Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Starbucks Stalin buff

After 90 minutes in Union Square and an hour stay in the Strand bookstore today, I went with my visiting parents to a nearby Starbucks.

The place was packed at 3:30 in the afternoon, as people still apparently aren't over this Starbucks fad. I eventually found a small, round table near the back, just below an exit, and we settled in for what would likely be a half-hour stay or so, a chance to recuperate from a long day on our feet. My dad mentioned that in Strand he'd seen a couple of interesting books on Stalin. We talked a bit about the dictator and his dirty deeds. The conversation sparked a memory of a superb novel I recently read called Child 44.

Set in Stalin's Russia, the book centers on an officer pursuing a serial killer, despite the best efforts of the government to cover up the fact there is someone killing children. It's a great read, if extremely depressing, and shines a light on that time and that place, even if it's not a history book.

As the conversation ended, a man standing on the walkway above us said, "I couldn't help but overhear your conversation about Stalin. I've got a great book for you to read."

Great. A friendly New Yorker, offering book advice. He'll give us the name, then return to his coffee. He started talking again.

Ten minutes later, I was searching for a way for us to escape. The only words I'd said the entire time since he began talking were, "Uh, huh. Wow. Yeah" and, "I know." After a minute or two it became obvious that the guy - middle-aged, glasses, Yankees cap - was a bit off. He was extremely nice, but gave off the vibe that he might have previously spent some time on a corner or a subway loudly talking about God and conspiracy theories. Now he talked slowly, and deliberately, sometimes struggling to find the right word.

We never did get the book title that started his side of the conversation. But that didn't matter. Whatever troubles he has operating smoothly in society, the man had brains. And he was a man who had obviously read a lot of books. And he had passion for his subject.

He took us through much of Stalin's history, as my parents sipped their coffees and politely offered their ears for his lecture. Stalin killed Lenin, this guy believes, most likely with a mushroom that's readily available in Russia. Stalin probably used a pharmacist ally of his, and even though countless people said it wasn't murder, it probably was. Stalin surrounded himself with people who were willing to kill anyone, whether it was citizens of any age or his own advisers. These people would kill without thought or mercy, and it's amazing Stalin had that type of power over people.

The guy was a buff. Of Soviet history. Of Stalin. And Lenin. Of medicine. He had fascinating information, even if the delivery dulled the effect.

Being that there were two-and-a-half Minnesotans sitting at the table, no one had the gumption to interrupt the dissertation. If we had let him, he'd probably still be talking, and by this time - nearly 1:30 in the morning - he'd be into Gobachev's reign and glasnost. By 6 a.m., maybe he would have gotten to Putin.

Eventually I put my sweatshirt on, hoping he might take it as a hint that we were getting ready to leave. His ensuing comments on the way Stalin used concentration camps indicated he didn't pick up on the sign. Finally I said to my parents, "We should probably get going," and we started to leave. I thanked him for the information and he went one way as we left another.

Out on the street, a tough-looking guy who appeared to be homeless, yelled out, "Hey, Freddy!" Freddy stood a few foot in front of us. It was our guide through the dark years of Stalin's ruthless reign. Freddy's face lit up as he greeted his friend.

I don't know what Freddy and the other guy talk about during their long days in Manhattan. For all I know they do talk about politics and the past. Maybe his friend is as captive an audience as we were. But if they don't talk about those things, and instead focus perhaps on their neverending struggles, I'm glad we were there to listen to him today.

Imagine being a street smart and book smart person, a guy who's probably read thousands of books. Your mind is filled with knowledge and perspectives on some of the most important events in the world's history. But the only people you get to spend a lot of time with aren't interested in your theories about Lenin's death. And even if they are, they might get sick after the 100th telling of the same story delivered in the same monotone voice. There's no outlet for your knowledge.

For ten minutes at least, Freddy had a new audience. But he gave as much as he got out of it. He did have an encyclopedic knowledge of a subject that does interest me. He taught me some tidbits I'd never heard before. Like all good teachers, he inspired. Back home tonight, I looked up some information on Stalin and Russia.

There are countless Freddy's throughout the country. But New York is probably one of the few places where he can bring a little Stalin to a Starbucks and deliver his lines to people who are willing to listen, if not as eager by the end of the discussion.

Wherever Freddy is tonight, I hope he has a captive audience. Even if it's just for 10 minutes.

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