The Forgotten Mosilor (May Fair) Street

Mosilor Street, the modern thoroughfare of a Bucharest that struggles so hard to appear occidentalized and yet doesn't quite manage to: something Balkan, Levantine lingers in the atmosphere of the streets, in spite of the concrete ten-floor blocks, of the road with three lanes each way and the tram embankment in the middle, for long and silent carriages. Buses and trolleybuses with glaring commercials applied on their bodies pass by in a hurry through the stream of cabs along the streets with restaurants, bars and strip-tease cabarets, belly dances and manele[1]. And there are stores, many stores with glass walls in front, with windows full of computers, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, Italian shoes and French dresses, food stores with gritstone floors and faience up to the ceiling, salesclerks with starched dresses, air conditioning in summer, central heating in winter, and smelling too much of mint, banana or strawberry deodorant, or sprays against mosquitoes, moths or whatever else flies or creeps. In some places one can also hear music in an undertone that sounds as if it came through the walls, in order to create a relaxing atmosphere. It's great: hot in winter and cool in summer. I haven't lived in that neighborhood for a long time. When I left it for another neighborhood, more than 30 years ago, Mosilor Street still existed as a prolongation of the late 19th century. Its width was about half of today's boulevard. It was a long and narrow street, going up from Obor (Cattle Market) square to St. Gheorghe's Church in the center, twisted in many corners and cross-sectioned at half distance by Carol Boulevard. In the places that were dangerously narrow, the driver of the tram with a cashier at the counter in the back of the carriage would toot his horn very loudly so the pedestrians could get the chance to stick to the wall of the house nearby, lest they should be pulled from the side pavement less than a meter wide, and chopped to pieces under the wheels that jumped, gnashing on the rails fixed with stones, sparking at every pothole or brake. If some wretched cart made up of three planks, and pulled by a one-eyed jade, got in its way, the tram started crawling like a funeral convoy, waiting for the cart that seemed to dismember to get to a side street, where it could pull over in order to liberate the iron rails. On the left and right of the old street were massive houses that looked like ancient fortified inns with arched gates for huge wagons, and backyards with high walls on two sides or all around, with a wooden hand rail along the upper storey, that one could reach after climbing on an unstable staircase made of rotten planks. Ever since I was a child I have had an unshaken interest in old stuff and ramshackle buildings. For a while I would pass by the arched gates, and merely cast glances at their insides full of dirt and weeds. Then, one day, when I was sent by my mother to buy who knows what from Mr. Vartkes's store, I gathered my guts and stepped into one of those ancient and weird yards that smelled of forgotten times, mould and post horses, of caravanserais and mercenaries. The walls had been there for more than a century, on the road to the Outside Fair, in the way of the couriers and convoys that brought from the Danube and the Black Sea the spices and carobs, the incense and the pepper of the Orient. Later, in my teenage years, after I read Mateiu Caragiale's Old Court Philanderers, whenever I happened to pass them by on hot and dusty nights, I could imagine hearing the blatant and distant laughter of Pena Corcodusa coming through some yard with bay windows. For a stranger, the old street appeared odd and out of this world, like a sepia image dissolved by time, with its fallow walls, its many stores with wooden window shutters and its jagged stone thresholds, with trams that jumped dangerously on the railways and lorries that shattered on their tires. The night would fall in the inner yards quicker and more pitched, bringing about a lugubrious and moldy atmosphere and a thick silence, interrupted only by the life-and-death brawls between cats and rats. In the passages under the archways, in small and damp rooms, there were workshops where people fixed purses, ground knives, made counterpanes, mended shoes and made peaked caps. Tin door plates painted black or red, hung to the street with crazy, topsy-turvy wordings, let one know that somewhere in the yard they fixed ties "in Nuti's back" and sold "beds for children made of wood". Along that street there was everything one could imagine: grocery stores, watchmaker's shops, cracknel shops, bakeries, pubs, tailor's, cinemas, taverns, cafes, leather goods, photo studios, confectioner's, grinder's shops, ladies' underwear and wedding dresses, small ware shops, joiner's shops, locksmith's trades and barber's shops. Around the 1950s, the gypsies hadn't yet taken into possession the old houses and fortified yards on the long and seemingly endless street. Succumbed in the dust