I wasn’t aware one has to groom her star quality, lead ordinary people into thinking that I’m so very special thru absence, so that by buying my stuff, or getting to meet me very rarely, they’ll be over the moon, because my absence exacerbates my value and by rubbing against my greatness they themselves acquire a star dust quality. I learned about this while chopping onions in my star-quality kitchen for my star-quality chicken soup while listening to standup comedy on YouTube and somehow I ended up watching an old episode of a videotaped Howard Stern radio show featuring comedienne Amy Schumacher.
It was interesting how they went on about it, with their headsets on, hashing it out, from celebrity gossip to bitching about suffering as entertainers because of anti-Semitism, both making six-figure salaries, thank you very much. I guess it pays nicely to lament on talk shows you’re a victim.
But what was the best lesson, after we heard how grossed was the demure young lady by uncircumcised penises, but still was game for whatever spanking Mr. Stern would feel inclined to bestow on her tushie in the quiet of boudoir. I’m not against Mr. Stern’s freedom of expression, far from me! He does great work. But my lesson in American mores was that Mr. Stern feared she chipped at her star quality while she peddled her $20 CDs backstage when she went on tour. Wasn’t she humiliated, wondered multimillionaire shock jock, by the experience? The girl was not, since she appreciated that the audience members made the time and financial effort of spending the evening with her. Plus the CD sales added about $700 a night.
So I’m hyperventilating here that I’ve ruined my star quality by heavily facebooking my art vendor experiences. Up to now I took pride in being visible and part of the New York City street performance scene, but no more of that.
My heart cockles would warm up each time a stray Romanian stopped by my stand and chat his head off. Well, no more of that either.
But one last story maybe won’t harm my nimbus beyond repair!
After this farewell story, I shall seclude myself in the mystery of my creative cocoon and emerge only as a dazzling butterfly, alright?
Story of Thursday and Friday Written on Saturday Morning Before Going Street Vending
Lately Sergey feeds me personal stories, and since while he counts his $20-bill stack I shiver in the wind with exactly $2.50 in my pocket, I conclude the Universe must think my function is to further his stories to you: Sergey, in spite of his calm appearance, leads a personal life of turmoil. On his Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday days off he washes the stack of dishes that has accumulated in his sink. I wondered what the wife was doing while he vended Russian dolls. Well, by the way the house looks like when he gets home you’d think nothing, he says puzzled, but the way she explains to him how she first stretched her right arm, then she scratched her ear, then she got up, put her right foot on the floor, then the left foot, then she even made a step, so the way she goes at length about the effort of all this, makes Sergey take back his reproaches of her idling, and he washes the dishes remorseful. Then he takes care of the guinea pig that was initially bought as a pet for their two girls, but who has to clean the guinea pig’s environs? Tired Sergey, on his day off. He each week has to get hold of a large cardboard box, carve out a circle, he gestures a large circle and the size of the guinea pig, more of a cat than a hamster it is, then he has to put a bed of fresh wood shavings in the box. Then he has to talk to his mom on Skype for two hours. ‘What do you guys find to talk about for two hours? I’m done in ten minutes!’ ‘Well, about events of my childhood, about present family doings, about the latest books she’s read. I love reading new writers. In Russian, my English is not so evolved.’
He tells me serenely about his immigration ordeal, which makes me heavily count my blessings. If you can imagine Sergey doesn’t have a green card after living here for 20 years! His wife, from South Korea, got her citizenship three years ago, his two daughters are born American citizens, he applied for his green card ten years ago, paid an arm and a leg to his lawyer, and he sticks to him because he got the citizenship for his wife, so he must be good, but in ten years the INS didn’t even call him to the interview, never. Even after his wife became an American citizen three years ago. You’d think he would have the right by now, don’t you? I have never heard of such a situation, as I said, I count my blessings. I got my green card in a year or so after I applied for it, then in five years I became a solid American citizen, and now my son shall go to the court ceremony to be sworn in. I contribute modestly to the American experiment with my nostalgia art about the old country, which Sergey appreciates very much, says it’s beautiful, but I must get my wonderful camera working and take pictures of recognizable New York spots in order to sell. I have to make them with a twist, something different about New York City landmarks, even ugly ones. This is what sells, in his keen observation of street clientele: Different, but preferably ugly. Perhaps I should climb the Statue of Liberty, since I’ve never felt strong enough to clamber up those thousands of stair steps. Sergey says he went five times, even up in the head, but each time they let visitors climb less high, maybe they’re renovating, he said. Should I take pictures of the long food pantry lines in my neighborhood for the eager poverty-porn consumers? No, don’t think so. Well, maybe the horse carriages lined up by Central Park? Get a shot when a horse poops? Different, but preferably ugly. No.
