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City Beat February 6, 2003
City Beat
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
I wobbled back to the apartment trying to remember what world this was. I remember asking something like that in slurred, infantile terms: "" I see why they ask KO'd boxers what day it is and who's President. I was almost home before I could've answered either of those questions. Everything was alien: the dingy play-sculptures of the kiddie area, the crunch of the snow underfoot, the commuters pushing past me. It was clear that I'd broken my brain, and it could never be fixed, and all because I had to go get a lousy loaf of bread. I'd've sued myself if I could've.

But there was no one to sue or get help from in Moscow. I'd heard the horror stories about local clinics, and the even scarier ones about what the Western clinics charged. Even when I flew on to California, there was no way I could afford a doctor. That's one of the joys of being an American: knowing that your country, by far the richest in the world, is the only one in the developed world which would cheerfully let you die in the street rather than spring for basic medical care.

There was nothing to do but hope it got better. And it did, very slowly. For weeks I had to be very careful of turning my head too quickly, because it sloshed back and forth like a small boat in high waves. But eventually I regained my former mental acuity, so that now I can remember what day of the week it is within seconds. (As for who's President -- don't ask.)

That fall taught me to fear ice. I swore that if I ever returned to Moscow in the winter I'd wear one of those hockey helmets, even if people laughed at me. Mockery is better than brain damage.

This was all bluff. I never seriously tried to buy a helmet, and for months now I've been creeping over the icy streets of Kitai-Gorod with nothing but a Strange-Brew toque on my head.

Admittedly, the ice on the sidewalks isn't as bad as it was in '93. The snow-shoveling crews are out most mornings with those flat aluminum shovels that look like pizza trays. Their echoing scrape is the first thing we hear most mornings.

But it's been a cold, wet winter and there's still more than enough ice. Katherine fell once, after the first serious snows. It was an ice-warning sign that brought her down. The street cleaners had set up one of those red pyramids marked "opasnaya zona" on Pokrovka to keep people from getting impaled by ice-stalactites dropping from the eaves. A whole day of pedestrians swerving to avoid the warning sign made a hummock of hard black ice against the base of the pyramid. Once covered with new snow, this makes an excellent booby trap. Katherine's foot slid off the hummock and she fell hard, in a classic NFL hip-pointer. It would have broken an older or less fit person's hip, but she had only a big bruise and several weeks of tingling nerves. That one fall taught her all she needed to know, and she hasn't come close to falling since.

Meanwhile I was developing a new winter sport: falling on the stairs in the Metro. Those stone steps, when covered with muddy slush, turn into ski-ramps. The first time I was halfway down the steps at a perekhod in Taganskaya when I went flying. The stairs were crowded and my foot kicked a man in the leg. Naturally I was more worried about offending him than checking to see if I was hurt. So it was only after he'd shrugged off my shrieks of "Izvinite!" and moved on scowling that I noticed I'd popped my wrist. I did the same thing a week later, popping the other wrist in exactly the same way on exactly the same sort of muddy stone staircase, this time in Oktyabyrskaya. Now my wrists are gnarled like tree-roots and just as flexible.

Wrists are the most commonly injured bones in ice-falls. You throw your arm out to break your fall and end up breaking your wrist instead. Another bit of bad evolutionary programming. Maybe it worked a million years ago in Africa, when we were scrawny, wiry scavengers, but the fat-padded bodies of this era are far too heavy for one weak wrist to brace.

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