The Debt Ceiling Spectre again haunts Washington DC. Suspended since October 17, 2013, it rose from the dead, like Osiris, or Jesus, if you prefer, on Friday, and promptly at noon, the United States of America was technically broke. Thanks to various sleights of hand on the part of the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Bank, however, the Greatest Nation on Earth has until the 27th of the month before the proverbial fiscal excrement hits the metaphorical monetary fan and doughty old Uncle Sam defaults on his debts, loses the farm, gives up the family mule and departs down that rocky road of sorrows clad in naught but his tattered, star-spangled suspenders and a thrice-used pickle barrel.
As might be imagined, this state of affairs has been absolutely fantastic for my business, just like every preceding federal debt ceiling crisis, actually. Nervous Nellies and Worried Willies of all types, from every corner of the globe as well as every crevice of the Nation’s Capital, have been traipsing through my office like a frenzied Philadelphia Mummers’ Parade all week, including today, starting bright and early at six-thirty in the morning and refusing to cease until almost seven at night. So I was definitely primed for a couple of well made cocktails at the Round Robin Bar before meeting Cerise for dinner and a show, and was halfway through my first one when Richardovi Sukov, Third Underassistant Deputy Attaché for Culture, Tourism, Athletics and Sports Affairs at the Russian Embassy strode in, spotted me, and pointedly seated himself on the bar stool to my immediate right.
“My good friend Tom,” he brayed while curtly snapping his fingers at the bartender, “what a fortunate coincidence is this, meeting you here at the Happy Hour!”
“Technically,” I noted, “Happy Hour is not held on Saturdays, usually ends well before seven o’clock, and, in any case, is not observed at the Round Robin.”
“Happy Hour, Schmappy Hour,” he retorted, nonchalant, as the bartender approached. “It is good to encounter you under any circumstances. Vodka – Zelyonaya Marka – double, neat and cold!”
The bartender nodded smartly, reached into the freezer and poured my accidental companion a frosty double shot of Russia’s favorite spirit. Sukov downed it in a single gulp, after which he grinned broadly and smartly demanded, “Another! And one for my good friend, Tom Collins, also!”
Green Mark, as the name translates, was the premiere distilled liquor of the old Soviet Glavspirttrest, and after downing a zero-degree double shot of the stuff, I swear one can hear the Red Army Chorus singing the Gosudarstvenny Gimn SSSR, however faintly. In any event, it certainly made the remaining half of my dry Botanist martini – up with a lemon twist – even more interesting than I had expected.
“Now,” Sukov pressed as he emphatically slammed his second shot glass down on the bar, “you and I must speak, confer, assess and advise!”
“Deputy,” I sighed, “can’t our conversation wait until Monday? Speaking, conferring, assessing and advising has been my exclusive occupation since before you had breakfast. I’m mentally exhausted, physically drained, my jaw is sore from so much talking, and, until I got halfway through this martini, I had a slight headache. Frankly…”
“Frankly,” he interrupted, “my 2014 budget allowances have been reduced, and your official rates are, shall we say, astronomical? But now, if you provide me some advice – correct advice – and provide it, shall we say, off the books, I will use it and be elevated in the eyes of Putin, and in 2015 shall have plenty of rubles in my budget to pay for the resumption of appointments at your office down the street.”
“Your 2014 budget was cut?” I probed. “What’s up with that, may I ask?”
“What else?” Sukov shrugged. “The Olympics! Fifty one billion dollars! That’s what the Sochi Winter Olympics cost Mother Russia! You know how many rubles that is? One trillion, seven hundred and thirty-four million, that’s how many! Now you see why my budget has no money to visit Tom Collins for his expensive advice anymore?”
“Oh, all right,” I conceded. “You’ve made your point. What do you need advice about?”
“What else?” Sukov sarcastically demanded. “The Olympics!”
“Okay,” I cautiously responded, “in that case, what about them?”