Well, I looked closer at his dolls yesterday, he even opened one for me, a Christmas tree with a snow man inside and then a Santa and then I stopped opening the smaller ones, because I told him you never know what they hide inside! He has a Beatles set, variations of it, the one I opened has John containing Paul containing Ringo containing whomever is the fourth one. He says indeed that’s what he really sells, the surprise of what’s hidden inside, because otherwise they are quite shoddily executed. But he sells lots and lots. That’s why he wrote on the table that little children are not allowed to open them, and when a child, eager to see what’s inside, proceeds to disassemble a set, and then asks permission, since it’s forbidden, he tells them that sign is only for bad children that don’t buy. So the good little girls buy eagerly. Cats playing harmonicas containing cats grabbing mice, at $15 apiece.
But I shall count my blessing for they are many, while poor Sergey, whatever he makes goes on things I don’t need to spend money, lawyers and such. I asked him how much does he pay for his storage unit. He says he doesn’t know anymore, because the credit card charges its fee automatically and he never checks the monthly statement.
Well, I store my shop on wheels in my apartment hallway.
And I also don’t go thru the experiences he goes with his mother and mother-in-law.
Well, his mom applied several times for a tourist visa at the St. Petersburg American embassy, paid $200 each time, only to have her papers thrown in her face by a Russian staff member. She picked them from the floor, but doesn’t want to go thru the humiliation again. Do you hear me, Mr. Stern? This is some real humiliation, not selling the work of your hands. The poor grandmother wanted to come visit her son and granddaughters, and spent her money on visa applications, $200 is a lot of money for a Russian pensioner. She still has nothing against Americans, one American embassy guy told her in broken English, were Sergey to have a green card, they’d give her visa immediately. She liked that guy, but the next time she applied and met the Russian thug, the experience disgusted her so she won’t try to come to America anymore.
Not that Sergey’s mother-in-law from South Korea fared any better. I want to clarify, ‘South Korea is the communist one with the atomic bomb?’ ‘No, no,’ Sergey who reads the paper every day, corrects me. ‘South Korea is a U.S. satellite.’ ‘So then why don’t they let your mother-in-law in?’ ‘I don’t know, because we sent her invitation on behalf of her American daughter and American granddaughters, and she has enough money in her bank account to show she can take care of her stay here. We don’t have that much money in the bank, you know…’
Anyway, the winds are blowing us away here in the street. Before noon there was some sunshine, we sunned in sleeveless T-shirts, but when the sun hides behind the skyscrapers we bundle up back in parkas and woolen caps.
Sergey complains on Friday that he made better sales on Thursday. I ask him if he knows why. Could be the winds? He doesn’t think so. I think so, but he says were he to know why one day is better than the other, he’d be rich.
He’d stay home and be rich.
Anyway, tomorrow we’ll be on Fifth Avenue. Then András will visit me again at my ambulatory embassy.
András is a fellow Transylvanian. He was walking down Fifth Avenue when his eyes fell on my young Gypsy couple portrait, so he had to ask me what’s up, and he proudly asserted he’s a Hungarian Gypsy from a large town in Transylvania, though he doesn’t look it, he laughed. Often not looking it put him in awkward situations, but he handled them amiably. Well, András was many things in his life, before he was born again here in New York City. He led a life of sin, he told me, holding out his religious promotional leaflet for me to read. He testifies he had quite a happy middle-class life in Romania, he doesn’t know what was in his head when he decided to come to America, especially that he had to pay a pretty penny, get married for the American visa. He wanted to become a millionaire. And from that to distributing born-again leaflets is quite a jump. His friends back in Transylvania decided he must be on drugs, or an alcoholic, to do such humiliating things, distribute leaflets in the name of Jesus, announcing everlasting life on the streets of the richest city in the world, leaving his well-paid waiter job in the best city in Transylvania for what?! At home he was a prize-winning waiter, hired at the best Hungarian restaurant in town. He knew all the ins and outs of waitressing, the hors d'oeuvres, the mise en place, you name it, he served celebrities, politicians, and they were all satisfied customers.
