Photo: Larry Massett
A Long Day On The Road
By Larry Massett 11/01/2002
Tbilisi, Georgia, the airport, 4 a.m. The customs line does not appear to be moving. We're stuck in a big cement shed slapped down on the tarmac with no windows, no fans. I count one... two...three...working light bulbs. It's hot, even at this hour. The air is thick with cigarettes and diesel fuel. Alex and I have been traveling now for -- What? When did we leave the States? -- who knows? We haven't slept in 48 hours, anyway. "Please," Alex mutters. "Let the extortion begin." The last time he came over to visit his family, a couple years ago, one customs officer stuck out his hand and demanded $50: a fortune here.
"Fifty bucks for what?"
"Tax," the man said.
"Tax for what?"
"Tax for you gonna be breathing our air."
Alex has things he'd rather not show customs: a laptop he wants to give to his sister; some dollars -- possibly a lot of dollars -- for his mother; and I've got these funny-looking tape recorders and mics. We're both feeling kind of nervous, but -- huh -- what's this?
A guy is waving at us from the far side of the room. A pudgy guy in blue jeans, waving in a bossy way, like he wants us to do something.
"Oh my God," Alex says. " It's the cop. My friend the cop."
Friend? Well, Alex says he spent an afternoon with him last time he was here -- a chance encounter through friends of friends -- and the man did say he would meet us at the airport. Just a polite thing to say, but here he is. And, he really must be a cop because he starts flashing a badge and barking and shoving people and --
…we're out -- out of the customs line, out of the airport. We're bouncing around town in a shiny black SUV with the stereo cranked up, and I'm thinking: "Great, any minute now we can get some sleep. The cop will take us to the train station and we'll be on our way to Batumi, the town where Alex's family lives. Great."
Ummm....no, Alex says. Our friend the cop is going to drive us to Batumi himself. He insists.
But that's 300 hundred miles, isn't it? And, the roads are bad, aren't they?
Alex shrugs. "Georgian hospitality. Can't turn it down."
OK. I'm too tired to argue. Three-hundred miles with the stereo blaring Georgian pop? Fine, fine…the cop will drive us to Batumi.
…champagne! The cop takes us to his apartment, pops open some bubbly, and flips the TV on so we can enjoy loud music while we drink. I check my watch: it's 5 a.m. The apartment must have been grand 'round about l890. Twenty-foot ceilings, parquet floors -- now warping -- tattered silk wallpaper, dust everywhere, exposed wiring, not much furniture, apart from a couch. A body could sleep on that couch. When the cop spots a teddy bear on the floor, he quickly hides it behind the couch. Must be a wife and kid, someplace, but they've been edited out for this performance. Our friend isn't wearing a wedding ring, either. He says it is time now for us all to take…a bath?
(sound: water dripping)
Ever been to a Turkish bath at 5:30 a.m.?
In the main room, is a marble pool full of steaming water, deep enough to drown in if you pass out from the heat. The steam smells like sculpture. Overhead, a domed ceiling with a hole at the top lets in light, or it would if the sun were up. Off to the sides, are smaller rooms with moldering chairs and spittoons. It's like a very decrepit, very humid men's club.
Naturally, the place was closed when we showed up. The cop just whipped out that badge again, and it must be the right kind of badge, 'cause pretty soon the doors opened…for the three of us.
Maybe our friend is not any old traffic cop? Alex is now using the word "detective," or "special police" or "security force. " It's not clear. Sometimes, he even says "KGB," though that no longer exists -- does it? Whatever his job is, the cop is complaining about it. In Georgia, he says, you can't put anyone in jail. "Everybody's got friends, got relatives in high places, connections -- no way you can take 'em to jail."
"Very true," Alex adds. "Can't put folks in jail here -- excepting, of course, the poor and the weak."
The cop tries English: "I ..can... break things," he proudly announces.
Looking around, I see marble and hot water. What is there to break?
"I mean," he says, "I can... break...the law."
