Sidewalk Ghosts / Slava – “Songs About Friends”

“What is your name?” I asked.

In deep dialect he responded, “Slava.”

“Do you have a hobby, Slava?” I casually followed up.

He paused, glanced at my reflection in the rear view mirror, eyes staring as if summing me up; and, after an uncomfortable delay–“Guitar.”

“What kind of music?” I inquired further.

He lightly laughed and then fell silent, letting the question float in the air like a sinking balloon.

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To say the least, I felt very rejected. It seemed that, for whatever reason, Slava did not want to converse with me, and the last thing I wanted to do was go down a rabbit hole toward setting myself up for hurt. For I was raw, having just encountered one of the worst experiences of my life. I needed to protect myself, and I had to do it quickly. I turned my eyes to meditate on the scenery outside, the green trees whipping by as I licked my wounds in accepting what felt like a very dismissive hint. I didn’t get it. All I was trying to do was strike up a bit of light conversation. No big deal. To just socialize in letting go of a day I truly wanted to put behind me, and to get the silent treatment was a glorious capstone to an absolutely terrible afternoon. I took a few quite breaths, calmed my reactionary self, and dismissed my desire for conversation, and as I did, Slava again looked at my reflection,

“A Russian song.” He turned his eyes back to the road.

The door was reopened, my emotions rekindled, and I just couldn’t let it go, I was simply too curious who this mysterious Slava was.

Readjusting my approach to a more direct path, “May I take your photograph?” I invited.

He summed me up under a withheld smile, but this time it was I looking at the reflection in the rear view mirror,

“Maybe!” He again fell silent.

Yet, there was one last icebreaker I felt I had to try. A question that I thought was as non-threatening as one could be. So I threw it. “What kind of Russian song?”

I did not get the response I expected. Slava stayed silent, shared no words, no body language showing any interest to converse, and post a final and brief stare at me through the rear view mirror, no engagement at all. He simply turned his eyes back to the road and resumed driving.

The sinking balloon dropped lower. Pushed down by what looked liked absolute disinterest on the part of Slava, it fell to the floor. Did I get too personal with my last question? Could I have somehow inadvertently opened a sensitive subject by inviting him to share more about his music?

Darker even, were the negative opinions that began to enter my mind. Stuff like, “What is his problem!”

The smell of jet fuel wafted into the car as the airport drew closer. Slava, with a now regular repetition of occasional rear view mirror checks of me, stayed resolute in his awkward silence as the airport exit sign came into view–my queue to begin preparing for an end to a very isolated commute. There were no words exchanged as I looked down to gather my bags and count a driver’s gratuity from the few dollars I had, all the while not realizing that Slava had taken a diversion away from the airport entrance and toward a dead end side street just prior to the roadway leading to the drop off for departing flights.

The area was clean and industrial. Easy to recognize that the buildings were new and the deep black asphalt hardly used. Row after row of large units with tall big-rig loading docks lined the street on both sides. All empty of any movement. Completely vacant, and most likely, never occupied. Each proof that the Recession was real; testaments of brick and mortar witnessing the aftermath of a harsh economic downturn.

Not fully knowing Slava’s reasoning for the detour or of his intentions, I became very aware, and with no view of other road traffic I tensed up. Growing incrementally uncomfortable as I postured to the front of the seat, my mind began to percolate. Was I about to receive a stern thrashing from Slava for asking too many bothering questions? After all, retribution might have been in order for sticking my nose into his business with my barrage of personal inquiries.

There was a growing lump in my throat as Slava stopped at the end of a deserted culdesac, shifted the vehicle into park, and turned off the engine.

Vulnerable was an understatement to how I felt as I inventoried my surroundings. The lump in my throat beginning to swell into a chokehold as I was totally out of my comfort zone, scoping all possible scenarios should things turn bad.

Do I grab my bags and run, or just sprint without them? If it gets physical, could I protect myself? Scenario after scenario flashed through my head, and with each downward spiral of my logic, my uneasiness and heart rate increased. It was ridiculous that with all the life experience I had, that I could feel so out of control. That I could let my imaginative self get the best of me by creating a portfolio of frightening outcomes to the moment that was at hand.

My chest was pounding and I was ready to react, when, at the height of my anxiety, Slava leaned over the front seat, turned his head and peered directly into my eyes, “Songs about friends. Shall we take a photo outside the car?” He smiled warmly.

My walls instantly fell. I felt embarrassed for so negatively assessing the character of a person I did not know. Regretful for drawing conclusions far too quickly about another person without due consideration; the mirror was again pointed at me and I was looking at myself, a little ashamed that, in a way, I had profiled Slava. Judged his silence and short responses as aggression. Dug my heals in the sand as to who he was before I knew who he was, and in doing, almost blocked an opportunity to better know a very good man. A man who, after posing for a few candid photographs, unexpectedly opened up to trust me with an intimate part of his life story. I was honored to say the least. Never in my life would I have, at first glance, realized the depth of this amazing well-intentioned human being.

Slava was a success story of the richest kind. Migrating with his wife and children from the Ukraine to the United States in 1989, he had settled into a life where family and kindness to others were first priority. A mechanical engineer by trade, he chose to leave his career and travel to a country where his children could build a better life. A life altering decision that exemplified his belief that humility and love of family are more important than vocation.

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At first he chauffeured as a means of income. A way to put his two sons through college, yet in it he found a new freedom that allowed him to meet, in his words, “…many interesting people.” Something that was foundation to Slava’s character and the reason why he chose to continue his life as a chauffeur. In getting to know him, I was blessed. My heart turned toward a man of wonderful charm and empathy toward the world around him. A person who walked with grace and respect that was impossible to ignore. It was with the greatest of compassion he accepted me, and it was obvious that his interest to know me was genuine.

In the end, the reasoning for his silence was reassuring. Basically this, he could see that I was troubled and he was concerned for me–the explanation for his endless scans of me through his rear view mirror. He further clarified that the traffic was very bad and he did not want to take his mind of the road, hence, the lack of conversation that I took very personally. Explained to me that he could not in good conscience drop me at the airport not knowing if I was OK–the motivation for his decision to stop at the only quite place he knew before entering the driveway to Philadelphia International—the deserted industrial area.

Slava taught me well that day as he graciously accepted my invitation to be photographed. Literally putting me on a path that would lead me to produce the hundreds of portraits and essays that I am now re-publishing in Sidewalk Ghosts. Stories that in first publication stimulated thousands of discussions that blossomed a point-of-view. Dialogues not solely conceived through my words and experiences mind you, but conversations founded on wisdom shared through hearing the stories of others. Outlooks derived from many brave and diverse individuals who trusted me at first glance to expose who they were as they gave a priceless gift: The freedom to see others, the self-control to forgive, and a greater understanding of the word “empathy.”

Philly is know as The City of Brotherly Love, and Slava was one of their greatest ambassadors. Although unknown to the masses, his voice chimed loudly through his very presence, and I was lucky enough to have met him. I was not seeking it, but in meeting Slava, I found myself in the presence of greatness. Not as the media and popular list of Who’s Who might presume. But rather, through the language of a very reserved man who possessed a plain and pure truth. Namely, the importance of caring about one another.

His last words to me, with a kindly shared handshake at my designated terminal, “I wish you a good life my friend.”

Talk Tomorrow My Good Friends,

Richard

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