Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The money is just there to buy the drink

We all know the flaws of generalizing from a tiny sample, but I'm going to go ahead and claim, based on a very tiny population sample of two, that Bulgarians are an honest and generous people.

When I was living in New York City, I was friends for awhile with a Bulgarian man named Kosta. I've no clue whether that is a popular name in his home country (the Bulgarian equivalent of "Joe" or "Jim"), but I loved the name and the guy who answered to it.

Kosta was the sous chef in an owner-operated Egyptian restaurant in Astoria, Queens. Among my very few sources of income at the time was a world music column that I wrote for about a dozen weekly newspapers. Eastern European and Middle Eastern music was big that year, which must have been 1998, and I used to bring in my review copies and Kosta would play them in the restaurant while he grilled me sardines.

I remember bringing in an archival reissue CD called Women of Istanbul. Haunting, blood-curdling, wailing-at-fate kind of stuff. Kosta attempted to cook to this dark music. He kept stepping away from the stove and staring into space as the food hissed on the grill. Then he abruptly popped out the disc.

"I can't play this music while I prepare your food," Kosta said. "If I do that, your food, it will taste like death."

Reviewing obscure archival reissues of Turkish music, as one might imagine, did not pay well and I had no real job. Grilling sardines for a tightwad Egyptian couldn't have paid that much better, but Kosta always seemed to have cash on hand, whereas I never did, so when we would go out drinking after the restaurant closed, he was always buying me drinks.

I kept failed to get a job or to make more money, but I loved Kosta's company, and he was unfailingly generous. So this went on, with Kosta spending quite a large sum of money on me at Astoria taverns and clubs over the months we ran together. Whenever I complained about money or apologized for being a mooch, he would reject my apology, almost viciously.

Once, I recall, he said, "Stop! There will come a time, I will have no money for wine, no money for rent, no place to live, and then I will come live with you and your wife in your apartment and you will help me to survive."

But I could never quite come all the way around to the Bulgarian way of thinking about money. I finally apologized one time too many, and Kosta abruptly abandoned the friendship. I must have been $500 in bar tab debt to him by then, maybe more.

One day he said, with a deep, unforgettable, old-world sadness, "Chris, my friend, you are too American. I can't drink with you. I can't drink with a friend who can not enjoy drinking with me. The money is just there to buy the drink. You keep thinking about the stupid money." We never spoke again.

I thought of Kosta today when I rolled into work and found a press release from Goodwill. A family accidentally left $7,500 in a box of shoes donated to their local Glen Carbon (Illinois) Goodwill store last weekend. The cash, bundled in large denominations, was found by Goodwill employee Teodora Petrova on her very first day at work.

Petrova, having come to the United States only two months ago from Bulgaria, was sorting through a bin of donated shoes when she stumbled upon the bundle of money in a shoe box. The money was wrapped in bank wrap. She turned it right over to a supervisor.

The family was tracked down through hints on several scraps of paper left in the box and security cameras at the back door. The donor's parents were recently deceased, and the family was breaking up the home. The money and papers had been overlooked in the shuffle.

The family offered the Bulgarian Goodwill Samaritan a gift as a thank you for returning their money, and another gentleman from Nebraska, who has no prior connection to the store or the family, was so taken by her integrity that he sent her a check as well. Goodwill also is kicking her some cash.
As someone who was once scolded by a very generous Bulgarian for being "too American," I think we all can learn from these honest and generous Bulgarian immigrants. And if anyone is ever eating or drinking in Astoria, Queens, and comes across a tall, thin, dark, handsome character named Kosta speaking with an Eastern European accent and buying drinks for his friends, tell him Chris the American can't forget him - then buy him a drink.


The photo is of Teodora Petrova, the Bulgarian Goodwill Samaritan.

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