The slick new dream

  • 2001-07-05
  • Eric Jansson
If you live in the Baltics and have a human conscience, you may be familiar with the terrible contradiction everybody is forced to swallow, daily, as they stride down the streets of the free world. Or perhaps you are already numb. It is almost too old and mundane to mention: the notion that people are sadly struggling, yet need to struggle to happily learn capitalism's rule number one, self-sufficiency. The contradiction is so old, in the lightning-quick timescale of post-Soviet history, that it almost seems outdated. By now, my impeccably-dressed colleagues inform me, surely the good and intelligent ones have caught the hint and made something of themselves. Surely only refuse remains refuse; anybody still scrounging for crumbs is likely a life-long scrounger.

The aesthetic comfort of the Baltic city centers pounds the argument home like a streetworker's hammer. Pneumatic girls pass by, lovely. Groomed men check their reflections in shop-windows. Hints of spent petty cash abound — highlights in a shopkeeper's hair, a queue at the automat, new fences, McDonald's jammed at noon with moneyed teenagers. Color posters advertise a level of wealth which seems real and reasonable. The strong-armed woman driving the autobus as it swerves past looks happy enough to be a prole and probably has half a cupboard of food waiting back home. The refuse, by contrast, stinks like a monkeyhouse. The 8-year-old pickpocket is the same recognizable scoundrel, slinking around on his usual streetcorner. Even the police, in their vivid, well-pressed uniforms, know who he is. He wins a playful, mocking wave.

Yes, it seems that somehow we are returning to normalcy. The troublesome old ones are dying off, having lived overly-full lives, and their totalitarian preledictions die with them. A dictatorship of the law will reign in plenty of the other baddies, at least enough for some goodies to get a toe-hold in the retail markets. The mall is open. There is an air of progress. I guess that is what it is. When there is progress, then you get the feeling there is something to live for, blessedly without all the old paranoias and sacrifices. If someone is sinking, the wave will pick him up. We have faith in the wave.

The poor man and the hungry woman are objects of terror and derision. They are the ones who have not learned to swim. Is it idiocy, idleness or corruption? Who knows? GDP's been going up, for the most part, has it not? A dubious woman, suspiciously fat but clashingly dressed, hustles down the pavement, bulbous amber earrings swinging. Pensioner. A couple of filthy kids, skinny, jaywalk at full sprint, wearing near-rags and chocolate smiles. Hooky probably, maybe glue. Ever notice how the miserable ones are never short of cigarettes? For instance, the obviously unemployed but physically fit man in the park, smoking them on his bench. These sort are better off invisible.

Nobody in our progressing world can bring them back into vision — not unless someone interrupts the reverie. For the dreamers, they cease to exist. Those awkward old brothers and sisters, mothers and grandmothers, even children — are characters in a perverse fairy-tale, not real like the rest of us. After all, they do not fit the latest statistics like we do. They are anecdotes on the humor and crime pages, laughingstocks and victims by choice...

...until some scoundrel tries to love them — some unbelievable dreamer, anti-social (perhaps even anti-state) fiend, who undoubtedly has a motive. How it makes the blood boil. They would mock our merits and put us on the level of the refuse.

Here's a true story. A 12-year-old girl recently went around to embassies and friends in Riga, seeking money to start up a soup kitchen. She received a small amount. What she got is being put to use at the Church of St. Saviour, to serve soup and bread each Saturday to whomever comes out of the woodwork to eat it, right in the comfortable heart of downtown Riga.

The volunteers at the kitchen were not sure how many hungry people would turn up. The first Saturday, it was four. The next, upwards of 50. By the fifth Saturday, the number exceeded 200. Most but not all were elderly; all were hungry. And there are more who still have yet to eat. Now on the ninth Saturday, the number has levelled off at about 200. The church and its volunteers will continue feeding them as long as it can afford to, not because they view them as charity cases, but because they understand they are our equals. Your equals and mine, and hungry.

A friend of mine, a Latvian re-émigré who lives comfortably, asked some of her office colleagues if they would volunteer at the soup kitchen. No, came the answer. The kitchen, one said, will not "make a difference." It will not put an end to poverty will it? "Why doesn't somebody organize those poor people to help others? They have plenty of time," quipped another.

Is our reverie really so deep? Is it really so cold? If you can spare some time, or even a donation of plastic bowls, surely the soup kitchen can use it this Saturday. For more information, e-mail the kitchen at free_soup@hotmail.com.