by Margarita Korol
In my Balkans, when man take match to woman’s cigarette, the proper Serb thank her for distinct pleasure of lighting her fire; she reward him with dirty look. I like strip-naked longing from confident man. Man like this have trustworthy character. He understand his desire and act consistently with it. That longing is good sign, mean his mother feed him well as child.
I fresh off boat, my customer at coffee shop here say. I don’t know, I come on plane. Last boat I am on was the splav, boat bar I work many years on Sava. My soul pickle there in my twenties every night, not so bad way to take care of mama and have sex-and-city excitement. Many unknown people good for conversation, for romancing too. Dragan was sophisticated man I not forget too soon who visit often for conferences at capital. It start with that misbehaving look I let lead me away from professionalism. Every visit, by time he must return to Novy Sad, he say my unemotional gaze already melt and I officially open for business. He have way with words. We not say much, but we speak same tongue.
New York not Belgrade. Buildings reach higher, have not as many unfixed holes. Men and women from distant origins, make strange system, tomorrow’s city foreign even to itself today. At home, stranger still very familiar, Balkan heart is Balkan heart . On splav, “Bring check to black man” mean find Bosnian with tan. Such differences here—before I move in summer, so many stories I hear from businessman customers—about wild kind of night life, about endless opportunity, about milk that not spoil and honey that turn to gold. But hope travel better than reality. Businessmen forget mention American version of man different, that evolution to New World standard make gene for different kind of stinking asshole.
American customers try get to know me too, but never winning experience. I try be open for business like Dragan like. I make bright eyes like OPEN sign, but in end, I take tip and lock door. Cold stare come in handy in big city—I not have enough supply for all customer demand. Here, man come in, and think he shopping Walmart. High expectations that what he want in stock at very low price, and then he search for complaint department when shelves empty. He not know how do business with woman for get invitation to back room.
One phrase mean very simple thing in Serbian but so complicated translation. When person with big, difficult circumstance, very easy to suffer. Soldier, grandmother, politician, lovers–like goldfish dump with bowl in sea. Samo opushteno, we say; take it easy, we alive here now. We must still laugh and drink and love. No problem. It is state of mind that very important for survival and happiness. I am city conquered over and over by emperors. Important remember samo opushteno.
Such beauty, what to say? Me, I always got something to confess to a fine woman, and this city got a lot of them. Look at her in her little mini in this chill. She make summer what it is. And this one with sweetness coming off every inch of her, I would drink her bathwater. Yesterday I felt the heat when a rounded out uptown Dominicana with all those features smiled and told me that, yes, she did know, after I tell her she had no idea what she was working with back there. I watch a thousand of them strut passed me every day while I hustle hard. Best seat in the house. It’s my civic duty to give praise where it is deserved, even if I gotta holler it a little late at their cakes. I chase beauty all day, and all I got is these lousy t-shirts.
This little honey right here catching up to her tour group, she don’t know she in need of a dimebag of cheap rags hearting New York for her girlfriends so they can go around hearting it too. But I’m real good at convincing. See, I gots this Louieezy charm I been seasoning for life. Better than any grill at putting the blingy sparkle in they eyes. Sometime girlies stop quick just because I worked my swagger like they like. But that don’t mean my magic be working wedding bell presto on every one of them. I just got them buying five, ten shirts at a clip.
What you got to think about is the volume of women coming at you, and not one is thinking the same way as the one behind her. Ain’t nobody from around here. Any New Orleans-born sugar like some Baby girl whispers and attention for their sexy. Here, you gotta be careful.
Mila and Casper
A bombshell brunette blushed from the late-fall frost hurries down 28th Street, bringing life to the dead block of cityworker orange and army brown in her radioactive green blazer, as high-booted legs take colossal strides to her midtown shift. Rounding the corner at Broadway, she draws a long cigarette from her pocket as a handsome street vendor’s alert eyes echo a dilation that reverberates down the block on the pupils of Pavlovian gentlemen reacting to a belle. She stops at a light, less concerned with the traffic and more with her unfortunate lack of matches.
“I LOVE New York!” Casper shouts. “Baby girl, now you know you love it too.”
“Maybe you have lighter?”
“Maybe I do,” he beams, a yellow flame materializing in his tough-skinned hand. Reaching out to Mila, he watches her lips pucker and lean in to catch the spark. Succeeding, she pulls in the first sweet drag, replacing the pack and turning to cross over.
“I can’t get a thank you?” he hollers to her, already halfway across the intersection. Mila stops in her gait, struck by the stranger’s expectation of any reciprocation in their short-lived New York relationship, but also newly apprised of her outsider habits that keep prospects shut out.
“No, in my culture we not say thank you,” she smirks.
“Come here, spend a minute this way. I can get another one of those cigarettes?” Mila walks back to the corner, ever commiserating with those who breathe the same air as her.
“Where you going without a heap of shirts to take to all your girlfriends?” Casper multitasks as he lights the awkwardly slim cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
“You are good salesman,” she says, picking up four red shirts for gifts she had meant to send back to the hood.
“Public relations, pretty girl. My specialty. Where you headed to?”
“I go to work, coffee shop not so far.”
“A working woman. You serving it up to a man real good then, huh?”
Mila takes a good hard look at the vendor, now more obviously enamored in her like a man gawking at a Playboy secretary: pretty skilled. “Barista is dream woman,” she confesses. “Hard-working but pleasant, know exactly what man want and how to give it, and she even have fresh milk.”
“Damn. A woman who know her power. That is sexy.”
“Thank you,” she scowls reflexively, exhaling smoke and squinting dispassionately down the block.
“Oh so you used to hearing that? Why you got to step all over every man’s heart like that? I been having a time in New York with you European babies, can’t even be hearing a stranger get down to your appeal without killing him with those eyes.”
“You not know suffering, you Americans.”
“I not know suffering? Honey this ain’t Belgrade, how you know so much about a stranger before you ask any questions?”
Mila’s stare widens, “What you know about Belgrade?”
“Sure, I can spot the most beautiful women in the world anywhere. Flew over Belgrade in 99 with the Operation.”
“You?” She looked awestruck, momentarily unsure if she should do something violently patriotic.
“Hell yeah me.”
“You were in Belgrade?” she repeats in disbelief that this most foreign creature should know so familiarly something she loves.
“Thought that would be the saddest city I left until the parish went under water in oh-five. New Orleans.”
“New Orleans,” she repeats. He too had suffered, another citizen who escaped a system that got too caught up to bail out its people.
“Cheer up baby girl, we just gotta keep on keepin’ on with whoever is around for the party.”
Vol.1 Brooklyn’s art director Margarita Korol is an urban pop artist in New York City. She is also art director and contributing editor, writer, and illustrator at several other publications in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
Art by Margarita Korol.