4 a.m.

In the black, frozen pre-dawn of 4 in the morning all Semetei wants to do is stare out the window and suck his hand. This is baby logic. So I’ve been getting familiar with early morning Bishkek.


Semetei at the window.

It’s populated by men. Teenagers mostly, either playing in drunk packs or scurrying alone from someplace illicit, half proud half scared. Every now and then a drunk man hobbles by, singular. Usually 40-something, too drunk to care where he’s going or what’s around him or if his feet go straight. The young drunks do it for show (“Look at us! We’re drunk and having so much fun. Aren’t we? Isn’t this cool?”); the old ones are way beyond that. Their long-soused brains may be full of emotion but they can’t shape any of it into words (“-~-`~-‘-‘~—“). So they shake their fists or stare bewilderedly at the young ones. It’s pitch black apart from a street light above the bus stop benches where they sometimes vomit and pass out.

It’s 5. A street sweeper occasionally shows up this early. Not a mechanised one. Literally a man with a broom made of twigs who sweeps. He sweeps trash into roadside ditches to be whisked away by rainwater or trashmen, whichever comes first. A taxi or two waits at the bus stop. I’ve never seen anyone get into them this early but they’re always there, drivers sleeping in reclined front seats. Maybe they don’t want to be home.

By 6 the first wave of workers arrives. Respectable middle aged men and women with their breasted wool coats, sensible boots and felt scarves in mute tones. From the public buses they slide onto their worn paths to some office or desk, don’t look anywhere except the ground right in front of each step. Young ones emerge next. 20-somethings with slim, fashionable clothes matched just right, hair primped and high leather boots or patent shoes polished, eyes scanning the crowd and a certain sway to the hips that says, “I have a job and I’m attractive. Don’t you want to know more?” The wave crests around 7:30.

It’s 6:30. The trashmen have come. Two men who empty out trash bins with their bare hands and improvised shovels made of little cardboard squares. Orange reflector vests. The older one (maybe 28?) goes about it like any other routine. But the younger one (22?) had his first day in October. I remember it. He didn’t want to be seen, hid the orange vest in his pocket and his head in his hoodie. Turned away whenever someone walked by, especially a woman. Hadn’t figured out the cardboard shovel trick and grasped the slimy food scraps with his bare fists. He’s gotten used to it now kind of. Wears the orange reflector vest. But he still turns away when people pass.

At 8 the crows swarm. A massive black blob of commuters in the sky. I never notice them coming until they’re already here – hundreds, maybe more than a thousand. They fill every branch. They caw, they guffaw, gossip in crowish. They’ve filled the trees and there’s still a detachment flying over the Philharmonic, circling back for open spots. They chase the pigeons from the sky and these lesser birds retreat to the déclassé spots – rooftops, antennas, the dirt.

It’s 8:30 and now the sun is dawning and Semetei wants to play and I’m hungry and there’s work and emails and calls and groceries and laundry and we wander away from the window and I never see where or when the early morning-ers go: the crows, the drunks, the straggling workers running. By 10 the trees are empty, the vomit cleansed.


The bus stop. December, 2015.

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