He had chosen the hospitality business his parents being Gypsy musicians, but his coworkers didn’t know he was a Gypsy, since when they’d make their customary Gypsy jokes, he wouldn’t get on their case harping about how politically incorrect they were. He just did his waitressing to perfection, and business was good. But one day his mom, who by day is a florist, has her stand on the street like me, maybe that’s why he stopped by mine, anyway, she has dark skin and black hair, so you can tell from afar she’s a Gypsy, came to the restaurant door at closing time and one of his colleagues shooed her off saying, ‘It’s closed, sorry.’ But his mom said softly she’d like to speak to Mr. András. She didn’t want to embarrass him by saying he was her son. So the puzzled co-worker went downstairs and with a look on his face András replicates for me, a mixture of disgust, apology of bothering someone on such unbecoming errands, and incomprehension, delivered the message, ‘András, there’s a Gypsy woman at the door, asking for you.’ And András told him, ‘Let her in! She’s my mom!’ And he embraced his mom, kissed her hand, put her at a table and served her pork chops. The waiters were looking distraught and baffled at the ceremony. András told them laughing, ‘Well, dear friends, I know it comes as a shock to you, but I am a Gypsy.’ From then on the Gypsy jokes stopped and András kept at his awarded mise en places.
I tell him a similar story I read on a blog of a prominent Romanian Gypsy intellectual who wrote how when he was young and dated non-Gypsy girls, always came the fated day of inviting her to his place. His mom opens the apartment door in her traditional long-skirted Gypsy get ups. The white girl makes big eyes, and asks him, ‘Are you sure this is the right apartment?’ He replies, ‘I know you find me a cute silly-head, but still I should be able to know where I live, don’t you think?’ Girl, ‘But she is a Gypsy.’ ‘Well, she’s my mom.’ End of romance.
András nods smiling in recognition. I tell him another story, taking my embassy for stray Transylvanians duty seriously, I am here to listen to complaints, disseminate information, be of service, ‘I once went to see a show at La Mama, a prominent theater in the Village. It was a Romanian play staged by Andrei Şerban, our cultural icon. He brought to New York young actors thru the Romanian Cultural Institute. The play was about a lesbian who ends up in a monastery and she is killed as a result of an exorcism conducted by nuns or a priest, I don’t remember, they made a film now about it. What I remember is that the play was in Romanian and they had a screen with supratitles in English. Well, the actors speaking in Romanian talked the way people talk in Romania, ‘F**k the dirty Gypsies! F**k the dirty Jews!’ so on. But on the screen they translated only ‘F**k the Gypsies!’ a million times, no ‘F**k the Jews!’ since they knew too well not to do that, risking to offend the heavily Jewish New York audience. No one said a word, they were all very happy that Romanian culture made it to America. But I wrote a letter both to the Romanian Cultural Center director and to Andrei Şerban, that that wasn’t nice. Of course they didn’t reply.’
András highly spirited says that I should have reported them to the Human Rights organizations here in America and to Rroma/Gypsy organizations in Romania and then they would have to apologize publicly and that Romanian director would never set his foot in America again. I smile at his faith in American values, and don’t tell him that Andrei Şerban is a Columbia University professor, who should have known better. Or that I wrote to Rroma organizations and were unresponsive, and called the American Civil Liberties Union who sniggered and told me actually racial slurs are not illegal, but covered by the First Amendment freedom of speech.
I don’t do that because my duty as an impromptu embassy is to listen to the needs of my visitors.
And András' need is to spread the good news: there’s after life, and one can repent. He, after a life of sin, among others, drinking, theft, sleeping with a married woman. Well, who is he to judge her, her hardship, her home life? But one fine day, actually night, András woke up horrified, got up from his bed and saw himself lying in bed in sin, and it shook him. God spoke to him right then.
His conversion went like this: he awoke in the middle of the night only to see in the dark a knight like we had centuries ago in Transylvania, in a shiny armor and helmet and faceguard, who was looking at him as he was displayed on a marble slab, like you see Romanian kings’ statues on top of their tombs in old historical churches. And the knight lowered his body, armor and shield and helmet and blew short bursts of air at András as if blowing dust away. Then András felt exactly like a stray dog reacts when you grab it by the scruff of its neck and talk to him nicely, the dog likes it but doesn’t know what to do, since he doesn’t know you. But after the three blows of breath András felt a deep relief. A strong feeling of guilt took over him, ‘What I’m doing it’s not right! I live in sin!’ and he right then threw his porn DVD collection to the garbage. A pity, I could have sold it on eBay.
So András walks on the straight and narrow now, and God provides. He works as a waiter only Monday, Tuesday, and you’d think who comes to a restaurant at the beginning of the week? Well, few, but he got a $50 tip! And when there’s no waitressing, there’s cleaning. God is good. And then there’s afterlife. What is our transient existence compared to the afterlife in heavens?
I find his struggle moving. I lead a life of prayer, what’s a mother to do but pray that the Spirit of the Universe, be it the same God András or Yusuf prays to, that resides on the Multiple Universe Parallel Membranes, the String-Theory God, whomever, should protect her son in this wicked world and city. And when the prayer proves to be efficient, I’m moved to tears.
