The next article takes us from the California Pacific coast all the way to Croatia, in more ways than one. The writer, Bruno Ogorelec, has appeared here twice before, with two stories about human nature: "Great Jumping Grandmothers, A Tale of Female Emancipation" in M6, and the equally entertaining "Operation Dessert Storm" in M11. This third article by Bruno deals once again with human nature, and the resourcefulness needed to survive in a changing world.
'The Schoonerburger and Other Stories' by Bruno Ogorelec; 
  title illo by Diana Harlan Stein
Sometimes in my teens I got hooked on the stories of John Steinbeck, particularly his Cannery Row and the sequel, Sweet Thursday. They were so refreshingly different from most of the mainstream fiction that came my way then. Steinbeck spun a great, honest yarn there, declining to wrestle with the analysis of the psyche, forsaking such topics as love and jealousy, tugs of conscience and undertows of betrayal, moral quandaries and other such topics sine qua the Great Literature is apparently non.

I knew these psychological phenomena existed but they certainly weren't easy to detect in my neighborhood. From my teenage perspective, the people around me seemed to harbor no such precious sentiments. They were good, common, straightforward folk trying to make ends meet and maybe have some fun in the process. Cannery Row-type people. Despite the enormous difference between Carmel, California, in the late thirties, and Zagreb, Yugoslavia, in the early sixties, even the wackier Steinbeck stories could very well have happened in my late Grandma's backyard. People are no different flesh the world over, to paraphrase Zenna Henderson.

In the first paragraph of Sweet Thursday, the author tells us of the events that took place between the end of Cannery Row and the beginning of the sequel. One of the most startling changes was the departure to the South Seas of the Chinese grocer, Lee Chong. No one had suspected that deep within a seemingly complacent Chinaman's soul there lurked a free spirit, a closet adventurer. "One day," says Steinbeck, "Lee Chong sold out and bought a schooner."

Now, in the edition which I had read, a translation into Croatian, there was an unfortunate typo in that very sentence. 'Schooner' in Croatian is 'Škuna'. What was printed, however, was 'šunka' which means 'ham'. Lee Chong, according to the book, sold the family business, and with the proceeds he bought a ham.

Ah, ham! My heart went to Mr. Lee, the lucky bastard. Down the street from our house was a delicatessen and I would often kibitz the fat lady at the salami counter as she carefully sliced ham with a long thin knife and lay the slices onto the scales with apothecary precision. Most people would buy it very sparingly. My folks -- like most of our neighbors -- ate it only on special occasions, of which the Easter family breakfast used to be the best.

After the eldest aunt brought it back from the blessing at the parish church, some ham would be neatly arranged on our biggest serving plate, sprinkled with grated horseradish, and garnished with parsley and slices of hard-boiled egg. It had always seemed to me as a kid that big benevolent yellow eyes were studying me from behind a parsley bush. I wasn't studying them, however, but the ham. So was everyone else present, all of us doing a simple calculation in our heads: the number of ham slices divided by the number of people at the table equals how many slices one can safely eat without incurring the wrath of the Head of the Family. Yeah, I understood Lee Chong's motives, all right.

After a number of years, re-reading Sweet Thursday in the original and checking back with the translation, I found out about the typo and had a hearty laugh over the ridiculousness of taking it literally. By that time, it was easy to laugh, of course. Ham had long ceased to be a rare treat; in fact, I discovered I didn't like it all that much any more. Even so, now that I am rich in ham terms (i.e., able to purchase far more ham than I can consume) I still salivate on its cue, like any good Pavlovian.

Robert Heinlein once said, "I've been rich and I've been poor, and rich is better." Damned right, I say. My brief brush with poverty and the cravings it often implies has certainly made me wish I were rich. Thanks to my easygoing nature, and the fact that the period of poverty didn't last long enough to scar me indelibly, the wish never really became a burning desire. I could never work up the real drive, and thus none of my ploys to get rich ever worked. In the getting-rich business I have remained a dilettante, always holding back at the crucial moment. Perhaps I feared I would again, as with ham, discover I did not like it all that much any more?

