Several miles outside central Sofia, in an industrial park in the Izgrev District, the Museum of Socialist Art occupies a blocky modern low-rise that could pass for a progressive high school in any American suburb, garnished on one side by a garden where much of the local sculptural residue of bygone Communist regimes—the Stalinist reign of Georgi Dimitrov from 1946 to 1949; the less stifling, more prosperous era of Todor Zhivkov, first party secretary from 1954 to 1989—has migrated from more imperious altitudes in the hub of the Bulgarian capital.
Marooned in this far-off scruff of greenery, the old order’s monuments to its ideals and protagonists retain the patina of immutable, hortatory literal-mindedness characteristic of the Soviet period’s official art and literature. Now, though, they appear less frighteningly exalting of a pushy idea than like fragments of a nightmare drained of nocturnal menace, planted in glassy sunlight like an assortment of lawn elves mixed in with massive fantasy figures who, so we’re told, once upon a time were real and walked the Earth.
Like the indoor exhibit of socialist realist posters celebrating factory openings and heroically met agricultural quotas, the sculpture garden features depictions of many nameless humans incarnating ideological rectitude and civic virtue—The Award Winning Builder, Head of a Worker, Machine Operator, Women from the Farm, Participants in the Uprising, etc.—grouped near, or around, charismatic, historically legible individuals. The relatively liberal Zhivkov is somewhat mingily represented, as is the first Communist prime minister, Vassil Kolarov, whereas the hard-liner Dimitrov is amply depicted in granite, bronze, and marble likenesses, of various sizes. There are busts and statues of Hristo Karpachev, Poet of the Revolution; Dr. Mara Maleeva-Zhivkova, Zhivkov’s wife (“she loved the people”); and Tsvaytko Radoynov, a colonel in the NKVD who worked in the Bulgarian communist underground during the Second War, was captured and executed by firing squad, and posthumously promoted to general.
No Bulgarian, however, appears anywhere as often—in museum or garden—as Stalin. Busts and full figures of the Red Tsar far outnumber the many of Lenin, who, despite an unusually ugly, gigantic rendering in stone (many of these statues, and almost all the posters, are actually gorgeous, contrary to reputation) looming over a whole quadrant of garden in a stance resembling a lunging grizzly bear, unavoidably evokes John the Baptist vis-a-vis his ubiquitous successor.
It occurs to me that I have never seen a sculpture of Adolf Hitler dating from the Third Reich. The only plastic representations I can think of at all, off-hand, are the Hitler dolls and marionettes in Syberberg’s film Hitler: A Film from Germany, and Maurizio Cattelan’s “Praying Hitler,” which were made decades after the Primate of Linz ate the gun in his bunker. Portraits of Hitler were everywhere in the Reich, of course, from classroom walls to postage stamps. Once, he was even pictured as a Teutonic knight in armor, mounted on a horse. Perhaps it was forbidden to make a three-dimensional effigy of Hitler, as it must be to fashion one less than 30 feet tall of Kim Jong-il in North Korea. On top of everything else, Hitler was neurotically superstitious, and probably feared the voodoo power of the replica. Effigies can be pricked with pins, cursed, sexually assaulted, ripped to pieces, incinerated, or decapitated in the privacy of a citizen’s home, where until recently the fact that there is no privacy in a citizen’s home eluded collective awareness, which in turn inhibited privacy invaders from acting too directly or drastically on the objects of their surveillance for fear of giving the game away. In Stalin’s case, an endless profusion of sculpted Stalins planted from Moscow to Vladivostock served the cosmetic function of smoothing out his smallpox craters and filling out his withered arm.
Aside from an old woman inside the museum who resembles a wary crow pecking the ground cover in a graveyard, her embittered, devout expression leading me to suppose that she is, in every sense, an old Communist, everybody I meet here (the man in the sentry box at the front of the drive, the woman collecting the entrance fee, the lady who runs the video exhibits and the souvenir concession) signals, in one way or other, that they perceive this museum’s horde “ironically.” The Communist period, for them, survives here as an increasingly weightless novelty of recollection, yet one worth preserving, as it is, after all, history.
It’s the intelligent thing, to have museums like this. I’m convinced almost any revolution, uprising, or military victory that begins by toppling the absurd statues and glorifying kitsch commemorating the once-adored is likely to end with the worship of someone or something even worse, or devolve into chaos and savagery—as in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge, Iraq after Saddam Hussein, Afghanistan after the Taliban demolished the Baniyan Buddhas, and China when the emperor burned all existing books and built the Great Wall, the most overreaching monument to human stupidity ever erected. Tomorrow’s monsters always insist on changing everything that reminds people of the day before. The French have it right; there is still a Stalingrad metro station in Paris, and myriad other place names belonging to people who landed on the wrong side of history, and to events that embarrassed the state, like the plaque in front of Brasserie Lipp where Medhi Ben Barka was kidnapped.
I leave Sophia on Deathtrip National Airlines and land an hour later in Bucharest, where I draw cash from an airport ATM and, distracted by someone I decide is a dangerous maniac talking to invisible people in a belligerent voice, forget my card in the machine and get into a taxi.
