dude Mark Ames. This morning was a repeat of Ames in Arkhangelsk. I'd seen it months ago. The second show was Ames at Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe: Mount Elbrus (Russian: Эльбрус) is an inactive volcano located in the western Caucasus mountain range, in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia, Russia, near the border of Georgia. (from Wikipedia).
I have no idea why I'm so attracted to Russia. It makes no sense. Like Arkhangelsk. Arkhangelsk is a seaport on the startling White Sea (a gateway to the Arctic Ocean) that is white due to the ice and snow that covers it most of the year. Arkhangelsk was founded as a seaport by Ivan the Terrible who then allowed European traders access to it to the point it became a huge success as an international trading port.
Using nuclear-powered icebreakers, channels are broken through the solid frozen White Sea out to the warmer waters of the Bering Sea. Arkhangelsk has to survive through over 200 days of what I would call brutal winters with temps dipping down to 40 below zero; though in July it does get up to near 32 degrees Farenheit. At the time Ames filmed his show there it was 40 below zero. It attracted me. Yet, I don't think I could survive in such cold. But these Russians seem to love the cold--they thrive in it.
For some reason I like the looks of a solid white existence--snow covers even the city. The docks show huge cranes down a line of piers; huge cargo ships parked along the seafront.
And the Mount Elbrus area, near the Georgian border 1200 miles south of Moscow, WOW, what ice and snow beauty. The Caucasuses, the mountains and the people, the Balkarians.
All Russians look like tough motherfuckers. They all look wind aged. Their skin, even the women's, looks like the skin of a potato. Though they all look very healthy. As though being frozen most of their hours on earth has given them a slow life, an easy tough life--with plenty of time to reflect; of time to be alone in a wilderness world. Though, of course, even the isolated Arkhangelsk area attracts tons of Russian tourists who come to Arkhangelsk to be flown out to otherwise inaccessible islands in the White Sea, one which contains a sacred monastery that once forbade women from coming to their island to pray so the women congregated on this other island where they prayed and to this day that island is called "Women's Island" in Russian.
And Mount Elbrus is a fantastic mountain--unclimbable, the Russians say, though climbers have made it to the top, though it's a tough climb--it's mostly ice from its timberline on up the other 9,000 feet--the mountain has two peaks, both over 18,500-feet high--higher than anything in the Alps.
And I was freaked out by there not being heating in some of the restaurants and even some of the hotel rooms. Like being served a stack of hot blini served with a berry jam and a steaming hot cup of tea--and you're still wearing your parka and wool cap and the waitress serving you the steaming food is showing her breath in the ice-cold dining room's frigid air. That amazes me. Could I survive living in Arkhangelsk? Damn, I'd like to try it. Those wooden buildings--Arkhangelsk has a museum of Russian wooden architecture. Fascinating buildings, some very large, made of hard pines and maples, all dovetailed together; they used no nails on these buildings. All topped with onion domes that were made out of aspen wood to give these roofs the appearance of being made of silver. The only source of heat these wooden structures had were their ovens in their kitchens, which were simply one end of the big huge living area--ovens with no smokestacks; ovens whose smoke came out into the room to eventually exit via slots in the top of the walls leading outside. The rooms were smoky most of the time--yet, that smoke was a source of warmth, too.
The animal in me is yearning for the cold north. Siberia! Murmansk! Arkhangelsk! Russia...of all the places.
Here in New York City our Russian residents are hard to bear sometimes. A lot of Russian immigrants or naturalized citizens drive limousines. Riding with one can be trying, especially if you get to conversing with them. They will suddenly start telling you all about their lives. "I was civil engineer in Soviet Union. It was awful! Let me tell you, you don't know what it is like to live in Soviet Union. But I come here with my wife. My wife was doctor in Soviet Union. And I come here with my wife and we work hard, learn English, and we succeed, and we have two strong sons born here, they are good Americans. And my wife and I work hard, we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, now I own my own limousine service and my wife is head nurse at Coney Island Hospital." "Alright, my friend," I say, "now let me tell you about me...." "Yes, you, of course, but first, let me tell you about my son Yerke. He's genius. He's smart boy. He's now senior at Columbia...." Blah, blah, blah and more blah.
And Russian chicks here in New York City, YIKES! Some of them are knock-down dirty good looking, with the right blonde hair, the right heights, the right bosoms, the right rear ends, the right legs, the right Whiteness--they're a bit of all right UNTIL you date one of them. Holy Nights in the Kremlin, they are first of all expensive. "I von't ride in subway. I only ride in big car." "OK, Natasha, how 'bout we get a cab?" "No! Absolutely not. I want big car--there like that stretch limo." And drink. Wow. They can drink. And then this guy I know who runs a "Marry a Russian Babe" site on the Internet tells me, "Yeah, Wolfie, they're all whores, too. They'll fuck you first date but it'll cost you something, like maybe a diamond necklace they know about down on 48th Street." A lot of Russian women work in the Diamond District here in NYC.
