Viktor, tall with sharp facial features, intentionally or not, often flattered me. In pre-Covid days, he was a server in DSK, a biergarten in my Brooklyn neighborhood that I frequented. I am sure that I stood out in this place for my wit, knowledge, good cheer, and distinguished looks, but probably more so because I was much older than any other semi-regular. Even so, Viktor, who was in his early twenties, would often sit next to me at the bar when his shift ended, and we talked. That pleased me. At some point he estimated my age as the same as his parents, and I laughed and told him I was then seventy-three. He did a double take and, after a pause, said that was how old his grandmother was. Viktor’s mother was forty-four and his father a year older. He told me that his mother had told him that he was a “mistake,” and so I was surprised to learn that he was an only child.
Viktor was born in Ukraine where his parents live. Without bragging, he said that he was a smart kid who graduated from high school when he was sixteen and got a master’s in marketing by twenty-one. Then he came to the United States. Like many who staffed the establishment, he had other gigs. He was helping American friends to open a restaurant in the Queens part of New York City. He told me that he also did some video editing. That had started in Ukraine where he and a friend shot videos from a drone and posted them on YouTube. Viktor said that the videos were not particularly good, but back when they did it, few had seen videos from a drone’s perspective. He and his friend got a following.
We often talked about food. He told me that a recent addition to the bar’s menu was very good—a vegan sausage primarily made from beets. He insisted on getting one and splitting it with me. (I said that I’d pay, but he told me that he got free food when his shift was done.) It was not my favorite, but presumably healthier than the bratwurst I often got. In spite of this mediocre recommendation, I listened when he told me that he had a favorite Ukrainian restaurant. Manhattan’s lower east side was once chock-a-block with Ukrainians, and a Ukraine presence still lingers there in a few well-known restaurants. Viktor said that their food was not nearly as good as his favorite, which was in a different part of New York. He insisted that we go to lunch there, and we set a date. However, Covid intervened, and the favored restaurant closed during the pandemic.
I know little about Ukraine, and Viktor was eager to answer my questions, including about the comedian who became prime minister or president or whatever the title for their head of state. (Viktor was ambivalent about the guy.)
During one of our conversations, I jokingly asked Viktor what he was going to do when he got rich. He replied seriously that being wealthy was not his goal, but he did want to make enough money to be able to buy his parents a home in America. He said that when he first came to this country, his parents indicated no desire to move to the United States, but their feelings were changing. It sounded like he missed his mother and father tremendously. He told me that he talked to his mother daily via computer. I asked when he had last been home, and he said that he had not been back since he came to the United States, three years ago. He told me that while he was expecting to get one, he did not have a green card, and without one, he was not sure that he could reenter this country if he left.
During another conversation, however, Viktor indicated that his immigration status was a bit more complicated than just waiting for a green card. He came to the US on a tourist visa although I suspect that he entered planning to stay. He had an introduction to a friend of a friend of a friend in Baltimore. With this tenuous connection, he started living with a Russian couple and had some sort of job. For some reason, however, the man thought that Viktor was sleeping with his wife—“even though I am gay,” Viktor told me. The husband went to Viktor’s employer, said that it was illegal for Viktor to work, and threatened to report the business to the authorities. Viktor’s boss was apologetic but told Viktor that he had no choice but to fire him.
Unemployed and homeless, he begged a friend to allow him to stay with her. She said that she couldn’t take him in but knew a place where he could stay. Viktor: “He was a drug dealer, but he was nice.” I don’t know how long Viktor stayed there, but eventually the drug dealer said, “You need to start over. Here’s $50. Go to a new city and begin again. You can go wherever you want, but if I were you, I would go to New York.” Viktor came to New York.
Homeless again, he called LGBT groups for help, and he got the name and number of someone. Almost immediately, that man came to the phone booth Viktor was using and gave Viktor a subway card and directions to that man’s apartment. Viktor lived with that guy for months. Viktor, without using the man’s name, said that he was Black, about 45, worked in IT in the healthcare industry, and made a comfortable living. The man was gay, and Viktor thought sex was going to be involved, but the man never even hinted at that. Viktor proudly told me, “I have never had sex for material gain.”
(concluded November 10)