Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 3

No one at the hotel outside St. Petersburg could tell me how or where to buy a bus ticket so I could get into the city. I followed footholes through a field of knee-deep snow to the bus stop and waited with a dozen expressionless pensioners, bundled against the cold and clutching tattered plastic shopping bags. "Bilets?" I asked some of them, but they just smiled faintly and shook their heads.

The electric bus arrived. I made my way to the front and tapped on the glass, but the driver, never even turning his head, raised his hand and pointed to a hand-lettered sign on the window: "NYET NYET NYET."

I moved toward the back of the bus and found a place to stand by a pole. At every stop, more old people with shopping bags crammed aboard. A few took tickets from their purses and stamped holes in them at the canceling devices below the iced, opaque windows. Paying for bus rides was on the honor system, most of the time. But not this time.

A short, broad-shouldered man in a carmel-colored leather jacket boarded the bus at one of the stops, nodded to the driver and began working his way down the aisle. "Bilets!" he demanded. From everyone's pocket or purse appeared a canceled ticket, which the plain-clothes transit policeman wearily scanned. Everyone knows the system – everyone but me. Then his eyes met mine. His jaw tightened.
"Bilet, pashalusta," he said to me after a few tense seconds. I shrugged, pointed to the driver, opened my wallet, shrugged again.
"Bilet! Bilet!" he repeated. No one on the bus was talking; they were all watching this little drama. Miraculously, a woman stepped beside me and offered to interpret.
"I don't know how to pay," I pleaded. The transit cop looked straight into my eyes without blinking. I'm sure that this was not always his job. Perhaps, before the fall of the communist government, he was a KGB officer, or perhaps the managers of a chemical plant, and now he was checking tickets on a dilapidated electric bus, just to make ends meet.
"In your country, how do you pay for the bus?" he asked. I told him we put coins in a machine at the front of the bus.
"Here, if you don't have a ticket, you must pay a fine of 2,000 rubles," the interpreter offered. At the time, that was a little more than one U.S. dollar. I glanced into my wallet and was embarrassed to realize that I had only a 50,000-ruble note.

The cop tilted his head to one side and looked deeply into my face. I could almost taste the resentment in the air. I couldn't imagine what would happen next. Then the woman interpreter grabbed my arm and pushed my up the aisle, away from my tormentor. "You must buy tickets from driver," she said.
"This is your stop," the woman whispered before pushing me down the steps and out the door of the bus and into the slush of the street.

The doors slammed shut and the bus moved away, leaving me in the wind and dim northern light, wondering where to go and what next to do.

1 comment:

Monique Ringling said...

Here you go again ... leavin' me hangin'!!!!