But here in New York City, out around Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach, we have a real Russian community. I've adventured out there only once. I was never really interested in the Russians except in terms of their literature and music and I was never certainly interested in the Russian way of life. There are so many "other worlds" here in New York City to be interested in: like besides that Russian world, there is an Albanian world; a fading Greek world; a fading Italian world; some parts of New York City becoming like Mexico City; in all the boroughs are the worlds of Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, Cubans; and Queens is like a patchwork of worlds, worlds of Colombians, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Panamanians, Southeast Asians, Chinese, Koreans, and Indians (both East Indians and Native Americans), and in Manhattan and Brooklyn are worlds of various African cultures: Nigerians, Senegalese, South Africans, Ghanians, et al.--HOLY MOSES, New York City is just a mixture of worlds that gel to form the world's greatest city--I THINK THAT--and believe me, if I got a chance to go live in Arkhangelsk, after the adventure wore off, I'd be homesick for New York City.
I've had a couple of chances to go to Russia. First when it was the Soviet Union. With the one I call "my real wife," (based on years together), #2, the Tex-Mex, Choctaw, Welsh one. Through my wife's multimillionaire boss, we got a chance to go to the Soviet Union starting first in Petrograd, then working our way over to Moscow. It was a tour the intentions of which were to get us to learn some Russian while also learning all about the Soviet culture and shit. A sociological tour of the CCCP paid for, ironically, by a huge Capitalist pig who was always looking for "an in road," as he called it, into a new market for his product, which was oil--mainly jet fuel.
This was at a time in our lives when our marriage was fizzling. We no longer slept together. I had already started cheating on her with my secretary at work. And she was obviously getting tired of me, though we were still strangely compatible and we didn't really fight, verbally, yes, though never loudly verbally. Why, even occasionally she'd let me sleep with her--especially after I'd impressed her--like by contributing some money to our rent and utilities. We lived on East 56th and Sutton Place in a one bedroom apartment costing us $450 a month (equivalent to $2,000-a-month in today's market)--though my wife made big bucks enough to cover it, it pissed her off when I didn't make as much money as she did and couldn't pay my share of that big load (I worked as a freelance editor--sometimes I made great money, but then there were dry spells--weeks where I made zilch). This division eventually led to our divorce (a divorce which may not have been a legitimate divorce (it was a Haitian divorce0--or at least that's what this woman worried about for the rest of her life--God help her if we were still married, after all that money she'd paid to get me out of her life and then there I would be still in her life when her will was read and I was declared due half her estate).
The day we were to leave for our Soviet Union adventure, we got to the freakin' Kennedy Airport and I couldn't find my passport. "I know I brought it, dammit." I poured one of my suitcases out all over the floor in front of the check-in point (we weren't afraid of terrorists on flights in those days, no Homeland Security bunglers or Patriot Act marshals to do a cavity search on you, though there were plenty of airplane hijackings in those days--usually revolutionary types wanting to go to Cuba). I looked everywhere for my friggin' passport but I couldn't find it. My wife was angry but quiet as I bumbled my way through my luggage. I kind of expected what she pulled next: "Well, I'm getting on the plane with or without you," and she plunged into her purse to bring out her passport and son of a bitch, out came hers, and with it, out came mine, too. She'd had my passport all along.
I loped along behind her to the plane. I had thought she had reserved a window seat for us but when the hostess took us to our seats, I was on the aisle and my wife was on the aisle seat across the aisle from me. I set up to bitching, a normal behavior for me when I think I'm getting screwed. "We reserved a window seat and the seat next to it." "I'm sorry, sir, but you did not reserve a window seat...." "Sorry, my ass, I'm the god-damn important person here, and I demand the god-damn window seat." My wife had not reserved a window seat; the hostess was right.
My wife eventually calmed me down when she got the person sitting next to her to change with me, though I was still pissed because that seat change put me next to this smelly European fat chick who was listening to some kind of rock on her earphones. I was sickenly pissed now, pouting, being belligerent, at one time telling the fat lady to fucking hold her fat slabs of fat meat in so I could sit in a little more comfort. She ignored me and kept reading her magazine and listening to rock.
We were headed for Paris, Orly, where we were to get an Aeroflot flight to Petrograd.
It was a miserable flight. Over 7 fucking hours. The fat lady smelled to high heaven by the time we landed at Orly.
My wife and I rushed over to the Aeroflot desk only to be told in sweetly broken English our flight was being delayed until tomorrow morning due to a bad storm hitting Petrograd and its airport being temporarily closed in--the storm to break late tonight--take off time 9 am tomorrow.
