I am a busboy
Early March found me working at the Old Bourbon Steakhouse in the Hilton Hotel. The Hilton was an easy walk from the Winslow, two blocks west and one street down.
I came to the Hilton through the influence of a Crimean Tatar named Gaydar, who had been a porter at the Hilton for ten years, one of the family; otherwise they wouldn't have taken me. I must confess I committed a crime: I started at the Hilton several days after going on welfare. I wanted to try it a while and then choose. Once when extremely young I had studied at a special school for waiters, but only briefly; I had no proper education in waitering. I had gone to the school purely by chance.
I had never dreamed that necessity and chance would force me to turn again to this profession. But here I was at the Old Bourbon – a large red room with two balconies and no windows, absolutely no windows, as I presently discovered – working as a busboy. The young Armenian woman who signed me up in the Hilton personnel office said that if I'd had even a mediocre knowledge of the language they would have taken me as a waiter, not a busboy. I lost money by not knowing the language.
The Hilton had a staff of two thousand. The huge hotel worked like a gigantic conveyor belt, never stopping for even a minute. Our restaurant worked at the same pace. The first customers would appear by seven in the morning, mainly snappy, gray-haired, middle-aged men who had arrived from the provinces for a trade convention. They hurried to eat their breakfasts and get down to business. I remember that now and then we all wore cardboard signs pinned to the lapels of our red uniform jackets, such as: WELCOME, PULP AND PAPER CONVENTION! THE HILTON STAFF GREETS YOU AND INVITES YOU TO THE TRADITIONAL BITE OF THE RED APPLE. MY NAME IS EDWARD.
If it wasn't pulp and paper, it was some other equally glorious convention. The gentlemen from the provinces had their way paid at the hotel; they all carried identical cards on which the waiter filled in the total for their food and drink.
The gentlemen did not tarry long at the tables. Business was waiting, and after they had bolted down the expensive and in my view none too tasty wares of our kitchen, they lit out for their meetings. The mad rush began at seven, as I have said, and was over for me at three o'clock.
I was subdued and broken then. I could not stop thinking about what had happened to me. Elena's betrayal, her leaving me – the last six months had been a quick slide into tragedy. So I did not feel very good when I got up at half-past five, put a turtleneck sweater on my naked body, then a gray suit, and a scarf at my neck… walked the six minutes to the hotel, went down the steps… saw a sign that faded with every day, HAVE A NICE DAY AT THE HILTON, as the smell of garbage hit me in the face… took the elevator up to my restaurant… greeted the Cuban and Greek cooks. I greeted these people from the bottom of my heart, they appealed to me. The entire kitchen and all our busboys, waiters, dishwashers, cleaning women were aliens, not Americans, metecos. Their lives were not very settled, their faces were not stonily calm like those of our customers, who controlled the great affairs of pulp and paper in all quarters of America. Many of them – for example, those who took from me the tubs of dirty dishes that I lugged out from the dining room – got even less money than I did. Since I was still caught up in the atmosphere of my tragedy, I felt these people from the kitchen were my comrades in misfortune. And so they were, of course.
Well, every morning I walked through the kitchen, took a little table on casters, covered the top with a white tablecloth and the two lower shelves with red napkins. On the napkins I placed some special long, deep little bowls for butter, sometimes a few forks and knives or a stack of cups and saucers, in case the two waiters I served should lack dishes. On top, on the white tablecloth, I usually placed four imitation-silver pitchers, having first filled them with ice cubes and water, and a big bowl of butter pats, which I took from the refrigerator and sprinkled with fresh fine ice. On a second such cart I put several empty tubs, also of imitation silver, which I would use all day to lug dirty dishes to the kitchen. Then I went to the board, which indicated the busboys' stations for each day of the week. We changed places so that no one would have a constant advantage, since the customers, for some reason, were more eager to sit in certain spots in the restaurant, and even the manager or the headwaiter, who seated them, often could not keep them from it. Having looked to see which tables I was serving today, I rolled my carts into the dining room and stationed them in the proper place, usually in such a way that they did not strike the customer's eye. And then, as I have said, the mad rush began…
The customers appeared. I ran over and greeted them even before the waiter, filled their glasses with ice water, and put butter on their table. At lunch I was also supposed to dash each time to the warming oven – it was located between the kitchen and dining room, in a passageway – take out a hot loaf of bread, slice it, and bring it to the customers, covering it with a napkin to keep it from getting cold. Imagine you have fifteen tables, and you're also supposed to remove the dirty dishes – pronto – change the tablecloths, see that your customers have coffee, butter, and water, and set the table after changing the cloth, lay out silver and napkins. The sweat never dried on my brow; not for nothing did I get my tips. Far from it.
