Monday, December 7, 2009
The cost of a sweater
I'll never know for sure. But I'm pretty sure that the price for that rich, warm, gorgeous Afghani (or was it?) sweater I was almost persuaded to buy 29 years ago would have been higher than the thirty American dollars I was asked to pay. My first trip to Moscow. December. 1980. As Ellen Goodman once wrote, "the last westerner to be invited to Moscow in the middle of winter was Napoleon. And we know how that turned out." My visit was enchanting and successful. The snow sparkled on the trees, the steam rising from thousands of boilers looked magical. Gorky Park had none of the sinister connotations it has in the novels of Martin Cruz Smith. Skaters skated, sledders sledded, and the golden domes of the Kremlin towers and cathedrals gleamed. I cleaned up on cut-rate Mischka the Bear Summer Olympics souvenirs. As you may remember, the U.S. had boycotted those Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Tourists stayed away in droves. So sweet little bears filled the shops and I brought home marble bears, wooden bears, and lots of Mischka pins. They still show up around here and make me smile. Day three. Ukraine Hotel, Moscow. One of the statuesque and Stalinesque monstrosities that loom over the skyline. It felt so Soviet, so completely Soviet, right down to the bugs in the walls and the monitors at the doors and the "floor ladies" who kept your key whenever you left your room. It was Advent and, as a guest of the Russian Orthodox Church, my meals were strictly in keeping with the Advent fast. Lots and lots of fish. No meat. Creamy red borscht. A menu that most Moscovites could only dream of. After dinner, I took time to browse the Berioszka shops in the magnificent lobby. More bears. An amber pin. Carved toys. Marble angels dancing together. Lots of tiny inlaid boxes. And an attractive man, also shopping, who became very chatty, friendly, as we wandered from one display to another. Finally, far away from the attendants, he spoke in a low voice, "I have sweaters, Afghani, and carpets, my room. You see. Room 712." If I didn't have a heart for adventure I wouldn't have been in Moscow at the height of the Cold War in the first place. So his invitation was a temptation that I could not resist. I dragged a colleague along. We wandered the halls a bit, a labyrinth of hallways that turned in on themselves and led to elevators that took us up and down and finally to Room 712. Sure enough, this charming, exotic, Omar Sharif-looking character was waiting, offered us tea. "No thank you." He was in Moscow, he said, from Afghanistan, a civil servant learning how to rebuild his country's infrastructure according to the Soviet plan. And he had a room absolutely stuffed with carpets, woolen blankets, mittens, and sweaters. It was his own private store, and the prices were attractive. He showed me a sweater, a heavy, fisherman knit type, with a marbled pattern, tan and white. It was very very nice. And I stood there thinking, wow, what a story. "Yeah, I bought this on the black market from an Afghani in Moscow who was there officially to learn to be a good Soviet diplomat but was secretly critical of the USSR and running his own underground scam market out of his hotel room." The sweater had a flaw. Not a big one, and it could have been repaired by a good knitter. But I hesitated. He lowered the price. In fact, he kept lowering the price so much that I began to wonder. Just how desparate was he to unload this sweater? He spoke of supporting his family at home. But I knew the rules, the protocols. How would he get this money back to Kabul? And, moreover, how would I get this out of the USSR, through customs, when I left in a few days. Still, the story was compelling. Every time I shook my head and said, "no," this inky voice inside said, "oh, go for it!" My friend, Fran, shot me looks that said, "DON'T" and finally I thanked "Omar" profusely for the generous offer but said that it would not be possible to buy a sweater, or mittens, or a large carpet, either. He was crushed. We backed out the door and took our leave. We left the hotel for a brief walk -- that's what you did when you needed to talk without 'minders' or 'ears' listening in. Perspective. The frigid air and the wide boulevards gave me a necessary perspective on the experience. What had happened in there? Was I being set up? I'll never know for sure. But probably. Given everything, what are the odds that he could have been selling all this loot with impunity. What would I have faced when the train crossed the border in the middle of the night again at Brest? It was a good idea to not buy that sweater. But I miss it every single day.