Drive It Through to Odessa

MIKHAIL KAPITONOV

February 17, 1993|By MIKHAIL KAPITONOV

You guys here in the States take your cars for granted, right? Big Chevys, cheap gas, drive-through pizza -- things like that. Now, let's see how you manage it the other way. What if you took a wrong exit and found yourself in Odessa, Ukraine. How do I know about it, you ask? Oh, believe me, I know -- I live there. So, got it started? Here we go.

Well, a nice street, isn't it? Make a right here and then straight on. What do you mean the cars look old? You didn't see real old ones, like the one I have. I call it Charlie. Sort of a hybrid between a Volkswagen Beetle and a mule. Engine in the back, air cooling and pretty stubborn, you know.

Now, have a look at this Toyota up front. Shining, gleaming, bumper stickers everywhere -- even a Clinton/Gore one inside. It's not that the guy really cares about them, he probably doesn't read English. I bet he bought the car at some dump in Japan, that's where the right-hand steering comes from. Then a hundred bucks or so, and they make a real doll out of it here. The man's wife can't possibly look better.

Let's get to business, though. Question 1. Gas. There's no gas station next block. There are only six or seven of them in town -- for private motorists, that is. This one saying ''Petrol'' is for state-owned vehicles only. They will never sell it to you here unless you are mafia or Politburo or something.

OK, this place is ours. See, the line starts over there. But don't even bother about it. There are probably 10 times more cars waiting. Right now you can only get your number registered to check against the list every day. Gonna take a week or so. And remember, you miss the call-up once, you are out. That's the rule.

What do we do then? Let's see . . . Oh, yeah, that guy in a gray hat is probably selling gas. For profit, of course, what's the question? How much did he say? A thousand rubles? That's for a canister, five gallons with something. So, it probably takes two of them for the tank, two thousand rubles all in all. Don't worry about the money, one dollar costs more than 500 rubles at the black market now. And better get an extra canister now or it's gonna cost you more tomorrow. Got a canister? No? I'll spare you one, you buy me a coke later.

Ready to go now. In fact, most people make only about 3,000 rubles a month, so they can never afford to drive. They take a bus or trolley, you know . . .

Oh, watch it! Don't say you didn't notice the ditch, it's been here for two years already. Thank God, we've not wrecked the car yet, 'cause fixing it here's gonna give you hell. First, you never go to a mechanic you don't know or he'll probably steal whatever new parts you have in. Because you can never buy them in a store, that's why. You have to get them. Feel the difference?

The car market is the place for it. There they have everything, new or used, as you like it, sir. Yours is a '91 Nissan, right? They probably have the stuff by now, but my goodness, it's gonna COST you. So, get the parts you need and go to see Ivan Ivanovich. I call him first, he'll do it. And don't even try to tell me you've never looked under the hood. You don't know what's inside, you don't drive. That's rule number two.

Another question. It's time to have the car inspected. Yeah, once in two years. Where do you go for this? Well done, to the local traffic police division. But I know a better way. There's a guy lives next door. Vasya, that's his name. Had a beer with us the other night, remember? His brother-in-law has a hand with the cops . . . Here you are. the technical passport, stamped, windshield sticker, everything. And you owe him 500 now. Three for the cops and two for himself, no more. We're buds with him. Friends never let friends charge extra.

One more thing. Where d'you leave the car overnight? On the street? Forget it. Last time I risked it, they broke in. The dudes didn't know I took the wires out, so they got tired of pushing and dropped it. Just stole what they could -- the battery, the spare, the windshield, everything. Even took my cigarettes. So, get this baby into a parking lot nearby. Tip the guard, he'll find a place for you. And take the wipers off when you leave or he'll take them anyway.

Well, looks like we're all set now. Topped off, tuned up, inspected. What is it NOW? Won't start? Oh, it's the gas. There may be some kerosene in it or urine, whatever. Just put a hot water bottle on top of the carburetor and wrap it with the old pants you have in the trunk. This way, see? Get in, I'll give you a jump start.

One, two, three . . . got it! Have a nice drive home. And enj-j-j-joy it!

Mikhail Kapitonov has been visiting friends in Baltimore.

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