That's how Yakov Shalomaef describes the place where he spends his weekdays, the workroom at the rear of his shoe-repair shop. It seems odd to hear an immigrant from Russia describe his circumstances thus, rather than with the usual immigrant's litany of: "My God, there's so much opportunity here, you Americans don't know how lucky you are."
But this is no ordinary Russian immigrant. Yakov was, by his own account, part of the elite power structure in the old Soviet Union. He was, he claims, an "economic investigator" -- not a spy, he points out, an investigator -- for a certain government agency he prefers I not mention by name.
Today, the unrepentant "prisoner" is entertaining visitors for lunch in his cell -- brewing green tea and setting out a dish of Russian coleslaw and a bottle of cognac. I've brought our main course with me. When I asked what Yakov wanted to eat, I was told, by the mutual friend who set up the interview, simply "chicken and vegetables," and was advised against bringing him anything from the area's Russian restaurant, Gourmet of Russia on 16th Street.
What Yakov would prefer is to try some traditional American food, so that's what I've brought: barbecue chicken and beef ribs, with vegetables and a roll, from that reliably tasty 19th Avenue cop hangout My Mother's Place. Apparently I got good advice. When I mention Gourmet of Russia, he shakes his head grimly. "My wife make much better Russian food," he says.
I bet she does. Yakov is incredibly Russian. Yakov is so Russian that if he were an American actor auditioning for the role of a Russian, the director would tell him to tone it down it a little. He speaks badly fractured English, slowly and with frustration, in an accent as thick as a St. Petersburg -- excuse me, make that a Leningrad -- snowdrift.
Here's Yakov, for instance, on what he regards as the unfortunate effect of Gorbachev's policies on the Soviet Empire:
"What I can tell you? My opinion. He let open business, own business, then law need stay strong, strong! If people open business, own business, then people little by little grow up. 'Cause mentally different, you understand? He give talking free, then, any country want what they want! Then country talk, 'We want to separate!' You see, how many countries? How many immigration? How many tragedic life? Then they try to take out him, in '90, then came Yeltsin, he don't have that much power, because army destroyed, police destroyed, everything destroyed. Yeah, he make big problem for country." Then he shrugs, and admits, "For America, good!"
Or, on a more theological topic, here's Yakov on the paradox of the natural concupiscence of humankind:
"Many people are egoist. Because God make wrong us! God make wrong us! God big power, he make world. This special air, if this little different, world die! How he smart? Yes, I think. Big mind! Why he cannot make people correctly? Very few people really honest."
But Yakov's Russian-ness goes deeper than his rather charming grapples with the language. No Dostoyevsky character could beat Yakov when it comes to exuding that classic Russian melancholy.
He gives a more prosaic name, though. "I have depression," he says. "In my heart, I still angry, I still have patriot for my country."
He wouldn't mind returning to Russia, but he says he can't, for the same reason he left in the first place -- his life, and the lives of his family, would be endangered. He says his principal duty as a government agent was investigating organized crime in Soviet states that have since become independent republics, such as Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and his native Tajikistan.
As we sip green tea and eat chicken, Yakov endeavors to tell me the story of how he came to this country when the Russian "Mafia" put a contract on him. It's hard to make it out in detail, but it has something to do with him making powerful enemies when he was ordered to investigate corruption in the hydroelectric industry. He says he lost his government job in 1988, and by 1991, shortly after the mob-emboldening fall of the Soviets, friends were warning him to get out of the country. He and his beautiful wife and daughters -- he proudly shows me their pictures, and they really are beautiful -- arrived here with no money and less English.
His daughters have since gone to work, married and supplied him with five grandchildren, and his wife works as a hairdresser. "My wife English much better," he grants. Yakov's poor English left him struggling through a variety of low-paying jobs, stocking supermarket shelves and the like, before he became acquainted with a Valley shoe repairman who taught him the trade.
Thus, he's eked out a living in the "jail" of his own shop for the past four years. I suppose that a Reagan-style Red-basher might regard this as a story of poetic justice. Maybe even lenient poetic justice, at that.
Yakov's still working hard to learn the ropes of this country, however. Written in marker on an erasable easel at the back of the store is a list of American idioms that a friend is in the process of teaching him. The list includes:
Better late than never. All is well that ends well. Poverty is no sin. The end does not justify the means.
Written next to this list is a Russian word and, apparently, three English translations for it: "Snitch, leak, In-form."
I ask Yakov if snitches were an important part of his work back in the USSR. "Oh, yeah," he says. "How you can take care of country without snitch?" He notes that there are "different kind of snitch."
"Some snitch help country. Some snitch hurt country, for money."
I sample his wife's Russian coleslaw. It's marvelously fresh and zingy. I'm not sure that the cuisine from My Mother's, which I inhaled, would receive similarly glowing reviews from Yakov. He has eaten all of his veggies and all of his roll, but only about half of his chicken. As far as I can tell, he hasn't touched his rib.
He gives me a Dixie cup and asks if I want to try some good Russian cognac. He abstains -- he's on duty, after all -- but I try it. It goes down smooth and delicious, but it makes my brain feel numb. Then Yakov offers me a tangerine, which gives the meal a pleasant finish.
As I get up to leave, my host shows me a copy of a photo of himself, shaking hands with none other than a smiling Sheriff Joe Arpaio. "He meet me," says Yakov -- under what circumstances, I'm not quite able to understand -- "and we talk." Perhaps sensing a kindred law-enforcement spirit, Arpaio apparently took to Yakov.
"He show me laboratory, they have very good laboratory. Then he told me make picture. I said, 'I don't need.' He told me, 'For your business, you need.'"
And has it proved an effective marketing point with Yakov's customers? "Sometimes it helps," says Yakov.
But sometimes it doesn't. "Some people don't like him," he notes, chuckling. "[They say] 'Your friend? I never come in again!'"
I'm not that narrow-minded. I promise to bring my shoes there. I'll do it, too, if I ever have a pair worth fixing, rather than throwing out after a trip to Payless.
As I leave Yakov's store, I see one more maxim, this one rendered phonetically in dialect, posted on a sign near the door:
"We Get Too Soon Oldt And Too Late Schmardt."
Later, I learn that Gourmet of Russia has gone out of business. Maybe they should have hired Yakov's wife.
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