Off To See the Wizard
Out the door, down the steps, turn right, walk maybe a hundred meters, and ta-da! We were there. There happened to be the office of a lawyer, recommended to us by the manager of the Londonskaya. Come to think of it, his office may actually have been in the same building. We were on a last ditch quest to replace Elena's passport through official, sanctioned, proper, normal lie-down-and-die, kiss-the-ass-of-your-master-and-lord, government channels: the Russian consulate in Odessa. Before heading off to see the wizard, it behooved us to have some inkling of our chances, of not just making it out alive -- or at all: Elena was pretty sure she would be arrested on Russian soil -- but of achieving anything at all. Then again, Odessa was a dead end. What in hell did we have to lose?
The lawyer's office was like nothing I'd seen, outside a Harry Potter movie. It was absolutely crammed with occult, death totems and seriously ancient, Hasidic paraphernalia. I was in awe; this was the office of a truly interesting man. Short, round, middle-aged with a firm handshake and death's-head ring. He assured us that the consulate in Odessa had no reciprocity with Kiev, and unless an order to apprehend Elena had come directly from the Kremlin, they would treat her with the same disregard and contempt afforded anyone. Anyone, that is, without gobs of money.
"It is then, hopeless?" Elena asked.
"Not entirely. The Russian consulate is required to replace lost or stolen passports of citizens who have enough documentation to prove who they are. A police report is required. I believe that is about it." He laced his fingers behind his head, leaned back in his chair. Then, looking at a chunk of precariously crumbling plaster on the ceiling, asked, straight out, "You have money?"
"Yeah, sure. I have dollars... some. Is that okay?" A little forward, I thought, but I was getting used to the-way-of-business around Odessa.
"Dollars, euros, rubles... doesn't matter, it's all money. Just as long as you have enough of it."
"How much do you want?"
"Not me -- them! The lizards at the consulate. Without money they won't do a thing." He caught Elena's slack-jawed look. "And, don't worry, they are not into kidnapping. Too much work, I imagine." He stood, looked down at us across his desk, wished us good luck, and asked us to let him know how it went.
After admitting a certain number of clients, the consulate locks its gates. Get there early, and get there often -- or so, we had been told. Sounded right to Elena. Sounded ludicrous to me. Regardless, there it was, going on past ten AM. Banging on the castle wall was pointless. Instead, we strolled the ancient, tree-lined streets of Odessa. Elena marveled at the structural survivors of several bloody wars, and the tyrannical Nazi and Soviet regimes. Many of their scars were still visible. On fire with passion and bursting with joy, she pulled me by the hand into courtyards, pointing out eclectic features with her architect's eye. On a crumbling terrazzo, she spotted Roman features.
A security guard approached from a nook, or shack -- we're not quite sure where he came from, actually.
"Good morning." He said, in Ukrainian.
I felt Elena tense up. She responded in Russian, tried to justify our trespassing.
The old man looked startled. With watery eyes, he told us how much it pleased him to see someone interested in the buildings he watched over. When he bent to show us something -- and stopped, opting to point, instead -- I noticed the World War Two medals pinned to his threadbare jacket. He talked about beautiful old buildings surviving the Soviets, only to fall to developers. When we turned to leave with our pictures and stories, the buildings had taken on a human soul and we'd been left us with the indelible memory of a beautiful, old man's joy. On the walk back to the Londonskaya, we knew we had been given a priceless gift.
The Russian consulate is at least an hour's walk from Primorsky Boulevard. Once beyond the historic, ye olde towne, tourist sector, the terrain becomes dusty, crumbling streets traversed by packs of wild dogs. Not the pleasantest of strolls at the best of times. Toss that sickening feeling that one gets, dragging the person they love into a dangerous, degrading, and undoubtedly futile confrontation with a pack of sadists that feed on the ugly pleasure of hurting those that throw themselves at their feet; and well... you get the picture. Let's just say, I wasn't the happiest of wanderers that morning. Elena was wraith-like.
From the street, all we could see of the consulate was its sentry huts and a high, razor-wire topped, concrete wall. Its welded, armor plate, pedestrian gate was closed. No surprise there. A Ukrainian officer in the closest sentry hut told us the consulate was open, and to request admittance from an embedded intercom panel near the gate.
Elena pushed the call button and waited... and waited. She pushed it again. Nothing. She told the Ukrainian sentry, "It must be broken."
