My life as a five-minute suburban spy


Last year, according to Goodreads, I read 34 books. I don’t actually remember this happening, because I was so sleep-deprived that I’m not even sure 2015 occurred. That year, I mostly just wanted to read the Scary Mommy Confessional and then immediately curl up under the blankets and dream of sleep.

This year, I’m hungry to rejoin the land of the living and of readers. In addition to the English reading I’ve been doing, I’ve also started to listen to audiobooks in Russian, and I’m excited to say that so far I’ve “read” nine books in Russian, more than I have in my entire life.

Excellent, right? If you’ve read this blog long enough, by now you realize that every positive event in my life has some neurotic Russian/Jewish downside. In this case, I’ve been reading so many books that I’m suspicious my life is turning into one.

One of my most recent Russian reads has been 17 Moments of Spring, a modern classic in Russian literature (that was then turned into an immensely popular Soviet tv series of the same name), and one I’ve wanted to read since I was a teenager, but never could because my written Russian was never good enough.

The book is about a Russian undercover agent, Maxim Isaev, who has lived in Germany since the 1920s and ascended through the ranks of the Reich until he reports to some of its top leaders. The story opens in 1945, when the inner ranks of the Fuhrer are beginning to thin and everyone is trying to start negotiations with the West without looking like they’re starting to negotiate with the West.

Everyone is spying on each other and double-guessing each other’s motives. On top of all of this, Stierlitz has to maintain his identity as a 100% loyal devotee of Nazism while at the same time trying to get the top Nazis to move in a way that favors the Soviets.

It’s a thriller, but also a lot more than that. The characterization of the main personas, Stierlitz, Kat, Muller, Kaltenbrunner, and Pastor Schlag, is impeccable, and really draws on the best and worst of human nature in a way that makes them seem like real people. Some of the scenes are heartbreaking to read, others make you feel like humanity might be worth another shot.

Then there is the stress Stierlitz is constantly experiencing, of feeling like he’s under surveillance, of always checking whether he has or not been compromised, being followed, always setting his clocks to be exact wherever he is. Stierlitz is a man who never has the leisure of time, of being able to show the exact emotions he’s feeling, the leisure to live life as a human being, since he always lives life on at least three levels, like on a strategist on a chess board.

The stifling, paranoid atmosphere of the life of a double agent stayed with me long after I finished the book, as the toddler and I were taking our daily walk around the neighborhood.

The toddler was doing her regular toddler things, stopping to point at every flower on the path, trying to eat rocks, petting the sidewalk, and I was doing my regular mom things, trying to keep up a steady stream of banal conversation with her so she becomes verbal in Russian, while at the same time trying to entertain myself by thinking about what it would be like to be Stierlitz, when all of a sudden a voice interrupted my thoughts.

A neighbor, a friendly old man, stood on his porch, observing as we walked by.

“Hi there,” the old man said. “Hello,” I said absentmindedly as the toddler tried to eat some grass, and kept walking. “I have something for your husband,” the old man said in a friendly voice.

Immediately, suspicion bloomed. Who was this old man? Why was he observing us?

“My husband?”

“Yes, I’ve seen you walking together here with your little girl sometimes.”

It’s true, Mr. B did accompany us on our walks from time to time. Foiled! Stierliz would never let anyone discover he was married. Probably because he hadn’t seen his wife in ten years, seeing as to how she was still in the Soviet Union.

“I have a coat for him. It’s too big for me,” he said congenially. “Wait a minute,” and vanished inside.

A coat? Why would this man give us a coat? Just randomly? No, people aren’t that nice. There has to be some motive! Think, Boykis. Why would an old man just give you a random coat. Unless it was to foil you! There is, no doubt, some compromised material in that coat! He’d think I was touched by his kindness and take it home blindly without examining it. What could be in that coat? A hidden transmitter to track everything I was saying?

Ridiculous. We’re not in post-war Germany. This is America in 2016. What could be in that coat? Drug paraphernalia, obviously. A kind old man disguised as a smuggler of drug paraphernalia. That’s it. But I can’t refuse the coat because it would look bad.

The old man came out with the gray coat, beaming.

I took the thing gingerly. It was a good, heavy coat. But it was impossible to walk with it and wrangle the toddler at the same time. The old man noticed my discomfort. “You can leave it here, if you like,” he said, “Come back for it once you loop around.”

Sure, I said with relief, and we walked on further. Why would a stranger give me a coat? I thought back through all my actions on these walks.

Usually we take this walk alone after I come home from work, but sometimes Mr. B comes with us. During these walks throughout April and May, it’s been very cold, but I’d already put our winter coats away, and we are so lazy after chasing a toddler all day that we end up wearing sleeveless windbreakers or thick sweatshirts instead. We also mostly wear sweatpants and other things that you wear when wrangling someone that is liable to get you extremely dirty at any given second. On these walks, we’re also trying to keep up endless streams of meaningless conversation so the toddler learns Russian vocabulary.

So, could the man have simply given us the coat because he thought we were poor, tired, FOB immigrants and he was a good person and wanted us to have the proper winter clothes?

Unlikely. Embarrassed by the idea that we dress so much like bums that good people want to clothe us, I dismissed it, and never looped back to pick up the coat. It probably had drug paraphernalia in it, anyway.

I need to stop reading so much.