Fall came to Novosibirsk the last day of August. The week before had included a minus 1 evening, but that was a summer aberration. The last day of August was the real start of fall. That day the air became especially clear, and the light changed to that special tilting light of spring and fall.
All of the inhabitants of Boogrinkoo (my neighborhood) were out on the street that evening, and though they’re out on the street every evening, that evening seemed special. Maybe because it was fall, or maybe because I was leaving soon, but that evening I felt like I was seeing Boogrinkoo in high-relief for the first time.
And there is a lot to see in Russia, on the street. For example, there are the bezdelniki. That is a word for people who don’t have anything to do. It is always derogatory and almost always refers to young males. Because I live in a rough neighborhood, these bezdelniki comprise a decent percentage of any evening’s street-strollers. They differ from other street-strollers in that they roam the streets all day, not just after work. They carry two-liter bottles of beer with them, and sunflower seeds. They love Adidas, and they move in packs.
That evening, upon exiting the gates, I recognize one pack in particular because one member is especially tiny. Even if he were a woman, he would be abnormally tiny. I’ve also seen an abnormally tiny woman around the neighborhood. She could be his sister, but if she’s not, they should date. Tiny woman is well-heeled. One day she will inspire him to abandon his bezdelniki ways. And though this may sound like the plot of a romantic comedy, in Boogrinkoo, it’s perfectly plausible, because tiny man and tiny woman are surely aware of each other. Everyone is aware of everyone here.
My large Catholic social-aid organization enjoys vibrant gossip precisely because life showcases itself on the street. Couples make out on benches. Parents yell at their children. Young women walk in high-heels as if the sidewalk were the catwalk. All of them have long, shiny hair. Once, while I was shopping in the market, an old woman died of a heart attack. Sad, but at least she died in the thick of life. She died on the street.
I continue down the sidewalk and past the bezdelniki. Further ahead, a child with Down’s Syndrome, strung along by his mother, sees a man walking a chihuahua. “Give it to me!” he yells. On a sewer cap lies a pile of old rice pilaf and some chicken bones. Three stray dogs eat it. They don’t fight over the food because, like the bezdelniki, they roam in packs. They depend on each other to get through the winter. That evening, though beautiful, signalled winter’s approach. Summer-life, the easy life for the dogs, had already ended.
I reach the bread kiosk, the ostensible purpose of the stroll. In line, I chat with Sasha, a seven-year-old boy from the orphanage. He stays with me until I buy my bread, because he wants to know, I know, what kind I buy. People are minutely nosy like that in Boogrinkoo.
On the way back the man I call “the mystic” was out under his tree, as usual. He stands mumbling under a tree twelve-feet away from his apartment building all day, hands often raised up as if in supplication. This evening a man forty feet away from the mystic’s apartment building calls out to him. “Ivan Vladimirovich,” the man says, “come here.” It is a momentous moment. The mystic takes one step, then another until he is definitely out of his tree’s range. He grins and, now more normal man than mystic, walks over to his friend.
The sidewalk gets bumpy and slows down my pace. I move to the road just when a car passes me like a bat out of hell. “I bet that’s Sasha,” I think. Sure enough, it is Sasha. An office worker at my organization, not the seven-year-old orphan (many Russian names have been tainted by their associations with either the clergy or with peasants, so only about ten names for each sex are left). Hand on the steering wheel, foot on the gas pedal, Sasha turns around and gives me a nice long wave.
At the base of the most giant and ramshackle of all of the soviet apartment buildings is crutches man. He is old, his military medals are pinned to his jacket, and he walks with two differently-sized and differently-colored crutches. He loves pigeons, and every few steps, he stops. He catches his breath, then scatters sunflower seeds from his pocket onto the ground. People in the neighborhood know him and like him. I hear them yelling, “Good day Alexander Sergeyevich!” to him at the top of their lungs. He’s gotten about 50 yards farther today than he usually gets. He’s almost to the gates of the compound that is my home in Russia. At the moment I pass him, he’s standing still, surrounded by pigeons pecking at his feet, and laughing.
At the gates of my compound, with one backward glance towards greater Boogrinkoo, I’m reminded of a line from the Gettysburg address. The battlefield at Gettysburg, said Lincoln, was “above our poor power to add or detract,” because the soldiers that died there had already hallowed that ground. No major battles that I’m aware of have taken place in Boogrinkoo, but Boogrinkoo, too, seems far above whatever dedication speeches or city planning could give to it — “our poor power to add or detract.” Because with the Soviet apartment blocks — world-renowned for their ugliness — the heaps of litter, the characteristically Russian messiness written on every inch of every building, and I swear Boogrinkoo’s beauty is not the least bit dimmed. On the contrary, it’s blazing.