RUSSIANS ARE STEALING MY UNDERWEAR |
November 22, 2006
RUSSIANS ARE STEALING MY UNDERWEAR
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 11/22/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio
The day after we got hit with our first roadside bomb I slept all day, the deep, dreamless, womblike sleep of the truly exhausted. I woke up about five in the afternoon, blinking at the Tibetan prayer flags hanging off the bottom of the bunk above me, not sure of where I was, and not really wanting to find out. Eventually I decided I would go off in search of my missing underwear.
I have been convinced for some time that Russians are stealing it. No, this is not some paranoid delusion left over from the Cold War. Our little base is brimming with Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, and various other representatives of struggling and unpronouncable post-Soviet nations. They work for Ecolog, the company that runs our laundry facilities, and they usually do an awesome job. You turn in your laundry bags, brimming with toxic greasy clothes, and in 24 hours you get them back, miraculously cleaned, folded, and safely ensconsed in plastic. It's even free.
The problem is, like any tactical gear fanatic, almost everything I own is made by Underarmour. For tough physical work in environments with temperatures that approach that of the surface of the sun, nothing is better. Even if it will melt to your skin when exposed to ultra-high temperatures, like that created by an RPG blasting white hot metal through the cramped confines of your inadequately-armored HMMWV. Underarmour is not issued by the Army, which means I have to buy it myself, and it is not cheap.
I've suspected for a while that someone has been pilfering mine from my laundry. I never seem to have as many pairs as I should, despite the fact that I keep buying them during their furtive, random appearances at the PX. About a week ago I got three duffel bags back from whatever limbo they had been languishing in for the past month, ever since we had loaded them up into a bulging conex in Ba'quouba so we wouldn't have as much luggage to drag along when we flew to Baghdad. A month in a giant metal box in the middle of the Iraqi desert, crammed in with 500 other duffel bags -- you can imagine the condition of my clothes. It probably didn't help that they were not exactly clean when I sealed them in.
So I dropped off three bulging bags of potential biohazard to the grim Estonian behind the desk, and deftly collected the receipts when he flung them at me. I got back two of the bags, but the third, coincidentally full of about 200 bucks worth of Underarmour, was nowhere to be found. Nor was it found the next day, or the day after that, or the one after that. A week and a half later, still nothing.
Having braved the oversized bottle-rocket served to us by the Mahdi Army the previous night, I now felt that perhaps I had enough experience to tackle the proletariat masses of the base laundry, and off I went. After 20 minutes of the usual runaround ("What yer number?", "What ko-ler yer bag?") I was ordered by a squat Slav to go around the side of the building and enter the dreaded Yellow Door. In the past I had seen distraught unfortunates enter this portal never to be seen again, no doubt doomed to a life of forced slavery starching prison jumpsuits in some Gulag chamber.
Stepping through the door with trepidation, I was greeted by a surreal scene. Hundreds of tiny European washers and dryers, stacked on top of each other, lined the walls of the warehouse. For some inexplicable reason, every appliance was festooned with blank yellow Post-it notes. Massive alien blue-and-white electrical connections, fresh from the set of Metropolis, hung down from the roof top, great trunks of white cable disappearing into the rows of washers. Massive piles of laundry in gray net bags choked the aisles, spilled from boxes, filled the stairs at the back, and were piled in canvas carts that looked like they were made from the shrouds of dead sailors. An unseen radio, set at a ridiculously high volume, blared insanely-fast balalaika and clarinet music, accompanied by the indescribable wailing of an Eastern European and/or Arabic woman. A veritable army of pastel-t-shirt-clad Russian guys, each with an 80s-style haircut and identical five o'clock shadow, were throwing pieces of clothing back and forth to each other, while older, fatter, and more unshaven men in the corners folded t-shirts on rough, wooden tables. As if on cue, everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at me.