At first, however, I was glad for all that running around. In the beginning it distracted me from thoughts of Elena. Especially at first, when I knew nothing, when I was learning, our restaurant seemed interesting to me. Only occasionally, as I ran frantically with the dirty dishes, almost skidding on the turns, would I recall with anguish that my wife had left for a world much more beautiful than mine, that she was smoking, drinking, and fucking, going to parties well-dressed and fragrant every night, that those making love with her were our customers, their world had stolen Elena away from me. It wasn't all that simple, of course, but they, our slicked-down, smoothed-out American customers, our gentlemen – America forgive me, but they had swiped, ripped off, forcibly taken from me my dearest possession, my little Russian maiden.
I would be carrying out the dirty dishes, walking down the aisle between the tables with a tray of soiled plates held out in front of me, and these visions of Elena betraying me would appear. I would break out in hot and cold sweat, cast glances full of hatred at our customers. I was not a waiter, I did not spit in their food, I was a poet pretending to be a waiter: I would have blasted them all to hell, but I could not play dirty little tricks on them, was not capable of it.
I'll blow up your world! I thought. I clear away your leavings while my wife fucks and you amuse yourselves with her, for the sole reason that there's an inequality: she has a cunt, for which there are buyers – you – and I don't have a cunt. I'll blow up your world, and these lads will do it with me – the underlings of this world! I thought passionately, my glance resting on one of my fellow busboys – the Chinaman Wong, or the dark-browed, criminal Patricio, or the Argentinian Carlos.
What else was I supposed to feel for this world, for those men? I was no idiot, comparisons with the USSR held no comfort for me. I did not live in the world of statistics and living standards and purchasing power. My pain forced me to hate our customers and to love the kitchen staff and my friends in misfortune. A normal position, you must agree. Strictly normal, unobjective but strictly normal. To my credit it should be said that I was consistent: I had likewise hated the masters of life in the USSR, the party apparatus and the numerous ruling elite. In my hatred for the strong of this world I did not want to be reasonable, did not want to consider assorted explanatory causes, or responses such as these:
"But you've just arrived in America -"
"You have to understand, poetry-writing isn't a profession here -"
And so on.
Fuck your world where there's no place for me, I thought in despair. If I can't destroy it, at least I'll die a fine death in the attempt, along with others like me. I had no concrete image of how this would come about, but from past experience I knew that he who seeks fate is always provided an opportunity; I would not remain without one.
Wong, a young Chinese who came from Hong Kong, had a special appeal for me. He always smiled at me, and although I had trouble understanding him, we managed to communicate somehow. He was my first teacher in the sphere of my uncomplicated profession – he spent a lot of time with me the first week, since I didn't know anything: I didn't know where to get the butter, I didn't know where I was supposed to go for linen. He helped me patiently. On our short break we would go down to the basement cafeteria for the hotel workers and eat lunch together, I would ask him about his life. He was a typical Chinese – lived in Chinatown, of course, and was mad about karate, took a class from a master twice a week.
Once we had some time left after eating, and went up to the coat-room. He laughingly showed me a pornographic magazine with Chinese girls in it, although he claimed they were Japanese: Chinese women were decent and wouldn't have their pictures in such magazines. I made some coarse jokes about the magazine and Chinese women; Wong had a good laugh. I liked this magazine better than similar ones with Western women, this one did not cause me the pain that I felt when I happened to see magazines with obscenely sprawling blondes. Blondes were associated with Elena, and I would shake with agitation over the inside-out peepkas, the show of internal organs and labial epidermis. The Chinese magazine was comforting. It held no pain for me.
The waiters were dressed differently from us busboys, much more impressively, I envied their uniform. The short red coat with epaulettes and the high-waisted black trousers made them look like toreadors. Tall, handsome Nicholas the Greek, with, his broad shoulders; thick-lipped, wisecracking Johnny, almost as tall as Nicholas, but big and heavy; Luciano the Italian, who looked like a pimp, with his narrow forehead and agile narrow frame – I worked with them all, received my 15 percent of the tips from them at the end of breakfast and lunch. Every day I took home $10 to $20 in tips.
The waiters were all different. Al, for example, a tall, jolly black guy who was always late – he arrived after all the other waiters, and I often helped him set the tables – gave me more tips than anyone else. A certain Tommy, a guy in glasses and tight short pants, gave me less than anyone.
Two old Chinese waiters – they always worked together, I don't remember their names – were stingy and not at all like Wong, who was a Chinaman of another generation. The gloomy Spaniard Luis did his job with a totally estranged expression, but the Chinese worried a lot about their work and kept trying to teach me things, although it was ten days before I happened to work with them, and by that time I had fully mastered my simple-minded profession. I liked working with Al and Nicholas best; they were jolly and talked to me more than anyone else. Nicholas often encouraged me with exclamations like "Good boy! Good boy!" I was in love with Nicholas. He was a hot-tempered man, though, and was capable of shouting at me sometimes. What with the rush and the everlasting flying from kitchen to dining room and back, I had lapses like everyone else, and I never took offense at him. Once I saw Nicholas crossly hurl away a heap of pennies that had been given him as a tip; as I say, he was a hot-tempered fellow. In my ignorance of the language I missed a lot in his conversation, but once, sitting in the cafeteria with Nicholas, Johnny, and Tommy, I heard him say hotly, "Public opinion holds that people who become waiters are looking for easy money and therefore shove their dollar…" I didn't understand the rest, but it was clear that Nicholas was offended by public opinion. Our work, both theirs and mine, was really very tense, tedious, and nerve-racking.