“This morning,” he related, “I am lying in bed with my wife Olga, sawing the logs, dreaming of summer sunsets at our dacha, when the cell phone goes off and who is it but my boss, saying, ‘What is the matter? You are lazy as Oblomov, sleeping until eleven in the morning with your buxom wife while the whole world is laughing at Russia and Putin!’ And I am saying back to him, ‘What are you talking about? Who is laughing at Russia and Putin and why?’ And he says to me, ‘It is the Olympics!’ And I say, ‘But everyone loves the Olympics! Everyone comes to Sochi to see the Olympics! All the great athletes of winter sport from everywhere there is ice or snow or an indoor rink with a Zamboni machine, they are coming to Sochi to be on television for billions of people everywhere to see! What is the problem with that?’ And he says, ‘Yes, it’s true, everyone likes the Olympics, everyone respects the Olympics, nobody laughs at the Olympics, but everybody thinks Russia and Putin are a big joke! Find out why!’ And that’s what I need to speak with you about, my good friend Tom.”
“Oh, that,” I remarked, as I took out my iPhone. “Yes, well, now that you mention it, by another coincidence, my brother Rob Roy, his wife Katje and their son Jason are big snowboarding, hockey and skating fans, and the three of them went to Sochi to attend the 2014 Winter Olympics. And… ah yes, here are… I just happen to have some text messages and emails they sent me since their arrival. Let me read you a few.”
Tom – we arrived in Sochi today. The hotel has a lobby, but it’s not quite finished yet. We saw a drunk Russian trying to light his cigarette with the sparks of two exposed wires hanging from the wall. Instead of getting a light, he shocked himself and passed out on the floor, where everyone ignored him until he came to and wandered off. When Mom asked about it, the desk clerk explained that he’s the hotel owner’s brother-in-law. More later when it happens to us – Jason
Hi Tom – Rob and I have a room across the hall from Jason on the fifteenth floor. The view is magnificent, but the elevators aren’t finished, so we’ll have to walk up here every time.
Tom! I was freaked out when I saw that the floor under the bed in Mom and Dad’s room doesn’t have any surfacing – it’s just bare plywood. Then I saw my room! All the floor is bare plywood!
Hey, Bro! The first thing Katje wanted to do after we hiked up fifteen flights of stairs was use the bathroom, of course, and guess what she found? Two stray dogs doing the nasty in the bathtub, that’s what. I called the desk to complain and the clerk said “You are lucky man, sir – not all bathrooms here have tubs.”
Tom, I’m totally grossed out! After Rob and I chased the dogs out of the bathroom into the hall, I noticed a sign on the wall that says, ‘Please do not flush toilet paper down the toilet. Put in the bin provided.’ Then when I finally got ready to use the toilet, I saw there was a dead rat floating in it! We called the front desk, but there was no answer, and my teeth were chattering, so I went across the hall and used the toilet in Jason’s room. After that, we spent another hour calling the front desk until finally somebody answered. An hour after that, this drunk, reeking maintenance man showed up, fished the rat out of the toilet, gave me a dirty look, spat in the tub, threw the dead rat in the toilet paper bin and left.
The tap water in our hotel rooms is orange! It smells like vomit, and there’s a note pasted on the wall in our bathrooms that says ‘Do not let tap water touch bare skin. If skin is contacted, then flush with large amount of water.’ It turns out they sell bottled water in the lobby from behind the desk for ten dollars a pop! Jason.
Tom – We went to see the snowboarding trials, because they’re scheduled before the opening ceremonies, but we never got that far – Katje fell into an uncovered manhole in the street and broke her ankle, and she had to get it set at a local hospital. She didn’t get enough anesthetic and woke up while the doctor was still setting the bones. When she screamed in pain, the nurse called her a “weakling sissy Pussy Riot girl.”
