Friday, February 11, 2005

Talking to Strangers

By the time I was 22, I knew better than to trust people, which was good, because I was about to venture out into the big world. I had just graduated from college and was expected to report to my first job on August 1st. The job was at a manufacturing plant, in a small town in the Moscow region where I knew no one. It was 1989 and the Soviet Union was still alive and kicking.

I could have stayed in my home town a few weeks longer. It didn’t really have to be August 1st. Nobody would have said anything if I showed up at work in September, but my perfectionist parents decided that reporting to work as early as possible was a good way for me to start a career. So on July 31st, they helped me pack and get on a train. Next morning, I arrived at the town that would be my home for the next seven years. I left my bags at the bus station, went to work, filled out the forms and met my coworkers. I didn’t yet have a place to live, but figured it wouldn’t be a problem. That was the beauty of living in the USSR. The government provided everything for you – everything it thought you needed, anyway. It wasn’t much, and there weren’t any alternatives available, but it was better than nothing and it was handed to you on a silver plate. As far as the housing went, you couldn’t rent and you weren’t allowed to own any equity, but you didn’t really need to, as the government gave you and your family a place to live!

My new place of work was supposed to provide me with a bed in a five-story, dorm-like house. I would have to share a room with two more women. At the same time, I would be added to the end of a waiting list at my place of work, and some five or ten years down the road, I would finally get my own apartment. While I wasn’t exactly looking forward to rooming with two other girls for five more years, I was fully prepared to do that. What I didn’t know was that there were no free beds in the dorm-like building on August 1st. None at all. A lot of rooms were expected to free up once the people moved into a new apartment building, but the construction company had fallen behind schedule and the building wasn’t ready yet. I had come too early.

My management arranged for me to stay in a hotel for three days. I stayed there, I came to work every morning, I met my coworkers – very nice people, all of them in their early thirties, almost all of them married with small children. Three days went by fast and the lady at the hotel told me that my time was up and I had to pack and leave. I packed, but I didn’t know where to go, so I left my bags, I don’t remember where, and went to work. My coworkers knew I had nowhere to live, but that didn’t seem to bother them.

I was still naïve enough to think that somebody at my work cared, that my management would take care of everything and find me a place to stay. As it turned out, both my bosses were out of town on vacation. I finally managed to find someone from the upper management, and he came up with what he called “a temporary arrangement”. I was to go back to the dorm and stay in room #522 with one other woman until something else came up. I happily grabbed my bags and went to #522. There was, indeed, a woman in the room, so I gave her my best smile and said: “Hi!”

Right away, the woman started yelling. As I found out later, she was 35 and single and had lived in the dorm for over ten years, always sharing the room with other women, with never a chance to have at least a room to herself, never a chance to find a boyfriend or get married. Finally, she got permission to live alone in the room. Her personal life began to improve as well, she started seeing someone. That’s when I showed up with my bags. No wonder she exploded right in my face!

I tried to explain, but she wouldn’t listen. I tried to tell her that it was temporary, but she wouldn’t believe me. She decided that the management had changed their minds and decided not to let her have the room to herself after all, and that I was the roommate they tried to force on her. I was a part of the evil managerial ploy to rob her of her personal life. She yelled and she ranted. I had no idea how I was to stay in the same room with this woman, so I turned around and went outside. I knew I couldn’t go back to room #522, no matter what. It was a beautiful summer evening, and I had nowhere to go. I sat on a bench, crying my eyes out and trying to get used to the fact that I would be sleeping in the street that night. I didn’t know how I would do it, because I’d never slept in the street before, but I thought I’d figure something out.

“Excuse me, Ma’am, is everything all right? Has something happened?”

A male voice. Who is this guy? Why would he care? Not looking at him or raising my head, I said, matter-of-factly:

“Yeah, I’ve got nowhere to sleep.”

There, I said it. Now get lost. Leave me alone!

But he didn’t leave. Instead, he said:

“Would you like to stay in my room?”

I raised my head and looked. A big guy, probably twice my size. Very strong-looking. Liable to rape me, rob me, kill me. I didn’t know anyone in this town and I had no friends or family in a four-hundred-mile radius and, if something happened to me, it would be days before anyone even noticed. Is there any way I can go with this guy and stay in his room? No way, too risky. What was my other option again? Oh yeah, sleeping in the street.

I got up and said: “Thank you, I sure would.”

And that was how we met. Nope, nothing happened between us. He was ten years older and he only finished eight grades and a trade school and I was college-educated and he had a girlfriend and I had a boyfriend and, I know this sounds shallow, but the fact remains, I was pretty far out of his league, looks-wise. Technically, we had nothing in common, and, under different circumstances, we would have never talked to each other. I am not sure if we even became friends. I mean, in the seven years that followed, we met and we talked and we used to visit each other while I lived in the dorm, although he refused to visit after I moved into an apartment and got married and had the kids. But can you call that being friends? I don’t know. And in spite of it all, he let me stay in his room for two weeks.

He gave me the key to his room. He let me eat anything I could find on the shelves or in the fridge. On the weekend, he went to visit his parents in the country and I stayed in his room alone. He came back with more food, all homegrown. On the second night, he asked if I wanted him to lie in my bed, but he asked it in a really polite voice. I guess he thought that he had to ask, in case I really did want it, because then, it would have hurt my feelings if he hadn’t asked. I said no, and he never brought up the subject again. In the morning, we had breakfast and walked to work together – a 30-minute walk. During the walk, suddenly out of nowhere he said, “Look, we’re walking to work together like we’re husband and wife”. I guess he really wanted a family. When I last saw him, a couple days before we left for America, he was going on forty and wasn’t married.

On the fourth day, he had a small party in his room. A couple of his friends came, and his girlfriend showed up too. She was forty-two and had a daughter my age. After a few shots of vodka, she called me a slut for staying in the room with him. He talked to her in private and she never brought that subject up again.

Eventually, the apartment building was ready and people moved out of the dorm and a room freed up, so I finally got my own place to live. My life was very busy – work, friends, attending church in Moscow, visiting my boyfriend and having him visit me. I married my boyfriend, we had a child and then another. I became good buddies with the girl from room #522. Believe it or not, our children were the same age, so we took them for walks together. Once she said she was sorry for how she had acted back then, and I said, sure, I understand.

But I never forgot the man who offered me help when I needed it the most. I still don’t know how he did it. Everyone else just walked by. If I were them, I would have probably done the same. And I know I definitely wouldn’t have had the courage to ask a total stranger to stay in my room. My coworkers told me later that they would have offered me to stay with them, but couldn’t because they didn’t know me well enough. I understand them completely – that’s exactly what my thinking would be in this situation. Except that this man did not know me at all. Yes, I took the risk with him, but he took a much bigger risk with me. He did an amazing thing for me, and I have never really paid him back. Well, I’m going to pay him back now the best I can. Here’s how.

Everything I just told you has really happened in 1989, in the town of Chernogolovka, Moscow region, Russia. The man’s name is Alexander Shibanov, he was born in 1957, and he is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. I’ve long lost track of him and I cannot really do anything to repay him, so I thought I’d at least put in a good word for him. It’s a small world. Maybe you will run into him one day.

The Goldie has spoken at 11:51 PM

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