Catching a car in Russia — hitchhiking — is different than taking a cab. You feel a little more native — you are completely handing your safety over to this country you're in. And unlike when you take a cab, there are rules, passed on over beer from expat to expat. Although it seems awkward, you should sit in the front. Do what the driver tells you to do. Wait for the driver to tell you to buckle up — to do so on your own can be seen as insulting, and if you buckle up anyway and annoy him, he might kick you out of the car. You need to weigh for yourself whether that's better than being killed in a car crash.
One I understood but could never put into effect was "don't let the driver pick someone else up." I would be dozing off in the front seat when the driver would start to pull over to another hitchhiker, and I would snap awake, heart jumping. The driver always apologized, but as he was pulling over to listen to the person's offer, I was at a loss as to whether I should argue with the driver, or somehow force him to keep driving, or if I should hop out of the car. As with so many decisions I made there, it made more sense to just ride the moment carefully, as if I were driving a car that had hit a patch of ice. Ease up on the gas, hold onto the wheel, and wait until things I could be sure of what to do.
There was one absolute: Never, ever get into a car with two people in it. Clearly that was beyond dangerous. Why would anyone even attempt it? A lone driver would keep his car safe and on the road and wouldn't have time to assault you. But a passenger was an unknown. If he was in the backseat, he was probably waiting for someone to garrotte. If he were in the front seat, he could conspire with the driver. I myself never knew anyone who had gotten into a car with two people, because obviously anyone who tried it died instantly, never to be spoken of again.
My good friend Chris lived on one of the islands in St. Petersburg, where pre-revolutionary buildings crowded in on each other, making the streets crooked and winding. There it is possible to be lost after walking around the corner a block from where you started; you turn back and nothing looks familiar, even in daylight. One night in early spring, after an evening of beer and spaghetti, I left his apartment to head home.
It was after midnight. I walked with my hands in my coat pockets and turned out of the courtyard where Chris lived. A couple of lamps threw a tricky light onto the charming tree-lined streets, and lit up the fronts of classical buildings, making them look flat, like false fronts. All the windows were dark and I felt like I had walked onto an abandoned movie set. Even the kiosks were closed. But as I passed one of them, two young men who had been standing by it peeled off and began to follow me as I was about a half-block away.
My joints went loose with adrenaline. People had walked behind me before, even late at night, but somehow this was different. It was impossible to get back to Chris without turning and walking toward them, and I didn't want to turn down a side street into a dead end or alley. The Swiss Army knife I sometimes carried was not in my pocket. I kept my stride long and confident, trying to cover a lot of ground without looking like I was running. I had to put enough space between us to give me time to catch a car at the place I usually did, a corner a couple blocks away. It was amazing to me that as I was carefully fleeing them, I was planning on stopping and waiting as they approached. Sometimes a car didn't come by there at night until 10 minutes had gone by.
I crossed the road to reach the corner where I usually caught a car, and heard the two men crossing a half-block behind me. I looked up the road and was relieved — but not surprised, because on this movie set I would have to escape — to see headlights. Sometimes cars don't stop. Someone might need to beat a bridge, or get home. "Please, stop," I thought hard, and thought it in Russian, too, just for good measure: "Rady boga, pozhaluista, stoi."
The car pulled over; it's what the script required. Things were going to be OK. Relief made me smile, even though at this hour, the driver was probably drunk. The car stopped and the passenger window rolled down. Two young men in it, both sitting in the front, looked at me. "Where to?" said the passenger.
I felt myself skidding all over my mind. I put my hand on the back door handle and looked over the roof of the car to see for the first time the men, standing across the street, who had been following me. They, too, were waiting to see if I was going to get in a car with two people. Everything stopped for a moment until I opened my mouth and said "Pionerskaya Metro station," opening the door even before the driver agreed to a price, and not caring if the two following me heard where I was going. I sat down and slammed the door. The driver pulled out and the passenger looked at the men who had been following me, and who were now watching the car. "Do you know them, or what?"
"No," I said. "I don't."
The passenger heaved himself around, bumping the driver and bobbing over the back seat. "So what are we going to do when we get to your apartment?" he asked, not yet aggressive but perhaps overly friendly.
"My boyfriend is going to be happy to see me because he told me to come home," I said, smiling firmly and trying not to pant from fear. "I don't know what YOU'RE going to do."
"Boyfriend, eh?" he said. "He'll drink with us!"
"No, not tonight," I said.
"What does he do?"
"He's a carpenter," I said. "A strong carpenter. And he's waiting with his friends. At my apartment."
The passenger fell silent, then turned back. I buried myself in the backseat, hardly thinking about my escape as I tensed myself against what was happening now. I'm living a legend. I'm a third wheel. I'm not sure what to do.
"Mind if I smoke?" said the passenger suddenly.
"It's your car," I said.
The passenger and the driver spoke to each other, loud enough that I heard them and was sure they weren't plotting, but not quite loud enough for me to know exactly what they said. I started to relax a little bit, as I always do when taking a car.
"And what will your boyfriend say when he sees us?" the passenger roused himself again. "He'll be pleased to see us! He's expecting us!" The driver murmured to him, and the passenger swore, goodnaturedly, but also mildly annoyed.
"Where you from?" the driver asked me kindly, looking at me in the mirror.
"I'm an American."
This impressed the passenger, who then went on a good-natured rant against American women who come here to pick up and discard Russian boyfriends. "But it's good, good, that he called you and told you to come home," he said, turning again. "Women shouldn't be out late at night, alone. You should be at home with him. You never know what might happen."
There was no boyfriend waiting for me. I am almost sure the driver knew this.
I had been worried about not getting a car. I was now worried about getting out of the car. If they — or even just the passenger — followed me, what could I do? One of the most popular advices is to just stand and yell "fire," because nothing brings people in Russia like the call of fire. But my Western first amendment prohibition against yelling fire when there isn't one always made me skeptical.
The passenger was either falling asleep or getting surly. Possibly both. We approached my corner. I had the money ready. I waved it up into the front seat before the car stopped. The driver thanked me and the passenger wished me a pleasant evening with my boyfriend, who was such a swine for not inviting everyone else in for drinks. The driver smiled an apology at me.
I walked up the stairs, unlocked my door. Locked it behind me. I wasn't shaking, but felt jumpy. Already it all seemed to be fading. Nothing bad happened so it hardly seems worth it to dwell on it. This is how living there was like sometimes.