Thanks Again Mark Twain

Posted by Kevin Welch on April 8, 2012

I have spent many happy hours reading, and also listening to, the newly released first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography. In it he ruminates off and on through the first several hundred pages on how to best write the thing. At last he figures it out, and here’s what he figured out; write about what ever comes to mind, and when you get sick of talking about it, change the subject, and maybe come back to it, or maybe not. Also, he decided not to write it at all, but to say it out loud while a stenographer copied it down. I can just imagine the poor person furiously hammering away while Mr. Clemons paced and puffed away on his cigar, spilling all the beans about his truest feelings, some of which were so true that they were not to be published until the author had been dead and gone for one hundred years.

Now, I’m certainly no Mark Twain, and frankly, neither are you, but no matter, we can still learn from the old master. While I can’t seem to locate a stenographer anywhere these days, I believe I can take a tip from the first part of the Twain method, and in fact, I think I had better, because yesterday I wrote and wrote and wrote about my first full day in Moscow. I found myself still blathering away after a couple thousand words and realized that I was still only halfway through the story. I had to go back and delete an entire page of stuff, which actually felt pretty good, but in the process I saw that I’m really not interested in signing on as a full-time journalizer, never have been. I want to tell these stories largely because soon I’ll forget them forever, just like I’ve forgotten most of the rest of my life, and sometimes it’s entertaining to me to come across some long lost adventure hidden away in a dusty closet in my mind.

Having said all that, I do need to note a few things about this time in Moscow. First, I’m out of there, having just lifted off on Lufthansa flight 1446 to Frankfurt, and I have to say, as interesting as it was, as successful in some key ways, and as joyful as it was to hang with the Konradi clan, I was ready. I was cold, and Amsterdam awaits.
A remarkable aspect of it was how well Ann-Tyler did at setting the whole thing up. When I got there I was hooked up with a stellar bunch of players, we did two hours of live National radio, I did one solo gig, a small house-concert thing in an art gallery that covered all my expenses plus some, and another show with said players at a cool little club which was, I guess, sold out. On the front page of the biggest newspaper in Russia I found a photo and a blurb about my visit. All this from a woman who has never promoted a single music event in her life. Well done Ann-Tyler!
So, let’s go over a couple of things in the Muscovite culture. First, the Underground. I’ve put a few photos up on Facebook already. When you hit the Metro station you first step onto the longest escalators I’ve ever seen. Originally dug out to serve as bomb shelters during the war, as I understand, Stalin himself decided to convert these tombs into art galleries, ‘for the people’, using the labor and lives (and deaths) of thousands of prisoners and others pressed into post-war service. So when you finally emerge, deep underground, onto the platform, seemingly any platform, you find yourself in a beautiful hall of unique design and motif, with tracks on both sides and decorated pillars down the middle. . From the ceiling there may be a hundred very fine old chandeliers, any one of which would cost a small fortune in an antique store in the States, and in between there might be a series of paintings or brilliant mosaics depicting Soviet propaganda, workers in the fields or on tractors, soldiers handing presents to little children, strong-faced men and women in sleek looking factories, and everywhere still, the Hammer and Sickle, now in disuse but left over in abundance in all the old halls. On the walls you find exquisite frescoes, sculptures of animals or, again, workers, farmers, common people. The floors are often marble tile. Each platform is different, some more outstanding than others, but all are amazing. As deco as anything I’ve seen, and in that badass Soviet style. And, considering that every single day, approximately ten million people, that’s right, ten MILLION people move through these stations, everything is remarkably clean. You seldom wait more than two minutes for the next train, and the system is so understandable that it puts the London Underground, which I’ve always admired, to shame.

The only parts of the experience that wore me out were the noise and sometimes the crowds. The trains howl and scream as they come blasting out of the tunnels, violently shutting down and stopping, the doors flapping open, leaving you to negotiate upstream against your fellow man coming or going, and god help you if you get caught in some of the doors when they close again. Some seemed to sigh and shut in a fairly gentle way, but some, especially if they are held back for a brief moment, slam hard enough that I’m pretty sure you could break hand bones if you weren’t quick enough. And then with a prolonged and agonizing shriek the monster blasts off again, the whole process taking maybe one minute, tops.

