Thursday, April 15, 2010

Moscow '79 Part II: Cosmos Hotel

This is kind of a continuation of this story from last week; but it's also something I'm writing for a workshop over at Sleep Is for the Weak.  The prompt I chose to address asks the writer to describe meeting someone for the first time.

Moscow, 1979

My parents don't really like Alec.  They think he's a crook or something.  It's because he accidentally stole my tennis racket a while ago.  I have this bench that's also a toy chest that sits outside of the door of our apartment, and I left my Wilson aluminum racket in there, and Alec took it home with him one day.  But I don't think he really meant to steal it.  He even gave me a brand new racket made of graphite before he took the Wilson.  His dad is some kind of Polish businessman, and he always gets free stuff that his dad brings as samples, I guess, to sell to the Russians.  He said that the graphite tennis racket is made out of the same stuff they use in Soyuz rockets.  I think maybe he thought we were trading rackets.  We're always trading stuff around here.  But my parents asked me why, if we were trading, Alec took the racket without me knowing about it.  My dad saw him leaving our complex with the racket when he was coming home from work.  I said it was just a misunderstanding because Alec and I don't really speak any of the same languages.  When I asked Alec about it, he gave me the Wilson back, and let me keep the Polish racket too.

My mom says that even though Alec seems rich, he only has rubles, and you can't get American stuff like Wilson rackets with rubles, and that everyone wants American stuff.  Like I don't know that.  I go to the military uniform store and trade them American bubble gum and Coke for belt buckles and insignia all the time.  I sold a cowboy hat to a guy on the street for two hundred rubles, which is about  three hundred and fifty dollars, and I've sold a couple pairs of Levi's for a hundred rubles each.  But the problem is, it's hard to spend that many rubles because there's not much in the stores that's worth buying.  With the money from the cowboy hat, I bought a bunch of lacquer boxes and other knick-knacks at the gift shop in the Ukraina hotel, and then I bought myself an ankle-length rabbit fur coat that I hardly ever wear.  And I still had money left over.  It's kind of risky to sell stuff on the black market too, so I don't do it all that much.  It's not like the Russian police will do anything if they catch you (they can't mess with diplomats), but if people at the U.S. embassy heard about it, then my mom and dad would hear about it, then I would hear about it.  Anyway, Alec is always stuffing rubles into my pockets when I'm not looking, so I don't even need to sell anything.  When I try to give him his money back, he just tears it up or burns it.

Alec goes to Russian school with Chincu and Suliman.  He speaks Polish, Russian, and German, but not much English.  I can speak some German and some Russian, so that's how we communicate.  Suli and Chincu speak perfect English, so they can always translate from Russian if Alec and I can't understand each other.

I started hanging around with these guys about a month ago, after my best friend Johan had to go back to Malaysia.  He and I were the coolest guys in 7th grade at the Anglo-American school.  We both had long hair and played guitars.  We ruined his dad's speakers by playing our electric guitars through his stereo system.  We made up some songs and played at the school talent show and it blew everybody's minds.  But then something weird happened with this guy who was coaching Johan at tennis--some spy stuff--and his family had to leave Moscow right away.

Also, my dog got hit by a car at about the same time Johan moved away.  Duke was okay, but he had a splint on his leg and I had to stay home and watch him all the time, and carry him outside to go to the bathroom about a million times a day.  We live on the ninth floor and the elevator is broken half the time, so it was a lot of work.

I knew this Afghan kid Suliman who lived on the third floor, and we started hanging out in the parking lot while I waited for Duke to pee.  And then Chincu started hanging out with us too.  My parents knew Chincu's parents and we had been to some parties at their apartment on the other side of Kutusovzky Prospekt.  Most of the diplomats know each other and go to the same parties.

Suli is kind of square, but he looks normal and doesn't have a goofy accent or anything.  My mom is always talking about how handsome he is.  I don't know about all that, but his sisters are both foxes.  Sheena and Shima.  They don't wear those scarves on their heads or anything, and they both have long black hair and perfect skin and white teeth.  You can't tell it when they wear their dorky Russian school uniforms, but they're both almost as good-looking as Cheryl Tiegs and Nancy Wilson, who are the sexiest women in the world as far as I'm concerned.  But they're about 17 and 18 years old, which is way too old for me.  I never talk to Suli about what's going on in Afghanistan with those asshole Russians invading, but I asked my parents what's going to happen to him and his family when they go back home.  Nobody knows.  The Russians are such hypocrites.  I listen to Radio Moscow almost every night, and they always talk about the "imperialist" Americans, but they're the ones who go around taking over countries whenever they feel like it.  I heard that they were torturing Afghans by almost drowning them in shit-filled latrines.  I believe it too.

