Wednesday, February 17, 2016

MANIFESTO, a Play of Historical Fiction

a play of historical fiction
Dmitry Zvonkov

Veranda of suburban cottage. A sunny spring day. VLADIMIR ILYICH and LEV DAVIDOVICH, both in their 50s, with mustaches and short beards, sit at a table playing chess. Lev smokes. Vladimir, looking gaunt, a shawl covering his legs, is trying to make a hole in a belt with an awl. Besides the chess board, on the table next to Vladimir Ilyich is a folder tied with a ribbon. Behind them, OSYA, a strapping younger man, clean-shaven with black lustrous hair, waits in the shadows, his hat in his hands.

VLADIMIR ILYICH (answering Lev’s question in confidence)
He wants to know what I thought of his manifesto. So, I’m ignoring him.

LEV DAVIDOVICH (pointing at Vladimir’s handiwork)
I mean that. Why are you doing that?

Pants won’t stay on. Need a new hole.

LEV DAVIDOVICH (under his breath)
Perhaps a new hole is the reason your pants won’t stay on. (to Vladimir) Why not take your belt to a leather smith, have them do it. Check.

(Every time Lev checks Vladimir he does so by taking one of Vladimir’s pieces.)

All the leather smiths are fighting for the proletariat.

A shoemaker then.

Them too.

Check. Couldn’t one be temporarily excused from the Revolution?

That would be unfair to the others. The People’s Revolution is about fairness. The Russian people’s will demands justice. The French fought for inclusion, the Americans for wealth. We fight for justice.

Check. Surely it’s not justice for the People’s Premier to be stuck poking holes in his own accessories? What about “From each according to his ability…?”

The true Soviet man must be a jack of all trades. Specialization leads to elitism. Elitism leads to capitalism. And capitalism leads to venereal disease. (in confidence) He wants me to put my name on his manifesto, above his! Eh? Clever monkey.

Vladimir Ilyich, surely there must be one practicing shoemaker left in all of the Russias.

If there is, then he is an enemy of the people and therefore must be shot. It’s simple logic.

Check. Perhaps if there is such a man he could be persuaded to put a hole in your belt before he is executed? Or just have Os’ka do it. He’s got good workman’s hands, even if one is shorter than the other. Wasn’t your father a cobbler? What are you doing there in the shadows Osya? It’s time you step into the light. It’s true, no? Your father made shoes?

He was a working man, yes. Vladimir Ilyich, have you had a chance to read my manifesto?

Clara enters from the house with a cup of tea, sets it down before Vladimir.

Too sweet.

I put in 2 sugars.

It doesn’t taste like 2. It tastes like 4.

“Quantity has a quality all its own.”

I swear to god Vladimir Ilyich, I only put 2.

Clarachka, if you don’t mind, bring me another cup. I’ll put the sugar in myself. (to Lev) You see what I mean about being a jack of all trades?

OSYA (referring to folder on table)
Vladimir Ilyich, my manifesto, have you had a chance…

Clarachka, I’ve changed my mind. I’ll have a cup of tea as well. And I’ll take mine with 3 sugars…Or, on second thought, do you have any sweets?

We have apple tarts and one piece of Napoleon left.

In that case Clarachka forget the sugars and just bring me the Napoleon instead. Unless…Vladimir Ilyich, would like…?

No, it’s too decadent for me. Perhaps our friend Osya. You want some tea or dessert?

Tea. No sugar…And an apple tart.

Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer the last Napoleon?

What are you implying?

Don’t be paranoid Osya. What could I be implying? (pause) Then again, perhaps you know something I don’t.

What’s that supposed to mean?

Nothing…If one has bits of filth in one’s soul, well, that’s one’s own business.

What do you mean “filth”!?

Nothing at all Osenka! Only that when the mere mention of a dessert sends one into a fever, and one is not a diabetic, one must ask oneself, Is there more to this business than just flour and cream? Perhaps hidden ambitions, desires…?

What’s this “one,” “one?” Speak plainly tovarisch. I am loyal to the revolution and to the people, and, unlike some, I refuse to eat desserts named after imperialist tyrants!

I see. Whereas the apple tart is a simple proletariat treat. Yes, yes. It’s too bad that eating a proletariat dessert doesn’t in and of itself make one a friend to the proletariat. If it did no doubt your picture would be hanging in every room…in the corner, with a candle underneath.

You’re crossing a line Lev Davidovich.

Say, what if we just changed the name? Clara!!

Clara runs in.

Yes, Lev Davidovich?

Clarachaka, make a note. From now on the Napoleon cake will be called the Marx-Engels cake! There, done. Now, tovarisch, you can eat as much of it as you like without compromising your principles.

With all due respect Lev Davidovich, my principles are not grounded in pastries!

Tovarischi, tovarischi, I find arguing the politics of dessert a tedious business. It’s true that some desserts are more suspect than others, but the Soviet government has more important matters to attend to. We’ll get around to desserts in due time…What a beautiful day. The sun is shining. A bird is singing. Imagine if this were your last day on earth. It wouldn’t be so bad.

Whose last day?

Is everything alright Vladimir Ilyich?

Vladimir closes his eyes, looking up at the sun. The light changes to a spotlight on Vladimir as the bird call gets louder and louder, more and more creepy and insane. Then all is normal.

My manifesto…

Yes, yes, the manifesto. Osenka, and I say this with all due respect, but if you’re going to keep writing manifestos and whatnot you really need to work on your grammar.

My grammar!?

If you’re going to write in the manner of a bumpkin, no matter how good your ideas are, they’re going to sound like the ideas of a bumpkin.

Or a shoemaker. Take it easy, take it easy Osya, I’m only kidding.

