Sunday, April 27, 2014

Dreary Premonitions


"Are you white or are you Russian?"

A question brought before me by one of my passengers at my job.

This was due to the fact that the majority of the drivers at my company introduce themselves as Russians to their American passengers who have never heard of places like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or any other stan that used to be a part of the Russian empire in her Soviet reincarnation. Since those folks have a darker skin complexion, a dichotomy between white people and Russians developed in the mind of this person and generated this line of inquiry toward this Russian who is very white indeed (though I am 1/8 Mongolian).

But this question did catch my fancy not only because of its humorous aspect but also on account of my own long-running obsession with the idea that something fundamental separates Russians from other white people. My Ukrainian friend "Boris" and I often talk about "white people" as if this entity is totally separate from us.

"She is too white," proclaimed Boris once critically about a girl he was physically attracted to but who didn't have his desired personality attributes.

And this separation came to the forefront in the current struggle over Ukraine. Russians and Westerners look at each other's very white faces and don't see a reflection of a mutual civilization in the other. They see something foreign.

***

My first blog post about the crisis in Ukraine was a short one,
Ukraine is really troubling me. I sympathize with the protesters but I don't see how their demands for the president to leave office before an election could be achieved without bloodshed. Its a problem for which I don't have a solution or even concrete opinions. All I have is a dreary premonition of Slavic blood running through the streets.
Almost exactly three months have passed since I wrote those words and my vague prophecy has come true. Over a hundred people have died in revolutionary violence of Kiev, most of them were anti-government demonstrators but some were from the security forces that stood at the guard of the falling regime whose incompetent and corrupt leader was fleeing to Russia as his soldiers faced Molotov cocktails and bullets in the streets of the capital.

But the carnage didn't stop there. Today a counter-revolution is pulsating in Eastern Ukraine. Government buildings in these parts of the country are occupied by people who are labeled "pro-Russian militants" in the West and as "terrorists" by the new government in Kiev. The consensus between the Ukrainian democrats and their Western patrons is that they must be crushed.

Russia sees the same folk as the moral heart of the country under the heel of the West and -at times- seems to search for a bloody confrontation between them and the Kiev government, so Moscow could intervene with a massive force that awaits its orders at the border between the "brotherly" countries.

From the very outset of this geopolitical explosion in Ukraine, I have been uneasy. A siren rang out somewhere and every man, woman and child put on their ideological lenses and everything outside of their vision was immediately dismissed as absurd and treasonous bullshit.

The West lives in a world where Ukraine is a twin of Poland, a country with a historical mission to join the civilized West and leave behind the imperial chains stretching back to the Kremlin.

To Russia, the victorious protesters in Kiev were pawns in an American project to move on Ukraine and get her ideological and military forces closer to the motherland. The Maidan movement was less of a popular upraising and more of a geopolitical gauntlet thrown at Putin's stony mug.

The Crimean annexation for me was a strange event. I believe that there is an unbridgeable gap between the ideology, culture and historical perspectives of Western Ukrainians and those of the Russian majority in Crimea and that these different people ended up within one country through an accident of history.

The tension between the two camps came to a breaking point after a revolution that disposed of a democratically elected pro-Russian president and resulted in a seizure of power by Western Ukrainians and plunged the country's economy into turmoil.

At this point, Ukraine offered Russians in Crimea an alien government that they would never support and an economy that went from bad to unbearably bad. I do believe that Crimea ended up as a part of Ukraine through a whim of a Soviet leader and I did and do believe that the majority of Crimeans (with the important dissension from the Tatars) would prefer to be a part of Russia.

I can't say that a covert invasion and referendum inspired a lot of enthusiasm on my part but for a land grab this one was relatively smooth and involved very few fatalities. I do believe in ethnic self-determination (in Tibet, Chechnya and, yes, Crimea) and because Russians in Crimea had a military power eager to reunite with them... their voice was heard and cemented their aspiration into a political reality of separation from Ukraine.

This deed was done and while Russian tactics were condemned as crude and imperialistic, I basically thought that they restored a basic historical reality- a region with a Russian majority that has been a part of Russia since the 18th century, was reuniting with Russia. The fact that the majority of Ukrainian soldiers stationed in Crimea elected to join the Russian army when they had an option of relocating with the leaving military units to the mainland of Ukraine or leave military service and remain in Crimea as civilians, reaffirmed my belief that the links between Crimea and Kiev were faint from the start.

It was opportunistic for Putin to use a moment of Ukrainian weakness to take Crimea and many Ukrainians I spoke with in America were sad to see it go, but none of them expressed the belief that the majority of Crimeans wanted to remain a part of Ukraine. Aside from the sad and murky deaths of the Ukrainian soldier and a Crimean Tatar activist, Russia's annexation of Crimea was not a tragedy in my biased eyes though neither was I ecstatic over the fact. My mind returned to the notion that the majority of Crimeans wanted it so, and I've encountered nothing that disproved that conclusion. Russian soldiers assured the fate of Crimea but I still believe that this fate was also the clear preference of the human majority on that peninsula.