of its own history, Mosilor Street would still show some of the merchant prosperity, as it used to be in the beginning. Spread through the remains of the 19th century there were also newer two-storied buildings, with balconies made of wrought iron towards the street, with ornaments of molded Cupid heads around the doorway and vegetal garlands in the local Baroque style, wagon-houses built on cellars with airings at sidewalk level, houses hidden in the back of the yards, in the vines, quiet and peaceful like housewives. A medley of social statuses lived in the old buildings with arched passages and in the houses that were more recently built: merchants, craftsmen, masters and journeymen, clerks, high-school teachers and doctors, a dignified bourgeoisie on the wane, lovely ladies who gave piano and French lessons, widows who made lace and shy spinsters, land agents, bachelors and discrete lady companions; a respectable suburb, living by its own laws, with its own polish and pretensions. Romanians shared their neighborhood with Greeks, Armenians, Jews, some Hungarian carpenter or a German ironsmith. Many Armenians had shops on the old street of the Outside Fair. Close to the crossing with Romana Street, next to Mosilor Cinema (a cinema with a park where strolling revue groups played between projections. The star of those shows was Puiu Calinescu, who rose cheers from the film fans of the neighborhood with his improvised monologues) was the store with colonial products and delicatessen, run by Zadik, a man with an athletic torso thrusting on his short legs, with a wide face and bushy eyebrows joined at the root of the nose, who used to frighten me with his dark look. Anyway, whenever I was sent to buy coffee from him, I got myself a good deal because Zadik would smuggle a few bonbons into the palm of my hands and so his eyes, fiery as ambers, didn't matter any more. Zadik was never alone in his shop; there were always two-three acquaintances to keep him company who spent their time leaning on the bags with sugar, rice, nuts and peanuts, looking out the dirty window of the shop while cracking pumpkin seeds between their teeth or crunching chick peas. When I was called by Zadik to be served in the lumber room in the back of the shop, where the raw coffee was stored, I would lose my voice and feel shivers down my spine, because that's where you could easily meet defiant and cheeky mice, determined to inspect the corners. Three or four cats kept by Zadik as specialized rodent-hunters walked, surfeited, along the bags, or slumbered lazily, like odalisques, on top of the provisions. In summer, when the heat burned the air and the deep dust of the street drowned everything, in the shop with thick walls, Zadik's callers found themselves in a drowsy torpor. Strips of sticky paper hung down from the ceiling, garnished with bodies of flies, and Zadik would lazily swing a long stick with rustling strips of newspapers on its end to keep the insects away from the jars with lokum and nutmeg. In winter, people would install cast iron stoves or little ovens with pipes stuck in the holes of the walls to let the smoke fly out, on the street. Across the road, downwards from Splendid cinema, towards Obor, in competition with Zadik, Vartkes held his trade. In his grocer's shop, great containers made of red copper caught your eye immediately. They made a harsh noise when they were used to grind the coffee. Inside it smelled nice and itchy, of cloves and cinnamon, of rose jelly, pepper and fried beans. Among the gilded tin boxes, printed with small Blacks with moustaches and red Turkish caps, filled with candied sugar, toffees, lokum and raisins, one could see pot-bellied bottles with all kinds of syrups in delicate shades of green, pink and ruby red. Vartkes didn't sell alcohol. Liqueurs, plum brandy, Odobesti and Valea Calugareasca wines and French cognacs could be bought at Zadik's. Vartkes counted on a more refined and pretentious custom, made up of the ladies in the neighborhood, who bought from his shop flavoured halva, cakes, sweets, chocolate candies in boxes with ribbons, and other delights for refined tastes. In the shop window, on plates covered well with transparent cellophane sheets, almond cakes as well as nut and raisin pastry floated in thick golden syrups. One would bring his own bowl from home and Vartkes would serve him pastry using a small shovel and making soft and spoilt gestures as in a sensual gastronomic ritual, while one felt in the palate a sweet and gentle itch of pleasure. Over his black pants and white shirt, Vartkes wore an apron that was always clean and starched, thus bringing honor to his wife. On the walls of the shop there were decorative shelves of jig-sawn plywood. From the shelves hung down garlands of corrugated paper, over the jars with green and black olives, with pickled mushrooms and chili peppers. On a palm tree as tall as a person, made of painted wood and propped up on the wall, there was a wooden monkey with a red Turkish cap. During the period of poverty after the war, when