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  • Michael Krakovskiy 2:27 am on December 8, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Burn, cab driver, Cart, century state law, Dan Rossi, Department of Parks, Department of Sanitation, , , , , , food cart licesnses, food cart vendors, , food vending wood, food vendors, Georgia, Heros II, , Kentucky, Metropolitain Museum, Metropolitain Museum of Art, Museum If, , , , oil, , , real estate market, , SECAM, , , Tamir Sapir, , , , , , Videocassette recorder, volt round plug devices   

    Entrepreneurship Heros II: Night at the Museum 

    If the Seal of New York City were designed today, it would not have a sailor and a Native American on it. It would have a cab driver and a food cart vendor.

    Cab driving and food vending wood seem like the two of the most democratic enterpreneurial options, the foundation of which is the public streets New York City: you just wheel out your vehicle and try to make some commerce happen. The only thing that you need is a license. The one for cab driving is called a “medallion”, costs $766K, and as an investment vehicle outperformed just about any commodity and stock index. The food cart licesnses are also very expensive. Plus you are hounded by NYPD, Department of Sanitation, and who knows what else. Cab drivers and food cart vendors are some of the hardest working and most prosecuted businesmen in the city, but sometimes they have their own victories, big and small.

    You don’t need to go any further than the Metropolitain Museum of Art to see two interesting examples. Right in front of the museum there’s a collection of food carts. They all are very typical carts, none of them are of the fancy variety. There are two types represented – the basic “dirty water hot dog” cars and “street meat” carts. But there’s one important difference – they all have stickers that say “Disabled Veteran”, and there’s usually an actual veteran somewhere nearby.

    In the past years the space in front of the museum was either empty or occupied by one or two carts licensed by the Department of Parks. Then one day Dan Rossi, a disabled veteran, discovered a 19th century state law that allows disabled veterans to sell food in areas that are off-limits to others. The location in front of the museum is particularly lucrative because there are no affordable restaurants as far as an overweight tourist can walk. This hack is a small, but significant victory for food vendors. They are still ticketed mercelesly by NYPD, have to work crazy hours, and deal with the need to urinate in some kind of a miraculous way. At least they got an article in the New York Times written about them.

    Across the road from the veteran’s carts is a mansion that belongs to billionaire Tamir Sapir, a former cab driver.

    Mr. Sapir’s legend starts in Georgia, USSR. He found an interesting niche business: filling out complicated emigration forms for the Soviet Jews. At some point he was persuaded by his mother to give up his excellent life (it was a very lucrative business, from what I understand) and emigrate to Israel himself. He found himself in the middle of the Yom Kippur War, and quickly emigrated to the United States. He worked hard to earn enough money to leave rural Kentucky for New York, and then even harder to buy a cab medallion (which was a lot more affordable in those days). Then he risked everything again by putting up that medallion as collateral for a loan that he needed to open up an electronics store with a partner.

    In the 80s there was a bit of a thaw in Sovet-American relations – Perestroyka and whatnot. There was a significant amount of people visiting the US – diplomats, scientists, sailors, and those invited by relatives. These people were allowed to exchange a small sum of rubles into dollars at the official rate – if I remember correctly, 60-something kopeks to a dollar.

    What these lucky tourists wanted the most was electronics. In particular – vcrs, doule deck cassette players, and Walkmen. They had the money to buy these things, but here’s a problem: they needed 220 volt round plug devices, and more than that, VCRs needed to support the SECAM standard. You could not just walk into any store and find these: American market was all 110V and NTSC.

    Every child in Odessa back then knew all of this, as well as that if you found yourself in New York City with some money, all you needed to do was trudge over to Timur’s (this was before he changed his name) store in Manhattan and find 220V SECAM VCRs.

    Mr. Sapir was making a mint, but more importantly he was making connections with the Soviet ministers, diplomats, and future oligarchs. A little later he was invited back to the USSR, and made more connections there. These connections allowed him to play on the Soviet deregulation arbitrage market.

    You see, when the Soviet Union was transitioning to the market economy all prices were regulated except those for commidities like metals, oil, and fertilizer. Those with connections could buy these commodities for already devalued rubles and sell them abroad for hard currency, making millions of dollars. All you needed was connections, which Mr. Sapir had.

    He made millions, but the game became very dangerous as people tougher than NYC cabbies entered it. Mr. Sapir did not continue his career as a commodity exporter. Instead he invested his millions into New York City skyscrapers. The real estate market bottomed out, and you could buy a whole skyscraper for 10 million dollars or so. He bought a whole bunch of them. The price of Manhattan real estate exploded, and he became a billionare.