I prayed two days ago, and one day ago my dear son was living proof that my prayer worked in the hour of need. Well, on Friday he told me he shall go out with a friend and stay overnight at his place. But at midnight he showed up home. I was glad, and didn’t ask questions. He told me the next day how they went to a party, then they ended up at a friend of his friend, who is a millionaire, owns his own apartment, decorated in a minimalist style, which I know my son admires, myself stuffing the apartment to the brim, and well, the rich guy was an arrogant bore, but it was alright until he invited them all to blow coke. My son got up and left, cold shivers on his spine. Do you know how it is to see your son doing the right thing in spite of risking of being unpopular? How close he is to a slippery slope in this city of vile pleasures? András assures me my son will soon receive a call from God. He gives me two leaflets. He invites me to his Hungarian church. Not the one with the Hungarian flag painted on the hydrant, but the Baptist one.
He tells me how there too they’d make their jokes featuring Gypsies, and he said to himself, he should stop going there, all the time Gypsy jokes, but then he thought it over, maybe God wants them to rub against each other like two rocks until they get all smooth, so he stuck to that congregation. Once they threw a birthday party for him, and when it came to speeches, András said, ‘Dear brothers, I love you, and I want to make sure that you’ll keep those Gypsy jokes coming, for I am a Gypsy myself.’ Oh, they were so very embarrassed and they apologized to the skies with a guilty conscience. So now András distributes pamphlets on Sundays. He plans to buy small water bottles from BJ’s and freeze them and give them away along with his leaflets in the summer. This way people will understand the message, he gives them the water of the eternal life. Alright.
I see him peel off a $5 bill from his wallet and offers it to me, the wretched. I want to give him a greeting card in gratitude, but he doesn’t want to take it, saying I need to make money. He advises me to be more outgoing. He himself took that advice from his American co-workers, though at the beginning he thought fawning over customers was humiliating, but he pushed himself to do it once and clients were very happy and generous. ‘Here you have to work it,’ he says, ‘otherwise they think you’re strange.’ Alright. It is rather hard to be outgoing when the wind blows my hair all over the place, then it gets staticky and plasters on my face uncontrollably. See, I don’t sell just artifacts. I sell The Image Of The Artist In The Big City. Sergey sells just dolls. If they don’t buy, but just say nice things, he doesn’t even talk to them. I have to open a bank account for all the compliments and smiles I receive.
András is not the only fellow Transylvanian, Romanian, stopping by, attracted by my old country pictures. The other day a Romanian lady, out of the blue skies and green grass, stopped by my table, and I talked fondly to her. She was asking advice how to sell her MOMA bracelets. The money is tight and she has an entire collection she bought at a discount when she was a MOMA volunteer. She also has MOMA T-shirts. I explain to her I’m selling my own creations. MOMA merchandise is not covered by the First Amendment, but she should bring her little table on the square, we’ll be two Romanians then. Maybe the police won’t bother her. She said when she lived in Manhattan for 20 so years she met only six Romanians! Six.
I guess I’m a Venus Flytrap for Romanians. Well, it’s too harsh of a word. A Venus Trap for stories? Well, it’s better than becoming bitter and brittle. I’m a communicator. I should put a sign Impromptu Romanian Embassy.
Well, Sergey too is now egging me to write a book about our street vending mishaps. Become a millionaire. He pulled out his celebrity roster enthusiastically: Richard Benson stopped by his table, shook hands with him. Sergey shouted at him as he was walking by, ‘Hey Richard, how’s business?’ and Richard said, ‘Alright, thank you, and how is yours?’ like a normal person. Then Matt Damon and his mom bought Russian dolls, they too behaved absolutely normal. Also John Cusack. No hot air there either. One day Arafat stopped by coming from delivering his speech at United Nations, a few blocks from us. Sergey looked at him, he seemed familiar. He asked Arafat, ‘Are you an actor? I’ve seen your face before.’ But Arafat said he wasn’t an actor at all. He had his peculiar headdress. Later on Sergey realized he was Arafat. We’re all neighbors and hosts for our visitors. Any encounter is possible on the streets of our city. So write Ella, write for Sergey, for András. Write their book.
I’ll end up, God help me, promoting it on Howard Stern’s show. Well, I can be more informative than Amy Schumacher who was offering the nation her exploits as a Bloomingdale’s shoplifter. The buck stops at vampires though. I really don’t judge Mr. Stern. He has for sure his own tragedies to deal with.