If I were you I’d get my grammar up to par before I showed my manifestos in public. Or, and this might work better for you, find yourself a scribe, a secretary, who’s completed his education. Or hers.

Or you could just have every educated person in the country killed. Then there won’t be anyone around to see that you write like a peon. What? Osya? Take it easy. I’m kidding.

This is impossible! With all due respect Vladimir Ilyich, my grammar is impeccable! I was a scholarship recipient at my seminary school. I was at the top of my class…

Before you got kicked out.

I left on my own, out of principle…!

LEV DAVIDOVICH(cutting Osya off)
Did the seminary serve Napoleon too?

OSYA(holding in rage)
…I taught myself everything, on my own! I read every book I could find…

Reading and understanding are two different things.

Vladimir Ilyich, my…grammar aside…You said “no matter how good your ideas.” Does that mean…you thought my ideas were good?

No, Osenka, I was speaking hypothetically. There are doers in this world, Osya, and there are thinkers. Very few people are both. Socrates was both. Marcus Aurelius. Me, I am both. But you, Osya, are a doer. Don’t be discouraged, thinkers always need doers. Without does nothing would get done. Of course without thinkers a lot would get done, but it all would be done through the ass.

Vladimir Ilyich, I don’t understand, did you have a problem with my assumptions? My conclusions? My reasoning? What? Please be candid.

You’re a clever boy Osya. Clever and crafty. Street-smart, as they say. You’re just not very intelligent. Intelligence isn’t something you can will. Just like you can’t will talent. Don't be discouraged, this is not a barrier to success. I’d even go so far as to say that a limited intellect is almost a prerequisite for success. Not too limited, you understand, just the right amount. Your strength, Osya, is in seeming like you know what you’re talking about, which is often much more advantageous than actually knowing. Not always! And sometimes we can even fool ourselves, which can be dangerous. Remember how you fancied yourself a great general and as a result we lost Poland? You do remember that, yes…? That was an instance when the difference between seeming and being came into play. But most of the time authority can be faked, and you my friend are an expert at that. Point being, Osya, you will do very well for yourself, provided you don’t get fooled by your own reflection. But as for your “ideas…” For a doer they are impressive. For a thinker…(shakes his head). They are ideas for the kitchen, for the tavern, for the cell. The other day Leva brought over some of your old poetry. I don’t blame you for not wanting to make it public. Not that it’s terrible. It’s romantic, but that was the style of the times…perhaps it was a little old-fashioned…At any rate, on the surface it is very pretty, tender, even touching. But on closer look one sees it for what it is: formulaic, formalistic, sentimental, na├»ve, trite. The sense is that you are aping better poems of which you only have a superficial understanding. In fact the only reason yours sound as good as they do is because of how conducive the Russian language is to poetry. It is not as forgiving when it comes to manifestos. Sure, if you’re speaking to the ignorant, the peasants, janitors and cobblers, get them riled up, they’ll accept anything you have to tell them on faith. But we want the communist message to resonate with every strata. And I’m sorry to say that any truly intelligent, thoughtful individual will see that for all your apparent… let’s say…erudition, you’re talking out of your ass.

I see. Thank you, Vladimir Ilyich, for your candor.

LEV DAVIDOVICH (shaking his head)
Oh, Vladimir Ilyich, now you’ve made Osya sad.

Os’ka, come on, don’t despair. Do you want some advice? Forget about all this manifesto business and instead grow a mustache! Look at Leva, what a nice mustache he has. Look at me. People take you more seriously if you have a mustache. You get up on a podium now, and the people are, eh. You get up there with a mustache and they’re ready to listen. And if you should say something foolish the mustache is there to protect you; one thinks twice before making fun of a man with a mustache. Yes, a mustache! A mustache and a secretary with good grammar…and a nice pair of tits. And a big, soft ass, like Clara’s. Bit tits, big ass, and a mustache. Like Clara…

Vladimir jumps a pawn across the entire board.

Checkmate. Clarachaka!

Vladimir stands—his blanket and his trousers fall to the floor—and runs into the cottage.


What’s the matter with him?

Muffled sounds of amorous aggression and resistance come from inside the cottage. Lev and Osya pretend not to hear them.

You don’t know? The bullet that Kaplan shot him with was laced with syphilis. Our Premier is in the later stages…Don’t worry Osya, when the time comes we’ll find a nice, warm place for you. Did you really think he would add his name to your manifesto? Ha-ha-ha! You know, in a way Kaplan did you a favor. Had Vladimir Ilyich been in his right mind he might never have told you what he really thought of your little opus, and you’d have published it and become a laughing stock.

Are you suggesting, Lev Davidovich, that the Leader of the People’s Revolution is mad?

If a politician speaking frankly is not madness, I don’t know what is.

Lev Davidovich, this is treason.

CLARA(off stage)

Lev and Osya pretend not to hear Clara’s horrible scream.

Interesting you should say that. As by calling my statement treasonous you are implying that you would not follow our Leader if he were mad. Now I ask you, which is more treasonous, observing that the Soviet leader is mad or threatening to refuse to follow his directives?

You’re…talking nonsense…

Clara runs out disheveled, her dress a bit torn.

He’s dead! Vladimir Ilyich is dead! Oh my god! Our leader is dead…(Sees Vladimir’s trousers, grabs them) I can’t let them see him like this…He was such a neat man, everything so well arranged…I can’t let them see him like this, dead, on the floor, without trousers…Poor Vladimir Ilyich. What a nightmare.

Clara runs into cottage with Vladimir’s trousers. Lev stands up, adjusts his bowtie.

Well Os’ka, time to lead the Union forward.

Lev makes for the cottage. Osya blocks his way.

What’s this, an insurrection? Move aside Osenka, let me through.

Osya blocks Lev’s way again.

LEV DAVIDOVICH (puffing up)
Out of my way this instant!

