From about 1978 to 1981, I lived in a first floor apartment in a brick building on Penn Street near the Margaret and Orthodox Station of the Frankford El.
A late-20s couple with a skinny little blonde daughter, about 5 years of age, lived upstairs. About once a week, the father, who worked nights, would scream with insane anger at the wife beginning at about 10:30 p.m., and then I would hear him stomp down the steps, slam the door with seismic force, and get in his truck and go to work; and then I would hear the mother scream with insane anger at their little daughter — a very clear case of “pecking order abuse.” On one occasion after the father left, I heard a loud smack after the mother finished screaming at little blonde girl. The little girl showed up on her tricycle the next day with half of her face black-and-blue. A neighbor called the child protection unit in Philadelphia Department of Human Services before I could. The memories of that little girl haunt me to this day, and I always become extremely upset at child abuse and feel the urge to scream, “PARENTS, HUG THEM, DON’T HIT THEM!”
There was one other problem with that apartment: The demonically-possessed roach. It was a big one — big enough to put a saddle on and take for a ride around the block. There were no other roaches or other unpleasant critters in that apartment. Just that one roach. And it seemed deeply intelligent, and impossible to catch and kill. It was always peeking around corners at me, and then when I would move to kill it, it would be gone. I worried about whether it would make an appearance when my girlfriend was visiting. Once when I got up for work in the morning and pulled on my robe and stood in front of the bathroom mirror to shave, I felt an itch on my right shoulder, and scratched it through the robe, and guess who climbed up out of my robe onto my face. Oooooh, did I freak out! I swatted my face repeatedly, screaming. The little so-and-so fell to the floor, ran out of the bathroom and disappeared.
One day, after a hard day’s work at the Philadelphia DA’s Office, I came home, went into the kitchen and turned on the fire beneath my tea pot. As I turned to leave the kitchen, I heard an odd fluttering sound and looked back. There was something alive, there, in the flames next to the gas burner on the stove beneath the tea pot. It was the demonic roach, wings afire! I jubilantly thought, “Ah-HAH!” I raced over to the stove and turned up the fire full blast, and I incinerated the little beast, and I am certain that he was afterwards consigned by God to even hotter fires in Hell forever.
On days when I walked beneath the Frankford El to go shopping in the stores on Frankford Avenue, I would frequently overhear Russian immigrants speaking their native language as they strolled on the sidewalk near me. Though I couldn’t pick-up much of what they were saying, I understood a word here and there. A CIA recruiter who had visited the DA’s Office some months before had suggested that I learn Russian before I apply for a position in the CIA, and so in those days I was taking a post-graduate course in Russian at St. Joseph’s University, my alma mater. But as I overheard my Russian neighbors after my move to Penn Street, I was not yet sufficiently “up to speed” in the comprehension department to follow normal Russian conversation.
Once, when I worked very late, I was coming home in the wee hours of the morning on the Market Street Subway portion of the Frankford El. I had boarded the Frankford-bound subway at 15th Street. The car was empty. I picked a seat and opened my Philadelphia Inquirer. At 13th Street, a large group of ladies crowded onto the train. They were clearly the ladies who cleaned the offices in the office buildings in center city Philadelphia late at night. All of the ladies crowding on to my car were speaking Russian. It occurred to me that these ladies were from the same enclave of Russian-speaking immigrants as the people whom I had heard speaking Russian in my neighborhood near the Margaret-and-Orthodox El Station. One of them was young and very pretty. The others were middle-aged babushkas — Russian women, middle-aged or older, nicknamed for their traditional headgear, the babushka, or kerchief. The babushkas were doing all of the talking. Although I still couldn’t follow conversational Russian very well, I could tell that the talk was risqué, and about the pretty girl, who kept smiling guiltily, and blushing, blushing, blushing.
As the Russian ladies ignored me, it dawned on me that they were assuming, because I was reading an English language newspaper, that I could not understand a word they were saying. And, for the most part, that was true.
But I realized that the situation was nonetheless ripe for a good Russian language practical joke.
As the train pulled into the Margaret and Orthodox Station, I got up from my seat, and as I began to squeeze past the ladies to get to the sliding doors I said a single Russian term out loud…
“Izz-vin-EE-tyah!” — “Excuse me!”
All of the ladies looked up in astonishment. The young pretty lady blushed blood red and looked at me with an uncertain smile. The babushka who had talked longest and loudest covered her mouth with her hand. And I smiled broadly.