DRINKING COCA-COLA ON RED ARMY STREET
DRINKING COCA-COLA ON RED ARMY STREET
She was spying on Red Army Street, snapping photos with her Kodak color camera. She was careful not to superimpose herself. She photographed secretly in that split second before being noticed. She showed no bias. She photographed whatever caught her eye. What she was after was the truth. Snapshots were acts of discovery. So long as the sky was blue and the light good, she photographed. But it was blazing hot on Red Army Street and all that spying got her thirsty. Nearby a red kiosk was selling Coca-Cola. Green glossy bottles- the same as sold in America except the red labels were embossed with Koka-Kola. She put her camera away and tugged my elbow, suggesting we stop for a drink. So we bought and shared a bottle.
Sky was blue, light was good
And we drank Coca-Cola on Red Army Street.
Something was in the air and the radio caught it. Kiev was changing. Communists once would never think of relinquishing the old truths, But now there were grand confessions, unveilings. Back in my room Cassia put her camera away and we smoked Camel cigarettes and lolled in bed while listening to Radio Free Europe. The radio reported that a dozen nude sunbathers were arrested in Kiev by the river. One could always rely on Radio Free Europe for all the news.
Cassia learned English by secretly listening to Radio Free Europe back when the Soviets tried jamming broacasts because Radio Free Europe believed in the old American axiom: Honesty is the best policy. There was no common understanding between East and West. What was "white" for Radio Free Europe was "black" for Radio Moscow.
But red was a constant. And red was communist.
Cassia was raised to be red. Schooled by Marxists in the gymnasium, she became a Young Pioneer. She dressed in uniform, sang communist slogans, she even read Das Kapital in its entirety. But despite all this, she could never be completely red. There were just too many white corpuscles in her blood. Suffice to say she grew to have many repressions which later became cravings: Camel cigarettes, Radio Free Europe and Coca-Cola.
She opened another bottle of Coca-Cola and drank, smacking her lips, but couldn't identify the ingredients. She was puzzled so she asked:
What's in Coca-Cola?
Coca-Cola's formula is a secret.
Smiling and shrugging my shoulders and without batting an eyelash, I told her:
America is still allowed some secrets.
She threw the pillow at me. She didn't believe me, Because I was American, she thought me in the know. She tried coaxing the secret out of me, but when I didn't budge, she pulled me toward her and murmured with hot breath in my ear:
Maybe you're CIA
A good spy knows when to keep his mouth shut. But to show her I wasn't camera shy and had nothing to hide, I let her take snapshots of me naked. Then she put her camera aside and crawled into bed with me.
Radio Free Europe was boasting of capitalist reform in the former Soviet bloc as she unbelted and slipped off her blue jeans.
The market potential in the region is promising, blah-blahed the radio. But we weren't listening anymore. Coca-Cola's caffeine and sugar water bubbled in our blood, got us kicking like colts. We accidently elbowed the bottle spilling and fizzing it all over the floor. There'd be a mess to clean up, but we didn't care.
She was crawling atop me all sexy and warm and loving.
And her kisses tasted like Coca-Cola
Boulevard Yuriy Kotsyubisky. The American embassy. A red white and blue flag. But couldn't those colors blur into one? Grey for that zone of shady secrecy. That's what Cassia thought. Because American foreign policy always relied on covert intelligence (espionage), she was convinced the CIA was operating in Kiev. (Thus every American was suspect.)
Cassia and I attended an embassy party one night where diplomats, business people and others rubbed elbows and made smalltalk. Cassia ran into Philby, a businessman from Atlanta, GA, USA. Everyone else was swapping stories but Philby wasn't saying much.
So what do you do in Kiev? Cassia asked Philby.
I work for the Coca-Cola Company.
She did a doubletake when hearing this. When she asked him about Coca-Cola's recipe, he was all smiles, replying:
Ah, that's our Company's most prized-and best publicized secret.
