Conversations with a Former Soviet-Bloc Journalist

United Flight 335. Last Thursday, leaves Dulles Airport for Seattle, Washington. I’m more thankful than I expected for being on this plane. The past few times I flew cross-country, I picked up bargain-basement tickets from Southwest Airlines. $99 each way. Not a bad deal, but historically, those trips have included stops in Las Vegas, Los Angeles or Salt Lake. There’s a certain comfort in knowing I can pass out and just wake up five hours later on the West Coast.

At the terminal, I hear a lot of people speaking what sounds like some kind of Eastern European toungue. I tell myself, hell, I guess there must be a big community in Seattle. I take my seat on the plane. I’m sandwiched in the middle seat. To my left, a smallish-looking, pale-skinned woman listening to a Hitachi CD player the size of a college textbook. To my right, a guy in a pinstriped business suit, weighing in at about 250 pounds, a shaved head, but not shaved enough to hide his receding hairline, and travelling with a distinct body odor that reminded my nostrils of some kind of hybrid cross between a spoiled Reuben sandwich and the shoes I wore to gym class in seventh grade. He’s abided by the “two articles of carry-on luggage rule” – one weathered briefcase, and a plastic shopping back with the BMW logo, spelled out in strange looking characters.

He’s rowdy and looks uncomfortable and remedies his discomfort by talking loud and cracking jokes to his buddies in that same language. I turn to him and ask him what he’s speaking. He says Russian.

“What about all those other guys?” (by now I’ve realized that there’s at least fifteen or twenty of them on the plane with us).

I ask him if they’re all travelling together.

“Yes, we are all journalist from former Soviet Union…I am political journalist. I apologize for my bad English.”

“It’s okay,” I tell him. “My Russian’s shit. You’ve got nothing to apologize for.”

I think to myself, what are a group of two dozen Eastern European journalists going to do in Seattle? He tells me they just met with Condoleeza Rice the day before. It’s a State Department sponsored trip. And they’re supposed to be learning all these things about America so when they write about this country, they’re better-informed about the nuts and bolts of the place.

The guy nudges me. “Seattle – it’s good city?”

“Yeah, I like Seattle. You’ll like it too. You like coffee? Yeah man, if you like coffee, you’ll have a good time in Seattle. Good beer too. You probably like beer, right?”

He smiles but looks confused.

“No Vodka in Seattle?”

“Right…I forgot. Sure, I bet there’s decent Vodka up there. Just ask at the bar.”

“Yes, thank you,” he tells me.

I go back to reading the in-flight literature. I’m surprised that the United Airlines magazine cover story is a profile on Tom Waits. It’s probably the most interesting piece of writing I’ve ever read in one of those airplane magazines. I think about letting this guy listen to a Tom Waits song on my iPod, but I realize that it might scare him.

I put the magazine back in the seat pocket in front of me. The guy shows me pictures of his two year old daughter, and tells me that he likes the United States, but that he also misses his wife.

“Barack Obama. He is…black man?”

He makes this motion with his hands, waving them across his face. I’m not really sure what he’s doing.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s a black man. Did you meet him too when you were in Washington?”

“He will be next president of United States?” His inflection rises, and I wonder whether he’s just curious about American politics, or whether I’m becoming a source for his reports when he gets back home.

“I think he’s got a good shot. People like him a lot. Especially young people. He’s a smart man.”

“But white people not like him, right?”

“Well, I can’t speak for every white person. But I’m a white person, and I like the guy. And I think there’s a bunch of other people like me too.”

He looks content with my answer. “Yes, thank you.”

I watch a movie called Freedom Writers with Hillary Swank, and drift in and out of consciousness. Periodically, I wake up and I see the journalists are crowded around another guy’s laptop. They’re looking at a photo slideshow from their meeting with Condoleeza, and laughing hysterically. I wish I could speak Russian.

A couple hours later, I wake up. My friend nudges my shoulder again.

“I have question for you.”

“Ok, sure thing…shoot…”

“In Seattle, is there prostitute?”

He has a serious, stern look on his face. He’s not kidding around. He wants real, useful information.

“Shit, I don’t know. I mean, yeah, I’m sure there are. I can’t say I’ve ever worked with one. But I bet they’re out there.”

“Yes, thank you.”

He pauses for a moment.

“There is black prostitute too?”

He throws me a curveball. But we’re bored on an airplane, and in the interest of shooting the shit, and not killing the conversation, I roll with it. “Sure, why not? If you look hard enough, or just ask around – you can probably find any kind of prostitute you want.”

“Yes, thank you,” he tells me again.

“How much they cost?”

Now he’s testing my street knowledge. I feel like referring him to a Lonely Planet guide, but I know for this kind of stuff, it’s probably not all that much help.

“I don’t know…maybe a hundred dollars? Two hundred dollars for a really beautiful woman? I’ve never paid for sex before. Sorry I can’t give you a better idea.”

“It’s ok. Thank you.”

“But there is black woman, yes?”

I get the feeling he won’t rest until he’s confident that he can find a black prostitute in Seattle. So I tell him, “absolutely. When you get to your hotel, ask the concierge for the closest bar. And when you get there – ask someone to help you. They can give you more information…”

He’s a little more satisfied now. “Yes, thank you so much my friend. You understand, in my country, Azerbaijan, there is eight million people, but no black women. Very exotic in my country.”

I nod my head and just listen. This is a man who is very happy to be in the United States.

I wonder what kind of stories he’ll write about his travels.


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One Response

  1. WOW – You’ve got to appreciate his straightforwardness…I guess.

    Great story.

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