Of Clowns and Men: Talking Hoops, Drugs, and Participatory Journalism with Krystal Ball and Kyle Kulinski
The hosts of the "Krystal, Kyle and Friends" podcast ask about adventures in the former Soviet Union
As a teenager, I read a story by the Russian writer Isaac Babel called, “How It Was Done In Odessa.” In it, a young man asks a Rabbi, Reb Aryeh Leib, about a feared gangster named Benya Krik. Why, the boy asks, did Krik alone climb to the top, leaving the rest “dangling below on shaky steps”?
The rabbi said nothing, sitting on a cemetery wall. Babel wrote that a man eager for answers must arm himself with patience, while an air of importance suits one who possesses knowledge. Finally, Aryeh Leib spoke:
“Why him?” he asked. “Forget for a moment that you have spectacles on your nose, and autumn in your heart. Cease playing the rowdy at the desk and stammering while others are about. Imagine that you raise hell in public places, and stammer on paper… Your father is Mendel Krik the drayman. What does such a father think about? About a glass of vodka, about punching someone in the face, about his horses, and nothing else… What would you have done in Benya Krik’s shoes? You would have done nothing. But he did something.”
I read that not long before my first visit to Russia, and thought about it often after I moved there at twenty-one. I wanted to be a writer but had already proven a failure and a nervous wreck — a hopeless hypochondriac — trying to write fiction. Going to Russia ended up being a strategy for dealing with both problems. Much of what I know about journalism I learned from that first decade traveling the former Soviet Union, seeking out weird situations (often but not always to disastrous effect), and then writing them up later.
One trick for finagling material involved getting Russian jobs. One of the first was a stint at Teresa Durova’s Clown Theater in Moscow. I worked for a week there as a clown — I was terrible — shepherded by two older professionals, both wonderful people and incredible drunkards who would retreat to a tiny trailer after every performance and polish off multiple bottles of Peppar vodka, while competing to see who could get me to believe the more preposterous story.
One of those two, a father and former nuclear engineer named Alexei, ended up being a traveling companion. We went all over the country and Alexei would talk us into the most ridiculous jobs; we worked construction at a monastery in Mordovia, made moonshine in the Arzamas region, laid bricks in Siberia, and organized a Russian version of Cannonball Run using miniature Zaporozhets cars for the rally.
It was a bizarre series of experiences, much of which I wrote about in the eXile years ago, but don’t often talk about now. However, Krystal Ball and Kyle Kulinski asked about a lot of these stories — and a few involving basketball in Mongolia and baseball in Uzbekistan — in a recent visit to their “Krystal, Kyle and Friends” podcast. It turned out to be a blast and I’m grateful to both of them. Anyone interested in hearing the audio of the show can find it here, at their Substack (no subscription required).
I may also, in the future, publish some of the stories I wrote during that time. At one point I wanted to put it all in a book called Of Clowns and Men, but it never came together. However, I still have the manuscript, and will put out a sample sometime. In the meantime, thanks again to Kyle and Krystal, and I’ll be back with more current content tomorrow.
A rabbi is lying on his deathbed. His wisest disciple kneels beside the old rabbi, the second-wisest behind him, the third-wisest behind, and so on, down the length of the bed, into the hall, down the stairs, and out into the street where the simplest student is at the back of the line.
The wisest student leans over and in a soft, reverent voice asks, “Great Rabbi, before you go to be with God, please tell us: What is the meaning of life?”
The rabbi raises his head a little, slowly opens his eyes, draws a rattling breath, and with great effort says, “Life... Life is... is like... a river.” He shuts his eyes, dropping his head back onto the pillow.
The wisest student turns to the student behind him and says, “The Rabbi says life is like a river!” That student turns to the one behind him and repeats this wisdom, and so on and so forth, out of the room, down the hall, down the stairs, and outside to the end of the line, until the second-simplest student turns to the simplest and says “The Rabbi says life is like a river!”
The simplest student, realizing he has no one to tell, contemplates it silently. After a moment, he taps the student ahead of him on the shoulder and says “Excuse me, but... why is life like a river?”
This message gets passed up to the front of the line, until the second-wisest whispers in the wisest student’s ear: “Moishe wants to know why life is like a river.” The wisest student leans over the Rabbi and again, soft and reverently, he said, “Great Rabbi, your students have brought forth a question! Please, O wise one, tell us: why is life like a river?”
The old rabbi raises his head again, slowly opens his eyes, draws another rattling breath, and says... “Okay, so it’s not like a river....”
Your early experiences, books you’ve read - all come out in your writing showing a depth of thinking that is refreshing in its rarity in today’s so-called journalists. They feel more like secretaries taking dictation than original thinkers.