DSK–Polish Christmas Edition

A patron said that he was from Poland and asked where Aga was. The bartender replied that Aga had left DSK months ago, and he did not know where she had gone. The patron no doubt was interested in Aga because she, too, had been born in Poland. Aga, who worked at DSK when I first started going to the biergarten, struck me as different from the other servers who were not born in the United States. She seemed a bit older, her accent thicker, her English less good, her education less extensive than the others. She struck me as of a lower class than the others and less ambitious; she did not seem to have another career in mind as other servers did. Although I talked with her frequently, I don’t remember much from our conversations except for one last December.

She told me her son was getting excited about Christmas, but it quickly became apparent that the mother, too, was looking forward to the holiday. She told me that she was going to have a traditional Polish Christmas with her boyfriend. I had met him only once. Big and burly, clichés of Middle European thugs came to mind. But then I found he had the gentlest handshake, a twinkle in his smile, and a soft, soft voice. Aga said he doted on her son, and another staff member later told me that he was a Polish bear—a Polish teddy bear.

I realized that I knew nothing about the traditional Polish Christmas celebration. I was a bit surprised because I believe that if you live in New York for a while, you begin to take on new ethnic colorations. Thus, in some sense all true New Yorkers are a bit Jewish. You absorb some of the religious practices, Yiddish phrases, the rhythm of speech, the humor, the foods of Jewish people. And, similarly, a true New Yorker is at least part Irish, part Chinese, part Italian and has absorbed, aware of it or not, some southern gospel background.

This was not true, however, at least for me, with Poles who, after all, do not have as large a footprint in the City as other groups. I asked her about the Polish Christmas celebration. She told me that in the Polish countryside, hay was spread under the dining table to symbolize the manger Jesus was laid in, but Aga and her boyfriend were not doing that. They were, however, going to have the Christmas Eve feast of many dishes that started with eating something like a communion wafer. She said that carp was often served. I asked if this was similar to the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner of the misnamed seven fishes—misnamed because while all the courses are seafood, all are not fish. Italian food and clams always go together, as they do when honoring the birth of Jesus. Aga said that the Polish celebration was not the same. They did have carp and maybe some other fish, but all the courses, while meatless, were not seafood. Poles gotta have borscht, and they do when honoring the birth of Jesus. And they do not restrict themselves to a paltry seven courses; they have twelve. After the feast, presents are opened, and, traditionally, people go off to bed early to be ready for early morning mass. She told me that the dinner on Christmas was not meatless, but it was not as important as the meal the evening before.

I asked how long it took her to make the twelve courses. She laughed and said that she didn’t. Delis in the central part of Brooklyn where she lived sold many of the Christmas dishes that would be served. I got the name of the place she went, but like many other things, I have forgotten it. But the evening sounded incredible to me and made our family’s traditional Christmas celebration seem a bit scanty.


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DSK–Citizenship Issue (concluded)


Aylin, my Turkish-German friend from the DSK bar who wanted to stay in the US but whose student visa was about to expire, had different concerns about her immigration status than giving up her birth citizenship. Her immediate goal was to become a permanent resident of the US so that she could stay in America. She may have wanted to become an American citizen someday, but if so, that was down the road. Only then would she have to deal with her German citizenship. Germany, I have been told by a friend who holds dual German-American citizenship, does allow for dual citizenship with the United States but does not grant it automatically. A special need must be shown for it.

Aylin’s immediate concern, however, was how her marriage might be viewed by American officials. She was getting married because she loved her husband-to-be, and he loved her. But they were also getting married sooner than they otherwise would have to allow her to become a permanent resident, which she would get by marrying an American citizen. Or she would get it if our immigration authorities did not contest her marriage. She had heard that the ICE officials often concluded that marriages between citizens and non-citizens were shams entered into, often for money, to get the desired immigration status, and if that were the determination, permanent resident status would not be granted.

I thought back to a student of mine from many years before. He was attending law school part time. He worked full time for the Immigration and Naturalization Services, as it was then called, and he was in the part of the INS that looked for sham marriages. Mostly he did this in New York’s Chinatown. The INS would surveil suspected couples to see if they lived with each other and what their daily routines were. Eventually, the couple was brought in for interrogation. The man and woman were questioned separately to see how their answers matched. The questions were from the sexually intimate to the mundane. What did you have for dinner two nights ago? What time did each of you get up last Monday? What distinguishing marks do you have on your body and does your spouse have? Although I understood the reasons for this work, the enterprise seemed demeaning and depressing, both for the couple and the investigators.

