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Armenia, 1989

In Yerevan, the temperature was just slightly over 100 degrees. We had walked from the city center, through the bountiful and colorful market, along the banks of the river, and hiked over a steep hill where the mud brick and concrete homes were jammed together almost haphazardly - a sort of gracefully aged shantytown. We arrived at a tunnel connecting a busy taxi stand on one side of the highway to the bus depot and market on the other side. That's where we saw Vanik, perhaps Armenia's only shell-game operator.

He was running his game before a small crowd of on-lookers and players, niftily moving three thimbles around, alternately covering and then exposing coins or tokens while the on-lookers tried to guess where they would be. I snapped his picture, and thought, for a moment, that I might be lynched for this transgression by a beefy woman who seemed more Russian than Armenian. Vanik, too, pursued me through the tunnel, but it turned out that all he wanted was a copy of the photo. To express his appreciation for the photo we promised to mail, he bought us a couple of thin, rather sour beers, and, one thing led to another, until we ended up in his home. 

For a small-time hustler, he had an impressive place, with its thick walls to keep out the fierce heat of the summer sun, and a backyard crowded with fig trees and grapevines. He seated us in his living room and brought us bowls of huge grapes and tasty strawberries and peaches, and plates of salami and bread and cookies. As he pushed vodka after cognac after vodka after cognac upon us, he spoke wistfully of his dream - for he was not a man satisfied to remain a small-time hustler all his life. Indeed, Vanik was an ambitious man: his goal in life was to go to America, to see Las Vegas and Chicago, and to join the Mafia.

"To America ... to friendship ... to Armenia ... to my children ... to his children ... to all children ... to future boy children ..." We tried our best to nurse our drinks as Vanik drank shot after shot and toasted just about everyone except the Russians. His one and a half year-old twin babies waddled in and checked us out nervously. We would be friends for life, he exclaimed, and told us we must wait to meet his wife, Genia. At first, when she walked in, newly coiffed from the hairdresser, she seemed a bit uneasy to have us in her house, but she soon joined in, splashing a few vodkas down with barely a grimace. There was more food, and then, when we finally rose to leave, we met his dear old mother-in-law, and then his father, and then we were posing for family photos - and then Vanik retrieved a bulky key from a small shed, and unlocked a handmade padlock. 

I thought he was going to show us his cache of precious jewels or gold, or try to sell us some sort of contraband, but it was just the side entrance to his garage, where he kept a shiny, black 50s vintage Volga automobile, a car befitting a small-time hood - the equivalent, probably, of a Buick or a Mercury sedan. He was offering to drive us back to the hotel, and here, we were confronted with an awful dilemma - insult our most hospitable but inebriated host, or die on the airport highway. Somehow, we managed to part friends even though we refused the ride, but just to make sure we got back to town safely, Vanik found a neighbor to drive us to a taxi stand, and then escorted us in the Volga.

Back in the hotel, there was only one logical conclusion to the afternoon. Laughing hysterically at the sheer weirdness of our visit with Vanik, we ripped our clothes off and abandoned ourselves to sticky, sweaty, lovemaking. Then we went out looking for dinner, and stumbled into a restaurant, three steps down from street level, where a traditional band was playing hypnotic music. We ate and we danced. 


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