A philosopher produces ideas, a clergyman sermons, a writer books. What an average man produces is litter – tons of it during his lifetime. I often ask myself which category I fall into, but the answer is always as ambiguous as it is unsettling. For I am a man of letters and litter. True, I may sometimes find solace in a liter of Stolichnaya but drinking is not my sole occupation. In fact, it is secondary to my job – my temporary job, I keep reminding myself. For you wouldn’t think that I was born to be a street-cleaner doomed to sweep litter and fallen leaves or shovel snow. Once you have taken up the broom or the shovel, you are an outcast. Not in the sense of having to do unskilled work held in so little esteem and getting mere pittance in return – I am too self-contained to be bothered by that. Now, what I mean is that being a street-cleaner one is incapable of fully admiring the beauties if nature with its changing seasons – falling autumn leaves or the miraculous transformation of landscape after a heavy snowfall. Any delight you might feel then is ruined by the simple realization that you are paid to destroy the very things that evoke such aesthetic pleasure. Many a time have I trodden through deep virgin snow, torn between admiration and disgust at what I was to accomplish. For, like it or not, labor is, in the first place, a process in which man regulates and controls Nature by opposing himself as one of her own forces. Small wonder other guys I know, whose curse, like mine, is to carry out that destructive work, tend to develop melancholy bordering on hatred for the entire mankind or, health permitting, persistent drinking habits.
Having read this far you may wonder how a man of such gentle and observant nature as myself has fallen so low. Well, I don’t really think you want to hear another tedious story of an early marriage and divorce with all the accompanying misfortunes. Certainly not. You wouldn’t be able to hear it, even if you wanted to, anyway. As for my family background, it is quite typical. My parents belong to the generation of winners who built the great empire which now spreads from the Baltic Sea to Kamchatka and who found strength to accomplish their feats in the very sacrifices they made. Mine, on the contrary, is a generation of whiners, “rootless cosmopolitans”, despicable admirers of Western consumerism (which, in a sense, is the consequence of our parents’ deprivations). True, I, too, could fork out a small fortune on a pair of contraband Levi’s, but my adherence to Western values hasn’t been merely about craving for imported goods. Ideas, that’s what I value most. But let me proceed with my tale.
My boss and the district sanitary inspector Lavrenty Vissarionovich is a typical bureaucrat, and for the likes of him the world is a mere object to be manipulated. But being manipulated is not my idea of fun and I guess he learned as much when he once tried that on me. Though as far as other things are concerned, we get along just fine. On one occasion, on the Holy Great October Revolution Day, we even had a drink together, something he could well afford without the fear of being embarrassed by my getting too familiar under the influence. One day, a couple of weeks after the festivities, Lavrenty Vissarionovich calls me to his office on the second floor of an old mansion where, as rumor has it, they kept the last Russian tsar and his family before “terminating” them. Offers a seat – no vodka this time. “Gerasim, – he addresses me, – you know how much I value your sustained and thorough efforts to keep the territory allotted to you nice and clean.” You bet! Where would you find another fool to work for peanuts?
“But let us not forget, – he goes on and meaningfully purses his lips. – that honest and productive labor is not the only aim, however lofty, we should aspire to. We should do our very best to measure up to the high moral standards set by the Party.” Oh, no, not again – you drink way more than I do! And you are a party member!
“The Moral Code of the Builder of Communism, of which I’m sure you have heard… read I mean, urges us, among other things, to be unpretentious and modest in social and private life. We should not forget about the impression our appearance and manners might produce on other members of society.” Which bombastic bug has bitten you, dear Lavrenty Vissarionovich? Have you had one too much today? Come on, stop pissing me around, I’ve got work to do!
“You come of solid stock, Gerasim, and your manners, though lacking in refinement, have a certain crude charm. Reserved, too. Silence is golden, you know. You dress neatly, you do not smell like the rest of your buddies, you don’t forget to flush the toilet and wash your hands afterwards, but…” he puckers his lips and looks at his hairy chubby fingers. How about you, Lavrenty Vissarionovich? I bet you are one of those “neatnicks” that flush the toilet before but forget to wash their hands after! As for the smell, you’re right, buddy, I smell like a fragrant rose compared to you!
