My annual pilgrimage to New Jersey this summer, where I grew up but which I no longer think of as home, had been fun despite the Mets losing to the Atlanta Brats 4 – 0 at Citi Field (aka “Two-Shea” to us purists). I stayed with my best friend of 52 years (since the 7th grade) and his family, visited with my sister, and my nephew and his family, and gained at least five pounds in five days.
On the first leg of my flight home I was traveling in my usual grand style. Call it “sardine-class coach.” Remember when flying was a pleasure? Then it became an inconvenience. Now it’s an ordeal. I had an aisle seat but it looked like the flight would fill up, and it did. The man who grunted in my direction to communicate that he had the center seat was late 50′s or thereabouts and really big, though not fat. He made up for his size by being ugly, hairy, and truly mean looking. Had I been in first class I would have suspected that I was traveling with a retired NFL defensive lineman.
Before we were deprived of our electronic devices he made a couple of phone calls. He spoke in Russian and his pleasant and easygoing voice belied his appearance. He laughed often. I was reassured by his tone of voice and as we taxied I asked him what part of Russia he was from. “Kazakhstan,” he answered with a smile.
He chuckled when I communicated my complete Russian vocabulary: Hello, no, yes, please, thank you, good-bye. His English was more than passable but he groped for subtleties so I tried to keep the conversation direct and uncomplicated. He had soldiered in Angola, been badly wounded, recovered, and was mustered out. He seemed evasive about the years immediately following his military service so I did not pursue the subject. He is now a committed capitalist, an international businessman heavily involved in recycling and cartage. He has partners is Moscow, where he is based, as well as one in Beijing and another in Houston, for which he was bound that day. I assumed that he knew little or nothing about American television so I did not ask whether his enterprises had ever brought him into contact with Tony Soprano or any of his business associates.
He spends much of his time traveling and doles out a lot of money on “bribes, kickbacks. Worst in China, next worse in Russia, but here, too,” he said with a shrug.
He has two wives. “Russian pipple get marry too young. We marry when 18. I fall in love when 22.” He showed me family and business photos on his phone. His children are naturalized Americans, including a daughter who is a physician in New York City, and another who is a musician. He seemed proud to have sired U.S. citizens. I thought: “Clobber them in the Cold War, then adopt them. It beats the hell out of mutual nuclear annihilation.” Both of his wives are stunning.