Russia: The bap

In Russia, for some damn reason, they call a restaurant a “pectopah” and a bar a “bap.” But you could certainly argue that the drinking establishment in this St. Petersburg hotel deserves a special name of its own. And maybe it’s “movie,” because that’s what the whole experience feels like.

It’s an epic movie, to be sure, as we hang most nights past 4 a.m. But putting in the hours means we get to see the whole story arc. How the hookers, who don’t look like hookers at all — in the US they’d be the most elegant ladies in the room — periodically shift tables and take turns discreetly trolling the crowd. How the smooth-as-silk manager signals to them with a silent nod that he needs their table and they temporarily move to a seating area in the hall. How every hooker has a rose-colored drink, non-alcoholic, on her table with a straw in it. Some kind of high-class red light maybe, but mostly, I think, to signal the staff.

But enough of my ogling the working girls. What I wanted to tell you about was the gangster part of the movie from last night.

Of course, in Russia, every night’s a gangster movie, and some of the days are, too. In spite of its beauty, culture and comparative friendliness, Peter (as the natives call it) is the crime capital of the country. That’s not street crime. I’ve never worried about being mugged, after three trips. And my Russian friends tell me rape is virtually non-existent. No, it’s the big-time stuff. Corporate crime. But that doesn’t mean, when push comes to shovova, it doesn’t involve a little rat-a-tat-tat.

For example, yesterday I’m standing outside the hotel with my goomah (OK, my wife), waiting for an associate (OK, my son) when this bad-ass baby-blue Rolls pulls up, and the parking dude gets out. Whoa. Car has a reverse-opening door, like the 1960 Lincoln Continental. Old-school suicide doors on a Rolls! I reach for my Canon. Autofocus barely has time to do its stuff when I feel a tap from behind. I turn and stare into the eyes of a thirty-fivish man of swarthy complexion. His face is expressionless. I ransack my mental database for his identity, as I wait for him to break into a big smile and give me a hug and exclaim, “What the hell are you doing in St. Pete???”

But, well, no.

In Russian, of which I understand exactly two words (see sentence one above), he tells me don’t take any pics or I will break you and your camera. Of course, even not understanding the lingua, I understand perfectly. And then he gently, but insistently, shoves the two of us out of the way of the hotel entrance. A moment later, a compact, unsmiling man — the bad guy, unmistakably, in the gangster movie — wearing a surprising, glittery Grand Ole Opry-style jacket, breezes out, surrounded by men holding their unbuttoned suit-jackets closed, hops in the car and guns it. Before he does, though, he looks left and right, and I see that one side of his head bears some gnarly shrapnel scars. As he pulls away, a Mercedes SUV joins him, and our tapping friend runs and hops into another chase car.

But it’s not a movie. Neither is the bap.

We’re back at our regular table near the music, listening to the Russian jazz singer and watching the hookers work the Swedish conventioneers when a couple of linebacker types stroll in and take up point positions. A few beats later, a much older Godfather strolls in. He is seated in the corner, between a wall and a fireplace, with his young date and a young man, whom I first assume is his friend and later recognize as another bodyguard. The bar manager pays respects. And then here comes the manager of the whole damn hotel. A bottle of vodka shows up. Caviar. Handmade chocolates. More vodka.

At some point, the pretty young waitress, clearly the novice in the room, leans over the table to deliver some goods. A wisp of hair has escaped from her pony tail and floats over her cheek. The Godfather says something and raises his flat hand parallel with the plane of her face, an inch away. I can’t figure out at first if this is some kind of pantomime, that he’s demonstrating something — perhaps how he once shoved a septum into a brain — or gesturing for her to stop, or what. But, like a practiced dance partner, she moves her face back, slowly and precisely, even as he moves his large hand toward it, always maintaining an exact inch of distance, until finally the Godfather says something more and points, and she pushes the wisp of hair behind her ear. She pivots and heads back to the bar. But as she passes, we can see her puff her cheeks slightly and blow out a sigh, not theatrically, not for our benefit, but a real sigh. No words pass between her and the manager, but, smooth as silk, a new waitress — just as pretty, not as young — takes over the table. And the movie continues.

(A version of this post appeared previously on the ever-informative