Lev tries to force his way past but Osya easily shoves him backwards. Lev falls.

You just made a giant mistake. You’ll pay for this. Oh you will pay. You’ll see.

Intellectuals. Critics. You understand everything. But you see a soul bared before you and all you can do is make fun. Now I’m going to show you the power of will.

Osya picks up the awl, moves on Lev.

What are you doing?! Are you out of your mind?! My driver is just out front. Just three rooms away. And he’s armed. Just three rooms…I just have to call him…

Osya grabs Lev and covers his mouth, get him down to the floor. They struggle.

Point taken. You’re a little bigger than me, a little stronger. But my weakness is momentary. I have thousands of followers. Millions! They’ll crush you and your handful of riffraff…

You should have developed your pieces sooner, Solomon.

No! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Aaaaaaaaiiiiiaaaaahhhhh...!

Osya drives the awl into Lev’s ear, killing him. Osya rips off Lev’s mustache and sticks it on himself. Clara runs in.

Oh my god!

How do I look? Be honest.

the end.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


I find a bit shallow all these professions of dismay on social media concerning how terrible it is that everyone is paying attention to the terrorist attacks in Paris and not to the ones in Nigeria, Syria, etc. There is no mystery. Horrors in those places happen much more frequently than they do in Western countries, which subtracts from the sensational aspect. Their cultures are radically different from ours, which makes it harder for us to relate to them and their pain. (There are more reasons, psychological and social, but that’s a different essay.) My point here is to talk about one specific reason (or excuse) for our lack of interest, that being that those places, even without terrorist attacks, are terrible—in terms of human rights, standard of living, healthcare, etc.—and offer little hope of getting better anytime soon. We expect bad things to happen there. For all its relative civilization, Nigeria is a corrupt, barbaric shithole even without Boko Haram. Is it news that an atrocity was committed in Somalia? This outrage we express about our lack of news coverage, about our lack of sympathy in effect, has, at its foundation, the modern liberals' interpretation (or perhaps misinterpretation) of cultural relativism. "We should not feel worse for Parisian victims of terror than we do for Syrian victims of terror," say the liberals. And maybe we shouldn' some magical world where we see every individual the way we imagine god sees us, without prejudice and with perfect love. But what bugs me about the well-wishers and their fantasy world, besides the self-deception it necessitates, is that these people, with their knee-jerk outrage at how terrible we are for not caring about the poor victims of wherever and whatever, this is the same contingent that celebrated, in part or in whole, the so-called Arab Spring, when the people, THE PEOPLE! stood up for themselves and their rights. They are the same liberals who talked of the Soviet-backed Afghan government depriving Afghans of religious freedom. Liberals never like the way things are because things are never as perfect as liberals can imagine them being (I am as guilty of this as anyone). But at some point we must look at what is realistic. Unlike in the West, in many of these places the choice isn’t between, let’s say, good and bad, it’s between very bad and horrific. And for us to continually complain about the very bad is intellectually disingenuous and spiritually suspect. Sometimes bad is the best that a situation can be. And when we let our sentimentality take over, when we judge X in comparison to perfection, all we are doing is indulging our vanity. (Were we ever in a position to act on these "convictions" in a real-life scenario we likely would find ourselves in a very bad place very quickly.) For all its faults, Western culture is the best we have, and a massacre in Paris is more newsworthy than a massacre in Rwanda—and let’s hope it stays that way. This isn’t to say that as individuals we westerners are smarter or more virtuous, kinder, more talented, stronger, tougher, or more deserving of god’s grace than other peoples. And it certainly doesn’t mean that individuals from other cultures shouldn’t be respected, or that they should be forced to love the West. But the West is where it’s at, at least for now, and those who forget that risk (intellectually I mean, not actually) trading very bad for horrific....Especially when one takes into account the fact that even the worst tragedies have a social media shelf life of 17 days. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015