    He bought a mansion across from the Metropolitain Museum to house his collection of carved ivory (for some reason this was a very popular area of collecting in the Soviet Union), has a yacht that used to be stuffed with a collection of exotic animal taxidermy that could rival Mr. Burn’s wardrobe or Amy’s car from Futurama.

    Well, the two lessons here are: 1) you have to take risks and 2) you have to find a niche. The rest is luck.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 3:17 am on August 18, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septemanie, , , BMW, building of Odessa, Catherine the Great, City Square, , , , , Everything Is Illuminated, , , Geography of Ukraine, Havana, hotel Zirka, , , José Pascual Domingo de Ribas, Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langéron, , oil, police captain, , , , same architect, , , , , Turkey, , , , , Vienna, , Yushchenko   

    Deadprogrammer visits Odessa : Part I : Introduction 

    I live on a high floor of an art deco tower facing a busy Brooklyn street. The acoustics of the building and the street are such that I can sometimes hear what’s going on in the street right from my desk. Once I heard the sounds of a minor fender bender followed by an angry exchange unpleasantness that was escalating into some creative Russian profanity. The driver who rammed the other car was pretty unapologetic and criticized the driving skills of the one who got rammed. Then followed the exchange that made me laugh out loud – the driver who got rammed said – “the way you behave, man, you must be from Odessa.” “Yes, I am,” – answered the other guy, and added – “and you still drive like a moron.”

    Odessa, Ukraine, my hometown, is a very special place. It has a Bizarro mirror twin, Odessa, Texas.

    Odessa is a resort town situated on the shore of the Black Sea, right across from Turkey. Culturally it’s a bit like Brooklyn (or Brooklyn is a bit like Odessa because of an almost constant infusion of Odessans) – a city with an attitude, a city where a lot of famous people are born and famous people come to live. Architecturally it’s a lot like Vienna and St. Petersburg: a city built on a grand scale (but with softer edges), by the best architects.

    Odessa’s ancient past is obscure: a Greek colony, a small town controlled by Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde, various Khanates and Kaganates, and finally a Turkish fortress. Odessa’s fortunes have turned when Russian forces invaded it in late 1700s. Catherine the Great apparently wanted to fortify the newly won land, and committed the people and resources needed to make the new city of Odessa a success.

    The founding fathers of Odessa were a bunch of distinguished foreigners in the service of the Russian crown: General José Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septemanie du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, and Count Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langéron.

    Richelieu, or the Duc, as he’s commonly known in Odessa, will forever be loved by Odessans for his accomplishments. The way I imagine the Duc is sort of like the 18th century Steve Jobs, with a reality distortion field of his own, except without being an asshole (Richelieu was known for his kindness and indifference to money). Somehow – nobody know exactly how – Richelieu got Odessa the status of a “free port“. This meant that goods could be unloaded without paying the taxes within the city limit. This brought about an unprecedented influx of wealth, which in turn fueled the building of Odessa by the best European architects in the European manner. Odessa’s opera theater is only slightly smaller than Vienna’s, and is by the same architect.

    Another unique aspect of this new city was the ethnic makeup. Besides the usual for Ukrainian cities mix of Ukrainians and Russians, Odessa became a melting pot. Frenchmen, Greeks, Turks, Germans, Armenians: all rushed into Odessa. Even the Jews were allowed in, and not being limited to certain occupations or living in a ghetto. Odessa is a very Jewish town despite what the author of Everything Is Illuminated might have you believe.

    I left Odessa when I was 16. I came back for a 10 day visit 15 years later.

    Odessa is a a city that makes you nostalgic, and I kept seeing it in my dreams. Luckily there’s a small international airport in Odessa and President Yushchenko kindly lets the holders of an American passport into the country freely, with no need for a visa.

    12 hours and $1300 later I was standing in Odessa, looking for a cab. A pushy cabby was very surprised when I did not want to ride in his clean BMW and chose a cheaper and dearer to my heart filthy Soviet-vintage car.

    As far as hotels go, Ukraine is much more reasonable than Russia, but there are still no Marriott-like affordable and well-designed chains. There are overpriced hotels with decor that will burn your eyes out, cheaper, but scarier hotels, and apartments that you can rent which cover the gamut. Odessa has a population of about a million, but it swells to twice the size in the Summer season. Because of that there are thousands of very reasonably priced rental apartments with great amenities. Unfortunately I did not plan enough ahead, and ended up reserving a very cheap room in a brand new hotel Zirka that recently opened right in the center of the city.