“Just let me ask you, Gerasim, when did you last go to the barber’s? Look, your hair’s a bit… longish. People stare at you. They wonder what a “hippie” like you is doing in a Soviet establishment. And I find it increasingly difficult to convince everybody that you are an excellent worker despite your little… idiosyncrasies.” Well, well, so that’s what it is! Bald with envy, dear Lavrenty Vissarionovich, aren’t you? Involuntarily I look up at the flyblown portraits of Karl Marx and Lenin on the wall over his baldpated head and chuckle: the founding fathers look just like the two of us – one long-haired and bushy-bearded, the other baldish with a thin little beard and moustache.
He catches my glance and flares up: “Comrade Marx was a great thinker and the founder of Theoretical Communism! You can’t just walk around like a cheap impersonator – with a broom in your hands!” What do you expect me to have in my hands then – a copy of Das Kapital? If what you want is productive labor, a broom is certainly more instrumental. And, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ll ever make a good impersonator. From each according to his disabilities, you know.
“Take my words as a firm recommendation that you should do something about your appearance. Look, I can even lend you some money. But for God’s sake – do as I say!” And why, for God’s sake, don’t you begin with yourself, dear Lavrenty Vissarionovich, – buy some antiperspirant and hair lotion?
“And one last word, Gerasim. Should you fail to oblige me, I’m afraid we won’t be able to continue to work as… a team, you know.” Last words are only for fools who haven’t said enough. Team, my foot! What do I care about being your “team”? And what, pray, do I have to lose but my chains? Has it ever entered your bald head that changing man’s appearance won’t change his mind – nor will it unchain him, for that matter. And hair has nothing to do with that. It’s what inside this very crane it grows on that determines man’s personality! I guess I become somewhat agitated then and may have even given that hairy crane of mine a couple of bonks to get my message across – bad idea, for poor Lavrenty Vissarionovich suddenly grows red in the face and jumps to his feet crying: “Out! You cheeky brute! How dare you?!”
Though reason has always existed, it has not always existed in a reasonable form. What could I do in that “hairy” situation but leave my boss to fume and pour a stiff one from the decanter he always keeps in his closet? Sure, I felt pity for the poor pathetic bugger. History, I thought, repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. There will always be a specter haunting you, Lavrenty Vissarionovich, be it the specter of Karl Marx or his lookalikes – doesn’t matter.
And so I quit. Gave up the street-cleaner’s job altogether. Shed the hateful chains, so to say. I now work as a night-watchman in another establishment. My new boss, Iosif Pavlovich, doesn’t seem to mind my pseudo-Marxian looks. Nor does he mind the absence of a burglar alarm. As I walk to my new work I enjoy the sight of trees covered with snow. I smile to passers-by: what a gorgeous day, comrades! Blessed be Mother Nature! But if I see a haunted, tormented look in somebody’s eyes, I know immediately that they belong to the race of hairy outcasts, of which I was one just a short while ago. How I wish I could speak to them! How I wish I could share with them what I know! But no – damned determinism! And so at night, in the dimly lit lodge, with the rest of the huge building quiet and dark, I write what is going to be my Capital Work, my contribution to the liberation of the oppressed. Nothing can stop the onward march of history! So stand up, ye, workers of the broom! Ye, workers of the shovel, unite! The future belongs to you and, in the long run, you, the poor and deprived, will rule the world! For nothing can stand in the way of those who can tame Nature itself! And come to think of it, you really have nothing to lose – but your hair.
About the Author
Mehi Loveski (Oleg G. Mikhailovsky) has a BA in English and literature and works as an English instructor at Ural Federal University. His essays and short stories have appeared in a number of American literary magazines.He lives in Yekaterinburg, Russia, with his wife, son and a dog