A berth in ‘punishment class’
On one winter visit to the orphanage from Moscow, I hadn’t been able to get a return ticket from Tambov, the big city near the orphanage along the main train route. Rather than allowing me simply to bribe the conductor to get a seat as is customary (the conductor reserves several places for bribes), the orphanage director, concerned for my well-being, arranged for Great, I thought. Fourth class. Only on a cold night like tonight you might as well call it punishment class. transportation from Sosnovka to Moscow along a different route. My friends from the orphanage saw me off at Sosnovka’s tiny station — essentially a parking lot — and found a man who was also traveling to Moscow to look after me. A bitterly cold wind blew in through the cracks in the windows of this old local train. Some windows were even stuck open. The train had no heat. I could see my breath, and pulled my jacket collar up and my hat as far down as possible to hide myself from the air. A couple of kids sat down across from me and began to wail. I believe crying kids are standard issue on Russian trains.
After about three hours aboard the sob-filled, slow-moving train, I needed to go to the bathroom. I tried the one at my end of the car: locked. The one at the other end: also locked. Those in the next car: also locked. I came back to the first bathroom and tried to kick the door in, cursing at this point. I jumped on the door handle.
I caught a glimpse of a man watching me, his shoulders heaving with laughter. I glared.
“Do you have to do the little one or the big one?” he asked.
“The little one,” I answered, then recognizing him as Alexander, the man my friends had asked to keep an eye on me.
“Good,” he replied, “Follow me.” He opened the door at the end of the car. “You see that coupling between this car and the next?” he asked. “That’s the bathroom on this train.”
“Could this possibly be worse?” I asked myself silently.
I shouldn’t have asked.
Alexander and I had to change trains and we waited for the next one in the little agricultural town of Krasnodar, where I stood a 101 percent chance of being the only American at their tiny station, overcrowded with people carrying huge sacks of potatoes from their relatives’ gardens and farms back to the cities where they lived, where potatoes had become unaffordable. The potato savings alone justified the price of a trip. There were also babushki, grandmotherly women selling all sorts of things in buckets they carried, from bottles of beer and milk to cigarettes and rather sinister-looking mushrooms.
I asked Alexander to look at my ticket and tell me if it was for a luxury or second-class seat. He laughed with such genuine surprise that I felt a heavy sense of foreboding.
“Nope, no luxury cars at all on this train,” he laughed. “There are only three cars on this train, and they’re platzkartny.”
Great, I thought. Fourth class. Only on a cold night like tonight you might as well call it punishment class. Open cars. Tons of people in close quarters. Baggage packed in on a shelf right above the top bunk, so that the person sleeping in that bunk can’t even sit up halfway. Very claustrophobic. There’s an aisle running down the entire car, along which one can walk past the feet of the babushki, dangling off the edge of every unpadded plank bed, sticking out in front of your face.
“I guess there won’t be any tea on this train?” I asked Alexander without hope. “No tea on these agricultural locals,” he said.
I pulled my hood on over my ski hat. The air blew colder and colder as we waited on the platform, until at last the train showed up. It was colder inside the train than outside on the windy platform. Either the train had no heat, or it was broken (“under repair,” as the Russians always say with optimistic-sounding cynicism). I saw that my ticket was for the upper bunk — the one in which you had barely room enough to lift your head. I turned to the man sitting next to me, a burly guy of about forty, and asked him if he would consider trading his bottom bunk for my top bunk. I was desperate to get out of the coffin-bunk, and although I nearly always accepted whatever the natives would accept in Russia, in this case I was prepared to act like an ugly foreigner and offer money.
But I didn’t even get the chance to mention money. The guy began ranting to the passengers around us, “Listen to this young guy asking me, his elder, to give him the upper bunk! What nerve! Ha!”
Humiliated, I sank back onto my haunches and began to eat the meat cutlets my friends had packed for me. That, I soon realized, was a crucial error.