2010/8/07: Blast from the past: Russian Lunch

[I’m going through a lot of my old writing, buffing some of it up and posting it here. There’s a LOT of it. Aside from grammatical editing and spelling, the only changes I generally make to these are the addition of notes in square brackets like this one. Those are ‘Notes from the future’. All names have been changed to protect the smoking hot…and everyone else.]


A little bit of background (I’ll post these as needed.):

I work in BigFinance a couple blocks off Wall Street with 4 Russian women (one of whom is my boss, one of whom is her boss), a Russian guy, 3 Chinese guys, a Pakistani, one Croatian and an Indian. For my part, I’m the whitest motherfucker who’s ever drawn a breath.

Needless to say, I’m a programmer.

Now, I generally don’t refer to people by ethnicity but I’m not going to spend three days trying to come up with fake names for everybody.

Well we get an email on Tuesday from fearless leader, Mika with an hour and a half lunch meeting on Friday. Me, being me, wonders what the big announcement is going to be.

During a subsequent status meeting we find out that there’s a bad bit of planning and our Pakistani team member wasn’t going to be with us.

“Cool! Then we can go out for pulled pork!” I cheerfully blurted. He and I laughed, everybody else turned nearly as white as me… but not quite.

A few days go by and on Friday at about 12:00 Mika comes around and asks if we’ve ever had Russian food.

“I wouldn’t even know what Russian food was.”
“That’s the point.”
“Well then I’m in.” I smile to myself as familiar triple entendres involving Mika rip around through my twisted little mind.

There’s some corporate headcount type stuff, the usual litany of “who’s a vegetarian today” as we have a lot of that. Apparently, not only can some people not eat beef, they can’t eat chicken on Fridays..but not all Fridays, just this one. Sounds to me like someone’s religion lost a bet.

So there’s some back and forth and I noticed Mika sort of rocking back and forth on her feet.

“What?” I ask with an eyebrow raised.
“Well, this place. It’s…mmm…It should be ok.”
Grigori, the Russian guy pipes in “Is good.”
“It’s in a bath house.” Mika blurts, unable to contain her secret surprise (or perhaps a crawling suspicion that she might be held accountable if it all goes awry. I’m not sure which.) “But it should be ok. It’s not IN the bath house.”
“Where…hmm… Where is there a bath house?” I asked.
“Oh, right on Fulton Street; across from where Strand book store used to be.” Grigori pointed in the air.
“Been there?”
“Is good dinner spot. I go for lunch. Is not bad.”
“Date spot?” I asked.
Grigori nodded, grinning broadly from behind his newly donned sunglasses.

I’ve walked back and forth on Fulton street for 20 years and never noticed. But that’s NYC for you.

Xiao comes back from fetching his tea and Vladik, the Croatian guy, asked if he remembered his towel.
“Your towel. The restaurant is in a sauna.”
“Seriously? You’re going to call that a sauna?” I asked Vladik, who waves at me to shut the hell up.
“No, I uhh.. I don… I don don don have a a a towel.” Xiao stutters. He’s a good sport and knows we’re just fucking with him, so it’s not like we’re picking on the retarded kid…much.

Eventually we assemble for the 5 minute walk and descend in the elevators. We’re all there. Immediately upon exiting the elevator there’s a passive ego war. Mika tries to herd us to follow her. Grigori and I know where we’re going. Mika’s boss, Alena, totally oblivious to the fact that her authority ends at the elevators, doesn’t understand why people aren’t just lining up behind her. Katarina, the one who makes me walk in to walls, decides at first to set off with Mika and mob, but quickly changes her mind and comes with Grigori and I. I’ll take it. Yes, she’s married with two kids, but a boy can fantasize.

“She just wants to go, can’t maintain a conversation while walking.” Katarina complains, referring to Mika’s single-mindedness. We talk about nothing I remember on the way there. Her perfume smells like someone from my past I should’ve married. Between that and looking like someone I’d like in my future, I have an awfully hard time focusing on a word she’s saying, coated richly it is in that accent. Eventually this leads to me segueing into how defenseless I find myself against Russian women. Real smooth, jackass.

We start coalescing in front of the place which sure enough is right there with a big sign out front, plain as day. Russian and Turkish bath house. “Spa 88.”

In the narrow doorway. Down the steep flight of stairs, around the corner and there sits, behind a ‘front desk’ is a predictably sexy brunette with conspicuous after-market endowments (not a fan), propping her head up on her hand. A little discussion and a wave with Grigori and we turn, go through a narrow hallway, into another room that’s acting like a catwalk. We can see tables and other rooms below. It’s like a maze in there.

