Meet Aaron. A 5 foot 5 immigrant, sporting a thick accent, and a charming Napoleon-like aura about him that says “I’m a boss.” And he is. He’s a landlord and owner of a long standing hardware store in Bed-Stuy. He approaches his life with a sense of duty that has perfected his routine, creating a sustained and happy nest out of New York for the past 30 years. Currently in his 60’s, Aaron stands by his frequent spa visits and exercise regimen to keep him energetic and able to juggle his non stop hustle. We asked Aaron if he would mind being the first in a new series we’re starting called “Getting To Know”, in which we interview random people around this great city and get their perspective on life. Here’s what our new friend Aaron had to say…
Interview by Rachel Oliner
Hey Aaron, thanks for taking a moment to talk with us. Let’s start simple. Where are you from?
When and why did you move to America?
Year is 1979 when I came. Like everybody else – looking for a better life. So before I came here, I was in Austria, then I stay in Italy for two months, then I came here.
What did you do in Austria and Italy before you came here?
The immigration process. At that time no one comes straight from Russia. So we stay in Austria 2 weeks, then Italy 2 months. So then we came here. This is a real city.
What made you choose New York?
New York is the capital of the world. This is a real city.
Did you start in Brooklyn?
1979 – when I came to America, we went to Cincinnati, Ohio first. I lived over there for 5 years, and then I came here.
You knew people in Ohio?
Yes, my sister came first in 1977. She lived in Cincinnati. That is a very beautiful – a real America there. Different people, nice people. It’s nice, quiet city. Many parks, lakes.
What was life like in Cincinnati compared to Russia ?
Compared to Russia, that is a much better, cleaner, nicer in Cincinnati. Big rivers, very nice and quiet. But for me, it’s too quiet. I was from Kazakhstan state. So then I moved here because it’s more action, more opportunities. More Russian people are here, it’s easier. Then I came to this street [Fulton] and opened my first business. This hardware store is my 3rd business. All I can tell you – some people live here in America, they don’t appreciate where they live because we have some problems, but not much like other countries. This is the best country – if you’re working hard, you think before you do anything, you learn, there are no limitations here. Do you have children? I brought with me 2 kids, the youngest daughter is here and in law school now. We’re doing very good. All we don’t have enough of is time. No time for anything. All the time busy doing this, doing that.
What do you do in your free time?
Free time? Sleep! Last year I started to take time to go to the gym, exercise. Before, I worked 7 days a week. Now, I take a day off, go to the gym, swim, steam, exercise. When I was in Russia, I saw tourists from other countries – most of the time I see old people, very seldom young. I thought why young people don’t travel? But now I know why. Young people are working hard, old people when they go to retire – then they start to travel!
Is there anywhere you haven’t been that you would like to visit?
To be honest with you, I don’t really like to travel but of course I would like to go to visit one time the country where I came from. It was a state but now it’s a country, Kazakhstan. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the states became separate countries. I prefer fishing, swimming, sun, Florida, nice quiet relaxing. I prefer that more than going far away and flying and this and that. But, my country I want to visit.
What’s the state of your country right now? What was the biggest change from when you left to how it is now?
I never go, but it’s much different. I never go because my wife says no don’t go, they won’t let you back. Something will happen. I will go soon. I’m American too, but at the same time, if you go you won’t understand many things going on over there. You’re here fighting for human rights, whatever, but they don’t follow much – you can disappear easy over there and never going to find you. Bribery all over, this and that, anything can happen. This is what Russia is about. Especially if you go to non-capitals. It’s totally different. Here, everybody is about right and wrong – there, they have a very simple system. Don’t go into court with rich people, don’t fight with somebody stronger than you. If you’re stronger, I should not fight with you. If you’re rich or on top, I know don’t mess with you because I will lose anyway. You have to be very careful over there. Many people – even Russians – they stay home over there until they get the right people surrounding them. There’s bribery all over. Corruption all over. Never going to change. We are Jewish. To go out from Russia, we cannot go out from Kazakhstan because the president said ‘We don’t have Jewish people.’ So to go out we moved to a different state that recognized us, where we bought a house. From that state we collected our papers and then we went out. I don’t think if I come back, that I can leave from over there.
Have you been in Bed Stuy the whole time?
Yes, from 1986 – almost 30 years. The changes, first of all, the people are changing. Before, there were more black people here. Now, it’s mixed. More young people coming from Manhattan are moving here. Because from here to Manhattan, maybe 20 minutes on the subway and it’s close to everything. Rent used to be cheaper but it’s going up now. White people start coming here, prices now go up. Brownstone now you can buy for $1 million. Change is always good – when neighborhood becomes mixed, all is good. Before we had many problems. Oh crime, oh my god so big. Shoplifting, stickups – oh my god. But we survive and I survived.
As a business how has gentrification affected you?
