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A Tale of Astonishing Naivety

February 24, 2011

It’s not every day that you buy a guy a cheeseburger and then he steals your phone. But things have not been in the cards for me this week. My stomach has been in revolt – it’s like it’s forgotten how to properly digest what I give it as a good stomach should. I’ve been curled up in bed, cursing the world, and the world has cursed back at me, spitting up numbingly grey weather day after day. Bishkek can be charming in white but it wears its grey like a homeless man. Like a homeless man who eats your cheeseburger and then steals your phone.

It all happened when I was walking home late last night from a friend’s going-away party. Perhaps that was my first mistake, but it would be only a couple-block stroll and the night sky wasn’t black so much as grey and the streets felt empty in a safe kind of way. He called out to me from a bus stop. I get these calls often, seemingly innocent requests for charity or a matchbox, but I’ve learned to keep my head screwed on straight ahead and pretend I have something in my ears. Vodka had erased all patience or understanding from this chap, though, and he took after me, calling out ‘stop, bro,’ and cursing me angrily. I knew I wouldn’t get rid of him easily. He caught up to me outside an all-night cheeseburger joint. He was young, in his 20s, with golden teeth and pock-marked cheeks. I looked at him nervously, and then up at the backlit burgers on the menu. Maybe that was my ticket out. “Do you want a cheeseburger?” I asked. “You look hungry.” He laughed with astonishment and shook my hand like I’d saved his life.

We ate our burgers standing, talking to the teenagers behind the counter. Teach us English, they told me. Where do you even start? I think I taught them how to say ‘drunk,’ and my new burger-munching friend nodded and nodded and cranked an invisible corkscrew into his neck like he was saying “Yup, that’s me.” He told me he was a gangster, a word which has unfortunately been implanted into the Russian language. But he also told me he was a Muslim, and when I told him I was reading about Muhammad, that I had many Muslim friends, that I had visited his mosque, he hugged me and said a prayer to the heavens. I thought this cheeseburger summit was proceeding quite well. We declared our friendship and a new chapter in cultural relations.

I was mistaken in thinking that would do the trick. I did not give him a high five and skip home humming. Instead, he followed me, kept following me, down the block, around the corner. He told me he had no place to go, that he was on the run, that he had stabbed a cop, and he took out another invisible prop and janked it into his leg. It might’ve been a lie. A false credential to add to his gangster resume. But still, it scared me. Maybe the invisible knife in his leg had a sharper counterpart in his belt, I thought. The empty street didn’t look safe any more. The light sky didn’t feel comforting. This was not going to end well.

I tried to kill him with kindness. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Ernys.” “Look, Ernys, I’m sorry. I need to sleep. I’m going home. It was a pleasure to meet you.” For the evil, I learned, kindness only breeds resentment. He punched me in the chest. He spit Russian swear words in my face. He blathered something about us Americans, about how he hates us, and he shot an invisible gun into the air. We invade countries, he was saying, and we kill Muslims. The burger accord collapsed, the cultural understanding had evaporated. I had become his enemy. He patted my coat down and asked for my money. I showed him what I had in my breast pocket, a couple torn and tattered bills that couldn’t make a dollar. “I’m sorry, man, this is all I have. I spent it all on cheeseburgers.”

He didn’t even bother taking it. He seemed confused. I shook his hand and tried to escape, walking as calmly as I could down the street. My heart beat in my throat and I could feel him behind me, standing in the same spot, swaying.  But soon he called out to me, like he was lonely, and ran my way. ‘Why do you keep doing that?” he said, miming my goodbye handshakes. “Why do you want to go?” I kept my patient hat on, told him the necessity of sleep. Well I need to sleep too, he said, but I have nowhere to go. I will go with you. Come on.

I was running out of options; I took out my phone to try to call Abay, my translator, my friend, and my Kyrgyz savior. Ernys got mad. He grabbed my phone. “Are you calling the police?” He put my phone in his pocket. I asked for it back. It felt ridiculous. “Ernys, please give me my phone. Ernys, please.” I was begging a beggar, begging a thief. He cursed at me. I tried to compromise. “Fine. Take it. It’s a bad phone. Just give me my SIM card.” For some reason he obliged, and tried opening the back of the phone, but his fingers were cold and they shook, and he gave it to me, not so I could have my possession back but so I could speed up this negotiated burglary. I opened up my own phone and took out my SIM card, and then handed the shell to him like a gift.