There was a warrant out for my arrest this weekend. I showed up late to my court date on Friday—the judge had closed up shop before 2pm, I arrived at 2:30—hence the warrant. The reason I was summoned in the first place was because two months earlier I had ridden my bicycle into the little square in the middle of Columbus Circle, where the explorer stands grandly atop his column. Three cops were waiting for me there, two in blue, one in white—a supervisor, his white torso protruding like the underside of an enamel bathtub. Of the blue boys one was athletic the other one dumpy—he looked like his previous uniform had been a soiled t-shirt. The athletic one had a crew cut, dead eyes, and a pissed-off look on his face. He was chronically pissed-off: all around him was chaos and no matter what actions he took or how much he willed it the world refused to order itself to his design. Also, despite always following his convictions, every decision he’d ever made, big and small, seemed wrong to him in retrospect and made him miserable. As he wrote out the summons—he had the lowest rank of the three—he was regretting having left the Marines.
            “It’s a summons?” I said, “Not a ticket? You mean I can’t just pay this, I have to go to court?”
            “This is better,” suggested the dumpy PO sympathetically—he looked like he wanted to get a beer with me, with anybody. “This way you can get it dismissed,” he said. “You can probably get it dismissed,” he said. “I read…” he said, “I didn’t read but they told us, a woman was killed here, an old woman, right here in this park, by one of those…you know, by one of those guys…Whatchyamacallit? You know who I mean. Those guys, they ride around…Those guys, you know…”
“No. They bring stuff…You know…”
            “Delivery guys?”
            “Yeah! But no, not delivery guys. No. You know, those guys…! What are those guys called…? UPS? No, not UPS…But it’s like UPS. Sort of. Not really. Oh, you know, it’s THOSE GUYS.”
“You mean bike messengers?”
“Yeah! Bike messengers! A bike messenger ran into a woman. Killed her. Here. So they’re making us write these. We got the supervisor here and everything…”
At this point the pissed-off crew cut handed me the summons and he and the bathtub took off after a pedicab that had lumbered into their honeypot and was now trying to peddle away.
“You can go to court earlier, when it’s convenient for you” suggested the dumpster, hiking up his sagging pants, “just wait a couple of weeks, give’em a chance to put the summons in the system.”
I waited four weeks, showed up 9am. The summons was not in the system.
Anyway, Monday, 9:45, eight weeks after the summons was issued, I chain my bicycle outside the courthouse, my defense in my mind:
“Your honor, the signs prohibiting bike riding in this square are not in plain view and not easily visible. Not only are they small, they are located 20 feet from the entrance, angled away from the entrance. So unless one knows to look for them one is unlikely to see them, especially while riding a bicycle, especially at night.”
“Mr. Zvonkov,” sighs the judge, “you’ve been riding a bicycle in New York City for many years, have you not? You shouldn’t need to read a sign to know that riding on pedestrian paths is illegal.”
“If I may, your highness, firstly, there is a question as to whether or not the area inside the square would automatically qualify as a pedestrian path. Secondly, were this a blanket prohibition that applied to all pedestrian paths, that would be one thing. But it isn’t. Riverside Park, for example, has no prohibitions on bicycle riding anywhere. In addition, I’d like to point out that in Central Park, where bicycle riding on paths is prohibited, there are big orange cones placed in the middle of said paths with signs on them that are impossible to miss. If the City had truly wanted to stop bicyclists from riding through the square on Columbus Circle the first thing they would have done was put up clearly visible signs. The fact that instead they put policemen there for a day or two to write summonses suggests that the City is more interested in handing out summonses than it is in preventing old women from being run over by bike messengers!”
Judge: “Hum…Humm…What can I say Mr. Zvonkov, I take your point. Case dismissed!” bangs the gavel. “Mr. Zvonkov, have you ever thought about becoming a lawyer? The legal profession could use a mind like yours…”  
 Monday, 9:45. I chain up my bike, enter the courthouse. A court cop tells me the courtroom is full, tells me to wait outside on the street until called. There is vague disdain in his face and his tone. On the street are a dozen black men--African, Caribbean; there are a couple of Arabs; four Hispanic women. I am the only white person. I lean against the scaffolding and read my New Yorker.
After 45 minutes a court cop comes out and starts reading names off a list. He reads quietly, so that one must be within a couple of feet of him to hear. We, the summoned, the innocent, surround him like children and lean in to listen. A dozen are granted admittance. My name is not on this list. I wait with the remnants. A half hour later he comes out again, reads my name.
X-ray machine. Metal detector. I am inside the courtroom. Wooden benches. Good hard antique wood. A sign above the judge reads “Community Court.”
The judge in his robe speed-mumbles from a memorized script like a priest.
“And do you understand that this is not a crime but a violation...” “And are you pleading guilty because you are in fact guilty…?” “You realize that by pleading guilty you forfeit the right to a trial…”
A tired middle-aged black man, the judge has an air not uncommon to members of his profession of someone subtly medicated rolling on autopilot.
The defendant, a little Hispanic man, has an interpreter, and stands at the lectern with her and his lawyer, his hands folded behind his back.
The only white defendants inside the courtroom are a girl, a big Eastern European dufus with a hangover, and a smaller Eastern European dufus with a hangover. The big dufus looks to be from the Balkans. The girl turns out to be Russian. That’s nice. I am glad to see my people making inroads into every strata of American society. By the looks of it there’s only one American-born defendant in the place—a little skinny black kid with a wooden pimp-cane, criminal pretensions, and a giant black watch studded with purple diamonds. He gets yelled at by a court cop—two of them trudge around like assistant deans at a junior high school assembly threatening to confiscate people’s cellphones.
“One day community service.” Bang. Next defendant.
“…not a crime…” “…are you pleading guilty because…” “…forfeit the right to a trial…” “”Is that a yes? You have to say yes…” “One day community service.”
“One day of community service.”
“One day community service.”
“Case dismissed.”
“Mandatory $120 processing fee and one day of community service.”
The big dufus: “One day community service.”
The Russian girl: “One day…”
The prosecutor is a serious-looking 28-year-old of Indian heritage—tall, ambitious, with unblemished light skin. He requests a $2000 bond for a small-time street hustler who obviously doesn’t have it. Two grand. And why not? What’s a few months at Rikers to a prosecutor?
But the public defender is having none of it. A girl in her 20’s, she actually believes she’s in court. She makes her arguments—improper search, her client hasn’t had an arrest in 5 years, showed up to court on his own, etc. She’s one of three public defenders—two girls and a man. Both girls are enthusiastic and earnest. The man, in his 50s, is trim, tan, with an exceptional head of wavy salt-and-pepper hair and a manicured beard. He wears a burgundy shirt under his jacket, owns a coffee table book about cognac, and is considering buying a red Mazda Miata. When scanning the gallery his expression radiates a subtle cynical smugness; facing the court he’s an obliging bureaucrat. I pity the defendants who draw him.
With the hustler the judge is suddenly alert and judicial. He rules in favor of the defense and the young man is released on his own recognizance. Then it’s back to the script:  
“One day community service.”
“Case dismissed.”
“One day community service.”
“Mandatory $120 processing fee and one day of community service.”
“One day of community service.”
The violations: riding a pedicab on a pedestrian path; selling stuff on the street without a permit; trespassing in a park after hours; creating a public disturbance; using the Port Authority Bus Terminal toilet without buying a bus ticket. All the defendants clasp their hands behind their backs when they come up to the lectern. Do they know something I don’t? Was this in the instructions?
“One day of community service.”
For a moment my stomach feels empty and cold. Will this be my fate? A day of community service? Like that tall, skinny tranny I'd noticed taking trash out of the courthouse? That seemed an odd job for a tranny, taking out garbage. Now it occurs  to me--that was her community service! Am I now to share tranny’s fate? And am I going to have to wear that ridiculous green fluorescent vest with the word “courthouse” on it that she was wearing—a mandatory accessory I’m sure, for safety reasons, so the violators don’t get run over—why else would a tranny wear such a hideous thing? In a society fashioned by lawyers considerations of dignity aren’t high on the list. Am I to be humiliated in this way? Get a hold of yourself! That’s ridiculous. For riding my bike through that square? That’s insane! Just calm down.
Burgundy shirt calls out my name, approaches me. He is to be my defender. My vigorous representation.
“Well, I’ll try and get it dismissed but most likely you’ll have to watch a video.”
“A video?”
“Yeah. It’s about an hour long.” Checks his watch. “It’s too late today. You’ll have to come back here…”
“Look, the signs that prohibit bikes, they’re very small, they’re very far away from the entrance…”
“You can go to trial with that if you want, but who knows what will happen.”
“This isn’t the trial?”
“No. If you go to trial they have to call the officer who issued the summons…”
“I’m not disputing that I rode…”
“You can go to trial if you want. You can go to trial if you want, and who knows. Or you can watch the video…”
“This is absurd.”
“It’s a quality of life offence, so, you know…” he says with a patronizing grin.
“Quality of life?”
“Think about what you want to do.”
Burgundy shirt goes to advise other clients. One of them was apparently summoned for trespassing at Grand Central Station. The summons claims he was in a restricted area. He tries to explain to burgundy shirt that the area wasn’t clearly marked off, and in fact that it was not restricted, and that the officer had made a mistake. Burgundy doesn’t want to hear this. He snaps at his client: “Fine, go to trial!”
Now I see why they’re all pleading guilty. There’s no choice. You either waste a day taking out the court’s garbage, or you waste that day going to trial, and possibly more days depending on the verdict, all because some crew cut, rightly or wrongly, decided to write you a summons. It’s a scam. But being that it is a scam perpetrated not by one scheming mind but by a bureaucracy, bureaucracy is the only entity that sees any profit, which comes in the form of more bureaucracy.
One of the court cops gives a nod to the other, and the two of them get behind a black man in a yellow leather jacket who stands with his hands clasped behind his back at the lectern.
“Five days…” orders the judge. The cops handcuff the man and take him through a door at the rear of the courtroom that leads deeper into the building.
“Dmitry Zvon…kov.”
I walk up to the lectern with my bag in one hand. I resist the impulse to clasp my hands behind my back and keep them at my sides.
The judge vacates my warrant. Then he looks at a photocopy of the summons, trying to read it. He turns it one way, then another, squints his eyes, screws up his face, moves it close to his face, then away, turns it this way and that, then looks up.
“Case dismissed.” Bang.
I say nothing to burgundy shirt; I walk out of the courtroom. I walk past the court cops. I am outside. My bike is still there. I get on my bike, ride up 8th. It’s not even one yet. The whole day is mine. It’s summer. I’m happy. No quality of life videos. No picking up garbage with trannies. I’m free. I have…I have…Wait a minute. I get off my bike. I look down. A flat tire.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

