Stretching through JFK’s forgotten terminal three is a line of travelers willing to wait for accident prone-Aeroflot’s overnight flight to Moscow. We’re crossing a cultural barrier, entering this two-hour line ruled by Russian stewards, and I take it all as a gentle preview of the former Soviet Union. My fellow travelers: One is an lumpy middle-aged woman in leopard-print pants fanning herself, slightly disturbing a bright orange helmet of hair. Her shoes curl up like an elf’s—the epitome of women’s footwear on the other side of the Pacific. Her husband rubs his ribs under a Brezhnev-era suit, then spits on the floor and mutters in Russian.
God love it: I’m 14 hours from St. Petersburg, where I’ll join the final two weeks of a month-long writing conference called Summer Literary Seminars. Full Disclosure: They paid for my plane ticket; I do their print design. Additional Disclosure: The seminar is Breadloaf in the Motherland, one of the largest and probably best writing seminars in the world—based for eight years now in Russia’s cultural capitol. The city itself is a stunning and churlish host, a ghostly facsimile of 17th-century Europe, built on marshland by royal decree on the bones of thousands of serfs shipped in for labor. Five million people live here and recent studies place it as the 10th most expensive city in the world. New York is number twelve. The hundred participants and faculty—in the past, we’ve had Dave Eggers, the late Robert Creeley, The New Yorker‘s fiction editor—will pound the same streets as Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol. There’s no better summer gig out there, and I’m happy to provide a written record.
The red-faced marine standing military stiff in line holds baggage with tags indicating an early-morning flight from Phoenix. His fiancée, a tight woman in a black v-neck and jeans, holds his meaty hand.
“What does that mean?” she says, pointing to a blue sign across the terminal. I see one word, “KIOSK.”
“It’s an information booth, honey,” he says.
“Is that word in English?”
“Yeah,” he says sighing.
She clicks her tongue and fingers the enormous rock on her finger. A few minutes later, she stares transfixed at the departure screens, which list another Moscow flight on an airline not known as the most dangerous in world. I share her longing, if not her vocabulary. We’ve been in line for 45 minutes.
“When we get to Russia,” she says, “signs will all be in Russian, right?”
“Yes,” he says, looking at his ample watch, a Corvette-themed souvenir piece.
“They even have a different alphabet, don’t they?”
The Russian in Brezhnev’s retired suit pats his dyed skull and inches his bags forward with a knock-off Italian loafer. It’s approaching an hour we’ve been waiting.
Two American college girls behind me—one is carrying two new tennis rackets—brag about how many tampons they’re bringing. Funny, but then I remember my own indulgence: Fifteen books, not one less.
I look back to the Marine. His largest bag has a tag that indicates a weight of 41 pounds. I’m thinking there are enough soldiers abroad, that another Marine’s foreign appointment—with a particularly heavy bag that screams “inside: super-deadly hardware”—is not a cause for celebration. I hope he’s on vacation but acknowledge to myself there are probably nuclear facilities outside Moscow that merit a Marine’s long-term supervision.
I notice an American couple with a baby stroller standing outside the line. They’re hugging each other in a desperate embrace, the woman bawling uncontrollably, whipping her head back and forth. They have baggage but no baby. Were they waiting for an adoption agency to deliver an orphaned Russian tot? Were they to fly with the new child to Ohio? This would seem to explain the baby carriage, the woman’s enormous grief, and the sensible shoes that say, “Akron.”
Another vaguely military-looking American adjusts the volume on his iPod and leans his black duffel against muscled legs struggling against black denim. The duffel is his only luggage. No novel, no camera. Nothing but his clunky Doc Martens and a shaved head to keep him busy. On a transatlantic flight.
We’re long past an hour in this line in JFK’s terminal three. But no force can stifle the Russian soul for indefinitely and the line gradually gives way to party time. A jolly couple with Russian passports are headed to Moscow and break out a big bag of cherries. The wife bellows at a couple nearby, well-appointed seniors probably from a land called Connecticut. “Have a cherry!” she says. The seniors, with matching retiree rucksacks and sour smiles, seem prepared to demure. “Come on,” the Russian husband says, juice running down his cheek. After pausing, the seniors each pluck a cherry out of the bag and suck politely. The Russian wife beams, working a pit to the front of her mouth, then spits into the communal cherry bag with gusto. She offers the spittoon to her American compatriots, who appear ill at ease.
We all creep forward. We all have our reasons to board a cheap flight to Russia. Mine? A chance to step outside New York and the relentless knowledge industry, to re-test my powers of observation, to drink my weight in 50-cent beers and three-dollar bottles of vodka—and to watch writers do what they do best: Walk through a weird world, writing some of it down, gorging on each other’s sentences, and drinking their own weight in 50-cent beers and three-dollar bottles of vodka.
It’s my fourth year here, and I have a feeling I’ll get into less trouble than years previous. But there’s the same backdrop: a drab Soviet-era apartment in which to hang my hat, a culture that encourages public drinking, and a position just south of the Arctic circle, so far north that in high summer such as now, it never grows truly dark.
Tomorrow: The White Stripes. Live in St. Petersburg. On my birthday.