I wouldn't call it writer's block; and I can't really blame it on the winter blah's because I'm actually feeling quite well. That's the problem, really. Improved lifestyle and nutrition have brought the reasonable and tranquil Dr. Jekyll back to my home. My secret fear is that the volatile Mr. Hyde is the one who has been writing my novels and blogs, all along. Right now he's nowhere to be found.
Not that I particularly mind. He is that dissonant modulation of myself: the inspired, driven, creative, tormented, imperious, maniacal fiend who actually gets stuff done. Dr. Jekyll, on the other hand, is that kindly eccentric who cranks up the heat in the study, settles into his recliner and reads to the kids for hours on end -- or tells demented tales over tea, to lift the spirits of despondent friends.
And it such a tale that I will tell you now. A tale of how I made the Russians smile.
In the late 90's, I worked as a temp in a huge medical supply warehouse. I began as a stocker, and gradually assumed certain custodial duties, along with stock reclamation, and eventually maintenance. It remains the only job I've ever had where management was so quick to overlook my errors and continually praise my efforts. I felt like Joseph in Egypt.
Oddly, I was put in charge of things that temps were strictly forbidden to even dream of doing: operating a scissor-lift; Building flow racks alone in another building, while using said scissor lift; supervising temp crews; maintaining the 2000 lb batteries for the forklift fleet; managing the mentally handicapped janitor; and the list goes on.
The workforce was diverse. The receiving dock was dominated by Filipinos, a surly Jamaican woman, and a good-humored Nigerian prince. Pick/Pack boasted, in addition to locals, a substantial contingent of Russians from all over the republics, a pair of Hindi women, and three Seventh Day Adventists from Ecuador. I fell in with this last group, being that I spoke some Spanish, liked to laugh, and observed a Saturday Sabbath.
The Russians puzzled me. I watched them pulling their big picking carts through the wide aisles, glaring down at their clipboards. They seemed so sad. They never smiled. They just trudged gloomily along, day after day.
One morning, I couldn't stand their collective depression any longer. I approached Ulyana, a plump Ukranian in her thirties, and introduced myself. I asked her how to say "How are you."
"Kak pozhivaesh!" she replied.
"And the answer, if I'm well?"
I repeated my new vocabulary several times.
"You speak good Russian." she beamed. "Come back. I teach you more."
I said "Kak pozhivaesh?" to every Russian I passed that day. Their faces lit up
as they replied ""Harashoa!"
I left my rolling recycle bin and detoured into the break-room, where I knew sour old Ludmila would have her hawk-nose buried in a newspaper. I sat down across from her and demanded sternly: "Ludmila! Kak pozhivaesh?"
"Harashoa!" she snarled. She dropped her paper low enough to see me. "You speak good Russian. Who learn you?"
"You learn more!" she commanded, snapping the newspaper taut again.
I was astonished at the transformation wrought by those three Russian words.
To illustrate the effect: one day I was trundling down the main aisle, carrying two large unwieldy boxes to the recycle cart. Just ahead, Ulyana bent over to pick something up. I tried to sidestep, but one box smacked her squarely on her broad tuchus. She stood straight up, with a look of wide-eyed shock.
"Oh, Ulyana!" I cried. "Izvaneetya! Prasteetya!"
Her stark expression suddenly melted into one of near euphoria. "Ohhh!" she cooed, passionately. "Such good Russian!"
My new friends taught me more of their language. They shared their stories. I learned where they were from: Belarus, Tajikistan, Moldova. I made simple jokes. They laughed. They doted on me. And best of all: they smiled.
Shortly after I started working in Maintenance, Yosef transferred to our department. He was a stout fellow in his fifties, with thick features and gray hair. He'd been a maintenance man in his Moldova, and felt that his skills and his English were languishing in the packing department. I had just finished my product reclamation patrol and returned to the "cage" when I was cornered by the full-time maintenance men, Lon and Gary.
"Big Lon" towered over us at six feet, six inches. Gary, stood not more than five feet tall. They were like like Mutt and Jeff from the boondocks of western Indiana.
"Andrew, you gotta help bridge this language gap, here." said Lon.
"Why, what's the problem."
"Well," said Gary, "this Yosef character is kinda...strange. He came into the cage first thing this morning, and told me he 'very much like prophylactic.'"
"Ahhh, prophylactic means prevention," I said. "He was trying to tell you that he is big on preventative maintenance."
"Ohhh. I thought he wanted something else!" he said, much relieved.
Yoseph, likewise, collared me that day and lamented "André, this Gary is very strange little man. I tell him I very much like prophylactic, and he look at me like I ask for condom!"
In the course of time, Yosef and I found ourselves twenty-five feet up, on the scissor-lift, working on a flow rack.
"André look!" said my comrade, pointing out cases of toothpaste, and reading their labels. "Dental Prophylaxis Paste!"
"That's right, Yoseph." I confirmed. "You brush your teeth with that, and you will NOT get pregnant!"
His heavy brow rumpled up and a smile spread across his face. He wagged a finger in the air and said with a wheezy laugh, "Oh! André, this is very good joke!"
I found that punning was the best way to illustrate the intricacies and pitfalls of English for Yoseph. He'd say something, I'd make a pun on it, he'd say "No, André, I said..." Then I'd interrupt and explain the words. Then, as always, he'd furrow his brow, wag his finger and declare it was a very good joke.
Someone once said "a kind word in a foreign tongue builds a bridge a lifetime long." I would agree, adding a smile, to it, too. The good will released by those few, kind words I learned from Ulyana built a bridge of friendship, learning, and understanding which spanned the gulf of our daily toil. By the time my warehouse assignment ended, even Ludmila was smiling as she came through the door each morning, greeting me, first.