Friday, February 04, 2005

I'm sitting on the window sill, in the little nest I've created here, complete with a blanket underneath my ass and a pillow for my back. I've chosen this spot because of the view, of course - endless roofs and then suddenly the "skyscraper," the focal point. They light it up completely around 5 pm, when it's beginning to get dark, but by midnight, the light remains only in the upper part, where there're no apartments. At 4 or 5 in the morning, it is completely dark again, but during the day it stands out not just for its size but for the whiteness as well, or beige-ness: they've completed a pretty complex cleaning procedure recently on all seven or eight similar buildings, getting rid of all the grime. I hope one night I'll catch the moment they turn the lights off completely - the movie-like effect of it is sure to freak me out: the huge building going dark momentarily...


I interacted with one of our next-door neighbors today, Galina Vasilyevna, a small, bespectacled woman in her 70s, famous for her bitchiness. She rules this nine-story building - and holds it together, too: the staircase is immaculate, with potted plants on every window, and there's a Soviet-looking plaque hanging on the brick wall outside, announcing that this is "the building of exemplary order."

When we were moving in, with all our 60 or so cardboard boxes of shit, she demanded that we unload the car as fast as possible, in order not to freeze her plants to death by keeping the doors wide open. She also wanted to know whether we were planning to have an office at our place, something that she seemed ready to send us to jail for, no less.

The movers helped us unpack and took away most of our boxes, but half a dozen or so remained, and Galina Vasilyevna somehow found out about it and said she needed the smaller ones to store her homemade pickles in. The janitor would take the bigger boxes, she said, and this is how I came into contact with her today: while I was taking the boxes to the storage place for the janitor to pick up later, she followed me around, asking questions and making statements.

She asked me how long we were going to stay here and whether we were from St. Pete or Moscow - I didn't know the answer to the first question and, somehow, I managed to skip the Kyiv part of our bios. She said she hoped we wouldn't have too many noisy visitors, and I assured her we were serious, adult people, totally trustworthy. She said it was dangerous when strangers came around - someone got robbed here not long ago, despite having two metal doors in his apartment. A boy downstairs always played some musical instrument after 11 pm, she said, and she kept chiding him for that.

The street was normally quiet and only sometimes it turned loud when... and here I interrupted her, saying something about the midday traffic jams... but she was talking about something else: "There's a synagogue across the street, you know, and every once in a while they have holidays, and they are celebrating all night long, a shabash, you know." I wasn't really sure if she was being neutral or was alluding to a witches' Sabbath, so I reacted rather diplomatically: "I think the daily traffic jams in a narrow street are the real problem here, not the Jews celebrating something once or twice a year." Thankfully, it worked: "Yes," she said. "We demanded that the authorities make it a one-way street, but they didn't pay attention."

At some point, she asked me about my occupation, and I said I was a journalist.

"Oh. Journalists, they are very dangerous people. You've got to be very careful around them, not say too much to them."

She seemed to be talking to herself, not to me, and it was really funny. I'm curious now about her past experiences with journalists - and I'm also extremely happy that there's something about me she's sort of scared of, something that would keep her from constantly preaching to me about "exemplary order."

But we parted on a very good note: I praised her plants, sincerely, and she promised to later show me the ones that are now blooming inside her apartment.


In the evening, our landlady, Natasha, stopped by with her husband and told us that, luckily, Galina Vasilyevna was growing less authoritarian with age. Some thirty years ago, when Natasha was a teenager, it was much worse: they had a semi-manual elevator then, with the doors that you had to close yourself before it would move, and the loud bang was so unavoidable that Galina Vasilyevna used to leave the elevator doors open after 11 pm, parking the elevator solidly on the ninth floor, preventing anyone in the building from using it and making noise.

Natasha also told us about one of her previous tenants, a British guy: one day Galina Vasilyevna came up to Natasha and asked her if she knew who she was renting her place to. "Of course, I do," Natasha replied. But it turned out that Galina Vasilyevna had spent some time doing surveillance and knew better: "No, you don't! He's a foreign spy! Every Saturday, he goes to a café at Mayakovsky Square, around noon, to meet someone there, and every time he's wearing the same red jacket! He's a spy!"


Natasha has also mentioned that she was on that subway train that was blown up a year ago: "I never thought it'd happen to me - but it did." She wasn't willing to talk about it in detail, I could feel it. She said that even though Moscow was her native city, she was beginning to hate it more and more.

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