I was hoping that Aylin would not have to go through anything like that. She asked me some questions about immigration law, but this is one of the many legal areas I know little about. Aylin and her fiancé did not have much money. She was tending tables to be able to afford her college courses, and he had just obtained an entry level job after college. I contacted an academic friend experienced in immigration matters and obtained the information for an immigration attorney who, I was assured, was both affordable and good. Aylin was extremely grateful for this referral.

With a wedding planned and graduation in the offing, Aylin’s life was changing, and she left DSK. We exchanged email addresses, but of course you know how that goes–neither of us reached out to the other. However, I did see her one time after her departure. The bar was holding some sort of event—an infrequent occurrence—that had been promoted on the internet. She came. I just happened to be in the bar, but I had not seen her enter. I found myself pleased when I saw her coming over to me. We exchanged a hug, and I said, truthfully, that I thought of her often, and she replied, I think sincerely, that the same was true for her. She was now in a graduate program in experimental psychology without any immigration difficulties. She introduced me to her husband, whom I had not previously met. He was very handsome, and he beamed at her. She beamed back. A couple very much in love. And, happily, a couple without immigration problems. A happy, in-love American couple.

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DSK–Citizenship Issue (continued)

(Postings will only be on Monday and Thursday this week and the next. Traveling.)

I also thought about dual citizenship and how birth citizenship and identity are intertwined because of a conversation with Jennifer, a patron at DSK. I have met Jennifer only once. I would have noticed her because she was sitting next to me, but also because she was dressed differently from others in the bar, wearing a white dress and looking as if she had just come from the kind of work where it is important to be wearing something like a stylish white dress. She was eating a meatball dish, having a beer, and studying her phone. The meatballs were a recent addition to the menu. I had never had them and asked how they were. She replied, “Pretty good.” She volunteered that she had ordered them because she had never had them even though she had had most of the other items on the menu. She had been in the bar several times before, she continued, visiting a friend in the neighborhood. That friend had moved, and she had now taken over the friend’s apartment.

She asked how long I had lived have nearby. I replied, “Longer than you have been alive.” She laughed and said that she doubted that and asked me to guess her age. Perhaps our time is more enlightened than previously, but it is still a dangerous game for a man to guess a woman’s age. Even so, without thinking, I said 37. She said that was pretty good; she was 41.

I must not have offended her with my guess, for we started chatting. She told me that her mother is Korean. Her father’s origins were only described as “Californian.” Her parents met in Seoul. Jennifer said that her father had been in the military and after leaving the service, he had worked for the government, which he continued to do. She was not more specific about what that “government” work was, and the conversation turned to other things.

I said that I would not ask what her father thought of Trump. She indicated that even though her father was a Republican, he was not happy with the president. I said that it was unfortunate how much we denigrated government workers and that many of them, rightly so, considered themselves public servants. She nodded in agreement.

She told me that because of her father’s work, she had lived in many places. She had gone to college in northern Washington. I tried unsuccessfully to guess the school, and she told me “Olympia.” She might have been a bit defensive about that because she immediately mentioned that it had in-state tuition.

She had come to New York after college and started work as a receptionist for a music company and had worked herself up to a more meaningful position. For the last six years she had worked as a production manager for, as she described it, “a documentary company.” I asked if I would know anything her company had done, and she said it had made the recent documentary on O.J. Simpson. I replied that I knew about it but had not watched it because I avoided everything about him. Then I realized that this was not some documentary maker unknown to me. She worked for the documentary branch of ESPN that produced “30 for 30.” On occasion I watch some of these documentaries, and I told her how much I admired the ones I had seen because they weren’t the usual sports stories. I liked that they often used athletes to explore broader societal issues. I learned that the title “30 for 30” came about because on the thirtieth anniversary of ESPN, thirty filmmakers had been hired to make documentaries, and the show continued beyond those initial ones.

