The Russian Photos

(From the upcoming issue of Gupter! Magazine)

Barry emerged from the subway after another shitty day at work. He climbed the stairs and breathed deeply as he looked up to the sky, as if 6pm was the dawn of a new day; relieved that he was outside of striking distance from his boss. He never felt the crushing tedium of commuting with the hordes of other sad souls, moving in tandem out of the train doors, up the designated exit stairwells, and on to the street where they would spread like a virus at Astor Place and mix in with the natives—a Diaspora of corporate prisoners let free. Rather, he always looked forward to returning to his neighborhood when he felt his personality and creativity awaken again and he became himself.

As he walked east on St. Mark’s Place and down First Avenue to his apartment situated above a Polish restaurant, he noticed a broken cardboard box on the sidewalk. It wasn’t at the gutter for garbage pickup, but it wasn’t settled next to the building, either. It was right in the middle of the sidewalk. First Avenue between Fifth Street and Sixth Street doesn’t get an awful lot of foot traffic, but it was still odd for a box to be right in the middle of the sidewalk without someone having swiped up the box for its contents to be hawked in Tompkins Square Park alongside some used string and other useless items up for free trade by the neighborhood addicts. It looked like photos in the box, which was split along one corner so someone may have dropped it, or it was just broken to begin with. Photos—like looking at someone else’s life.

Barry stood over the box and stared at it for what he even felt was an awkwardly long period of time. If he stood there long enough, it might seem like it was his box and he had just dropped it. Because if he didn’t create that appearance of ownership, it might look as if he was taking someone else’s property. Which of course he was, but really, it’s sitting on the sidewalk with no sign of an owner in sight. So it wasn’t stealing. He peered into the restaurant to see if perhaps the owner was sitting at the counter sipping a coffee, waiting to trounce on the interloper of his photos. He then looked across the street thinking someone was filming the entire episode for some short NYU Film School project. It would make an interesting short film, but there was really no climax, at this point. But climaxes are cliché anyway.

Barry was a relatively unobtrusive guy, though he was very tall and lanky. He always wore a black messenger bag across his body and was rarely seen walking the streets without his earphones plugged in to his head. He pulled out his earphones once he decided he would pick up the box, for no other reason than perhaps to hear if someone yelled, “Hey, what are you doing, asshole, that’s MY box!” He slowly bent down to pick up the box, taking extra time so that he could figure out how to pick up the box without all of the photos slipping out the split end.

He put his arms around the box taking careful measure to cover the split side so he didn’t look like a dick stealing someone’s box of personal things and then making a whole drama about the event. Seamless is how he wanted it to look, but by the time he finally decided to pick he box up he realized it had been such a long time – perhaps a minute – that just standing in the middle of the sidewalk that he was already attracting attention. The difficulty now was that with both arms hugging the box, he couldn’t easily reach in to his bag to retrieve his keys. So he turned and walked to his building and used the small stoop to prop the box on his bent leg while he swung the messenger bag around to reach in and grab his keys.

Finally, after what may have been about a millennium, Barry entered his building and double-stepped the stairs to his apartment.

“Hey man. Look what I found,” he said to his roommate, Doug, who was just sitting on the futon. Doug frequently just sat on the futon, with no television, music, or other entertainment. He never read, but otherwise sounded really smart.

“That is indeed a large, broken box. What’s in it?”

“Photos. I found photos on the street. It’s going to be like a personal look into people’s lives, and it’s been left for me to piece together.”

“Shitty day at work, huh? Most people just go out and grab a beer. You have to make some grandiose scene in order to wash away your shit. You’re a funny dude,” Doug said dismissively.

“No, I’m really psyched about this,” Barry said calmly as he set the box down on the milk-crate coffee table.

He took out a stack of photos and flipped through them carefully, touching only the sides.

“These people aren’t from here. I can tell they’re not from here,” he said.

“How can you tell?” Doug asked as he leaned over with interest.

“I just get this feeling – I mean, these ones right here, at the party, it’s like they’re speaking another language. Russian maybe. Or something Scandinavian.”

“Yeah because I can’t definitively see like a different shape of their lips in making different sounds. They don’t necessarily look different, either, but I see what you’re getting at.” Doug turned a photo upside down and gazed at it, while he pondered.

Doug looked at the photos that Barry spread out on the futon between them and picked one up and studied it closely. They each took several photos in their hands and studied them carefully. It was a long while before either one spoke. As if this was a big, serious project.

“Yeah, man, Russian. That’s it. These are people from Russia. And they aren’t recent, either. These things could be 20 years old. Look at their shoes,” Doug said.

“You’re right. The shoes are the dead giveaway of the physical attributes of being foreign. But there is something else that’s just intangible. I know they’re not speaking English. I just know it.”

“I do think the photos are in New York, though. If you see the windows they look like they’re from a Lower East Side apartment building. And the radiator. These are taken here. But the people are definitely not from here. I can put myself right there at the party and almost hear their conversation and it’s most definitely not in English.”

The two continued for a few hours examining the photos and piecing together a very creative story about the genesis of the photos, the history behind them, and the clues that led them to their pre-conceived conclusion.

There were more than just party photos, also. The one thing that struck Barry was the photos of people who weren’t smiling—they could have been just candid snapshots, but Barry gave more thought to them. It’s like they were photos of strangers, but many were on the streets of New York. Why would the photographer snap photos of strangers—Russian strangers, no less?