Now Russia's actions in Eastern Ukraine are more troubling to me. Supporters of the Ukrainian revolution in the West and inside the country are quick to define the mutineers as Russian special forces masquerading as Ukrainians or -if they do conceded that some of the protesters in the east are in fact Ukrainian citizens- they are basically dismissed as drunks, elderly Soviet retreads, morons with an affinity for Russian authoritarianism and nihilistic losers in for an adventure. This de-legitimization means that the solution to the mutiny is primary a question of force and not compromise.

My opinion is different. The so called "pro-Russian militants" are actually facing a huge risk through their actions. Many of them have recently been killed in confrontation with Ukrainian forces, others have been arrested and have disappeared into secret prison cells, cut off from contact with their families, friends and supporters.

When the new Ukrainian regime restored its rule in the city of Kharkov, all the fifty or so men arrested -and facing up to life in prison for separatism under a new law passed by the revolutionary government- turned out to be Ukrainian citizens. The recent "pro-Russian terrorists" who died in confrontation with the Ukrainian army, also turned out to be Ukrainians, really they were kids in their early twenties, and they were buried like heroes by bearded Orthodox priests and surrounded by a crowds of weeping family members and grim-faced and determined supporters ready to avenge their deaths.

I believe that the discontent in eastern regions of the country is nearly-universal and the overwhelming majority of the men and women occupying government buildings are Ukrainians. I also believe that Russian agents are present among them and that their organizations are financially, militarily and morally supported by Putin's government. And depending on how the situation develops, this support may boil over into a Russian military incursion into eastern Ukraine.

Because the current government in Kiev and their backers in Western capitals, don't want to admit this widespread discontent among easterners, they cannot admit the situation for what it is; they rather see this rebellion as a Russian operation rather than recognizing that the discontent is genuine and can only be molded by Russia to meet its geopolitical interests. These militias could not take over and control so much territory without having the support of a large part of the local population.

Instead of trying to build legitimacy in the rebelling lands, Kiev dismisses this rebellion as phony, foreign borne and terroristic, thus creating further incentive for rebellion from people who see their own military and interior ministry forces being amassed against them. Thus creating further possibility for violence, thus moving Ukraine closer to a civil war, thus increasing the chances of a Russian invasion.

But even though I don't believe in Russia creating this mutiny out of thin air, I do believe that having such a powerful and savvy patron as Putin's Kremlin, clearly emboldens these Ukrainian rebels.

By taking over Crimea, Russia not only took a big part of Ukraine territory but also took a sizable chunk of the people away from the large "pro-Russian" electorate in Ukraine. Without Crimea, all Russian backed presidential candidates face almost certain defeat at the presidential polls. Russia doesn't want to gain Crimea and lose Ukraine therefore they are building up their new Ukrainian force out of the soft clay of discontent in the east.

I don't know what Putin wants, but I can surmise that the goal right now appears to be a federalized, decentralized Ukraine where Russia maintains her influence through local regional chiefs in the east. But perhaps the Kremlin's goals are more radical than that.

Russian support for the rebels makes sense geopolitically but this support also makes the rebels more competent and powerful. It transforms angry amateurs into a professional force ready for battle. This transformation also makes a civil war more likely since it necessitates a stronger military response from Kiev.    
So as not to lose Ukraine, Russia is basically using her people a column to advance her interests. But what are the ultimate interests of easterners and how do these interests contrasts with those of Moscow?

And herein lies the problem. The rage and anger in the east is unfocused, they don't like the Kiev government but this doesn't mean that the majority wants to be a part of Russian. They have rebels in the street that the majority may sympathize with without backing all of their agenda. And yet the situation is escalating everyday and people are losing their lives. Russia talks about deescalation but it wants a deescalation that serves its needs and in absence of this outcome it is fine with an escalation because it undermines their nemeses in the form of the Kiev regime.

This is a tangled mess, that I would like to see untangled peacefully but now it looks the ropes of emotions, hatreds and interests are getting ever tighter and I am afraid will only come loose if lubricated by human blood.
 

Flight from Guilt to Freedom: Departure at Gate 4A


The following is a recitation of a dream from last night:

I am on a plane in a sparsely populated first class section. My seat is close to the pilot's cabin, there is no one in the seat next to me. Further down in first class is a man periodically glancing my way. I know him. He is older, well-dressed and classy; he serves as some sort of a mentor to me. He has helped me so much in my life that he evolved to become a father figure. I sit in my seat contemplating adding his last name in front of my own in a legal way. That is how grateful I am for his help. Somehow I feel uneasy in his presence. Why aren't we sitting next to each other?

