A few days ago, facing the fact that my closet couldn’t accommodate one more piece of clothing, I was forced to inventory its contents – a chore that gives me as much pleasure as grating beets for a Herring under a fur coat salad and then spending a week trying to scrub the purple off my palms. I came across a dress in black and orange that made me wince, a going away present from my aunt who worked at the Ivanovo fashion factory in Central Russia and pulled all her connections to get me this gift. There is a verb in Russian – dostat’ – that has no exact equivalent in English. It roughly means to get something with difficulty – through a series of clever and timely moves or through connections. We had to dostat’ almost everything in Soviet Leningrad: Bulgarian ketchup, Finnish boots, Pasternak’s poetry. This gave us a sense of thrill and achievement; it galvanized our life. Rewards were numerous: a can of sprats tossed at you by a surly saleswoman because you happened to pass the store when the delivery truck pulled up to the back door; a pair of Polish pantyhose your neighbor whispered you still might be able to own if you dropped your plans and sprinted to the corner haberdashery; a jar of instant coffee with a complicated Swedish label you garnered from a friendly professor whose husband was a merchant marine and had, unlike us, seen other shores. All that kept us alert and ready. We couldn’t afford to lose concentration; there were only so many cans of sprats and pairs of pantyhose and jars of instant coffee.
Which brings me to something positive about our extinct Soviet life: it was easier than life is here in America. We were not burdened with choice: there was one university, one style of shoes, one party. There was one red wine called “ink” and only three kinds of cheese, all with the geopolitical names of Russian, Soviet, and Swiss. There was little to buy and no money to buy it with. We didn’t have to rack our brains to decide where to have lunch because, in the absence of restaurants, the only place to eat was our own kitchen.
That’s why Russian immigrants in the U.S. shop for clothing at TJMaxx. The vast racks of unknown labels provide little choice, but when you stumble onto a brand name garment of quality, it gives you that feeling of dostat’ you can’t get in a regular store. How difficult is it to buy a pair of Prada shoes when you enter a Prada store? Anyone who is willing to part with half a month salary can do it. But when you dig up a pair of Prada at TJMaxx, at one-tenth the price (which also happens to be your size) it feels just like that unforgettable day back in the USSR, the day you saw a truck with French sheepskin coats pull up to the back door of a Leningrad department store and you ran and elbowed your way to reach the counter at the precise moment to be the first one on line.