Her father’s job was bringing her parents back to Korea. I asked what this would be like for her mother, who, although born there, had not lived in Korea for many years. Jennifer said that her mother, who is 75, was more than happy to go back to Seoul. After moving to the United States, she had become an American citizen, but in order to do so, she had to give up her Korean citizenship. Relinquishing her birth citizenship, as it was for my Chinese friends, had been hard. She felt that she had had to deny an important part of her. Korea, however, does have a form of dual citizenship, and it is easier to obtain for a once-Korean citizen who is over 70 and living in Korea. Her mother now planned to get her Korean citizenship back. She was excited about returning to Korea because of the prospect of reclaiming part of herself.

(Concluded November 12)

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DSK–Citizenship Edition

(Postings will only be on Monday and Thursday this week and the next. Traveling.)

Many of the staff at the DSK biergarten, my local for the last few years, have volunteered that they make good money working at the bar. Even so, many have left. This is hardly surprising. Most of them have interests outside waiting on tables or bartending, and they move on to those other things.

My favorite of the servers who has left I will call Aylin. When I learned her background, I said that she was a New Yorker’s nightmare: a German Muslim. She was born in Germany to Turkish parents who had emigrated to Germany. She has spent a lot of time in Turkey, and we talked about that country frequently. She taught me where the accent should go for the last name of the Nobel-Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. She, somewhat shyly, said that she had not read any of his books, and I dusted off a Pamuk book or two I owned and gave them to her.

She was an undergraduate studying psychology, and while a DSK server, fell in love with an American citizen. She was in the US on a student visa but wanted to stay here after she finished her undergraduate degree. She knew that she could get permanent resident status if she married an American. Aylin and her boyfriend, in an ideal world, would have waited a year or two more before marriage, but with her student visa expiring soon, they planned to wed as quickly as they could.

Several of the DSK servers are not citizens, and from them I have learned that their immigration status affects many of their decisions, big and small, something that this native-born citizen seldom thinks about. And, of course, the anti-immigrant sentiments sweeping the country have, on some level or another, rattled nearly every one of them, even though all are here legally.

Aylin’s situation made me think back to a family who had Thanksgiving dinner with us for many years. The parents, both medical doctors who had been born in mainland China and were citizens there, had worked in the United States for a long time and had permanent resident status here. Their only daughter had been born in China, but she came to this country, not speaking a word of English, in the first grade. She attended public schools in the New Jersey town where her parents had bought a house. By the sixth grade, she won the English, and other school academic, prizes. She had her choice of colleges, and after attending a prestigious one worked in a management consultant firm before heading off to one of the country’s top medical schools. She may have been born in China, but she was an American woman who soon married and started a family.

The daughter said that she was planning to become an American citizen and asked her parents to get American citizenship, too. The mother talked to me about whether she should become an American citizen. She said that it would be hard to give up her Chinese citizenship; she had grown up as a Chinese citizen and it had always been a part of her identity. I don’t really understand dual citizenship, but America apparently allows a naturalized citizen to keep their original citizenship, at least if they come from certain countries. Many countries, but not all, are fine with dual citizenship, but some require that people lose their original citizenship when they become naturalized in the US. China apparently does not allow dual citizenship, or at least it does not allow it with the United States. My Chinese friend, if she became an American citizen, would no longer be a Chinese citizen; she would be a foreigner in her birth place, her original home.

I listened and understood. Whenever I have thought of starting a new life in another country, I knew that it would be hard to stop thinking of myself as American and even harder to relinquish my citizenship. But I asked the mother, “Do you plan to stay in the United States?” She said yes. I said that in that case I thought she should get American citizenship. We were talking years ago when anti-immigrant feelings were strong, but not as strong as now. I told her that I did not trust this country and its feelings towards those who were not citizens. I was not predicting this, but there was always the possibility that the country would strip today’s permanent residents of that status. There is no guarantee that the present system will continue, I told her. If you know you want to stay in the US, be safe and become a citizen. Both she and her daughter did.

Her husband, however, did not. This is not because he has stronger psychological ties to China. He was a victim of the cultural revolution, something he has great difficulty talking about and was very upset about the government’s actions during the protests at Tiananmen Square. His Chinese citizenship, however, has family advantages. He can simply get on a plane and go to China. Now that the mother and daughter are American citizens, they no longer can. They must get visas, which means traveling to a consulate and generally encountering long lines, other delays, and officious bureaucracy. Trips back “home” for them must be planned well in advance, but not for the father as long he retains his Chinese citizenship. The mother and father were concerned that if any of their parents in China or other relatives got sick or had some other emergency, no one could get there in time if they all became American citizens.

