The Town Within The Town

Government Palace in Victoriei Sq.
a fragment from the novel Derapaj (Skid), Iaşi, Polirom 2006 Maria’s life glowed with a murky sort of splendor, her past, though committed to oblivion, constantly closing in on her and obscuring her thoughts like the spots of a solar eclipse. She’d never tell me all about her parents, nor about the lovers strewn over years and streets, yet she’d deliberately drop the odd diary page all over the house for me to find and peruse. I’d extricate from there half truths mingled with accurate confabulations which my mind was apt to pursue and build on with feverish vagueness. The scenes would dissolve into the contradictory acid paste of sentiment, only to recompose themselves as actual shapes and bodies brimming with the moment’s emotion: the nose of the Boeing taking off Otopeni airport with Mother’s luggage and the hologram of a memory; the hot wax dripping onto her neck and shoulders from a candle while the black-haired, dark-skinned man ruthlessly humped her; the knife on another man’s bedside table; the pair of black boots a la Depeche Mode, thick soled and iron capped; the ice-cold snow behind the Three Firs chalet experienced on the bare bum; the trams down Bucureştii Noi neighborhood scissoring through the morning air in crab-like fashion; the gardens of Pajura, rank with roses, pumpkins and sunflowers; the quotidian brown of block 66; the rows going on in the kitchen, wafting in on flavors of pepper and tarragon; the upholstered scream-proof door to Father’s bedroom lingering on the retina as nothing but an immense cherry-red stain; the politician kids’ cars waiting for her at the street corner; the silvery Chinese balls, discovered in a drawer somewhere in a villa in Primăverii Street; the parties out in Băneasa, music booming out loud, all lights turned off and not a vacant bed; the pressure of a hairy arm squeezing the veins in her neck at the height of exploding pleasure; the warmth of plum-brandy-reeking puke. That was the way things would float by, same as the people around her. It was all like Dostoyevsky’s novels, minus the faith. In more than one way, Maria’s family was not unlike my own mind: strong, torn apart, scattered over two continents. From somewhere in the area of the great American lakes, an energetic and authoritative mother issued orders and provided the money needed for survival on a monthly basis. I was surprised to figure out Maria’s destiny was not being shaped in the chambers of some mugwamp in Bucureştii Noi, nor on the back seat of the No 735 minibus, nor yet around the chromium bar of some posh disco. Decisions were being taken far away, where East Lansing merged with Farmington, in a shop that each and every soul within a 50-mile radius depended on for supplies. That was the control tower dictating the traffic of “Victoria Street” lingerie, Hershey bars, and rings sporting Swarovski crystals (or mere zirconium ones, depending on her university grades). The reunion of the inter-continental family, chocolate bars and wallets was impracticable as long as Maria did not graduate from university and, most important, did not get a job. That was the plot of the plan on the left half of the terrestrial and cerebral hemispheres. The other half was on watch in Pajura district, in a flat block complete with foot scraper at the entrance and a pair of neutered dogs dozing under the stairs. Domnul Dinu had taken charge of the second-floor flat, the block’s administration and the combined welfare of his daughter and the two dogs. The flat looked reasonably decent (for quite a while, Maria had avoided letting me see it), though slightly contrasting with her elegance and style, which she appeared to have brought along from an entirely different world. The three rooms came across as a tame and welcoming space; still the only one I really had a thing for was the one at the back: white, crisp, ascetic, a tiny single bed tucked into a corner and a Catholic crucifix on the wall. It was somewhat reassuring, one simply couldn’t imagine things going on in there (and was I stunned to figure out from Maria’s stories that it was exactly the other way round). We never did anything in that room, not as much as kiss. As for Domnul Dinu, he’d only enter it when granted permission, and only when Maria was at home. The block’s administration turned out to be an endeavor both complex and subtle. Possessed of remarkable foresight, Domnul Dinu had organized the community into a body dubbed the Blockateers’ Association, in charge of surveying the tables listing the current maintenance- gas-, water- and heating costs, securing compliance with the established code of conduct, and guarding on a rota basis the possessions of the neighbors living at stair flights A, B and C. The Blockateers also featured on an Internet