Mum's the word. The secret formula -- kept locked in a safety deposit box in Atlanta -- was a better-protected secret than any of the Pentagon's. But because half the world drank Coca-Cola, the Company had to divulge some sort of recipe. Thus every bottle reluctantly stated: carbonated water, highfructose syrup and/or sucrose, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors, caffeine. But, as with any secret, you had to read between the lines.
Cassia plied Philby with Coca-Cola and whiskey, trying to coax more out of him. The more Philby drank, the more it all came gushing out: the soft drink diplomacy of supply and demand, prices, quotas, ioatas, caramel syrup, carbonation, fizz ... We all listened bemusedly and couldn't help but notice the manila envelope he was carrying. Come to think of it, everytime I ever saw Philby, he was always carrying it.
What was in it? Blueprints? Clues? The secret formula?
Cassia, my little fox, cunningly eyed the manila envelope and gave me a few kicks under the table. She wanted my help.
So tried coercion, subterfuge, obfuscation, but I couldn't get my hands on the goddam thing.
One drink led to another. Philby's nose got red as he kept drunkenly pawing for another drink, saying: Gimme another cup of that sassafras, that abracadabra that makes me feel so good by golly! Try as she may, Cassia just couldn't get the secret formula out of him. She was convinced Philby was a spy.
But what about me? I protested, goosing her between the legs as we left the party and climbed into the backseat of a taxi cab. Am I still a spy?
Better, she replied, You're a double agent.
The Coca-Cola Company of Atlanta, GA, hired, trained and trusted Philby. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Coca-Cola moguls asked Philby Do you like adventure? to which he replied Yes and thus became their man in Kiev. Philby packed his bags and flew to Kiev to begin the "Great Work" of overseeing Coca-Cola in Ukraine. He was already living here for a year when we met. We'd lunch occasionally in one of the cafes on Karl Marx Street and I'd lend an car to his complaints. Philby never really adjusted to life here, nor did he really try. And he sure didn't get out very much. Kiev was a far cry from Atlanta and the steppe sure wasn't the savannah, so Philby stayed all battened down in his hotel room, listening to his shortwave radio and sending e-mail reports back to Atlanta.
Sunday morning after the embassy party, when I visited Philby at his hotel room, he wasn't in the best of shape. Bleary-eyed and nursing a hangover, he asked me:
Sydorenko, can you keep a secret?
Kriss-ake, why are you whispering? Speak up Philby.
He put his finger to his lips, shushing me not to talk so loud,
No, I'm serious, can you keep a secret?
Alright, what is it?
He went over to the radio and switched it on. Static. He edged close to me and whispered: I think this room might be bugged.
Rugged? By whom?
Philby, you're paranoid.
Yesterday when I called Atlanta, someone was eavesdropping on the line.
Philby, you've been drinking too much Coca-Cola. All that fizz has affected your brain. What you probably heard was static. Come on, let's go get some lunch.
Stepping outside the hotel we walked down Kreshchatyk Boulevard and through Independence Square, filled with Sunday strollers, musicians and vendors. A cross-eyed peddlar selling pornographic postcards approached us and showed us his wares.
There you are, Philby, some postcards to send back to the boys in Atlanta.
But Philby shooed the peddlar away and looked behind his back, allthewhile clutching his manila envelope.
Philby, I gotta ask you: what's in the envelope?
Business, was all he said.
Philby wanted to eat an American blue-plate lunch somewhere, so I took him to a cafe on Volodomyrskaya street where nudging him in the ribs I pointed out a nearby building.
There's old KGB headquarters.
Philby's round frightened rabbit eyes flashed. Just keep walking and don't look so obvious,he whispered as we ducked into the cafe.The waiter brought us our menus, but the food wasn't blue plate anymore. But no matter, Philby's stomach was on the bum and he couldn't eat much. He just played with his Eggs Benedict. Worse, his brain's gray matter seemed to have failed him because he couldn't remember anything he said last night. When he asked me whether I remembered anything, I just shrugged my shoulders.
After lunch we did a bit of sightseeing at the monastery where monks had quit the world and put all their faith in the blue yonder where maybe somebody was watching and everything would be revealed. It was picturesque as monasteries go until we turned a comer and ran into a Coca-Cola kiosk. Philby's face got all aglow and he insisted we stop for a drink.