I am not a slave by nature, waiting on people is hard for me. This came out when our manager, Fred, and headwaiters Bob and Ricardo had lunch on the side balcony, as they liked to do. I got very irritated whenever I happened to be serving the side tables nearest the balcony – they never failed to send me on some errand, although this was not part of my duties. When I served a glass of milk to plump young Bob, my insides would get all knotted up: I did not like to be, could not be, a servant. Sometimes a woman or a girl would lunch with our bosses. Who would ever notice me – a servant is just a servant – yet it would seem to me that she was looking at me and scorning me. And I could not tell her that only a year ago I had been friends with the ambassadors of several countries, I had had good times with them at private parties. I remember one party where there were twelve ambassadors, not secretaries but genuine ambassadors, among them the ambassadors of Sweden and Mexico, Iran and Laos, and the host himself was my friend the Venezuelan ambassador Burelli, a poet and a very fine man. His embassy on Yermolova Street was like home to Elena and me. Nor could I explain to her that in my country I had been one of the best poets. Everyone would have laughed had I said so. When I came to work at the hotel I put down all sorts of foolishness about my past on the application, said I had always worked as a waiter in Kharkov and Moscow restaurants. That was bullshit.
Actually I was leading a double life. The manager was pleased with me, the waiters too. Sometimes Bob the headwaiter taught me something; I would summon up all my acting talent and listen, assiduously wide-eyed, as he advised me to fill the glasses as well as the pitchers with water and ice before work, so that I could serve the water right in the glasses without delay when there was a great influx of customers. I would look Bob in the eye and say "Yes, sir!" every couple of minutes. He did not know what was in my heart and mind. "Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!" Bob was pleased. But I was leading a double life. And hating the customers more and more. Not merely because of Elena, but mainly because of her. When we happened to have a few minutes' respite I would fold and stack napkins – to have them ready at hand – and I would recall involuntarily, with pain, I could not help recalling, the events of the last months…
She informed me that she had a lover on the nineteenth of December, in the terrible cold and the dim evening light of our tragic Lexington Avenue apartment. Shaken and humiliated, I told her, "Sleep with whomever you wish, I love you madly, I want only to live with you and care for you," and I kissed the knee uncovered by her robe. And that was how we lived.
Even this decision she attributed to my weakness, not to love. At the beginning, after the nineteenth of December, she was still forcing herself not to refuse me in love, trying to make love with me. From some quirk of my constitution I wanted her every day then, I had a constant hard-on. In my diary, if I summon the courage to look in it, I discover joyful short notes: I had made love with her four times, or twice, or once. But she grew more and more insolent, and gradually our coitions – no other word will do, so solemn were they for me – became very infrequent.
At last she completely stopped making love with me and said openly aloud that she wanted to leave me. I wandered in the twilight of my unconscious, masturbated at night in the bathroom after donning Elena's – she had just come home and was already asleep – still-warm pantyhose and panties; often both the one and the other were spotted with semen, someone else's of course, and I wanted but one happiness, to fuck my very own wife. Thus a delirious idea gradually took hold in me – to rape Elena.
One sunny, very sunny, frosty day, from a cultured salesman with a little beard, in a store on Broadway, I bought a pair of handcuffs. They were… well, everyone knows what kind of handcuffs you buy on Broadway for seven dollars. By the time I got home I was in complete hysterics over this purchase. After testing and closely examining the handcuffs, I had discovered with horror that there was a button to open them without the aid of a key, that is, they were steel and apparently strong, but for play, for children. There was even a notice that children over three could play with the handcuffs. A pitiful story, very pitiful.
I burst into sobs of pity for myself and my body, which was forced to resort to such nightmarish methods to get a caress. Even my attempt at rape was a failure. I howled, I wept a very long time, and then, gasping and weeping, found a remedy after all. I took a serrated kitchen knife and in half an hour, never ceasing to weep, sawed the release buttons off the handcuffs and made them real, they would open now only with the aid of a key. As I did this I saw myself from outside and decided, as a writer, that this gruesome scene was fit for Hollywood: Limonov weeping with grief over a pair of handcuffs for his beloved and filing off the safety button with a kitchen knife.