NETFLIX, What the Fuck, Assholes?

Bored to tears at work, I decided to write an open letter to Netflix, those bastards!

Dear Fuckheads,

You used to have a legitimate 5 star rating system that made reasonably accurate predictions regarding how much I would like a movie based on how I rated other films. Then one day you went and added 1.5 to 2 stars to every fucking selection you have. Do you think now that you've given LORD OF WAR 4 stars and ROAD HOUSE 5 that I'm suddenly going to be more impressed with your streaming collection? ASSHOLES?

I used to be able to select a movie and read the info about it before playing it. Now just the act of selecting it plays the movie. I don't need you shitheads nudging me to watch this or that. I KNOW BETTER THAN YOU WHAT I WANT TO SEE!

As soon as the end credits roll you minimize them so you can offer me more of your stinking selections. FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING SCUMSUCKING SHITEATERS! A movie starts when it starts and ends when it ends, not when you shithead scumbags decide that it does. STOP INTERRUPTING MY FUCKING MOVIE THAT I AM PAYING YOU TO WATCH! I ALREADY SUBSCRIBE TO YOUR FUCKING SERVICE! I DON'T NEED YOU ADVERTISING YOUR SHIT TO ME AND CONTROLLING HOW I WATCH MY FUCKING MOVIES!!!

I realize, you frightened little maggots, that your reasons for doing all this (including removing the stars from the passive movie displays, so that one needs to hover over or select a movie to see how many stars it has...which doesn't really matter now anyway since you screwed up your whole ratings system) is to create the impression that you have an awesome streaming collection. If these pathetic ploys work at all it is only on morons. Complete morons! For everyone else they diminish the viewing experience and, consequently, the Netflix experience. Broadly speaking, Netflix, you went from a movie service with integrity to one that makes the user feel like he's at a time-share seminar. Please, STOP THE BULLSHIT! For now, despite your vulgar practices and limited streaming and DVD collections, you're the best service around. But you won't be forever. And I for one can't wait to give my $7.95 a month to someone else.

Dmitry Zvonkov,
soon-to-be former customer  

Monday, August 31, 2015


High, I leave the house. When locking the front door I check to make sure I am wearing pants. I am. I dream of a halal plate: lamb, warm bread, over salad, covered with white sauce. A lot of white sauce. More white sauce. I walk up Columbus. I am in a different plane than the people. They are standing still even as they’re walking. It is I who am moving past them. More white sauce.