This American family had considerations most of the rest of us Americans never had to weigh.

(continued November 8)

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The DSK Bar–Danish Edition

The woman came into the DSK bar looking as if she were trying to find someone. She sat on a stool next to me. I returned to my book, but she soon asked me if I knew the bar’s owner. I pointed her out. The woman, whose name I no longer remember but I’ll call Brigitte, went over to the owner and after a short conversation, left. A few weeks later, I learned that Brigitte had been hired as the bar’s manager. 

Over the next month or so, I found out that she was married to a Frenchman who cooked in a restaurant a couple miles away. She, however, had been born and raised in Denmark. I asked if she was aware of the book The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, which I had recently read. She was not but asked me about it.  

I told her that Russell, who is English and had edited a British magazine, moved to Denmark when her husband got a job with, what else, the Lego Company. Russell had seen surveys that placed Denmark at the top of lists with the happiest populace. She set out to figure out why because she learned quickly that there were some reasons not to be happy about in her new home. It has a harsh climate and high taxes. (When a Britisher complains that somewhere else has an unpleasant climate, you can be damn sure that the weather is not an attraction.) Russell soon realized, however, that the Danish had learned to cope with and accept the weather. They also did not bitch much about the taxes because the country used them to provide excellent health care, education, childcare, and other social services. In addition, partly because of the tax structure, extremes in wealth were much less than in England. Riches were seldom flaunted, and few people seemed to think they would be happier if they only had a few more euros. Russell thought that this led to more contentment throughout Danish society than what she observed in Great Britain. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise for Russell and her husband was the many fewer hours the Danes worked compared to the English. The Danes had a lot of days off for holidays and national celebrations and were provided with extensive vacation time. In addition, the Danish work day is short. Her husband came home from work much earlier every day than he had in England. Danish life was not simply work, eat, and sleep. The Danes had time for other activities, which they did in abundance. They did them, however, in a different fashion from the way Russell was used to. Danes seldom acted by themselves or just with another person or couple. Instead, they did them in groups. There were clubs for almost everything, from biking to knitting, and the Danes regularly participated in club activities. As a result, Russell realized, the Danes were almost always connected to others.  

Russell, however, was struck by an anomaly. She noted that many studies had found a positive correlation between happiness and religion, but Denmark, which is not very religious, belied that. She was not surprised by the lack of religiosity. She cited studies concluding that the better educated and wealthier the country is the less likely its population believes in a higher being and participates in religious rituals. Russell noted that the USA is an outlier for this correlation—a country that is wealthy and highly educated, but still high in religious practices and beliefs. Russell went on to say, however, that America may have much in common with third world countries. Unlike highly taxed Denmark, the US lacks universal healthcare, has scant job security, and has a flimsy welfare net. Perhaps, she speculated, people are less likely to need a God if they live somewhere that is safe, stable, and prosperous. In other words, those in a secure and prosperous land, living without fear of health and financial disasters, are more likely to be happy than those in a more god-fearing country without universal healthcare, good job security, and a tightly knit welfare net. 

Helen Russell also found that several clichés about Denmark were true. First, there were a lot of candles. Lots and lots of them. (Get your hygge on.) Second, she discovered that its reputation for excellent pastries was well deserved. She mentioned this repeatedly, and it was clear that she had much firsthand (firstmouth?} experience to back up the claim. 

The bar manager listened with interest to Russell’s exposition of Denmark’s strengths. Brigette did not agree. She did not think of Denmark as a place to be happy. Instead, it was a land of enforced conformity that undercut individuality. Brigette had been happy to leave her homeland and had no desire to return. (Yes, she did know who Victor Borge was. I did not ask her about Hamlet.) 

Brigitte did not remain as bar manager for long. I was told that she and her husband moved to France. I hope she is happy.

