Sergei Takes a Gratuity
Image by Viewminder
The ‘smugglers’ who shared the cabin with me on the Trans Siberian always placed a generous cash gratuity into our passports as we were to be searched. Andre ‘the elder’ would assert his authority as the head smuggler and collect all four of the passports… including mine… and he would give them to the officials with a mischevous smile and a nod that said ‘this is my gift to you.’ This is my business. This is what I do.
Andre always put the American passport on the bottom… I think he thought it would draw less attention there…and then he always shushed me with a stern and piercing look as he prepared for these most critical transactions. The first thing the official would do is put the American passport on top. I began to realize that although we shared that cabin and the comraderie of the rails… or confinement thereof… that Andre ‘the elder’ didn’t really think that having an American in his cabin was all that much good for business. It seemed to bring a little ‘extra special’ attention and scrutiny to his little clandestine smuggling operation. Maybe he had to bump up the bribes a notch or two to insure the safe passage of his valuable contraband. Either way you could just tell by watching him that Andre was a bottom line kind of guy.
By the end of the journey though Andre had invited me to live with him and his family in Poland… to work at his store… and to marry his daughter who he assured me had the bluest of eyes and breasts that were the national pride of Poland. Although I never saw him again I came to love Andre as a father in law even though I never met his daughter… somehow I feel like I know her.
It’s no joke either about Polish womens breasts being an object of national pride. Somehow Andre ‘the elder’ seemed capable of working it into any conversation relating to his motherland… to which Andre ‘the younger’ and their female companion would invariably agree with.
This usually led to a toast… a clanking of the glasses… the tipping of a bottle and a slurred chorus of ‘nasdorovia’s.’
Whenever the merits of Polish breasts were agreed on, indeed that meant it was time to drink some more vodka. Even to this day… when I think of Andre or Polish womens breasts… it makes me want to knock back a shot of vodka… but I don’t drink anymore and really I am more of an ass man… but still. I never had the heart to tell Andre that… I mean, talking about Polish womens breasts really seemed to make him so happy. I didn’t want to take that way from him. You’ve just never seen a guy so filled with joy as Andre was whenever his favorite subject was being discussed or debated… it really lit him up from the inside.
Anytime you want to make a Polish national feel good… or homesick… just bring up the fact that Polish women have the best breasts. It’s been good for a lot of free drinks for me.
I had just left Asia… everyday I travelled closer to Europe. With the passage of time and distance Andre’s observations were indeed verified though… the closer I got to Poland… the larger breasts became. I’m not kidding. Andre was right.
The first Russian I met… the man smiling in the photograph… was like most Russians it seemed…named Sergei. A few were named Alexander or Andre. I think Russians have only three names… except for politicians or people of fame. I might have met a couple of Victors and a handful of Igor’s as well. Somebody once said they’d heard of a Russian named Nikolai too. Still… most men in Russia are named Sergei. That’s just the way it is there.
Seconds after I took this photograph Sergei slipped into his pocket without flinch or hesitation the currency that Andre had stashed in his passport. I knew it was coming and I was watching closely for it. I barely caught it. And I grew up in Chicago.
Living on that train with those smugglers was like taking an advanced college course in the subtleties and techniques of graft. It was Andre ‘the elder’ who taught me that you need to keep variable amounts of currency in each of your four pockets… like five in one, ten in the next, then twenty and a hundred…and that you must properly size up the person you are attempting to bribe and choose from one of your pockets the minumum amount you are betting it will take to pacify that official.
That’s helped me more than once in life since then.
Andre also showed me that it was really important to telegraph the bribe… to look the mark right in the eyes and demonstrate that one… you were about to bribe him and two… that you were going to reach into your pocket and take out all of the money you had available to you for this transaction. It was really deep psychology according to Andre. The man had an ethic and he was a perfectionist. It’s always remarkable to watch such a master at work.
Andre pointed out that it was good form to allow your pocket to turn slightly inside out so that the mark could see that indeed you really emptied it. This he noted made them feel really special. Like you went all the way for them. He also taught me that a bribe is never to be peeled off of a larger wad of bills or taken from a wallet… unless you had done business with the mark before but in his opinion it was still a bad idea.
Andre’s bribes never failed or produced even the slightest trace of hesitation. The man was truly a master. Andre ‘the elder’ was the maestro of bribery. And he taught me well. Halfway through the journey he announced that he was getting sick of the train and that he and his cohorts were getting off at Irkusk and flying on to Moscow.
He gave to me a case of vodka and an envelope with additional bribes in it and told me that he would meet me in Moscow with the ‘goods’ next week.