It was late when we taxied into Paris. The Lights of Paris were on already. My wife had called and booked us into our favorite hotel on the Place du Colbert, the Hotel du Colbert--a hotel whose furniture is all guaranteed from the time of Napoleon, and I was looking forward to being in our favorite room, Room 402. It's huge window opened onto a tight little dangling balcony from which you looked out over the Seine at Notre Dame, right there in your face, and City Island. We got to the hotel and Room 402 wasn't available, they were so very sorry, but we could have Room 200 instead. I hit the fucking ceiling. "Do you know who I am?" Of course they didn't know me from fucking Adam, but I loved going into my important person act. The worst thing I said was, "I hate you fucking Parisian bastards," and they spoke English, of course, and understood me and then they suddenly wouldn't speak anything but French, sarcastic French, too, I figured, and my wife didn't speak French either but she managed to quite the hotel clerk down enough he had a garcon take us to the room, me still steaming mad and hating Parisians with voluminous insults.
Once in the room, my wife sat me down and we had a serious discussion. "We're going back to New York in the morning. I'm not going to Russia with you like this." "It's just these Parisian bastards, Toots, trust me." "No, I don't trust you. I know you too well. I remember you in Mexico City how you treated those...." "They were little thieves, those cab drivers." "And you were cussing them out over a 3-cent overcharge--3-cents in American money, Wolfie, three cents! And we walked our asses off just because you arrogantly wouldn't pay an extra 3-fucking-cents to a poor bastard Mexican cab driver trying to make a little extra off a pompous norteamericano turista."
The next morning we didn't speak at all. I had slept in the same bed with her but when I tried to catch a little feel, she rejected me fiercely and froze me out the rest of the night. It was after 9 when we got up, so we had missed our Soviet Union flight. When we got back to Orly, I went to the Aeroflot desk but she went to the Pan-American (remember them?) desk. At the Aeroflot desk I was told that the plane was still delayed and wouldn't now leave until the afternoon, around 2.
I ran back to the Pan-Am desk. My wife was waiting for me with her hands on her hips. "Toots, we can still make the Aeroflot flight. It's delayed until 2, so you want to get some breakfast...." "No, we're going back to New York...in one hour we'll board. You can go get breakfast. I'm staying here with our luggage."
I was full of sarcasm but I kept my mouth shut. If she left me in Paris, I had no money, just an American Express card on which I already owed thousands of dollars, and a ticket to Petrograd...but I didn't even have my ticket to Petrograd either; she had those. So what was I to do? I did what I had to do. I got on that Pan-Am flight and that night back in New York City we went to dinner at our favorite Greek restaurant, had a great time, she was in wonderful spirits, but when we got back to the apartment and I tried to get a little lovin' from her, she slammed the bedroom door on my ass and I slept in my normal place, on my couch in the living room (yep, we had our own couches--hers a French provincial thing and mine a lemon-yellow moderne thing I loved and she hated). The next morning she wouldn't talk to me. "We'd be in Russia by now," I said sarcastically while sipping a cup of coffee in our dining room whose big casement window overlooked the East River and the 59th-Street Bridge.
One night later, my wife had gone to California on business, my best friend came over and we drank all night and the next dawn we wobbled our ways up onto the upper-level walkway of the 59th Street Bridge (I don't think that walkway's open any more). And while the sun came up slowly over the Pepsi Cola sign in Long Island City on the opposite shore of the river, we looked off down the river toward the Brooklyn Bridge--my friend was born under the Brooklyn Bridge in the Cherry Street Projects--he said, "You know, I understand why people jump from these bridges." "I couldn't do it," I said. "I'd rather take the shit of life than snuff myself out by leaping into that Hellish cesspool down there." "Remember old Percy Mayfield singin' 'the River's Invitation'?" "Hell yes, what a song, man, and I know what you mean. The river's calling us home--there's salvation in that river--I know, but I can take life, man, it don't bother me enough to end it all down there." "Yeah, me, too. Besides, jumpin' off bridges is a coward's way out." "I had a relative who took a leap off the highest building in my hometown." "What good did it do him?" "Well, he's remembered for that...or at least he was when I was a kid. Nobody there now probably knows who the hell he is or cares...." "Yeah, that's the trouble with time. It erases 'all things lovely'...." "E.E. Cummings, right?" "Or T.S. Eliot." "Those guys didn't commit suicide." "They were obstinate bastards." "That's what I want to be from now on, an obstinate bastard." "You gonna stay with your wife?" "What choice do I have? She's got the money." "You still bangin' your secretary?" "Yeah, and she's a great girl, man, she's real. I mean, after we've fucked, she's like a child in my arms, thanking me for giving her orgasms! Can you imagine?" "No. Women orgasming, what's that?"
