Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2013/ 4 Adar, 5773
Love's day is long
By Paul Greenberg
Consider this a love letter to a lady I saw only for a moment. Thirty years ago. She was passing on a trolley car, and I was on a bus headed in the opposite direction. It was in a city called Leningrad back then. I wonder if she's still living. Has she changed as much as
She lingers in the mind. Today an older but no wiser newspaperman in
It's like opening an old photograph album, and finding the one picture you were looking for.
It was our last day in Leningrad on an editorial writers' tour of the
She was jammed on the back of a crowded tram during rush hour, looking absently at the traffic, as if returning from a long day at work doing nothing. And her feet hurt. You could tell. But workers' state or not, she was going to be feminine. Her clothes had the too-stylish look Russian women affected then, her make-up too obvious. It was as if a well-coiffed shopgirl from the '40s in rouge and bright red lipstick had wandered into the Sovdrudgery of the '80s. It was the fall of 1983, in the last decade of a crumbling empire. No one could know it then, but in 10 years, the
Even now, after all these years, I see her gaze absently at the passing Intourist bus. It's a moment before she realizes that someone on it is trying to take her picture. He puts his fingers to his mouth, spreading it into an idiotic grin, trying to get her to smile for the camera. After a moment's wary hesitation, she does.
It is a breathtaking smile. Full, warm, generous, giving, maybe a little mischievous, proper but knowing, and given freely to someone who has to be a stranger forever.
The foreigner on the bus, a stranger in a very strange land, is separated from the lady on the trolley by more than just a pane of glass and the few feet between them. They're whole worlds apart, literally -- East and West. They're divided by different political, social and economic systems, by mutual suspicions and bristling ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. They speak different languages, and each is the product of different histories. They gaze at each other for a moment over a gulf that can never be bridged ... except by one, beatific smile.
Then everything is changed. Her smile still lights up that long-ago, weary day, and makes the noisy traffic sound like Gershwin. The dust and rust drops off the classical ochre buildings in the background, and their original Georgian lines return. The elegant old city that Peter the Great had dreamed, then built to give his empire a warm-water port on the Baltic, had long ago become but a faint shadow covered by decades of neglect, courtesy of the usual Sovmanagement. But in the reflection of her smile, old
Thank you, the American on the bus thinks, then mouths the Russian for thank you: Spa-si-bo.
And he thinks: Leningrad, I love you. Or rather the
But the sight of her stays, imprinted on his eyes, and in his mind. Her image is still there after all these years, rising of its own accord. She hasn't changed a bit. I hope she's all right.
Love is fleeting, they say. And yet it tarries.
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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
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