Translated by Marian Schwartz
from Issue 7: Crossings
NEW YORK. "Moscow. Is that in Poland?" they asked me at the American consulate in Mexico.
"No," I answered. "The USSR."
No impression whatsoever.
I got my visa.
Later I found out that if an American does nothing but sharpen needle points, he knows his business better than anyone in the world, but he might not have a clue about needle eyes. Needle eyes aren’t his specialty, and he’s under no obligation to know about them.
Laredo is the border of the North American United States.
I spend a long time explaining the purposes and reasons for my entry in my half- French and half-English, both very broken (nothing but shards).
The American listens in silence, thinks it over, doesn’t understand, and finally addresses me in Russian:
"Are vou a Yid?"
I was taken aback.
The American did not undertake any further conversation due to a shortage of additional vocabulary.
He agonized another ten minutes and then blurted out:
"Great Russian, Great Russian," I rejoiced, reassured that the American was not inclined to violence. Strictly bureaucratic interest. The American pondered this and after another ten minutes spoke:
"Go see the commission."
One gentleman, who up until this moment had been a civilian passenger, put on a uniform jacket and turned out to be an immigrations officer.
The officer stuffed me and my things into an automobile. We drove up and walked in to a building where a jacketless and vestless man was sitting under a starry flag. Behind the man were more rooms with bars. They put me and my things in one of them.
I tried to leave, but they drove me back with a cautionary waving of arms.
Not far off, my New York train blew its whistle.
I sat there for four hours.
They came and inquired what language I planned to explain myself in.
Out of shyness (it’s embarrassing not to know a single language) I said French.
They led me into a room.
Four scary old men and a French interpreter.
I can make simple French conversation about tea and rolls, but I didn’t get any of what the Frenchman told me and could only snatch fitfully at his last word, trying to penetrate the hidden meaning intuitively.
Meanwhile, the Frenchman guessed I hadn’t understood. The Americans waved their arms around and led me back to my cell. I sat there another two hours and found the Frenchman’s last word in the dictionary. It turned out to be "oath."
I could not swear an oath in French, so I waited for them to find a Russian.
Two hours later the Frenchman arrived all excited and reassured me: "They found a Russian, the owner of the furniture store."
"I have to swear an oath," I stammered shyly, to open the conversation.
The Russian interpreter casually waved his hand: "You’ll tell the truth if you don’t want to lie, and if you do want to lie, you won’t tell the truth anyway."
A well-reasoned point of view.
I started answering hundreds of questionnaire questions: my mother’s maiden name, my grandfather’s parentage, the address of my high school, etc. Things I’d totally forgotten!
The interpreter turned out to be an influential man, and once I started speaking Russian, he took a liking to me, naturally. In short: they let me into the country for six months as a tourist on a five hundred dollar bond.
Half an hour later the entire Russian colony had converged to take a look at me, vying to bowl me over with their hospitality. The owner of a small shoe store, seated on a low stool for measuring feet, showed me different shoe styles, brought me ice water, and rejoiced:
"The first Russian in three years! Three years ago a priest came through with his daughters. At first he cursed us, but later (I’d arranged for his two daughters to go dancing at the cafe chantant) he said: ‘I like you, even if you are a Yid, you must have a conscience if you’d do that for an old man.’"
The linen merchant intercepted me, sold me two shirts at cost for two dollars apiece (one dollar for the shin, one for the friendship), and then, touched, led me all the way across town to his house and made me drink warm whiskey from his only glass, which he also used for brushing his teeth—it smelled foul and was covered with spots.
This was my first encounter with the American dry law—Prohibition. Then I went back to the interpreter’s furniture store. His brother took the price tag off the best green plush couch in the store and sat down opposite me on a leather one with a tag that said "$99.95" (a trick of the trade, so it doesn’t say "$100").
At that point a quartet of doleful Jews walked in—two girls and two boys.
"The Spaniards," the brother advised reproachfully. "From Vinnitsa and Odessa. They spent two years in Cuba waiting for visas. Finally they put themselves in the hands of an Argentine, who took $250 to bring them in."
The Argentine had looked respectable and had a passport that said he had four traveling children. Argentines don’t need visas. The Argentine had brought four or six hundred children into the United States—and got caught on the six hundred and fourth.
The Argentine’s in good shape, though. People have been depositing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank for him—which means he’s important.
And he bailed out the brothers—not that it did any good. They were going to be convicted and deported anyway.