###

“I have to find out who these people are, where they are, I don’t know, just find out about them. Connect with them the way the photos have connected with me,” Barry stated to Doug.

“Ok, first of all, I thought we figured out these were from years ago and second of all, why the fuck do you care? I mean, it’s interesting and all, and I’m right there with you. We’ve indeed got a mystery on our hands. But you’re no Inspector Clouseau and what do you think you can possibly find by investigating? You don’t even speak Russian.”

“Well, Doug, you idiot, Inspector Clouseau was a klutz, and if you liken someone to a detective there are plenty of other fictional characters to name them after, like Sherlock Holmes.”

“You’re off topic and you haven’t thought this through, that’s all I’m saying.”

“I just figured I’d run some classified ads in the Russian newspaper, I think it’s printed in Brooklyn. Some of the words here are in English so it’s not that hard to figure out.”

“Oh, that’s not a bad idea. Sorry man. Sometimes I get carried away.”

“Right.”

So Doug proceeded to send two photos to the newspaper with a check for $45 and his address simply to be printed under the photos. He picked up the next issue of the paper at the deli near his apartment and bought a copy of the paper, to find his ad placed prominently. He stood in the deli for a few minutes captivated by his ad.

“Here it is, Doug, we’re getting somewhere,” he proudly showed is sometimes-skeptical roommate.

“Wait a minute, man, you put your address in the paper?”

“How else are they going to get in touch with me? I mean, yeah, I could have put my email, but I don’t even know if immigrants use email.”

“Are you a fucking idiot? The whole world uses email. You’re safer even with your cellphone number—“

“Whoa, safer? What do you mean by that? Like some Russian mobsters are going to come busting down the door?” Barry asked.

“Yes, Barry, that’s actually exactly what I’m worried about. You don’t put an address in your classifieds unless you’re selling a car, and even that’s not a good idea. You’re not selling a car and you have no story to back up the fact that you stole these pictures. They belonged somebody.”

“Shit, man, Russian mob?”

“Russian mob. We’re right next to the center of their activity over in Brighton Beach. And you lure them right to our apartment. I don’t feel safe, now, man, really, that was a dumbshit idea and I wish you’d asked me first.”

Barry thought for a moment about the plausibility of such a scenario, but jumped ahead to paranoia instead. He walked over to a window overlooking First Avenue and pulled back the shades.

“If you think you’re going to be able to see them coming first, you’re wrong. These guys are stealth,” Doug said, just sitting like he does, on the futon, staring straight.

“What should we do?” Barry asked

“I don’t know, man, I don’t know. If you stay here, you’re a sitting duck. You could go out and confront this dragon head-on and go out to Brighton Beach.”

###

The next day Barry called in sick, after staying out of his apartment most of the night drinking at a low-key dive down the street, commiserating with anyone who would listen. He took Doug’s advice and headed straight out to Brighton Beach with his Russian newspaper in hand and a bagful of photos, organized and stored in Ziploc bags with different titles, like, “Night Party 1,” “Male Stranger 3,” and grouped by either location individuals. Barry wasn’t sure if the butterflies in his stomach were from his hangover or from nerves. He spied three Russian-speaking people in the same train car, who appeared to be looking over at him often. It’s a long ride to Brighton Beach from Grand Street. It made him uncomfortable enough to switch cars in between stations—a trick he had never tried but had seen in the Warriors, a movie about New York City gangs in the 1970s. It was terrifying and didn’t assuage his nerves.

He was nervous now about being on the wrong train and didn’t want to wind up in the Rockaways, or worse, somewhere else in Queens. But he was more terrified of looking like he was lost and so he squinted and tried to scan the subway map opposite from his seat, but didn’t want to crane his neck or stand up to look at it, for fear that people might realize he’s an interloper. And everything on this elevated subway line looked foreign, the farther he traveled from the East Village. Finally, the train stopped at its terminus and Barry stepped out and walked down the steps to the street.

“I have no fucking idea what I’m doing here.”

He spent the day walking around the streets, going into markets. He bought some knockoff Tupperware for a great price and some replacement earphones for his iPod. He ate some pierogies and strong coffee at a diner that didn’t feel much different than Leshko’s on Avenue A and felt a little better. He then walked over to the boardwalk and watched older women playing cards. He sat peacefully looking at the autumn breezes push the waves lazily along the sand.

###

When Barry returned to his apartment at the end of the day, Doug appeared to be pacing the apartment.

“Where the fuck have you been, man? I was about to call your mom or the cops or something. You’re ok, right? I thought they might have taken you after I left the bar last night—I knew I shouldn’t have left you alone—“ Doug said.

“I’ve been in Brighton Beach all day. That place is nice. Look at the Tupperware I got—this whole set was $8 bucks.”

They both fell silent for a few moments.

“You check the mail?” Barry asked.

“Not yet.”

Barry dragged a chair to prop the apartment door open while he went downstairs to check the box. He came back in and nudged the chair out of the way and let the door slam shut, punctuated by the ding of the old doorbell.

“This is a letter in response to the ad, it’s got the classified number on the front of the envelope,” Barry said without looking up and dropped the other pieces of mail on the table. Doug jumped up and walked over to examine the letter.

“Don’t open it—“ Doug said hesitantly.

Barry looked at him skeptically and proceeded to tear it open.

“It’s in Russian,” Barry said, defeated.

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