This is one of my favorite “Famous Common People I Have Known” stories (available at Amazon) about a man who personified the turned-up-nose imagry we are seeing once again in this new election cycle. It never seems to change, and until it is defeated, the American world will never be made whole.
Sadly, it is still relevent.
His real name was Xhristo Planev. He and one other man were my best friends in Bulgaria for over 15 years. They died within three weeks of one another earlier this year. I attended the latter’s funeral but never got to visit with Xristo, or even knew he was ill. While the other fellow, Dmitar, was a classic-rags-to-riches tale of never giving into “imperial communists”, also deserving of a story here, Xhristo was that crazy live-alone uncle no one ever wanted to show up for Thanksgiving dinner…except me.
Everyone called him Kuko, but I never did. He was always Xristo to me, and I think he appreciated it, as Kuko was more than just a diminutive nickname. It also carried a little stigma, I learned. (I’ll use it here only because it’s easier to spell.)
My first visit to Bulgaria, in 1995 was as a gun runner. Legal of course, but I was representing a US company hoping to buy various products at their national arms factory in the Balkan mountains. (I had connections.) So I was running back and forth for about four days. Across the street from my hotel was the Parliament, then behind it a magnificent cathedral named St Alexander Nevsky, and around it a great plaza which contained many interesting sites, along with a flea market that abutted the parks. With a couple of hours to kill waiting for a car to pick us up, my arms specialist and I decided to visit this place. It is no longer there.
This flea market dealt primarily with tourists and embassy folks, so the items arrayed were exotic and high-end by American flea market standards; militaria, religious relics, icons, art, and table after table of antiquities, coins, some real, some fake. Little I could afford.
Kuko had a small table there, and I was drawn to it because everything on his table looked like something I could afford. He had album after album of postcards, going back to Tsarist times, and stack after stack of zenatchki (little medals) or pins, attached to cloth backing. Pin collecting was the Soviet Bloc version of baseball cards in America, some very valuable, others quite common, but very pretty, commemorating cities, events, famous communists, soldiers, battles, or the Party. History on a pinback. I have a special collection of old rare space pins from Sputnik to Laika to Gagarin, most of which I acquired from Kuko. In later years he would always keep one hidden away in his pocket, and on my last day before flying home, as I was saying last goodbyes, he would look around furtively, as if he were about to pull out a bag of dope, hold open his hand, and I would say “How much?” and he would say, “For you? Present. Gift. Five bucks.” This is the only time we never haggled. I would then reach inside my pocket, pull out the fiver (not letting him see that I had many more there, or I’d be another hour getting away) clasped it in his hand as we shook, then kissed and left. Until next time, old friend.
But my first time, in 1995, I just looked and sorted through the thousands of pins and holding one up, he’d usually say one leva (50c then). I held up a very fine old brass and enamel Lenin pin, he said “petdecit Leva” ($25), then smiled as I set it back down. Slowly, taking about twenty minutes, I laid out twenty pins, unlatching them from the cloth, and I noticed his face changed from impassive to interested as he realized we were going to haggle. Finally the debate began. I had twenty so wanted a good discount. He referred to me only as “Mister” then and the only Bulgarian I knew then was “da” and “nye”. I offered ten leva, and he came back at eighteen. Twice I faked a walk-away. Then I found other things on the table I didn’t really want, added them to the stack, then said “OK, now 18″ using my fingers since I didn’t know the words.
Kuko had elfish eyes that danced when he was engaged in battle, but which could also turn on a dime, to dark and ugly if there was someone or something he didn’t like, such as being interrupted when dealing in high finance with an American, as happened often in our sessions.
He had the most gaunt face I’d ever seen. He was younger than me but looked twenty years older. He’d been a steamfitter I later learned, was a pensioner and widower, so lived on about $100 a month fixed income. He had a dog named Muchi, and drove an old Trabant with the back seat knocked out. If you can imagine a Seedy Clothes Thrift Shop in a poor country like Bulgaria, that is where Kuko shopped, I’m sure. The flea market vendors on the whole weren’t exactly Harrads in their quality of dress, but Kuko stood out for the impoverishment of his clothes, ill-fitting and old, including old worn leather shoes, with white athletic laces.