I do not see the halal stand on 97th street. It’s Sunday. I did not see it there last Sunday either. I go down 96th towards Broadway. There is another guy there, on Broadway and 96th. He is always there. 96th street between Columbus and Amsterdam is empty and endless. All there are on that street are bus stops. Bus stops and parked cars. I consider turning back. I keep walking. I walk into a scaffolding tunnel. Three Italian tourists are walking towards me through the tunnel. I turn sideways to let them pass. After they pass I reflect on how awkward that movement was, my turning sideways, and decide not to do it again. I decide to stay away from people altogether.

Amsterdam. Green light. I cross. This was the right decision. I brush past a fichus on the sidewalk. The fichus does not apologize. Neither do I. As I near the corner of Broadway and 96th I see that I do not see the stand. As I get closer I still do not see it. He’s not here, I think to myself. It’s Sunday, of course he’s not here, I think to myself. I get to the corner and look. He is not here. There is a McDonald’s across the street. There is also another halal place just past the McDonald’s, and that one I know is there. But I do not want halal. I want a Filet-o-Fish sandwich.

I walk into the McDonald’s. I approach the counter. I ask, Do you still have that special with the Filet-o-Fish and a small fries for $3? Yes, he says. One? He says. Four, I say. $13. I wait. There is a young Russian couple with a young boy there. They are tourists, from Russia. The young father’s English is proper, learned in school and learned well, exercised in professional settings. The boy can’t decide if he wants the green toy or the yellow toy in his Happy Meal. But his parents feel no discomfort at his indecision. They are not intimidated by the dark-skinned McDonald’s staff or by the dark-skinned Americans all around them, yet they are not disdainful of them either. They are not afraid to ask for what they want. Yet they are polite and not at all rude or vulgar. They do not have the scent of chronic shame. They talk to their child. They take his wishes seriously, yet they do not spoil him. They are not impatient as the boy decides, they are not self-conscious. They are hip, modern, savvy Russians. Liberals. Intellectuals. They have money but are not ostentatious, dressed very casually, almost like European backpackers. I have never seen Russians like this. Maybe Russia is… My Filet-o-Fish slide down to the counter. Two blue boxes. Then two more. The fry cook breaks up the french-fries to stuff them into the small paper purses. Two. Four. Can I get four packets of tartar sauce please? I wait. A young black man brings me a small water cup half-filled with tartar sauce. I look him in the eyes and thank him. He seems surprised by this. I walk home.

I carry both bags in my left hand. This walk is quicker. I cross the street and see on the sidewalk a big squashed cockroach. I had seen it earlier, on a previous excursion. I should have crossed the street later so as not to see it a second time, I think to myself. Basement. Elevator. 4. My keys are in the door and I have run into no one. I am safe. My apartment is cool--I'd left the air conditioning on. I notice my left wrist is cramped from holding the McDonald’s bags. I reflect on the fact that I always hold things too tightly.

Mayonnaise. Ketchup. Tartar sauce. Fries. 4 Filet-o-Fish sandwiches. The Godfather. I notice that I do not notice that my hand is cramped anymore. My hand is not cramped anymore. I watch the movie. I eat the 4 sandwiches. This is what the experience of eating 4 Filet-o-Fish sandwiches looks like plotted on a graph:

And at 10,000 miles per hour Voyager 1 speeds out in search of the heliopause.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Good English Name
by Dmitry Zvonkov
Faye Fleming, 
what a good 
English name, 
sturdy yet elegant,
it makes the centuries 
transparent--there's a
bold and well-dressed ancestor
in the bloom of his years, 
shaking hands with Vermeer; 
there's another one
in a white uniform
through Calcutta 
with Kipling. 
Good taste and manners are in the fibers 
of the 
As is adventure and
the charming, 
arrogance of 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


Someone left her vagina at my place.
I woke up from a three day drunk,
saw it,
on the floor,
hairy and fleshy,
wedged between my mattress and armchair.
First thought it was a cuttlefish mounting
an urchin
Or a cow tongue
that some Russian forgot months ago 
(I hadn’t entertained in a while)
But it was just a vagina.

It was cocooned in a web of dust,
dust was in the hair, on the lips.
I inspected it, tapped on the clit.
It wetted and opened

They say all vaginas are different
but I could not tell whose this was.
And you start calling girls
asking if they’ve left their vaginas at your place
you might hurt someone’s feelings.

At least narrow it down...
Who did I know who would
Not have missed her vagina in months?
I tried Cheryl
“Cheryl? Dmitry. Do you still have your cunt?”
“Same old Dmitry.  Please don’t call me again.”
“You saw it was me, you didn’t have to pick up...”
She hung up.

I tried another girl.
A drycleaner answered.

Then I telephoned Diamond.

“It’s about fucking time! I just wanted to see
how long it would take you
to realize that I wasn’t there.
That my mind wasn’t there
that my soul wasn’t there!
Did you even miss me?
You are one selfish asshole.
You just care about my pussy. You don’t care about me.
I know you’ve been fucking it all this time.
Or should I say jerking off into it!
Did you even notice that I wasn’t there?
No, you noticed, you just didn’t give a shit!
I’m calling your mother.
I’m calling the cops!”
“Why the cops?”
“You’ve been fucking my pussy
without my consent...”

“I just found it this morning, I swear.”

“...Did you even bother to clean it?
It’s probably all full of semen
all dripping with semen
sour semen
cigarette stinking meat semen
three months’ worth of old yellow semen!”

She said she’d be over
in half an hour to pick it up.
Then hung up.

I cupped her cunt in both hands,
brought it into the bathroom.
I washed it, trimmed the hairs how she liked it
dried it with a soft cotton towel
placed a pillow on my armchair,
placed her cunt on the pillow.

She banged on the door.