I put a blanket over my head. I take out two cigarettes, put them in my mouth and light them. Since I don't smoke in real life, the taste of tobacco is rough and unfamiliar, the cheap airplane blanket fills up with smoke like an Indian sweat lodge. Underneath the blanket I hear a male flight attendant approach me. I have been discovered!

"Didn't people use to smoke on planes in the 1950's?" I think to myself. "Then again, in the 1950's, they probably smoked while giving birth.Move the ashtray, honey buns, we need to cut the umbilical cord."

I put out my cigarette in a plastic cup filled with coke and a few ice cubes. The smell is intense. "Show me all your cigarettes" the flight attendant asks me. I show him my pack of menthol cigarettes, the two putout cigarettes -defeated and moist with cold Coca-Cola- and my vaporizer that I didn't use on the plane.

I normally don't smoke cigarettes so I don't care if he takes them away but I feel possessive of my vaporizer that I do enjoy. I hold out my trove of nicotine-delivery products like a shy kid showing his marbles to the teacher.

He doesn't take anything and walks away. A portly catholic nun dressed in all white approaches my seat. She speaks Spanish or Portuguese and I don't fully understand her. But it is clear that she is guilting and admonishing me for smoking on the plane. She seems to know me personally and is disappointed in my reckless behavior. Suddenly other passengers appear around us but instead of joining her polemic they turn the guns on her. Asking who is she to judge me. And bringing up the child abuse scandal and other issues that undermine the church's moral authority.

The nun looks bewildered by this turn of events and leaves feeling awkward and defeated. The other passengers also disappear. I suddenly note the presence of my mother and step-father on the plane. I feel closed in and anxious. I don't want to talk to them about the incident and wonder how much I will be fined for smoking on the plane or if I will be arrested for it.

I think the plane is going from Columbus to Cincinnati so I reconcile myself to the fact that it will be a short flight (a flight so short that I'm not sure there are commercial flights from Columbus to Cincinnati since the cities are an hour and a half car ride away from one another). Suddenly the plane begins to land.

Instead of resting at an airport landing it descends on a narrow road filled with cars. The cars lazily move out of the way as if they are accustomed to this turn of events.

The pilot bursts out of a cabin, looks at me kindly, without judgment and announces the landing.

I make my way out of the plane but no one follows me, no passengers, flight attendants, parents, mysterious rich benefactors or angry nuns. I am not in Cincinnati. I notice the warm, bright Seattle sun around me. I am in a familiar place between University District and Wallingford.

A road I walked many times before. I feel free, immensely pleased and relieved. The plane takes off and I am alone. I head to a nearest coffee shop to get a snack and some tea.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Ancient "Die Young" Ideal


Translated from Russian by me.

- How did you change with age? Would you say that, in your younger years, you were "better, purer" than now?

-No, I couldn't say that. I did not change. I understand better what it is that I want and I understand better how to prevail. But that which I want is unreachable. It is perfection. It is an old dictum, "live fast, die young." Vintage Rock 'n' Roll. To die young doesn't mean to die in your youth. You can die young being ninety eight years old. Agedness is when a person loses interest in life - a symptom of upbringing. A person must be wise but not old.

From an interview with a Russian musician and songwriter Boris Grebenshikov aka B.G. 

Original:

- Вы как-то изменились с возрастом? Вы могли бы сказать, что раньше были "лучше, чище"?

- Нет, не мог бы. Я не изменился. Я лучше понимаю, чего я хочу, и лучше знаю, как этого добиться. Но то, чего я хочу, так же недостижимо. Это – совершенство. Есть старинный принцип: "Жить быстро, умереть молодым". Рок-н-ролльный такой. Умереть молодым не значит - умереть в раннем возрасте. Можно умереть молодым в девяносто восемь лет. Старость – это когда человек теряет интерес к жизни, замыливание восприятия. Человек должен быть мудрым, но не старым.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Midwestern Heroin: Tales from the Heavy Road


"Who let's a ten year old smoke cigarettes?" my passenger asked rhetorically.

"I guess... the state of Ohio does," I pitched in.

***

At our company you start to get paid only when you arrive at the first residence to pick up the first client of the day. The commute to that client is unpaid, sort of like your commute to work if you worked at a McDonalds. Except that I don't work at a the arches with a fixed location and actually drive for a living. So my crazy logic would demand to get me paid for work-related driving.

But, goddamn... "it is what it is" as a fatalistic Russian peasant would say if he knew that American expression.

My first pickup for this Thursday was in a small town about an hour from where I live at 7:30 in the morning. So I got up at six and left home at 6:20 am knowing that the next hour would constitute my work-related yet unpaid trip as if traveling for hours to small Ohio towns at the break of dawn is something I would do on my own accord.

When I arrived at an old farm house split up into apartments, I called the number listed for the client but it was disconnected so I knocked on the door with a black cat peaking at me from behind the glass. I waited for ten minutes for my first passenger.