I was proud and honored that Andre ‘the elder’ trusted me with the ‘stuff.’
I was officially a smuggler now.
When I went through Japanese customs they even pulled me right out of line… took me to this little office where I presumed I was going to learn what a rough rectal exam was like. They never even looked in my bags though… they just wanted to know if I slept with any prostitutes in Bangkok… it was a real interrogation too… they didn’t believe me when I said I hadn’t… they even tried to say I must be gay then. the fact that I didn’t seem to take much offense at their calling me gay really seemed to disturb them because thry had a little conference among themselves… in Japanese… so I had no way of knowing what they were saying.
I told them that i did get a killer massage at the James Bond Turkish Bath and Massage House… but there was no happy ending if you know what I mean. I only went in because of the James Bond motiff. I’m a sucker for that stuff… like the cosmonaut cigarettes on the train in Russia.
Still they didn’t believe me but they let me go with a warning… a reminder to call them if I wanted to change my story and they gave me this pamphlet that described all of the symptoms one might have after a hedonistic weekend in the city of angels… Bankok. Reading the brochure it made me really glad I just stuck with the massage. The pictures, even though they were in black and white, they were especially disturbing.
Bangkok… really the only reason I went there is because I loved that song by Murray McMurray… you know the one… ‘one night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble.’ I wanted to see what the inspiration for that song was… and I thought I could use some humbling. Murray was correctamundo… I was indeed humbled.
I dealt with smugglers before in Japan… Nigerians… but dealing with the Nigerians always made me feel dirty. And that was before they became famous on the internet.
Those Nigerians… they are a resourceful bunch though. And the colorful clothing… you haven’t partied until you’ve partied with a Nigerian man wearing a yellow daishiki with a matching hat. I couldda stared at those intricate psychadellic patterns forever. I still felt dirty though. But as a rule, if you ever want anything illegal, if you want to find the corruption or a cities dark underbelly… look for the Nigerians… you can’t miss them the way they dress. Or you can just find cab drivers… who are often Nigerian anyway. Cab drivers are also a valuable resource when you are looking for some sin in a new city. I never once got into one of those three wheeled cabs in Bangkok called "Tuk-tuk’s" without being offered a "massagy-massagy," Not once.
When I was in high school and I wanted some beer or alcoholoc beverages… I’d just call for a cab… and when the guy got there… I’d tell him to go get me a twelve pack or something… then I would do that "rip the twenty dollar bill in half" trick and tell him he’d get to keep the other half when he came back. They loved that. It always produced for me. It’s one of the most secret agent like things you could do… ripping a bill in half like that… it’s an all or nothing move… it’s like saying neither one of us trusts the other but this twenty… that’s what it’s all about. Of course you gotta figure in the cab fare too.
I think Nigeria has the worlds biggest cab driver school or something. Most Nigerian guys grow up to be cab drivers… the ones with more education do internet scams… white collar work. From what I’ve seen… those are your only two career paths if you’re from Nigeria. Smuggling and dealing in hashish is just a very common side gig. And they had this scam where they used a computer to alter prepaid phone cards and increase their value. Nigerians can be geniuses.
It was a Nigerian that taught me that if you took the local train long distance in Japan you could have a friend get on at the station before your destination and give you an extra ticket he bought there for like a buck and you could save hundreds because if you over rode your fair they didn’t check on the train… you just had to pay when you inserted your ticket at the exit. Those Nigerians.
The Japanese didn’t have much an apetite for the devils weed… they preferred amphetamines… something I never did. I always thought it would be pretty hillarious to hang out with some really stoned Japanese people. I wondered what their eyes could possibly look like when they were smoking pot.
The other gaurd in the picture… the mean looking one… noted the transaction as if to say ‘I had better get my cut’ and the money quickly dissapeared with all of the magnificence of a Las Vegas slieght of hand magician.
You could see it in the officers eyes… and he didn’t appreciate my shutter happy finger either. I thought this would be another precious roll of thirty five millimeter lost to the angry hands of the authorities. That stuff is hard to come by in Siberia you know.
It was obvious these men were used to being treated to such gratuities. Probably they sent word ahead… there is a man in the rear cabin who treats security officials very well.
It reminded me of the consulate officer at the Russian embassy in Beijing who informed me that they were ‘all out of visas’ until I produced my last eight american dollars… and even then he motioned for me to show him the inside of my bag because I’m sure he wanted to make it an even ten. That’s why you keep your money in different pockets. Miraculously the rubber stamp that made visas was rejuvenated and after a strong smack on the stamp pad was good for just one more visa.