So I stayed with this woman and tried to make the marriage work. Our spoiled trip was in January. By the end of February she told me one Sunday morning--she was on my couch reading the Sunday Times and I was listening to Bach under my headphones (in stereo)--that she wanted to divorce me. I simply said, "OK," put my headphones back on and returned to listening to Bach. Fifteen days later I was in Haiti staying in a Villa owned by a good friend of mine's good friend, and one day I woke up in bed with the Haitian salad woman at the Villa restaurant and I was divorced and the room was in a mess and there were two empty champagne bottles on the floor by the bed and I was naked and sweating and she was naked and truly beautiful asleep and then she jumped awake and screamed and said something in French, screamed again, and then bolted out the door still half naked. Then next night at dinner she had a black eye. She'd forgotten to tell me she was married to a very jealous man who worked in the fields with a machete all day. In spite of that threat to both me and her, she managed to be with me for a couple of hours again that night, though she did manage to get home on time.
I've often thought that if I hadn't of fucked up and had of gone on to the Soviet Union on that wonderful chance of a trip, Wife #2 and I might still be man and wife.
How many people can say they wrecked their marriage in Paris?
My second chance at a trip to Russia (in the 90s after it was Russia again) was due to my being a customer and friend to a Chicago ancient coin dealer. He had decided to start tours of Russia through a travel-agent friend of his. He wrote me a letter excited about starting these tours. This one, he wrote, was to start off first in his native Saint Petersburg--a meeting with the Saint Peterburg Coin Club and then we would all go to his home and get a real homecooked Russian meal from his mother. From Saint Pete, we were to go on to Moscow where we were to take a special privilege trip through the Hermitage, especially with a chance to go through their fabulous ancient coin collection with some leading Russian numismatists.
The whole trip was costing $3,000, so I sent him my reservation and a $1500 deposit and he sent me back my reservation and a receipt for my deposit and the itinerary. I was truly looking forward to this trip. Limited to 10 of us, all of us numismatists, me specializing in Central Asian coins, the others Russian coin collectors, one of whom was president of the US-Russian Numismatic Society.
It wasn't but about two weeks later when I got a form letter from my dealer friend. It read: "Due to a heart attack, I've had to cancel the Russian tour. Due to my condition after the heart attack, I'm sorry, but the tour will not be rescheduled. Your deposits will be refunded immediately. I appreciate your interest in the tour but unfortunately one cannot control one's fate."
I watch this Russian teevee (produced by Russian RT Television) show with this American guy--he seems real to me--he speaks great Russian and says he's been a Russian nut since he was a kid in San Jose, California--and I marvel over how damn interesting and beautiful the far reaches of Russia are, and I do long to just suddenly be like in Arkhangelsk or Murmansk or Tula or in Balkaria, but in reality, no, I will probably never ever see Russia in what's left of my life. Sad but true. In fact, I don't think I will ever be able to leave New York City, no matter how unlivable Mayor Bloomberg and his tourist industry seem determined to make it. [What's a New York City Middle Class to this little prick Mayor Bloomberg? According to his sweet and puffy campaign ads it's anyone who makes over $115,000 a year. All of his campaign ads that are trumpeting the necessity for his running for an illegal third term for mayor emphasize how Mayor Billionaire Bloomberg is concerned about "protecting our hardworking Middle-Class," which implies the other classes are not hardworkers? He's really saying he hates the fucking POOR--who rich people definitely believe aren't hardworkers and instead are a drain on New York City's tax base, the base that keeps this most-expensive city government keeping the rich in power and in control of this city's buildings, land, and great wealth). This pompous asshole, pretender aristocrat, wants to rid New York City of anyone who makes less that $115,000 a year, which means all the scumbag poor Whites, most all Blacks, most all Latinos (except crooked assholes like Pedro Espada), all fucking Haitians, all Puerto Ricans, Nuyoricans, Colombians, Ecuadorians...it doesn't matter your race, if you make less that $115,000 a year, the Mayor is going to ignore you. His affordable housing his lying ads refer to are apartments renting for $2000-a-month per room or selling outright for around 1 million dollars for a hi-floor one bedroom--up to 6 million bucks for a 3 bedroom. You've got to be rich to either rent or own an apartment in New York City now--even a fucking rathole apartment--and you have to show proof, through your income tax filings and all your credit ratings that you have substantial enough income to afford to rent or buy a New York City apartment or it's fuck you, you're in the gutter. Mayor Bloomberg, a really cocky little son of a bitch, is a natural-born liar, who got rich by pure chance, he was in the right place at the right time with the right product, who is a "ladies" man and feels all women are his to choose from since he's so bloody fucking rich and powerful! Why would a guy worth 65 billion dollars want to be mayor of New York City for? The power of course! What else? This mayor actually considers New York City "HIS" city.
Still, anyone who's lived in New York City as long as I have is nailed to the cross of this rigorous city. No way of getting down off that cross either, nor do most of us want one.
for The Daily Growler