Hanging out with my friend Mark in Boulder a couple weeks ago, I was reminded of one of the stupiderest things I’ve ever done.
You see, I was never a wild child. In fact, I didn’t really come out of my shell until a month or two before my seventeenth birthday when my parents packed me off to the former Soviet Union. For a comic book-reading suburban loner from the Midwest, four weeks in foreign country living cheek-by-jowl with fellow teenagers seemed like, well, a gulag.
It wasn’t my first trip overseas, though, nor can I say I was overly sheltered. The previous year, my parents took us all to Europe on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary. I saw an “adult show” in Paris. I hammered pieces off the Berlin Wall, already covered in graffiti. It was a touristy kind of thing with enterprising Germans, mostly from the poorer east (apparently), waiting around to rent you their hammer and spike. I learned that concrete is hard to break and that everyone is a capitalist.
I also learned what the words Oma and Scheiße meant and that some kinds of German porn are fucked up. I managed to smuggle a couple magazines back (of the nubile variety) without my parents knowing — at least, I don’t think they did, although looking back that seems insane.
But the Soviet Union at the end of its life was a weird place. There was a sense that things were opening up, but no one was quite sure what you were allowed to do. As Americans, we were something of a novelty, and as sixteen year-olds, we were not a threat, which is a fine position from which to observe.
I had an amazing cup of coffee from a street vendor in Leningrad. It was served in one of those glass cups with the ornate metal holder, which, while pretty, was inconvenient. It meant you couldn’t take your drink with you and had to stand their awkwardly sipping your beverage until it was gone. And then there was the matter of who had used it before you.
I remember the goats braying in the cargo hold underneath me while I clutched my seat, eyes closed, for the duration of what is still the most terrifying flight I’ve ever taken, courtesy of Aeroflot. I bought art and old communist propaganda, including a cloth banner that still hangs in my office, from the hawkers on Arbat Street in Moscow. I wandered Gorky Park alone. I refused an offer of sex from one of my fellow students and ended up being accosted by her.
I also did my first real drinking. I was never a big drinker. (I’m still not.) And while I’d had the occasional sip of beer or whatever, since alcohol wasn’t explicitly forbidden in our house, it never seemed like a big deal. It helped, I suppose, that neither of my parents were big drinkers either.
At one point a group of us were gathered in a compartment on a train — I think we were heading to Kharkov — and one of our colleagues had managed to mash some fresh strawberries with the ubiquitous vodka. (Russians really do drink that shit like water.) None of us pussy American kids could really handle straight liquor, especially non-drinking me, so having it cut with fruit was the only way I tried any at all.
It was only later that someone thought to ask how our enterprising friend had mashed the strawberries on a train with no dining car. I’ll let you figure that one out.
All that to say, six years later, I was entirely too ready to follow a man I’d never met into a backstreet bar in London where literally anything could have happened to me.
His name was Pedro, and he was a short, stocky Puerto Rican Jew from New York. (He’s actually where I got the idea for Cerise’s professor in The Red Dagger for those playing along at home.) I was in the UK with three friends, but near the end of our trip, we all had different aims, so we split. One friend took the ferry to Dublin. One friend — my buddy who lives in Japan — went to Aberdeen, where he would later spend a semester studying. One friend ran out of money and flew home.
I went to St. Ives — God knows why — and quickly back to London. I think I was somewhere near the West End when Pedro stopped me on the street with the words “Are you American?”
I guess I looked the part.
My simple affirmative answer was enough for him to gently grab my arm and pull me into the bar, where he proceeded to buy some very expensive liquor by the bottle and get us both very drunk.
I know. Stupid, right? And not ten days earlier I’d been in Manchester looking for a Pizza Hut when an IRA bomb exploded just down the block. The shove of the blast nearly knocked me down, and as I stumbled, I felt pebbles and tiny debris bounce off the back of my legs. Windows shattered. My ears rung.
And if that wasn’t enough, at the beginning of the trip, while waiting for my friend to call home from a phone both, I saw a drunk man stumble off a curb in a packed Trafalgar Square, get hit by a car, and die. A wiser man would have listened to the whisper of the Fates.
Pedro told me he was a tradesman from Brooklyn — although the latter was clear based on his accent and mannerisms — that he had never married, and that he saved all his money from working until he had enough to travel overseas, where he would blow through it all, only to return home and start all over again. He must have dropped a grand, easy, just on what I saw.
After a couple hours yukking it up together in a dark, high-backed booth, a man came to get us. Pedro paid, and we were escorted to the BACK where a limo was waiting. Inside were two beautiful and impeccably dressed working girls. Apparently they wouldn’t double-up, which was why he needed a wingman. And he simply took the first American dude he could find.
I told my buddies what had happened and I don’t think they believed me. Some twenty years later, I still don’t think they believe me. It has all the marks of a tall tale. Certainly it’s also not something you talk about in polite society, such as the professional offices where I spent much of the next twelve years.
Furthermore, I learned as an adult that when one has lots of stories, sharing them liberally in conversation can come across like one-upmanship (and sometimes is). So I had largely put the whole episode out of my mind. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded.
It ended extremely, extremely awkwardly, but, man, that was a helluva night.
art by Geoff Darrow