people stood in endless lines for their ration of bread, maize and flour, it was a miracle how such exotic delights could be found in the shops of the Armenians on Mosilor Street. These were the last attempts to resist bankruptcy. Zadik's big and olive-colored face was duller and gloomier than ever. Vartkes tried hard to keep his welcoming smile and kindness towards the customers who entered his shop and who were getting poorer day by day. The ladies who once wore fancy hats and gloves now changed their veiled hats for proletarian headkerchiefs, and showed the hands that they once used to protect with the elegant sensuality of the gloves made of deer skin. Specialties were now bought by the gram. The Armenian shoemakers, whose goods were in competition with the ones of luxury stores downtown, could hardly attract any customers. Everybody was wearing "points", that is, what they could buy with their ration book: worker's boots and sandals with thick rubber soles that would last for a hundred years, till Kingdom come. Shoemakers worked illegally, securing their leather secretly and hiding it lest it should be found during the weekly searches of the policemen, who, in good Balkan tradition, were willing to overlook the problem for a satisfying bribe. The ware was secured under hand in a surreptitious network that was getting narrower by the day. The prosperous business of the shoemakers had gone bad. The Bohos brothers, who lived with their families in a new house with an iron fence and trees in the yard, had called on all their acquaintances in order to obtain an emigration visa for America – the hope and dream of all the poor for the land of all opportunities. The "new" Americans on Mosilor Street who had come here after the Turkish massacres of 1915, went further, on water, across the Atlantic, in order to lose their last exotic flavors from the colonial shops, stuck in the texture of their clothes, in the shades of the skyscrapers of Manhattan. After the 23rd of August 1944, those who found most to work were the botchers. The shoemakers, free-lancers who didn't have workshops and employees any longer, wore aprons and worked with their lasts, nails and hammers. They had settled down in the hovels of Mosilor Street, and were now mending shoes. They had plenty of work: the heaps of worn-out shoes and boots with holed soles never diminished. Uncle Osin, whom I had always seen dressed up like a lord, easy-going and courteous, walking proudly on the boulevards of the city and sitting in cafes downtown "for business", was one of those luxury shoemakers, very praised by the high society of Bucharest. He kept on walking surreptitiously for a while, then he was caught and imprisoned at Vacaresti as a capitalist element who was considered harmful to society, exploiting the poor workers (he had had five of them, whom he had continued to employ, receiving their blessing in exchange for the money he paid to them and which, as one could see, had no effect whatsoever). Once you turned from Fainari St. to Calea Mosilor, in the back of a yard with shriveled houses, you would find Garbis's photo shop. Garbis was a tall man, blond and thin, in his forties, always well-dressed, in his suit, with a tie and a white shirt. To the street, in a metal box with a window, there were photographs of chubby children and femmes fatales, of guys dressed up to the nines with sleepy eyes, who had to convince the passer-by of the incontestable talent of the artist. There were also other photographers on Mosilor Street, like the old Marculescu, a small, fat, smiling Jew, whose studio was next to Splendid cinema, but he was nothing in comparison to Garbis. His subjects were shown from special angles, with their busts leaned ahead, three quarters of their faces and shadows of effect in the background. Every time I happened to pass by the "studio" with my father and to meet Garbis, he told my father: "You have a beautiful daughter, baron Nersesian. Let me take her picture." Whether the daughter was beautiful or not didn't really matter, because I craved for a picture of myself with the looks of a star, like those shown in the shop window. So I started to save part of the money I got for rolls and tram tickets and to walk all the way from home to Lazar high-school. The picture that Garbis took of me without my father's knowledge shows a weedy girl with a sharp face and almond-shaped eyes, garnished all around with a thick hemstitch of false eyelashes that were incredibly long and curved, drawn on the picture with the eye-liner and a strong retouch of the outline of the mouth that could belong to any Marlene Dietrich, but not to myself. Anyway, all of Garbis's artistic efforts could not hide the uncertain traits of a whirling age that had nothing to do with Hollywood stars. Sometimes, from the back of the studio appeared Garbis's wife, a busty brunette, an odalisque detached from Ingres' canvas, with white skin and sentimental eyes, which I imagined lying down on scarlet silk under Garbis's spotlight. One fine day, the shop window with stars