site ( and would occasionally post informational materials on the bulletin board or in the national papers. That was only the tip of the iceberg, though. Gossip had it that each district, each stair flight, were teeming with Blockateers. Communist pensioners and pre-war builders alike had no inkling whom they were really pitted against. Worse still, weird rumors were being circulated all over town: to wit, the dudes were only seemingly dealing with codes of conduct and administrative issues; in actual fact they were into something altogether different. Come to think of it, you only had to use your eyes to start getting an idea of the kind of game they were playing. The Blockateers would deliberately cause mayhem, so that you couldn’t go about your business undisturbed: they’d unscrew the manhole covers off septic tanks, they’d pierce the gaskets, disconnect the cold-water pipes, remove the basement U-bends, puncture the hydrospheres, clog the drains, damage the conduit connections. They were bent on keeping you on your toes, no matter what, making sure you kept neurotically busy. Within one week of taking them on, you’d end up broken, jittery, pumped full of caffeine. The climax of your sufferings occurred in spring, when they were wont to dump their sauerkraut – decomposed to an ashen mass – into the sewers: the whole street was reeking with the stench of brine. Their connections were far-reaching to an unsuspected degree. Rumor had it they’d gone so far as to deploy the explosive devices on the Moscow-Tiflis pipeline at the height of winter: burning gas made quite a spectacular display in Georgia, orange clouds and all. The Blockateers did not operate single-handed. They were hand-in-glove with the City Hall, drawing and disseminating information, issuing reports. Mixed teams were rumored to have been sighted, flying low over the districts in helicopters; they were identifying vacant lots, then mapped the areas to be built upon. You felt watched, under survey, like in NASA’s Mapping the Earth program. Past the vacant lots, illegal garages and the areas around lakes and skating rinks, there was hardly an inch of space left uncovered. They’d made mince meat of Herăstrău Park , they’d divided the IOR Park into plots, The Bordei Gardens had been withdrawn from the public domain and returned to the heirs of their original owner, the Carol Park had been allotted to the Patriarchal Seat of the Orthodox Church and then sold for a fortune to investors. There was no way you could see the lakes, let alone set foot in the parks: the hedges allowed to grow extra high were concealing massive deforestation. Rumor had it another four tram depots had been detected at the last moment – among them the one next to my place: the first to be opened in Bucharest, back in 1920, taken over by the communists in 1949 and duly renamed “Ilie Pintilie” prior to being crammed with workers, welding platforms and stray dogs. The precious central plots were right beneath the melee of carriages and sheds; you had only to strip all that metal and brick in order to strike earth. As long as the idea occurred to you, that is. The depots were scheduled for demolition, the tracks and the platforms were waiting to be built over, the sheds were soon to be bulldozed. My depot was top of the list, since it stood bang in the centre, next to the Government building. It would have been a matter of simply pouring asphalt and bitumen all over the flattened oblong. The resulting space could have accommodated – they’d be spoiled for choice – a set of luxury condos, a Mall, or several office buildings of varying heights. There was big money at stake, to the tune of 50 million dollars, if not 70, according to different sources. And bang would go the trams, the gray stone wall (which the workers were scaling in pursuit of booze), the poplars going all the way back to the times of King Carol II and, to be sure, the stray dogs. The Mayor was shuffling chunks of city around, nice an’ easy, like Lego bricks: he’d dished out the Bordei Park to a crook and now he wanted it back in exchange for half of the Victoria depot. He’d squashed the Armenian Church under an office building, and right next to Saint Joseph’s, he’d granted planning permission for a modern, robot-like building, akin to the cyborg in Aviatorilor Square: 20 storeys, 75 meters high. Ironically enough, the project bore the name Cathedral Plaza. Rumor had it he would hide the Creţulescu church behind a sky scraper, to get that civilized look, New York style. Churches seemed to rub him up the wrong way: he’d slice off portions of garden and graced them with steel and glass fiber cubes. If he got something against you, he’d start building right under your feet. The center was in for an even worse plight. Three smaller squares were to be carved out of the Palace