He is lying there, as white and cold as Kay from The Snow Queen. His clothes are frozen to the ground, and there is no response when he is prodded. But there's life in the old dog yet! Lay him on the stretcher, into the van and be quick -- if he has drunk before he froze, then he is sure to start an argument as soon as he warms up.
So there we are, sitting, driving. The heater is on maximum, enough for us to be bathed in sweat. The warmer the guy becomes, the more the smell spreads out. We have opened the window -- it's damned impossible! -- and still that smell. The frost is steaming everything outside, the shop windows and expensive cars are shining. The windshield is twinkling. It's December and it's minus 24 degrees Celsius out there.
Our bodies are toasting like bagels, the ambrosia is wafting through the car, and we feel like smoking -- the window is open anyway...
"Damn, I still can't understand them."
"Homeless people. Why the hell do they stay here in winter -- on the same latitude as Greenland and Magadan?"
"And what else can they do? What would you do if you were in their shoes?"
"Me? I would travel to the south, to the sea."
"Yes, to Sochi..."
"Exactly. Better even further to the south, to Abkhazia: I don't even need a passport. It's nice down there: subtropical, and tangerines are cheaper than mud..."
"Easy to say, but he has to get there, doesn't he?"
"Three days of thumbing a lift. Four at the most."
"Yes, but who will take such a smelly fellow traveler?"
"Why not get a refund on some glass bottles, and then go to the public baths and wash yourself? Collect more bottles and get a haircut at the cheap barber's. Get rid of the lice at the sanitary dispensary on Professor Ivashentsev street, and pick up some suitable clothes at the night shelter. Beg, borrow or steal a rucksack--"
"How would you beg for something like that?"
"By asking. There is an old rucksack on the shelf or in the larder in every, or nearly every, flat. Make up a sob story, and stand near the entrance to a building and ask everyone who goes in, 'Have you an old extra rucksack that you don't need, by any chance?' Only you must look presentable and not smell too bad.
"Some will curse you to hell, threaten you with the police, and promise to beat you up, but the great majority will just pass you by. You may not be lucky on the first day. You may not be lucky the next day either. But finally you will be lucky, for sure."
"I tell you. People are kind, although many are ashamed of this, for some reason. They will give you a rucksack and maybe a lot of other stuff as well."
"And why exactly a rucksack?"
"First of all, it's convenient: There's a big difference between five kilos in your hands and five kilos on your back."
"Secondly, a rucksack is associated with traveling, it is therefore immediately obvious that you are either coming from far away or returning there. It's also good to show some visible signs that will arouse peoples' sympathy: a long scarf or a headband, for example. Cheap glasses also make a good impression on people. Thirdly, you will need a blanket and that is too heavy to carry in a bag."
"Yes, a blanket. In the most difficult times, wherever you happen to be, comfort must be the first thing to think about. Once night has fallen, move away from the road, cook something on a fire -- hot food at least once a day is a must! -- cover yourself with the blanket, cover your feet with a coat, and put the rucksack under your head."
"And what if it starts raining?"
"Buy two meters of polythene plastic, cut it lengthways, and there you are: a two-by-three tent. And besides, it warms you up. You will wake up warm, make tea, drink it with bread, and off you go."
"That's quite a lot of stuff already."
"That's what you need the rucksack for. A blanket, the polythene, a mug, a spoon, a bowl, some sugar and salt, some matches, some soap, a razor, and a toothbrush."
"But you need money for all that." "Not so much money. You need to understand that the main thing is to look presentable and neat. It arouses more sympathy and respect: This fellow has had some bad luck, but he still holds himself upright and doesn't smell, so he is worth helping."
"And will they help? Who will give him a lift on the road?"
"Unusual, non-standard and communicative people, in general. Narrow-minded people will not give you a lift, but kind people will. And the further you go to the south the more often you will get help, because the people have a different mentality there."
"Isn't it a lot easier just to use the local trains?"