Snippets From A Windy New York Saturday While Vending
I made $2 and I spent $5 on the bus and even those two bucks have a bitter aftertaste because I pitied a guy who wanted two of my miniature pictures but complained he had no money, so I gave them for two bucks. But he played me, and knew the real value of my pictures. I realized it only when he asked me to sign the pictures to make sure he gets rich when I get famous, but it was too late to take my word back since I said to myself they should be alms in my brother’s memory. He died on April 12th, 10 years ago.
Well, in the end I go out on the Plaza not just to sell, but to meet the world, and hear its stories. Some idea will come to me how to make money somehow.
A lady from Italy bought a postcard with my young Gypsy couple. So, they get to go to Italy via New York.
A tall white guy in his early 50s holding up a blue plastic sticks asks belligerently the pedicab guys, ‘Do you give Central Park tours? Guys mumble hopeful, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ ‘Do you have a license?’ Pedicab boys hold out their IDs hanging on their necks. Tall guy, ‘That is a pedicab license. Do you know the history and facts of Central Park’s main spots?’ Pedicabbies mumble, ‘Yes.’ Tall guy yells triumphantly, ‘No, you don't! I know them. I’m a certified tour guide!’ and walks proudly towards the park holding high his blue stick followed by his faithful ones.
Elderly gentleman gazes over my pictures. I smile, he smiles, I say they are from Romania. He asks me, ‘How's business.’ ‘Slow’, I reply. ‘Like everywhere else,’ he nods. ‘I used to live in New York,’ he says. Alright, so I ask him politely, ‘Where do you live now?’ ‘Las Vegas.’ I endeavor to ask him further politely, ‘How's there?’ ‘Lots of noise, tourists, lights, gambling. But the weather is nice, always sunny.’ ‘Well, beats New York,’ I humor him. He leaves, then comes back to ask me if I know where a store, Eddie Bauman, is. ‘Maybe they closed down, it was here somewhere, on 58, 59.’ ‘I don't know, Sir, but ask a policeman, they know everything.’
An elderly lady with sandy hair and beige rouge asks me if Habla espaniol. No habla. Apparently she is hungry and would like to eat. I ask in Romanian when saying, ‘Food? Food?’ fails. ‘Alimente?’ ‘Si, si,’ she nods. I point her across the street, there's a café, people seem to come out with sandwiches. It takes a bit of more pointing to induce her to cross the street and not go straight ahead.
An elderly couple, a dark-hair lady, heavy on the eyeliner, asks, ‘Where's Victoria’s Secret?’ I say I know not, maybe to my left. I should have said in her panties and her bra. She asks Sergey of the Russian dolls, he points her to the left. They go left. Men must know everything.
A lady from Thailand upon seeing my piglets’ pictures declares I just made her decide to go visit Romania. She laughs her head off at my asking $10 for a picture. Too expensive. But since I must be cold standing in the winds all day long, she wants to help and purchase something. We arrive at a small pink leather bag I offer it to her for $10 though I usually sell it for $15. She wants it down to $7. I point out I’ve already discounted it with $5. Alright. So she goes now to Romania with my pink bag. I hope the snap that secures it doesn't break and she doesn't curse me from far away.
I wonder at a long white limo, looked like a centipede, like a caterpillar, with seven windows on one side and only one door. The driver is a skinny guy, a bag of bones, dressed in tight pants and stylish slim tie with crisp white shirt and gold rimmed eyeglasses, and his hair spiky with gel. One of our Eastern Europeans, agitated, bowing to customers. I know them by their sad eyes that they are one of us. Who knows what sophisticated intellectual he has been at home, here he’s a chauffeur.
I think the girls who descend from that limo have a birthday treat. Their mother or chaperone tells the driver they go over to the Plaza Hotel but only briefly, and the limo should wait for them, or will he be able to park? He waits.
It’s great fun, since where I sell I meet people coming from all over the country and from all over the world, and they have fun asking how the heck does he turn the corner with that endless crazy car on the streets of Manhattan. He’s used to the hullabaloo, but people split with laughter, take pictures. I do need to have my camera with me, I keep forgetting. When the birthday party come back it so happens that a large group of schoolgirls in turquoise blue shirts, Girl Scouts written on their chests and a peace sign, and their schoolteachers, come out of the toy store, that's where I'm stationed, and they ask the driver to let them take group pictures with the limo.
What a contrast. Millionaire girls and poor girls, Eastern European intellectual driver, and Eastern European writer art street vendor. It’s amusing. I laugh with Sergey, he’s used to this kind of extravagance. I ask him, 'Is this a school bus?' he says they probably have Jacuzzi on board. "A swimming pool? How do they jump in the water? They open the roof and get on top of it and jump in the swimming pool?"