The gift would not shake him. He was not ready to give up. There was a taxi idling nearby and I walked to its window. ‘Help me” I said quietly. Ernys walked up with his lips pursed in anger  – “Hey, what are you doing?” He punched me again in the chest. It was a quick solid punch from a foot away, like a warning, like he was pinching a dog when it jumped on the sofa. The taxi driver looked scared, confused. They exchanged terse remarks in Kyrgyz, and it seemed Ernys was trying to convince him we were friends, that everything was cool. I stared at the man intensely and spoke to him with my eyes – “Everything is not cool. This guy is not my friend. Everything is not cool.”

I got in the front seat but Ernys followed and hopped in the back. I opened the door and feigned to get out and Ernys trailed me just as quickly, but I tricked him – Ernys fell out the door and I stayed in my seat. My eyes fell on the driver again. They were full of fear. My pupils were pleading and he understood. He put his petal to the floor and we sped off into the night. In the rear view mirror, the burglar stood still, growing smaller and smaller. He had my phone, but that was it. Little did he know I had twenty dollars in my other pocket, and in my backpack I had a camera worth a grand. He was not even a very good burglar.

On a small, quiet street, where Ernys could not find us, we sat in his stalled car, and the driver counseled me as I shivered and sighed. “That man is a criminal. That man is not a real Kyrgyz. That man is not a real Muslim. He is a criminal. Just a criminal.” Now I know, I said, but I thought it would be fine. I bought him a cheeseburger. The taxi driver shook his head as I shook beside him.  “You’re so young, he said. “So young.”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    February 24, 2011 4:14 pm

    A fateful policy of engagement. Good story Dennis, shame it came at a cost.

  2. susan lansing-weller permalink
    February 24, 2011 5:14 pm

    hi – you can also find me on facebook. what an entry in your blog ! good writing – but please keep the writer alive ! i just finished reading ‘stones into schools’ by mortenson so i’m very touched to find you on such a grand adventure so very far away from manhattan beach. by the way, i’m the mom of chris weller (you probably guessed) please learn those lessons carefully – the ‘school of hard knocks’ lessons that never get mentioned in school that we all must learn if we are out in the world (or even hiding at home)’ may the Lord protect you;
    S.L. Weller

    • February 25, 2011 8:24 am

      Thanks, Mrs. Weller, I’m gad you like the story and I appreciate you keeping me in your prayers.

  3. Sarah permalink
    February 24, 2011 5:58 pm

    Wow, no wonder you couldn’t relay that all via FB chat. Crazy story!

  4. Sean Goldfaden permalink
    February 24, 2011 9:46 pm

    great story man, sorry about your phone, but real happy you’re ok!!!

  5. Colleen permalink
    February 25, 2011 2:24 am

    Glad you escaped without too much damage. But, that was an experience you won’t forget. Neither will we. Good description, Dennis.

  6. alyona permalink
    February 25, 2011 7:36 am

    Sorry about the incident. Glad all ended better than it could. Stay safe!

  7. February 26, 2011 8:30 am

    I was mugged in Northridge, California.
    On December 18th, 2008.
    They rolled up on me and my friend Josh Park.
    Three dudes got out of a white corolla.
    Before we could say, “Hey, how are you?”
    They pulled out guns.

    And said, “Give us the shit?”
    I pulled out my phone and my wallet. Josh pulled out his.
    We gave it to them.
    They got back in the car and sped off.
    I was laughing about it within five minutes. Josh wasn’t.
    I couldn’t sleep that night.
    For fear that they would look at my address, come to my parents house, and murder everyone.
    I stood on our balcony with our land-line and a baseball bat for six hours.

    My father bought me an iPhone 3G for Christmas.
    I jailbroke it within a week.
    I love my iPhone 4.

  8. Greg permalink
    February 28, 2011 1:38 am

    This is insanity! Lynchian!

  9. C. von Wieck permalink
    August 10, 2012 8:25 am

    naivete on a grand scale… from 59 yrs to 22..

    much ado about nothing.

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