Oh, the law. Well, that's nice, isn't it?
"Yes," he says. "I can break the law because... I am the law."
(sound: loud traffic sounds)
10 a.m: We are not on the road to Batumi. We're running around Tbilisi, in circles. The cop has fed us breakfast at a pricey restaurant and is now dragging us on a tour of monuments, castles, scenic viewpoints. We've lost control of the agenda…
How come there are no traffic lights? There are lights, actually, but none of them seem to work -- in a city of a million people. Every intersection is a demolition derby. We, of course, plough straight through, not even honking -- hey, see how big our car is? The cop chuckles when the little cars screech and duck. Screw 'em.
Maybe the traffic lights went out during the Civil War. I know there was shooting in the streets, but that was 10 years ago, wasn't it? Why don't the lights work now?
The cop looks at me like I'm an idiot.
"When they work," he says, "all they do is piss people off."
(sound: inside a cathedral)
It's dark in here. Priests with long black beards and scarlet robes are gliding through the shadows. They carry gold candles and silver incense burners. Now and again, I make out scary paintings on the walls: demons, angels with eyes on their wings. "It's 13th century," the cop says. I feel faint. It's the heat, the fatigue, frustration -- whatever, but there's a lump in my throat and my eyes are filling with tears. I look at Alex. He's getting misty too. Uh-oh. The cop is starting to make big signs of the cross in the air.
If w don't get out of here quick…we're going to convert.
(sound: television and conversation in background)
Alright, we have done Tbilisi: churches, mosques, statues of men on horseback, Soviet apartment buildings, vegetable markets -- the works.
We are now learning about Iris Murdoch.
She explained this three-and-a-half hours ago.
Meanwhile, the father has turned on the TV -- hospitality again -- but then, seeing we can't follow the lyrics of Georgian MTV, he has kindly switched to…the BBC. The Brits are running a documentary on the last days of the writer Irish Murdoch.
Our "parents" stare at the screen with fixed smiles. They fan themselves, they smoke Marlboros, they pretend to be having a lovely time. When the life of Iris Murdoch finally comes to an end, it starts all over again.
"Alex, "I whisper, "this is insane. Can't we just walk away from this nightmare and catch the train to Batumi?"
"No," he says. "It's too late."
(sound: car running)
We're back in the car with the cop -- only it's not the same car. This one looks to have come from a war zone: the windows are smashed, the sides are kicked in, the seats are sprung, and the engine is shedding parts as it goes. "Yeah, yeah," the cop says. "This is car. It's the one I use for work. You know how things get banged up at work"
This is car we are taking to Batumi -- if we can actually go to Batumi. The cop wants to check out a disco first. "Let's go the dees-ko," he says, "and peek up some beeches."
No no no no no. No beeches. Head for Batumi right this minute...and step on it.
"Step on it" was not a good idea. I've never imagined potholes this big. Some are bigger than the car. The cop ignores them 'til the last minute, then veers over to the wrong side of the road. This isn't driving -- this is swerving. Thank goodness the car quits every 10 miles or so...something to do with the fuel line. I wish Alex would stop staying he thinks we're on the wrong road.
We're going through mountains and forest as the sun sets. We pass a village where people are milling around a church.
"Look, " the cop says, "a country wedding. I love them. They're my bread and butter. Those things never end without a stabbing."
(mixture of car sounds, cathedral and television)
I am fading in and out. Sometimes we're in a car, other times we're in a cathedral...with Iris Murdoch.
It appears we've hit a pothole hard enough to blow out a tire. We've got a spare, but it's bolted under the trunk and -- what do you know -- we don't have tools.
I don't care. I don't care if we ever get to Batumi. I don't care about anything anymore.
The cop seems to think, maybe, if we...kick the car...
You know, I'm going to lie down.
It may be -- I'm lying in the middle of the street.
That's not important.
The point is....
…the point is, I'm finally....
(sound: crickets, a hubcap dropping on the pavement.)
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