YOU know you're getting close when you start seeing people with bird cages and kittens peeking out of jackets and puppies nestled on issues of Pravda lining cardboard boxes. Then, just a few blocks up Bolshaya Kalitnikovskaya Street, near Moscow's Taganka Theater, the assault on your heart begins.
Sweet old ladies sit along the sidewalk with boxes of sleeping kittens on their laps. A middle-aged man stands statuelike as kittens, a brother and sister, cuddle on his shoulder.
A black-and-white fluffball with four legs and a wagging tail wanders off to visit some of the other ``merchandise'' before his owner can rein him in and position him at his side, just to show how obedient the young terrier pup can seem to be.
Then, around the corner comes the next attack on the senses, as row upon row of caged parakeets, doves, and pigeons twitter, coo, and squawk.
One also then understands why this is dubbed the ``bird market,'' a venerable Moscow weekend institution and longtime exception to the ban on private business. Here anyone in search of a pet - from dogs and cats to fish, birds, reptiles, and rodents - can take a leisurely stroll and pick out just the right little companion.
And in a country where neutering pets isn't commonly done, the bird market is also a nice way to disperse Fluffy's latest litter.
With kittens, some of whom were going for as little as 50 kopeks, the money seemed incidental. But there were also serious dog breeders in attendance, looking to make big money on purebreds, their registration papers on display. One woman was asking 250 rubles each for collie pups - four of whom had already gone to Germany and two to Yugoslavia, she declared proudly.
Another wanted 50 rubles apiece for her Dobermans.
``People are buying them as guard dogs for their children,'' she said, alluding to Moscow's rising crime rate. Wasn't the price a little low for purebreds? ``Ya, but it's the season. In winter, they go for 400 rubles'' - or almost double the average monthly wage.
For this strictly nonbuying observer, the hard part was resisting the kittens. The moment you reached out to stroke this cute orange one or that feisty tiger one, the sales pitch would start.
``These are as sweet as can be,'' one lady launched in. ``I'd keep them, but I already have four at home.''
Upon learning we were foreigners, she got excited. ``Oh, please take this one for free,'' she offered, a furry gray kitty squirming in her outstretched hand. ``At least someone in the family will get to emigrate.''
It was generally safer to stand back and watch others make their selection. Such as Irina, the little girl in the green dress who found just the kitten she was searching for and handed over her five-ruble note.
``I wanted one that looked like my old kitty, Tishka, who died,'' she said. And what will this one be called? ``Tishka.''
THE best sales pitch came from nine-year-old Kostya: ``These guys are great!'' he boasted, when I made a face after learning that he was clutching a rat and not a mouse. ``They clean themselves! They're the most faithful friends! Put 'em in the tub and they won't crawl out.''
``But my cats will eat him.''
``What color are your cats?''
``One's gray and the other has brown stripes.''
``No problem. Only black cats eat rats,'' he fired back.
Some of the other ``items'' for sale were also good for a chuckle, but equally as untempting - such as the poor turtles perched on empty jars looking rather embarrassed, and certainly uncomfortable, with their stubby legs sticking straight out.
Then there was the young tough in the heavy-metal band T-shirt, a garden-variety snake winding up his arm. What's it called? he is asked.
``Vashka,'' he replies, using the diminutive of a common boy's name. ``But it's a she, basically. Fifteen rubles.''
With some of the larger creatures, there arose the inevitable question of how to keep them fed, in light of the country's food shortages and collapsing economy. Of course, there's never been a Soviet equivalent of Alpo or Meow Mix for sale at the local gastronom. But everybody claimed that he or she made do just fine. Typically, dogs and cats are fed table scraps mixed into boiled oats.
To keep tropical fish happy, the bird market is probably the only place in town with a ready supply of fresh maggots and larvae, laid out on trays in all their disgusting glory. This proves the maxim of Moscow life that you can still buy just about anything here, providing that you know where to look.
Yet it seemed hard to believe that one could keep an especially large pet from eating one into financial ruin. The only steady supply of meat, after all, is the farmers' market, where the price can climb above 15 rubles a kilo.
The muzzled, small horse-sized Great Dane standing at the bus stop with his ``parents'' seemed as good an interview subject as any. But, alas, the owners insisted they had no problem keeping Jack satisfied, though he doesn't get meat every day.
But what does he eat?
The answer: ``Everything.''