Still, I studied the various possibilities quite diligently. Socialism in decline might not have been a very promising environment, but to him who searches -- even halfheartedly -- the opportunities do come, even at the most inopportune of times. To the bold and imaginative (and I used to flatter myself that I belonged to that sort) what creates hardship on one hand can offer new possibilities on the other.

Take inflation, for instance. In the late eighties this country was hit by inflation topping the 1,000% mark. Prices changed overnight, sometimes even between the morning and afternoon shifts. People on the whole suffered, but the streetwise types soon devised little tricks that seemed to turn the tide their way. Cultivating the price news sources, canny purchase timing, hoarding, and similar tactics apparently brought sizeable windfalls. Not to me, alas.

You could often see people suddenly rush out of a crowded office in the middle of a working day, leaving it quite deserted, all rules to the contrary. Everyone would come back within half an hour or so, lugging shopping bags filled with, say, terrycloth towels and bathrobes. That meant that the news of an imminent rise in the price of terrycloth had been announced over the grapevine. Sure enough, next morning terrycloth would be up dizzily, perhaps some 200%. Coffee cups would be up 250%.

Within days, the price of anything might climb so much that a resale to your neighborhood, even at a heavy discount, could bring a significant profit. After you sold your coffee cups, you could purchase a few packs of dishwasher detergent at discount from your neighbor, who obviously listened to a different branch of the grapevine. He, in turn, probably had to search around for sensibly-priced terrycloth towels.

It looked rather silly to me, the apparent gains notwithstanding. I'd rather prance around my bathroom naked, I decided stubbornly, than run around town in an unseemly manner, chasing bargain bathrobes. "Too much bother with dubious ultimate effect!" I declared to my wife. She ignored the depth and soundness of my reasoning, and thought I was just plain lazy. While her theory does fit the known facts remarkably well, I still think there must be a better explanation.

At any rate, I was accustomed to seeing people schlepping around large packages of an amazing variety of consumer products, but there was a case that really had me baffled. Unfortunately, the mystery cleared far too late for me to reap any benefit thereof. As usual.

One day, at a textile store downtown, there appeared a good supply of Yugoslav flags. The demand for federal flags has been stagnant for a decade, the very idea of Yugoslav federation having fallen into relative disrepute, and the flags occupied the warehouse shelves to little effect. The store manager felt it was high time to have a clearance sale. As old stock, the flags were on the books at long-forgotten, ridiculously low price and this fact was suitably advertised, but still the interest for old glories remained moribund.

Some inventive seamsters and -stresses explored the possibility of fashioning the newly emancipated national flags out of the unpopular federal cloth. There was, however, a problem with the big red star in the center. It would leave an unsightly five-pointed gash if removed. None of the national symbols would quite cover the bolshevik pentastar, spreadeagled over the bunting " a red toad," in the memorable, if malevolent, words of a prominent Serbian dissident. The days thus passed with flag sales lethargic.

At the beginning of the school year, all of a sudden there was a rush on flags that cleared the shelves in less than a week. As usual, the parents crowded at the book and stationery stores to supply their kids with the tools of learning, but for some reason, quite a few would also visit the cloth store and purchase a flag to go with the notebooks. My daughter was still in kindergarten then, and I was out of touch with the logistics of education. Try as I might, I couldn't fathom this sudden craving for the symbols of yesterday. An unexpected resurgence of federalism? No, there were no other symptoms one would expect to accompany such a shift in the national mood.

I learned of the reason a week or so after all the flags had been sold. There was a small, gleefully crowing note in a local paper explaining the circumstances. As is often the case with mysteries, the explanation was delightfully simple.

illo by Diana Harlan Stein Every pupil in the primary and secondary school has to have gym dress for the physical education classes. The boy's outfit consists of a white T-shirt and either blue or red boxershorts, the color choice depending on the school. The Yugoslav flag was a blue-white-red tricolor, serving thus as an excellent source of silken cloth for either variant. A new ready-to-wear gym set in the store cost as much as four flags, while a single flag would keep a boy in shorts from kindergarten to college. You only needed the basic sewing skills, which most mothers seem to possess in this country.

