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From Russia, With Love



Published May 20, 2009 at 10:19 a.m.

At the country club, there is no last call at the clubhouse bar. The bartender will stay until the very last barfly calls it a night. Membership — which costs, I understand, a pretty penny — has its privileges.

“Want a refill on that, sir?” the young bartender respectfully addressed me as I sat on a comfy stool at the far end of the bar.

“Sure thing, that’ll be great,” I replied. “Thanks, buddy.”

I wasn’t here as a regular. Like Groucho Marx, I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member. I’m lying. The truth is, I couldn’t afford it. Also, though I have many baneful habits, golf is one I’ve thus far managed to avoid.

No, I found myself belly up to the bar because a regular taxi customer had summoned me for a ride home but failed to anticipate that the Celtics-Bulls playoff game would go into triple overtime. So there I sat, staring up at the flat screen behind the bar while drinking seltzer with Big Vladdy and his cohorts. Actually, I was the only one drinking seltzer.

A middle-aged guy with a barrel chest, shaggy, salt-and-pepper hair and an easy laugh, Vladimir is a Russian émigré who arrived in Burlington in the ’90s. I don’t know what he did in Russia — I’m not sure I want to know — but he’s done well for himself in his adopted country with his real estate development company. In the hill section of the New North End, up Van Patten Parkway and within sight of the Ethan Allen tower, Vladdy has built an attractive, capacious home for himself and his young blonde wife. I’ve driven them out together and witnessed how he dotes on her. In reciprocation, perhaps, she allows him his many nights out with the boys.

When Vladdy’s hitting the local taverns or the country club bar, he drinks the best imported vodka in the house and calls me when he’s done. For the record, I’ve never seen him with a driver or putter in his hand; I think he joined the club for the top-notch bar, the camaraderie and the business contacts — in that order.

“Oh, yeah!” I said, sort of to the bartender, who was gazing at the TV with me as one of the Celtics players hit an improbable three-point shot from the corner. “Ray Allen is unconscious tonight.”

“Look, look, look — here’s what I’m saying.” One of Vladimir’s barstool associates was attempting to make a point. “Obama is killing the economy. Do y’understand? It’s frickin’ socialism. The only way to get things back on track is to cut taxes and let the free market do its thing.”

“Yeah — right, Jim,” one of his friends replied. “But can we watch the goddamn game, like, for a minute?”

“Capitalism is greatest accomplishment in all mankind!” Vladimir proclaimed, with all the passion of a true believer. A grim childhood in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics will do that to you.

That’s what I’m talking ’bout!” Jim seconded the opinion. “Vladdy, you are the man. I mean, all this regulation is bullshit. In some Asian countries, anybody can work. You can be just a kid and earning a living.”

This guy is the genuine article, I thought as, for the first time, I noticed the Wall Street Journals and Forbes magazines strewn on the tables of the room. What a brilliant thesis on child labor laws. The man is a tad to the right of Tom DeLay.

“How about it?” Jim continued his rant. “Any other capitalists willing to speak up, for chrissake?”

One of the gang reached over and draped an arm around Jim’s shoulders. “Can I tell you something?” he said in a faux tender voice, giving his pal a little squeeze. “I say this with all due respect: Jim, you are a genius, but could you shut the fuck up and watch the fucking basketball game?”

With that, the entire bar exploded in laughter. Men are men, I thought as I watched the action off to the side, whether it’s the local business elite at the fancy private club or the working-class stiffs tippling at the Olde Northender.

Finally, the game ended in a frustrating Celtics loss. I shuffled over to Vladimir, who looked up at me with a mixture of surprise and delight. “Jernigan, what you doing here, my friend?”

“Well, Vladdy, I’ve been here close to an hour. You told me to wait, and you’d take a cab ride when the game was over.”

“Mr. Jimmy said he give me ride home tonight.”

With a different customer, this would have qualified as a seriously sticky situation. But I’d been here before with Vlad, and I knew there wouldn’t be a problem. He asks a lot of me as a cab driver, but he never fails to hold up his part of the unspoken bargain. And by that I mean one thing: He tips big time.

“Here’s the situation,” I said to Vlad with a smile. “Number one: Jim is in no shape to drive, either. Number two: You had me wait an hour, brother.”

“OK — no problem, my friend.” Vlad capitulated immediately, placing a big paw on my shoulder. “I will go with you. But I have a favor to ask. Can we stop at dat kabob shop downtown? I am hungry.”

“Vladdy, my friend,” I replied, “we can stop anywhere you’d like.”