To be perfectly honest, my thoughts were dark and growing increasingly bitter, "maybe this lack of punctuality is part and parcel of why you failed in life and now live on government assistance" I thought as I sat in my car loading nicotine juice into my fancy vaporizer.

You see, its not like I intrinsically care about people failing in life or living off of taxpayer money. Life is hard and unfair and I don't judge people. But I was judging now.

Not because my time was being wasted (though it was) but because this Russian company that pays for my labor tends to overbook clients into the driver's schedule. One some busy days, you could expect to be ten to fifteen minutes late even if you are doing everything right, but if your client is late your whole schedule is fucked and you end up rushing from place to place, picking up passive-aggressive folks who are late to their appointments- a distasteful lateness whose presence you will know through the soundtrack of back-seat grumbling.

Just the other week I waited for twenty minutes for my first client who was supposed to be ready for departure when I arrived at 7:45, finally at 8:06, she graced me with her presence after my third nervous call inquiring about her progress of getting her ass out of the house. When she came out she was accompanied by her silent boyfriend who was catching a ride with us to his work downtown.

When we arrived to her doctor's office, she advised me to make a turn behind a KFC.

Suddenly her silent man perked up, "Do I fucking work behind a KFC?" he asked her. The bewildered douche was expecting her to go to a different place, but it looked like they didn't work out the trip logistics beforehand.

"Don't curse here," she admonished him.

"I'm going to get fired for this shit. I just lost my fucking job because of you."

She left the car without continuing with this fruitless exchange. The trick for me was that this entitled asshole remained seated next to me in the car.

"You need to leave," I said.

"Man, you passed my work."

"I'm on a schedule and now 20 minutes late to for my next pickup."

"Where is it?"

"It doesn't matter, I have to go now."

We sat there for a few tense moments.

"Can I see your phone?"

"No, I have to go."

He left the car, slamming the door.

In a few minutes I had two pick up two ladies and take them to their divergent doctor's offices. Both were frustrated and annoyed with the service. The Russian grandma wanted me to call the office and have them send someone else for the second lady and have me take her directly to her doctor who she feared would cancel her visit because she was now looking at being half and hour late.

She demanded to talk to my supervisor, when I reached him with her request his words to me were, "Fuck it, Ivan. Let her call the White House and talk to Obama if she wants to. I won't speak to her. She can call our main number and talk to the dispatchers. Give her the business card. We have no one else to pick up your other client, they have to ride together."

I managed to get them to their destination and it looked like both were on track to receive their medical services, but the whole event left a bad taste in my mouth.

When I brought this up to one of the other drivers, he unleashed his curse-ridden philosophy on the matter, "Fuck," he began in Russian, "if I am late, I don't fucking give a shit. Its not my problem. I just drive. These motherfuckers already get their shit free (we mostly carry people on government assistance). Fuck em..." he trailed off.

I however could not absorb his care-free attitude through Soviet osmosis. These drivers they hire to pay them next to minimum wage (less than I made stocking shelves at a supermarket) mostly don't even speak rudimentary English. When I took a state-mandated class with them so we could legally drive people with disabilities, these fuckers sat there bashfully smiling when the instructor asked each on of them to read one sentence from a provided sheet of paper listing the rights of people with mental and physical disabilities.

Comprehension of those rights was not demanded. All that the moment required was to read a few words of English laid out in front of them. Clearly to these drivers even understanding what was needed from them was a struggle because they turned to me, asking in Russian, "what does he want from us?"

Finally, I pointed out the paper they needed to read and one brave soul read out the right of disabled people to have romantic relationships without interference from their caregivers with the broken English worthy of a James Bond villain.

On the comprehension test -the answers to which everyone copied from me- had an open ended question at then end. "What qualities make you into a good driver for people with disabilities?"

"What should we put there, Ivan?" everyone asked in unison.

"Write 'compassion'." I advised.

"Da... how do you spell that?"

This ridiculous class that, according to Ohio law, had to last for eight hours was over for these ambassadors of compassion in less than three. And all of us -included this student- fully expected to be paid for the full eight hours of instruction.

***

So these guys -not blessed as I was- to be linguistically integrated into the mainstream of their adopted homeland, didn't have to worry about the back-seat grumbles of their tardy English-speaking clients, they were shielded from all that by an iron-curtain of cultural ignorance. Their passengers sat in the back with morose detachment knowing that all their potential vocalizations of discontent would would be met with an impotent silence from their driver.

I wasn't as lucky, my curtain of separation was pathetically weak, thinner than toilet paper, consisting of basic courtesy toward an apologetic, totally Americanized stranger taking you to your doctor... thirty minutes late.

***

Now I sat in this small Ohio town with a syringe filled with Banana-flavored nicotine juice awaiting a congress with my "Vapor Zeus" device. I looked at the cat who was studying me from behind the glass door and asked myself why was I here and why did I have to care about events out of my control. I would get paid my 8.50 an hour whether I was late or not. The government paid my company and the company paid me, the delivery of the person to their destination on time was a secondary consideration in this happy scheme.

