Monday, August 24, 2009

The Boys from St. Petersburg

There were two young Russian visitors from St. Petersburg staying in the apartment over the last several days. One of them left yesterday and the other one this morning. They were complete strangers to us; neither my roommate, W., nor I had ever met them before and I don't expect we'll ever see them again. The visitors came to stay here as a favor to a friend of my roommate. The friend would have taken them in but HIS roommate objected hosting people for five nights so W. was called upon to help out. After all, W.'s friend said, we'll never see the kids because this is New York City and they will be out all the time. I wasn't entirely sold on the idea but then, I don't really have much pull when it comes to decisions made in this apartment. That's a story for another time.

W.'s reasons for taking the guys in were not entirely altruistic; what W. really wanted was a passage to St. Petersburg. I think a lot of this "taking in people out of the goodness of our hearts" is more of a quid pro quo situation than anybody cares to admit. If you can stay in our apartment for free in New York, there's an expectation that people will reciprocate and let you stay with them gratis in their home country.

There was a problem with this theory right off the bat: these guys were only 19 years old (born in 1990!), probably don't even have their own places and while they were certainly not arrogant or rude, they didn't really have any interest in hanging out with two (curiously single) American guys, one in his mid-forties and the other in his *ahem* late-thirties. (And where is our third roommate, V.? V. is out shooting a short film in Bolivia and will be gone for a month. He left two weeks ago and W. asked me "Did he cut his hair before he left or does he still look like a homeless guy who you'd see asking for money on the number 1 train?" The latter.)

There was no bonding that happened with our foreign visitors, no moments where we sat around and talked and laughed. Most conversations we had were short and rushed; often I'd be left talking in mid-sentence as they would appear to lose interest, turn away and go onto the Russian language Facebook. I tried to get them talking about Facebook, but that went nowhere.

The most serious conversation I did have with one of them came about when I was in the kitchen getting a drink. The kid came in, looked me square in the face and in a very serious tone asked, "Do you know where we can get doughnuts around here?" Sadly, I didn't. This is just not a doughnut neighborhood. These guys don't have doughnuts in Russia and they came upon a bakery in upstate New York earlier in their travels and fell in love with the fried delicacies. It was hard to explain to them that bakeries in Manhattan don't really specialize in doughnuts.

As for the guys being out all the time and us never seeing them- lies, all lies. I think our visitors spent more time in the apartment than they did sightseeing. One day they went to the Brooklyn Bridge. The next, they took the Staten Island Ferry but were back in the apartment by 3 pm and stayed the rest of the day. They didn't just stay in a corner either. These guys spent almost all of their time in this heat trap, playing loud rock music, fiddling on the computer, organizing and reorganizing their luggage which they seemed to do about five times. They even cooked, something I haven't bothered doing since the summer began and it became far too hot to turn on the oven or stove. They subsisted on rice and some kind of stir fry vegetables the entire time they were here, washed down with a bottle of Dr. Pepper that lasted five days. Their luggage and belongings were spread out all over the front living room so we could see some of the things the guys had collected during their travels. Little American flags (from their trip to DC), bags of candy, toys and, oddly, dozens of packets of Sweet and Low.

I can't blame them for not wanting to be out too much. Their visit coincided with some of the hottest, most humid weather of the summer, but even the apartment was sweltering. The night before their arrival there was a microburst so severe that the city, Central Park especially, lost hundreds of trees. I'm still in mourning.

Now they're gone and a weird thing happened this evening. The apartment is quiet, the front room is empty and I miss the chaos. Just a little bit. Turns out, having a full house that was crowded and noisy, even for a short while, was a nice respite from all the endless days I have been spending here alone looking for work. Now I'm feeling lonely again. Joni was right, you really don't know what you've got til it's gone.

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