My Education at DSK (continued)

Because bars were a part of everyday life growing up, I am surprised that only recently have I got a regular, local bar. Of course, there were drinking establishments along the way, but I frequented them infrequently for hosts of reasons, and none became the local. When I retired, however, I tried on different activities to see what different activities might please now that I had extra time. I started going to some local bars. One had music on Monday nights that was quite good, but often there were other things to do on Mondays, and my visits were sporadic. I went to another place where I met some interesting people, but the bar did not have food, and I was often going out for a beer and a bite. In addition, the place had no beer on tap, and my father always told me to order the draft beer in a tavern, so I did not become a regular. I went to a few other places, but I found myself going every ten days or so to DSK.

It felt comfortable for several reasons. Although I was usually the oldest person in the place, this was not a pickup bar, and I seldom felt (too) conspicuous because of my age. It had one projection TV that was seldom on. I already had enough sports and news channels in my life. It had beer on tap, a selection of German brews, and it had German-style food that often appealed to me. Music, generally an interesting mix from a bartender’s list, played but at a low enough level that I could concentrate on a book (I always bring a book with me) or have a conversation. The discussions turned out to be the key. Not every time I was there, but often enough I would have an interesting conversation different from the kinds I had elsewhere. I was encountering kinds of people I did not meet the other areas of my life.

There have now been many amusing and informative talks—with a Buddhist monk, a retired firefighter, a public defender, German-Turkish Muslims, an opera singer, filmmakers, comedians, news writers, a couple from the South Dakota who spends the winters in New York, a militant vegan, an ad man, and more—but the conversations started with a bartender

Stuart, the bartender, was the first person I got to know in DSK. When I was there at slow times, he started talking with me. Like many New Yorkers, he was not from New York. He grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and I don’t remember how he came to New York or what his father did, but his mother was a school teacher, high school English I think. Stuart knew a fair amount about literature.

Like many who worked in the bar, Stuart had another interest besides the bar life. He, with two other guys, created humorous podcasts, which I ashamedly admit I never listened to, but I discussed often with Stuart. I learned about their concept—mostly discussions of bad movies—and how the podcasts were made and distributed.

Their podcasts were clearly successful. In the year or so that I knew Stuart, he and his two friends did several live versions at fairly large venues and sold them out. Stuart on occasion mentioned the podcasts, but not often. However, one day a young man came into the bar and asked Stuart for “Stuart.” Stuart replied that he was “Stuart.” The young man, from somewhere in the Midwest, gushed that he was a Stuart admirer because of the podcasts. On one of them, Stuart had said where he tended bar. The young man was visiting Manhattan and had made the trip to Brooklyn specifically to meet his podcast hero. He lit up when Stuart shook his hand. Stuart was self-effacing, but pleased, and I was impressed that I had a sought-out celebrity serving me a Hofbrau dunkel. I also recognized that outside DSK I knew no one who did podcasts, and I had learned something about this world because I had been going to that bar.

When Stuart and his wife opened another bar, Stuart left my local to operate the new establishment. I have not seen him since.

(To be continued sporadically)

My Education at DSK

I go to a bar—call it DSK, since that is its name–in my Brooklyn neighborhood. You could call it my local, and I am somewhat surprised that it is my first local since I was a teenager. I often feel that I go to this biergarten around the corner from where I live to further my education.

It seems surprising only now to have a local again because I grew up in a bar culture. My Wisconsin town had strong Germanic roots, and neighborhood taverns were everywhere. In fact, there was one next door to our house; a block away was another, and this was not unusual. Sheboygan had a population of 45,000, and it was said, over 140 drinking establishments.

The grandfather went to the one on the next block and played skat there. The father went to a different one, Dick’s Club, on the town’s main street most days after work. Neither patronized the one next door because the family had a long-running dispute with its owner over noise that emanated from its attached dance hall especially when the hall hosted the schuhplattlers with their slapping of thighs and accompanying yips and shouts.

Almost all of the bars I knew in my birth place were for the working class. (I don’t think the upper crust went to bars. Instead, they drank–a lot it always seemed to me–at home or perhaps in the country club or in establishments that I did not know existed.) My working-class family was similar to most in that we seldom had non-family guests in the home, so a bar was a place to meet friends and others.

