Stories

Famous Common People I Have Known, Kuko

(I own that figurine Kuko is holding.)

This isn’t just another story, it has much to say about class, and the Left’s obsession with their class’s birthright to govern, and a not dissimilar view by many Republicans. Each enemy in his own appointed time, but clearly, the Democrats first.

We’ll discuss class in other contexts as time goes on, well beyond the election.

In March 2010 I wrote a small obit about one of the several characters I’ve been lucky enough to know along the way. I link this story to a serious issue of this campaign, elitism, and who it is who wants to hold onto control of government, and who it is that is about to replace them.

His real name was Xristo Planev. He and one other man were my very best friends in Bulgaria for over 15 years. They died within three weeks of each other in 2010. I attended the latter’s funeral in a remote village, so never got to visit with Xristo, or even knew he was ill. While the other fellow, Mitko, was a classic rags-to-riches tale of never giving into “imperial communists,” also deserving of a story here, Xristo was that crazy live-alone uncle no one ever wanted to show up for Thanksgiving dinner…except me.

Everyone called him Kuko, but he was always Xristo to me, and I think he appreciated it, for “Kuko” carried a little stigma, I learned from others. (I 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, I was representing a US company hoping to buy various products at their national arsenal in the Balkan mountains. I had connections. So I was running back and forth for about five 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, among them a flea market that abutted onto 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.

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 Greek and Roman antiquities, coins, some real, some fake. Little I could afford.

Kuko had a small table at one end, 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 very special collection of old rare space pins from Sputnik to Laika to Gagarin, most of which I acquired from Kuko.)

On my first time to visit, in 1995, I just looked and sorted through his thousands of pins and holding one up, he’d say one Leva (50c then) usually. I then held up a very fine old brass and enamel Lenin pin, he said “petdecit Leva” ($25), then smiled as I set it back down. He was taking my measure. 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 20 so wanted a good discount. He referred to me only as “Mister” then and the only Bulgarian I knew then was “da” and “ne”. I offered ten leva ($5), 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, but added them to the stack, then said “OK, now 18″ using my fingers since I didn’t know the words for eighteen.

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. (We took a tour of the city once.) 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 Land’s End 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. But like honey-badger, Kuko didn’t give a s**t.

Maybe it was this that drew me to his table in the first place. I love to shake gnarly calloused hands.

I usually stayed there a week at least, so I normally visited Kuko several times, but always first on the first day, letting my other friends know that I would see them later. Our first visit, every time for fifteen years, was as if it were the first time. We would hug, then I would look disapprovingly over his paltry offerings, only pretending to want something.  After thirty minutes of drama, I would give him 7 bucks (14 leva) plus the thirty cents he gypped me on the exchange rate. Then he would do a 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 stuck it in the baggie as well. He said “Present” and smiled, but in truth he was saying “I got you pretty good there. A little more money, a little more time, you could have done much better for yourself.”

By the end of the week, 2-3 more visits he would soak me for $200 at least.

There is a purpose to this reminiscence.

I’ve often spoken of the handshake, when a fellow already up the hill, reaches back to give a handshake to one still climbing.

You see, 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.

That’s Reciprocity.

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 to export anymore, but which I knew I could turn over quickly at great profit. 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 out for me to see, ravenous to get a piece of that money they knew every American carried. Some are now good friends.

But that first trip back I sought Kuko out first 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, 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.

Why would I go straight to the flea-market’s eyesore?

This second time I looked at postcards, which he wanted a buck apiece for (2 leva). The art was incredible and incredibly historic, especially the WWI art. 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 real buy, and for every year thereafter, 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 speaking 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 this second time I asked him if I could bring him anything from Amerika and he said “Wheeskey, 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, but today I speak with Kuko, and I would walk straight to his table, under the glaring gaze of his richer 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, while he squatted…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, 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.

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 an station and hold out a hand and make a painful face. They swarmed parishioners at the churches, where even I wouldn’t spare a penny. They were like flies. 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. At the flea market, if you heard a loud commotion is was usually because a gypsy had approached a vendor trying to sell something, and even while they may have had a good item to sell they were generally reviled and considered bad for business among the embassy crowd.

But over the years I watched many gypsies approach Kuko’s table, and he would look at every item they offered with genuine interest and treated 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. Kuko instinctively understood the handshake.

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 play. And his statuary…mostly of Greek friezes…I have several and won’t sell them. About the music, he once had a Weltmeister (East German) accordion on his table, a huge squeeze box, price, $25. I asked him if 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, not Polly Waddle Doddle, but Frederic damn 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 as the crowd dispersed one of the watchers asked if it was for sale. Kuko looked at me and I nodded sure, why not?, and Kuko said 60 leva ($30). But then another offered 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 quizzically and I looked at him just nodded. We had just witness to an event. Squeezebox $25, Squeezebox that plays Chopin, $100, 30 people, including some old vendors who’d been there for years, with 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 problem with elitism.

I can’t remember the year, maybe my next to last visit, I had been in a meeting, and stopped by the flea market to visit Kuko on my way back to my hotel. This day I was dressed in Balkan business attire, black suit and black tee shirt. I know, this looks like mafia here, 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 region with ease.

As always Kuko turned over a milk crate for me, and 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 swigs, 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 had this John Kerry nasal, half disdain and half “who farted?” sneer, as if they weren’t sure Kuko smelled, but didn’t want to get close enough to find out. They could have been German, English, or American. Kuko’s sensory glands were better than mine in this matter. 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 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 ($3). 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 in Sofia, you’re dead, no appeals. Enough, I thought. I stood up, and 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, I’m American…but you should see what you look like from this side of the table.” They walked away.

Without getting preachy, this election and this fight 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 Delaware, probably 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 which 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, all the beauty, all the excitement, all 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 an American doctor in Hermosilla who said the greatest compliment ever paid to him was to be invited to Mass by a whore. Now, I haven’t tried that, but By God, Woodrow, what a point of view.

To be American…is to be on our side of the table.

So, what the hell are we doing letting that other  type of person pretend they can run our country? You can see which side of that table the real Big Tent resides. It is where real Americans sit. We are American.

Epilogue

Every New Year from 1998 on, Xristo would save to buy a BulFon 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, pensioner, musician, artist extraordinaire, survived by no one, but one especially grateful friend, RIP.

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