Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Old Man from Sverdlovsk

Last week, I went down to the U-district one morning at about 9AM. I was walking down University Way when I saw this old man that I've seen a bazillion times before. He lives in the U-district. I know this because he almost stepped on me once coming out of his apartment building. (I was sitting on the stoop waiting for a friend I was meeting.) I have known for some time that he is Russian, because I've heard him arguing with employees at Magus Books over the prices on old Russian books. He has a WONDERFUL accent. He wears a long coat and a gray cap, which together make him look like he stepped right out of the USSR of the 1970's. His coat is tan and a little dirty, and he has at least one hearing aid. His nose hairs are long and his teeth are kind of ground down, maybe even rotting a little. I think he is kind of a pest for local merchants, but he FASCINATES me. He's like a character out of a Samuel Beckett book! I had never talked to him before, but I've always watched him whenever I've had the chance. I've noticed that he's very friendly, and talks to random strangers on the street all the time. He knows a few words of Chinese and Spanish, so if he meets someone that speaks these languages, he tries his phrases out on them. I've wanted to talk to this old man for years now, but I've been hesitant, partially due to shyness, partially because I'm not sure how sane he is. But after the last time I overheard one of his arguments with a Magus cashier, I vowed I would talk to the man the next time I saw him.

And so it went like this. He was standing on the sidewalk in front of the UW bookstore, squinting at a handwritten sign that was taped to a lamppost. He seemed to really want to know what the thing said, but he appeared baffled by the script it was written in. I hesitated, then walked up to him. "It's Korean, sir." He looked at me, and said, "What language is this? I can't understand it." So I repeated, "It's Korean." Then he asked me what country I come from. I told him, "This one. But I'm from a different state. Colorado." He scratched at the stubble on his chin, and said, "Ah, yes, Boulder, Rocky Mountains, very nice. Yes, but what country do your parents come from?" "This one," I told him. "Yes, but what country did your great grandparents come from?" So I started listing my ancestry. Ireland, Scotland, Germany, The Netherlands, blah blah blah. Then I asked him which country he comes from, even though I already knew. "I am from Soviet Union," he said. "Ohhhhhh, which city?" I asked. "Ah, you know Soviet Union geography!" he said, pleased, even though I had exhibited no proof of such knowledge. "I come from Urals," he said. "Oh, near Yekaterinburg?" I asked. "No, Sverdlovsk," he said. Ah. Yes. The nature of this man's eccentricity was becoming clear. (Yekaterinburg was called Sverdlovsk during the Soviet era.) I told him that I was studying Russian, and he had me tell him all words that I know. "Chelovek. Koshka. Spahseebuh," I listed for him. (Person. Cat. Thanks.) "Ah yes. Spahseebuh, thank you very much!" he said. He then asked me how I learn Russian. I told him that I learn from books, and that I have met a few people from Russia who help me. He said, "You mean people from Soviet Union." "Uh... yes, people from the Soviet Union," I corrected. He then asked me to tell him which cities they all come from. So I listed cities, making sure to say "Leningrad", not "St. Petersburg", and ending with, "And I also have a friend who, like you, is from Yek... I mean... Sverdlovsk." At this point, he INSISTED on writing his name and phone number down for me. "Give my phone number to your friend who is from Urals. He is my countryman, he must call me." I stuttered, "Uh-h-h-h-h, I don't know when I'll see him again, but I'll try to remember to bring your phone number to him." We then spent a few minutes talking about Russian authors. (He likes Pushkin and "classic Soviet authors like Gorky" and some other names that he mumbled incoherently.) Then he shook my hand, reminded me again to give his number to my Ural friend, and we went our separate ways.

This man is an absolute jewel! I wonder if I could get him to start having lunch with me sometimes...


  1. 1. I am SURE you could get him to have lunch with you.

    2. You MUST write this man into a book.

    3. I think YOU are fascinating for having the presence of mind to make sure you called it Leningrad instead of St. Petersburg.

    4. I highly recommend The Gates of November by Chaim Potok. I think you would ADORE that book (when you have a bit more reading time than you do presently).

  2. "He is my countryman. He must call me." I know how he feels.