I never did put the handcuffs to use, or the rope either. The dream of raping Elena went hand in hand with the dream of killing her. Already insane, two weeks before buying the handcuffs, I had taken up the rug, the preposterous pink rug in our bedroom, and installed a rope snare under it. I fastened one end of the rope to a pipe in the corner of the room; from the other end I made a slip noose, so that as a last resort, when it became more than I could bear, I could strangle her easily and noiselessly. Then I thought of killing myself by means of… the means of killing myself kept changing in my imagination. The rope lay there quite a long time, sometimes I think it was what saved Elena and me from death. Lying there beside Elena at night, strangers, neighbors, she under her blanket and I under mine, breathing the smell of alcohol and smoke that emanated from her – she had taken a liking to marijuana, cocaine, and other delights – lying there, she snored faintly in her sleep, exhausted from orgasms with hateful American men (this is why I can never love you again, America!), despite all, I was comforted to remember the rope. Despite all, I knew that if I reached under my pillow the end of the rope would be in my hands; it would be nothing to throw the noose over the head of the little tormentress lying beside me. The possibility, the ease, of ending it all comforted me, and perhaps that is why I escaped the outbursts that could have led to murder: I was sure I could always kill her, I could do it at any time. Thanks to the rope, some part of the malice and madness gradually left me…
All these horrors came to mind while I folded napkins. Nicholas returned me to reality – he thrust an empty coffeepot into my hands and I flew to the kitchen, noticing along the way that the young woman and the corpulent man who looked like a gangster had finished their breakfast and left, and that Fred, the manager himself, was clearing the table and spreading a clean tablecloth, when I was the one who was supposed to do that. My blunder sobered me up completely; I ran to the kitchen so fast that on the turns I had to grab at the wall to keep from falling. I wonder what she is to him, I thought as I ran. Certainly not his daughter – either his wife or his mistress. He doesn't look like someone from a pulp and paper convention, but then why the fuck is he up so early? With such a beautiful woman I personally could not be dragged out of bed before dinner…
As you see, our restaurant was also frequented by women. They were many fewer than the men, I stared at them with caution, disbelief, and forgive me… with delight. Alas. I stared at them in a peculiar way – I scorned them, hated them, simultaneously realizing that their pastimes would never be open to me. They had an advantage over me, the advantage of birth. I had everlastingly served them in this life, invited them places, undressed them, fucked them, and they had lain silent, or cried out, or lied and pretended.
Even in the past I had sometimes suffered acute attacks of hostility to women, genuine malicious hostility. Then came Elena, and the hostility subsided, hid. Now, after everything, I was suffering acute envy toward Elena, and since she embodied for me the whole female sex, envy toward women in general. The biological injustice roused my indignation. Why must I love, seek, fuck, preserve – so many more verbs could be piled on – while she must only use. I think my hatred proceeded from envy that I had no cunt. For some reason it seemed to me that a cunt was more perfect than a prick.
Bitches, I thought, staring at the well-cared-for girls and women arriving in our restaurant. Once my fellow busboys caught one of those stares. The busboy Patricio, a dark-browed criminal type with false teeth, pointed to the woman I had stared at and asked sarcastically, "Do you like ladies?" I said yes, I had been married three times. Patricio and Carlos looked at me in disbelief. "Maybe you like men?" Patricio asked with interest, breathing alcohol at me. He used to finish off the liquor the customers left in their glasses. Later I began doing it too, usually going behind a sort of screen. Now and then I also finished off the food the customers hadn't eaten. Being an Oriental, I'm very fond of fatty meat, for example. The customers left the fat, but I wasn't so picky.
The conversation about women and men ended with a retort that delighted Carlos and Patricio: that in general I liked women, but I might also change the object of my love and in the future love men. Then Ricardo the headwaiter appeared and dispersed us; one of us ran for butter, one for napkins, one to clear empty dirty plates from under the customers' noses.
When I started at the restaurant, I am ashamed to say I had the fleeting thought that I would be in society here and could make some contacts. Oh, how stupid I was! The waiter – never mind the waiter, even the headwaiter himself – is separated from the customers as if by an iron wall. No intimacy occurred. The first few days I tried to use my face and figure to attract the attention of the customers, of all the beautiful women and the men I found appealing. I thought they would have to notice me. Only later did I realize that they had no fucking need of me. The notion of intimacy, contacts, was sheer nonsense, gentlemen, and it had occurred to me only because I was not yet quite well from my tragedy.
My fellow workers didn't treat me badly. The Latin-Americans called me "Russia." Why they conferred on me the name of the country I had fled I don't know. Perhaps they found that name more pleasing than my own, which I had brought from Russia but which was quite common in America – Edvard, or Edward. My Chinese friend Wong generally doted on me, especially after I helped him with the linen. Each of the busboys had linen duty every third day. we would bring up from the basement, from the laundry, a huge box of clean linen and unload it in the storeroom, where we kept all sorts of things in addition to linen – candles, sugar, pepper, and other necessaries. I loved the storeroom, loved its smell of clean linen and spices. Sometimes I ran in there in the middle of work, to change a towel or quickly finish chewing a piece of meat left on the plate of some surfeited customer, and then ran on. Well, so once I helped Wong unload the linen after work and put it away on the storeroom shelves – this goes much faster with two people, but for some reason they didn't do it that way there. Wong thanked me so profusely that I felt uncomfortable.