Each bar had regulars, and the father knew almost everyone who came into Dick’s Club. (I don’t know the source of the name. The owner in the father’s time was not Dick.) The father ordered an eight-ounce, draft Pabst Blue Ribbon, then the Wisconsin working man’s beer. It was never then called PBR, and it was not drunk “ironically” as became the fashion in hipster circles. The beer, as was usual in working-class Wisconsin, was accompanied by a shot of brandy. The brandy was not one you are likely to know. E & J was considered high class, and this clientele would not drink high class booze. When I was of age, I once bought a fifth of Christian Brothers brandy as a treat for the father. He would not drink it because it cost too much, and he said that he would not appreciate it.

The bar for him was a comfortable place to discuss current events—elections and the civil rights movement and more—and to talk again and again about sports, with the father known for his dislike of the manager of the Milwaukee Braves as well as his, and everyone else’s, admiration for Vince Lombardi. (Vince comes home after a December practice and gets into bed. His wife says, “God, your feet are cold.” He replies, “Dear, at home you can call me Vince.”)

Women did not patronize the place during the work week except when families came for the Wisconsin tradition of a Friday night fish fry–breaded perch with limp French fries and coleslaw. Dick’s Club was also part of the father’s Sunday ritual. The father would drop off the siblings and me at the First Baptist Church, go to Dick’s Club, and then pick us up after the services.

I joined him once on a Sunday morning when I was home from law school and no longer a regular churchgoer. He was happy to show off to his friends the son who was going to be a lawyer. The bar then had a pool table. After we had a couple beers and shots, the father challenged me to a game. We did not grow up with the game, but I had expanded my higher education by playing a bit of pool (and billiards—it was a fancy school) at college. As we played, we had a few more beers and shots, or perhaps more than a few, but I was on fire and far ahead until the table, for some reason, became a bit fuzzy, and I aimed at a wrong ball, pocketed it, and lost the game. The old man had seen me lining up this mistake and did not utter a word although I could see that he was trying to suppress a smile. To my surprise, I found that I admired him for his reticence. He wanted to win. He wouldn’t cheat, but he wasn’t going to help me. We went home to the noontime Sunday dinner, and the mother wondered why the father and I were in such a good mood. He and I both just tried to hide our more than a little buzz and said nothing about the bar.

Children were allowed in the bars when accompanied by a parent, but I did not go to Dick’s Club often. Instead, my bar attendance started when I was eighteen. Wisconsin in those days allowed eighteen-year-olds to drink beer, but not wine or distilled spirits, and beer bars–establishments that served only beer–is where we headed, most often to The Patio, after our slow-pitch softball games. There were dice games for beers at the bar. Sometimes there was dancing. (I thought then that I was a good dancer. If my present ability is an indicator, I deceived myself. I prefer to believe, however, that my skill just deteriorated through the years as rock ‘n roll became less meaningful.) I often hoped to pick up some girl. (To protect my ego, I will not go into my attempts and my cool lines. Let’s just say I mostly failed.) I did not go for conversation. I remember only one. The guy next to me at the urinals was in the Coast Guard stationed in Sheboygan, and I thought what a disappointment it must be to join the Coast Guard, expect to see exciting places, and end up in Sheboygan. But he was eighteen and drinking, and passing, beer. He was happy.

I went to the Patio with a friend also to play the pinball machines. There were generally two there, and it was always intriguing when a new one came in as we tried to figure out the tricks to get the high scores. In those golden days, the games cost a quarter for five balls, and you got five games for four quarters. If someone was playing it, you slapped a quarter down on the surface to indicate you had next. You could stay on the machine as long as you had games remaining, and since the machines granted free games for certain scores and difficult shots, the goal was to keep getting free games to continue playing. The friend and I generally played what we considered doubles. Sometimes we alternated balls; sometimes we each took a flipper. And we were good. Often when the bar closed, the machine would indicate that we still had a raft of free games. We would try hard to be there when it opened next evening to make sure we got the freebies we had won the night before.

(Continued on September 17)

Viktor is Still Waiting (concluded)

After finding a place to stay, my young Ukrainian friend Viktor began walking New York City streets stopping into places looking for work. He went into DSK, the biergarten, and the bartender, a woman who was born in Poland, said that the place needed a dishwasher. Viktor, who has a master’s degree in marketing from the Ukraine, immediately accepted, and he is very grateful to the establishment for allowing him to work there.

