SECTION THREE

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COLUMN NINETY-NINE, NOVEMBER 1, 2003
(Copyright 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)

ROMANCE IN RUSSIA


THE KREMLIN

The most beautiful woman I ever saw in Russia was a railroad conductor aboard the Red Arrow, that ornate overnight express between Moscow and Leningrad, which was also a time machine that took me back to an era when traveling by rail was an elegant experience.  The washbasin in my compartment had the fanciest gold fixtures I ever saw.

"Oh, this is nothing compared to the cars on the Trans-Siberian Railroad," said a fellow passenger, a tall, thin and dark-haired Russian with an easy manner and a good command of English.  He soon was telling about a ride he'd once taken from Moscow to Vladivostok, an eleven-day trip, which he described day by day as if he were painting a picture of eternity.

"And, by the eleventh day," he concluded, "you feel like you've been on that train forever."

Suzann Stotlemyer, whom I would have chased around the world if I could've afforded the transportation, is an adventuress friend who sometimes does floral arrangements at the White House. Her habit of visiting the most inaccessible places in the world enabled her to give me a similar day-by-day description of traveling second-class on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

"The first day you try to get comfortable," she said.  "The second day, you start making friends.  The third day, the friends you made get off the train.  The fourth day, you realize you've been pajama-partying for four days.  The fifth day, a man makes a romantic move on you.  The sixth day, the man gets off the train. . ."

Stotlemyer didn't go to Vladivostok, she went to Beijing.

"But, we had women conductors, too," she said.  "There were two of them, and when one of them was on duty, the other was in the conductors' compartment with a lover.  They both had regular lovers who traveled regularly between regular stops along the way.  Or maybe they sometimes might've both shared the same lover along one part of the line or another.  They'd take turns going into the compartment with him. . ."

The lady conductor I saw on the Red Arrow was a blonde Marilyn Monroe look-alike.  I did an immediate quadruple-take.  In Russia, you didn't see too many women as glamorous-looking as this particular honey.  I certainly didn't.  Not in 1964, when I was in the USSR to hunt down the Russian Beat Generation for the Saturday Evening Post.  And to research TV and movie pieces which, eventually, I never was to write.  Certainly not until now.

Waiting for me back in the States was my wife, my three children and my sizzling extra-marital romance with a Brigitte Bardot look-alike who'd lived right next door to me.  The attention that this gorgeous creature paid to yours truly had gone straight to my head. My problem was that my head was not on my shoulders at the time. Not only was I married and totally wrapped up with my wife and kids but I was also a fat slob.

But the fact that this next-door Brigitte had come onto me had me imagining myself to be God's gift to women.  Maybe it was just that I'd always been a much hornier man than I'd ever had a right to be.  And maybe it was just a case of my eyes being bigger than my stomach.  In any event, I couldn't take my eyes off this glamorous-looking lady conductor on The Red Arrow Express.  For her part, she wouldn't even give me the right time, not even in Russian.

The truth is that no matter how hard I tried, I never did get laid when I was in Russia.  I just couldn't understand it.  A good-looking guy like me.  God's gift to women.

"You've got to learn how to say the right word," a British correspondent told me. He worked for Reuters. We were walking near the Bolshoi, the ballet theater.

"What word?"

"You've got to learn how to say "zdratvityeh.""

"'Zdratvityeh?'"

"That's right."

"What does it mean?"

"Everything!"

"'Everything?'"

"Actually, it means, 'hello,' but the way you say it means everything.  Zdratvityeh!"

"Zdratvityeh!"

As we passed the Bolshoi, which, I was disappointed to learn, was a word that meant only "big," a slim and pretty woman walked by.  As I remember, most of the women in Russia had beauty marks and didn't shave their legs, but this woman was exceptionally pretty.  Something in the class of the Marilyn Monroe look-alike who worked as a conductor on the Red Arrow.  The British correspondent smiled at her.  He was dark-haired and not too tall.  But he was very suave.  He said:

"Zdratvityeh!"

The woman smiled back and before long they were engaged in conversation while I fidgeted around, waiting.  Until the Brit waved so long to me and walked off with the woman, arm-in-arm.

After that, I went around Moscow smiling at women and saying:

"Zdratvityeh."

