About a week ago I ate dinner with a Bulgarian named Lenko. The tale begins a few hours before we sat down for food, he in his high-back chair and I in my fold out lazy boy, of sorts.
After an Americano from the local espresso bar Vivace, I wander down Minor Avenue on the way back to the new studio. A sign catches my eye: Feed the Homeless and those in Need. It’s a food bank put on a local church every Thursday of the month. This ad sends me on a quest mentally… I’ve been thinking lately of how I might serve the poor, particularly those on the side of the road asking for a few bucks. I’m soon reminded of the verses in James "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" Shortly there after, I stumble upon Hellen. Helen lives in a subsidized apartment just across the street; she and I are friends. The afternoon I moved into the neighborhood our first introduction came with a ‘d’you have a cigerette?’ ‘I’m sorry, I don’t’ ‘Could you give me some money to buy a pack?’ For a moment I’m fumbling… ‘well could I meet you first? I’m Evan.’ And so we became neighbors.
‘My keys stick in this darn lock, can you help me?’ Once the keys are safely back in her purse we sit down for a breather. The bench outside her apartment offers a fine place to relax. She’s not feeling well today, and as Helen asks me for some OJ, I see the ‘verse’ come to life. Get me to that corner store, I’m on a mission! Man, can this lady ‘down’ some juice. And with but a few sips left she finally takes a breath… ‘th-thanks.’ The next few minutes are beautiful. Helen comes alive. She struggles with diabetes, so a bit of sugar and some fluids help immensely.
And then there’s Lenko. He enters the scene, creeping around the corner with a hand rolled cigarette stashed between his lips. ‘Hey you’ he points at me with a smile. ‘Don’ worry, I no inhale.’ At five foot five or so, this guys a tank and with tattoos of a life lived and fought in Bulgaria. Sixty minutes after our introduction, Lenko’s sitting next to me grabbing my shoulder, slapping my back and telling me the ways of the world. We rolodex-ed through topics A to Z… From Christopher Columbus to Truman Capote and how ‘he was a no good killer, but he look out for the poor.’ ‘And Columbus, ha? Americo Vasputee, that the guy you want to know.’ We’re having some fun. About an hour goes by and ‘I’ve gotta run, Lenko.’ ‘Ok, but don’ forget me.’ ‘Come knock on my window anytime’ I gesture, pointing him towards my cave of a studio across the street. We’re neighbors now, and we both could use the company.
Sure enough, 7:30 rolls around and Lenko’s strolled over for a visit. ‘Ivan Ivan, come with me.’ He mentions something about steak and dinner and then we’re off towards his apartment. You’ll not be saying ‘no’ to Lenko. Up an elevator and through the hall, we travel with him talking and I mostly listening. Stuff galore greets us and he welcomes me with gifts. ‘This, for your bike.’ He points to a bike pump. ‘And this for your mood!’ He proclaims handing me a lamp. ‘And wait wait, let me find it… this for resting feet.’ The green fold up chair arrives in my arms… he practically throws these items at me. All with a great smile and look of concentration. And then arrives the food. With a flick of the wrist, a pan opens up and ‘food, steak!’ breaths forth in all it’s glory. Indeed, the ingredients meld into one. I have no idea what’s set before me. And with a sprits and a swirl of Windex, a bowl is “cleaned” and dinner is served. In a moment of weakness I freeze slightly and quickly ponder ‘what do I do?’ And as if reading my mind he energetically directs me, ‘eat eat!’ So we’re off, and the discovery process ensues. Lenko and I, somehow men of common bond unite over a meal in the city, in his home. ‘Carrot’s, I see.’ ‘Yes, and tukey and tomato, also basil… and don’ forget rice. Strong, very strong muscles this build.’ And very strong bonds one builds by opening his home for another.
After another helping of ‘steak’, the cake and the orange soda appear, and we’re watching a little television and shooting the breeze. ‘You’re name now Vanya!’ I’m laughing now almost uncontrollably. I cannot believe he called me ‘Vanya.’ My Dad calls me this, and he has for years. What joy I felt was in this moment. And Lenko gets this mischievous and slightly victorious look on his face when he’s excited about something. ‘Vanya!’ He projects. ‘and I… Iyonya!’ Unbelievable. Somehow, I live for this stuff. Soon enough he’s teaching me a combo of Russian and Bulgarian and he flies through his Bulgarian/English dictionary in search of words that propel our multilingual conversation. Just a few hours earlier we were both alone living our lives, and one conversation birthed an experience of camaraderie and friendship.