Within seconds, I glean that the driver is a dubious piece of work, asking “casual” questions he’d ask gullible, anxious, miserably horny tourists with lots of money: am I here on vacation? Business? What am I going to do in Bucharest? He reveals that the city is full of easily available, clean, and respectable whores. I’m not going to shut this asshole up by telling him I like men, first of all because it’s none of his business, and second because he’d just offer me his brother or, god forbid, himself. He’s about 35, clearly eats too much, and has a greasy film all over his skin that seems also to coat his grubby clothing. He delivers me to the wrong hotel, despite having entered the address in his GPS and consulting some crony on his cell phone, and insists it’s the right hotel that just has a different name over the entrance. This after inquiring whether I would be interested in an erotic massage and being told that I don’t need a pimp. He becomes enraged at my use of the word “pimp,” though that is unmistakably what he is. “It’s legal in Romania,” he grumbles. “Not a pimp.” OK, a ponce, a procurer, a pander, a whore-monger, a man who lives off the earnings of women: take your pick. I know he’s deliberately driven to the wrong address, but fail to deduce that he does so to avoid the right hotel’s security camera, as he plans to rip me off for a startling amount of Romanian New Leus, seeing that I have them confused with Bulgarian Levs and am so impatient to get away from him that I fail to consult the currency converter on my phone. He has the negative aura of a human oil slick. I pay him quickly and roll my luggage into the lobby of what I know is not my hotel. Luckily, the staff is nice; they fetch another cab.
When the second driver pulls up to the correct hotel, miles away, and shows me the fare on his meter, I realize the oil slick took me for a truly audacious ride, and, while paying the new fare, discover an empty flap in my wallet where the bank card is normally tucked. A disaster scenario briefly unfolds in my head. I only know three people in Bucharest well enough to have their current phone numbers, and seriously doubt that any of them has the price of however many hotel nights I will need to fix this sudden pennilessness. But I’ve trained myself over the years to process panic-inducing situations like this as welcome material for a novel, in case I ever write another one, so walk into the peculiarly situated but very nice Hotel Vila Arte, and quite calmly explain to the woman at the desk that I have, at the moment, only cash, and only enough cash to cover a single night. After a flash of visible skepticism, she tells me not to worry and to relax in a little parlor off the lobby while they make up my room. It would be very funny indeed to end up a clochard in the gutters of Bucharest after the life I’ve had, but I’m not going to think about that. I didn’t bring American Express, which I’m told will crawl over broken glass at the summit of K-2 to replace a lost or stolen card, or take any other credit cards on this trip: it becomes too tempting to buy things I couldn’t afford when I was younger and certainly don’t need now, when the end always seems unavoidably in plain sight.
I’ve had some dealings with my regular bank over the phone from Havana, and know that its “toll-free from outside the US and Canada” line is not a working number, and never has been. I call instead the number you’re charged for, am put on hold for 12 minutes, then learn that the bank will send a replacement card by regular air mail but not express overnight delivery. This will take five or six days. Not good enough. By the clock it’s too early to call the branch office, where I’m pretty sure I can talk someone I know into sending a new card by next day UPS. I find that I have a Chase debit card in my wallet, for my other checking account, which has, I think, $25 in it. I could call someone in New York and have them deposit money in the Chase account. But I don’t have checks for that account, or the number written anywhere, so call the allegedly toll-free number on that card, hoping to easily get the account number. I am told by a man on the other end of the line whom I picture as tall, nondescript, 27 years of age, with medium-length, straw-colored hair, wearing a muted check blazer, a pale blue shirt, and teal corderoy trousers, that I will need to answer a few security questions.
I realize that I picture every male voice I hear when I call places like a bank as issuing from exactly the same blandly affable person, wearing exactly the same imaginary clothing. And that I somehow assume this person was a fan of the Jerry Seinfeld show and follows baseball without fanaticism, rents instead of owns, drives a Prius, dates a woman finishing a Master’s in marketing for the 21st century at an inferior college, and has occasional problems sustaining an erection with her, or comes prematurely. Once a month or so, he hooks up with a pre-op transsexual prostitute in the skanky part of whatever city he lives in. I realize too that I have not used my Chase account in over a year and have undoubtedly forgotten how I answered any security questions, and say so.
“Oh, no, these aren’t answers you’ve given us,” he tells me. “They’re questions based on publicly accessible information about you that we have at the bank.”
“All right, first question. I’m going to read you five addresses, and want you to tell me if you’ve ever been associated with any of these addresses. 15 Buckingham Road. 94 Chestnut Avenue. 109 St. Mark’s Place. 43 Thalia Massie Drive. Finally, 12 Winterville Road. Have you ever been associated with any of these?”
“Not that I know of. Why exactly is this a security question? St. Mark’s Place is close to where I live in New York, but—well, wait. I just remembered. I lived in a little apartment on St. Mark’s Place for three months in 1978.”
