& Company


Oleg: A Portrait

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

Yes, I struck the gardener. Smacked 'im and, you know, it felt good.

When's the last time anyone in your circle employed a gardener? That we, in the year 2000 in Tashkent, became employers of one Oleg should not prompt any class inferences. Believe me when I say the motive was some form of compassion, not household gentrification. How we "inherited" Oleg is another story. Oleg is, as many of you know, the Russian variant of a Slavic name.

Now, Tashkent is not a Russian city. But after 1865 — the year the Tsar's troops broke through the Uzbek defenses and occupied Tashkent, making it a leading outpost of that creeping empire — Slavs, Germans, and other Europeans started showing up in Tashkent in wave after wave up to and through the Soviet era. The increase of these colonizers combined with native fertility to make Tashkent finally the Fourth Largest City in the USSR.

It would make an interesting story to date Oleg's blood antecedents to that long ago Tsarist conquest — his genes from someone in the imperial military, or from the migrant builders of the railroads, or the resettled proletariat who worked in the fledgling mills and factories. Many of those Slavs, especially the railroad men, fell under the influence of radical politics and later formed the Bolshevik cells that supported the Soviet takeover of that Central Asian territory in 1918. But Oleg's family doesn't go back that far in Uzbek lands.

By the time his ancestors arrived from Russia proper, the Soviet Union was already an established nation on the world scene. Now, was that before Tashkent became a WWII security zone for evacuees from Leningrad and Moscow? Or was it afterwards they came? I don't know, but it certainly was not as late as the period immediately following the 1966 earthquake when crowds of fresh Russians arrived supposedly to help rebuild the city. Oleg was born in Tashkent in the mid-nineteen-fifties. He once told me all his family story, but I've already forgotten the details.

I've seen the little house he lives in, located in what Oleg says was once a neighborhood populated by working-class Russians. It is now almost completely Uzbek, large numbers of Oleg's people having migrated out in the years since independence.

The little house is not really his. His grandmother had lived there. And when she lost her sight, became paralyzed and began ailing, his siblings were only too glad to let him take care of her. For three years, he said, he could do nothing else than be by her side. And they lived miserably, not able to afford good food. The house is in serious disrepair, but he says why fatten the ram for someone else to eat, for by law a brother could one day ask for his share of the "inheritance."

Oleg took whatever opportunity presented itself to talk. He loved holding forth. He also liked drinking. But he wasn't crazy about manual labor.

He really didn't care to earn more money than was necessary for a month's worth of food, maybe a pair of pants or shoes in a year, and medicine — he had health problems. So, if you paid him enough to cover those expenses and expected him to show up only 2-3 days a week to work what hours he himself determined, he wasn't interested in finding additional work to fill the other days in order to make money, say, for a rainy day. "What else do I need?" he liked to joke. "My refrigerator works, I have a television, and a pair of light pants."

In fact we did find a second gardener job for him, by virtue of which he could double his income all of which would in reality amount to less than a 40-hour work-week. Oleg quickly succeeded in getting himself fired from the new position and then simply spent more time at our place for the same salary he could have enjoyed for giving us only a fraction of his week.

Now, just because he spent more days and more hours at our place does not mean he did more work. If he had, we would have felt guilty for paying him the little we did. Only because we early on discovered what his work habits were indeed, what his level of production was, were we able to become comfortable with the wage, criminal by American standards, but not bad, lavish even, in the local labor market. Indeed, he pretended to work, while we consciously pretended to pay him — to recycle an old Soviet people's expression.

Besides actual competences in tending grapevines and crafting water sprinklers and electric lawnmowers out of any assorted parts he might turn up, he was possessed of another very important feature. In fact, it was his distinguishing addiction. He was a reader.

Oleg takes a break from reading Galsworthy and looks for something to eat. In summer he didn't have to go far. This tree, late June to mid-July, dependably hung heavy with apricots, which Uzbeks call "o-RIK".
Oleg takes a break from reading Galsworthy and looks for something to eat

In fact, it was coming home earlier than usual for some reason, the middle of an afternoon, and finding him sprawled with a book on three dirty sofa cushions he had found somewhere and lined up on the concrete floor of the summer kitchen that opened my eyes to what we had here. "What're you reading?" I asked in Russian, startling him. Laughing at having been found out, he answered my question: "Gahlz-wur-see," which I soon determined to be the Russian version of Galsworthy. (Russian makes English names its own: Hemingway gets transformed into Gemeengvey, O. Henry O. Genri.)