“Well, where is it?”
I pointed.
She picked it up. Turned it over
and sideways. Stuck her fingers inside.
“Big deal, so you washed it. I know
what you've been doing.”

“Look, Diamond, I just saw it this morning.
I washed it because it was dusty.”

“This morning? Whatever.
Do you have any wine? Some white wine?
Oh, that’s right, I forgot, yeah, you only drink beer.
Fine, just give me a beer,” she said,
making room for herself on the couch.

“Darling, I’m actually busy at the moment.”

Her eyes opened wide, her mouth parted
she’d been punched in the gut
half standing, half sitting
holding her vagina in one hand,
her bag in the other.
“I have to meet my dad for coffee," she said.
"Do you mind holding on to it
and I’ll pick it up later?”
“No baby, I’m sorry.”

She called me an asshole and left.

I twisted open a beer, lit a cigarette
sank into my armchair.

I wished Diamond well,
the way only an indifferent lover can do. 
She was not a bad girl.
And she loved me.
Who could blame her for that?  

But I couldn’t have fucked her cunt even
if I’d wanted to.
A while back I’d dropped all my tackle
into this Albanian’s purse while she
wasn't looking, and now I was
waiting for her
to find it

Friday, May 2, 2014



Two Russians are sitting at table. One is reading aloud an interview that Tom Waits gave, which has been translated recently by a bilingual hack into Russian and printed as part of some collection. The Russian reading loves everything Tom Waits is saying. The Russian listening doesn’t like it. Who is right?

THE ANSWER: They are both wrong.

THE EXPLANATION: Although Tom Waits is a great artist, his answers to the interview questions are more clever than truthful, and a little too pat; the interview sounds like something one would see in a 1970’s film about an auteur. So what the first Russian is so impressed by, Waits’s sharp replies, amounts to little more than a parlor trick. Also, the questionable translation often emphasizes the wrong things. So what’s being read is not the actual interview but its reflection in a funhouse mirror, a reflection which also creates the illusion that something more is behind the words than there is.

The reason the second Russian is wrong is that he doesn’t like anything Tom Waits does, period. So even if he was listening to a Waits masterpiece he still would not like it.

WHERE AM I IN ALL THIS? I’m sitting in the middle trying to explain to these two their folly. But it’s difficult to get across the fine nuances of my argument after too much vodka has been drunk for anyone to stay quiet for the length of time I need to get my point across. All they want to know is the bottom line – whose side am I on? That's not true. They don't care. In fact, they’re not even listening.

THE SOLUTION: The liquor store closes in less than an hour and we’d better go there now if we want to continue enjoying each other’s company. And don’t forget to buy cigarettes. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


An Odd Tale

She took the stage like a great solo violinist, striding on long, well-toned legs, her open white smock flowing behind her. She was high-stung, taut as a bow, long neck, long nose, wavy blond hair that just reached her shoulders, big eyes shaped like teardrops, which gave her the appearance of someone preoccupied with weighty matters for which there were no moral solutions. She had the bearing of one descended from royalty. Her beauty was deep and arresting, but it was not warm. She gave the impression of someone in complete control who was profoundly lost.
She commanded the stage, indicating to the projection on the screen with her pointer.
“We can see in this early footage....I should say we can hear in this footage....he started out as a football announcer, even though he knew nothing about football. Notice the familiar nasal quality to his voice, which was recognizable even then, combined with what sounds like an affectation, can you hear it? It’s as though he’s trying to imitate his idea of what an announcer should sound like....and as if he’s mocking it just a little. No doubt we all recognize that voice. And that’s him, obviously, sitting at a folding table on the sidelines. You can see the women selling sweaters it looks like at other tables. The game going on in the background. This was obviously very early in his career. From football he went on to host a morning show. Then he began inviting women to his studio and forcing them to strip on his radio show, making them perform lewd and lascivious acts on one another, on random individuals, humiliating these women in front of a vast radio audience, women who lacked not only self-respect but intelligence, and consequently were unable to grasp the full ramifications of what they were doing.
“When I opened his head and removed his brain – which turned out to be quite small, I could hold it in the palm of my hand – I discovered that it was made of that sticky translucent pinkish-purple rubber often associated with various children’s toys, such as those octopi that you fling at a wall and watch it tumble down grasping the wall. My son used to have one. But the real discovery was the little frogs made of play dough that I found wedged in the sulci of his brains. They were in an array of bright play dough colors – yellow, red, green, blue, purple, etc. – wedged in the sulci or fissures throughout his brain. The frogs were about the size of one phalange of a pinky finger. But despite being wedged in there, fortunately for us, and for him, the play dough frogs were all perfectly intact; they were not squished or otherwise deformed by the pressure of the rubber as one might expect. For this reason I was able to carefully pluck them out with chopsticks. There was a surprising number of them, as even when I thought I’d removed all of them from the bottom of his brain, after which I turned the brain over and removed all the ones from the top, when I then checked the bottom once more I found still more of them there. I don’t know if I’d missed them the first time around or if new ones had appeared, which I thought would have been strange in that short a time span. We did not know why this was happening but eventually I did manage to pluck out all the frogs and reinsert his brain into his head. Now he’s back to being a very successful radio personality, and he has not exhibited any disturbing symptoms. In laymen’s terms he’s cured, he’s normal.”

