Privileged and Corrupt

Sarah Schulman

From The Mere Future, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in fall 2009.

“Look,” Daddy said. “That’s Alexander Kerenski.”

“Who’s that?”

“The Prime Minister of the Menshevik government of Russia, after the Czar and before the Communists.”

I looked up from behind his knee. The object of my father’s fandom was a lonely old man in an old gray suit. He was food shopping slowly because it was his only way to be around people. His suit was too big on him because he was well into the shrinking process. Poor guy, he placed his bets on the wrong side of history and paid ever since. Nowadays, Mr Kerenski would ask people questions like, “What kind of sour cream do you like?” just to hear another human voice interact with his own. He dreamed that one of these people would strike up a conversation and become his friend. That they could have tea together and talk about the Duma, the Cossacks, and Lenin, that scoundrel. But this never happened. He saw it take place once in a movie and twice in a play, but in real life one thing never led to another. Kerenski stopped. He changed his glasses, stalling for more time among the living. He examined the sour cream container again. What was he looking for? The refrigeration refreshed his soul. He changed his mind, reached for the cottage cheese.

“Look,” my father said, young and robust, large key ring dangling by his side. He had always wanted to be great, the world’s best Super. But he did not hold his thwarted wish against others who truly were great, nor those who had failed but tried. This generosity came, in part, from the fact that no one on earth was considered the World’s Best Superintendent. He aspired to a goal that no one else could attain either.

“He used to be the ruler of Russia.”

I stared, transfixed. This is what happens to kings, stars, the most powerful of men. They can be reduced to standing next to me. “Look,” my father whispered. “Look at him now. He can’t even chew.”

What a lesson. So many years later, I carry this warning from my dear old dad. Nothing matters except Nadine.

As an adult, I avoided mass-produced edible treats, and only bought organics that were tasty and overpriced. Now, though, at People’s Market, there was unlimited choice. Not just fifty-seven kinds of cheese, but 157. And each was named after its maker: Steve Cheese, Joanne Cheese, Ludwig Cheese, Jr.

And standing there, in front of the acres of personal cheese, I had my own adult paternal memorial Slavic celebrity sighting. Anna Kornslyovichkowaskyski. In her day, she had been the darling of the Party. The grandsons of the overthrowers of Kerenski had made her a star. She could have tea in her coffee while the People just got educated. Now, though, with the former Soviet Union in subdivisions that would make Long Island jealous, she lived in New York buying potatoes right out of the earth. Here at People’s Market, you dig them yourself.

“Hi,” I said. “If I had a child of my own, I would have him shake your hand.”

“You know me?” She smiled.

“Yes,” I said, reaching for the shake. “You were the most privileged and corrupt movie star in all of the CCCP.”

“Yes,” she said, smiling for the cameras. “That will always be true. Even when I am dead. Film curators with fetishes for kitsch will dig up my films and feel some pang of desire. No matter what they know intellectually, they will never lose that little ooooohhhh one feels in the presence of a star.”

“What do you do now?” I asked.

“I work in THE MEDIA HUB.” She looked tragic. It was lovely. She had found resilience, and then triumph of the human spirit.

“Thank you,” I said. “Your performance reminds me of what really matters in life. It is healing and transformative.”

I was thinking about Nadine, and a smile came to my tongue.

“You’re welcome,” she answered, burdened by the history of Mother Russia and ten pounds of laundry detergent. “The mighty must fall, and yet, they once were mighty.” And then she wheeled down the aisle towards the condiments.

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