Another day he took my little Collins dictionary and looked up the word "good," then showed it to me and said with a broad smile, "That's you." I am much prouder of this lad's praise than of all the compliments paid to me and my poetry at various times in my life. "I'm good!" Wong had acknowledged it, probably I really wasn't too bad. I would have liked to be friends with Wong, but unfortunately it didn't work out, gentlemen, I had to forsake the Old Bourbon.
On my way home from work I sometimes dropped in to see the other Russians who worked at the Hilton. After going out through a passageway and punching my time card, I could come up from the basement, turn left, and see the guard, Mr. Andrianov, a former Soviet navy captain. Tall and solid, he writes down the numbers of the trucks that arrive at the loading ramp to load and unload, and keeps order. He's easy to talk to, an enthusiastic conversationalist. Sometimes Andrianov stands in the vestibule by the main entrance to the hotel, and he's so solid and impressive, gray temples under his cap, that rich women passing by sometimes start conversations with him.
An interesting thing happened to Andrianov, which I took a malicious delight in because it confirmed some theories of mine. Andrianov lives in a suburb in a pretty good neighborhood, the people are quite well-to-do. One time he received a letter from the local police department, which said: "Knowing that you have great experience in police work [in the USSR Andrianov had served as a paratroop officer, then a navy captain, and so on], we invite you to take part in our voluntary neighborhood security program." They made no distinction between the USSR and the U.S.A., these gentlemen from the police. Theirs is the most sober world view I have ever encountered. To them, a KGB agent arriving in America would be a much more desirable gentleman than people like me. Someone who has service experience is naturally preferable to someone who does not have such experience and moreover does not wish to serve. Andrianov refused to take part in their program. A pity.
In addition to Andrianov, I used to stop and chat with Gaydar, if there was no urgent call for him to lug someone's suitcases upstairs. I would gawk at the lanky red-coated doorman, who was well known to the whole hotel as Fidel Castro's schoolmate; he opened the doors of the automobiles that drove up to the hotel. Because of Fidel he had lost his lands and family wealth and now served the Hilton. His wages were small, but he made a lot in tips. "A lot," said Gaydar, who also made quite a bit in tips. It's very hard to land the profitable job of doorman.
Deep in the hotel, near its linens, food, garbage, furniture, electricity, water, and all that, there are quite a few other Russians to be found. Lenya Kosogor, a tall, stooped man, over fifty, who was mentioned in Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, works here as an electrician – they go around in baggy light green work clothes – sometimes I dropped by to see Lenya, too. So far, this flight to an alien land has done me no good: if in the USSR I associated with poets, artists, academicians, ambassadors, and the enchanting Russian women, then here, as you see, my friends are porters, busboys, electricians, guards, and dishwashers. My fucking past no longer bugs me, though. I'm trying so hard to forget it that I think I eventually will. You have to forget, otherwise you'll always be warped.
Sometimes I brought something home from the hotel. Some little trifle. I stole. What the hell. My bare prison cell at the Winslow became just a shade more cheerful when I brought home a red-and-white checked cloth and put it on the table. Several days later a second tablecloth appeared, then a red napkin. That was all I needed to set up housekeeping. I stole a few knives, forks, and spoons from the restaurant as well, and that was it, I needed no more things. You must agree this was reasonable. The Hilton shared a tiny bit with the Winslow.
When I returned from work I studied English, at least that was my schedule. Or I went to a movie theater, most often the Playboy, which was cheap and close, on Fifty-seventh Street, and saw two films for a dollar. Coming home through the New York night, I raged and dreamed, I thought about the world, about sex, about women and men, about rich and poor, why one child is born into a rich family and has everything he desires from childhood on, while others… Those others in my imagination were people like me, those to whom the world was unjust.
When I came home, I lay down on the bed and, I confess, gentlemen (after all, the living debauched Elena still roamed within me), I confess I lay there sighing and sighing, pitying my body that no one needed though it was young and beautiful (I had already been out getting a tan, shivering with cold on the splendid roof of the unsplendid Winslow), truly young and beautiful, boys, and the fact that Elena did not need me hurt so much, it was so terrifying, that instead of running away from my fears, memories, and imaginings I tried to gain pleasure from them. I used them, the memories and fears, as I languorously kneaded my member. Not on purpose, it happened automatically, as in wild animals; when I lay down on the bed I invariably thought of Elena, felt agitated because she was not beside me, after all she had lain with me for years, why wasn't she here now? In short, I ended by copulating with her shade. Ordinarily these were group copulations, that is, she fucked someone while I watched, and then I fucked her. I imagined all this with my eyes shut, and at times constructed very elaborate scenes. During these seances my eyes were full of tears, I sobbed, but what else could I do, I sobbed and I came, and semen spilled on my already tan belly. Ah, what a nice belly I have, you should see it – lovely. Eddie-baby's poor little body, what has it been driven to by that lousy Russian tart? "My sister, little sister!" My little fool!
