Writing history

It’s the 4th of July! And while I don’t particularly feel like celebrating the direction of our country today, let alone doing so with controlled explosions, I am taking the day more or less off.

However, I was reminded of one of the more surreal stories from my time in Russia lately, and it seemed thematically relevant to this particular moment in history. I hope you enjoy it.

The year was 2005, and I was studying abroad in St. Petersburg. My friend N and I decided, one evening, to try and find a secret (“secret”) jazz bar we’d heard about, and set off towards a neighborhood that was unknown to both of us. We arrived at the appropriate cross streets, but quickly got turned around from there—we would later (i.e. a few weeks later, when we tried again) realize the bar was tucked away in a courtyard and looked entirely nondescript from the outside, by design. (It was a really good jazz club.) But on this particular evening, it was getting late and we decided to cut our losses and find someplace else to hang out.

As luck would have it, we found an Elvis-themed bar not far away. Now, if you’ve never been 21 years old in Russia, maybe you won’t understand this, but in that moment it was the funniest thing that could possibly have happened to us, so we decided to go have a drink. At the door, we were informed that there was a cover charge, which seemed weird; usually the only charge to get into a bar was if they had a coat check (which lots of them do, and frankly it’s brilliant). Thereafter followed the most Russian 101—yet effective! And merited!—conversation we could possibly have dreamed up:

Me: There is a cover charge to enter this bar?

“Bouncer”: Yes, there is a cover charge to enter this bar.

Me: For what reason is there a cover charge to enter this bar?

B: The reason for the cover charge to enter this bar, as you can see, is the musical group.

Me: So there is a cover charge to enter this bar and listen to the musical group?

B: That is correct.

[Whereupon we payed 10 rubles or something and went happily into the bar.]

So. By the time N and I actually sat down, the “musical group’s” set was almost over, and I would like at this point to say that they were not playing even one Elvis song, which was something of a disappointment. But they were playing 60’s and 70’s American radio hits, which was pretty good in and of itself, particularly in a room surrounded by Russian hipsters and Elvis paraphernalia.

The other thing worth mentioning is that the band had put up an enormous Confederate flag behind them. I’m not sure whether N and I even clocked this until after the music was over—the last song, played by all men who were trying to look tough and, I guess, like Southern American Good Old boys, was “Me and Bobby McGee,” which was somehow the funniest part of any of this—but we struck up a conversation with the singer afterwards, and he pointed it out to us numerous times, after introducing himself as “Mix.”

(Note: not the Russian word for “mix,” which I guess might be <<смесь>>, just “Mix.”)

The conversation went something like this:

Mix: So, did you notice our flag?

Us: Oh, I guess so. Yeah, I see it.

Mix: I hope it didn’t “freak you out.” [with a look that says he clearly hopes he “freaked us out”]

Us: …not really. [with a look that says, “we have met dumb people before, and so you are not new to us, and furthermore we have no confidence at all that you understand the nuances of American racial politics; we assume you’re just trying to be dickish”]

Mix: That’s good, because I know sometimes Americans get “freaked out” by this flag, but my American father is from the South, and so I think it is a good flag.

And it went on like that for a while. The conversation was deeply nonthreatening (mostly because N & I were both white, of course), although in retrospect it feels much weirder; during our time in St. Petersburg, there were racially-motivated murders and a semi-ascendant neo-Nazi party: it was all very scary and immediate, and so the casual Dixie racism Mix was haphazardly serving up seemed benign by comparison. He kept talking about being adopted by an “American dad,” who turned out to just be a guy roughly his own age who wanted to adopt him…as an adult? Maybe for immigration purposes? And it seemed to us like Mix was just, um, “mixing” his own musical nostalgia (which crossed over into country) with that stranger’s gross American attitudes, understanding practically none of it. Later that evening, he took N and I to a rockabilly party on a houseboat in one of the canals.

I didn’t know then that attitudes from the American South would metastasize into the rising nationalism we see today, and like many white Americans, I didn’t understand quite how bad the lingering racism in America still was. I thought Confederate flags were emblems of the past—not just the Civil War past, but the racist past—and that anyone still clinging to them was part of a waning minority, not worth thinking about. I thought that Mix was pathetic, and that his allegiance to the American South was misplaced, a sign that he didn’t understand our country and the direction it was headed. Russia seemed dangerous. America seemed safe.

But that wasn’t right, was it? Now, those neo-Nazi marches in St. Petersburg seem prescient to me; I wonder if Mix saw the future better than I did, and I do not like the feeling. I still remember him as funny and sort of sad, a person out of place and time who didn’t realize he was singing a love song to a man while also trumpeting hatred and homophobia as casually as a style of clothes.

I realize this story took a turn partway through, but I was remembering it as silly and light, and it just isn’t, not anymore. In my early 20s, I thought I was a cynical person, about America most of all. But I was sheltered, and an optimist. I want for people to be decent to each other: I want that more than popsicles or barbecue or margaritas. I want that more than fireworks, or the metallic smell of those charcoal tabs that worm out into the shape of snakes when you light them on fire; more than sparklers; more than the feeling of grass through my t-shirt when I lie on the lawn and watch the sky explode.

I am, myself, very nostalgic. Not in the way that Mix was, for a part of history that I never experienced. I’m nostalgic for my own young mind, which was so easily affronted and soothed. I’m nostalgic for the America I thought we’d have, and still hope we might have, if we work for it. I remember peace of mind, and I’d like to get back there, all together, if we can.