Hunger in Manhattan: Portrait of Stepanka Horalkva

We are used to thinking of it as a David and Goliath affair: the immigrant against the city. We are used to watching want-to-be supermen from around the world come, struggle, rise, and many times fall. And sometimes we are even the spectators, waiting in anticipation for the jaws of New York to swallow up the ones who don’t work hard enough. Some just simply fail. That’s just the way it is supposed to be, right?

To take great risks, to make it rich, to be great: that is the mantra so many New Yorkers live by. And if you’re not working hard toward that aim, you shouldn’t be here, you know what I mean? No doubt New York is a hungry place when it comes to letting others struggle for success. But sometimes even New York chokes.

To Stepanka Horalkva, a young artist in her early thirties who came to New York from Prague when she was 19, the choice of coming to New York on her own was a risk by itself. But for Stepanka, getting rich has never been the goal. Even though she is just as hungry as those who have an appetite for risks that stretch beyond surviving, so many who meet her still doubt the strength of her hunger.

They should. Stepanka’s hunger is a mysterious sort. For years her drive to be something greater than the ‘misfortunate sister,’ a role carefully carved out for her by her Mother, hid from the world, disguised and quiet, inside the frail, Cosette-like frame of this young Czech woman. But it kept a steady pulse as strong as her determination to leave Prague was certain, and as urgent as her dreams to come to America were vivid. And like so many starving artists in Manhattan, most who meet her still think she just another artist. Starving.

Fortunately for Stepanka Horalkva her hunger turned out a fruitful struggle – and like most immigrants who pass through the hungry jaws of New York City, there was a great deal of hard work in that struggle, but Stepanka insists that it has never felt that way.

No. Hard work isn’t always the right word for what happens in New York City.

Born in 1975 in a small farming village in the south of the Czech Socialist Republic, Stepanka Horalkva grew accustomed to hunger from an early age. She knew it from growing up under communism, where it took her father a long, frustrating 6 years to build their family’s house, using hand-made cement, brick-by-brick. She knew it by her mother’s fastidious saving of small bits of cash from what seemed like a place out-of-thin-air so that Stepanka could attend school in Prague. And she knew it because her Grandfather, Bohumil, was always talking about his dream – to go to America – and how sharply his obsession contrasted with the hunched-over haze of picking apples, potatoes and herbs in the fields to make ends meet.

My Grandfather always wanted to go to America,” she recalls. “And so for me to come to New York and to know that it’s something he wanted to do but he never got the chance to do is to affirm the connection we had.” Inspired by the unfulfilled dreams of her Grandfather, Stepanka says that her passion to go to New York “seemed impossible,” but she was still determined.

Her Grandfather is the one who showed her that there was more beyond her small farming village in the south of the Czech Socialist Republic. But it was her mother who dosed her with a stronger, more pragmatic medicine. So when Stepanka was still young, she was sent to Prague to study. But instead of finding fulfillment, Prague was where she learned to be hungry once again. This time, however, it was for something other than what she had grown to know of her country. It appeared more magical than the boredom of her farm back in the country and less painful than the mundane of her mathematics and schoolwork. Stepanka despised schoolwork.

Stepanka flung herself into Prague, trying to escape the boredom and beat the mundane. She met men and Americans who taught her little bits of English. She worked hot commercial fashion shops, where she lived vicariously through the worldly strangers who passed through. But it did little to excite her and all the while something like Grandfather Bohumil’s dream began to grow inside of her.

Even though her dream was tragically naive, it fortunately failed to be shy and modest. It was shameless too as it starved for attention, and sometimes, as Stepanka found out through countless episodes of trial and error, an honest shamelessness about what you are craving can be the simple, raw ingredient for making the perfect sorts of feasts in life.

One day in Prague, the spontaneous generosity of the man who owned the gym where she worked abruptly transformed Stepanka’s circumstances. Knowing she had been dreaming to visit New York, he promised to loan her money for a plane ticket. The little girl was ecstatic. She would pay him back. It was a deal.

Stepanka flew to New York and promised her family that she would return, but her hunger was too strong, and deep inside she knew she would stay no matter what. So at the end of a month-long stay in an apartment with a pair of Czech strangers, whose fighting exhausted her and whose thinning hospitality estranged her, and with 4 days before her flight back to Prague, she set out on a quixotic search for a job, and after what felt like hopeless wandering, she landed a gig bussing tables at a small cafe in the Upper West side of Manhattan.

Of course, she couldn’t speak English, but she was cute. And being cute was enough to survive.

Stepanka’s hunger wasn’t satisfied though. Even though she was finally in New York, there was so much she did not have. Even though she had a job, she couldn’t afford her rent. Even though the manager of the cafe finally put her up with room and board, which he paid for from her tips, she could not afford more than a bagel or two per day. And about her English – she had to learn English.

