What used to be a volcano faced me from my east window. Millennia of wind, water and sun have worn down the lip of the collapsed conical top. But friction hasn't changed the core. Deep down, the same molten churning roils.
The people resembled ants as I watched them from my sixth floor window. They wove back and forth in their daily patterns, nearly all in black like most Russians. The bright spots -- blue, turquoise, green, red, yellow -- came from the advertisements on buses that shuttled by. A woman's deep gravelly voice punctuated the steady thrum of traffic. A deeper, calmer voice answered her chastisements -- no doubt a pattern as well.
A man exited the apartment building next door. He bumped a carriage down concrete steps. I hoped the baby liked to be tossed around, but then a woman followed with the baby in a tight, blue winter snowsuit. The baby's limbs stuck out rigidly from the bulk of the clothing like a plastic doll. The woman stuffed the baby into the buggy and ambled down the hill out of the shadow and into the sun.
On the top floor, a gypsy-looking woman shook a rug out the window where her laundry hung. Black smoke drifted from the north toward the extinct volcano turning the lovely blue sky a sickly gray. Every day. The rectangular apartment complexes marched in uneven rows up the hill, the only fluke being a new, bright red building that dwarfed the typical colorless Soviet construction.
Judy and I had long been looking forward to finding the Two Georgians restaurant, as we both loved Georgian food. When we arrived at 5:20 p.m., it was crowded. But the corner section had two empty tables set for four each, and to our right was a table set for two that had menus and other paraphernalia piled on it. The hostess said, "Nyet mesto" -- no place. I pointed out the two tables, and she replied with something I could not understand. A man walked in and was seated. "What about him?" He had ordered ahead. Judy had been to this restaurant before, and the same thing happened so she and her friends went next door.
A waitress scurried by. "Can we sit at this table?" I pointed at the two-seater. She shook her head. Russians don't eat dinner at 5:30, so I knew those tables were not reserved. I sat down. Judy's eyes widened; she gulped and sat.
The hostess then came over. "Do you want this table?" I smiled, nodded and handed her the junk that had been piled on the table. The food, in little reddish bowls with lids, was indeed excellent; the hachipurri the best I've ever eaten. They even had Sapporo beer from Japan that we had taken a liking to after our trip there. We finished, paid and noted that the two tables in the middle of the next room stood empty.
From my south window, nine wire steeples poked holes into the sky. Primorsky Laboratory Court Expertise, the building across the street, took up the entire block. It looked like a poorly maintained prison. Few of the hundred and sixty-two apartment windows ever lit up at night. Porches sagged, barely hanging on; windows were boarded up or broken; in some open balconies, stacks of bricks awaited workers who never appeared. One Asian man displayed a magnificent gray metal sculpture through his window, as he stood on his porch to shake and fold blue sheets. The couple above him featured their television as the main furniture. Below him, a man in his fifties wearing a white, sleeveless t-shirt leaned on the balcony wall with one arm and smoked.
In the middle of the block, at one apartment laundry always hung on the balcony, so I came to believe it was their closet. Next to them, a young couple moved in and painted the place bold, primary colors, more Uzbek than Russian.
Air conditioners dot the concrete walls of the first floor. Those court experts must be comfortable, or maybe it's for the corpses. Jagged gaps mar the white-grey stucco that covers crumbling red brick. Windows lean cockeyed. The unrehabilitated apartments house the poor and students.
After the book club meeting at the library where four native English speakers presented, three of us decided to go to the Manila Café that I had stumbled upon tucked up in a wayward corner when returning from my hair salon hidden in a nearby alley. Like most restaurants, this one had a cloakroom because in a Russian winter, the outer gear takes up quite a bit of space. We dress like cabbages -- layer upon layer. One very large table had been set for a sports team. Another party of ten was on our right. Judy made out the best with very tasty sautéed vegetables and a fish kabob of what looked like salmon but wasn't. Orders are not timed to all arrive at once, so she was nearly finished before Ina's borsht came, though it only had to be warmed up. After an interminable wait, during which we joined the table of ten in dancing, my chicken Tsar finally appeared. Very dry white meat, allegedly stuffed with ham, cheese and mushrooms, had a white, folded paper crown, that should have gone the way of the Tsar, stuck on the end of the chicken.
To the west, a small park struggles for recognition with its stunted trees, limp bushes and feeble patch of grass. A very cheerful Toyota advertisement on the side of the building extolled fifteen years of quality and trust. Everything looked better as night fell -- or snow.
I kept alert for potential candidates to replace me. One such talented woman had been a lawyer for thirty-eight years. She had plenty of experience speaking before an audience, because in Soviet times, before the beginning of a movie, lawyers would stand up on the stage and present a lecture about some aspect of law -- a great way to educate the average citizen about the fundamentals of the legal system. On the other hand, if I needed a night out at the movies to relax and have fun, a mandatory lecture on the law might not be welcome.
A twenty-story apartment building grew from a construction site on top of the hill outside my office window. The higher balconies boasted a view of the Vladivostok bay, at a half million dollars each. On the left a dung-colored bare rock looked much like a cow pie from an ancient and gigantic mastodon. The red brick office buildings down on my level displayed faux indigenous designs around the top. One 1962 building remained in pretty good shape, especially for Russian construction. An entrepreneur blacktopped his roof, painted off parking spaces, and started making money. An electric wire sagged halfway to the ground from one building to another. Broken steps, surrounded by a wild world of weeds, led up the hill but died at a gray, corrugated metal fence.