Square and duly filled with offices, park houses and shopping arcades. The stakes were breathtaking: you were watching the last open space of the city. Right in its middle, two 30-meter high towers were planned, obstructing the Athenaeum, the Royal Palace and the University Library. Monuments would have gone too, plinths and all: Brătianu, the pig iron tree, the “lollypop burger”. One blink and the scenery just vanished. That’s how each morning started, like a neurotic’s dream. Changes kept coming on a daily basis, memory simply couldn’t keep up with them, no one was able to record them. The city should have been abandoned, its inhabitants ought to have jumped city while there was time. What Ceauşescu had failed to accomplish, those guys were adding the finishing touch to. Bucharest was being shattered, it sustained a blow full over the head. People would disappear one by one, same as the buildings. The squares had long since ceased to exist, to say nothing of the vacant lots. If you were trying to show anyone the neighborhood where you’d grown up, you’d simply lose your way. Courtyards, gangways, distances between houses were all shrinking. Where they ran out of horizontal space, they’d make a dash for the vertical plan, outbidding the neighbor’s villa by five storeys. Concrete pumps were hard at work everywhere, filling in every inch of space. Streets were thick with the dust raised by tipper trucks; when it rained you felt like you were spending a weekend in the deep countryside. In place of the schools’ football grounds, some idiots had erected gym halls, of all things... The facilities were rented by the hour, for handsome sums, to companies. Where smaller districts came to an end, a large street swept into view out of nowhere. Buzeşti had to be razed, Basarab – expropriated, Curtea Veche – leased indefinitely (to Maria’s horror – she could see out of her window Negru Vodă’s church girded with aluminum). The city was shifted out of its place, obliterated, wiped out off the map of Europe. It ended up pushing against Ploieşti and Giurgiu, till you could no more tell where you were. All you could see were the excavators and the screens reading “METROPOLITAN AREA”, flooded by neon light. In summer the asphalt was shimmering in the rarefied air, as transparent as exhaust fumes. The operations were proceeding methodically, completed by an army of officials led by the Mayor: the man appeared to be a meek enough sort of guy, possessed of good intentions. Time was when he’d grown tomatoes at Videle. You had to be out of your mind to love it here, had to be cataleptic to stand the people around. First time I climbed the stairs to Maria’s block, a note Mr. Dinu denies until today having written was hanging by the door, words underscored in ballpoint pen, a note that even made it to the pages of the Evenimentul zilei daily: “A maniac, night after night after night, is wreaking havoc with a crowbar in washing facilitees, the basement, even the terrace. Let 4 or 5 of us make a plan to catch him. Before the police come, we’ll skin the bastard alive ourselves! Contact administrator Bl. 66.” There was no way to find out who the maniac was or what the facilitees looked like, but one thing was more or less sure: the perpetrator of the deeds occurring at Bl. 66 could by no means escape retribution as stated. In December ’89 the Blockateers had taken turns guarding the stair flight entrances, armed with the odd crowbar, rolling pin or lug wrench, Mr. Feţeanu even going so far as to tote a hunting rifle, which he had kept in a box under his bed. The enemy, nonetheless, failed to turn up. It was also rumored about the Blockateers that, when all other approaches failed, they’d go in for big-time operations, gangster like: they’d free stray dogs on purpose, letting them loose all over the town (if dog-catching units rounded them up, the Blockateers would go to the cages claiming they were the owners and subsequently set the beasts free in the streets they’d been picked from); they’d hire teams of operatives with vests bearing strange inscriptions (RADET; DISTRIGAZ; RENEL), who would dismount from vans at night in various areas and break the asphalt, after which they’d make themselves scarce leaving huge trenches behind them; they’d tamper with the water meters (causing neighbors to lose track of how much water they’d been using and end up fighting); they’d jam the signaling system of traffic lights (after 11 pm, they all blinked an intermittent amber); they’d bribe the garbage disposal people to collect the trash cans at night (the whole street came alive with the clanking when your sleep was at its sweetest); they’d be testing their exhaust pipes in the morning (the black diesel engines of Aro cars were preferred, or alternately, Dacia 1300, whose fumes came out in grey, choking