Tuesday, April 01, 2003

MOSCOW (April 4, 2001)

I took a trolley instead of the Metro to get to the movie theater. It was a peaceful ride: all seats taken, a few people standing, the garden-less Garden Ring outside the window, no traffic jams in sight and our vehicle actually moving forward.

As always, I had my trolley ticket punched. Ten cents a ride; one could play a potentially non-suicidal Russian Roulette by riding ticketless and hoping that the hand of Fate would avert a kontrolyor from this particular trolley. If the kontrolyor did appear, the fine imposed would be no more than 35 cents (whereas to see In the Mood For Love cost $4.15).

But I was playing a different kind of Russian Roulette - I was preparing to live in Moscow in violation of the mayor's unconstitutional directive, which required non-Muscovites like me to register with the police within three days of our arrival. I was beginning to learn to dodge the cops in the streets and to have a trolley ticket ready, to avoid unnecessary contact with Moscow's authorities.

I sat next to a woman with a tabloid and furtively scanned through reports of fires, car accidents and maniacs, and the gory pictures accompanying them.

Suddenly, a fatigue uniform-clad man on my right turned around.

He must have stood there for a few minutes after entering the trolley, inconspicuous, an ordinary passenger. He could have easily passed for a retired but still devoted marine, or a bank guard, perhaps. But as he turned around, he reached into the inside pocket on his chest and drew his kontrolyor’s license out - with the speed, grace and menace of an undercover cop drawing his weapon in an American movie.

“Your tickets, please,” he announced in a thunder-like voice.

None of us passengers blinked – dumbfounded rather than unimpressed – and all had a ticket to show. Conscious of the effect his dashing unmasking has had, the kontrolyor blurted out a self-praise at one of the unseated passengers – “Ha! Ain’t I cool, eh?” – and resolutely proceeded to the other end of the trolley.

...I took the Metro back home from the movie theater and saw another camouflaged man there. He was strolling along the station, with an unleashed German Shepherd running in front of him. Hundreds of pushing, reading, laughing, cursing, drunk and just gloomy people waiting for the train didn't bother these two: one was surveying the station for suspicious individuals, the other was sniffing for a bomb that might have been hidden under one of the benches.

“In the mood for love, in the mood for war, in the mood for a walk,” I thought, elbowing my way into the train car.

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