Car Shopping with Joseph Brodsky



By Isabel Bau Madden

You may find the Serbian version  HERE

(Verziju na srpskom možete pronaći OVDE)

JOseph Brodsky in New York

Joseph Brodsky, 44 Morton Street NY, photo by Czeslaw Czaplinski

Joseph Brodsky  

May 24, 1940- January 28, 1996.

To commemorate Joseph Brodsky’s birthday, an essay reminiscing a car shopping experience with the celebrated Russian poet in 1987, shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, follows. The author, Isabel Bau Madden, directed and produced a documentary “A day in the life of Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Prize Winner and Poet Laureate of the United States” in 1992.
Russian Samovar, Joseph Brodsky

Russian Samovar, NYC, © Isabel Bau Madden

Every year, on May 24, his friends gather at the Russian Samovar, a restaurant Brodsky once co-owned with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Roman Kaplan on West 52nd Street, in New York City.


Nothing is bleaker than the New Jersey Turnpike on a steel-gray winter afternoon somewhere between Newark and New Brunswick where the industrial landscape  is dominated by ominous  smoke stacks .  You cannot escape  the abominable sulfuric stench that chokes the senses, not even by frantically rolling-up the windows of your car. It seeps in, follows you for miles and miles.

This reminds me of the outskirts of Milano, I tell my silent riding companion.

Joseph Brodsky signature

Joseph Brodsky signature

“It does, ya” Joseph Brodsky mumbles back. It is December 1987. Barely a few weeks after Stockholm and the Literature Nobel Prize. We are heading god knows where to rendez-vous with some Russian mechanic in order to look at a vintage Mercedes to replace the same old Mercedes which Joseph’s good friend and neighbor backed into a wall. It’s the only make and model Joseph will consider driving.

“Here are my cigarettes” he says, surrendering his pack of Merits with a pained and sheepish expression. “Make me beg for them, ya?” One every hour?” He meows and pleads for one immediately.

BRodsky, New York

Joseph Brodsky and Isabel Bau Madden, 44 Morton Street NY, photo © Czeslaw Czaplinski

During the long ride, in between long and short pauses, we chat with obvious affection about our mutual friend, the Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis.  My mention of PEN Club president Jerzy Kosinski who had recently hosted a party in Joseph’s honor, makes him wince without uttering a word.   I get the distinct feeling he somehow has a hard time taking him seriously. And then, owing to my South American heritage he nails me: “ What do you think of Octavio Paz?” I sit behind the wheel scrambling for an answer while trying to draw out his tentative directions. Somehow, we manage to find the gas station belonging to his contacts,Russians, of course.

They welcome him like a hero: bear hugs and kisses, and vodka at the ready flowing generously into paper cups. All other activity stops. No one pays attention to the ring of the station’s signal bell and the line of cars waiting at the gas pumps.

Brodsky in New York

Isabel Bau Madden and Joseph Brodsky, photo © Czeslaw Czaplinski

By the time we drive away, night has fallen and the party is continuing in the van en route to the seller’s house.  Our driver is a quintessential, exuberant burly Russian. Speeding through the back roads of the Garden State, he tells us in Russian the car is in excellent condition, the owners are Greek, don’t spill the vodka, ah here we are!

Joseph Brodsky Letter to Isabel Bau Madden

Joseph Brodsky Letter to Isabel Bau Madden

We are greeted at the door by a middle-aged matron wearing an apron, her husband lagging behind her, in slippers.  The kitchen smells of moussaka,  a TV set is blaring in the adjacent living room, there are lots of children running around. . I feel like an intruder. The car sits in a garage behind a small garden. It is an impeccable  classic  Mercedes ready to roll down the yellow brick road. “ Sit in it, tell me how it feels”, Joseph beckons. We take it for a spin around the block, while the Russian and the Greek begin bargaining in broken English.  When we return, we are invited to sit at a large table in the kitchen. It is covered with an oilcloth, the kind you find in kitchens in Athens, Buenos Aires, St. Petersburg. Despite the Russian’s heroic negotiating efforts, there is no discount.  Joseph begins to write out a check.

“What do you do ?” the wife asks him.

“I am a poet

Joseph Brodsky, NYC

Joseph Brodsky Home, 44 Morton Street, NYC, photo © Isabel Bau Madden

“Oh, really? I am a literature teacher”

“Oh, yes ? Where?”

“At the local high school here”

“Splendid. I also teach”.

He hands her the check while the husband attends to the moussaka.  She examines it for a moment.

“Can I see some identification?”

A sigh of incredulity and frustration from the Russian.

Joseph shrugs and pulls out a tattered billfold. It does not open like a fan with a zillion credit cards and I.D.’s. Just the basics.

“Will this do?” he inquires politely as he hands over his driver’s license.

“And a credit card, please” she responds.

44 Morton Street, NYC, © Isabel Bau Madden

44 Morton Street, NYC, © Isabel Bau Madden


44 Morton Street, prozori Josifa Brodskog, photo © Isabel Bau Madden

44 Morton Street, Joseph Brodsky Windows, photo © Isabel Bau Madden

The Russian is ready to explode. We are not even picking up the car tonight.

Joseph produces an AMEX card and she scribbles down the number. As we leave, Joseph and I sit in the back of the van and I light a Merit for him.  The engine revving, the Russian abruptly bolts from his seat and heads to the door of the house and rings the bell.

The literature teacher steps out.

“When you realize who bought your car you will never cash the damn check!”

And then we drove into the night with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

And he was puffing on a Merit Light.

 …and when “the future” is uttered, swarms of mice
rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece
of ripened memory which is twice
as hole-ridden as real cheese.
After all these years it hardly matters who
or what stands in the corner, hidden by heavy drapes,
and your mind resounds not with a seraphic “doh,”
only their rustle. Life, that no one dares
to appraise, like that gift-horse’s mouth,
bares its teeth in a grin at each
encounter. What gets left of a man amounts
to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.
-“A PART OF SPEECH, ” 1975-76


Russian Samovar, Joseph Brodsky

Russian Samovar with photos of Joseph Brodsky, NYC, © Isabel Bau Madden


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