“Just take the Number 8 bus,” the secretary said. “You’ll have no trouble getting home.”
“But all the buses look alike,” I pleaded, with what I thought was perfectly good logic.
“Don’t worry. You won’t get lost,” she said with a smile and then returned to her magazine.
After teaching my Comparative Law class, I walked down the hall, through the one open door, and was greeted by teeth-grinding cold. It was only October, but it felt like winter to me. I was familiar with the warmer Autumns of the Pacific Northwest. The freezing wind in Lutsk was different. This blast from the east had searched me out, after its long journey from the Eurasian steppes, and found me dressed in my inadequate wool coat.
I worked my way down the stairs of the university, walked a block, and easily found the bus stop. Step one accomplished. Next, I needed to find that Number 8 bus. Many buses stopped. But, I was careful. If the bus didn’t sport a number “8” somewhere, I just stood. Waiting.
A gasoline smell sputtered to a stop. I ran to the front of the vehicle. On the pane above the windshield, I saw the important number. Number 8. Step two complete.
I timidly followed dark coats up the metal steps and onto the bus. I put a handful of kopecks into the outstretched wrinkled hand of the driver. He didn’t look up. I didn’t look at him, either. A seat waited for me in the back. Half lidded eyes watched me as I tripped over their packages and struggled down the aisle to the rear.
“Please, God, let this be the right bus,” I prayed.
The Number 8 bus rattled. It rattled down the road shaded by canyons of five-storied look-a-like buildings.
Brown, black, and grey coats huddled over cracked leather seats. A chalky white knuckle held onto a monster burlap bag. The woman that went with the hand had a face that looked much younger, but her hand told tales of hard work – many washed dishes and many buckets of dirty clothes.
The bus stopped. Once. Twice. Three times.
The Number 8 bus turned. It turned left. What? The Number-8-real-bus should have gone straight, down the street toward my five-story building, the university’s Khrushchyovka.
Khrushchyovkas were buildings named after the former Soviet Secretary General, Nikita Khrushchev. Following World War II, with a shortage of housing, Khrushchev ordered that thousands of apartment buildings be built all over the USSR. Elevators were considered too costly and too time-consuming to build. Soviet health and safety standards required all buildings over five stories to have an elevator. So…all Khrushchyovkas had five stories, no more and no less. The buildings were re-fabricated concrete pieces of architecture that always looked broken down, but lasted forever. Each apartment was 650 square feet, and each unit was expected to share a bathroom with the neighboring unit. The Soviet people were promised that every small family would get one of these apartments.
“It’s true that all of us usually got one of those shabby apartments,” Nora said. “But sometimes we were also ‘allowed’ to share with two or three other families. Everyone lived in one, except the bigwigs and the KGB officers. Those guys lived in much nicer digs with elevators. To paraphrase George Orwell, ‘All Soviet citizens are equal, but some are more equal than others.’”
The bus stopped. The brown, black, and grey coats shuffled down the aisle and off the bus. I didn’t move. I would be OK, I told myself. I had a prayer pending that the bus would turn around and go back to my road. That’s what the Number-8-real-bus would do. I sat on my cracked leather seat – in the back, trying not to look the driver in the eye.
The driver turned, in s l o w motion as if he were in a Greta Garbo movie. Gravel and muck seeped from his mouth. What was he saying? Maybe he could help me. Where were the subtitles?
His hand motioned me to get off the bus. Just before the door closed, I heard a muffled, do pobachaennya, thank you. The empty bus rattled down the road. In the wrong direction. That must have been the Number-8-look-a-like-bus.
“Don’t worry. You won’t get lost,” she said. If I wasn’t Lost, then where was I?