I was at Trader Joe’s the other night stocking up on groceries for a week. Cashier insisted on packing up the stuff although I usually bag it myself. He was pretty good too, acrobatically amazing I should say, so I asked him if the rumors are true. The rumors that Trader’s people have to pass the timed bagging tests and have competitions on who does better. He dismissed the rumors, and just pointed out that fast bagging is needed, because nobody likes standing in line. That brought a smile to my face. I said, my friend, Trader Joe’s gives the best service, never a line, and I come from a country where everyone perpetually was standing in lines, and a few minutes of peaceful standing in line, is nothing but total meditative rest from my busy life. Unless of course monkeys are with me, and they are pulling off all the candy staked up next to the register. So we chatted a bit about the Soviets and the lines, and the stores, and people’s patience and expectations.
My standing in line in the Soviet days was pretty limited, my mom did most of it. Also, were were pretty stocked up with produce from our garden and my two grandmas farms, so we did not rely much on the store bought foods. I remember some lining-up, in the 1980s, mostly for shoes at the department store, chicken at the food store, and toilet paper at the home supplies place. You would have to stand multiple lines too, as each item was sold in separate sections. If you ever waited at government institutions in the USA, then you can picture how it was to buy something in the USSR, only worse. Because the end of the line would not get the goods, they would run out, so even though you stood in line for a few hours, you never knew if you would end up with the chicken for dinner or not. The shop girl would shout out: We are all out, come back tomorrow when a new shipment comes in. Usually, older ladies, who were retired, shopped for their families, since they had time to stand there and chat.
There were tons of Soviet jokes about standing in line, like this one:
Yuri Gagarin’s daughter answers the phone. ‘No, mummy and daddy are out,’ she says. ‘Daddy’s orbiting the earth, and he’ll be back tonight at 7 o’clock. But mummy’s gone shopping for groceries, so who knows when she’ll be home.’
Lines got worse in 1987-1990, when we literary had to storm the stores and trample over each others heads to get anything, I remember stocking up on bag fulls of sugar – I mean potato sack size! – and flour.
It’s 1988. A Warsaw man is sent off to the store by his wife to bring home some ham. Naturally the queue goes on for miles and when he finally gets to the counter, all the shelves are bare.
He loses his temper. “I’m sick of this stupid country, sick of this government, sick of the communists!”
Suddenly a shadowy-looking man in a trench coat approaches him and says “Calm down, comrade. You remember what this sort of outburst would cause back in the bad old days…” and mimes a trigger being pulled against his temple.
Back home, the man’s wife looks at him returning empty-handed and asks, “They’re out of ham again?”
“It’s worse than that. They’re even out of bullets.”
This “line” conversation made me think of Soviet jokes, and I recall many of them included Stalin, Brezhnev and Khrushchev in them. Lots of others had themes such as “A Russian, a German, and an Englishman walks into a bar or has a competition of some kind”. When we were kids, we would gather in our yards among the tall soviet apartment buildings and tell those jokes to each other, sometimes not fully understanding their meaning. Yes, communism really did create its own brand of comedy. The jokes were created as a form of resistance. They had to be funny and they had to be clever. And you had to have sense of humor to survive there, I guess.
Talking about Khruschev, who was a joker himself, I like this one:
‘Atrocious crimes took place under Comrade Stalin,’ he says. ‘Many innocent people suffered. There were terrible breaches of socialist legality.’
‘And where were you when this was going on?’ comes a voice from the back.
‘Who said that?’ snaps Khrushchev. Dead silence. You could hear a pin drop.
Khrushchev nods. ‘That’s where I was,’ he says.
In the West, Khrushchev was/is well known as a joker. Who does not know the shoe banging incident. His silliness was not so much accentuated in the Soviet Union, who would want a not so serious leader when things were pretty serious there. I was born after Khruschev’s death, but my parents recalled a little bit of his rule, his famous speech against Stalin, his corn diplomacy, his USA trip. So I am catching up on my Soviet history now. I just added this book on Khrushchev’s American trip to my library basket, looking forward to browse through it.
Back to standing in lines. It was a different world. We did stand in lines, patiently, without browsing our iPhones. We knew all our neighbors who stood in lines with us. We had a chance to catch up on rumors. I suppose there were some positive aspects of the long queues after all, there was no rush to get anywhere. Good for the government too, to have people spend their time in lines rather than coming up with some protests or something else damaging like that. Here is a great article about Soviet jokes, from which I took this one:
A man dies and goes to hell. There he discovers that he has a choice: he can go to capitalist hell or to communist hell. Naturally, he wants to compare the two, so he goes over to capitalist hell. There outside the door is the devil, who looks a bit like Ronald Reagan. “What’s it like in there?” asks the visitor. “Well,” the devil replies, “in capitalist hell, they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives.”
“That’s terrible!” he gasps. “I’m going to check out communist hell!” He goes over to communist hell, where he discovers a huge queue of people waiting to get in. He waits in line. Eventually he gets to the front and there at the door to communist hell is a little old man who looks a bit like Karl Marx. “I’m still in the free world, Karl,” he says, “and before I come in, I want to know what it’s like in there.”
“In communist hell,” says Marx impatiently, “they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil, and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives.”
“But… but that’s the same as capitalist hell!” protests the visitor, “Why such a long queue?”
“Well,” sighs Marx, “Sometimes we’re out of oil, sometimes we don’t have knives, sometimes no hot water…”
Easy Friday question for you: which hell do you choose? Would you rather stand in line in capitalist hell for 2 days to get your new iPhone or stand in line in communist hell to get some chicken for your dinner? 🙂