    For a very reasonable $35/night I lived in a tiny-tiny, somewhat flimsily outfitted, but very clean room with a fully functioning shower, air conditioning and beautiful views, right in the historic center of Odessa.

    The hotel was still being built when I lived there, and I herd later that it was becoming a bit notorious for renting the rooms at hourly rates.

    As far as I’m concerned, you really can’t beat their amenities, their location, and their prices. Also, the staff was very courteous and professional. It was very quiet there during my stay – but worst case scenario – you might overhear noisy sex, from which you are not guaranteed at almost any hotel.

    It’s hard to see on picture, but the towels had little dollar sign designs.

    My hotel room reminded me very much of the affordable hotel room that I lived in in Japan, down to the picture of soft drinks that I took there.

    In Odessa I mostly drank Borjomi, a Georgian mineral water. Borjomi, as far as I’m concerned is the tastiest mineral water in the world.

    Odessa has its own mineral water, Kuyalnik, but it’s not sold in restaurants for some reason. I found a few bottles in a convenience store closer to the end of my stay. More about Kuyalnik later – I have a very special connection to it.

    Apparently in Europe Diet Coke is marketed as Coca Cola Light, is sold in frosted bottles, and as far as I can tell, in a different formulation. It did taste different, and I know my cokes.

    I quickly unpacked, grabbed my camera and went for a walk.

    You really can’t enter the same river twice. I left Odessa when the Soviet Union was still intact. When I came back, a lot of things stayed the same.

    There’s still a fountain in the City Square, the live band is still playing on Sundays and the pairs still dance.

    Acacia trees, the most common plant and the symbol of Odessa, are still filling the city with the aroma and sidewalks with their yellow flowers. Cleaning ladies (and men) still sweep the sidewalks with brooms made out of small branches. I brought a small jar with acacia blooms with me – the smell of nostalgia.

    Remember that ethnic markup that I described earlier on? Well, somehow that mixing of genes resulted in the hottest women on the planet. Odessa is still the city of super hot women. This brings a large contingent of sex tourists and mail order (in this case – cash and carry) bride seekers. I was approached (probably because I was typing away on a laptop) by a most distressed gentlemen in a cafe: he could not get online. His hands were shaking. I fixed some gnarly windows crud setup options and wi-fi started working. All he cared about was getting to a dating site, and when it loaded, his hands finally stopped shaking.

    Things have changed though. Odessa took on some qualities of Havana, Cuba. Historic buildings are deteriorating, old cars are kept alive way past what’s reasonable.

    It’s not like Havana because people seem to prosper. Even the pensioners do not go hungry, there is a lot of new construction, and the rich are really, really rich. I’ve seen just about every expensive car I know in the streets, except maybe a Maybach.

    A few things about the new Ukrainian economy. The salaries are paid in US dollars, but dollars are not accepted anywhere. You can easily exchange them into hryvnas and back very easily, and the rate is somehow kept at about 5 to 1, without even having to shop around for a rate.

    Real estate is amazingly expensive: for instance the apartment that my parents sold for something like $5K costs about $500K. At the same time the mortgage industry is almost non-existent.

    I’m told that the government officials are amazingly corrupt, and they constitute a major portion of the upper crust. A police captain can easily become a multimillionaire, and so can just about any government bureaucrat. There’s a practice of “otkat” – kickback from a government project is rampant. High ranking policemen and bureaucrats are almost outside the law, like in India.

    At the same time, even with all the corruption and bribery, the economy is pretty healthy, even without Russia’s oil.

    Price-wise Odessa is not the bargain that it once was. For most things I’d estimate the cost of living at about 60-70% of Brooklyn prices. Food and rent is pretty cheap, but electronics, clothing and cars are more expensive. In particular, cars are taxed so much that they cost about 2 to 3 times more than in the US, which makes all those Rollses that I’ve seen even more impressive, and explain the Soviet-era cars.

    Deadprogrammer Visits Odessa : Part II : Balconies and Yards.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 11:17 am on November 14, 2005 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Family, , , , , Nakhimov, , oil, , , , Sakhalin, , , , , Yakov Pokhis, Yakov Smirnoff   

    Amen 


    My paternal grandmother, the matriarch of the family, a mechanical engineer and a workaholic, was the main driving force behind our move to America. She woke up at 5 am every day to prepare a meal for the family and start cleaning. She loved America, but did not live long enough to enjoy her life here. Her luck ran out a several years after my family arrived in the US — pancreatic cancer destroyed her body. The surgeons operated, but could not help her.