She was pretty but plain, and poor; good people but poor, as they say. She had only one dress – gray and formless and made of rough cotton – and she kept to herself, the way gentle, poor girls sometimes do. She was smart but her intelligence wasn’t useful; she was not at all cunning. She had games that she played with herself and she shared them with make-believe friends. She had straight black hair to her neck and an old pair of sandals. And she had a kind heart, a big heart, but she was quiet and did not imagine she was entitled to joy.
            She was afraid of him when he called to her from the mound by the railroad tracks, but now she was in love. The young man was unlike anyone she knew. Although she was not acquainted with too many people, she knew that he was unique. Had she had access to society she would have found him all the more so. He was odd but not on purpose. Everything he did, every glance, every gesture, was electric, explosive, like a small work of art. When he sat he would sit in a ball. He would leap, hop and climb instead of walking; but when he walked he moved like a dancer. Not that he was completely at the mercy of his eccentricities, he could behave conventionally if need be; his bearing suggested he could make small talk with beggars and kings with equal ease. He seemed to have mastered this skill long ago, as a child, perhaps even before – there was nobility to him. But all that stuff bored him now and he had as much interest in being charming as a virtuoso violinist has in teaching the instrument to tone-deaf six-year-olds.
His straight black hair he wore like a helmet. He was dashing and sexy, like a magnificent, mythical bird. And she felt like an ant on the earth. Yet he chose her. He would see her all day, every day, and would paint her in the abandoned old hangar (in fact she did not know what he was painting, he never showed her, but she stood where he told her to stand, stood there many hours at a time in her sandals and coarse cotton dress). The dark, dirty hangar filled with color as soon as he’d enter. But he also brought darkness, from his black eyes and his black leather jacket. She wasn’t afraid of being physically harmed; if he’d wanted to hurt her she’d let him. She was afraid of the door to him closing, of him walking away, of him not coming back. His painting notwithstanding, he was an artist in everything he did; whatever he touched he made beautiful, and this was so far from her world. She knew that what she saw of him was a tiny fragment, that beyond it was a vast, swirling universe she could not understand, a labyrinth, beautiful and frightening, before which she was a speck in the wind. Perhaps he was playing with her. She didn’t know what he wanted from her. But these meetings were all that she had. They became her whole life. She expected that for him they were trifles. But she did not care. As for being with him, being his, she did not dare even to fantasize about such a thing. And when such reveries would scrape at the door of her mind she would chase them away.
The painting was done and he showed it to her. It was a portrait of a girl rendered with rich, brilliant colors, her face luminescent with transportive joy, her glorious smile lighting up the whole hangar. It was clearly supposed to be her, thought the girl, though it looked nothing like her. But the painting’s astonishing beauty and her love for the boy made her smile, made her glow. And at that moment she caught her reflection in a mirror shard on the ground and she suddenly saw that the girl in the painting was her!
She looked at him and saw he was pleased, more than that, he was happy, not smirking like always. He looked open, like a little boy. Her lungs swelled with joy. No, he was truly happy as he looked at her, and for the first time she felt free to be with him. And she knew, she still knew he would probably leave, maybe even quite soon, maybe after one night. She knew he did not love her the way she loved him, she knew they were not nearly equal. But she felt at that moment, unlike ever before, that she now had the right to be with him, the right to accept what he offered – not demand, she did not have the right to do that – but accept. Nobody had the right to demand anything from him. He was not of this world. He was an event, a miracle, he was an ecstatic moment. And now, seeing her portrait, she turned into that girl in the painting, that girl in a colorful dress, filled with infinite joy. He gave her his hand and she took it and they skated like light beams through caverns and forests and white marble ballrooms and clear emerald seas.
            “This is not going to work,” his mother told him. “It’s unacceptable. Her essence is different from ours. She is plain. You are unwell. I need to look at your brain. She is downstairs or somewhere, who knows, she is waiting. I’ll have someone escort her out. She’s from a dull, unremarkable world.”
            He must have come out to see her, to tell her to go, to tell her he’d see her at home, to tell her he needed to speak with his mother. For how long did he say? For an hour? Or maybe a day? It’s not clear if he knew what would happen. He knew and he did not know, she thought later on when she remembered his face in those moments. She saw him through the half-open doorway, he was deep in the grand oaken hall, listening to his mother – she could hear the words echo but couldn’t make out what they were. She could not see his mother, her view blocked by the door. He turned in her direction and he had a vague smile. Was his smile resignation? Or longing? Was it sadness? Or pity? What was clear was that regardless of what, if anything, he truly wanted, or, let’s say, regardless of what he wanted more, he could not resist what was happening to him. She saw he was only a boy and in his smile was inevitability.
            She was taken to the street, passing a man whose pompous, nasally voice seemed familiar. “My time isn’t free,” he was saying. She was taken to the street but she found her way back. She entered the operating theater just as the boy’s mother removed the top of his head and took out his brain.
            “You see,” she showed the girl, undisturbed by her presence, “you see that?”
            The colorful frogs were all smooshed in the crevices of his brain. One could barely tell they had ever been frogs at all. They just looked like squashed colorful patches of play dough.
            “You see,” his mother said, showing the girl his brain, “I can’t save it. It’s all stuck together, I can’t pick out the frogs. I can’t cut them out, I’d be cutting good parts of his brain with the frogs. They’ve meshed into his brain.”
            The girl’s dress was gray once again and she sat on a bench by the wall and she quietly watched knowing she no longer had a right to his world. And she watched, or not so much watched as just sat there, as his mother cut out what little uncontaminated pieces she could of his brain and integrated them into the brain of the radio announcer. Then she took the announcer’s brain, now with parts of her son’s brains attached, and put it into her son’s head.
            The girl stood on the street as the cars pulled away.
The young man, he went on to be very successful. He still had the power of effortless charm and charisma, and rooms of beautiful people gravitated towards him at cocktail parties and at work he elicited great admiration and a good deal of envy from even his most serious colleagues. His mother was pleased, or as pleased as she could be. The announcer, well, nobody missed him.
            The girl made her way through the trees, and down roads in the dusk light. She felt terrible anguish, for a long time it tore her to pieces. But it passed. And she was still poor, with only one dress and one old pair of sandals, but she was no longer embarrassed to smile.

November 2013