18 July 2004

An Assembly Line at the Rumor Mill

Andrei Codrescu, in The Hole in the Flag (Avon Books, 1991) describes his trip out of Bucharest shortly after the fall of Ceausescu.
As we reached the outskirts ot the city, we saw immense lines tor milk, bread, and newspapers. People stood in the numbing cold, talking, moving their hands, pounding the ground to keep warm. They were dressed in long gray coats with lambskin hats pulled over their ears. Some wore several sweaters, and the women looked like onions with a half dozen skirts wrapped around them, as well as elaborate layers of kerchiefs around their heads. I remembered being a child in those lines, endlessly fascinated by the ceaseless chatter of the adults, gathering news tidbits for my mother, little bits of salacious gossip for my friends, even rare words I didn't understand, which I put in a little notebook I had, called "Strange Words I Heard in Line." These were the working people of Bucharest, of Romania. They had stood in line for forty-five years patiently waiting for the barest necessities. A revolution was going on, but the lines were still long--the same as the week before, the year before, the previous decade.... Are there, I wonder, people on this earth, whole countries, whole continents perhaps, doomed forever to the lines of misery, anticipation, and scarcity? As the world I know in America grows more satiated, more colorful, more overstimulated, these lines get longer, more desperate, the people in them more drab ... and there is less at the counter when, after aeons of standing, they arrive, hands outstretched, the sweaty money they hold worthless after all that time.... Still, there is a difference between these lines and those of my childhood. No one is listening, waiting to report people's discontents.... At least I hope so. Every word people speak now would have been considered treason only moments ago. And what of those people whose jobs had been to listen and to report? Do they feel shame, or embarrassment, or fear? They certainly haven't disappeared; they are doubtlessly still in the line, listening. (After all, they, too, have families they have to feed.) Full of unusable information, would they eventually disintegrate? Publicly confess? Get religion? I had the fleeting vision of a revolution that works on the honor system: Bad people arrest themselves.

Throughout my childhood I believed that one had to lower one's voice whenever speaking seriously. A normal tone of voice, possible to overhear, was reserved exclusively for trivia. One would use several tones in the course of a conversation, even within a single sentence. For instance, my mother would send me to stand in line for bread. As she handed me the ration book, she would say in a normal voice, "Get two loaves and five rolls," and then, lowering her voice, "if there are enough coupons," and then, lowering her voice even more, "and find out what people are saying." This last phrase was well understood. We stood in breadlines not iust for bread but also for the news. The breadline was our newspaper since the actual newspapers printed nothing but lies. Rumors, innuendos, and mishearing made the rounds faster than print anyway.
Romania in 1984 was definitely an information-deprived society, where everything officially confirmed was considered a lie and everything officially denied was considered the truth. One restaurant near Piata Unirii that we passed every day--I believe it was the Budapesta--was reputed to have served human liver to its patrons for lack of any other meat. I found out later that the same rumor had persisted for a decade or more. There would have been no use officially denying it. That would only confirm the rumor.

Here's an old joke about the ubiquitous food queues.
Ceausescu had heard there were food shortages and wanted to fly around in his helicopter to see for himself if the stories were true. He didn't have to travel far to see a long line of people standing in the cold.

"What are these people waiting for?" he asked.

"For eggs, Comrade Ceausescu."

"Then have a truckload of eggs delivered there immediately! My people shouldn't have to stand in line for eggs!"

"And what are those people waiting for?" he asked, pointing in another direction.

"For milk, Comrade Ceausescu."

"Then have a truckload of milk delivered there immediately! My people shouldn't have to stand in line for milk!"

"And what are those poor people waiting for?" he asked, noticing another very long queue.

"For meat, Comrade Ceausescu."

"Well, in that case, have a truckload of chairs delivered there immediately! My people shouldn't have to stand in line for meat!"
That is one of the few jokes I heard in Romania that isn't in the wonderful collection entitled You Call This Living? A Collection of East European Political Jokes, by C. Banc [= 'joke' in Romanian] and Alan Dundes (U. Georgia Press, 1990).

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