I had suggested lobbing a brick with a note over the wall. I was ignored.
The officer left his hut, accompanying Elena back to the intercom. "The consulate staff do not always answer. Only when they feel like it, or think it might be worth their while." He positioned himself and Elena in the closed circuit camera's view. "Now, press the button."
It worked! A weirdly whiny -- maybe falsetto -- and really pissed off voice seared from the speaker. "Da, yes, what do you want?"
Elena asked to come in.
"Nyet! You do not just come in. What business do you have with the consulate?" The wall demanded.
Elena leaned in toward the panel. "My passport was lost. I need a replacement."
"Go away! We do not do that here." Click!
The Ukrainian officer shook his head. "They refuse to see mostly everyone who is asking to come in. Some people have come great distances. There is a line of people every morning. Sometimes nobody is allowed inside."
"Yeah, this is pure, grade-A, premium bullshit!" I wiped a tear from Elena's cheek with my thumb. "Remember what the lawyer said: Don't take no for an answer. It's their job to deal with you and your passport. Try again, and tell them you've seen a lawyer." I knew that would garner results back in that Western World I'd left behind in the swirling mists of time.
Elena poked at the call button, like the test subject of an operant conditioning experiment, without reward. I wondered what the chances were of getting a cab back to Primorsky from there.
Finally, "Speak!" Erupted from the wall speaker. "What is this!?"
"My passport was lost..."
"Oye, it is you! Go away. We don't deal with passports here."
"Da-a-a, you do." Elena's voice had that pre-crumble tremolo. "Our lawyer said this consulate must replace it."
"So lawyers run the consulate now?" Click, silence... We figured, voice-of-the-wall had hung up on us. Then, "Show your passports to the guard." Click, silence... Clank. The iron, slab moved a fraction of an inch from its jamb.
The sentry was glad -- and astonished -- that we'd been granted admittance. He didn't care about passports, although, he took our cell phones, cameras and asked if we were packing heat. At the gate, he wished us luck and promised to call our lawyer, if we didn't come back out by the time his shift ended.
We entered the first circle of hell: a gray, stuffy room packed with gray, downtrodden souls slumped on gray, plank benches. We stood around, eyeing an empty desk and chair -- for maybe fifteen minutes of zero activity -- before dropping our asses on it. There was no counter, no service window -- no windows at all -- just gray walls and a couple of gray doors leading who-knows-where. It felt good to sit, though.
An hour passed. Nobody came or went. Come to think of it, nobody moved at all. I had just about had it. "Hey, Len!" That's short for Lenna. which, of course, is short for Elena. "There's nobody working here. The joke's on us." I waved a hand at the motionless figures. "... And on them."
"It is not joke. This is Russia." Elena pulled my hand from the air. "Do not bring attention."
Too late. Like a lightning bolt to a nine-iron, we got attention. A gray, inner door crashed open. Until then, I'd wondered why it had no doorknob. Obviously, that kind of door opening practice had broken it off, long ago. An enraged woman, -- I recognized as the voice of the wall -- screeched at us to get the hell away from her desk. Elena flew from the banged up, steel chair, toppling it. Nobody else reacted to the commotion. Maybe they were used to it, or maybe some of them had been sitting there so long, as to have died without notice.
"Forgive us, please. There is nowhere else to sit and we had no way of knowing..." Elena righted the chair.
"Ah hah!" Barked the woman. "You should have thought of that before demanding to be let in. You stand!" She slammed the door.
I spotted a closed circuit camera, and elbowed Elena. "Look, we're on candid camera!"
CRASH! Again, the gray door exploded open. "Silence! No talking!" The woman pointed a sausage-like finger at us and, SLAM! She was gone.
Fifteen minutes passed and my feet were killing me. Especially, the ankle I'd pranged before flinging myself into this odyssey. What the hell, it was time to up the ante in whatever sicko game the Russian consulate was playing. I felt for the wad of US twenties I carried for bribes and contingencies, like this, for instance. I held one up to the camera.
Nothing, although, Elena's nostrils flared and cheeks reddened.
I peeled off another twenty, and held two of them up to the camera. Still nothing. When I had five twenties spread out like a poker hand, we got some action. The voice-in-the-wall calmly entered, sat at her desk, and oozing with servility, said, "I will see you now. Please, do be seated."
