The bap

In Russia, for some goddamn reason, they call a restaurant a “pektopah” and a bar a “bap.” But you could certainly argue that the bar in this particular St. Petersburg hotel deserves a word of its own. I might call it a “movie,” because that’s what it feels like when you’re here.

It’s a long movie, to be sure, what with us hanging most nights past 4 a.m. But putting in the hours means we get to see the whole story arc. How the hookers, who don’t look like hookers at all—in the US of A they’d be the most elegant broads in the room—periodically shift tables and then one after another stand to troll the crowd. How the smooth-as-silk manager signals to them with a silent nod that he needs their table and they temporarily move to the table in the hall. How each hooker (and this small bap is generally stocked with four, distributed among two or three tables) has a rose-colored drink, non-alcoholic, on her table with a straw in it. Some kind of red-light sign, but mostly, I think, to remind the staff what’s up.

But enough of my ogling the whores. What I wanted to tell you about was the gangster part of the movie from last night.

Of course, in Russia, every night’s a gangster movie, and some of the days are, too. In spite of its beauty, culture and comparative friendliness, Peter (as the natives call it) is the crime capital of the country. That’s not street crime. I’ve never worried about being mugged. And my Russian friends tell me rape is virtually non-existent. No, it’s the big-time stuff. Corporate crime. But that doesn’t mean, when push comes to shovova, it doesn’t involve a little rat-a-tat-tat.

For example, yesterday I’m standing outside the hotel with my goomah (OK, my wife), waiting for an associate (OK, my nephew) when this bad-ass baby-blue Rolls pulls up, and the parking dude gets out. Whoa. Car has a reverse-opening door, like the 1960 Lincoln Continental. Old-school suicide doors on a Rolls! I reach for my Canon. Autofocus barely has time to do its stuff when I feel a tap from behind. A gentle, yet insistent, tap. I turn and stare into the eyes of a thirty-fivish man of swarthy complexion. His face is expressionless. I ransack my mental database for his identity, as I wait for him to break into a big smile and give me a hug and exclaim, “What the hell are you doing in St. Pete???”

But, well, no.

In Russian, of which I understand exactly two words (see sentence one above), he tells me don’t take any pics or I will break you and your camera. Of course, even not understanding the lingua, I understand perfectly. And then he gently, but insistently, shoves the two of us out of the way of the hotel entrance. A moment later, a compact, unsmiling man—the bad guy, unmistakably, in the gangster movie—wearing a surprising, glittery Grand Ole Opry-style jacket, breezes out, surrounded by men holding their unbuttoned suit-jackets closed, hops in the car and guns it. Before he does, though, he looks left and right, and I see that one side of his head bears some gnarly shrapnel scars. As he pulls away, a Mercedes SUV joins him, and our tapping friend runs and hops into still another chase car.

But it’s not a movie. Neither is the bap.

So we’re sitting there listening to the Russian jazz singer and watching the hookers work the Swedish conventioneers when a couple of linebacker types stroll in and take up point positions and, a few beats later, a relaxed, sixty-five-ish Godfather enters. He is seated in the corner, between a wall and a fireplace, with his young date and a young man, whom I first assume is his friend and later recognize as yet another bodyguard. The bar manager pays respects. And then here comes the manager of the whole damn hotel. A bottle of vodka shows up. Caviar. Handmade chocolates. More vodka.

At some point, the pretty young waitress, clearly the novice in the room, leans over the table to deliver some goods. A wisp of hair has escaped from her pony tail and floats over her cheek. The Godfather says something and raises his flat hand parallel with the plane of her face, an inch away. I can’t figure out at first if this is some kind of pantomime, that he’s demonstrating something—perhaps how he once shoved a septum into a brain—or gesturing for her to stop, or what. But, like a practiced dance partner, she moves her face back slowly, precisely, even as he moves his large hand forward toward it, always maintaining that exact inch of distance, until finally the Godfather says something more and points, and she pushes the wisp of hair behind her ear. She pivots and heads back to the bar. But as she passes, we can see her puff her cheeks slightly and blow out a sigh, not theatrically, not for our benefit, but a real sigh. No words pass between her and the manager, but, smooth as silk, a new waitress—just as pretty, not as young—takes over the table. And the movie continues.

—Toots Shor