While Mom and Dad were at the hospital getting Mom’s ankle put in a cast, I went back to my hotel room to get a bunch of cash I had in my suitcase because the doctor wouldn’t let Mom out of the hospital unless we paid him five hundred bucks, and a bunch of hoods tried to rip me off for it in the stairwell on the eleventh floor landing on the way back down, so I ran back up to my room so fast they couldn’t tell where I went. But after about fifteen minutes, I decided to come out, but I couldn’t because the door knob came off in my hand. And when I tried to call the front desk on the phone in my room, I found out it didn’t work, and my cell phone can’t call the front desk either, so I yelled for help for about ten minutes and when nobody came I started kicking the door and found out it was made of something like cardboard and I kicked a hole in it pretty easy. But then when I looked across the hall, I saw that somebody had used the noise I made yelling as cover to kick in the door to Mom and Dad’s room and all their luggage was gone – Jason.
Tom! When Rob and I reported the theft of our luggage to the hotel front desk, it took us over half an hour to get the clerk to call the local police – it wasn’t until Rob paid him ten dollars that he finally made the call! Then, four hours later, a policeman arrived and promptly demanded a bribe of five hundred dollars to investigate!
Bro – We decided the three of us would have dinner in the hotel restaurant and then carry Katje up fifteen flights of stairs to our rooms. Then Jason got clobbered by a falling light fixture while we were walking into the restaurant. We revived him, but he refused to visit the hospital – “Look how they treated Mom” was all he said. I guess he will be okay. We haven’t eaten all day, and we’re starving.
Tom – Dad saw that the water in the restaurant men’s room sink was clear, not orange, so he tried washing his hands before dinner. The water was about a hundred and fifty degrees and Dad burned his left hand pretty bad finding that out – Jason.
Tom – All the hotel restaurant had on the menu last night was some stuff called haliva and mataz. The waiter told us it’s traditional Circassian food here in Sochi. I couldn’t eat any of it, because I’m vegan, as you know, so I just waited until the boys carried me upstairs and ate some vegetarian energy bars for dinner instead. Turns out I was the lucky one. Rob and Jason are both crapping their brains out now, and filling up the toilet paper bins like crazy – Katje
Bro – It turned out that Jason’s room has no heat. He got an electric blanket from the front desk for a rental cost of twenty dollars a night, but when he tried to use it, an electrical fire started at the wall socket. When he attempted to put out the fire with some of the orange tap water, it exploded. The local fire department tried to charge Jason six hundred dollars for running up fifteen stories and putting out the fire, but a local policeman showed up and offered to let him off without charges for two hundred bucks instead. Jason paid the cop, and after slipping the desk clerk fifty bucks, we got him another room, this time with heat.
Tom – Three days went by since we started using the toilet paper bins, and nobody ever came by to collect them. Our rooms smelled like Alabama out houses in July. Jason got chummy with one of hotel clerks and slipped him a couple of tabs of X, and in return, he let Jason in on the secret – there’s nothing wrong with the toilets. The hotel staff expect the guests to figure out they need to bribe them to empty the toilet paper bins, and they haven’t said how much because they think they’ll get more money if the guests decided what it’s worth on an individual basis. We got the bins in our room and Jason’s taken care of for thirty-five dollars, which is cheap at twice the price if you ask me – Katje.
“So now,” I inquired, “what do you suppose has the whole world laughing at Russia and Putin?”
“But it makes no sense to me,” Sukov protested. “What’s so funny about a combination of incompetence, stupidity, bad planning and corruption?”
“It’s simple,” I explained. “You see a nun slip on a banana peel and hit her head on the sidewalk, that’s tragedy. You see some pretentious, preening martinet slip on a banana peel and hit his head on the sidewalk, that’s hilarity.”
“And Putin,” Sukov gasped, “is that pretentious, preening martinet?”
“Yep,” I asserted.
“And the Sochi Olympics,” Sukov stammered, “they are his banana peel?”
“Uh-huh,” I affirmed.
“And the Russian way of life, which your brother and his family described in their messages to you, that is the sidewalk on which Putin hits his head?”
“Exactly,” I concluded.
“This makes sense,” he admitted, “but rather uncomfortable, inconvenient and embarrassing sense, does it not? What is the best way I can tell this to my boss?”
“Bring a large bottle of Zelyonaya Marka,” I recommended.