Maybe it was this that drew me to his table in the first place. I love to shake gnarly calloused hands, so after an hour of drama, I gave him 7 bucks (14 leva) plus the thirty cents he gypped me on the exchange rate…another game we played for nearly 15 years thereafter. Another thing he did then and forever after, as he put my pins into a small bag, he picked up an old worn military insignia and stick it in the baggie as well. He said “Present”, but in truth he was saying “I got you pretty good there, Meester Americanski. A little more money, a little more time, you could have done much better for yourself.”
I liked him.
There is a purpose to this reminiscence. I’ve often spoken of the handshake in political and social contexts in the Untied States. I gave Kuko great face, and he returned the favor by giving me great insight by letting me see the world from his side of the table.
I went back to Sofia the next year on different business and decided to carry a couple thousand in cash to bring back goods in a suitcase to cover some of my expenses. I was mostly after religious items and military daggers, neither of which are legal anymore, but which I knew I could turn over quickly. Now in those days, everyone was much poorer than they are now, and loved America much more, so as I walked between the rows of vendors, everyone was hawking his wares, saying “Mister, Mister” holding something up for me to see, ravenous to get a piece of that money they knew every rich American carried. Some are now good friends. But that first trip back I sought Kuko out just because of the good time I’d had with him before. On all sides were other vendors, mostly selling antiquities and coins, things about which I couldn’t certify were authentic and unsure that I could export anyway, even hidden away in my bags, so I didn’t bother. But I noticed an interest in everything I was doing from these other guys, and a universally-recognized turned-up nose about Kuko….and a puzzlement as to why an American would walk by so many good tables to come and visit his paltry offerings, especially so straightaway. He had a spot, he paid for it, but it seemed everyone just wished he would go away as if he were running down the neighborhood.
This second time I looked at postcards, which he wanted a buck apiece for (2 leva). I love beautiful art cards, especially ladies of grace, and over the years probably bought 3000-4000 from Kuko alone. On this first visit I bought several hundred, at least a shoe box and you should have seen those other vendors’ eyes when I pulled out a wad of twenties and counted out $200 to Kuko. My first buy, and for every year after, Kuko would always fold the money, and scratch the whiskers under his chin, a gypsy token of luck.
By the end of the week we were friends, although neither could understand a word of the others’ language. Kuko had the annoying habit of speaking to me in rapid fire Bulgarian as if I understood every word, never pausing to even pretend to try to get me to understand a single word by saying it slowly. Once in awhile a neighbor would step in, “He is telling you…such and such” and I would nod, “Ahh, da, da, da.” And Kuko would smile and nod as if I’d just caught up with him, then continue. Before leaving that first time I asked him if i could bring him anything from Amerika and he said “Whiskey, Byelo Kon“, which turned out to be a cheap scotch he’d had in New Jersey when he visited his niece there in the 1970s. White Horse.
So a ritual was established that went on continuously until our last meeting in 2008. For from that time forward, my first day in Sofia, I would walk to the flea market through the back entrance (he was near the front), wave to all my other friends, so they would know I’ll be back tomorrow with money to spend, so get the good stuff out, but today I will speak with Kuko. I would walk straight to his table, under the glaring gaze of his rich neighbors, then pull out a bottle of White Horse, we would hug, kiss, then Kuko would turn over a milk crate, and I come come around to his side of the table, and I would sit, he would squat…and we would speak of many things…in a language neither of us understood while I thumbed through books of postcards, sharing beer, rakia, and sandwiches. We would haggle of course, I would buy, pay, he would scratch his chin, then I would come back next day to do more business with other folks. This was normal.