Human motion made itself evident behind the door and with a quick, "sorry, about being late" a woman who looked like she was battered by life entered my car.

I do feel angry often, but I almost never (with an exception of one of my family members) hold on to that emotion. In this case, all my judging was flushed out of me in an instant.

We got to talking and toward the end of our hour ride she said with a smile, "I just told you my life story. I have nothing to talk about now with my psychiatrist (her destination today)."

A quick synopsis: abandoned by her mother at the instructions of her "pervert" step-father to be a warden of the state at age ten. Started smoking (which apparently was encouraged among the youth by their new parent- the state of Ohio) at twelve. Quit when she was thirteen but resumed a few months later. Felt sad about not spending Christmases with her family at first but now it doesn't hurt anymore. Became a heroin addict.

Experienced a clinical death after an overdose and was revived after multiple injections and electric shocks. Came back to life as she heard the faint voice of paramedics recording her time of death.

The first thought post-resurrection was about the fate of the percocets she had hidden in he bra that were now missing. Has no "shining light" memories of her near-death experience. Three months clean of heroin. Was diagnosed with lung cancer. Was smoking when she was walking out of her tiny one-bedroom apartment where she rooms in with a couple; a couple that is so dirty that their carpet turned black.

"I still smoke," she said with a smile, "now, it doesn't matter anymore. I don't give a shit."

Apologized for having a "potty mouth." We talked a little about religion (a topic prohibited for discussion in our company policy). She is a Baptist who nevertheless believes in reincarnation. Asked me a few questions about my "Buddha-ism."

When I told her about another one of my clients, a mother of five children my age whose husband had died and who lived in the Over the Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati - a notoriously crime ridden place- and witnessed a drive by shooting, my current passenger said, "Hell,  I've been shot."

One time when she wanted to hitch a ride when she herself was "Over the Rhine" a man pulled a gun on her demanding sex. She told him he could have sex with her dead body, calling his bluff.

He shot her. She passed out bleeding as he raped her. She had to carry a colostomy bag for a few months afterwards.

Our ride was over. She said I was a very cool person and left the car to roll her cigarettes outside of the mental clinic.

Heroin and Ohio are two things that didn't go together in my mind until today. But three of my passengers today mentioned the heroin epidemic here.      

A nice guy who has seizures on almost daily basis told me that he held his friend as he was dying of an overdose. An old lady told me about her forty-five year old neighbor who died from her addiction to the big H; a mother who left behind two teenage kids.

So yes, I have an interesting job and meet great people with stories that touch the hear and leave a mark. My proficiency in the English language has its benefits after all. One lady gave me a two dollar tip saying that I was a good driver.

Another called me a beautiful person, repeating this a few times after I helped her carry groceries to her second floor flat.

She touched my hand and held it for a few moments.

Depression prone, I never censored out this world from my day-to-day life. But now I was closer to it. And mentally prepared with my abstract, melancholy ruminations about the brutality of human life, I drew an outline of this reality in my mind long ago and now the real thing fit perfectly into this prepared crevice and left no scars on my psyche.

I love people, despise our world and hate being late.

***

With a wish to free all beings
I shall always go for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha,
Until I reach full enlightenment.
Enthused by wisdom and compassion,
today in the Buddhas' presence I generate
the Mind for Full Awakening
For the benefit of all sentient beings.
As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world.

~The version of the Bodhisattva Vow that H.H. Dalai Lama often uses when giving it to people in ceremony.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Politics in the Twilight Zone


As a "political junkie" I am one of those people who speeds up his car to read the bumper sticker on the vehicle in front of me. I am a careful observer of political displays. I still remember the flag of Kazakhstan proudly raised above a Seattle residence but this Cincinnati home I observed while driving for work wins the prize hands down. Not only does it sport the Soviet hammer and sickle BUT this universal Marxist symbol is paired by a neighboring " don't tread on me" tea party flag. What's the message here, "Don't tread on me, I am... a communist" !?!

P.S. Also present in this Midwestern riddle is a birch tree that appears to have been planted in the yard and not present anywhere else in the neighborhood. The birch tree is one of the traditional symbols of Russia which is filled with em.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Third-Person-Ivan Discovers Forgotten America

a picture of Cincinnati, taken from one of her forgotten hills. 

Excerpt from a online conversation (names have been altered):

Me:  Poverty of ambition was never my vice. More of a poverty of work ethic or -to be more specific- the poverty of metamorphosis that would turn my abstract thoughts and internal calculations into actions that effect my outside existence.

Phineas:: You just need someone kicking your ass, like a nagging mother or girlfriend. Someone you can't under-deliver to without jeopardizing your pride. Pride is a fantastic motivator, allowing ambition to conduct into action.

Me: Ivan needs a woman but I'd prefer a special lady lover/friend to moms.

