forty-two. fish need bicycles.
unphotogenic and describable only in sporadic outbursts of unelegance, Europe’s largest city intimidates my meagre capabilities. the lens too small to capture the scales, the pronunciation too foreign to penetrate, the sporadic extroversion of people so unpredictable i rarely know if i will sink or swim when i leave the ‘house’ (currently a colorful, dusty boarding room on the 5th floor of a crumbling late 19th century block). this place is intoxicating, the well-organized infrastructural legacy of aristocracy-turned-communist dictatorship-turned-city-of-unbridled-speculation, all within a hundred years, still actively churns its evolution. in a surreal juxtaposition, this most strictly and easily navigable of cities (imagine: 5 concentric ring roads, one circular metro line, and 10 cross-sectional metro lines that radiate like a clock) is overlaid with the kinetic detritus of a still-adolescent capitalism: glittery pinks and purples abound, in shoes, skimpy shirts, hair trinkets, and even a few buildings; shiny black mercedes/BMW’s/HUMMRS congest city streets like a funeral brigade, threatening to squash the pre-’91 volvo spin-offs (Zhigulis); 40’s and cigarette packs are obtainable everywhere for just over a buck (and free to consume anywhere) while peaches (and other non-canned, non-jarred perishables) can cost up to $11 a pop (as in, one single fruit). and everywhere, the noise and dust of construction, usually done by hand, and fortunately, much of it renovation of 19th C. buildings.
Joe Moran in Reading the Everyday writes about the unnoticeables as perhaps the most telling aspects of people’s interaction with place. he mentions the concept of the queue. stereotypical tales of Soviet-Russia fill the mind with images of thickly-clothed men and women waiting hours in line while the bureaucratic machine turns it slow cog. none-too-accurate: the line is an institution here, was from the very first step on soil (immigration) and has continued as such (Red Square McD’s bathroom line 45 minutes, innumerable 10R port-o-potties which dot the city, portable beer and Russian tonic stands, Metro tickets, etc.). however, treatments of the line are just as telling: need not be straight, need not be single file, and indeed, need not be heeded. (the wordless cut is a common practice that everyone dolefully accepts without complaint).
the odd relationship between car and walkway here epitomizes the still-happening interaction of all that is big, shiny, and pricey with all that is slow, quiet, and heady. on Novy Arbat, on the western side of the city and within the bounds of the third ring road (rings one, two, and three define the rough center, while distant ring four defines the city limit), above-said luxury SUV’s drive on the storefront sidewalks with entitlement to park apparently where they please. the sidewalks on this main radial artery are sizable (approx 40’) but not surprisingly 3 tons of metal takes precedence over 60 kg of muscle and bone and pedestrians become outcast upon their own territory. this same sidewalk is also used in one segment, across its entire width, as a skatepark, rendering the lowly walker smooshed against either the windshields of cars, or the windshields of storefronts. given the lacklustre retail environment of this cheaply built strip-mall above which loom repetitive blocks of ex-soviet housing (strung in decorative christmas light wire), it’s impossible not to be awed by the tenacity of the shopper. in another instance, off the high-speed riverside parkway, the front doors of an apartment building exited onto a tree-lined terrace for sitting, which led to a narrow sidewalk, flanked again by a tree-lined driveway space. all this was directly adjacent to the roadway, such that parking at the apartment demanded a direct turn-off at 50mph into a driveway. for all of this sectional abruptness, however, the garden terrace and sidewalk were surprisingly serene.
given the high speed of the major roads here (some being 8 lanes wide like the 3rd ring road), the inflating size of the cars, and the sheer size of the city’s area and many of its major buildings, it’s a wonder that the car doesn’t reign more supreme, however. Moscow is a park-garden city extraordinaire, where people walk, read, eat, drink beer, strut, kiss, socialize wherever there is a tree and a patch of green. many of these parks are linear, squished between or adjacent to major arteries. highly hoppable iron fences delineate the integrity of their territory. unfortunately, what would have been an urban miracle of non-stop green space along the median of the second ring road is abruptly and temporarily halted here and there by Metro hubs which have sprouted into cinema-supermarket-liquor store-McDonald’s nodes (again, add blinking lights and occasional bad music). in such places society’s spectrum can be witnessed, where the valet-parked cars of the well-to-do line up outside overpriced restaurants and bars while the working class sit on the nearby grass, enjoying a 40 between 3 small plastic cups.