And his neighbors seethed, for when I was there, Kuko was king of that end of the block. Everyone knew I spent 1000’s each trip and yet I only paid attention to Kuko in their neighborhood. Not them. Finally, by about 2006, after a 3 year hiatus due to my son’s illness, they had all figured it out, and asked Kuko to introduce me to them, which he did…for a reasonable finder’s fee, I’m sure. You see how things work, then. He had established great face.
Kuko and Gypsies
Another thing I liked about Kuko was the way he treated gypsies, called Tzigane in that area. That can sometimes be the measure of a man. In the early days, gypsies still ran the streets and begged on every corner, mostly children, who would be assigned to simply squat down at a station and hold out a hand and a painful face. They swarmed parishioners at the churches, where even I wouldn’t spare a sous. In those early days it was not uncommon to see shopkeepers come out with a broom, or throw an empty cola bottle at them, to shoo them away. I once saw an Ellie Maeva (nouveau riche girl) sic her dog on a gypsy kid in front of a Canali Boutigue on a swank street. (He got away). At the flea market, if you heard a loud commotion is was usually because a gypsy had approached a vendor, and even while they may have had a good thing to sell they were generally reviled and considered bad for business among the embassy crowd. But from the other side of the table Kuko provided, I got to see many gypsies approach his table, and he would look at every item they brought with genuine interest, with the grave visage of a church prelate looking over an artifact, treating them with respect and professionalism. And if he liked the item he would buy it, if not, say “ne” and the kid would move on. Although one can never be the friend of the gypsies, if one treats them with respect they will reciprocate. And, they always know where all the bodies, and the gold, is buried. It’s like having a second cousin who’s a fence.
Oh, did I mention that Kuko was a musician and artist? While sitting at his table he would whittle and carve. I’ve seen his piccolos and flutes, and heard them played. And his statuary…mostly of Greek friezes…I have several and won’t sell them. About the music, he once had an East German Weltmeister accordian on his table, a huge squeeze box, price, $25. I asked him if it was in good condition, and he stood, picked it up, strapped it on, and took on a face as serious as Toscanini and proceeded to play a Chopin etude. Not Buffalo Gals, or Polly Waddle Doddle or Meine Yiddish Momme, but Frederic damned Chopin!. A crowd quickly gathered, and it went on for 4-5 minutes at least. Finished, he looked up and said Dobre? (Good?) and I nodded Dobre. But one of the watchers asked if it was for sale. Kuko looked at me and I nodded OK, and he said 60 leva ($30). But then another said 40 Euro, then another chimed in raising it even further. I got back in the bidding when it hit $75 (150 leva) and finally won it at $100. Kuko looked at me and I looked at him and he just nodded. Dobre. We had just been witness to an event. A happening. So I had to have that squeezebox. It played Chopin, by God. It had drawn an audience..and provided at least 30 people, including some old vendors who’d been there for years, stories they’d tell for weeks or months to come. Priceless.
The Big Tent from The Other Side of the Table
I know, I promised a connection to the coming election and the struggle within the GOP over elitism.
I can’t remember the year, maybe three-four years ago, I had been in a meeting, and stopped by the flea market to visit Kuko on my way back to hotel. This day I was dressed in Balkan business attire, black suit and black tee shirt. I know, this looks like mafia in America, only there every one dresses this way for biznez. Except for the blue eyes I could pass as Cossack, anyway, dressed thus I always made my way through the neighborhoods without fear.
As always Kuko turned over a milk crate for me, I sat on his side of the table and as always we spoke of many things, never understanding a thing the other was saying. He reached under the table and produced a 2 liter bottle of Zagorka (a splendid beer, even when warm) from a paper bag, we shared gulps, and I began looking thru another stack of postcards.
