Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thin White Rope in Russia - Midnight Train to Tbilisi

(Originally posted on MySpace on Saturday, March 08, 2008)

The last time I mentioned the Thin White Rope Russian tour of 1988, it was more than a year ago (January 28th, 2007 to be exact) when I told the tale of our dinner party in Tbilisi and the disaster it became due to demon alcohol. But there were many more things that happened during our time in Soviet Georgia. This is the story of our train ride from Moscow to Tbilisi.

We left Moscow early in the morning after our show there. (The story of that evening will follow sometime in the future.) We all loaded onto a train for what would be a three day journey to Tbilisi, the capitol of Georgia. We were told that we had sleeper cars and that we'd have a lot of privacy. But once we checked in and loaded on to the train, we found we were put into rooms that slept four people each. There were a lot of people in our party. There were the four members of the band, which at this time included Guy, Roger, John and Matt. There was me and, I believe, our sound-guy Eliot. There was our Russian interpreter and a good looking young Russian guy who was along to make sure that everything would go as planned, sort of a tour manager himself. There were the nine members of the two Italian bands who were opening for us on the tour. There were our Italian bookers and the Russian booker and her boyfriend. And I'm sure there were a few others that I've forgotten. But even with all those people, we didn't fill up the car and we found ourselves sharing our space with a few traveling Russians as well.

We were introduced to our train car's matron. She was a middle-aged woman whose job it was to make sure the car remained clean and that every request of those traveling in her car was taken care of. She didn't speak a word of English, but through our interpreter, we found out that she had started this job when she was a teenager and had been on that same train car for most of her life. But that was life in Soviet Russia. You grew up and found a job and then you worked that job until you died. Change was rarely an option.

So we broke ourselves into groups of four and settled into our rooms. I don't remember who I roomed with during that trip. All I remember is that during our three days on the train, our car became a makeshift home for us all and we were constantly making our way into other peoples' rooms as conversations shifted and various bottles of alcohol were opened. The rooms were fairly comfortable, although sleeping in a moving, rocking train took some getting used to. The other thing that took getting used to was the bathroom at the end of the train car. It was basically a toilet that opened up at the bottom and deposited its contents onto the train track when you flushed. (I think it was Roger who said he would never be able to walk along a train track in peace again.) There was no lock on the door, so anyone could walk in on you while vacating your system. I know several of us managed to mentally will ourselves into constipation so we could avoid that toilet at all costs. There was also no shower or bath and we were forced to figured out how to quickly bath ourselves in the sink every morning.

There was also a dining car we could go to, or we could wait, as several times a day, someone with a cart full of food and drinks would come through the cars and we could buy what we wanted, food, drink or smoke, from them. But I opted for the dining car as much as I could, just because it got me out of that one car for a short time and allowed me to meet other people on the train, which quickly became a real community of people hanging out, talking, gambling and partying. One incident I really remember that happened on my way to the dining car was when we passed a group of Russian soldiers. They didn't speak much English, but we were able to figure out that they were on their way home after spending time fighting in the ill-fated Russian-Afghanistan war. One of them stopped me and kept pointing at the badges on my jacket. At this time, I was always wearing several badges, or buttons, all the time. One or two would be for some punk band that I liked. But there was also always a "pink triangle" badge I wore, basically announcing I was gay. (During one conversation in my room with the Russian tour manager and our interpreter, he expressed marvel over the fact that I would wear that, as he said it was dangerous in Russia to be that brazen about alternative sexualities. But more about this conversation later.) The soldier ignored the triangle badge and focused in on one of the punk badges. I think it was for the LA band "X". He plucked a medal from his chest and it became apparent that he wanted to trade me his medal for my badge. In fact, he was pretty insistent on it. So I traded with him. And after a few more clumsy pleasantries that neither of us really understood, we went on our way. When I showed the medal to our interpreter, she immediately told me to put it away and not let anyone see it. It was a Russian Medal Of Honor and it was highly illegal for me to have it. But that was the nature of morale in the Russian Army at the time. Afghanistan had worn them down and they just didn't care anymore. Shortly afterwards, Russia withdrew in defeat. I hid the medal in my big bag of badges and was terrified a few weeks later when we left the country and had to go through Russian customs. The customs agents seized any and all Army stuff the band had traded for, including belt buckles, hats, boots and some other stuff. But they missed my Medal of Honor as I hid it well in that big bag. They did pull the bag out and glance at, but I guess the thought of spilling all those badges out and searching through them was too much and I was handed the bag back and went on my way. I think I was the only one who got away with a military item. I still own that medal and am very proud of it.