plumes), or they’d fry the electricity supply points for a whole district (particularly in Drumul Taberei where the main transformer would blow as if by chance just as Champion League games were about to start). According to some, the Blockateers’ missions were supposedly coordinated by Securitate, the former communist secret police, just like during the “Revolution”, with terrorists, television and all, so that people were constantly kept busy, like in a permanent inner war of attrition testing nerves and physical resistance alike. You were bound to fray before long; all you were aware of was the never-ending daily fracas: caught in transition for life, as in an endless trench. The events that really mattered, the ones where the big money was made, impossible to conceive, let alone pronounce, occurred backstage, far from inquisitive eyes; even if they had taken place within easy reach, no one could have mustered the energy to say a thing. Mountains, factories, train stations, whole districts went up for sale: sector by sector, chunk by chunk. The Securitate was orchestrating all the ongoing deals, profitably, true to capitalist form, without a peep. The Blockateers took care of the rest, like a small civil army set on the losers living in the flats, in the city and farther afield, in the country. After the people were put through the mill, brought to the end of their tether, they became pliable, easier to work with; they could be employed by the Association, some of them even offering their services willingly, dazed with desire. As for the stray dogs, both Domnul Dinu and the neighbors (particularly the females of the species, whom during the day you could notice hanging out of their kitchen windows and at night – falling asleep in the arms of the TV) were feeding them with humane generosity. Pajura was rife with makeshift shelters. You could hardly pass a block entrance, bush or abandoned car without hearing the statutory snarl. Whoever didn’t belong to the neighborhood would stop at the corner, where the trolleybus station was; after 11 pm, when the last vehicle left, you were out there completely on your own. The post would come in the morning and dumped the mail out of the van onto the stairs, or simply at the street corner; everyone took what they needed from the pile. Biking or inline skating in the area were out of the question – you’d get your pants torn to shreds before you knew it. The Pajurites fiercely guarded their microclimate. On the rare occasions when they ventured into the district, dog-catching units were booed or beaten up by the neighbors. The more inventive of the block dwellers would quickly lock up the block doors with seven or eight dogs inside. After the danger was past, they’d let them out again. it was a rare occurrence indeed when an animal ended up captured, and if the quadruped in question (who’d chanced to be asleep during the raid or had gone for a solitary stroll down the avenue) failed to turn up for the afternoon roll call, the heavy artillery got their marching orders. Foundations bearing suspicious names (Doggy Doo, 4 Ped, Little Houses for All), under the control of the Blockateers and endowed with an army of attorneys ready to produce the life-saving court decisions at the drop of a hat, would have the unlucky beast restored to its habitat within the space of 24 hours. Interviews were being given on TV stations, the animal, a bit worse for wear, was being put on display (a move verging on a faux pas since, in the aftermath of the whole rough trip, the victim was really in the mood for biting), figures out of files and numbers of court decisions were being read out loud. The whole district was watching over canine liberties and comfort. Consequently, Goguţă and Bombonica, aided no doubt by the unwanted side effects of sterilization, were quick to gain massively in weight and volume, until they came to be in the way wherever you happened to go: on the stairs, under the stairs, on the mat, on the landing, in the basement, at the entrance; it got so bad that one night I even trod on Bombonica in the lift. Goguţă, a black and yellow cur, currently hosting four abundant generations of fleas and a generation of ants was top on our kidnapping list; we were all set to abduct him and post all over the district fliers with his terrified mug, muzzle swathed in a scarf and the sum we demanded for his release printed underneath: we’d have made quite a pile with the racket... In actual fact, though, there was no way you could lay a finger on Goguţă or Bombonica. Their ungrateful, cowardly yelps echoed from everywhere, like an anti-theft warning system. In the dark you felt like you were in The Thing – the siren went off at maximum pitch and you risked leaving with your pants torn to lace. Translated by Florin Bican

by Ion Manolescu (b. 1968)