Long before, she had forced me out into the world of masturbation to her themes – back in the fall, when she took a lover and began to do it less often with me. I sensed something wrong and asked, "Elena, confess, you have a lover, don't you?" She didn't really deny it, but she didn't say yes or no, languidly she whispered something passionate and exciting, and I wanted her endlessly. The recollection of that passionate whisper makes me want her to this day, gives me a shameful hard-on.
She forced me out. I had a live, beautiful, twenty-five-year-old wife with a sweet peepka, yet I was obliged to hide like a thief, dressed up in her things – for some reason that gave me special pleasure – and spill my semen in her sweet-smelling panties. She had bought herself a pungently fragrant raspberry-colored oil and was smearing it on her peepka, so that all her panties smelled of the oil.
My friends, if you ask why I didn't find myself another woman, the truth is, Elena was too splendid, and anything else would have seemed squalid to me in comparison with her little peepka. I'd rather fuck a fantasy than a vulgar woman. Besides, I had no women handy at that time. When some turned up, I tried to fuck them, as you will see, I did fuck them, but then retired into my world of fantasy. They were uninteresting to me and therefore unneeded. My solitary intellectual diversions with Elena's shade had a criminal aura and were much more enjoyable. Elena's voice rings in my ears to this day, I can thank this sentence, this thin little voice, for a good fifty orgasms: "I put my fingee there, I press down and lightly stroke my peepka and look in the mirror, and gradually I see a white juice ooze out of me, a white drop appear in my rosy peepka." This little tale was the accompaniment to one of my last coitions with her. Besides everything else, you see – that is, besides me, Jean, Susanna, and company, she also masturbated. All of us together, you see, were not enough for her. The pig.
I remember a row, it was the day she first met Susanna the lesbian, she had spent the whole evening hugging and kissing her. I hauled her home almost by force, she hissed and dragged her heels. At home the row flared up worse than ever. Elena had already undressed for bed. She was screaming at me, shrilly and drunkenly, slurring her sibilants as she usually did when drunk. And now I felt descending upon me a certain masochistic ecstasy. I loved her, this pale, gaunt, small-breasted creature in her whorish scrap of panties, who had donned my socks to sleep in. I was ready to cut off my own head, my own unhappy refined noggin, and throw myself face down before her. For what? She was a sleaze, a pig, an egoist, a stinker, an animal, but I loved her, and this love was higher than my consciousness. She humiliated me in everything, she had humiliated my flesh, killed, crippled my mind, my nerves, everything I clung to in this world, but I loved her with those panties round on her neat little poopka, loved her pale, with her froggy thighs, sweet thighs, loved her standing with her feet on our foul bed. I loved her! It was horrible, I loved her worse and worse.
Such were the memories that saw me off to sleep with semen smeared on my belly. At five-thirty I woke up from nightmares that were more of the same. Shaking them off, I turned on the light and started my coffee, shaved (to this day I have nothing to shave on my Mongol puss), tied a funereal black kerchief around my neck, and dragged my ass over to the Hilton. The street was deserted, I headed west on Fifty-fifth, hunching against the cold. Had I ever thought such experiences would fall to my share in life? To be perfectly honest, I had never expected any of this. A Russian lad brought up in a bohemian milieu. "Poetry, art, these are the highest occupations one can have on this earth. The poet is the most important person in the world." These truths had been impressed upon me from childhood. And now, while still a Russian poet, I was a most unimportant person. Life had smashed me in the face…
The days passed, and the Hilton Hotel with all its stinking dungeons was no longer a mystery to me. Half a hundred professional terms tripped lightly from my tongue, I had no time to converse, I was supposed to work, that was what I was being paid for, not to converse. The whole kitchen spoke Spanish, the Italians spoke Italian among themselves, all languages were heard in the "servants' hall" (as it was called in olden times) except correct English. Even our manager, Fred, was Austrian. Some time ago the manager had suddenly taken to calling me Alexander. Perhaps in his conception all Russians were Alexanders. That was no surprise; the Thracian slaves in Rome were all addressed simply as "Thracian," why the fuck stand on ceremony with them, they were slaves. Having had an eyeful of the Hilton's multinational slaves, I already knew what supported America. I cautiously told Fred that I was Edward, not Alexander; he corrected himself, but the next day I became Alexander again. I did not correct Fred anymore, I reconciled myself. What difference does it make what your name is?