It's hard to see people buying so many Russian dolls, but I pray that what's mine is laid aside, and Sergey is mighty kind to me.
Follow Up After Vending
Sergey told me he hasn’t seen his mom in 22 years, since he came here as an exchange student, like the pedicab boys do. He went to college in Massachusetts from January to October ’91, or ‘92, right before the falling apart of the USSR. He hoped it would manage to stay together, but it disintegrated amazingly fast, seen from the outside, from the inside maybe not so fast. His father died three years ago. Too much drinking. He lived to be 73, which is quite a feat, since guys in Russia die around 60, because of heavy drinking. When he still lived with his mom, he drank only wine, there’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine with dinner, but ever since he divorced, he switched to vodka and hard liquor. For guys like him, growing old alone, no family, or even if married, children grown up, gone, no hope for a better future, the gathering of friends, though Sergei wouldn’t call them friends, they drink and talk all day long, drink, drink. I told him same thing goes on in Romania too. ‘They even start the day with plum brandy. They say it’s good for the stomach! Early morning it’s good for your health!’ ‘Well, for one who wants to drink, all times of day are good,’ he replies. Sergey hopes he won’t have the same fate. I reassure him, ‘Here we have AA, here it’s different.’ ‘Well, here it’s not alcohol, but it’s coke, and pot’. He points with his head to the tall office buildings, ‘Highly professional people snort coke. Boosts their energy level and gives confidence.’
Well, his brother-in-law smokes weed every day, every day. He lives in shelters now. He used to be a bank manager in London, made $200,000 a year, but he doesn’t want to work anymore. He has three kids, divorced. Three times he stayed for a year at Sergey’s place. But he quarrels. Last time provoked him to a fistfight. Sergey threw him out, ‘Go to the shelter! Go!’ He comes often and asks for money. Last time he wanted a haircut, asked for $30. ‘But a haircut is $12!’ I point out. Well, not for him. He used to be a rich man, he has standards. He came to ask for money to buy himself sneakers. High Powered sneakers! Sergey gave his wife $60, so he buys himself sneakers and a pair of jeans. Well, they went to the store together, brother and sister, and he said he didn’t want the $30 sneakers, he wanted the High Power sneakers that were on sale at $99. His sister told him, ‘All I’ve got is $60.’ Well, he asked her to give it to him and he’d go and ask for more from other people. ‘No, no, it’s either I buy you sneakers and jeans, or nothing.’ So he stormed out.
I ask Sergey how big is Russia. I expect him to say half of America, but he says three times larger than America! What?! Only Siberia is as big as the USA. What?! But it’s not so populated. He says U.S. has about 350 million people, Russia has 175 million people. He says Bangladesh, that is like New Jersey in size, has also 175 million people. Aren’t they starving because of that in Bangladesh? He shrugs. I checked on the internet. Russia is less than twice bigger than U.S.A., is only 1.74. Siberia is 7.35 bigger than Texas. Texas has 268,601 square miles, second large state in the nation after Alaska, the U.S.A. has a total area of 3,794,101 square miles, Siberia about 5.1 million square miles, Russia 6,592,800 square miles. Then the U.S.A. has just 307 million people, Russians are 140 million alright, Bangladesh is like Iowa in size, which is 56,271 square miles while New Jersey is 8,721 square miles, Iowa population is 3,046,355 while New Jersey is 8,791,894. Bangladesh’s population is more than 160 million people. Yes, they starve.
Also comes out some Siberian separatists want to join the U.S.A. Well, the wonders of information.
Sergey likes esoteric things. We talked Russian literature, I told him I love a Russian absurdist writer who wrote a piece, about how first one babushka fell from the balcony, then two babushkas, then more babushkas, all day long fell off the balcony. He never heard of the story, but we both liked Ilf and Petrov, his preferred youth reading, and the movies they made after the books he thinks are hilarious. I complained about Bulgakov’s Maestro and Margareta, too much religion, but he defended Bulgakov, nothing less but a genius, religion is just a backdrop.
Like in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the book is not about war, the war is just a backdrop. I was not going to explain to him how I detest guys who prop themselves up, quoting other famous books, piggybacking on the Bible, or Greek stuff.
I’m still puzzling what should I do about his stories. I asked him why he doesn’t write himself a book, since he loves reading. He said a Russian author advised wanna-be writers to write books only if they cannot not write books.
Sergey is the kind that can not write books.
So here we are…
I found out on the internet the writer’s name, with the falling off the balcony babushkas: Daniil Kharms. Sergey says Kharms was a poet. Maybe, but he is also an absurdist writer. I can’t wait to read them to Sergey.
