You find your seat in the tail section, jam your bag in the foot space, buckle tight and pull some hair out of your arm, then a few strands from your eyebrow.
You don’t do this because it hurts.
You do this because you’re nervous and afraid of dying.
A light bulb dangles in a Northridge, California motel room. Streetlights glow through cracks in the blinds. Trembling hands dump a bottle of Bacardi 151 on the head of a shirtless Philip Seymour Hoffman. Said hands strike a match. Enter the flames. The screams.
Vaselina operates five port-a-potties next to Kazanskaya Cathedral off Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg. In Russian, she’s a Babushka, which means grandmother. Whether Vaselina really has grandchildren makes no difference. She’s one of an army of old post-Soviet women who pour down streets and sidewalks with pocketbooks clutched in one hand, plastic bags of raw meat in the other, linebackers who will, without question, run you the fuck down if you step in their path, especially if you’re inostranetz (foreigner).
This photograph was taken at two a.m., during the late June white nights. Operators of port-a-potties wear blue aprons. Vaselina charges ten roubles (32 cents) to use the port-a-potty and fifty roubles (the price of a cab ride) to use the VIP unit located on the far right, which is purported to feel less like slip n’sliding down Satan’s phlegmy asscrack than the port-a-potties to the left.
If you’re me, you’re ten shots and six beers into a bottle of Russian Standard Vodka and just tried to carry a very large and famous writer back to his hotel room, but since he’s one hammered ex-marine, and you’re a skinny Jewish boy, you left him on the Griphon bridge propped against the iron railing, legs over the side, facing the Griboedov Channel. If you’re me, your T-shirt is soaked with blood, Baltika 7, Vodka, sweat, and ripped down the middle from when said writer placed you on his shoulders, and dropped you into a mosh pit. You landed elbow-first into the forehead of a Russian Putin-youth who went to punch you, then hugged you, then bought two shots of Standard, then asked if you would like to elbow him in the forehead once again. If you’re me you’ve been looking for a bathroom since you left the bar because the line to use their bathroom extended out the door and into the local produkti (Russian 7-11). You only have a one-thousand-rouble bill, and know from experience that if you ask a Babushka for change, even if you are trying to buy port-a-potty admission, she will sigh tragically, shake her head, and call you one of the many Russian words for pedophile.
You could try an alley, or a bush, and before you wiggle it out, you’ll be surrounded by five Russian cops, smacked in the back of the head repeatedly, robbed, jacked, humiliated, and then have your passport held for ransom. They will tell you the penalty for being a drunk inostranetz trying to piss in their alley is a night in the drunk tank. They will tell you to use the port-a-potties like everyone else, that there are five of them located right next to the cathedral and that it only costs ten roubles. They will tell you if you want your passport back, then come to the police station with one hundred US dollars, in twenties. Ask them what the thousand roubles bought you, they’ll tell you it was a bonus (gratuity).
Which puts you back in front of the five port-a-potties, penniless, bladder hot and pumping. You’re pacing. You’re ranting. You’re saying back home they’d never fuckin charge for this. You’ve used American port-a-potties and granted, several nose hairs were singed off at the root. You’re shouting where the fuck do you people get off. You’re on about how Russian bathrooms ain’t right, how prior to tonight you found that every public Russian bathroom has been Jackson Pollocked by brown fart sprays from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Take a train from Moscow to The Ukraine and you’ll get a primer course in the fecally incorrect. Take the famed Siberian Railroad, and feel what it is to not shit for five days because you’ve already opened the bathroom door, a mistake for which you would rather be hospitalized than repeat. Ask a Russian how it’s possible for a nation to collectively decorate bathrooms so thoroughly and watch their faces contort into shrieks of wild joy and secrecy.
Do you ask Vaselina in broken Russian for a free pass? Say you’re desperate, drunk, tired, and will pay her triple later? That the police just strong-armed you for everything you had, stole your passport, your money, your dignity and your registration card? That you’re too wasted to remember where your hotel is situated and you won’t make it ten yards before you get a urinary tract infection? Do you say pretend I’m your very own grandchild, and look into your heart?
Not when Vaselina has been doing this for over forty years. Seven nights a week. Even if you spoke the language better, the chances of your breaking through that defensive line are rail-tie thin and less than shit. The pervading philosophy in this country is fuck you. Linecutting is as common as empty toilet paper rolls. You can’t walk ten feet without hearing battered women weeping behind windows. The cold, gloomy weather causes such depression and tense relations it has its own word (pasmorna). Even your Russian friends, fellows and acquaintances will steal from you and overcharge you and assume you understand this in no way affects the depth and sincerity of your relationship.
You watch a Russian man in a Puma running suit pay up and enter a unit. You hear the sounds of the steady stream flowing into a deep dark hole, and just like your own grandmother, who, if she could see you now, would sigh tragically, shake her head, and call you a plastered asshole, Vaselina asks Running Suit Man if he’s okay. Vaselina asks if he needs any help. Vaselina says boy, it must sure feel good to let it all go. And as she says this, she leers at you, and her lips peel back, and sun glint bounces off her gold teeth. That’s when you take out your camera, a camera so shitty the cops weren’t interested, and snap her photo for eternity as your dignity, your Vodka, and forty-five minutes of piss warm motherland bureaucracy runs down your leg.