The restaurant began to get on my nerves. The only thing it had brought me was a little money. With that money I had been able to realize some of my trivial desires; for example, I had bought a black lace shirt at the Arcadia shop on Broadway, and made the acquaintance of the owner while I was at it. As a souvenir of the Hilton and the Old Bourbon I have a white suit hanging in my closet, bought at Cromwell on Lexington Avenue. But the restaurant itself got on my nerves, I was tired. Thoughts of Elena were not disappearing. Sometimes they suddenly surfaced in the midst of work and covered me with a cold sweat; on several occasions, although I'm a robust fellow, I nearly collapsed in a faint. But the worst of it was that I constantly saw my enemies, those who had stolen Elena away from me – our customers, men who had money. I realized that I was being unjust, but could not help myself. Is the world just to me?
I was penetrated ever more deeply by a feeling that I arbitrarily defined to myself as class hatred. I didn't so much hate our customers as individuals; no, essentially I hated all gentlemen of this type, gray and sleek. I knew that it was not we, the tattered, shaggy, and fucked-up, who had introduced the plague into this world, it was they. The plague of money, the disease of money, is their handiwork. The plague of buying and selling is their handiwork. The murder of love, the fact that love is something to be scorned – this too is their handiwork.
And most of all I hate this system, I realized when I tried to make sense of my feelings, the system that corrupts people from birth. I made no distinction between the USSR and America. Nor did I feel ashamed of myself because my hatred sprang from what was essentially such an understandable and personal cause, my wife's betrayal. I hated this world, which turned touching, poetry-writing Russian girl-children into creatures fucked up by drink and narcotics, to serve as bedding for millionaires who would wear out but not marry the silly Russian girls, who were also trying to do their business. Country gentlemen have always had a weakness for Frenchwomen, have sent for them in their Klondikes, but have kept them as whores and married pure farmers' daughters. I could no longer look at our customers.
At about this time I was supposed to go to Bennington, get acquainted with its women's college and its Professor Horowitz. I had sent them a letter about myself, and they evidently wanted to hire me. I don't know what the job title was, something trivial, but connected with the Russian language. At the time I wrote the letter I was so fucking crazy I just wanted to hide somewhere, but when Professor Horowitz, after several phone calls, finally caught me at the Winslow, I realized that no Bennington or its American girls from good families could save me, I would flee from Bennington to New York inside of a week. I knew myself all too well. I did not want to play their game. I wanted, as in Russia, to be outside the game, or if possible, if I could, to play against them. "If I could" implied a temporary condition: I meant that for the time being I knew very little about the world I had come to. They had robbed me, fucked me, and damn near killed me, but I did not yet know how to get my revenge. That I would get it I had no doubt. I did not want to be calm and just. Fuck justice – you can have it; I'll take injustice…
Sitting with Wong in the cafeteria, I explained to him why I didn't like rich people. Wong didn't like rich people either, I did not have to persuade him on this point; in this world the poor are all revolutionaries and criminals, only not everyone finds the way, not everyone has the resolve. The laws were devised by the rich. But, as one of the proudest slogans of our unsuccessful Russian Revolution proclaims, "The right to life is higher than the right to private property!"
I have said that I did not hate the specific bearers of evil, the rich. I have even admitted that there might be among them victims of the world order. What I hated was the system, in which one man goes out of his fucking mind from boredom and idleness, or from the daily production of fresh hundreds of thousands, while another man barely earns a living at hard labor. I wanted to be an equal among equals.
Now try and say that I was unjust. I was not.
My last days at the Hilton were spent in terrible agitation. One day I would feel like quitting work and decide to do it, basing my decision on numerous considerations. Why the fuck am I living this way? I thought irritably. I still don't have any money, not even enough to rent a normal apartment. I'm dreadfully tired, sometimes I go to bed at eight. I haven't made any contacts at the restaurant, I've hardly made any progress with the language, so what's the point of working here? I'll leave. I'll leave, and I won't feel any pangs in front of Gaydar, why the fuck should I be ashamed in front of Gaydar? A man looks for where it's best, the best thing for me is to leave and be on welfare. We are not slaves – no slaves are we. It's either all, or if nothing, welfare.
The next day, my day off, when I had nothing to do and my devil Elena appeared to me again in all her glory, I would feel tormented by the free time; hoping again that work would kill my torment, I would decide to stay on at the Hilton. But, after working another day or two and falling asleep again at practically eight, I was exasperated. Walking from work through the seething crowds to Sixth, Fifth, and Madison avenues, I thought again, I'll leave, I'll leave tomorrow, enough of killing myself – though I really could do the work, if I wanted to be a waiter and conceived of my future as that of a waiter or porter.