Phineas: Don't even start on 3rd person Ivan. It's just an excuse to punt on taking ownership of the issue. With great talent comes great responsibility. Put your pride on the line and giddy up.

Ivan: FUCK YOU, PHINEAS! THIRD PERSON IVAN IS THE ONLY THING I HAVE! 

***

Today marked the end of the two worst days I had on my job so far.

Yesterday, I wrestled with hefty questions of mortality and property damage as the break indicator light up on the dashboard of my work car. As far as the hierarchy of dashboard indicators is concerned, the break indicator could be called the "Big Kahuna"- not easily dismissed even by an mechanical amateur and a driving provocateur like the author here since, well... this light alerts us to a possibility that one might have issues stopping the car. And the laws of physics suggest that if the car doesn't stop on its own accord, some other heavy object will do the trick.  

As my job involves moving civilians from point A to point B, I thought it might be a good idea to alert the office as the risks involved are to the health and life of our clients, the welfare of their company vehicle and that of their trusty employee. Yet when I phoned in my concern, I was told to turn in the car at the end of the day and continue on my merry way to pick up the next passenger, an innocent fella chatting away amiably about new handheld devices from the back seat, unaware of the nervous glances the driver was shooting toward the manual break. 

As the day went on I had to push harder and harder on the peddle, then providence sweetened the deal by making it rain and sending me to steep hills to bring my clients home.

As a new friendly passenger -in the front seat this time- was telling me about his failed boxing career and struggles with bipolar disorder, the lady in the back started sinning, "Go away, rain! Go away ay ay ayyyy!" 

Her voice was decent, she was a free spirit but her output did make the moment surreal and existentially heavy. 

Often my life resembles some indie flick, the scenes where the alienated hero has awkward encounters that highlight his offbeat nature, walks around alone with sad music playing in the background or laughs to himself at some inside joke only he and the audience knows about or has ridiculous arguments with his mother. Usually this is a prelude to having sex with some photogenic hipster girl who works at a dry cleaners or something along those lines. My film is all prelude thus far. Reels of footage building up to an unrealized peak of action. 

Finally the peddle would need to be pressed all the way to the end for the desired effect. The climax of the full stop was elusive, obtained only with great effort and skill. A few times I started to swirl a little to the side of the road so as to change my trajectory from hitting the car in front of me. But my driving skill proved sufficient to avoid any really close calls.

At the end of my shift I found myself in heavy traffic pondering the Buddha's Middle Path approach. The Buddha believed that indulging the body and trying to starve and punish it will both steer the person away from obtaining enlightenment; instead one must use the body as a vessel but not the end in on of itself.

In my case, I wanted to find the middle path of keeping sufficient distance between the car in front of me without creating so much space as to invite an adventurous driver to cut in front of my deficient vehicle and thus undermine the whole enterprise by putting me in a perilous position where I would not have enough space to actually stop the car before it went for a kiss with his bumper.

I guess I did find this path because I got to the company office in one piece; the boss greeted my brief report on the car malfunction with a common Russian curse word.

As Boris came to pick me up I was left in a nervous exhausted state of a person who drove hours in a car that might not have stopped when he wanted it to.

Today as my original vehicle was being repaired I was given a minivan to drive. I first got my driver's licence less than two years ago and only drove a minivan once in my life for about two days when I was emptying my storage unit in Seattle. The Dodge I drove now was not some insurmountable challenge for me but I did struggle to navigate the narrow residential streets of old Cincinnati with its heft and once was led by my GPS device to the wrong house on a hill where I backed into a narrow dead-end driveway and it took me ten minutes to back out of it and another ten to find the right house where I picked up an annoyed client who made passive-aggressive remarks on my driving such as a rhetorical inquiry about where I got my license when I happened to run a red light. I was tired, running behind schedule and surrounded by grey skies that would periodically emit cascades of all-consuming rain.

A new world opened up to me in those two days, a hidden city hiding beneath the neat suburban shell of Cincinnati. 

Like most cities, this one started out on or around hills. Then white flight seeped all the money out of these hills and into the former farm land that now grew rows of cookie cutter houses and subdivisions with pretty names that described nothing.

When I first moved to America, I was close to the old city, we lived on campus of the University of Cincinnati and I went to a junior high where white, native-born Americans were the rarest of minorities, found mostly among the staff. After year and a half, my mother found a job and we moved to an edge of the city and then she bought a house outside of it. My mother's climb on the social ladder took us further and further away from the core of the city until it remained a distant memory.

It is a unique facet of American life that when most middle-class white people say, "I live in city X," the common reality of this arrangement is that they really live on X's suburban periphery, rarely visit X itself and have large parts of city X as a complete no-go area. Thus their life in city X is in a way mythical and symbolic, they claim the place but it remains a distant foreign land to them. An x on the map that points to the center of a gravitational pull that almost never pulls them to its core, instead they circle their hometown like lifeless planets rotating around a dead star.

