Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Dying Breed

Estonia’s surliest coat-check woman works at the Tallinn children’s hospital where Liina takes little Robert to swim.

Every time I see the woman, she wears an expression as if she’d been waterboarded and sleep deprived by a team of CIA interrogators. If Liina tries to offer her coat from the right side of the desk, the old woman barks at her “Tulge teisele poole.” In this case, the “other side” is a distance of one-and-a-half meters down the very same counter. Because of my accent, I suppose, I am given a modicum of respect, which means that she will take my coat from whichever “side” but, as with Liina, she will not acknowledge anything I say to her. “Good afternoon” or “thank you” or “I once had a lover who looked exactly like you” are all met with her showing me her back.

Another place I know has a coat check manned by multiple women who, when in foul moods, routinely punish coat-seekers with lasers fired from their eyes. If you approach the woman responsible for check numbers 200 through 400 with check number 150 in hand, you risk having a trap door sprung beneath you, which will carry you away, your family never to hear from you again.

According to the scientific research I have personally conducted, Estonian museums, on average, have the grumpiest coat check women. Museums are a veritable repository for Soviet-era battle axes. The Kadriorg Art Museum is especially rich with them. I have been shouted at for putting my coat on an unauthorized rack, and I have witnessed the glee with which these women roam the floor near closing time, shooing you out the door.

Even the otherwise progressive KUMU is not immune. Once, before even reaching the coat check (whose attendants will win no prizes), I showed my press pass to see an exhibit. The desk attendant gave me a look as if I’d insisted she carry me around the museum all day on her back. “You’re supposed to call ahead!” she snapped. Since then, I’ve simply shut up and paid my money, since who visits a museum to have his mood spoiled? Perhaps in retribution, I have abstained writing magazine stories about museums. Of course this isn’t fair, and it only proves that I, too, can be capitally petty and therefore might make a fine coat check woman myself.

It has been explained to me that a coat attendant is perhaps the last bastion of the Soviet Union. She is a schveitser, or doorman, of sorts, a person in a rather insignificant role who is vested for a small time with disproportionate power. She may choose to take my coat or not take my coat. Once taken, she may choose to return my coat or not return my coat. And while in her possession, my coat may accidentally fall on to the filthy floor, the contents of the pockets may disappear, or a pack of wild dogs may shred the garment to rags. And none of this would be her problem.

An American friend of mine has a more healthy attitude toward these women. He treats each one as a puzzle to be solved or a code to be cracked. He will say or do anything until he gets the woman to smile. It may take two or three attempts, but my friend will always inspire one of these furies to at least roll her eyes. His toughest challenge and greatest triumph, a feat which I was privileged to personally witness, was a ticket seller at Tallinn's train station. Over a period of months, he had bought dozens of tickets and tried dozens of witty lines in the pursuit of making her smile. But to no avail. Finally, on a summer’s day, he ventured onto an overgrown vacant lot in the neighborhood and picked a bouquet of wildflowers. He returned to the station, approached her window, and fed two-dozen flowers, one at a time, through the tiny opening at the bottom of her window. This brought not only a smile, but shrieks of pleasure, and every other ticket seller stopped business for a moment to come stand behind her as she received the flowers.

My problem is that I have not progressed enough along the path to enlightenment to see these women as my friend does. I tend to personalize their behavior, not realizing that it is not directed at me, and perhaps not even directed at the world in general, but perhaps a simple function of the fact that they are doing a miserable, low-paying job, and on a given day perhaps their husbands have not been sufficiently kind to them in the morning.

Most of us are not zen masters, and we instinctively return the negative emotions we are presented with. Another friend, a writer based in Latvia, once published a story entitled “Selling Pisses at the Riga Station,” a supposed first-person account of the life of a bathroom attendant at the Riga bus station. It was stunningly well written and entertaining, but it did nothing to advance the cause of peace on earth and goodwill toward men.

Liina’s grandmother worked for a time as a coat check woman. She was an underfunded pensioner, and this was at least some income, as well as a place to go during the day. I never witnessed her at work, but I would like to think she took up the job with the same zest with which she went about the rest of her life, and that she was an exception to the rule in the coat check trade.

In her memory I’ve tried to make at least a first attempt to make coat check women smile. I am usually unsuccessful. Perhaps they sense insincerity? Perhaps they are too far gone for one pleasant remark to help? More often, the best I can do is keep my mouth shut and try not to return the emotions. Because there but for the grace of God go I. And because you never can know what I might be doing as a pensioner.

I suppose the future will put an end to these positions. Over the long-term, it will be far cheaper to have people put away their own coats.

“The coat-check woman with her singular nastiness is a dying breed,” one of my more cynical friends likes to exclaim. “And thank god for it,” he is quick to add.

But I think we’re going to miss them. With the same sort of nostalgia people express when they see that Soviet-era TV advertisement for chicken (“kana, kana, kana, kana, kana…”), or when a Zaporozhetz passes by on a city street, the coat check women are a unique part of the culture. And they are a daily reminder of the fleetingness of power and position. We may all be the worse when they are finally gone.