The other freakout thing is this; some of the areas at the top of the escalators get unbelievably crowded, as maybe a couple hundred people gather and attempt to board and descend. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Imagine it, a small chamber with as many people in it as is possible to fit. You have been in crowds before. Unless you have ridden the Moscow Underground you have never been this crowded, trust me. You are mashed up against someone in front of you, in back of you, on both sides, diagonally too, all around, and I mean mashed. You can not move. And then the wad begins to shuffle and inch, in tiny baby steps and very very slowly, toward the one narrow escalator opening which you can only presume to be somewhere up ahead of you all. There is no escape from this. I was thinking of an old friend who suffers badly from claustrophobia, and I felt grateful that she wasn’t there with me. It seemed somehow subhuman, mindless, and impossible. And then, just when you can’t take another second of it, there you are, stepping on, your personal space restored, and down and down and down you go to the splendor of Stalin’s little art project.

One last cultural mention for the day involves what seems to me to be an unnatural aversion to, well, the floor. You aren’t supposed to touch it somehow, or to let any of your garments drag across it, or, God forbid, to ever sit on it. I didn’t notice this, but Ann-Tyler told me after the fact that at some point my giant coat, which I was carrying while down in the overheated bowels of the earth, was touching the floor. I don’t know where this happened, but she told me that all those around me were clearly uncomfortable about it. It’s just something you don’t do. And you don’t sit on the ground either, outside under a grand tree on a spring day. Especially girls. Now, once again I’m talking about something I know very little about, as this was just explained to me quickly and in passing, and it was just one more semi-bewildering piece of information I filed in my weary brain, but as I understand it, the belief is that sitting on the ground will somehow damage a girls, um, reproductive organs. This so baffled me that I’m sure you can see why I haven’t devoted a lot of time to really learning all the ins-and-outs of it, and that was not a pun, no matter what you may think. In fact, I think I had forgotten all about it until today when I was going through security at the airport. Unlike our system in the States and basically everywhere else I’ve ever traveled to, where we line up by the x-ray conveyor belt in our ridiculously inefficient anti-ergonomic method to disrobe and unpack half our shit and empty our pockets and take off our shoes and scarves and jackets and every other damn thing, (sideways!) the Russians have an area devoted to retrieving a bucket or two, including small ones for your shoes, sitting down and taking a moment to do all of that, but to do it right. It’s civilized and makes a lot more sense. The part I’m getting to though is that there is a big box filled with these little disposable plastic socks, which nearly every single person stopped at to pluck out a pair, so that when they took their shoes off they could immediately and with all seriousness cover their stocking feet, so they wouldn’t have to come into such intimate contact with, shudder, the floor. I stood there and thought about it for a minute and then figured, what the hell, and I got a nice blue pair for myself too. Maybe they know something I don’t, like what they put in the floor wax or something.
I do have a couple more stories, about the gigs and stuff like that, but I think I’ve taken up enough of your time for now. Plus we’re starting our descent into Frankfurt.
Skol hi-dee-ho!

2 Responses to Thanks Again Mark Twain

  1. Natasha Borzilova

    so, about sitting on the floor. the main reason is plain and simple — it is the dirtiest floor you’ve ever stepped on in your life. Russians always take the shoes off in someone’s home and kids bring a change of shoes to school, but if you are in a public place chances are that floor MAYBE gets a sweeping once in a blue moon, but that’s the extent of it. remember that the streets are MUCH dirtier in Russia then they are in the States, so dirt gets brought in with the shoes and you really don’t want to sit or have your clothes touch it.
    the part about the girls sitting on the ground refers to cold ground or cold stones. people DO sit on the grass under trees, by the way, and even on the sidewalk if those people are young and unburdened by formal attire. it is believed though that sitting on cold ground causes reproductive organ and kidney problems, and i’m sure it’s a rumor started by mothers to get their female children to not sit on the ground.

    • Kevin Welch

      Natasha, thank you for that. I’m quite sure that a visiting Russian would be pretty confused by a lot of our stuff too. I am still processing everything. Moscow was just overwhelming. Russia has made an enormous impression on me. My mind is a little blown, and I probably should have waited for a couple of weeks before trying to get it down in words. ANyway, your explanation makes perfect sense. best wishes, kw

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