In the morning, walking to work in the dark, I would make a six-minute excursus through all of world literature – that many lines came to my mind every time. Some fucking waiter! The poem I remembered most often, for some reason, nearly every day, was "Factory," by our great Russian poet Alexander Blok. "Yellow the windows next door…" Then I skipped the lines I didn't need and recited the last stanza in full:
They enter and straggle off,
Under heavy sacks they stoop,
And the yellow windows laugh -
Beggars are easy to dupe…
Walking to work, coming home from work, I felt myself to be one of those beggars, I had been duped. My native literature would not let me become an ordinary man and live in peace, shit no, it tweaked me for my red busboy jacket and preached at me, arrogantly and justly: "Shame on you, Edichka! You are a Russian poet, that is your caste, my dear, that is your uniform. You have discredited your uniform, you must leave this place. Better a beggar, better to live as you did at the end of February – a beggar and bum."
Oh, I didn't fully trust my Russian literature, but I hearkened to her voice, and she wore me down in the end. Her constant "The yellow windows laugh – Beggars are easy to dupe" (I took the yellow windows to mean Park Avenue, Fifth, and their denizens) forced me one day to approach Fred, the manager, and tell him, "Excuse me, sir, but after looking at this work I have come to the conclusion that it's not for me. I'm very tired and I need to learn English, I want to leave. You've seen that I'm a good worker, if you need me I'll come another day or two, but no more than that."
I wanted to tell him, but did not, that I was incapable, constitutionally incapable, of playing the servant and I found his customers disagreeable. "I do not wish to serve the bourgeoisie," I wanted to tell him, but did not – for fear of sounding too pompous, for that reason alone.
In the Hilton period, in the last days of my stay there, I accomplished several other things – wrote a letter to a "Very Attractive Lady" and sent eleven of my poems to Moscow, to the journal Novy Mir.
The "Very Attractive Lady" had placed an ad in the Village Voice. Lady, 39, desired companion for trip to "Paris, Amsterdam, Santa Fe, etc." The itinerary suited me, as I wrote the lady, 39. Now I recall this with irony; at the time it seemed to be my only chance, and I was sure she would jump at a Russian poet. Besides, in February, in a New York Review of Books article about Russian literature today, Carl Proffer had devoted several lines to me, as I also wrote the very attractive lady, without a twinge of conscience, like a salesman touting his wares. I am still waiting for her answer. Well, it would have been a chance to come up to the surface, out of the artificial life that I am living to this day, and get into the real world. No matter, I might have knifed the very attractive lady on the third day of her "favorite trip," as she called it. To her good fortune, she turned out to have little imagination. Recalling my shameless brags in that letter, I am even somewhat embarrassed.
The letter to the editors of Novy Mir was written out of mischief and my love of scandal. Although I was almost positive they would not print my poems, I did not deny myself the pleasure of having some fun at the expense of both camps. My conscience was clear. Solzhenitsyn, while living in the USSR, had published his books here in the West; his conscience hadn't bothered him, in point of fact he had thought only of his own career as a writer, not of the consequences or influence of his books. So why couldn't I, while living here, publish my poems over there in the USSR? Both governments had made good use of me, at last I could use them too. I had some chance of getting published. After all, a whole page had been devoted to me and my article "Disillusionment" (which, as I have already mentioned, got me fired from Russkoe Delo) in the Moscow weekly Nedelya for the week of February 23. By divine coincidence, those were the very days when I was out of my fucking mind. Wrapped in a filthy overcoat I had found in the trash, my arm oozing pus, I was roaming through the New York February, picking scraps out of garbage cans and drinking the last drops from wine and liquor bottles. I wandered a good deal in Chinatown during those days, spent the nights with bums. I endured six days of that life, on the seventh I returned warily to the apartment on Lexington and saw again my gruesome exhibit of Elena's things, which I had hung on the walls, with a label under each item, such as:
Elena's wee little stocking – white
Whereabouts of the other, unknown
She bought little white stockings when she had come
to know her lover, and at the same time bought
two slender belts… she and her lover wore them
to fuck… for Eddie Limonov, sorrow and
a martyr's torment.
my girl-child could insert it
in her peepka – comically
it used to stick out, hang out of
her peepka, the string.
The objects were hung on nails and coat hangers, or taped to the walls. Jolly little exhibit, wasn't it? How would you like to be invited to such an exhibit? But I had invited people, on February twenty-first. About ten people saw the exhibit, and Sashka Zhigulin came and got it down on film, so that I have it on three rolls.
I was out of my mind, I confess; the exhibit was called "Diary of Saint Elena." When I returned from being a bum, I tore all those things down from the walls, with my eyes narrowed and face averted, and began a new life, which is what led me to the Hilton and welfare and the Hotel Winslow. Fuck it – so many events rolled over me in that period, and I seem to be getting slowly stronger day by day, I can tell.
When I forsook the Hilton, when I shag-assed out of there the last day, I laughed like a silly baby: I had shed one more burden, one more stage. I was sorry only about Wong, but I hoped to find him when I needed him. I could not be useful to him yet.