Monday, May 7, 2012

Little Revolutions

Pissed off consumers on one side of the counter. Bitter 50-something Soviet-era shopkeepers on the other.

“This is just unacceptable,” an architect I knew stood with the customers, his face growing increasingly red. “I want you to understand why I cannot use your work.” The smirk on the face of the copy shop’s battleaxe widened in direct proportion to how angry the architect became. “My drawing is green, and look at your copy. What color is it?”

Standing a meter away even I could see that it wasn’t green. “What color is this?” the architect asked me when the shopkeeper put her hands in her pockets and stared away into space.

“It’s piss yellow,” I answered loudly enough she couldn’t ignore it.

“Piss yellow,” repeated the architect who turned again to the shopkeeper. “Are you now going to tell me it’s green?”

The shopkeeper stared at her feet for a good long moment. “No, it isn’t green,” she finally conceded. And then I just about hugged the architect for his small victory over some of the nastiest human beings in Estonia. I had used that copy shop dozens of times, each time secretly hoping its employees would be visited by the plague.

I’m not proud of wishing ill on unfriendly shopkeepers, but I have to admit that I am not above it. Almost every week, during some customer interaction in Tallinn, I think to myself while staring the shopkeeper: Would it be too much to ask for you to just go away and die?

“But it’s not our fault,” the shopkeeper added as soon as she’d conceded that green and yellow were not the same. “It’s the machines!”

As the architect puzzled his way out of that one, an Estonian pianist known for his dramatic flair flew through the door.

“This is a disaster!” he shouted, brushing past all of us in line to the counter where he threw copies of a musical composition in front of another shop worker. “The black is not black, the white is not white! Do you know how much money I have spent in this shop? Twenty thousand euros I would bet you. My entire career I have come here. And now look what you give me!”

As I stood on my toes to peek over the pianist’s shoulder to see if they’d made his music piss yellow, the employee folded her arms to form a shield, jerked her chin skyward, and entered her thousand-yard stare. “It’s not my fault,” she said. “It’s the machines!”

The pianist paused. He looked at the shopkeeper. He looked at the architect. Then he looked at me, his expression saying, Does she really think I’m stupid enough to accept that as an answer?

He was asking for my help, I could see, and I wasn’t going to abandon a man in the right.

“It’s the machines!” I shouted at my highest volume. “The machines have taken over, and it’s up to us to stop them!”

“Oh, my god!” exclaimed the architect. “They’re probably unstoppable now. They’ve taken over the entire city, at the very least the city government.”

“He’s right,” cried the pianist. “Maybe Bruce Willis is available to fight these machines?”

Other customers also got into the spirit of things.

“I’ve warned my son about computers,” said a middle-aged woman, though I was not sure she’d completely understood. “Computers can be dangerous!”

“Perhaps we should set fire to the machines!” offered a very old man with a cane. “That sometimes works in the movies.”

“A great idea!” howled the pianist. “A huge fucking fire! It may be the only thing that will work!”

“I’m with you,” the architect declared. “Perhaps you have a canister of gasoline we can pour all over the copy machines?” he asked the shopkeeper, striking the flint on a ruby red cigarette lighter produced from his pocket.

Such camaraderie and singleness of purpose I had never before had the privilege to be part of in Estonia.

I’d of course heard of the Baltic Chain and Hirvepark, but they were not a part of my youth. Until now, the Estonia I had known was one of passivity, of people shrugging and turning the other cheek. But finally, after 20 years of waiting, I was present for the moment when an Estonian finally put up his hand to say, “Enough.” And it was an object of beauty.

So what if it was only in a copy shop? So what if the adversaries were nothing but some middle-aged ciphers? It was still pure joy to see citizens confront the perverse stupidity of somebody’s system.

I sometimes imagine what it might be like if Estonians collectively got tired of the shenanigans of the city government. I imagine thousands of them converging on city hall some sunny day. When they arrive they knock on the door and are politely received by the mayor.

“Won’t you send these people right out?” asks the people’s representative, who hands the mayor a list. “And examine the list for your own name, too.”

Seeing there are a few thousand people outside, those called have little choice but to come out. And the people show themselves to be in no real hurry, having brought lawn chairs, thermoses of coffee, and pastries wrapped in newspapers, which they happily share between them.

The people on the list report one by one, whereby the people’s spokesman offers them his seat, and calmly delivers the message: You have violated our trust and proved an embarrassment to the republic. You are requested to leave your post immediately and report to a farm in Põlvamaa where you will be retrained with a useful skill. Thank you for your time. That is all.

While the Greeks and French may be talented at setting things on fire, they have a rough and clumsy way about them. There is really nothing more elegant than Estonians deciding they are going to get their way.

Classy protests are few and far between, but when one happens abroad, I often look to see if Estonians are not behind it.

When University of California at Davis students lined the path from Chancellor Linda Katehi’s office to her car to silently shame her for the pepper spraying of students, the composure they showed was an act so elegant in its execution that I scoured news reports and blogs to see if an Estonian name might not be behind it.

Although I wish Estonians luck with their IT, I am not convinced it’s going to be a famous export item. But why not singing revolutions? It isn’t everyone, you know, who possesses enough self-control to not throw a Molotov cocktail.

There is nothing I would have enjoyed more, quite honestly, than to see that copy shop set on fire, but we all knew that nothing of the sort was to happen. The Soviet battleaxes were as safe as they could be. They could only go home that night, like Linda Katehi, secretly ashamed for having let things reach the point they did.

I imagine that copy chop is as puzzling to the architect and the pianist as it is to me. Like me, each time they patronize the shop they speculate as to how it’s possible every single employee can be so bitter.

Perhaps the employees were genetically engineered in a secret laboratory deep inside the Urals? They were people bred to be emotionless, who were simply released on the world when the funding ran out in the 1990s.

Or perhaps all the copy shop staff are orphans, children who grew up without being held in the arms of a loving parent even a single time in their entire lives? They had come from a cold, cruel world, and were only giving back what they received.

Or is their story more quotidian? Perhaps all the workers are former executioners from the Patarei women’s prison?

Or perhaps they are former mistresses of the copy shop owner? They fell hard for him, were nurtured by his love, only to be thrown over for another woman. They were still needy, and they had nothing to do in life but to work in close physical proximity to him, spending their remaining years tearing themselves apart, wondering why they weren’t good enough to be The One.

This is no ordinary copy shop, after all. One could send a troupe of professional circus clowns into the shop, and each would leave in severe need of psychological counseling.

There is a second copy shop within walking distance of the city center, but I do not go there.

Its employees are not especially friendly, either, but they seem to present no great psychological puzzle. When you pay what it costs for copying, if you can’t get good customer service then it’s still nice to get a little something extra, even if it’s only a glimpse of life’s rich tapestry. Just don’t go there looking for quality copies.

Enjoy a battleaxe-free purchase.