Lamest. Title. Ever. I know. Look, I am depressed. You should be thankful I am writing anything at all! However, for those of you who normally come here looking for a shot of All Russia Lovefest All The Time and have had nothing but my personal problems thrown in your face, appeasement is at hand. It’s one thing to alienate my family and friends, from whom, let’s be honest, one can never truly alienate themselves, regardless the effort made to do so. But readers I live to please. It is precisely because I owe you nothing that I owe you everything…
Anyway, I’ve not really been paying close attention to anything going on outside of North Africa, Wisconsin or my own head recently, so I have no insights into the Russian political outrage du jour, nor do I even know what the current source of today’s outrage is really. Other than what it always is: awful Russia, being awful Russia. The nerve… In better times, I would be able to tell you about Surkov’s latest attempt to portray modern art as a spiritual justification for the Kremlin’s current political philosophy, or what our Vova had for breakfast. Now I am more concerned with my own breakfast and obnoxious justifications.
Poemless, you said you were not going to write about your personal problems!
Ok, so I was getting on the bus Tuesday evening to go to Aldi. This is probably the most depressing sentence I have ever written. Yet I was not depressed. Across the street from my apartment is a church which hosts a food bank each Tuesday evening. The longer the recession lasts (yes it is) the longer the line for the free food grows. For a moment I wondered if I should not be in that line. But the thought of limited resources and limitless need propelled me past the line and toward the bus stop. I had never seen so many people in the food line, and there is always a long food line. On this particular evening, there was less a queue than a mob. As I waited for the bus – a Kafkaesque routine wherein the driver sits in the bus with the doors closed for 15 minutes while people wait outside, peering in, until the scheduled arrival time appears on the digital display – the mob slowly transferred itself from the church to the bus stop.
Suddenly I was surrounded by like 30 Russian pensioners examining the contents of their newly-filled pakety with vocal suspicion and judgement. There was much trading of ground beef for cranberry juice, hemming, hawing, rustling about and interrogation interrupted periodically by sighs of resignation, “Nu… zdorovo… zdorovo…,” a brief silence and then another round of grumbling. The driver’s shift began and everyone piled, not filed, but piled into the bus. It was me, a boatload of aged Russians and a young black woman, all shooting similarly distrustful looks about. It reminded me of Moscow and those crowded buses along Varshavskoe in the evening. Not just the language being spoken, but the whole scene: older women in their fuzzy pastel caps, flourescent lipsticks, cheap dye jobs, smiling eyes and depressing coats, lugging plastic carry-alls half their weight, conversing as though everything in the world were simultaneously revolting, humourous and proof of their own unquestionable wisdom. Men in their slippers, sitting across the aisles from their female companions, looking like young boys who had just been told a pornographic joke in church, speaking like characters in some existential play. “Why?” silence “Why what?” silence “So come sit here.” “You.” silence “Why?” smile “You know why. Why don’t YOU come sit HERE.” silence smirks “You know.” “What do I know?” And this when on for like a mile.
The whole time I really wanted more than anything to ask them how they felt about leaving the breadlines of the Soviet Union for the breadlines of America. But I didn’t. Mostly because, had I been in line for handouts, I wouldn’t be in any mood to discuss my questionable life decisions with judgemental strangers. I also kept thinking back to that Dmitry Orlov piece about Americans and shame:
The Russian author Eduard Limonov wrote of his experiences with poverty in America. To his joy, he discovered that he could supplement his cash earnings with public assistance. But he also quickly discovered that he had to keep this joy well hidden when showing up to collect his free money. It is a curious fact that in America public assistance is only made available to the miserable and the downtrodden, not to those who are in need of some free money but are otherwise perfectly content. Although it is just as possible to be poor and happy in America as anywhere else, here one must make a choice: to avoid any number of unpleasant situations, one must be careful to hide either the fact that one is poor, or the fact that one is happy. If free public money is to be obtained, then only the latter choice remains.
It is another curious fact that vast numbers of Americans, both rich and poor, would regard Limonov’s behavior as nothing short of despicable: a foreign author living in America on public assistance while also earning cash! It seems reasonable that the rich should feel that way; if the poor can’t be made miserable, then what exactly is the point of being rich? But why should the poor particularly care? Another cultural peculiarity: what dismays them is not the misappropriation of public funds. Tell them about the billions wasted on useless military projects, and they will reply with a yawn that this is just business as usual. But tell them that somewhere some poor person is eating a free lunch, and they will instantly wax indignant. Amazingly, Americans are great believers in Lenin’s revolutionary dictum: “He who does not work, does not eat!” One of the rudest questions you might hear from an American is “What do you do for a living?” The only proper response is “Excuse me?” followed by a self-satisfied smirk and a stony silence. Then they assume that you are independently wealthy and grovel shamefully.
Most shockingly, there are many poor Americans who are too proud to accept public assistance in spite of their obvious need for it. Most Russians would regard such a stance as absurd: which part of “free money” don’t these poor idiots like—the fact that it’s money, or the fact that it’s free? Some Russians who are living in the US and, in trying to fit in to American society, have internalized a large dose of the local hypocrisy, might claim otherwise, but even they, in their less hypocritical moments, will concede that it is downright foolish to turn down free money. And rest assured, they will mop up every last penny of it. Mother Russia didn’t raise any dummies.
Well, I’m not one for sweeping generalizations or assumptions about what goes on in the minds of strangers. But my fellow passengers did not seem to possess the demeanor of those who have just been subjected to a degrading experience, and I think most people I know would consider standing in line for the food bank a degrading experience. OTOH, most people I know are not from countries where standing in line or otherwise hustling for basic necessities was an unavoidable fact of life for years.