By Mikhail Iossel | May 3, 2023

I was riding a half-empty bus down Sherbrooke Street yesterday, on a gray and windy afternoon, going to my bank, to deposit a modest check for my recent reading back in the US, yes I am old-fashioned that way, looking vacantly out the dusty window and thinking about someone I used to know and be friends with during the San Francisco period of my American life, yes, period, my life, to put it grandly, in late eighties and early nineties, at the brittle junction of the last two decades of the millennium, OK that’s just writing, who died the day before yesterday, as I learned from his wife’s post on his Facebook timeline, where else, how sad, the straight line of his time has come to an end — he was just six years older than me yet somehow he always struck me as someone originally and intrinsically belonging to the previous generation of Soviet Jews, my parents’ generation, perhaps because there was a comforting moral simplicity, rigidity even to his unassuming persona; he was one of the more prominent members of the then-small San Francisco and, broader, the burgeoning all-American Russian-peaking immigrant community, what community, come on, there have never been such a socio-anthropological entity, strictly speaking, OK just move on; he was a prolific and invariably engaging and passionately argumentative cultural essayist and critic publishing in all the Russophone newspapers and magazines of local and national reach and import, a renowned and genuinely talented photographer, author of scores of memorably evocative, that’s just writing again, really remarkable portraits of the leading figures of Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet culture, Brodsky, Baryshnikov, Ioseliani, Tarkovsky and so many others; he was also from Leningrad and published in the US a beautiful photo-book about that unrepeatable city of our first life and an everlasting love of ours, this is just writing, we would meet often back then, to talk at length about literature and writing and life and death and all that meaningful stuff; he didn’t drink and he didn’t smoke and he loved his wife and he loved his children, he loved his life, he loved his photo-camera, he loved taking photographs and writing about books and the people of culture, but I may be repeating myself, he was a man of clear personal delineations, so to speak, rooted essentially in the ethos of the sixties’ Krushchevian thaw, but that’s already getting into the weeds of it all a bit, just move on; he took the photo for the cover of my first American book of stories and wrote a fairly lengthy piece about me, oh stop bragging, for the leading Russian newspaper in America, I’m not bragging OK, just being a little shallow; he invited me to a dinner party at his house, down by the ocean, in the Sunset district, after the said book’s publication, where there were in attendance some big names among the older-generation Russian emigre writers, the names from the already being written history books really, and with one of those hallowed people there I got into a heated argument about the race issue in America, well what would one expect of the old-school and basically Soviet people like that, or anti-Soviet, rather, which deep down is more or less the same thing, you can’t really blame them for being who they are, or were, rather, because that generation is gone now, that’s the way the old cookie crumbles, and now he also was gone, that friend of mine, that good and strictly moral and unequivocally good and passionately culture-bound man — and suddenly someone, in back of me on that bus of route 24, a young woman judging by the timbre of her voice, said into the phone presumably, cheerily, with a laugh, that the person on the other end of the imaginary line needed a Swedish death cleaning, yes, that’s what she said, because if she didn’t, I wouldn’t have said that she did, for that would be too convenient in a far-fetched kind of way, too neatly adjusted to the story at hand, although there is no story here, and whatever my numerous shortcomings as a writer, oh stop babbling it’s embarrassing, might be, I still am better than that, or at least I hope so, although I probably am not, but in any event, moving on, that’s what she said, with a laugh on the phone, that young woman that I didn’t turn around in my seat to take a look at, because why would I need or want to do so, so I just kept on staring vacantly out the bus window, on the scarcely peopled Saturday-afternoon Sherbrooke Street and this old man my age, OK a middle aged one, whatever, I’m not in the middle of my life, to call a spade a spade, and haven’t been in many years, although Rupert Murdoch at ninety-two seems to believe he is still in the middle of his, no comment, walking purposefully along, that man outside, at level with the slowing-down bus, in long black coat and black hat, a cross of sorts between fedora and kippah, with a nonchalantly trimmed beard and sporting round steel-rimmed spectacles on the bridge of his unmistakable nose, in short bearing a clear generic resemblance to that newly-dead friend of mine, with whom I’d fallen out of touch many years ago, for no clear reason, just because life is the way it is, there can be no better explanation, we are the way we are, and I was thinking, as I was looking at him, that man on the street, that just two months ago, in response to my congratulating him on his birthday on his Facebook timeline, where else, he thanked me and added on what rightly struck me as a sad note, “we seem to have lost sight of each other somehow,” although that wouldn’t be an entirely accurate translation I don’t think, something got lost in it, but what can I do, it is what it is, I am what I am, whatever it is I may be and what my life may have amounted to, in sum total, in lieu of adding up to anything really meaningful, just move on, and at one point, with the bus pausing with a huffing sigh at the red light two stops away from my destination, that man in black out on the street, drawing level with me, turned at looked my way, probably trying to assess whether it was safe to cross the street at that moment, and our eyes met for a briefest of seconds, which made me wonder absently as to what he might have thought of me just then, if anything, probably nothing, almost definitely, because why would he be thinking of me, what would be the reason, who was I to him, no one, just a stranger his age on a bus, maybe indeed looking like him a little or maybe not, just someone on a bus staring off into nowhere, trying to figure out what it is or was all about, what the story was, there is no story here, just a hasty sentence.





  • Mikhail Iossel

    Mikhail Iossel was born in Leningrad, USSR (now St. Petersburg, Russia), where he worked as an electromagnetic engineer and a security guard at the Leningrad Central Park of Culture and Leisure, and belonged to an organization of "samizdat" writers before emigrating to the U.S. in 1986. He is the author of, most recently, of "Love Like Water, Love Like Fire," a collection of stories, " "Notes from Cyberground: Trumpland and My Old Soviet Feeling," and one previous collection of fiction: "Every Hunter Wants to Know." He is a frequent contributor to, and his stories and essays have also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. Iossel, a Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and Stegner Fellow, has taught in universities throughout the U.S. and is an associate professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal.

Dooney’s is serializing Mikhail Iossel's SENTENCE.

You can find the full list of posted essays here