This was the second summer I was there, in 2001. I was drinking down at the embankment with a group of students and some friends and relatives of theirs.
|The girl referred to as Brunetka in VODKABERG memoir.|
As I said, in the beginning, I was unsubtly worshipped by many of my students. Foreigners were a rare and fabulous thing at that time, unseen at all in the town before about 1997. (It was one of the "closed cities" as the aerospace industry operated there.) My students all dreamed of emigrating, by any means possible. With my bland all-American looks, I was an embodiment of all they dreamed of. Travel, comparative prosperity, freedom, modernity.
I was actually uncomfortable with that in the beginning; but nothing corrupts a man's soul like unjustified acclaim, and I of course learned to bask in the sunshine of their attention.
But this was when that was just beginning. Anyway, back in 2001, even the men liked foreigners, and there were some guys there, cousins of some of my female students, and they had never met an American before and were most impressed with it. They wanted to talk about Eminem lyrics, as I recall.
The embankment along the Volga at that time was old-fashioned hot mayhem; beer at that time was about 15 - 20 rubles (50 to 75 cents) and there were cafes and kiosks selling it everywhere. Vendors sold barbecue and rice pilaf and shawarmas, drunk teenagers roamed around, Russian pop music blasted and the girls in the leopard-skin miniskirts gyrated about on their high-heels.
Everybody in town seemed to go there. Nobody had air con at that time and it was the best way to beat the heat and humidity.
There were also, in addition to places to rent bicycles and roller-blades, all sorts of cheap fairground attraction type games. As we were walking away from the cafe, we passed one of these:
Wikipedia tells me this is called a "high-striker."
And of course the cousins of the girls I was with wanted me to try it. "America!" one cried.
Oh shit, I thought.
The guy operating the thing put a hammer in my hand, and said I could do it for free, when he heard I was American.
Now I'm in pretty good shape, but I'm no fucking strongman. I hesitated and tried to think of a way to bow out gracefully.
But by now the cousins of the girls I was with were clapping and shouting "USA! USA!"
Some other Russians, hearing all the fuss, gathered around to watch.
I raised the hammer over my head. It wobbled precariously.
Remembering something that Bruce Lee had once said, I took a deep breath and aimed -- not at the striker -- but at the ground beneath the striker.
I didn't even hit the thing squarely; the hammer sort of glanced off.
"AW SHIT!" I yelled.
But damned if the thing didn't go all the way to the top. BLIP - BLIP - BLIP - BING!
And the crowd watching, starting clapping and cheering, and shouting "AMERICA! AMERICA!! USA! USA!"
I won a bottle of beer. A couple guys from the crowd stepped forward to shake my hand, but of course also a couple then wanted to challenge me to see who could get to the top the most times.
I smiled and bowed to the crowd and took my leave.
So I'm gonna go ahead and say that wouldn't play out like that today. Can't even drink beer on the embankment anymore. But what the hell, it was thirteen years ago.
And thirteen years before that, the fucking Berlin Wall was still standing.