Chincu is a total dork.  I like him, but I'm kind of embarrassed when my American friends see me hanging around with him.  He's really tall and skinny, and he always wears long-sleeved shirts tucked into his pants, which he pulls way up around his neck.  And the worst thing is his hairdo: he puts it in a little bun, sticks a handkerchief over it, and then puts a rubber band around it.  He's Indian--a Sikh--which means he's not supposed to cut his hair or shave when he gets older.  So he has to put his hair into a ridiculous little ball which is like a training-turban.  His dad is massive--about six-foot-five, and he wears bright red turbans and has a big black beard.  His dad looks really cool--like he might whip out a massive sword and start doing some Sinbad stuff at any moment.  But Chincu just looks like a spaz.  And he is a spaz, too.  One time I ran into him in the underpass that goes under Kutuzovsky and he babbled for five minutes straight without taking a breath in that dorky Indian accent about something that happened in school; and then finally he goes, "Oh, by the way, hello!"  Plus he doesn't know anything about rock music--he likes Indian pop, which is the worst music you've ever heard.  But like I said, I still like the guy.

Chincu and Suli and I would play soccer in the parking lot, sometimes with the older Pakistani guys who lived on the other side of the building; or we would read Astrix comics and listen to records at my apartment.  One time we went to a movie at the Indian embassy, but it was just awful.  It was about a little kid and an elephant, and everyone was always breaking into song and doing these dances that I was embarrassed to even watch.  All the Indian kids loved it.

A couple weeks ago, Chincu comes over all excited and talking a mile a minute, as usual.  He says his friend from school can get us in to the Cosmos hotel and do I want to come.  I say yeah, why not.  The Cosmos is this humongous hotel that they built for the Olympics that are going to be here next year.  It's a big curved building made out of shiny gold metal over by that monument to the cosmonauts with the rocket on top.  It's really cool and modern looking.  It was designed by French architects.  My parents joke about France being one of the Soviet republics.

So that was when I first met Alec.  We all got together at my apartment on a Saturday morning and then took a taxi to the Cosmos.  My parents are really cool about letting me run around the city with my friends.  Everybody knows that the KGB are watching us all the time, and if any Russian ever messed with a diplomat, they would pretty much go straight to Siberia because it would make the Soviets look bad.  So we always feel safe.  The only thing my parents worry about is if I'll do something stupid that will make Americans look bad.

We get to the hotel, and the doorman says some stuff in Russian that I don't understand.  Alec answers him, and the rest of us kind of shuffle around by the door.  Alec seems pretty cool.  He wears jeans that aren't Levi's and boots that are kind of like Moon Boots but not the real thing.  He carries a black fake-leather Adidas bag, and he's got a shaggy blond afro.  The doorman lets us in and Alec slips him some cash.  He does it real smooth, so you hardly notice what's going on, the same way my dad slips Russian guys cigarettes or dollars. 

We go inside and it's the coolest building I've ever been in!  Everything is shiny and slick, and there are planets hanging down from the ceiling, and little lights everywhere that look like stars.  Except for some of the really old buildings, everything in Moscow is gray and blocky and dingy, usually with pictures or sculptures of stern-looking super-commies harvesting crops or working in factories.  But the Cosmos is like being in a real city in the West.  It's even better than Helsinki.  I've never been to New York, but I imagine this is what it's like.

We mess around in the lobby and go up and down the elevators, looking in rooms that are open until one of the cleaning ladies runs us out.  Then we go back to the ground floor and find the bowling alley.  It must be the only one in Moscow, and we have it to ourselves.  None of us have ever even bowled before, but we have the best time.  Everywhere we go, Alec pays somebody off and we get treated like bigshots.  There's a pool in the hotel too, and we all have our swimming gear in our backpacks.  Like the bowling alley, the pool is empty.  The hotel just barely opened, and it's not like there are many tourists in Moscow anyway.  Who would want to come here?

