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A Stroll

October 9, 2010

The elevator in my apartment building reeked of tar, and somebody had sharpied “Bo$$” on the cheap wood paneling. I rode the creaking box down from the sixth floor. Outside, the leaves were glued to the ground with rain, half-concealing the hopscotch court scrawled in sunnier times. A woman leaned out her window and calls out to me, “Pa-ka! Pa-ka!” How nice, I thought, to bid me farewell, until I saw her friend pass by me with a baby in her arms, squealing back “goodbye!” in Russian-baby-ese. Walking around the building, I heard the whir and click of a passing train. In the courtyard, walled in by concrete blocks, children’s voices carried a nostalgic echo. I imagine them riding the rails, giggling with newfound adventure.

As I walked to the street, women passed by carrying produce in plastic bags. I stared dumbly, always too worried about stumbling over the consonantal shit-storm that is the Russian greeting ‘zdrastvuytye” to give them a neighborly hello. Tires painted in pastels and planted with flowers brightened my way, competing for aesthetic control with sheds and pipes of unknown provenance. The pipes followed me to a tunnel coated in soot and graffiti. Somebody had spray-painted “Boston,” but this was most certainly Bishkek. Massachussetts couldn’t be further away.

An outdoor café sat lame, abandoned to the rain. I crossed a bridge over Pravda Street. Technically, it’s no longer named after the Soviet newspaper, but some guy named Sultan Ibraimov. Nobody seemed to notice the change. At the edge of the bridge I saw a towel and a t-shirt laid out to dry. I investigated and found a hobo home, scattered with clothes and bottles. I took a picture but the flash went off. I panicked. Had I awakened the troll? As I booked it out of there, my Canadian friend Margo called. I tried no to sound out of breath. “Just going for a stroll,” I said – “In the rain?” It’s hardly drizzling I said, and besides, I have the streets all to myself. Just as I said that I came across a stray dog licking a pudding cup. It’s just you and me, bud.

But no, out of the void came a cast of characters, all with some story I’ll never know. A man walked by with a crate of eggs. A Russian woman coughed and coughed, cursing the weather. In a garbage-strewn yard enclosed by giant concrete blocks, I spied a group of drunks poking a plastic bag that hung from a tree. A limp doll lay to the side, and something was burning. Their story, I’d rather not know. Another stray dog came up to me and I eyed it with suspicion. I thought it might be evil. Maybe it knew what was in that plastic bag. Turns out, it was just scared – as I stepped towards it, it shivered nervously and skittered into the street.

I crossed some anonymous pipes on a shaky metal bridge and felt like I was trespassing. Coated in rain and lain over with dark skies, everything seemed sinister. Dystopia makes for a good picture, though, so I took out my camera. Some guy looked at me from behind a metal gate and must have wondered what the hell I was photographing. “Maybe he’s be a Soviet plumbing enthusiast, or a spy. Probably a spy.” I continued over the train tracks, documenting the Kyrgyz infrastructure for my top-secret project. Overhead, a parade of birds were flying north for the winter. “You’re going the wrong way!” I wanted to shout. The snowcapped mountains gave their rebuttal from the south. Okay, fair enough.

On the other side of the tracks I found a new street to stroll, and continued pass a new casino. I went to write “impressive neon” in my notepad-of-impressions, but my pen had died. I had brought my dictaphone, so I narrated instead. Walking down the street talking into a microphone, there was no longer any doubt that I was a secret agent. “A taxi is getting his tired changed. There’s a shashlyk grill filled with juice cartons and emptied beers. It’s starting to rain again. Oo, what’s this say…a roller club? Holy shit!”

I had to know more. I walked up some stairs and grinned at some stares from these kids who were decked out in skates. I passed through several different rooms, filled with Kyrgyz kids putting on their wheels, wondering where the rink was. The blaring hip-hop guided me to where I wanted to go. It was a large room with hardwood flooring. There were big concrete cylinders in the middle with handrails, and the first-timers gripped them with hesitation. The more experienced clubmembers shot around the room in circles. They raced each other and pushed and pulled, picking up balloons from the ground and popping them in each other’s faces. There were palm trees on the wall, neon lights and a disco ball. It was glorious kitsch, undistilled. I took some pictures and decided, it anybody asked, I’d be an American journalist, doing a travel piece for a magazine of roller-skate enthusiasts.

Outside, I just laughed into my dictaphone, thrilled at my discovery. It had started to rain harder. I kept walking and passed a factory. Workers with their hands shoved in windbreakers walked out the gates, grimacing. If everybody just went to the roller club after work, I thought, maybe life here would be better. Down the street there was a club called “Live Bar 24/7.” The doors had baseball bats for handles, and there was a sign in Russian with two English phrases in bold – “Dress code” and “Face control.” A leftover hammer-and-sickle mural stared down from the building next door, no longer relevant. I kept walking and stumbled across an equally irrelevant phone booth, lost in the ages and inaccessible behind a metal fence. A schoolkid, very wet, walked my way. We had a staring contest as we got closer. I passed him and kept walking, but turned around to find him standing stone still in the middle of the street, still staring. And we have a winner!

Around the corner, a mysteriously-placed floodlight made for a nicely-lit fruitstand. There were stores selling doors, ovens, and entire houses, it seemed – there were diagrams of model homes plastered on the windows. For whatever reason, there’s a chandelier store on every block. Among the storefronts were people’s homes. They were guarded by metal gates, painted in primary colors. I passed a big wooden castle, some kind of outdoor pub, that was empty in the rain. The weather was worsening so I picked up my pace, heading down the street to my neighborhood. I tried to stay dry, but it’s hard to negotiate puddles when cars throw them at you.

In another tunnel to my place, graffiti read “Dope! Dope! Dope!”, and a painted skull wore a Yankees hat. I was starting to shiver, and my nose was Rudolph-red. I approached my building cautiously, because I thought I saw a drunk squatting outside, waiting for the foreigner with anticipation. When I got closer I saw it was a girl, perched over a hole in the ground. There was a pipe coming out, flowing with water, and she was filling up some plastic jugs. She took a drink and looked at me suspiciously. I smiled. She ignored me and screwed on the lid.

At the door to my building, a Russian man and Kyrgyz girl were waiting to be let in. They made a strange pair. They said “Do you live here?” and I said, yes I do, but then somebody rang us in and we stepped inside. The man asked me a question which I didn’t understand. I told him “Я не хорошо говорю по-русский.” He nodded and smiled, and waved his hand toward the elevator. Now it smelled like a mix of tar and teenage perfume. The girl smiled meekly and asked me which floor. I told her shestoy and up we went. At my door I rang the bell and the door cracked open to a smiling Marina. I came inside, no questions asked.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Palmer permalink
    October 10, 2010 8:11 am

    So did you fine-tune the stylistic details of your narrative in your head as it was happening to you? I remember doing that back when I had a livejournal, writing LJ entries in my head moments after the event in question occurred.

  2. Mitchell permalink
    October 11, 2010 11:15 pm

    Your descriptions are very vivid, Dennis. Well done. Kyrgyzstan sounds awesome, especially that kick-ass roller disco!

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  1. Keen on Kyrgyzstan, In Review « Keen on Kyrgyzstan

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