Three (Dis)Ability Vignettes.

Well. Here are three little notes. On (dis)ability and the Motherland.  For your reading pleasure, of course. With pictures!

1.) Remember the Community Factor?

Last week, I was bumping along in the metro, as I usually do on a day to day basis here in Moscow.  Nothing much unusual.  The train approached my station, this station:

“Krasnye vorota” or “Red Gate”

And as we approached I plied myself off my seat and began to push my way, with the help of the Evil Aid, toward the wagon exit. If you don’t do this in advance, you will find yourself trapped behind a clot of moving bodies, some jostling to get on, some jostling to get off. If you are not among the jostlers, you will not be able to get off. Simply put. You will be stuck riding the Moscow Metro forever.  Which may or may not be a bad thing, depending on how you were planning on spending the rest of your day.  Anyway.  As I have mentioned before, one has to plot the execution of one’s exit even farther in advance if one is an aided mobilizer.  Making one’s way toward an exit through a clot of jostling bodies in a moving metro wagon is already difficult enough. It is even harder if walking is precarious. So. I started to pick my way toward the doors, when out of nowhere a mid-size Russian man, who was on the train with his wife, in a leather worker’s cap (Yes, it is true the Soviet Union no longer exists. But worker’s caps in tweed, black leather, and fur have remained fashionable here in the Motherland. Conundrum.) grabbed my right arm, which incidentally is my crutch arm, saying simply “Davai” (Let’s do it).  And just as the doors opened, he proceeded to carry me across the gap between the wagon, and refused to let go until he was sure I was planted firmly on solid ground. Um. Okay. No, he did not mean any harm. No he wasn’t some kind of bandit. In fact, he was trying to help me, someone who he assumed might have some difficulty navigating the metro, maximally. It was the most extreme implementation of the Community Factor I have experienced to date.  The idea and the thought are quite nice. But. I am an American. Though I understand and appreciate the Soviet/post-Soviet Community Factor, it is not something I am used to.  If someone just grabs your arm without asking, especially if you are a woman alone on public transport, in the US your natural reaction is to panic and to try to flee.  This isn’t to say that another American would never try to assist someone in this way. It could happen, but I can almost guarantee that before doing so, the helper would ask something like, “Here. Let me help you.” or “Do you need assistance?” BEFORE grabbing on to the most available limb.  In America there is a distinct concept of personal space and corporeal autonomy that doesn’t necessarily exist in the Motherland.  As my arm was being grabbed and I was being carried, I had to repeat this to myself several times over to stifle my own panic and desire to forcibly flee.  When I was deposited, I just said thank you.  Mr. Worker’s Hat said, “Don’t mention it,” and headed toward the escalator together with his wife.  Internally, I heaved a huge sigh of relief, and then turned and went on my own way, thinking, “Wait. What?”  Like I said, his intentions were good. But you know, when you are standing and moving along on legs that are already shaky, having someone grab onto you out of nowhere is NOT A GOOD THING contrary to how it may seem.  When you inhabit a body that is constantly working to maintain its sense of stability, having someone or something grab on to you out of nowhere, especially when you are about to execute a precarious task (e.g. crossing a threshold), can very easily throw you off. And even if it doesn’t cause you to fall, it can make you feel like you are going to fall, thus setting in motion a series of sudden, sometimes painful, physical maneuvers and a certain sense of corporeal anxiety and severe dread.  Unpleasant and risky.  But. What how do you explain this all to a man reared in a culture with a strong sense of the Community Factor? Especially after the assistance has already been set in motion, and as far as everyone else is concerned, he is doing what is right for the collective by helping an ‘invalid’ off the metro? I haven’t quite figured that one out yet…But I’d better. Such events seem likely to recur.

2.) The Tram Saves the Day.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently took a day trip to the small city of Tver’, which lies about halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg.  As I also mentioned, the city is very severely lacking in terms of infrastructure.  Buckled pavement. Missing cobble stones. Cracks in the asphalt.  Potholes the size of Lake Baikal.  Debris. Slick tiles. You name it, Tver’ has just about every footpath obstacle you can imagine.  To be honest? Although I hate admitting defeat, walking in and around Tver’ was very difficult for me, even with the assistance of the evil aid.  But. Tver’ has retained a charming form of pre-revolutionary/early Soviet transport that many other former Soviet cities have abandoned or  diminished: the tram.  The tram lines in Tver’ are long and functional.  They will easily take you from one end of the city to the other, making it possible to avoid long stretches of territory that for an aided mobilizer is un-walkable and unwheel-able.  So three cheers for the tram! Here is a little view from inside:

3.) Gimp Swag.

I will admit a guilty pleasure. Sometimes on my way home from the Library Named for a Famous Revolutionary, I pop into the State Department Store, known here as GUM.  GUM is right on Red Square, right across from the Kremlin wall and Lenin’s Tomb.  The building itself is pre-revolutionary, and is a basically a glass and motor maze of late nineteenth century arcades that seem to be designed specifically for the sake of what Walter Benjamin describes as the “commodity phatasmagoria.” And commodity phatasmagoria it is. GUM is home to some of the swanky is shops and cafes in Moscow, and it’s luminous display of goods seeks to tantalize and allure.  But. It is not the luster of the commodity I am chasing when I enter GUM. It is usually yogurt I am after. You see, GUM, like so many former Soviet places is something of a contradiction. Yes it is home to Dior, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton, but during the Soviet period such places were non-existent.  The building instead housed giant halls filled with Soviet produced clothes, shoes, and housewares. There was also a grocery store, known as Gastronom Number One. And today, the Gastronom has been restored, next to Dior and Chanel, to something of a nostalgic Soviet state.  The workers wear Soviet uniforms, and the shop sells Soviet food products, which are displayed in Soviet pyramidal fashion.  Browsing the aisles is a hoot to be sure.  But also, the selection of non-Soviet groceries is also pretty good, and–drum roll–they take credit cards and provide good customer service.  No lines. No shoving. No angry babushki yelling at you, because you don’t have correct change. So sometimes, on the way home I stop in to buy yogurt for breakfast.  But here is the thing about Gastronom Number One.  When you make a purchase, the shop gives you a sturdy plastic bag emblazoned with the logo “Gastronom Number One” for free.  This is unusual in Russia. Most grocery stores charge you for bags.  Also. Everyone totes their belongings in plastic bags around town. Everyone. From the poorest of the poor to high ranking government officials.  It is a fashionable thing. It is not uncommon to see the wife of an oil baron toting a plastic bag along, with her everyday belongings, along with her Fendi handbag. And prestigious plastic bags (Anything with a foreign mark is considered prestigious, for example, because it means you have the means to travel.) are highly coveted items that get used, once acquired, again and again and again.  And. A plastic bag from Gastronom Number One is considered, by Russians, to be a valuable fashion item.  The bigger the bag, the greater its prestige.  But like I said, I buy yogurt. And only yogurt. I do not need a big bag to carry my yogurt. I do not necessarily even need a bag.  I have tried to assert this point. With no luck. Because every time I buy yogurt at Gastronom Number One I get exactly the same response from the cashier. “What do you mean? Of course you need a bag! And oh my, is it going to be possible for you to carry those in a tiny bag? No. I don’t think so. Here, let me give you a bigger one. I’m sure that will make things easier.”  They insist. They always insist. I always ending up leaving the Gastronom with a small purchase and an absurdly large shopping bag. Like this:

Protesting gets me nowhere. Arguing is useless. I have capitulated. I have come to terms with being lavished with large free plastic bags from Gastronom Number One. There is only one way to describe this phenomenon: Gimp swag.

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