disappeared from the streets, and the photographer artist went with his odalisque and their two children to Los Angeles, the city of angels and unsoothed illusions. Among pubs and taverns that offered unassuming hygiene, tripe soup, and sweetbread, grilled minced meat rolls and grilled fries, there was a coffee shop that also belonged to an Armenian, whose name I forgot. People who came to the coffee shop were small handicraftsmen, traders and intermediaries without any luck, who awaited their chance for a big shot. At the tables covered with square napkins, people played backgammon and dice. Armenians could be recognized by the beads that they ran through their fingers, counting or caressing the bits. They looked towards the passers-by on the street but didn't seem to see them or think about anything in particular. Then the coffee shop became a state grocery, run by a Southern Romanian who had walked through the neighborhood before and sold his groceries from his yoke. Mosilor Street was not considered to be a bad neighborhood. There were other neighborhoods that enjoyed this kind of publicity, like Vacaresti, Rahova, Pantelimon and Colentina, where the stabbers, the robbers and the hookers dwelled, and many gypsies had found their shelter. Mosilor Street was a street of traders and small handicraftsmen who respected each other. I don't remember having ever heard of a night attack, of robberies, of shops being plundered or of shop-windows being broken. When evening fell, people closed the window shutters and put heavy locks on their doors. Only the lights of the pubs and taverns shone on the streets, as they were open until the last client with a hangover chose to leave. In the passages and humid yards, it was silent and dark like in a tomb. The trams passed by until midnight, with lights inside, honking slowly and almost empty. It's true that people living in the yards of the old inns got into a heavy fight once in a while. Some poor guy, who came back home drunk and angry with the entire human race, might beat up his wife and kids and then go to bed peacefully, knowing that he had paid his debt to the world. Apart from that it was quiet. Early in the morning, trying hard to get out of the way of the trams, carts and lorries, among those who delivered goods you could see skinny Avedic pushing a cart on four wheels, full of vegetables. Avedic was 17 and had a widowed mother. They lived nearby, in a yard near Precupetii vechi (Old Peddlers) St., next to Fainari (Flour Merchants) St. He was a quiet, gentle boy with a delicate face and shiny eyes, who was supposed to help Mr. Artin Turshugian. "His mind is sharp and he's good as a girl." That's what Mr. Artin used to say about him. When I was 10, Mr. Artin was 33. He was a handsome man, neither short, nor tall and his body was skinny. His traits were delicate, he had a face like those on medals, his hair was curled and hempen. His skin was white and his eyes were blue, like his mother's, who was a fat old lady, smiling all the time and sitting on a small chair in front of the house on Precupeti. Everybody liked her, and she liked all her neighbors she got a chance to talk with, or saw passing by. Mr. Artin had a heart of gold and a temperament like dynamite. I've never met a man more industrious than him. He couldn't stand still for a second. He'd carry and unload cases and boxes, he'd put them on shelves, he'd lift sacks and serve his customers with an incredible speed and precision. He'd help anybody, he'd help paraplegic people cross the street, those who moved in on St. Dumitru's day, he'd smuggle a loaf of bread under the armpit of a homeless who'd show up in his shop and then yell at him, upset because customers had witnessed that. He couldn't read or write in any language, but no one was better than him when it came to additions. His mind worked quickly and effectively. He married a big woman, twice as strong as he was, with a skin as dark as roasted coffee beans, who gave birth to a little boy with a similar face to hers. In 1954 Mr. Artin went to America where, industrious as he was, he did everything and lived well without making a fortune. His boy with catchy eyes and tall as a door was sent to Vietnam and he came back home with a small and delicate Vietnamese woman like an ivory statue, and they had two girls together, with narrow eyes, who were called Turshugian. Well, that's how things are going. That's how the Armenian seed spreads into the world, from Greenland to New Zealand, from Brazil to the Moluccas. One cannot tell whether through the veins of an Eskimo, Cambodian, Australian or Mexican flows a drop of Armenian blood. They all say that they are anything but that. Among the characters on Mosilor Street that I will never forget is Mister Sarkis, whom everybody else forgot even before he died. I just felt that he deserved to be called "Mister" more than anybody else. Old Mister Sarkis, the one with the wooden leg, would spend his time in front of a stone vault, sitting on a chair, his back leaning against the humid wall and having