To be honest, we had better business before. Maybe because of the recession, people before spent more money. There’s always competition, but now it’s a different time. Life is more expensive now, more expenses, people are spending less. Online – people have no time and try to shop on line. It’s a hassle too, if they buy online and something is wrong, then they’re in trouble. It’s another thing to touch things here with your hands. But still, online is killing retail business. You see how much I have in here? You’ll never find anywhere here with the variety that I have. I have on the front sign – if I don’t have it, you don’t need it. There are so many stores for rent, stores closing. Expenses are high, profit is lower. I’m not a politician, but everything won’t be better for retail businesses – it’s going to be worse. American president Obama – he can’t do much because he doesn’t have that power like in Russia, President Putin has. Putin is officially president, but not officially, he is a king, a dictator. But from one side, if country has the right person, it’s better to have a king – if it’s the right person who cares about the country. Because president can’t be stupid – has to be educated, smart. Now, Putin – all Russia belongs to him. He’s the richest man because all of the country belongs to him. Money for him is nothing. Putin wants to put himself in history. Is it better to have an all powerful leader? If it’s the right person who cares about the country. If not, it’s dangerous. At the same time, America’s rights system – that’s why America’s on top.
How do you feel about the situation between Russia and Ukraine?
My personal opinion – to understand that situation, you have to put yourself in it. First question, where is Ukraine and where is America? Ukraine is next to Russia. Why do we have to put our nose over there? What, we don’t have problems here? Who cares? Russia and America will never be friends, it has to be that way. Because Russia never, never let Ukraine be a member of NATO. Never because it will be just next door. This is dangerous for Russia. They don’t care about sanctions, whatever.
So America is helping Ukraine because they want to get closer to Russia?
Yes, of course. Russia will never let and America will never. When capital of Ukraine start war, they cut it off because people want to. Not because they love country butbecause people want to belong to Russia. Secondly, people from Ukraine go to Russia to look for jobs, it’s better for their families. Another city – they got coal in Dumbas (city in Ukraine?), but they don’t want to stay in Ukraine so Russia helped them separate. Situation will be like this all the time. America and Russia will never fight. But they won’t be friends. If they fight, there will be a collapse. Russia has so many bombs – nuclear, atomic. It’s also a big territory. America will never send weapons to Ukraine. American and Russian soldiers – big difference. Americans are afraid to die. But the Russian government – they’ll easily send people to die. It’s very smart on the American side – they only try to bomb [from the sky]. It’s smart to save lives. That’s why America is on top. Because the direction is right. The system is right. Of course we have problems, not so much like in other countries. That’s why America is a super power.
How do you feel about the prospects for the upcoming Presidential election?
Hillary Clinton – I think America is ready for a woman president. If she has good enough health, she might. You going to vote for her? And why not? Germany had it, Israel had it – everyone has had it except America. I think she will win this time.
Do you have any traditions you carried over from Russia that you still practice?
Now it’s changed, but before – Atheism – we had that, there was no God in a Communist system. Religion is a drug for people. Because of that, people don’t believe nothing. It’s changed in Russia now. When I came out, it was 1979 – Soviet Union, Communist system. Only old people believed, especially Christians. In Queens, we have synagogues, we have our community. To be honest, I’m not very close [to Judaism]. To be very close, I can’t stay in this area. Saturday, Friday afternoon – there’s better business. So many holidays, you can’t afford to not work. I only close on Yom Kippur.
What do you want to do after you finish here? Will you pass this on to a son?
To be honest, I can’t live without this. 1 time a year I go to Miami for vacation. I like to swim – every morning, for at least 2 hours, I’m in the ocean. I never even sit in the sand. I come out of the water only to check my phone if I get a call from here. My brain is here, I can’t live without this – it’s like a sickness. Two weeks is more than enough – after 10 days, I count every minute and hour. I go to the gym and there’s a steam room. Every time I exercise – I exercise very heavy. If I tell you, you’ll never believe me. 3 hours is not enough for me. 4 hours in the gym if I take a steam. I used to be a sportsman, I know how to handle it. I was a boxer, a lightweight champion in my country. We lived in a situation where you had to survive – all of my friends were taller than me. Here, I started to go to the gym the past two years. I feel 20 years younger. If you do it right, make it a habit, an addiction. This is a good addiction. All of my guys – no one can beat me in arm wrestling. The gym here – there’s so many different equipment. This is our problem here – too much sitting. Now, you may not feel it, but just wait. Later, at 50, then you’ll start to feel it. You have to go exercise, swim, steam. I don’t take any vitamins, everything is natural, fresh.
I eat everything. Anything.
I cook too. We have our tradition for food, it’s called plov. That is a special, special food.
What do you see about the Russian community here in New York?
They’re doing very good. You know why? Because they are survivors. When you are a survivor, you’re strong. You’re used to it, getting pressured, problems. You’re strong. You can work more than you’re supposed to be. Because you see, you get spoiled. You want to work less, you want more money. This is what happens. People who live in a country like America – that’s why many companies go overseas. I believe America was built up by immigrants because you can see it. I’m talking about – not because they’re smarter, but because they are survivors. Like the Chinese – they are very strong. They have the strength to survive. Here, you have to work hard when you’re young and make a base, a name. You’re going to start to enjoy and relax more than supposed to be when you’re young. This country has big opportunity, no limitation. I know one thing – my kids are not like me. They are all spoiled. This is what happens. That’s why all the time – fresh immigrants come, it’s better. Immigrants are better for country. But legal way! Whoever come illegal, out! If you are qualified, welcome. We came and spent almost 2.5 months overseas before we go in to America. Every day we had appointment – doctors this and that. By the way, you know who cover us? Jewish organization. They pay for our food, transportation, flights, everything. Green card I get fast – citizen, took 5 years like it’s supposed to be. Legal way!
Thanks for chatting with us Aaron. It’s been a pleasure.