Thus are the mighty fallen and the opportunities missed, I nodded sagely and -- I must admit -- a little wistfully upon that relevation. Still, it cheered me up a bit to learn that mothers had apparently lost none of their resourcefulness when it came to providing for their young. It bode well for the uncertain future. For them, if not necessarily for me.

And so, instead of cornering the market in cheap flags and making a killing, I remained... well, not poor but certainly not rich, either. Fortunately, I was very well educated, and if there's one thing education is good for, it's rationalization. I thought to myself, well, the point of being rich or poor is mostly in your relative position, not absolute. Nobody really needs the accoutrements of wealth to live well. When everybody is poor or middling, you are, psychologically speaking, just as well off as when everybody is rich. Stick with the poor and middling, and you'll be OK. Avoid Davos and Beverly Hills. Shouldn't be too difficult, right?

Also, the austere life is more likely to be rewarding, they say. Modest circumstances make greater demands on -- and offer greater scope to -- ingenuity. Hmmm. Perhaps. I'll reserve my judgement for the time being.

My father has a nice tale to tell which would support this view, and I have tried to draw a lesson from it appropriate to my own case. It concerns a shoemaker in Dad's neighborhood immediately after the war. Anyone who has lived through a war (or has at least read Catch 22) knows that it can skew the distribution of all necessities something awful. There's always a shortage of salt, for some reason. Where cooking oil is needed there is none, but there's an abundance of, say, axle grease. A few miles down the road, axle grease can't be had for a king's ransom, but they do have a good supply of beanpoles -- not much help for your cart with squeaking axles which tend to catch fire on the downhill run.

Anyway, there's this shoemaker who gets a word that a big pile of shoes is lying around in an abandoned warehouse, and no one seems to be interested in them. That sounded rather suspicious -- after all, the entire postwar Europe was gripped by a severe footwear shortage -- but he went to the spot anyway to check things out. Lo and behold! The shoes were there, hundreds of them, in good quality leather and of sound design. The reason nobody wanted them was, however, painfully obvious. They were all 'left'. He had a few hundred left shoes on his hands, as it were. They must have been left there from a pre-war leather goods fair or exhibition; the shoe exhibits were traditionally presented this way to discourage the visitors from pilfering.

He darted around excitedly, wrung his hands for a while, perplexed, and then ran home to arrange some form of transport. Left or not, he knew the shoes must have been good for something. By the time he was nearing his shop with a cart full of shoes (the axles no doubt squeaking horribly), he had already hit upon an idea. He would make the 'right' shoes out of the 'left' ones!

And he did, too. It hadn't been very easy, but eventually he worked out a pretty neat method. Two shoes of the same type would be selected from the pile, one a size bigger than the other. The bigger shoe would then be taken apart. Its sole would be judiciously whittled down until its curvature became the mirror image of its left counterpart. The upper needed a nip here and a tuck there, a rub with a spirit-soaked rag to soften it, and a night's persuasion on the right-hand shoe mold to give it the final shape. When reunited, the parts formed a proper, honest-to-God right shoe duly matching the left one. Our shoemaker had a good pair of shoes to sell to his footwear-hungry neighbors.

They thronged at his shop, admiring his craft, trying the shoes for fit and buying them quite eagerly. Most things being scarce and allotted by ration coupons, small trade of this sort was done chiefly by barter. To get a pair of shoes you'd bring along salt, or cooking oil, beanpoles, etc. Whatever you happened to have. No one probably remembered to bring axle grease; there and then the neighborhood was so much pleased with the shoemaker's invention that even his squeaking must have been music to their ears.

And now, the inevitable moral. Rather obvious, don't you think? Compare this merry, if modest, tableau to the world of wealth. Would the neighbors on Fifth Avenue gladly tolerate the ear-grating squeak of the axles on Mr. Gucci's Rolls? I doubt it. If his axles caught fire down Rodeo Drive, would the elegant shoppers rush to his help with pails of water in their hands? Hardly. They would watch and snicker. Serves the bugger right, they'd say. Shoulda greased them axles long ago!

All illustrations by Diana Harlan Stein

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