A muscly father asks the price of the penguin with red hat hiding inside many other penguins without red hats. His daughter tells him the price from the bottom of the penguin, $25. The man explains to her this is how much Sergey wants, but he shall pay $20, Sergey tells him, $30, man laughs realizing Sergey hiked the price, man insists $20, Sergey says $27. ‘In Russia,’ Sergey expounds, ‘we put a fair price and don’t like negotiations.’ Man says, ‘Here even in FAO Schwartz they ask more than they want.’ Sergey shrugs. Man says taking out his $20 bill, this is his last offer. Sergey refuses. Men and daughter walk away.
I don’t know if it was a Cold War match between Russia and the U.S.A., or a show off in front of the little girl, and the American guy was humiliated in front of his daughter.
Sergey is running out of penguins any day now, his most wanted matrioshka. He put an ad in the local Russian paper that he buys matrioshkas in bulk, and those who answered wanted $40 for a doll he sells with $20. If you go on Bryant Park that same doll in the same colors, he shows me a green-scarf doll with blond hair, is $39. The guy who wanted $40 for bulk price hearing Sergey’s offer laughed at him. So Sergey won’t put any new ads. ‘And what will you do?’ I ask. He doesn’t answer.
Sunday While Vending On Fifth Avenue
Well, this weekend the Bergdorf Goodman store window display presents Punk: Chaos To Couture. There are dresses made out of tattered black plastic bags, shredded leather skirts, lots of bolts and nuts and spikes, against a backdrop of peeled-off walls and debris piled in the middle of the window. Minus the spores and other nasty fungi that float in the air in such spaces in real life. I know it since I’ve visited such unsanitary spaces inhabited by artist friends, now sanitized in displays for Fifth Avenue folks.
So when the neighborhood pointed-hair gentleman walks by, as he usually does on Sundays, and he looks into the window display right in front of my table, I say eagerly to myself, ‘Now or never it’s the time to say hello to him!’ So muffled up as I am in my purple wool shawl and my mustard parka, I saunter towards him and I say a joyous, ‘Hello.’
Today he is decked in his Scottish regalia skirts, with lots of silver color chains dangling from various parts of his outfit, neck, wrists, belt. He has thick platform boots with small British flags stuck in them and a large leather tote with same U.K. flag. So here I am all smiles, looking like a backwoods Russian peasant, saying hello, and the guy, turns his small face covered in red plastic sunglasses and barks at me in a Hispanic accent, ‘Stay away from me!’ I instantly back off, 'Sorry! I just wanted to compliment you.' ‘I don’t want any compliments!’ he shouts. I scurry back to my table, hurt feelings. I didn’t mean to scare him, he might be a weird damaged person, like that guy in Tolkien with, ‘Precious, precious.’
Well, he might not want my compliments, but he is hungry for attention, because for the last half an hour he poses in front of the windows for tourists and knows how to ham it up for the camera, and I saw a few people approaching him, asking permission to photograph him and he sort of a sneers in a smile. I’m just not meeting his demographic standards, I guess. And I thought I was a fellow artist on the edge.
We were discussing the windows with another gentleman, a pony tail gentleman who stopped by to admire my nostalgia pictures and when he said, ‘That’s what’s so great about this wild country, that we are from all over the world,’ I tentatively said that, ‘I’ve realized I don’t quite understand how things work here. Do you? Take for example this punk fashion display in a clothing store that sells a dress at $6,000. These attires were made by kids first, weren’t they? On a meager budget.’ He said by musicians. ‘Yes, but how did they end up at Bergdorf Goodman?! This store is owned by Orthodox Jewish people!’ ‘Well, they either stole them from the musicians,' he says, 'or Bergdorf Goodman pays royalties to their record labels, and everybody gets their cut.’ ‘I surely hope they get paid, for I’m not getting my cut at all.’ I blurt it out.
Mister Pointed-Head has moved to the next window display and works the tourist crowd, I guess in the hopes of going viral on Facebook. But he has such a disgusted face now. I guess it goes with the punk attitude. ‘I don’t give a f**k!’ or ‘F**k off!’ persona. He is now strategically posing between the Mohawk and guitar dummy and the red caps of the fire hydrant that brings out nicely the red in his Scottish skirts.
Anyway, serves me well that I didn’t bring the camera again. I could have regaled you with the wonders of New York City absurd contrasts. In the window display dresses that cost $6,000 and we are in awe of them, while the live punk pointed-head pensioner is the laughing stock of tourists from Minnesota.
