MOSCOW — He was I and I was he.
He wrote about sports. I wrote about sports. He lived by deadlines. So did I. We were close in age, we both carried notebooks. If not for an accident of birth, we might have been on the same newspaper somewhere, desk to desk.
Instead we sat silently across a wooden table in a Moscow restaurant, until a female translator came by and threw a rope between our worlds.
“Ask him his name,” I said.
“Kak vas zovut?”
“Vladamir,” she came back. “And yours?”
I told him. We shook hands.
He said he wrote for Soviet Sports, a large daily newspaper. And he asked me whom I worked for. He said he’d been covering sports for eight years. And he asked me how long I had done it. Our questions filtered slowly through the translator, and we waited for the the words to come home.
“He would like to know how you write your stories,” the translator said.
“By computer,” I said. “We have an ATEX system throughout our office. And him?”
She asked the question. He made a writing motion with his hand.
“He uses the pen and paper, of course,” the translator said. A poet, a musician A waiter brought coffee. We both reached into our pockets to pay, and we laughed.
It was not hard to tell us apart. Like most of his Soviet colleagues, Vladamir wore a dark sports coat, a tie and brown shoes. I had on jeans, a cotton shirt and white Reebok sneakers.
But the more he talked, the more I heard myself. His first journalism job was at a small newspaper in the Ural mountains near Siberia. I began at a free weekly newspaper in suburban New York. We had both gotten into the business by accident; I was a musician, he had been a poet.
“He wrote verse,” the translator explained. “He says it was nothing special.”
He should have heard my songs.
He sympathized when I complained about crowded locker rooms, and athletes ruined by success. I knew the feeling when he told of writing a long story, only to be told the paper had no space.
“What does your desk look like?” I asked.
He smiled when he heard the translation. “It is very messy,” was his answer.
My kind of guy.
He lighted a cigaret. I took out a piece of gum. There was a point there, when the translator was buzzing and the words were almost simultaneous, that it felt as if we were colleagues in some Hyatt Regency barroom after a night game.
But it did not last.
“I travel quite a bit,” I said. “Does he?”
“Yes, very much,” came the translation. “He has been to Bulgaria and Poland and Romania.”
“How about the West?” I asked.
“No,” came the answer. “He . . . has not.”
There was an awkward pause. We both took quick sips of our coffee, but it was more out of embarrassment than anything else. A Russian match There is probably a match here for every one of us back home, someone who laughs at the same ironies, who dreams the same dreams. But the line that separates us is straight and hard as steel. The difference between yes, you can, and no, you can’t.
“What if he wrote something critical of the government?” I asked.
“Well, he would not do this,” came the answer.
“Does he aspire to other jobs?” I asked.
“He will stay in this one,” came the answer. “Here, you see, it is not so easy to change.”
We talked for a few minutes more. He told me his salary, which was about
$4,800 a year. He asked about mine. I lied.
We exchanged business cards. I pointed to my phone number; I don’t know why.
“Tell him I hope he will come to America one day, and he will stay with me.”
She translated. His eyes widened for a second, then he opened his hands in front of him — body talk for surrender.
“Yes,” came the answer. “Maybe I will.”
No he won’t.
The lights in the room flicked on, meaning the place was closing. A heavyset waitress took away our cups. We both got up to go, and made a feeble attempt to communicate without the translator.
“Sank yu,” he said.
“Spacebo,” I replied.
And that was it. He crushed out his cigaret and went to join his Soviet colleagues. There were a thousand more things I wanted to tell him. There was nothing I could say.
In another world, we were the same man, and that was I walking off in his brown shoes. But this is this world, where freedom is still a crapshoot, and at that moment, I think we both realized who’d gotten the luckier roll.