Oleg was reading a Russian translation of "The Forsyte Saga." Actually, rereading it for the third or fourth time, I forget which. I've not read it once.

For a while after that, he continued as before to scoop up the cushions and pile them somewhere so that when I would come home at the end of a day there was no trace of his having indulged his pastime rather than doing real gardener's work. But as it became clear to him that we had no objection to supporting his main leisure activity, the cushions started to remain boldly in place, so that in his absence, seeing those dirty squares of stuffed fabric on the ground not far from the cold tandir oven, you felt Oleg was still around, but not doing a stitch of work.

When I write "he was," "he did," I'm not penning an obituary. Oleg is very much alive back in Tashkent. At least he was when I left him last month. But he's no longer working in that yard. In fact, he has no access to it. His key we turned over to the landlady, who claimed she would like Oleg to continue working there for her a few days a week. The wage she would pay, however, might fund basic food shopping, but wouldn't support better cuts of meat, more expensive grains, and certainly not the medicines or the occasional clothing needs. And, more importantly, she would not suffer subsidizing his literary joys. She'd make a list of tasks and check them off. When Oleg declared that such treatment from an Uzbek would be intolerable (he was something of a racist and, like most Slavs there, after a lifetime in Tashkent he had managed to learn only three or four Uzbek words), I recalled for his benefit how he had on a number of occasions called this yard "a paradise."

Our yard offered much: the privacy of a harem; a cherry tree — first to blossom, first to fruit; a decaying gazebo for Sunday brunches. The door in the wall allows any necessary passage to the neighbors' paradise. The British spy, Col. Bailey, tracked by Bolshevik police in 1919 to a Tashkent house, managed to elude them slipping through such yard passageways.
Oleg takes a break from reading Galsworthy and looks for something to eat

Now, that was something I myself could resonate with, for I too luxuriated in the green of it, its apricot and cherry and fig trees, the hanging clusters of grapes, the profusion of roses. I reminded him of that, asking why he wouldn't consider continuing work there, just for the sake of a daily dose of paradise. However meager the Uzbek wage, I said, he would ultimately be in charge of just how much work he did anyway, and the landlady couldn't forever be prowling about to prevent his literally lying down on the job. "What is he?" she had once sniffed, "some academic?" That was the time when she had someone clean up the summer kitchen and ordered his sofa cushions tossed out and I protested: "But where will Oleg do his reading?" "Reading! What is he? Some academic?" To Oleg I said, what other choice did he have for income-producing work anyway?

Oleg was stubbornly non-receptive to my advice. Stubbornness was another of his features, but less charming than an addiction to reading. If, on occasion, I didn't want to engage in much conversation, or didn't want to respond with much more than a growl (a state that his bullheadedness nurtured) he persisted in trying to get me to acknowledge that my bad mood was somehow connected to his poor performance, and what could he do to improve his work. Geezus, the list would be endless, but who wanted to pay him real American wages anyway?

How many times had I told him to put tools away before he left for the day? to close the door to the outdoor toilet? Work habits would improve for a day or so, then one evening I would again find shears here, shovels there, the toilet wide open to stray cats and rats, and several times the hose spilling water prodigally when Uzbeks in the countryside were experiencing drought. Appeals to the ecological health of Uzbekistan meant nothing, when he could point to a neighbor across the street who left his tap discharging water days on end, as if everyone had to get his share of things to waste.

City water is unmetered. So is gas. Instead, there are low annual flat fees. Only electric gets paid according to the amount actually used. No one wastes electricity – unless it's not your own. Sometimes you happen upon guys welding, and you see a cable snaking away from the apparatus, going across the road and up a pole, and somehow, God knows how, they worked that thing into the current up there that's zip-zapping along the wires strung from pole to pole, zip-zapping free for the taking.

Oleg's last day on the job it was — the day before our departure. We were discussing once again his continuing to work there as the Uzbek landlady's gardener. Suddenly he turned abruptly away and a noise erupted from his upper body. Was he laughing again, but now stifling it? remembering that the last time he laughed I smacked him?