But it never worked for me.  I was in Russia more than a month without ever really scoring.  Not that I didn't keep trying.

"Why don't you try a prostitute?" another correspondent suggested.

"How do you find a prostitute in Moscow?"

"I don't know.  The same as in any other city.  You ask a cab driver."

I was staying at the Hotel National, on the floor where Lenin's room had been, across the square from the Kremlin.  Because someone had recommended the


The Black student said, 'It's not do I like Russia but does Russia like me?'


Metropole restaurant, I walked over to the Metropole, where a swing orchestra was playing during dinner.  In the second-floor dining room, the captain seated me at a table with a young black man, who turned out to be a student from Yaound? in the Cameroons.

The black student quickly invited me to share his bottle of wine.  Well, there was more than just a bottle.  As soon as one was emptied, the student would order another.  He liked his wine.  Drunkenness had long been a problem in Moscow.  The black student was willing enough to be part of the statistics.  The Russians not only drank wine, but the whole country was hooked on vodka.

"My name is Paul," he said.  "I am an engineering student.  There is nothing I like better in this world than wine, except women."

Paul not only spoke English and Russian but also French, Bantu, Sudanic, Swahili and other African dialects.  He read the Russian menu to me, explaining what each dish was, and then translated my order to the waiter. 

"My father is a functionary in the government of the Cameroons," he said.  "Naturally, it was through my father's influence that I came to get a scholarship in the USSR."

"How do they treat you here?"

"There aren't too many of us.  They are not accustomed to having black people in Russia.  Our presence bewilders them.  They'd rather do without us.  But how can they?  They are obligated to have us."

"So how do you like it in Russia?"

"As I said, it's not do I like Russia but does Russia like me?  It's hard for a black man to find close friends here, except other black men, when he can find them.  As you see, I was dining alone until you were seated at my table.  I will say this for the maitre d,' however.  He was smart to know that you and I both speak English.  He was quite canny to seat you with me, don't you think?  As you see, he didn't put a Russian here.

"No, they don't like black men in Russia.  They find it awkward having us here.  You talk to them in Russian and they're amazed.  A black man speaking Russian?  But I myself get on very well in the USSR.  There are constant rumors they are going to expel us and these rumors fill me with dread.  Do you think I like the idea of going back to the Cameroons?"

Before even another bottle was emptied, Paul steered the conversation to the hips on a nearby woman and the rump on the younger one accompanying her.

"Look at that set of tits!" he exclaimed.

Pretty soon, he was talking about lunch at the Y.  His favorite topic.  Women.  He was even more lecherous than I was.  He leered around the restaurant in all directions, commenting on each feminine shape he could see.  As he got drunker, his comments got cruder.  By the time we'd finished dinner and its accompanying four bottles of wine, Paul had talked me into joining him in a search for a hooker or two.

"But how're we going to find a prostitute in Moscow?"

"We just ask a cab driver.  Come with me."

Paul led me into a Moscow subway, where the spotless tile walls glistened as if they'd been washed an hour before.  There wasn't a drop of litter in sight.  A sleek, silver train pulled in with a strangely sound-proofed roar and Paul led the way aboard.

Only a few other people were in the car, which looked clean enough to eat off the floor.  The ride was smooth and noiseless.  Whoooosh!  This was not at all like getting shook up in the filth of a New York City subway.

A girl and two companions in their early twenties looked at Paul and spoke to one another in Russian.

"That girl said she's never seen a black man before," Paul told me, laughing.  "See what I mean?  She wonders if you're from America the way you're dressed.  They have no idea I'm eavesdropping because it's beyond their comprehension that a black man could understand Russian."

We continued riding through several stops and then Paul motioned to me to get off with him.  Before leaving the subway car, he turned toward the girl and exchanged a few words in Russian with her.  On the platform, he laughed:

"You know what that girl said when we got off the train?  She said to her friends, 'Oh!  That black man understands Russian!  Do you think he heard everything we said?'

"And I told her: 'Yes I did!'"

Just then, the wall of the platform moved, exposing another platform on the other side of the wall, where a train was waiting with its doors open.  Paul led the way aboard.