After accumulating a bit of money, he moved out of the “savior’s” place. Viktor asked what he could do to repay him. “Nothing,” was the reply. “Just pay it forward.”

Viktor in a timely fashion applied for asylum on the basis that he is gay and will be persecuted in Ukraine. He had managed to avoid mandatory military service there, and if he goes back will be sent to jail.

Viktor does try to pay it forward and had taken in two gay Russians who sought asylum. Those two came after asylum decisions had been put on a faster track than when Viktor applied. Viktor, both happily and bitterly, reported that each had their asylum requests granted within short order and now have green cards. Viktor, who had applied for asylum three years before they did, was still waiting for a decision.

I am like many Americans who, on occasion, voice opinions about our immigration system but have little idea about its workings. I suggested that the delay in Viktor’s decision sounded abnormal, but he has an attorney and he said that he is content with him. “I have to be. I don’t pay him.” He got the lawyer through an LGBT organization. His lawyer’s firm mostly does copyright work, and Viktor was their first immigration client. Viktor proudly reported that they now represent1,600 immigrants.

Viktor still talks daily with his mother. At some point, he told her that he was gay, something he had not acknowledged when he left Ukraine. He said that she had looked shocked, but since that one conversation, the two had not discussed his sexuality. He does not know if she accepts it and does not know if she has told his father and, if so, his reaction.

He can’t leave the US while his asylum petition is pending, and when he told me about his asylum request, it had been four years since he had been home. He missed his parents and wanted to talk to them face-to-face about his life. It was clear that he was homesick. He told me that he looks at webcams from his hometown regularly.

I told him that I had not been to my boyhood hometown in four or five years, but of course, I said, my situation is different because I was not prevented from going. I told him that a mini-high school reunion was coming up, but that I had not decided whether to go. He said, “You should go.” He paused and said, “You should go for my sake.”

However, Covid came and that ended the possibility of the reunion. Covid also ended my appearances at the bar and my conversations with Viktor. The bar had outside service, and sometimes when I walked past the place, we would see each other. Viktor would shout, “My friend.” I would respond, “My young friend.” We would hug, but he was working, and it was not a time to talk.

Recently, the restrictions on indoor dining and drinking have been relaxed in New York City, and I have sat at the DSK bar again a few times. I asked an owner who was busy pulling beers if Viktor still worked there. She said that he had another job. I asked about his asylum petition, and she said that no decision had yet been rendered.  And I thought, “Another story left uncompleted by the pandemic.” And I wondered what it was like to live in Viktor’s limbo and what he would do if he had to leave this country.

With those thoughts, I returned to my book as I sipped an Oktoberfest beer, but then the owner joked about a model of a water tank on a display shelf next to the bar. I had won that model in a trivia contest about Brooklyn several years ago. A young man on my left asked what the owner and I were talking about. After I satisfied his curiosity, I asked where he was from. He told me that that he was from Turkey, but then he added that he was Kurdish. I said that I had enjoyed my trip to Turkey, but I had not been to anywhere near his home in the Kurdish parts of Turkey near Syria. I told him that I had hoped to go back to Turkey, but after Erdogan got power, I no longer wanted to do that. He, of course, was not an Erdogan fan. I asked if he got back to his home country regularly, and he said that he could not go there. He had asked for asylum in this country and was waiting the outcome of his petition. I said that perhaps it was none of my business, but had he thought about what he would do if he was turned down for asylum. He said that he had relatives in various parts of Europe who would take him in.

Viktor does not have relatives outside of Ukraine.

Viktor is Still Waiting

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)

A Baseball Tour. And Hooters

          The next morning after the Toronto baseball game Phil and I and others boarded a bus for a four-or five-hour trip to Cleveland. If I had been traveling alone, I would have read for much of the trip, but that seemed rude sitting next to Phil, who did not seem to have any reading material. So I chatted with Phil some and then started to learn a bit about others on the excursion, all of whom, except for Phil and his companion (me), had paid for it. I was curious, but never asked anyone how much it cost.