As for that conversation I had with the young, good looking Russian tour manager I mention above, that turned into a very interesting conversation. He was shocked that I could be openly gay in my own country. He was even more shocked when I criticized America for not being free enough. At that time in Russia, it could mean death to be gay. It always would at least mean a long prison term. (There were some exceptions to this rule that we experienced in Moscow and I'll get to that tale someday.) He was straight, but he had gay friends and he told me that they lived in fear throughout their whole lives. But this conversation quickly turned to his dreams of coming to America. He wanted to go to Disneyland, a dream that more than one person I met had, and he was convinced that America was the land of all things good. He thought the streets were paved with gold. To him, America was perfect. When I tried to tell him that there were lots of poor and homeless people in America and that freedom had to constantly be fought for, he actually got angry. He didn't want anything to spoil his dream of this wonderful place that he may someday escape to. It was kind of sad, but what was sadder was his fate. He had lived in Chernobyl during the nuclear meltdown that happened there in 1986 and he had been badly poisoned by the radiation. In fact, two days after our conversation, he collapsed and had to be taken from the train to a hospital. We never saw him again and I heard that the prognosis wasn't good. In some ways though, I'm glad he didn't get to America. I think seeing the true face of his dream would have destroyed him as much as the nuclear radiation did.

Another conversation I had in my room was with our car matron. I really don't know why, but this woman took a really big liking to me. She was constantly trying to talk to me and kept giving me little pecks on my cheek and the like. This time she found me in my room talking to our interpreter. She asked if she could ask me a personal question and with some hesitation, I agreed. It was then she asked if I was married. The interpreter told me that it wouldn't be a good idea to tell her I was gay, so I just told her that I wasn't married, but that I had a significant other. She wasn't buying that and let me know in no uncertain terms that I was too old not to be married and that I was letting down my family and my society by not doing so. It was then that she brought up her daughter and told me that she was available and that she thought we would be perfect together. I was amused and horrified at the same time. I hemmed and hawed and finally told her that I didn't have time to pursue such a relationship, but once again she wasn't buying it. Until we finally left that train several days later, she constantly mentioned my unmarried status and her daughter, obviously hoping I would come to some miraculous conclusion that she was right and I should settle down right there on the spot (and I'm sure, take her daughter to America). At one time, she even got a few of the other older Russian woman on the train to try to convince me it was for my own good. Despite how frightening it could have been, I kept my humor about the situation and I really did like that lady. She was just another in a long line of Soviet people who were looking for a way out of a bad situation.

The last night we spent on the train, we were supposed to wake up the next morning and find ourselves pulling into the train station in Tbilisi. But when I woke up that morning and looked out the window, I was presented with a wondrous sight. When I looked out the window of our room, all I saw was a long expanse of water. It was a lake and it was huge. It was also eerily still and dark, with nothing growing around it. I threw my clothes on and entered the hallway. Through that window I saw a range of beautiful mountains with snowcapped peaks. I quickly realized that the "lake" was the Black Sea and that the mountains were the Caucasian Mountains (which was quite a contrast in view and name). I didn't understand what we were doing there, but after some searching I finally found our interpreter, who filled me in.

During the night, we were heading up a steep incline through the Caucasian Mountains when the link between train cars broke. I was told that the last couple of cars on the train, which included ours, careened down the mountain and it was lucky we didn't jump the track and end up smashed to bits on the rocks below. But we stayed true to coarse and finally came to rest on a level spot between the Black Sea and The Caucasians. This meant an extra day on the train. We were in the middle of nowhere and we had to wait while they sent another engine to us to link up and take us to Tbilisi. None of us were thrilled by this as it meant we had to cancel the first night of shows in the city and we were just anxious to get the hell off that train and finally be able to take a good shower. But there wasn't much we could do about it, so we settled into our usual drinking and conversing mode and after several hours the engine showed up and we were on our way to our final destination.

And that was basically it. We had lots of downtime on that train arguing politics with the Italians and gambling away our useless Russian money in card games. None of it would be too exciting to delve into in detail. Once we arrived in Tbilisi, there was a lot more fun and games. I've already told you about the disastrous drunken dinner party. The rest will follow soon. There are also tales of Lithuania and Moscow. I'll get to those soon as well. Be patient because they will be worth the wait.

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