It was another long ride before the subway train came to the stop Paul wanted.  He led the way up an escalator to the waiting room of a railroad terminal.   One of Moscow's many railroad terminals.  The waiting room benches were packed with a cross section of all the colors of the USSR's human rainbow, the one that stretches from Europe to Vladivostok, the length of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  The most popular form of luggage I could see was a brown paper bag.

Paul ushered me through the terminal waiting room and out the front to a plaza, where waiting taxicabs were lined up in the circular drive.  Paul walked toward the end of the taxi line and then approached a driver, to whom he said a few words in Russian.  No interpreter was necessary to explain when the cab driver started telling Paul and me to get in the back seat.

The driver pulled the cab out of the waiting line and drove several blocks to an intersection, where he stopped the cab, got out and approached two women on the sidewalk.  The two women returned to the cab with the driver and got into the back seat with Paul and me.

There was a pretty one and an ugly one.  No sooner had the two women gotten into the cab when Paul pounced on the pretty one.  In an instant, his hands were up her dress.  Immediately, the pretty one and Paul were both chattering away in Russian while a bashful yours truly shyly tried to strike up some sort of communication with the ugly one, who, of course, spoke only Russian.

As the driver drove several blocks to a house in a neighborhood of one-family homes with hedges and with lawns, I could imagine we were back in Queens, New York.  Suddenly, Paul and the pretty prostitute got into a loud argument, all in Russian.  The cab driver waited for the argument to finish and then both women stepped out of the taxi.

As I started to follow them out, Paul put a hand up to stop me.  He shut the door and gave instructions to the driver, who pulled away, leaving the two hookers behind as they walked into the house, shouting curses after us.

"I had my hand in up to my wrist," Paul said, "but they wanted fifteen rubles apiece.  That was too much.  They weren't worth fifteen rubles apiece."

"I would've paid it," I protested.

"No," Paul insisted, shaking his head, "that was too much."

The closest I came to getting any at all while I was in Russia was from a tall and pretty strawberry-haired beauty named Larissa who was a student at the University of Moscow.  She was one of those long-legged Slavic honeys of the type produced only behind the Iron Curtain at that time.  Somehow, I met this Russian campus queen despite all the best efforts of Red Lips, which is what I called my girl-guide-interpreter from Intourist, the state-owned travel agency.

I called her Red Lips because she wore too many layers of bright, red lipstick.  She would just keep running that lipstick over her lips.  Like a jealous woman, she worked overtime to prevent me from meeting any leggy, sexy beauties like this University of Moscow student.  Or any other member of the opposite sex who just might want to play with me.  Even if Red Lips wasn't jealous, she was a dedicated Communist Party member, and the Communist line was as puritan as Jerry Falwell.

Red Lips was not only my girl-guide-interpreter, she was my chaperone, my mother hen, my monitor, my warden and my Russian version of a Moral Majority social censor.  When I remember her, I can't help imagining her tugging on my ear until it hurt.  She only tugged at my ear metaphorically, but just remembering her makes me feel as if that were her way of leading me around. 

I now rummage in vain through my junk drawer memory, trying to find the details of how I was genius enough not only to meet this University of Moscow student named Larissa, but also to get her phone number and the proper instructions on how to ring her up.  She spoke English quite badly, but, when I try to remember how I was smart enough to make a date and take her out to dinner, I can only paint a picture of amnesia.

Nor am I now able to recall the delicious details of how we both ended up with our pants off in her tiny dormitory room, where a man wasn't supposed to be.  And especially not a foreigner like me.  I was told that I could've been expelled from the country for being there.

As I said, Larissa didn't speak English very well and, just as she was spreading those long, slim and shapely legs of hers, she kept pointing to herself and saying over and over again a word which sounded like "verge."  I couldn't understand what Larissa was trying to tell me.  Finally, she got out of bed on those long, slim and shapely legs of hers, grabbed her Russian-English dictionary from the shelf and pointed to a word to explain what she was trying to say.  The word she was pointing to was "virgin."

I didn't really know what to do.  I didn't really know what she wanted me to do.  I felt embarrassed.  I put my pants back on.  So did she.  As a consolation prize, she gave me her Russian wrist watch.  When I got back to my hotel room, I found the watch didn't work.  Romance in Russia?  I didn't even get the right time.  ##

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