We goof around at the pool for probably two hours, until we start getting hungry.  It's about five o'clock and it's pitch dark out.  We go up to the Cosmos restaurant and tear into the buffet, our eyes all red from the chlorine.  Alec pays for everyone, of course.  There are maybe twenty people in the whole restaurant, which has about fifty tables.  I've never had food this good at a restaurant in Moscow.  Usually there's no reason to eat at a Russian restaurant.  There's a little cafe by our apartment, and it's had the same display in the window--a plate of greenish boiled eggs--since we moved here a year and a half ago.  And you couldn't even get eggs there if you wanted because the only things they have are stale pastries and tea.  That's typical.  But the Cosmos buffet has all kinds of good stuff, most importantly Chicken Kiev.  This is the first time I've had it, and I'm surprised when hot butter squirts out of the middle of the fried chicken breast and drips down my chin.  Then I go back to the buffet twice to get more.   When I finally can't eat anymore, I just lean back in my chair, all sleepy and warm and satisfied.  Chincu is still chattering, but the rest of us are just kind of smiling and laughing a little bit at nothing in particular.

This song says everything you need to know about Russia in the seventies:





  1. That was excellent. You are a wonderful writer. I felt like I was there it was so well written.

  2. You know, Suli, Sheena and Shima's dad was imprisoned by the Soviets for signing some kind of petition against the Soviet occupation. I think he worked at Moscow University as a professor. The whole family disappeared, is what I heard. I think Kirstin McConnell told me that.

  3. Carrie--

    I only knew that one day they no longer lived in the building. I don't know if anyone knew what became of them, or if they told me. I had this vague idea that something bad had happened. It makes me sick to think about it.

  4. "Hubba hubba"? I can only think of the time when you got called out in our creative writing class for using "commiserate" in a Montana story. But I guess Hubba hubba is likely what you were thinking at the time.

    Course, that may have been the same class where the professor chastised us for passing notes. In a seminar of 12. In college.

    Otherwise, great story! Now I wonder why you never shared more Soviet stories at UVA.

  5. Paul--

    Yeah--I could probably have found a better way than that to avoid exploring seventh grade sexuality too deeply. Maybe "va-va-voom"?

    I think there were two reasons I never wrote about the Moscow days. First, when I came back to the States, it was really hard to explain what we were doing there (New Friend:so you're a commie? Me: No, blah blah embassy blah blah attache...blah blah international diplomacy. New Friend: Do you commies like tater tots?) I gave up explaining and pushed those memories into cold storage. Secondly, I thought at the time that stories about bar brawls and other tawdry things that grownups do were more interesting than little kid stories.

    More embarrassing than getting caught passing notes was probably the content of the notes. At least she didn't read them to the rest of the class.

  6. Loved this. Really felt like I was there with you. Loved the description of your friends and the hotel.

  7. I love the description of the hotel: so vivid I felt like a teenager loitering in a luxury place I wasn't meant to be! And I think 'hubba hubba'works! Not sure I like the song, though...

  8. Gillian and Sandrine--

    Thanks a bunch! You have to listen to the song about 6 times before you really appreciate it.


    Okay, I got rid of the offending "hubba hubba."

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Amazing stuff. Don't tell me you're pulling this all from memory - you must have journals/letters from back then?!

    Following the thread about Suli & family sent a chill up my spine. Heartbreaking.

    BTW, I had to stop that song about a minute into it. Reaction similar to yours watching Indian cinema in Moscow.

  11. Mom--

    Thanks! I don't know if I'm ready to see such embarrassing pics of myself. It was only 30 years ago, after all. You and Dad should write some of these stories down. I'll post them here and take credit for them.


    I'm pulling this from memory and family lore, and holding it together with the glue of artistic license. I wish I would have kept a journal.

    You have to watch that video four or five times before you really understand/appreciate it.

  12. You think it's so hard writing a long ass post about life in Moscow? Try it on Twitter.


  13. Beautiful.

    I love how it twists and turns, with association leading you through - just like memory does. One thought leading to another, to another, jolting and rushing, then slowing down to pause and savour.

    Your descriptions are gorgeous, rich and evocative. It sounds like you had an amazing childhood and carry some wonderful memories with you.

  14. Josie--

    Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for doing the workshop! I'll be back.

  15. If you like Moscow stories, you should have dozens. I don't suppose you will want to do the one about General Jacque's party or your airport spying charges or being the subject of an official Soviet protest to the US Government, though the latter was because of a drawing that I commissioned.

  16. Lovely stuff, the characters are fantastic. But you say you had to hang around while waiting for Duke to pee? Liked to take his time did he?!

  17. jh--

    I would tell the Gen. Jacques story if I could only remember it! I've never read a story about a drunken 11-year old that wasn't depressing. It might be fun to write a lighthearted one.


    Thanks! Duke preferred to pee inside, on the carpet; so it was always a waiting game when we went for walkies.


Don't hold back.


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