Our cabin and our bags were never searched. Not anywhere on the entire journey. They could have contained a ton of heroin or four chinese children set out to work in the kitchens of europe.
At this time I didn’t know what the two Andres and their female cohort were smuggling, but I had hoped that it was indeed something that would make the journey more pleasant.
My passport was taken from me there at Manzhoulli and I was issued Russian travel papers that I carried for the duration of the trip. Papers that were stamped with a radiation symbol the morning after we tore ass through the radiated zone caused by the disaster at Chernobyl. To this day I wonder how the passport was returned to me as I departed Russia at the Polish border.
Later Sergei ‘the compensated’ and I sat outside the Manzhoulli station where he smoked a cigarette and asked me questions about America. It wasn’t small talk… Sergei had a deep interest in the way things were there… why our countries grew up in this diabolic situation of mutual assured nuclear destruction. What was so different about us his words seemed to say in a meandering way. I saw then that Sergei was raised too on the same diet of propoganda that I was… just the other end of the spectrum. I remember it seemed as if we both realized that right at the same time… his deep basso Russian laughter overwhelmed mine and carried beyond our immediate confines to precede me into Siberia.
I uncapped the pewter whiskey flask in my bag… the one decorated with the golfers on it that I shoplifted from Carson Perie Scott’s in high school and we shared a sip. The same one the port official in Shanghai uncapped to smell but never dared to partake of. I crushed that flask when I had it in my back pocket when I fell off the back of a moving truck… the flask was empty… which undoubtably had something to do with me falling off of the back of a moving truck… but I was crushed too because I loved that flask. I ended up filling it with water and freezing it repeatedly until the crushed metal expanded outward. Plus I think it’s realy the only thing I’ve ever shoplifted… except for candy and stuff like that. I just fell in love with that thing the first time I saw it. I knew then that I had to have it and I carried it around the whole world.
In Siberia vodka was golden… but whiskey… even the cheap Japanese stuff I carried…Suntory I think… it produced a reaction in my Russian friends like nothing I had ever seen. One sip… savored as if it were sent from heaven above and there were kisses and bear hugs. One sip of whiskey to a Russian then always opened up an immediate and strong friendship. Sometimes it even lasted longer than the fire it produced in your stomach and the burn in your throat.
I watched the sunset there that evening in Manzhoulli. Alone at the side of the rails I wished that someone would have walked over… sat next to me… and even in the silence of those who speak no common language… just appreciated that Manzhoulli sunset with me.
If I could have found one…I would have paid a prostitute just to sit next to me and enjoy that there. But I’ve heard that prostitutes always make you pay extra for weird stuff like that. I did after all have a bag of Yuan’s that I worked out of the black market in China. The ones that I was left with after they wouldn’t let me buy booze with them. The ones only chinese citizens are supposed to carry. Foreigners in China are supposed to carry a different money than the Chinese… they’re called foreign exchange certificates. I called them ‘fecks’ because I like to come up with acronyms or slang names for things. It makes me sound smarter… like I been around the block a time or two.
Chinese money confused me… they rarely used coins… I’d break a one yuan note… worth maybe twenty cents and about the size of a buck… and for change I’d get a bunch of smaller notes of differing sizes. It was like some of their cash was as small as a postage stamp. After a week I had so much of the stuff and couldn’t figure out how to use it… I’d just open my hip bag and let the bus driver or shop keeper help themselves.
It was the hearbreak of the solo traveller… that I should be in a place of such significance and see something of extraordinary beauty and have no one there to even draw breath with in in the way one does when confronted with such magnificence. The sigh of beauty.
Envy was the emotion I always felt as I watched others hold hands or share the entwinement of a lovers arms… those who whispered to each other at these moments… them who had someone stand on the pier or at the station to wish them bon voyage… even more so they who met someone to welcome them to their destination.
I always stepped off of my conveyance alone.
I was there alone as the sun set on Asia… I said goodbye as it was dropping low over Mongolia and casting a gorgeous and firery reflection off of the steppes and the deserts miles distant.
It would be to me my last sunset of Asia.
And my last stupid thought. Possibly it was the vodka the Andres forced upon me there… but I clasped my hands behind my head and layed back on my backpack as the sun rounded the earth… and I entertained myself with a promise that if I were ever to become filthy rich that I would buy my childhood home… the one I grew up in… have it taken apart piece by piece and put into shipping containers where I would then have them shipped here… or maybe to the Steppes of Mongolia in front of me… and reassembled exactly as it was. I didn’t care where… I just thought it would be loads of fun to take my childhood home apart and rebuild it somewhere really far away.
That I might live in my house and look out the window at this place.