Many years ago, when there was still an Iron Curtain and most thinking people were very much aware of Brezhnev’s missiles, I met a Bulgarian (several of them, actually.) He was on a cultural exchange program to America with some other bureaucrats and a phalanx of stoic minders who loomed large getting off the plane. Several people and I were supposed to show our Communist visitors the wonders of the West — without pissing off the minders, who looked like they weren’t about to be trifled with.Before we go any further, you must understand I was never a diplomat. The only reason I was even there is the guy from the Chamber of Commerce, who was one of the hosts, blew out his appendix the night before. I was a serious third-string, emergency replacement, so my Bulgarian was young and nobody special, and his minders were definitely not members of the A Team.
We were given a list of “approved” places to take our new friends, but after the first morning of dull and boring, I thought “What the hell! I’ve got a week off, a pocket full of government money and I’m driving.” So we broke away from the group and went to Eddie Basha’s grocery store for Pepsi and Doritos. It’s amazing how quickly solid walls of sugar and sodium can thaw a Cold War. It was as if I’d given mis nuevos amigos the keys to snack food heaven, and they were going to stock up before it was all gone. I had to explain to them — more than once — that we could come back tomorrow and get more. They didn’t believe me. Even at the end of the week, after we’d been shopping many times, I’m sure they still thought it was all a capitalist scam that they’d been clever enough to take advantage of. Anyway, on the first day, we ended up with Camel cigarettes, Miller beer, a bag of assorted candy bars, pantyhose, and band aids, and three boxes of Froot Loops™. From then on, the four of us got along famously. Every morning, we’d follow the group to the designated snooze fest, and every afternoon we’d mysteriously get lost. As long as they were back at the hotel in time for the nightly “We’re all friends here” reception, nobody seem to care. I don’t think the folks running the show realized that the two minders were in on the plot. My Bulgarians found the America that never makes it into the Anti-American Instruction Manual, including a video arcade, Go Kart Racing, Whataburger and a trip to the barrio for authentic chicken, chitlins and greens, courtesy of my friend Sam who had filial connections to the street gang that ran things down there. All things considered, I think my guys quite liked the Land of Milk and Money. They certainly got comfortable enough to laugh at the Wild West’s attempts at culture and make fun of the beer. They maintained that someone drank it first — before Miller put it in the bottle. I, for my part, genuinely liked those guys, had a great time, and even in the full flush of arrogant youth learned a little bit about how wrong I was about life on the Black Sea of communism. The only discordant note was when it got to be good-bye time and everyone was getting on the plane. Suddenly, the more senior minders stopped everything and made a big show of taking away the blue jeans I’d helped my buddies buy. My Bulgarians dutifully gave up their prize possessions. Interestingly, in all the huffing and puffing, nobody but me wanted to notice that the mucky-muck babysitters weren’t making them leave those Levis in the decadent West; they were confiscating them. It was a sad reminder that no matter how much sugar coating you sometimes get, real life eventually intervenes.
Of course, the moral of the story should be that even the most antagonistic strangers are just one box of Froot Loops™ away from being friends, but it isn’t. It’s a lot deeper than that hackneyed homily. The real moral is that the world is full of self-righteous bastards who, given an opportunity, will use their power to steal our metaphorical Levis or anything else they can get their mitts on. They are the most dangerous among us because they have convinced us that they do this in the name of some esoteric common good. I learned a valuable lesson that day at the airport. Capitalism may very well be a brutal system that allows man’s exploitation of his fellow man, but under communism, the opposite is true. At least we get to keep our Levis.