The city represents the messiness of life: slow-moving buses, abandoned factories, failed lives, billboards for Social Security Disability law firms, crime (petty and otherwise), old houses with garbage bags for curtains, teenagers hanging around street corners when they should be learning algebraic equations in their dingy public schools.

The suburbs represent -in political ads and in the human hearts these ads try to target- an American success story. A piece of your own land, two kids and a friendly retriever, the good old stereotype of a neat lawn serving as a metaphor for a neat, well-ordered protestant life. Suburbs give their residents freedom through isolation. No bus lines connect these clean dwellings to the grim urban reality. These outposts exist in another dimension, a dimension of straight lines in a world defined by curves. One moved from an air conditioned house to an air conditioned car to an air conditioned shopping mall like an astronaut shielded from the life-taking cosmos outside.

As I have noted before on this blog, I have left Cincinnati when I was 18 after spending my first five maladroit years on American soil there. I came back here before and live here now not on account of any special nostalgia but rather because I have now twice failed as an independent adult and have to return to home base before taking another stab at conquering the world beyond.

This relationship means that I never really committed myself to knowing this place nor have I ever proclaimed myself as any sort of a Cincinnati insider. I was an outsider who hardly ever thought about Cincinnati in on of itself at all.

Then again, I was never in a position where for over eight hours a day I would drive around this city as a means of livelihood. And if you ever find yourself in a similar job it is impossible not to think about the town you are crisscrossing for hours. As collapsed as I am in my internal exile, there are times when my vision leaves the inside of my head and glances at its surroundings.

And my surroundings amazed me. Obviously I knew that there are poor neighborhoods and "ghettos" that define the American inner city (especially in Northeast and Midwest), but having an abstract awareness of those places is totally different from looking at them for hours from the window of your car.

Because those places are marginal in the minds of most middle class people who live outside of their borders, it is easy for the mind to equate this marginal status with relatively small size. A few blocks here and there that surface for a few moments on local news in the aftermath of another drive by shooting. They assume a greater size when we think about places like Detroit, Philadelphia and Baltimore but that's because those are (or were) huge cities.

For a white college-educated resident of America, I always fancied myself as being more aware and even familiar with that part of America than most people in my social strata. After all, I did go to a black majority school when I first moved to America and when I left home at 18 and moved to Columbus in a midst of my adolescent rebellion (that was completely underwritten by my mother), I did finish the last months of high school in a Columbus public school where I was the only white person in every single one of my classes and the school and don't remember seeing any Caucasians in the halls either.

A Google user writing a review of the school characterized my Alma Mater thusly,
As a former student I must say this was the worst 4 years of my life! As a white minority I would compare this school to a prison. The violence, drugs and racism are the main memories I recall. Everyday was just another day of survival. The teachers have no control or respect from the students and the curriculum is a joke. I graduated from this cesspool having missed 72 days in a year. That should be enough proof that this school is a joke.
Unlike this fella, I've only been there for four months and the only confrontation I had there happened when a skinny kid shorter than I launched a failed and uninspired attempt to have me hand over my money to him when I was standing at a bus stop.

There were plenty of students there who could easily take me but this kid wasn't one of them. Even this attempted robbery had a transnational feel, he came over and said blandly, "empty all your pockets and hand me all your money." This command sounded no more menacing than an answering machine message at an accountant's home. I said that I had no money and he calmly walked away, more of a beggar than a menacing threat.

Again, I don't claim to have any street cred only some basic familiarity with this America. But while in the past I might have been in her schools or lived on the border of her neighborhoods, or glanced at her buildings while riding the bus, now in my new job I confronted the enormity of this forgotten space.

Perhaps I was too self-preoccupied or naive and thought of her in terms of neighborhoods before, huge neighborhoods in huge cities, yes, but still a relatively confined area - as the word "ghetto" seems to imply.

Now my idea of its scope changed and I saw this land in terms of a whole other world, her own universe whose idea of what America means is totally different -if not diametrically opposed- to that of the suburbs.

I never thought of Cincinnati as a conglomerate of steep hills, because the middle classes have left these hills. But now I was driving up and down hills with horrible roads. In some places the roads were literally falling apart on some lanes and pretty much everyone abandoned these lanes because driving on them meant hearing a symphony of pavement pieces being thrown about by your spinning tires.

I saw abandoned industrial spaces that would not look amiss in Detroit. Old ethnic neighborhoods left behind by the descendants of their founding fathers, streets with German names and pretty houses now standing in a state of neglect and irrelevance. Compared with the cookie-cutter suburban streets, this Cincinnati was gushing history and melancholy soulfulness. These old houses never appeared as pixels on the monitor of an enterprising developer, they were built brick by brick by locals who would often see more than one generation of their people live and pass with their confines.