    My grandfather, on the other hand was a bit luckier. He also had an operation in the US – a quadruple bypass, which fixed his heart that was weakened by several small heart attacks. In all likelihood, if he did not immigrate, his heart would have given out earlier, as these operations were not widely available in Ukraine.

    Gramps lived an extraordinary life, squeaking by on his luck more than once. The picture of him and my grandma you see above is from their vacation on a Soviet cruise ship. I took a scan from a page of my personal photo album that he lovingly created for me, complete with his accurately printed titles. “October 1984, Cruise on ‘Admiral Nakhimov’, Odessa-Yalta” the caption reads. In August 1986, Admiral Nakhimov became the Soviet Titanic, colliding with cargo ship Pyotr Vasyev, mostly though gross incompetence of and dereliction of duty by the two captains.

    Having survived Stalin’s purges was mostly pure luck for my grandparents. Having relatives in the USA actually tipped the odds in the wrong direction. My grandparents did have a chance to emigrate in the pre-war wave. One of my grandpa’s friends tried to talk him into going to America and starting a construction business. Good construction engineers like you are hard to find there, he said. My grandma did not want to go at that time, leaving their elderly parents behind. I remember seeing a letter from my grandpa’s friend, who actually started a construction business in the US and struck it rich. The zip code on the letter stuck in my mind for some reason back then, and now I know what it meant — it was 90210. In any case, I think the major reason why my grandfather did not get arrested adn “disappeared” is his easygoing personality. He was a very gentle person, with a small circle of good friends and absolutely no enemies. That, and his luck.

    My grandfather had some luck in WWII as well. Very early on in the war a few of his egghead friends called on him to volunteer to a newly formed and somewhat secret division. He spent the war very close to the hottest front points, but not actually in them. He did not shoot or got shot at. In fact, he was handling lots and lots of paperwork. That paperwork was generated by strange-looking cars with antennas, egg-headed mathematicians and grandpa’s friends, who were fluent in several languages. I always knew my grandfather as an extremely meticulous person, especially about paperwork. This quality is very important in the business of code breaking as well as in the construction business.

    After the war gramps was poor as a churchmouse. His wartime spoils were limited to the fork and the polishing cloth that I wrote about earlier. To fix their finances my grandparents headed to the boom island of Sakhalin. Sakhalin is an island right next to Japan that looks like a fish from above. The history of Sakhalin’s population is strange and convoluted. Chinese, Japanese, Ainu, Russians and others co-inhabited it. Japan and Russia fought for complete control of it, and finally, after WWII Soviet Russia won. Japanese were driven out and it became a Soviet frontier, rich in oil and other natural resourses. Engineers were desperately needed, and even within the confines of non-market economy, wages were much higher there. My grandparents made a good living there, sending money back to their parent and saving a lot to start their independent life back in Odessa. My dad, whom they took along, meanwhile, learned to ski and to catch smelts, strange little fish that smell like fresh cucumbers.

    Back to Odessa they went, where they continued their careers. They bought a few things with their Sakhalin earnings, such as the nice modern furniture and a color TV that I later enjoyed. There are many buildings in Odessa that were built under the supervision of my grandfather. Later he became a college instructor, and taught architects and builders.

    Without ever hearing about another famous Odessan who also happens to share his first name, one Yakov Pokhis better known as Yakov Smirnoff, gramps liked to repeat the famous catchphrase. “What a country! What won’t they think of!” — he used to say when I showed him a gadget or when he read about something in a newspaper or saw something on TV.

    Grandfather’s luck ran out at the age of 91. He caught pneumonia. In the hospital, he started to get a little better, but then suddenly coded. His heart probably simply gave out, and the house doctor could not revive him. I talked to that doctor, and it was bad. Decent doctors say “I am sorry for your loss” and not “what is it that you want to know”; they do not mix pronouns, even if they speak broken English. I can only hope that he did everything that he could to save my grandfather.

    Here’s literally the last picture I ever took of him (it was earlier this year). My latest digital camera and flash impressed gramps a lot, as it came a long way from the huge camera he and his father used to have (I pointed out that the quality of that old-timey camera was probably better).

    As I learned from the eulogy delivered by a rabbi at the funeral, 91 is a special age. In Hebrew letter code 91 means Amen. Aleph = 1, Mem = 40, Nun = 50. Gramps lived a good life, and I am very grateful for having him with us that long. I am also grateful that his death was quick and I hope mostly without suffering. He is finally back with grandma. Amen.

     
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