in front of him, on a higher chair, the plate with little "ships". For a few pence one got himself a golden square made of crumbling dough, sweet and buttery and yummy, powdered on top with a transparent layer of sugar. Oh, how I loved those! He'd prepare his goods on his own, in his little room in the back of the yard, tossing the dough with the melted sugar and butter in a pot on the kitchen range. And just as in his small room poverty had polish, the pot in which he baked the ships was washed with boiling water and rubbed with wire after every use until it was smooth and shiny clean. I knew his small room in the attic that seemed to collapse over the rotten wooden staircase that led to it. My mother had sent me there one winter with warm slippers and a blanket after my father had visited him and brought him a basket full of chopped wood and told us that the old man was freezing. Mister Sarkis had thick, white hair and a beard that was just as white and that he used to round with his scissors. On his head he wore invariably – summer and winter – the same brown hat, old and wasted. His eyes were fuzzy blue and his skin, once white, had now a delicate patina of ivory. We made good friends. Mister Sarkis was alone in the world. I only asked him once why he didn't have any relatives. He answered me in a white tone: "Turks cut wife of me. Killed all." My father told me that he had been a school teacher in a village in Armenia. A teacher indeed? And I wondered how come that our local shop-owners who didn't even know how to sign their name didn't give a damn about him and treated him like dirt. When I happened to pass by the arched gate I always stopped to have a chat with Mister Sarkis. I always got myself a ship although he never accepted my money for it. If I insisted on giving him money, he insisted as well, saying: "Take, take, good it is. You girl mine." And his look was calm and warm. I've always had friends among those like Mister Sarkis. They had more kindness to offer, their heart was more generous and kind. It's because they were struck by fate, and their understanding of how the world goes is wiser. Maybe it's because they resigned in front of destiny, and are passing judgments on life in a more tolerant manner than those who harden their soul because of money, preoccupied with their investments, and with what these investments can offer them on the scale of social values. People like Mister Sarkis die poor, because luck can only be lured by a skilful trick, by sly ability, which they don't possess. They do not possess the harshness and the embarrassing arrogance stirred by the tyranny of money. Their soul is not humble, but at peace with themselves and the world. They do not live their lives worrying about the fate of their gathered fortune. They know too well that the light of same sky and sun can please everybody just the same, and that the earth that sustains us all also receives us and makes us all become forgotten. That's why Mister Sarkis's look seemed to come from far away, tamed and a bit foggy. In winter, when Mister Sarkis couldn't come to the gate because of the snow that was piled up along the railways of the tram, he sat stooping on a chair towards the boulevard, close to Miorita cinema, next to a small stove with embers, and sold roasted chestnuts. He held his crutch close by, and sometimes rummaged with its tip in the glow so that the embers would keep burning. He sold chestnuts in the cornets made of my copybooks that I gave him at the beginning of my holydays. When and how Mister Sarkis disappeared completely, together with his crutches, chair and ships, that I don't remember. But my palate still recalls the taste of the ships that he made, and his quiet, gentle look still haunts me from time to time. The snows today are nothing like the snows in the past. Winters were harsh, it was freezing cold and there were terrible storms with lots of snow that formed big heaps that I had to put up with when I came from school. On my way home, I passed by Apcar Baltazar's house, a small and white house with a wooden fence and a window to the street. My father, a passionate art lover, told me that the house belonged to a great Armenian painter. Long time afterwards, I found out that he was also one of those poor, but very talented ones. The heaps of snow were big and white, and over the neighborhood blew a purple wind that smelled like coal and burned wood smoke. I don't cry over the fact that the old houses, with their walls full of mould and green stuff that smelled like rot and dead bodies, with their foundations destroyed by the endless galleries populated by rats, were torn down by bulldozers. It was time. What stays with me are the memories, drowned in mists in which images float. Those images with old inns, stores and people like Mister Sarkis, Zadik, little Ripsime and Kevork, the boy with curly hair and beautiful blue eyes, who was like a brother to me… and so on.
[1] A popular style of music derived from old Turkish love songs, familiar in the Balkan area

by Anais Nersesian