Two tourists approached his table. I looked up and then at Kuko to notice they had sent some signal that he didn’t like. Rather than his “Let’s dance (haggle)” eyes, he put on a look of indifference, as if to invite them not even to make an offer on anything on his table. They could have been German, English, or American to me. Kuko’s sensory glands were better than mine in this regard. His body language said “Move on”. Something about them he didn’t like. Turns out they were East Coast Americans, for sure. Let’s say Wilmington for effect. They had this John Kerry nasal sneer, half disdain and half “who farted?” look, as if they weren’t sure Kuko smelled, but didn’t want to get close enough to find out.
They picked up several items, all cheap, held them up and Kuko in turn indifferently held up 2-3-5 etc fingers, pretending to pay attention to me and my post card album. They had not yet asked the big question, so were only browsing. Finally one picked up an old wrinkled kepi (cap) with a Red Star, held it up and Kuko held up five fingers. “Dahlas or that money of yours?” “Pet (five) Leva” Kuko replied. They looked at each other quizzically, so, never saying a word, I made a “V” with my fingers, then inverted it into a “Lambda”. Surely to God one of them was a frat boy. I’m not sure they understood, then one replied “How about one?”
Ever tell a horse trader his daughter was ugly and then expect a pleasant end to your negotiations? It is an insult in every culture in the world, including the Bronx, to try to begin negotiations at below 50%. In Brighton Beach you’ll have to get AAA to tow your car. At the gypsy flea markets you are dead, no appeals. Enough, I thought. I stood up, gathered my jacket in my best John Gotti pose, then pulled a 5-leva note from my pocket and handed it to Kuko. Then I took the cap. Without waiting for them to say anything I said, “You boys need to learn some manners.” Astonished, they asked “You American?” “Yep…but you should see what you look like from this side of the table.” They walked away.
Without getting preachy, this election, like the last, and this fight, like the past 60 years, is all about which side of the table we want to sit on. These were just two poor innocent rubes who fell off the first hay wagon from Wilmington, possibly Democrats, maybe RINO, but elitists by disposition in any party. I have no idea how they got there, what their business was, but I knew, for $3000 they would go home and complain about the plumbing (universal in Bulgarian hotels), would pay $450 for a folk dress that was made to look like a 1900 folk dress one of Kuko’s gypsy friends would sell to me for $60, and would never get to hear Chopin on a squeezebox.
You can easily see which side of the table they think they belonged on, yet were astonished, maybe even a little jealous, to find that all the real goings-on, all the patina, the beauty, all the excitement, the really interesting stuff, the real sense of being “in”, was happening on my side of that table.
I’m sorry, it’s mean of me, I know, but sometimes I love to make people aware of what they’re missing just because they’re afraid to get too close…or too dirty. I am American, and my side of the table is best. Christ sat and ate with publicans and prostitutes. Like Will Rogers, He never met a stranger He didn’t like. I knew a fellow (doctor) in Hermosilla who said the greatest compliment ever paid to him was to be invited to mass by a whore. Haven’t tried that, but Ay God, Woodrow, what a point of view.
To be American…is to be on our side of the table.
All the others are missing a lot, let me tell you. For one, because I’m telling this story about two sorority jerks from Wilmington who wouldn’t know their Lambda’s from their “L-bow”, they have have no taste, no memory, no nothing. What a loss.
So, what the hell are we doing letting THIS TYPE pretend they can run our country at all, much less act better than us? You can see which side of that table the real Big Tent resides. It’s where real Americans sit. We are American.
The rest are not so much pretenders as wannabes. They’d give worlds to be on my side of the table.
Every New Year from 1998 on Xristo would save to buy a Bulfone card which, internationally, could buy 2-3 minutes. My phone would ring in the morning (PM in Bulgaria) and he would yell, “Vassar, Vassar,…Happy Year” as if he were reading it from a phrase book, and I would yell back, “Christo, Christo, Novo Godini!, Novo GodinI!” and then for the remaining 2 minutes we would speak of many things in a language neither of us understood.
Xristo Planev, 1947-2009, steam welder, penshioner, musician, artist extraordinaire, survived by many, but one especially grateful friend, RIP