Coca-Cola sold in a monastery Wasn't this the final coup de grace? Could nothing stop it? Already the soft drink stretched North, South and West, but the East had always eluded it. The Reds had boycotted Coca-Cola, believing it to be capitalism bottled. Drinking Coca-Cola, they claimed, caused impotency. But when the Soviet Union collapsed and the bankrupt countries were struggling with open market economy, there was room for Coca-Cola. So it happened: By authority of the Coca-Cola Company of America, the secret formula syrup was exported to Poland where it was mixed with carbonated water, bottled and shipped across Eastern Europe.
War was raging in Baku, tensions brewing in Crimea, and Grozny was about to explode, but without fail, the Warsaw train rolled daily into Kiev bringing a cargo of Coca-Cola.
One day Coca-Cola would be sold in the farthest reaches of Siberia, Central Asia and Kamchatka.
All the things that Marx did not forsee ... a soft drink for the masses.
Between kisses she asked me: Can you keep a secret?
Today I photographed you and Philby.
0h really? Where?
She showed me the Kodak color photos. We were strolling down Volodomyrskaya street past old KGB headquarters. She had caught us perfectly, I was rolling my eyes and Philby was clutching his envelope and looking nervously behind his back.
Maybe you're KGB, I told her.
But that's not all. She wanted to spook Philby, to tug his stray thread until everything unwound, so she left the photographs at his front doorstep in a gray envelope marked Top Secret. When he opened it and found the glossy black-white photos, he was convinced beyond a doubt that he was being watched by the KGB. He ransacked his room for hidden microphones and cameras. He thought everyone he met was a plainclothesman. He tossed and turned, worrying about midnight arrests. I had to go and drag him out of his hotel room when the next embassy party came up. Everyone was carousing, getting drunk, but Philby wasn't saying much. Suddenly his manila envelope got into someone's hands and everyone laughed and tossed it around. Someone missed catching it and out spilled the contents: glossy black and white postcards of naked boys, the same kind sold by the cross-eyed peddlar outside Philby's hotel.
Philby just blushed. Cassia giggled. Everyone else roared with laughter and I didn't know what to think.
Then the unthinkable happened ... Philby leaned in and whispered in Cassia's ear.
made her eyes open wide.
The beans were spilled. The secret formula was revealed.
What he said
The next time we met, it was at happy hour in one of the cafes on Karl Marx Street, I did a doubletake when I saw him. He was wearing eye liner and mascara. Gone were the suit and tie, replaced by a flamboyant flowered shirt with open collar (showing his true colors). He was out painting the town red with his pack of new-found friends, all of them male and similarly dressed to the nines.
Philby pulled me aside and told me: All my life I have lived repressed but now I'm so happy.
That was the last time I ever saw Philby because when the Coca-Cola moguls back in Atlanta found out what sort of stunts he was pulling overseas in Ukraine, they promptly fired him and got him on a plane back for America.
The radio was blah-blabing:
Radio Free Europe once secretly broacasted to the Soviet bloc countries. But the breakup of the Soviet Union and emergence of perestroika, has brought an unprecedented openess between once-rival nations. The Cold War is over but Radio Free Europe remains committed to openess, peace and prosperity. Secrecy is no longer necessary.
Cassia was spying again on Red Army street, snapping photos with her zoom lens. Party ideaology once only allowed her to photograph in black and white, but now Kodak color suddenly gave her all the colors of the rainbow. By the Coca-Cola kiosk a child was trying the soft drink for the very first time. Her parents gave her a sip from the bottle, but she got blue in the face and spat it out and started crying. Cassia captured this and so many other things in color. She never felt so free. But along with this freedom there came sadness because she realized she was photographing for posterity's sake. Kiev was changing before our eyes. Streets once bearing communist names were being renamed. Communist red was replaced now by Coca-Cola red.
Red Army street was still red.
But the sky above would always be blue.
|CyberCorpse, Exquisite Corpse © 1999|