Oops, competition on the horizon: Another living-sculpture, street-performer cuckoo rides by on a yellow child’s bike, on the sidewalk of course, coarsely hollering his, ‘Coming thru!’ Pink tresses in the wind under a cowboy hat. He too is in skirts and boots.
Anyway, as we were discussing with the pony tail gentleman the ‘interesting life’ of old folks in my country, he said it was ‘interesting’ when I told him we still have three-generation families there, and seldom people end up in old folks’ homes, like the three sad-looking elderly in my picture. He said he himself was homeless, though he was nicely dressed, clean jeans and golf shirt, shiny, long auburn hair, walking stick though, said he lived in a shelter, but he applied for a disability housing unit and his wife just got a job, so they were slowly getting back on their feet. ‘Rents are mad expensive in Manhattan, but this country is big, one can go live somewhere else.’
Big indeed, but I told him how much bigger was Russia.
Still I was puzzling about this America.
I put the same question to András, when he came with a spring in his walk, if he gets it what’s going on here in America. He said yes, he figured it out upon arrival when he still had $$$$ signs on his retina: the rich make sure they get all the advantages whichever way they turn, the middle class tags along, while he, and probably I too, he diagnosed, had no chance whatsoever but work and work and not get anywhere in the end.
Right then another nostalgic subdued man stopped by my pictures. I told András, ‘Just watch, he’s from Romania.’ And indeed he was. From Gherla, living in Washington DC. He went looking for his mom who was walking ahead of him, and brought her back to my table. András asked her if she liked what she saw here in America. The lady said it was a good thing she didn’t come here 30, 40 years ago for she would have never went back to Romania. András shook hands with them while we laughed how indeed my stand was a street impromptu embassy.
‘We’ll be in touch,’ Washington DC promised leaving us.
András told me he walked 30 blocks from church distributing leaflets on cars windshields, in coffee houses, spreading the word of God. On his way he saw a doorman polishing a car that had a plate saying ‘Romania’, and as he was chatting with the guy a young woman came and asked them if they knew any single guy because she’d do anything for a place to stay and some food. The door man said he didn’t, András declined too, but took her aside and told her that three years ago he would have probably taken her home, but now all he could give her was some food. She looked like a doll, but you could tell from her fingernails and jeans that she slept on the street. Drug addict. 26-year-old pretty girl. She tried to lean on András, but he told her to cut it off, she couldn’t walk she said, she was tired, could they just get into a taxi? She was tempting András, but he stood his ground, bought her a sandwich and then told her again to stop inviting trouble, ‘cause some of those guys would give her a hundred, take her to his home and tie her up, the devil is at work big time in this city. All he could give her was the word of Christ, and when she’d be in need she could stop by any of the churches around here.
Also András explained the overall picture, so I get it what’s going on in the whole world, not just America. ‘From the moment they wake up nowadays people are like robots, ME, ME, ME. They don’t care but for the sins of the flesh. It’s not like it used to be in Romania, if you wanted to drink lemonade and was short of money, you could go to a stranger and ask for a dollar to buy a soft drink. Now if I go, clean, presentable, to ask for a buck, they look ugly and walk past me. It’s ME, ME, ME!’
He had to run with his pamphlets, he gave me one with a $5 bill in it, bless his soul. I told him I considered it as sponsorship for the development of the street embassy.
I kept the embassy open until seven p.m. Sergey took off by six. But people stopped by, lots of talk, about pictures, about the Jean-Luc Godard’s movies I’ve been watching, about bloody depressing weather in London, where nice weather means it’s not raining, about how an American woman drove thru Transylvania with her Romanian fiancé, about how nice are people from Albuquerque, Canada, about Romanian fairytales, and about how I had enough of talking about vampires when I was invited on talk shows in Baton Rouge.
I made almost $100. András is at work, banging on God’s doors for me.
Have you forgotten Ella, Lord?
So no, Mr. Stern, these open-air encounters beat any star-quality seclusions.
Besides, I don’t need to work on my mystique, I was born into it. I’m from Transylvania, Sir. Also please check your show prurient listener demographics because I bet there are many from Eastern Europe, as András testified about his porn collection. Could be he is on your case by now, with hoards of angels. Mighty funny things might start happening, Sir, like inviting us, bustling poor immigrant people on your show, not just hoity-toity ME, ME, MEs. We need a building for our embassy, so maybe you help us on your show with fund raising?
As a matter of fact, it is my embassy representative duty to make our people known to your people, and encourage mutual respect.
I salute you, Mr. Stern.
May 6, 2013
Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy, freedonm of speech and faith, and engineering social change thru art being one of them, I’d be grateful.