thus, the sacred is sporadic but one could easily argue that Moscow’s Metro is a linear underground site of something reverant. begun in 1935 and largely constructed under Stalin, it is a dense and efficient (as in, train every 2 minutes, max) network of vaulted, lamp-lit, sculpted space, each station with a ‘theme’ that runs consistently from the above-ground entrance hallway (NOT simply signed stairwells) and into the deep bowels of the earth. some stations are draped in the heavy-handed propaganda of pre-1991; this often occurs at the metro stations that service the major national railway stations, of which there are a half-dozen. somehow advertising remains minimal, a testament to the Metro’s historical communist legacy, and is limited to the compartments. entrance halls will also usually have a few booths and stalls for food, lottery, and/or theatre tickets (called ARTMETRO stalls). at 9 million riders a workday, this mechanical and human river of moving parts is shockingly sombre and quiet, the site of occasional exhibitions of true gentility (a guide to walk you where you need to go, a gift of clay sculpture from the hands of an old man) and also its breach (an ass-grab, a licentious wink). for such a deep system, you rarely feel as if you are underground in the same sense as other subway systems; this is partly due to the wide and high vaults of the ceilings, the atmospheric lighting, brightness of material (often stone), and the typical typology of a wide columnaded central hallway from which the two platforms extend. this sense of open centrality avoids the rat-denizen maze sensation, and although transfer stations do demand an underground walk between two lines, even the hallways that connect the lines are given spatial attention, rarely squeezing in from the open platform spaces.
for all of this heavy built infrastructure, there is a system of how things work here that has no spatial quality. corruption need not be grand for it to be powerful, and everywhere its presence in the everyday can be witnessed if you look. policemen who look no younger than 18 loiter in threes and fours in most Metro stations and on major street intersections, occasionally checking the ‘documents’ of anyone they please. if things aren’t in order, bribes, rather than fines or compliance, are commonplace – it is more lucrative to pocket the money than to make an official report, and less expensive to pay a bribe. everyone knows this, so the rule-of-law becomes flexible. one can hardly blame this system either; in current day Moscow the gap between salaries and prices is astonishing, and without this operative black-market of payments, people would probably starve or be evicted. on the long-distance trains it is typical for passengers to forego buying a ticket, simply paying the ticket conductor under the table and directly once on the train. the passenger saves 30%, the conductor makes cash, and the trains continue to be ‘officially’ underused despite their crowdedness. moreover, as my acquaintance said, ‘everyone does it so they can’t do anything about it.’ (this doesn’t work on the Metro’s automated gate system, although one student told me they usually get 3 to 4 people through on one swipe). this loss in revenue for state-managed undertakings might partially explain inflation and makes one wonder whether financial feasibility is maintained by the over-paying law-abiders (which will last for how long?)
this type of informal-formal doesn’t hold so much clout in the area of retail, where lightweight structures and stalls populate the streets and the train station hubs but are established enough to have price-boards. there are even national chains of stalls selling blini (crepes), hotdogs, or stuffed potatoes. other kiosks sell ‘produkti’ (fruits, veggies, meat products), others devoted more to ‘sin’ items (beer and cigs galore). after this sidewalk retail space come the tiny deli and knick knack shops, sometimes lined up along the sodium-lit street underpasses, sometimes isolated in a short row of 3 to 4 near a Metro station entrance... on up to the exorbitant supermarkets on well-established boulevards (a la Dean and Deluca). this gradation of formality is present elsewhere; at the Vernisazh weekend market (Kafka meets Walt Disney), old ladies near the entrance sell handfuls of (what looks like their own) jewelry directly from their lap. moving further into the market space yields foodcarts, which flank stalls of unimaginable blinwear: belts, bags, jeans, earrings, bras. next is the ‘official’ market, accessible through iron gate, where tourists drink beer while holding their recent purchases, stuffed in garbage bags (Matroishka dolls, chess sets, amber jewelry, propaganda print material, vintage military gear, bear-fur rugs, etc). above all of this panoply hover, in the foreground, pastel reproductions of tzarist Russia onion-dome buildings (in miniature, of course), and beyond that, brutal residential towers across the street. the market is both scathingly real and candy-coated; immigrants from all over Eastern Europe are understandably desparate to make a few rubles and the sheer ugliness of the site and surrounds is a reminder that Moscow’s wealthy Merc-riding sex kittens are the cream of the crop. at the same time, Russia’s history and heritage, which is real and ever-active, is put on display as charming novelty, to which we are unabashedly susceptible (ex. i almost bought a 1920’s leather military shoulder bag; it was so beautiful with the sweat and age of time, and god knows what its original owner endured). a similar phenomena happens in Beijing, in the lanes of the crumbling hutongs around the Forbidden City. but Vernisazh is isolated from the rest of the city. no everyday meat or bread shops flank the kitsch stores; this market is a concentrated exhibition of how absurdity and tragedy meet with desire to create irony.