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Feature Story September 4, 2003
 
Serfin' USA: Duped Russkies
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
 
Page 5 of 6
 
In order to avoid paying for food, the J-1s made every day a BK day. They all seemed to be chunking up from their strict fast food diet -- or maybe my memories of Russian girls are too generous -- and all of them had acne ranging from medium to moon-pocked. The guys' eating habits were especially repulsive; they'd smuggle out meat patties and pie slices to stockpile for the days off. When the managers tried to put a stop to the stealing by locking the changing rooms, the Russians developed a system in which they'd hide the food among the dirty uniforms and then retrieve it when they were closing the restaurant. It meant that their meals would often spend hours bundled together with sweaty fetid BK jerseys before making it to their apartment. But, hey, free is free.

I've eaten many disgusting things while researching stories for the eXile -- reindeer guts, cold pirogi with coagulated meat filling, sproti of a Soviet vintage, vobli from the blackened hands of a toothless peasant -- but nothing could have made me touch a two day old microwaved 'fire-grilled' slab of gray matter that had once been intended for a Whopper. The home fridge was filled with mold-covered meats unfettered even of a scrap saran wrap. When reheated these patties didn't smell like anything of this earth. Yet that's what these guys breakfast on every day. As Seryozha told me while preparing a patty, "At least it's khalyava." Even vinegar tastes sweet to Russians when it's free.

Not surprisingly, everybody hated life in Warrington. Seryozha tried to hide his shame by claiming it was a nice change from life in the big city, but he wasn't fooling anyone. They slept on cheap inflatable mattresses that were flat by morning; their only entertainment was courtesy of Max's X-Box; they subsisted on nuked Whopper patties; and they had paid for the pleasure.

The girls' apartment was slightly more comfortable thanks to some furniture a sympathetic neighbor contributed, but it still wasn't pretty. None of them had any illusions that, even there at The Place among America's most pitiful, they were the lowest caste.

It was particularly poignant because most of these kids were coming from a position of relative privilege; not every Russian can scrape together the 2000 bucks necessary. And they were even denied the gratification of spending what little they made on consumer goods because it was mostly tucked under the inflatable mattresses to be used to repay the relatives who had fronted the money.

Few fates, as these hermits will attest, are worse than being stuck in car country without a car. There was a pool at The Place, but otherwise no way to relieve the tedium. The nearby malls were of the dingy bulk-shopping variety and didn't offer much beyond the initial revelation of how much brand selection Americans have when choosing cheap bath towels, Tupperware and other goods for happy homemakers. Philly, which was only a half hour drive away, supposedly took over two hours to get to on a bus and none of them had ever been there.

Warrington was a grim reminder of the uniformity of American suburbs. The only stores and restaurants were prefab chains and walking was so unheard of that on several occasions the cops had actually stopped some of the Russians to find out what they were doing. The town's main feature, other than the shopping installations that lined Route 611, was a naval airbase. This, with its Soviet style decommissioned-planes-on-pedestals-as-monuments, also might have reminded Max of home. All the J-1ers thought it was weird that, in spite of the proximity of the base, they never saw any soldiers at the BK. They didn't understand that many of the young, dim-eyed, plump customers were soldiers, since they were so used to the half-starved conscripts in frayed camouflage.

Even the "nice" mall offering decent window shopping tended to depress them. "At first it was kind of cool checking it all out," said Dasha who, a student in Kiev, was one of the most worldly. "But what's the point if you can't buy any of it?"


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