This Argentine is a major businessman—and honest, too. There are also lots of small fry here. They take people across from Mexican Laredo to American Laredo for a hundred dollars apiece. The clients pay the hundred, get halfway there, and are drowned.
Plenty of people have emigrated directly to the next world.
This is my last Mexican story.
A brother’s story about a brother, the furniture man, the first American. The brother lived in Kishinev. When he turned fourteen, he heard a rumor that the most beautiful women were in Spain. That very night the brother ran away because he had to have the most beautiful women. But he didn’t reach Madrid until he was seventeen. There weren’t any more beautiful women than anywhere else, and they paid even less attention to the brother than the pharmacists’ wives in Kishinev had. The brother was insulted and rightly decided that he needed money to get Spanish eyes to shine in his direction. The brother went to America with two other vagabonds but with only one pair of shoes among them. He boarded a ship—not the right one but the one he could get on. Upon arrival, America suddenly turned out to be England, and the brother mistakenly disembarked at London. In London, the three barefoot men collected cigarette butts. The three hungry men would make new cigarettes out of the tobacco from the butts, and then one (each in turn) would put the shoes on and ply his trade up and down the embankment. Within a few months, the tobacco business had expanded beyond the scope of butt cigarettes. It had expanded to an understanding of where America and prosperity were located—to the point of shoes and a third-class ticket for everyone for some place called Brazil. On board ship they won a tidy sum at cards. In Brazil, through enterprise and gambling, they increased the sum to thousands of dollars.
Then the brother took everything he had and went to the races, putting his money down on the tote. His ungrateful mare brought up the rear, little concerned about the brother she had made a pauper in thirty-seven seconds flat. A year later the brother jumped to Argentina and bought a bicycle, having acquired a lifelong contempt for nature.
When he became adept at the bicycle, the indefatigable son of Kishinev took up bicycle racing.
To come in first, the racer had to make a small detour onto the sidewalk—which did gain him a minute, but he also pitched some inattentive old lady into the gutter.
The upshot was that he had to surrender his great big first prize to one slightly rumpled granny.
Grief-stricken, the brother went to Mexico, where he quickly penetrated the artless law of colonial trade—the 300% markup: 100% for naivete, 100% for costs, and 100% filched on the installment plan. After he made a tidy little bundle, he moved over to the American side, where all profit is protected.
Here the brother doesn’t get bogged down in any one business. He buys a soapmaking factory for six thousand and sells it for nine. He acquires a store and resells it when he sniffs bankruptcy a month off. Now he’s one of the most respected figures in town. Chairman of dozens of charities, when Pavlova came to town he spent three hundred dollars on one dinner.
"There he is," my admiring storyteller pointed him out on the street. The brother was whizzing by in a new auto, testing it out; he had sold his own car for seven and rushed out to buy this one for twelve.
My companion was standing servilely on the sidewalk and smiling so hard you could see his gold crowns, his eyes locked on the car.
"That’s the young haberdasher," I was told. "He and his brother have only been here four years, but they’ve already been to Chicago twice for merchandise. The brother’s a real washout, Greek, I think, always writing poetry. They appointed him teacher in the next town, but nothing’s going to come of him anyway."
Overjoyed at my being a Russian, my fantastically cordial new friend led me through the streets of Laredo.
He ran ahead to ooen doors for me, fed me a very long meal, winced at a single offer from me to pay, and took me to the cinema, all the while gazing only at me and rejoicing if I laughed. And all this without the slightest notion of who I was, just because of one word: Muscovite.
Vladimir Mayakovsky was a Russian and Soviet poet and playwright, among the foremost representatives of early 20th century Russian Futurism. Because of his political activities, Mayakovsky was expelled from the Moscow Art School in 1914. His artistic development shifted, and the work published during the period immediately preceding the Russian Revolution established his reputation as a poet in Russia and abroad. "A Cloud in Trousers" (1915) was Mayakovsky’s first major poem of appreciable length and it depicted the fraught subjects of love, revolution, religion, and art, written from the vantage point of a spurned lover. The language of the work was the language of the streets, and Mayakovsky went to considerable lengths to debunk idealistic and romanticized notions of poetry and poets.
Marian Schwartz is a prize-winning translator of Russian fiction, history, biography, criticism, and fine art. She is the principal English translator of the works of Nina Berberova and translated the New York Times best-seller The Last Tsar, by Edvard Radzinsky, as well as classics by Mikhail Bulgakov, Ivan Goncharov, Yuri Olesha, and Mikhail Lermontov. Her most recent book translations are Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard and Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov. She is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowships and is a past president of the American Literary Translators Association.