All told it looks like it’s set up for a video game firefight. Coming up half a flight of narrow stairs into a twenty foot square room with a couple long tables. One of which is full. The eleven of us sit down, filling up the other one after some squunching and negotiation.

I’ve got the gunfighter’s seat. The Chinese guys (who I’d taken to calling The Triads) sit to my right and across from me. Katarina to my left, Mika to the left of her, and everybody else down the left half of the table.

We pick up our menus and immediately the “what’s authentic” conversation starts. It’s a $12 lunch menu. I’m not SO interested in a midday adventure in culinary anthropology as everyone else seems to be.

Quarters are tight. There’s one increasingly flustered waitress.

One peek at the menu and I’m done. Katarina immediately leans over the front of me, entirely, to talk to the Chinese guys about their selections. I can’t move back, I can’t lean to the side. I just have to sit there and endure ambrosia smelling married Russian hotness rubbing up against me quite indiscreetly. Now, I fantasize she knows what she was doing. But it’s not necessarily true. [Note from the future: She did. Boy did she.]

So I’m sitting there with my hands between my knees (because ANYplace else I try to put them, by my sides, anything, gets me a slap along the way [another note from the future: No it wouldn’t.]) and I look up at the TV on the wall for distractions. It’s tuned to CNBC which is having a special called “American Greed” which is profiling some insider trader who was put in prison a couple years ago. I can’t hear what they’re talking about but they spend 10 minutes going through a lifestyles of the rich “and therefore corrupt.” Fuck those fucking fucks.

All of a sudden I see, flash across the screen, on CNBC the sign that says “Wall Street Bath” that I walked past on my way here. In fact, I walked under it to get in here. They did a five minutes on the decadent life of the bathhouse frequenting big finance insider trader featuring the rooms we’d passed not twenty minutes earlier. I pointed it out to the assembled crowd (vocally, my hands still tied to the chair by cords of discretion) and nobody seemed to pay attention. It was my own kind of synchronicity anyway.

Ordering was a scream. Russians took care of themselves. Mika ordered for all non-Russians on the left half of the table (whether they needed help or not.) Katarina ordered for the triads (leaning all over me, hair in my face, sending me into silent convulsions. [Damn my rules about married women.]) I ordered for myself.

The harried waitress came around and Mika leaned over and tells me I should have a glass of Kvass. “It’s like coke.” Grigori adds that it’s not. Katarina looks at her quizzically. (It turns out I’m not such an illiterate slob as they think. I’ve never had it, but I know full well what kvass is.) So I say sure and they nod at the waitress, point at me and say “Kvass” as though I somehow couldn’t have managed that.

[Reflecting now, they were so happy to “get me” to try it. I didn’t realize how well I was liked back then.]

The three course lunch deal was, fair. The food was mediocre at best (I had a generic salad, mushroom soup and chicken strogonov.)

People are eating away and I notice the strange energy that is Mika’s attention. Chick’s got a psychic blast radius of about a hundred yards. I realize I haven’t touched my Kvass yet. Looking up, I realize that the entire Russian contingent is starting at me. I survey the table and realize everybody but me has this red sangria looking thing.

I take a sip and let me tell you, kvass is… foul. It tastes remarkably like what you’d expect the by-product of beer making to be. It’s as though they took some kind of waste product from the process then filtered it (a little) before serving it. I was assured it was better when cold.

“I’m sure we can get you something else if you can’t HANDLE it.” Mika smiled at her own entendre, nearly bouncing in her chair.

Forgetting for a moment that she’s my boss and who I’m there with, I said “Sweetie, you’d be surprised what I could handle.” Laughs around.

“I pick word exactly right.” It’s nice to see her smiling.
“I wasn’t aware I was quite that transparent.” I said, playing along. “But yes, you pick word exactly right.” Sigh. Russian girls.

The stroganov needed a bed of noodles or something. Generally the food wasn’t spectacular and I wouldn’t really go out of my way to go back there, but for a cultural experience I generally am not looking for.

Settling up was a nightmare. Apparently a “lunch meeting” does not mean “being taken out to lunch” and I’m glad I had cash on hand.

Fortunately the walk back to the office, while distracting, was uneventful. I ducked in to the half-assed bodega in the office basement and picked up a red bull to get the taste of the kvass out of my mouth (which somehow had lingered over the top of decent stroganov and mushroom soup.)

A fun time. I work with a good bunch of folk, as long as they don’t splinter off and start talking shit about each other, something I’m able to bear less and less as time goes on.

Yeah, there should be a punch line here or something. But I’m sick of writing, so fucking deal with it. Besides, I’ve still got Wednesday night’s notes to get through tonight.