At dusk we stand outside the shelter in the front laneway keeping the peace. The days are still warm but the temperature is dropping off more rapidly in the evenings. Clients sit along the fence smoking cigarettes. Occasionally we find someone drinking booze and we tell them to leave property. This is where we are most useful at this time of day, but it’s also a relief just to be outside after standing around in the building all day. Further along the building is a young guy in a white ball cap I’m keeping my eye on because we suspect him of being a drug dealer. Right now he’s just clowning around with his friends.
I’m sitting on the curb with Dmitri, a huge Russian man who I’m eager to impress because he has a special kind of authority around here. Partly because he’s older. Partly because of his intelligence – in Russia he’s a cardio-surgeon, but here his English is too poor so he’s working in the shelter with kids half his age. He also has a cool Russian severity that sort of demands you take everything really seriously without ever saying it. He has a handlebar moustache and a large, imposing figure, like he’s a biker in an alternate dimension.
Another great thing about Dmitri is that because of his limited vocabulary, and because he hangs out with so many young people, everything is “awesome” to him.
“How are you, Dmitri?”
“Awesome. How are you?”
“I’m good. Some clients were saying there’s no hot water in the showers?”
“Showers make cold water, so we just, you know, just reset boiler, now water eez awesome.”
“Awesome. Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you. I heard that there’s a large crime problem in Russia and that it’s very unsafe. Is that true?”
“Moscow is like one big homeless shelter.”
Conversations are limited and I don’t understand much of what he says. But it’s cool to get time with Dmitri anyway.
The kid in the white cap and his buddies have taken to throwing plastic pop bottles at each other and one almost hits a car. Now’s my chance. I stand up and walk towards them.
I yell, “Hey guys, will you stop throwing shit around please?” They vaguely mutter something about being sorry. As I walk back to the curb I glance up at Dmitri and I get Dmitri’s slow nod of approval. Awesome.
Then there’s some sort of commotion inside the building and Dmitri goes in to see what’s going on. I stay outside to keep my eye on everything.
The kid in the white cap and his buddies keep horsing around. He’s play fighting with his friend and they spill into the street, and I tell them to calm down. They’re so animated I thought they really were fighting but the people around tell me it’s ok, they’re just playing around and I shrug my shoulders.
Then as they keep fighting the drug dealer kid goes down and his head lands on the sidewalk. It makes that brutal pumpkin thud sound and he’s out cold. His friends are all crowding around. I look over my shoulders. Thankfully Dmitri didn’t see. After a few moments the kid comes comes to, but remains lying on the sidewalk. He tells his friends he wants a few minutes before he stands up and they lean him back against the wall. Eventually he’s back on his feet but has calmed down quite a bit.
Later, Dmitri returns with a client named Charles. Charles is hammered. He was trying to sleep in the intox room when another man tried to fondle him. He’s all fired up and screaming.
“I’ll kill him! I’ll kill the first Indian I see. Stay the fuck away from me!”
He’s giving the finger to anything that moves. A bus honks as it reverses, and he gives it the finger.
There’s several staff outside now only because he’s a spectacle more than anything else. We stand and watch to see what he’s going to do. He doesn’t do anything except scream random obscenities. However after a full 20 minutes Charles (who has actually made a pass at me before) still won’t calm down.
“Go ahead and arrest me. I don’t care. I’ll fucking kill you!”
Dmitri steps up and says, “Can I geev you a kiss?”
He pronounces the words slowly with a space between each word so he can enunciate properly.
There’s a second of bewilderment in which Charles silently accepts. Dmitri wraps Charles up into a huge Russian bear hug and doesn’t let go. Dmitri kisses the air next to his cheek in that European way. He holds him there for a full minute or two, squeezing tight, and when he lets go Charles is calm and quiet. Charles just picks up his bags and walks away muttering to himself.