"My God, no! The trains mean A, control, B, the police, and C, criminals. And railway stations have the same problems: the police, militia control points, holding cells. Why bother with all that? Go to the road, put out your thumb, and off you go.
"You tell all this with such confidence... Have you yourself had to rough it?"
"You could say that. What was I talking about?"
"Ah, yes. People in the south are not as indifferent when they get to know you. Once they begin to help, they will go to the end. And besides, they all know each other there: they are either relatives or neighbors. 'Registration? What do you mean? My son-in-law is the head of the department....'"
"Okay then, so where to live? Attics and basements?"
"Don't even go near to the towns. They have the same problems there: hostility, alienation, the police, and criminals. You need the small villages, preferably 10 to 15 kilometers from the seacoast, where everybody is related to each other, levels of bureaucracy are at a minimum, and there are all different kinds of job there: a watchman, an ancillary worker, a tea collection worker, even a hunter. Put up a straw cabin in the forest, like Lenin did in Razliv, and work with a conscience. Without hiding your past, and without making people pity you, be cheerful and open: this is what happened to me, I decided to start from scratch. Why particularly there? Well, it is warmer, for a start."
"A lot warmer?"
"A lot. And if you are not in the mountains, then the nights are warm in November too -- you will not damage your kidneys or catch pneumonia. Rivers flow down the mountains, so you can wash your clothes every day and let them dry in the sun. There are many sunny days and absolutely no chance of vitamin deficiency.
"Citrus fruits are important; you can press them, they cost very little, and if you walk along to the market at the end of the day, you can easily cadge a basinful of herbs. The main thing is to look adequately dressed. They despise scruffs there in the south. And no alcohol. None at all. That is the most important thing, vitally important, as Lenin used to say..."
"Well, just imagine: you are living in a small, relatively remote place in the South, where traditions are quite strong. You are a stranger. You have nothing to wear, nowhere to live, you have been sleeping under plastic, and looking for things to eat in the rubbish bins. But you are tidy, clean shaven, open-minded, polite, and are capable of and want to work, and you don't drink alcohol. None at all. So, how would you perceive that?
"Well, it wouldn't be annoying, at least."
"They think 'Just what we need!' So you earn a bit, rent a bed -- and obtain a different status. You don't have the right to vote, but you're a member of the community nevertheless. You live through the winter, wait until summer and go back north, or to the coast -- the holiday season, the tourists are coming, and it's quite possible you might get a job. In the autumn, there's the harvest of tea, grapes, mandarins: Loads of people live like that in the United States. They move around following the harvest. Have you seen the film Midnight Cowboy?"
"The one in which they hang around in New York during the winter?"
"Yes, in the slums. Then they buy a ticket with the rest of their money, 24 hours in a bus and -- there you are -- Florida. The New York clothes go into rubbish bins and--" "--Dustin Hoffman hangs around successfully in Florida."
"That's not the point."
"What is then?"
"It's the contrast. In the North it's all snow, criminals, and rats. Just 24 hours' journey and there you are: sun, warmth and palm trees on the sand. If you remember, Hoffman was quite talkative while he is dying and he develops the theme about why they hung around in New York for so long. You should live in the South. Especially if you want to survive."
14 Vavilovykch, the shrine of the Martyr St. Elizabeth. They drag the poor vagrant by his legs into the cage while he's clinging to the bars. No sleep for anybody, and so on 'til morning. If he is lucky, they will put him near to the radiator, or they might just leave him as he fell. In the morning, if he is still alive, they will kick him out on his backside: "Go away, dear, and may the Lord be with you!"
It's over. Made a phone report. Back at the station.
Warmth, tea, frost patterns on the glass window.
Armchair, sleeping bag, and the heater at their feet.
The window twinkles -- it's December and 24 below zero.
Mikchail Sidorov is a St. Petersburg street musician. Translated and excerpted from The Book of Life, a project of The Journey Home street newspaper in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Journey Home is a co-member with Real Change of the International Network of Streetpapers.