You want to know how it was I once dared smack a citizen of Uzbekistan. Behind the house where I lived was a separate set of rooms where the landlady had an electrically heated sauna. Because I never had any interest in cooking myself in a sauna, it remained cold and unused, or so I thought. When the weather got considerably cooler, Oleg — unknown to me — moved his library activities indoors, into the sauna, where he flipped the switch on, using the sauna control like a space heater. I probably would never have known about it if the landlady had not dropped by one day and asked me if I was using the sauna (one of the things available to me by virtue of the rent I paid). No, I said, adding that saunas are not my thing. "Just as I thought," she growled. "That Oleg. He turns on the heat and never thinks to turn it off! So hot in there, why, if I had not come by, the place would've gone up in flames." Innocent of the facts I rushed to his defence: Oleg's no more a sauna type than I. "Hah," she countered, "his books are in there."

Soon after that, I drafted Oleg into helping me take accumulated waste paper to the recycling center. Driving the load over the seriously pot-holed streets, Oleg to my right in the co-pilot's seat, I broached the sauna episode to reprimand him. He laughed. I persisted in a sermon about responsible behavior: "The place could've caught on fire!" He laughed again. I waxed in annoyance: "Besides that, that sauna works off my electric meter!"

The idea that "a rich American" (is there any other?) would complain about the price of electricity (a fraction of the usual utility bill in the USA) clearly must've ratcheted up the humor — his laughter increased. And despite the clarity of my perception of this guy's reasons for laughter, I went with the inappropriateness of his response and in high irritation released my right arm from the steering wheel and swung my fist at his shoulder. WHACK! WHACK! Twice. And he leaned away into the door. And continued laughing. Twice again – WHACK! WHACK! – this time on the thigh, while I continued steering straight ahead with my left hand.

Barbara parks her Tico in our paradise — a Korean car assembled in Uzbekistan. To the left, back — grapevines just waking up from winter hibernation. To the right — persimmon trees, the last harvest of the summer. Locals love grapes but go nuts over persimmons, called "hur-MA".
Barbara parks the Tico; grapevines and persimmons grow in this paradise

So, days later, on that last day of his employ with me, when he turned away from my counsel about working for the landlady, and a guttural noise erupted from him, I wondered what was so funny now. There being no reason for irritation this time, out of plain curiosity I walked around to face him. From the sound of it, maybe he was having an asthma attack — the man used to go on and off and on unfiltered cigarettes like crazy. But, mi-god — Oleg was crying. Sobbing without any control.

This is a tall man, an inch or so over 6 feet, a handsome face, but the thick unwashed hair over a broad visage with a prominent nose, and clothing that looks marinated in dust, all immediately convey rough poverty, from which you can be distracted only when he is retelling some story he has read, like the time he presented the plot of Stendahl's "Red," in Russian and in mime, there under the cherry tree. I remember correcting his pantomime: "That's not where the guillotine strikes."

Now, my penultimate day in town, through the sobs he choked and blurted that his life these past three years had been so good, and now it was over, said how Barbara and I were the only friends he had, and now we were leaving. I was not only looking at a man who now looked like a child untrained in coping with life's unrelenting chapter closes. I also saw my once-upon-a-time self — leaving my family when I went away to school back in the 1950s; leaving my cats in Baltimore in 1990, my friends in the summer of 1998.

Before the sobbing began he had been packing his bicycle — the moped we helped him acquire had been confiscated by the traffic police when he was stopped for DUI — packing the last articles we'd given him from the surfeit of stuff we had been boxing. Now after he wiped his face and bit hard to hold back tears he resumed the task. I saw that it wasn't all going to fit. I ran inside and dragged out an old big blue backpack of Barbara's we were going to give to another Tashkenter. The overflow could go into the backpack, which he could wear as he pedaled home. He stuffed the thing and then tried getting his arms through the straps long ago set for Barbara's smaller size.

Even with my help, it was an impossible fit. To increase the slackness in the straps, I had to work at knots made long before Barbara's diplomatic career. Took a knife to those old knots. Oleg stood mute, sniffling and clenching. When the straps were finally free, I fitted him like a tailor. Like a mother. With the load on his back he wheeled the bike out to the street, said good bye, easily mounted and pedaled away. He didn't look back. I watched hoping it wasn't so what he'd said: that we were the only friends he had.

Matthew-Daniel Stremba
[originally published in the February 2002 edition of
The Plot Thickens]

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