I did not know if I would be loudly greeted as a long lost comrade and force fed vodka, or if I was about to be shanked for the pack of cigarettes in my hand. A very short and rather large black woman waddled up to me. I had seen her before, working at the turn-in window, and she always had a nice smile and something pleasant to say. These are rare and wonderful qualities, seldom found in Military Land, and I had tried my best to be as charming in return, fortunately. She was the only American in this place, and seemed rather glad to see me. I was certainly relieved to see her and I told her of my plight. She turned and led me further into the bowels of the warehouse, and the sea of unshaven Latvians parted before her like a school of sardines making way for large, slow-moving shark.
B.J., as she turned out to be named, led me to back to the inner sanctum of the sprawling depot, the Star Chamber of the laundry world, where the oldest and most austere members of Ecolog filed faded tickets while chewing on the tattered remains of wax-paper-wrapped Siberian cigarettes. The shortest, roundest, hairiest member of this Council of Elders centered himself in front of us, blocking the aisle.
Lately I have been reading Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook, a hilarious book set in Prague during the 1990s. Without a doubt, and I now found myself faced with the character known as "The Groundhog". BJ explained my predicament and The Groundhog moved past us, showing no discernible evidence of having heard her, nor acknowledging that we were present in any way. Repeated explanations failed to engender any response more than a barely audible grunt from around his bedraggled, unlit cigar stub. I got the feeling that The Groundhog knew exactly what had befallen my unmentionables, and was less than happy that their legitimate owner had finally come looking for them. Perhaps if he just ignored the Amerikanski long enough, the dilemma would simply disappear.
Eventually, even BJ gave up. We retired to her office, where she explained to me the ways of her world, while checking her email. The Laundry Kommissars never keep any of the items they find in the clothes, even large dollar bills, except for one thing. Pogs. Pogs are paper money that the PX issues for change. Turns out it is too costly to ship actual metal pennies, dimes and quarters from the States to Iraq, so they issue cardboard change instead. The pogs are only usable here in theater, at the AAFES facilities. None of the soldiers ever give them much regard.
Except, apparently, for the Kommissars. They collect them, then turn them in to the PX and have them cashed out -- $80, $100, and more at a time. And what do they buy? Underarmour underwear. For their kids. Back in Estonia, or Latvia, or Bosnia, or some other ia.
I sat in the air-conditioned office, watching the secret Russian Mafia Underwear Army churning through its machine-like motions on the other side of the plexiglass windows. Stunned. Lord only knew where my skivvies were, or what indescribable fate had actually befallen them.
After a while, some up-and-coming midlevel Ecolog supervisor arrived. His meteroic rise to power was reflected in his hip and with-it dress -- a long dangly silver earring and cutting-edge Cheap Trick t-shirt. He had now hauled in the unfortunate clerk who had taken my complaint in the first place, and started questioning the poor guy, at first in English for my and BJ's sake, but quickly reverting to some indecipherable Baltic sub-dialect, the volume and tone of which quickly grew louder and more unpleasant. Bad vibes.
I glimpsed The Groundhog through the windows, scuttling off behind the washing machines, casting a furtive glance at the office. Was that the slightest smirk on the corners of his tobacco-flecked lips? Behind the scent of fabric softener, I smelled a coverup.
"Guys, guys," I said, standing up, putting my hands on their shoulders, "it is not big deal." Have you ever noticed that when speaking to people that speak pidgin English, there is a tendency to speak it right back to them, in the same accent? "Last night, they try blow me up, big bomb. This just underwear. No big deal. I just happy to live. Okay?"
Big smile from the young, harassed clerk. Look of confused suspicion from the supervisor. Behind us, back turned to us, still absorbed in her email, BJ said "Amen to that."
I walked out of the office, waved goodbye through the plexiglass, and ventured off into the warehouse in search of an exit, hoping to avoid The Groundhog en route. Life is too damn short to get your knickers in a twist over this stuff. I'm sure you can wash Underarmour by hand.