The original plan was to sacrifice all of their freedoms so that when they did return home, they'd be able to live large for a while. But it works out that they won't even get to do that.
The kids mentioned above and several others shared three unfurnished two-bedroom apartments in a mini-slum just up the street from a mall anchored by a Target. The development was a collection of maybe 20 identical three-story brick boxes with aluminum faux shutters populated largely by menthol-smoking white trash. Some of the girls had been initially placed in a Latino-heavy apartment building closer to one of the BKs, but that didn't last too long.
Welcome To America! Where theres always a gray hamburger patty or two in every bountiful fridge!
As if to announce its anonymity, the housing project they were currently living at was called The Place, its address, 1600 Street Rd. The parking lot was filled with rusting American cars from the 80's that were just as boxy as the buildings and must have looked awfully nice to the Russians, who were stuck without wheels.
My "in" to the J-1 CIS crew was Seryozha, the Muscovite, who had contacted me when he arrived in New York on the recommendation of his friend, the eXile's designer babe Dasha. He is the quintessential Moscow student, the type of guy who, by his own admission, hangs out at Propaganda "because of the music." When we first met at a bar near his Upper West Side hostel, he was wearing a tight shirt that exposed his midriff and signifies male prostitute to anybody not from Moscow. He was lucky that he didn't get off in Harlem like Dasha (not the eXile's Dasha, but the J-1 Dasha) mistakenly did on her way home one evening. She got off at 125th St. in a perfectly reasonable neighborhood, but it was awfully jarring for a small town Ukrainian girl who'd never seen black people before, had only heard tales...
Hundreds of students from the CIS arrived at the same time (Seryozha claimed that some 15,000 Russians had applied for J-1s, a number that doesn't include the kids from other countries), but there wasn't any infrastructure prepared to handle their arrival. CIEE, Seryozha's agency, didn't even answer the phone when he called them upon arrival. Only by heading down to the office did he manage to find out his job placement, some water park outside of Cincinnati. When he protested, it took them a few more days to generate a new job. But at least he had a free place to stay. Seryozha spent the next few days staying in my apartment, on the condition that he not wear anything exposing his bellybutton within 20 blocks of my place.
Every day he'd come back with stories about Russians who were less fortunate. Some just followed the minimalist directions their agencies gave them to get to their destinations in Florida or Wisconsin or Colorado. Seryozha knows people who spent over 24 hours traveling to prescribed towns, only to find out that, due to a mistake, they were sent to the wrong place and needed to return to New York.
Another group, hoping to hold out for more solid leads to less faraway placements, spent the nights at the Port Authority bus station so as not to waste their scant pocket money on the $20-a-night hostel. One especially savvy chick shacked up with a sugar daddy from the Caucasus that she met in Brighton Beach. "It was total anarchy," Seryozha said. "The agency already had our money, and just stopped caring."
While CIEE did eventually come through with a contract at the Warrington Burger King for Seryozha, not everyone there had one. About half the kids at The Place were working less than 30 hours a week because, while they were told there was work in Warrington, they showed up without signing a contract. The contracts guarantee 40 hours a week; the kids without one were subject to the managers' whims. Working 30-hour weeks for 7 bucks an hour meant that they'd still be in the red when their visas expired, after adding in the roughly $200 they paid in rent monthly and what little they spent on food and smokes. "These guys operate just like Russians," Vadim told me. "Here, there... they're all zhlobi trying to fuck you." That week, he had only worked 25 hours.