“What do you mean, ‘that’s correct’—why the fuck do you know where I lived for three months, 35 years ago? I didn’t even have an account at Chase Bank in 1978. I didn’t have any bank account in 1978. It wasn’t even called the Chase Bank in 1978; it was the Chemical Bank, Chase Bank was Chase Manhattan. They merged. Which, come to think of it, I only opened an account at Chemical Bank in 1980, when I was living somewhere else.”
“Well, that’s the information I have here.”
“But why do you have it? Where did the bank get the information, who did they get it from? Is David Rockefeller listening to this call, by any chance?”
“Forgive me, sir, but that’s a little like asking why is the sky blue, at my end of this. I have no idea why the bank has this information… public records of some kind or other—”
“No, but wait, I’m not anybody—I don’t have a trillion dollars on deposit at Chase Bank, I’m not a drug kingpin, or a spy, I’m just some little person with a checking account at your bank. Why do you have all this kind of detailed, private information about me? You know something, I’ve been writing a memoir for three years, and really, you should write it for me, you know more about me than I do.”
The man in the checked blazer giggled. This reminded me that people who work on Maggie’s Farm, so to speak, do not own the farm, and find its inner workings just as mysterious and probably as obnoxious as I do.
“Are you ready for the next question?”
To crop this to a forgivable length, the next question cited five corporations, all with acronymic names, and asked if I had ever had dealings with any of them. It seemed safe to say that I hadn’t, since I’d never heard of them, and never worked for a corporation, for that matter, though I supposed that somehow, anyone who ever works at all actually works for some corporation, somewhere, that owns or controls the non-corporations they may have worked for at one time or another—and further supposed that I was having dealings that very minute with some surveillance company owned by, say, WXY Corp, or SBRQ Corporation, or one of the others Mr. Pleasant Ordinary was reeling off the names of.
I’ve forgotten what the final question was about, only that it was equally invasive, structured around a harvest of data mining, and the kind of query that should be illegal, and isn’t, like the obnoxious “recommendations” from Amazon.com based on our previous purchases; the very special selection of movies urged on us by Netflix after we’ve used the site precisely once to watch one episode of Breaking Bad; and the digital profiling that occurs automatically whenever we order a pizza, buy a roll of film, check in at the airport, or do anything else that obliges us to identify ourselves. This story does not have a happy ending, simply because it doesn’t have any ending, but just continues, as if we each had a personal Stasi officer assigned to monitor our existence. However, the episode itself ended painlessly enough, with someone in New York putting cash in the Chase account, no doubt becoming himself an object of the surveillance connected to me, quite aside but not apart from the already existing surveillance connected to him.
"He ain’t no Sheik, that’s no great physique, and Lord knows he ain’t got the smarts…"
- Chicago, the musical
We’ve all heard about it, read about it, and some have even seen it. I refer, of course, to former congressman Anthony Weiner’s penis, an object of limited curiosity for those of us amply acquainted with male genitalia, and of even less interest to those familiar with Anthony Weiner’s overall physical envelope and personality, yet for a considerable time an organ of rapt, though possibly feigned, fascination to a woman named Sydney Leathers—which seems not only improbable, but an almost unforgiveable lapse in taste on the part of Ms. Leathers, who has launched herself in specialty cinema, and will soon essay a sin queen in a whalebone corset for one of the higher end adult entertainment ventures.
Judging from the white-cotton-veiled intimation of Weiner’s virile member featured several months ago in the New York Post, the artifact in question is what Norman Mailer, describing his own equipment, once characterized as “an average Jewish prick.” For the record, I am wholly in favor of anyone wishing to promote his or her genitals of whatever dimensions on Facebook or Instagram being able to do so, and don’t find mildly quirky sexual impulses like Weiner’s, or really any sexual quirks that don’t involve involuntary pain, or murder, or cruelty to animals, at all abnormal or reprehensible. But given what Weiner has claimed to be his career ambitions, putting his cock online after getting caught doing it once already indicates not only lamentably poor judgment but sufficient idiocy to exclude him from the kind of public employment that involves decisions about other people’s money, the placement and timing of urban construction projects and street repairs, zoning enforcement, noise abatement, police deployment, and a host of other responsibilities far too boring for most of us to even contemplate, but necessary in a grossly overpopulated world full of incompatible life forms. Unfortunately, the realm that would otherwise seem the most appropriate venue for Weiner’s self-realization, namely Vivid Entertainment, is one where his physical endowments would not be greatly in demand, and his inevitable next mea culpa will probably not create copious opportunities as a television talking head, since anything he has to say is bound to be interrupted by questions about his penis. In Croatia, I caught a half-hour TV interview with Dominique Strauss-Kahn in which an earnest discussion of world economic policy lurched suddenly into a barrage of questions about pimping. This sort of thing is vastly entertaining the first time, and box office poison forever after.
Weiner seems doomed to a season on Celebrity Apprentice, followed by his complete disappearance from public life, and some bucolic aftermath as an accountant in a small town in western New York. Or, perhaps, he could carve a new future growing hydroponic vegetables for sale at farmer’s markets, if he can resist raising cucumbers and zucchini squash. Weiner may be an asshole instead of a creep, but sometimes even an asshole flaunts his inability to control himself once too often.
Previously by Gary Indiana - A Few Days in Bulgaria