This writer is more suited to describing states of mind and twisted concepts than physical surroundings, so I now stare at my laptop knowing full well that no words of mine will do justice to what I saw. Though this spectacle was sometimes tragic, I didn't see it as some sort of a nightmare. In fact, a part of me wanted to live there. It reminded me of old buildings and struggling villages I saw in passing when I traveled on Russian trains as a child from Moscow to my father's kin in the Ural mountains.

The suburbs were a rejection of this world, a clean antithesis to its old truths. America is a country whose spirit and motto defy fatalism. But this old Cincinnati was all about fatalism and confinement. To many of the elderly people and poor young mothers I ferried to their doctor's appointments places like Seattle or New York were as distant and unattainable as Brussels and Toronto. My passengers were as tied to their surroundings as the grandmothers I saw hanging their laundry to dry outside of their rustic Russian huts.

***

The thing about third-person-Ivan is that he is always a social voyeur. When a tourist goes to a foreign place all of their social interactions are calculated and unnatural, they don't speak the language or understand the culture, they are out of their element. Through a combination of being an immigrant and my own intrinsic disposition, I always end up playing that foreigner although I know both the language and the culture. In fact, I know two languages and two cultures -those of Russia and America- but by accident of my life, I am a perfect fit to neither one.

Although a superficial glance might make me seem indistinguishable from any other college educated white liberal who watches the Daily Show, the reality is that I almost never watch the Daily Show and feel mildly alienated in the midst of those who do. I was as much of a foreigner in this forgotten America as I was in her upwardly mobile cousin. If you feel at ease in the water, you swim naturally and without thought. But as I don't feel totally at home in any social waters or really with any one person (save the one Seattle girl who hardly talks to me) I am always an observing anthropologist, analyzing and classifying people around me like dead butterflies in a display case.

The Moldovan driver whose passenger I was on my two day job training, regarded his (and now our) clients with dispassionate condescension. "We serve the throwaways of society," he informed me as we pulled into a trailer park to pick up a friendly blind man and his wife.

For him and as -I imagine- for most drivers, their passengers are cargo to be picked up and dropped off. Unlike me, they are not burdened by an abstract festival of empathy, curiosity and sociology that takes place in my head.

But I did feel that these driving duties gave me a new appreciation of America.

While passing through one of the old hilly neighborhoods, I saw a person dressed as a statue of liberty advertising tax services that probably do the same things for a fee that could be accomplished in five minutes for free online-filing taxes.

In the environment of poverty, closed factories and abandoned storefronts this patriotically costumed person almost seemed like a polemical art performance thought up by an abstract artist with a leftist agenda.

I don't bring this up to indite America in any way. Listen reader, life is unfair. And American life is less unfair than that in most of the human world, in comparison to many countries - radically so.

The interesting part about America and her poor, is that -unlike much of the outside world- America doesn't have an ethnic core. A poor Russian and a rich Russian are still united by their "Russianess" they live in a radically different environments but speak in a similar way, often have the same religion, and -not infrequently- share an outlook on the world and their country. Ethnicity is the tie that binds. This explains why many ethnic Russians shed tiers of joy when Crimea was invaded and annexed by Putin. The Kremlin threw a lasso on a Russian island and most Russians there rejoiced at being in its tight grip.

The tie that binds America is not ethnic but ideological. America is the land of the free, home of the brave. The social ladder is supposed to be extended to all the willing to climb to its prosperous peak. Freedom is the credo of this faith, social mobility is the sacred rite.

But those parts of country and the residents of the "forgotten" America don't fit neatly into this ideal. Forget about the road to prosperity, even the road to the store is filled with potholes so large that you could bury a bear cub in them. The store fronts are closed, the houses sometimes look like something out of war-torn Yugoslavia and the jobs are few and often involve a frying pan with a Burger King logo.

There are no sitcoms or movies that star this America. You can glance at it on the news about Detroit or gang wars in Chicago, or see it on some critically acclaimed cable drama, -most frequently- you see it in patronizing liberal documentaries about the evils of Wall Street or the failing public school system.

Democrats scare us with this America when the show closed factories in 30 second ads as a testimony to the failure of Republican economics. Mitt Romney called the people here the 47% who always vote for more government because they are too lazy to work and join his enterprising America.

But for the most part, this land becomes forgotten, peripheral. The middle class has mostly left, and with it departed the attention span of the country.

Even terms like "ghetto" or "inner city" presume a kind of a marginal, alternative universe. A societal black hole -a crack in the pavement- that people know exists but is too dangerous and depressing to explore.

All my prescription for change here are nothing more than banal liberalism- better schools, more money etc. and I will spare you that litany until I run for office.

What can I say?

Seeing this enormous, beautiful and forlorn country surrounded by success, I felt what I often feel- the old ache that makes me want go home to a woman I can love and feel that I have my own warm home in this doomed universe, my own intelligent and loving mammal with whom I could cuddle and fuck that ache away.

Nothing much.

Just third-person Ivan driving around in an old Dodge minivan, looking out the window, seeing things, thinking big, thinking small, waiting for the rain to stop.