The tour company was Canadian and there were a smattering of Canadians on board, but I felt that most of my companions represented aspects of an America where baseball was still the true national pastime. A young couple were on their honeymoon shortly before he was to start a new job as a baseball coach at a small college in upstate New York. Nice people, but I could never get him to explain how he threw a slider versus a curve ball. A young, single woman, who always seemed to have her energy switch on, was from one of the Dakotas (Ok. It shows some sort of prejudice in me that I can’t keep the two apart in my mind.) She had never been to the eastern part of the U.S., where the trip was going to take place, and although she regularly attended minor league games in her hometown in one of the Dakotas (Again: I can’t keep them straight and am still somewhat surprised there are two of them), and before the previous night, she had never attended a major league game. Two decades older and quieter was another woman traveling by herself who, too, had never before been to a major league game, but she was an avid college baseball fan, especially of Louisiana State, whose games she regularly attended near her home. My favorites were a forty-year-old man traveling with his father. They were extremely knowledgeable baseball fans from Dallas and were excited about seeing baseball parks they had only viewed on television. I especially liked what I saw as a deep bond between. I thought that on some level this was as American as it gets—a father and son at baseball games discussing the pitchers and whether there should be a sacrifice and moaning over an error.

          The Toronto-Cleveland trip took us past exits for Niagara Falls, but this was not the usual sightseeing trip. We motored on until we got to the hotel not far from what was then called Jacobs Field. In the early afternoon, we walked to The Jake for a guided tour. I was interested in this because this park was then at the forefront of a change in baseball architecture. For a generation newly-built stadiums were large with little character, but Jacobs Field was smaller, more intimate with quirks to give it a personality. The Indians had been regularly selling out the stadium, partly because Cleveland was fielding good teams but also because the park was a fun place to watch a game. As an employee of the club showed us around under the stands, I also learned something about home field advantage. We were shown subterranean batting cages and video monitors for players to practice swings and study pitchers and hitters. I don’t know whether baseball rules required that such home team facilities—or their equivalent–be made available to the visiting team, but if so, equality had its limits. So, e.g., just because the Indians had air conditioning in their practice area, that did not mean that the “equivalent” one had to be cooled. On a mid-summer afternoon, the visitors’ under-the-stands batting cage was stifling.

          We continued on to the Indians dugout, but we were not going to go farther. The head groundskeeper stood on the top step that led to the playing field. He explained that The Jake’s infield was composed of some very, very, VERY special dirt. It was not the sandy color of other ballparks, but a deep black that reminded me of the bottomland soil of the Mississippi delta (or what I imagined that delta soil to look like because I had never actually seen it). I was not paying much attention as the groundskeeper told us–at length–of the dirt’s special qualities, where it came from, and what painstaking care he took to maintain it. I was just curious to touch it, and perhaps put a tiny, tiny sample in my pocket. I doubt that he could read my mind; I am sure it was a standing rule. He made it clear–at length–that we were not going to put one single solitary step on to that field, and we were not going to get to the dugout’s top step to even touch it. Overwhelmingly disappointed, I mostly tuned him out, but I believe that he mentioned–at length–the Cuyahoga County Jail.

          We strolled back to the hotel, but I have no memory of what we did before we headed back to the park for the game. Our group’s tickets were scattered, and Phil and I had seats in the lower deck down the right field line. Baseball games, with long pauses between intermittent actions, almost compel conversation with those seated nearby, and we started talking to some young men in the row behind us. Walking to our seats I had noticed that The Jake sold a wide choice of beers, and these new friends were sampling many of them. I don’t remember anything about the game itself, which is true for many games that I have seen, but I do remember that the liquid refreshments made our recently acquired companions increasingly loquacious. They insisted time and again that we go with them to their favorite bar in the neighborhood after the game, and we agreed.

          The establishment was crowded and smoke-filled with a pool table and dart boards, but my eyes were drawn to framed photographs around the place. I would have expected them to be of Cleveland Indian players of the past and present—Tris Speaker, Bob Feller, and the like. Or because Cleveland once had a proud professional football history, the walls would have pictures of Jim Brown and Otto Graham. Instead, what I saw were Paul Hornung, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, and other Green Bay Packers of the Vince Lombardi era, fierce rivals of the Cleveland Browns, who lost crucial games to the Packers. I turned to the new friend and asked why the bar had pictures of famous Packers. He replied with the simultaneously obvious and mystifying answer, “This is a Packer bar.”

(concluded August 4)