The attitude of the check-in clerk at Gate 24 of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport is far too stern for her soft complexion and silky auburn hair, which today is tied back into a small ponytail. My one bag is already on the ramp; my carry-on is by my side as she flips through my passport.
“Your visa expired two days ago,” the clerk says in Russian.
I’ve been in Russia a month; my wife is back at the apartment on the other side of the city, planning to join me soon in the U.S. But for now, I am on my own, heading home to Los Angeles.
“Oh, right, I was supposed to leave two days ago,” I tell her, “but the blizzard. The airports were closed.”
“You have to speak to the consul, back in the lobby. Take your bags with you.”
The consul is a button attached to a speaker on a wall. I press. Nothing happens. I wait. I press again. I hear casual joking by a group of men through the speaker, and then it goes silent. I wait. I press again.
“Wait! Wait! Just a minute!” a voice blares.
“I’m an American. My visa is expired by two days, and I want to go home.”
“Why did you let your visa expire?”
“I was delayed here by the storm, and I forgot to check.”
“That’s a very poor excuse.”
“Yes, you’re right. If you can come up with a better excuse, I’ll gladly use it.”
I didn’t actually say that last line, but it crossed my mind. What I did say was, “All right, what should I do now?”
“Write out your excuse and give it to the check-in desk.”
After having my bags searched for the second time, I present my handwritten apology to the auburn-haired marm, like a child to a teacher.
“That will be $50,” she says. “Twenty-five dollars for each day you overstayed your visa.”
I scramble through my wallet to find a crumpled $20 bill and a 10-ruble note, which is worth about 40 cents.
“Do you take credit cards?”
“I don’t have $50 in cash.”
“Do you have 1,300 rubles?”
“I have 10.” (Her eyes roll.) Why would an American carry 1,300 rubles when he’s leaving the country?
“Go back to the lobby and try your credit card in the bankomat. I’ll hold your bags for you.”
My flight is scheduled to leave in an hour and a half. Plenty of time. But none of the bankomat machines accepts my code. I return and tell her this.
“There’s nothing more I can do,” she says.
“You’re going to hold me here for the sake of 30 bucks?”
“It’s not up to me. It’s up to the consul.”
“Can I talk to the consul again?”
“You can try.”
The clerk holds my bags once more.
Back at the consul, I push the button. I wait. I push the button. I wait. I push the button. I wait. I push the button. I wait.
“Listen, my flight leaves in just over an hour, and none of the bankomats work.”
“This is your personal problem.”
“Tell me how else I can pay, please. I’m happy to pay the fine…”
“It’s not a fine. It’s a consul fee.”
“I’ve got to get home. I’m supposed to speak at a conference, surely there’s something…”
“If you don’t come up with the cash, you’re not going home.”
These are words I will carry to my grave.
My cell phone doesn’t work in Russia, so I buy a phone card, which I plug into a wall phone on the other side of the lobby. I call my wife.
“I can’t hear you!”
I scream, “Can you hear me?!!!”
“I can’t hear you!!!”
I scream louder: “THEY’RE NOT LETTING ME ON THE PLANE!”
“WHAT CAN I DO?!”
“I NEED 50 BUCKS!”
“SO WHAT CAN I DO!?”
“BRING ME 50 BUCKS!”
“TO THE AIRPORT?!”
“OF COURSE, TO THE AIRPORT!”
“I CAN’T GET THERE IN TIME! JUST COME HOME!”
“TAKE A TAXI!”
“THEY TAKE CREDIT CARDS?”
“NO! I’LL PAY FOR IT WHEN YOU GET HERE! DON’T LET THEM CHARGE YOU MORE THAN 2,000 RUBLES! THEY’RE ALL THIEVES!”
In one more attempt to get out of Russia, I ask at a currency-exchange bureau if they can sell me dollars from my credit card.
“You need to use the bankomat.”
Then I see a green sign, “Sverbank,” hanging over four or five windows. I wait in line. Fifteen more minutes go by.
“Can I buy dollars with my credit card?”
“Yes. Show me your credit card.”
“I can’t accept this. You haven’t signed the back.”
“Let me sign it now.”
“Too late. I already saw it.”
She turns away to speak with her friend behind the glass in the next booth.
“Look, I have a signed driver’s license ..”
“I’m sorry, regulations.” Then she laughs and says, “Okay. How much do you want?”
“A hundred dollars.” (I figure I should have extra cash, just in case.)
After 45 minutes of paperwork and holding my passport, the currency clerk tells me to go to the cashier, her friend, at Window No. 2. The cashier hands me a $100 bill.
I sprint back to the gate, sensing victory. It’s half an hour before takeoff. But there’s nobody at the check-in booths. My bags sit next to a chair, deserted.
An old man pushes a mop across the floor.
“I’m trying to get on the flight to Los Angeles.”
“It’s closed,” he says. “All closed.”
I head back to the speaker on the wall and press the button. “You win. I missed my flight. I need to extend my visa two more days until the next flight out.”
“Just come back when you’re flying and bring cash.”
Outside the terminal, I barter a cabby down from 6,000 rubles to 2,500. He lets me use his cell phone to call my wife. “You need to give him 2,500 rubles,” I say.
Upon our arrival at Fortunatovskaya Street in the Ismailovo district, my wife comes out in the snow and gives the driver 2,300 rubles.
“We did agree on 2,500,” I tell my wife, as the cabby counts the money.
She shouts at him, “That’s all I have,” then, with a slicing gesture across the throat, “and you know damn well it’s more than enough.”
He stares at her with hatred, knowing he’s screwed. I empathize.
By now, a small crowd of neighbors has gathered to welcome me home, even though I left just hours ago. Sergei, from across the hall, helps me up the stairs with my bags.
“So, Russia wants you to stay,” he says. “It’s better here than in America, anyway.”
* * *Two days later, I’m back at the airport for the next flight out. A passport-control officer in a green shirt, miniskirt and high heels escorts me, click-clicking, to Sverbank’s Window No. 2, saying my $100 “fine” for a four-day visa delinquency has to be paid there in rubles, not dollars. The bank charges me for the currency exchange before slapping on a $25 service charge, which I obediently convert to rubles… before they tell me the service charge has to be paid in dollars. This time, though, I have extra dollars, and I make it onto the plane at last.
But about the time I’m settling into my seat, a dishonest Sverbank employee attempts to withdraw close to $1,000 cash from my credit card. My own bank declines the transaction. The Fraud Protection Department leaves a voice mail at my home. It’s one of the first messages that greet me when I walk in through the door.
The next morning, as I walk my dog in the Hollywood foothills, an LAPD motorcycle officer stands next to an SUV that’s parked in a red zone.
“What the hell do you mean you’re waiting for Brad Pitt?” asks the cop. “You have an appointment with him, or something?”
I can’t tell you how good it feels to be home.