Monday, January 29, 2007

A Ghost in Fremont

What follows is an essay that I wrote in the Summer of 2004 after listening to a talk by Andrei Codrescu. For those of you who didn't know: there IS a statue of Lenin in Fremont, Seattle, United States of North America, Planet Earth.

Last night J. and I went to the Rialto Theater in Tacoma to listen to The Writer’s ruminations on Woolworth, on escaping from the Stalinist East and the aroma of strudel in old Hermannstadt.

I don’t know where he pulled this strudel business from; the city did definitely smell of many things, but apple pie was not one of them, as I recall from back when I was stationed there (drafted by a communist army at age eighteen); yet I share some of his Transylvanian nostalgia. Only I reminisce drinking beer in smoky cellars, places such as “La Bolta Veche”, with the entrance mischievously winking at the old cathedral, and the cobble stone alley that lead to it; the alley narrowed as it spiraled downhill, descending into the outer circles of the Inferno. The cellar with its many corridors could have as well been a real place of torture, back in medieval times; I always wondered if there was some sort of vertical secret passage, a shaft to connect it with the cathedral above. Sinners would have been thrown down through a secret trap in the confessional’s floor.

Later, The Writer signed for me a copy of his book and I was standing there, shaking and feeling dumb, so much intimidated by the proximity of one of my favorite Romanians; he is also Jewish and therefore related to God: one more reason for me to be shy. He asked what I was doing in the States and I could only utter: “I hang out in Redmond, like many others do these days” – since I assumed that everyone knows that Microsoft’s headquarters are in Redmond, and that makes it the Capital of the Software industry, which made me a programmer.

The Writer talked about Woolworth and I was thinking about The Waffle House (a favorite hangout back in my Atlanta days); one generation apart, we had different hangouts, different experiences. Yet somehow I felt as the only person in the theater that could see The Ghosts. I mean, how could one expect those nice Tacoma bourgeois ladies and gents to grasp the paranoia I breathed while growing up? Of course, as fine intellectuals with a cult for Freedom, they read Soljenitsin and Codrescu.

Yet one might think that all the descriptions of the life behind the Iron Curtain are but the fabrication of a sick mind's exercises in exploring the absurd, rhinoceroses metamorphosed into giant roaches. The reality of suburbia, the hard evidence of the two-car garage, and the proof of the barbecue in the backyard all strongly dismiss such aberrations. “Yeah, they say life in the Eastern Block was tough, but that was just an excuse for drinking vodka and seeking asylum in the West”. The Ghosts of the past, I have to live with; I gave up explaining how the communists used to shut down the power in winter, several hours a day, how the children and the elderly had to wait in line for bread, while the working adults went to jobs where they had to listen to propaganda, and spy on each other, to make sure that no one else spies on them on behalf of the government. There was a secret police that watched over the other secret police, making sure that they are loyal to the regime and promptly sent to jail anyone who seemed to display any sign of discontent with the government. The “suspects” used to disappear as if through a secret trap in the floor.

When I moved to Seattle a few years ago, I almost bumped into one of the Ghosts while walking on the street in plain daylight. I was strolling through Fremont on a sunny Saturday afternoon. It was spring and people were out everywhere, enjoying the first day with blue sky in six months or so. The colorful mass of yuppies wearing shorts and flip-flops flowed slowly by the souvenir and coffee shops, by the Greek restaurant in the corner, some even ventured downstairs in the old Dusty Strings music store.

I was going with the flow, absent-minded, smiling at the sun, when I saw the statue: a two stories high bronze monument of no one else but the father of communism, the root of all evils, the Mummy. I froze; time bent for a while, slowed down, then came to a full stop: the colors of the crowd, and its noise blurred away. Hypnotized, I couldn’t take my eyes off Lenin, afraid that he might actually move. I quickly examined the possibility that I had come upon a breach in time, where the Universe, in some Carl Sagan-esque sort of stunt bent over backwards, stuck its head up the Milky Way’s butt, and opened a Stargate passage to the Soviets world of the Fifties. I kept looking at Vladimir Ilich, terrified at the thought that some tanks and soldiers with 7.62-mills may rush through the secret opening, through some sort of reversed shaft, ascending from the Inferno back into the gothic cathedral of our daily lives.

Then, my heart, and time with it, slowly resumed back to their normal beat, and I glanced at the people around: do they see what I see? Are they running in terror? The street was filled with chatter: passers by seemed to ignore the statue of Lenin; the taco place was full of customers. Was I the only one that could see The Ghost (as I would, few years later, in the Tacoma Rialto Theater)?

And then, paying closer attention to the crowd, I realized that most of the kids out there in the street were generations and thousands of miles apart from the Iron Curtain.

With the long coat, the visor cap, and the daring beard, the statue could as well pay tribute to a local fishing boat captain who sunk up by Alaska.

“Vladimir Ilich” – in Russian prose all characters are addressed by their both names, which in a funny way ties Georgia to the other Georgia, “Vladimir Ilich”, I chuckled, “none of these good folks strolling here know who you are. Maybe not even the fool who rescued your statue from the ashes of the dieing U.S.S.R. knew very well who you were.

“You see, my dear Vladimir Ilich, this is your epitaph: small time fishing boat Captain Anonymous, sunk into The Oblivion Sea, west of Bering. And that is History’s revenge; it’s blessing, it’s curse: a very short memory”.


Max said...

People just don't like to hear about suffering, so many of the darkest years of humanity get ignored because we don't want to hear about it. Unfortunately, if we heard more about the kind of abuse a society can impose on itself, we perhaps could learn from the past and not repeat it.

Thank you for this blog post. I really hadn't considered the double-spying part of the Iron Curtain, and that opened my eyes a little more.

I am curious what you mean by "he is also Jewish and therefore related to God: one more reason for me to be shy"?

The Free Meme said...

To Max: What I meant is (I should consider rephrasing that part) that I felt intimidated by someone who has seen a worse face of Communism than I have, and also carries the heritage of a race that has seen lots of suffering throughout History. That paragraph also alludes somehow to Christian values being rooted in Judaism (IMHO). I just thought at the time that it was a clever phrase. I sent the essay to Mr. Codrescu back in 2004 it and he did not comment on that part :) Do you remember the move Independence Day when one of the characters says "I am not Jewish" and the Rabbi responds "Nobody's perfect"?

Max said...

I'm fine with the phrase (and of course there's no need for you to worry about what somebody you've never met thinks about you), but I was curious if I was understanding it correctly. Turns out I wasn't (I had originally thought you were somehow intimidated by religion or at least religious people, which seemed odd but possible -- the religions I'm most familiar with try to be approachable, not intimidating).