Elena took the only chair. I stood -- like I had a choice -- behind her.
"Now then, sorry for the wait. May I see your passport?"
"I don't have one. That is why we are here, to replace it." Elena said.
"Not yours!" She jabbed a sausage-like finger in my direction. "Hers!"
Knowing how passports have a habit of vanishing around screamy, rotund Russian women, I held it out without letting go.
She deftly slid the twenties from between the pages. Transaction complete, she waved me away.
"As I was saying..." Elena tried again. "My passport went missing in Kiev, and..."
"Kiev!?" A broad smirk crossed the woman's face. She stood. "If you lost your passport in Kiev, you must go to the Russian Embassy there, not here, in Odessa, you stupid girl."
I dug for another twenty. Elena handed it to the woman, telling her she had already been there. She reiterated what the lawyer told us about the consulate's obligations.
The woman slammed her well padded keister down on the chair, then snatched a form from a desk drawer. "Fill this out and get it signed by the police where you lost your passport. Kiev, was it? Bring it back, and then, if all is in order, you will wait three months for a temporary travel document."
"I, I-i-i-i have the police report." Elena placed it on the desk.
"Unacceptable!" The woman gave the document the same kind of look one might give a dog turd on a dinner plate. "This is in Ukrainian! Stupid girl, go to Kiev. Get a new police report... In. Russian!"
Elena started to panic. "Meg, we do not have three months allowed left to be in Ukraine!" She told me, in English.
"No tourist is allowed more than three months. That's why they are playing this game." I growled, slapping a twenty on the desk. Then, in my sketchy Russian, "What if we were big pine cones?" I slapped down another one. "What if we were rich?" I kept the bills coming. "Do the big shishkas, the Russian Mafia, wait three months for you to do your job?" Slap, slap, slap. The bench-zombies had reanimated during my tantrum. Astonished looks were all directed at the woman with the pile of American cash. I'm pretty sure, that without that audience, she would have hoovered up those pretty little bills faster than a twister in Kansas. Alas, all she could do was bolt from the room with what cash she had already stashed.
I scooped up what was left of my contingency fund. "That was fun. What say you, we hit the Athena food floor for grilled salmon and tater tots?"
We started toward the door that we'd come in through. Thankfully, it still had a doorknob. Unless it was fake: a bitch-slap in the face of hope. Didn't have time to try it before another gray door opened. A sumptuously appointed office spread out behind an imposing, and impeccably well dressed, man. "Get in here. You two. Now!" The gentleman bellowed.
So, that is how one gets to see a Russian, consular official, I thought, smugly. "Take note, waiting-room zombies. Take note!" I psychically implored my fellow first-circle denizens.
The consul's walls were festooned with icons and paintings; like they could have been on loan from the Hermitage. A well-stocked bar was proof of the gentleman's refined taste for single malt whiskey and Cuban cigars. The desk looked bigger than the entire waiting area, and his leather furniture struck me as custom made. Taking the throne behind his desk, and folding his large hands on the blotter, he demanded, "What is the meaning of this disturbance in the waiting lounge?"
"I lost my passport and..." Elena started.
He cut her off with a hand gesture, then looked straight at me. "You do not come in here and wave money around! Nothing gets done around here with cash. There are cameras everywhere. I deal with all sorts of people, important people, and they show some decorum. They know how business is done, and they certainly don't do it here." He deflated with a long sigh.
What now? I wondered, in the ensuing silence. Elena was the first to break it, with another attempt at an apology.
Again, he cut her off. "Still, I work. I get things done. I do the government's business, and it lets me do my business." He waved a soft manicured hand at his impressive collection. Re-inflated, inhaling loudly, and asked, "By when do you need the passport?"
"In less than a month?" Elena answered and asked, all at once.
"Such a short time is a problem. A big problem... But problems, they can be solved." He scrawled on a pad and slid it toward me. "With these documents I can solve your problem."
"Holy shit! He wants twenty thousand bucks!" I blurted in English. "No way I can come up with that kind of money! Lenna... We. Are. Screwed."
The official went nuclear. He slammed both fists into his desk, jumping to his feet. "Out! Get out! English will not be spoken in the Russian consulate. You insult me. You insult my hardworking staff. You insult Russia! You, deviant, filthy trash, get out of my sight before I beat you both to your deaths!"