Hard-face in my kitchen
I am standing in my kitchen looking at a man who has, no doubt, killed. He is Ukrainian Mafia and he is yelling at me. He has a security guard with him. His face is weathered and rough. He is tall and muscular, wearing an expensive suit. He is in one word: intimidating.
As he is yelling at me in Russian, I caught one word, Vada. Vada means water and that was all I really needed to hear to understand why he was angry. In Ukrainian apartments, it is a common occurrence to leak water into the apartment below you. For that reason, the tenants on the bottom floor can shut your water off. I realized that someone must be leaking water into his store below me.
He owned a Reebok store. On our street and many streets in Odessa’s city center, businesses inhabit the bottom level of most apartment buildings. In his case, there was no market to sustain a Reebok store in a country plagued by poverty. But of course, the Reebok store was not intended to be a profitable business. It was there to launder money.
This is a modern picture of the Steakhouse. It was much smaller in 1998.
The real money was made through organized crime. In fact, you could not even be in business in Odessa without either being Mafia or paying off Mafia. My favorite restaurant in Odessa was called the Steakhouse. It was owned by a Jewish fellow. His steaks were delicious and eating out was about a fifth of the cost of say, Ruth’s Chris Steak House. So we would eat there several times a week. It was only about 200 hundred meters from our flat.
Elana and I would leave the girls in the apartment with a walkie-talkie. Sharon was nine, Yael was six and Danielle was five. For them, it was exciting to be alone, and we were just a hop, skip, and a jump away, with the other walkie-talkie. We didn’t even own a cell phone while in Odessa.
Anyway… the owner of the restaurant told the local Mafia to go take a hike—he wasn’t buying their insurance! When we returned to Odessa, after being gone for several weeks in the winter, half of my favorite restaurant was gone! Blown up! After that, he started paying. The Steakhouse is still there today (*when I last visited), and I enjoyed a great steak with our longtime friends Tatyana and Valentin, who oversee the MJBI and lead a Messianic congregation in Odessa in 2010.
Back to Hard-face
The mob boss is yelling at me that water is leaking from my flat into his store. I told him in broken Russian it wasn’t me and he was free to check. I pointed to my bathroom, which interestingly was connected to the kitchen, and opened the door to show him that there was no water leaking from my apartment.
However, as I opened the door, I was shocked to see two inches of water on the floor! You see, in Ukraine, or at least our apartment, the water that flows out of the washing machine is funneled into the bathtub. However, in most cases, even if it emptied onto the floor that would not be the end of the world, as most bathrooms have a drain in the center.
After we moved into the apartment, I woke up at about 3 a.m. on the first night to use the bathroom. When I entered, I was disgusted to find a circle of human waste about three feet in diameter around the drain. For some reason, whatever was going into the toilet would come back through the drain every night. As I cleaned it up, I thought of my daughters waking up in the middle of the night to this unsanitary mess. This would have to be fixed—and soon.
After having a series of plumbers, who would always make a mess and not clean up, try and fix it, it was decided that the easiest thing to do was to simply seal the drain with cement. That would solve the problem—besides, did we really need the drain? Apparently yes…
The hose funneling water into the bathtub from the washing machine had fallen out of the bathtub and onto the floor. Without a drain, the water simply searched for the path of least resistance, and that lead to Hard-face’s Reebok store. He was not happy.
I began to apologize. I reinserted the hose into the bathtub… this time with duct tape and somehow mopped up the small flood in my bathroom. However, Hard-face turned off my water.
Now I had a bigger problem—no water and I was too intimidated and terrified to ask Hard-face to turn it back on. I thought to myself, I just came here to minister, to raise up leaders for Jewish ministry, I wasn’t looking to get into a confrontation with the Mafia! What am I going to do?
Lessons from Odessa Part 3