Quiet Stepanka stayed in a crude hostel paid for by the owner of the café. But life was more like indentured servitude than the New York she had dreamed of.

“It was a place on 85th St. And it was $80 for a week. And it was the most disgusting place you’ve ever seen. There were roaches crawling everywhere. Roaches crawling in my pants, in my bed, in my… it was so disgusting, and the first time I took a shower I didn’t have a towel. I only had a few sheets of toilet paper.”

The starving circumstances of Stepanka Horalkva stung. But the stinging eased when a Frenchman named Mario, who had been dining with his friends at the cafe where Stepanka worked, slipped her a dollar tip with his business card tucked tightly inside. She called his number. They met.

“You’re bussing tables and you can’t speak English,” explains Stepanka, “And people are looking at you as though you’re secondary, you know? But for me that was always motivation to excel and learn more and get better. But Mario didn’t look at me at all like that. He saw me and wanted to help me and protect me and he was just… the nicest man ever.”

But Stepanka didn’t necessarily want Mario’s help. To struggle was how it was supposed to be in New York.

“I was homeless. And I never asked anything from him. He didn’t know I was homeless. I started staying at his place and sleeping at his place and at some point I had to tell him… because I was really homeless, and I had nowhere to go, and I finally told him because I was just… I was just… I was so afraid! I never wanted him to think that I wanted anything from him!”

“I never wanted someone to support me,” says Stepanka, remembering the dilemma of choosing between the generosity of a stranger or another semester of her impoverished ways.

But Mario’s generosity was ultimately irresistible for Stepanka. He invited her stay with him while she began to put her life together, and though a part of her felt reluctant, she chose to take his offer. Indeed she took more than just that. Mario and Stepanka lived together for 8 years, and finally married. Not necessarily for reasons of love, but rather, for a visa.

Mario was Stepanka’s cradle. “Why don’t you take classes,” he encouraged her. The Frenchman opened a doorway for the young Czech immigrant. Rather than snagging vulnerable little Stepanka and making her a victim, Mario wanted to see her grow.

“I just want you to excel,” Stepanka remembers him saying.

“And you know what was beautiful?” she recalls, glowing. “He saw me– he didn’t take advantage of me – he saw that I didn’t want to stay at home and cook for him. I wanted to do my own thing. The most amazing thing for me is to be independent.”

Through Mario’s doorway Stepanka’s hunger learned the kindness of a stranger in a new city, the power of money, how love hurts and heals and how ultimately, in spite of the pain, it helps one grow. The key turned, and Stepanka, 21 and still starving to be something greater than the daughter of a poor farmer, began to feel a passion flicker inside of her.

When Mario convinced her not to worry about money and start looking for her passion, she took up his offer to fund her education.

Stepanka was finally lucid about what came next.

Since her childhood Stepanka says that she had always possessed a private obsession for circles – the shapes that made up order on the farmhouse table back in Czech, the things that let her eat and drink, the cups and bowls, glasses and plates, spoons and saucers.

“When I was a child I always loved ceramics and it came to me…!” Stepanka exclaims, remembering how Mario lifted the pressure off of her and how he let her find her purpose.

She chose ceramics classes, and though Stepanka’s hunger had never been stronger, the hope of becoming a successful artist in Manhattan – especially as a potter – was one of those fragile topics that brought about a hard, stubborn doubt in the people around her.

Even Mario flatly disbelieved her when one day, after several classes, she declared, “I’ll make one hundred cups and sell them at the fair this weekend. I’m sure I can sell one hundred cups. Or I can at least sell some.”

But Stepanka was determined, and after 3 days and $4,000, Stepanka’s appetite began to fill. But the hunger didn’t stop. That was in 2001. Soon afterward she began taking classes at a ceramics studio at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College where she could have access to more space and produce more work. After a little more than a year, Columbia University offered her to teach classes and later to manage their studio.

For Stepanka, this went beyond all expectation.

“I just couldn’t even dream of it,” she says. “I mean – having a studio in Manhattan is something that I thought would never ever happen.”

Now, 16 years later, sitting on a stool in the quiet of her studio, Stepanka still reminds you of a weary little Cosette. Indeed the frail young woman from the Czech Republic might lead you to think that she is just another starving artist, chained to the work bench, with change in her pockets for barely two bagels to last her through the day, but you would be deceived.

Stepanka starves less than she used to.

Surrounding a dusty work bench in the center of her basement studio there is a massive wall divided into shy, modest shelves where hundreds of circles:  half-finished clay pots, upside-down bowls, colorful plates, urns, and glasses wait patiently for their turn, starving to get some attention from the meticulous hands of Stepanka Horalkva.

Stepanka is the manager of the studio at Columbia’s Teacher’s College. She works for the use of the space and sells her work online. She says that there’s more demand than she can handle.

Working away in the center of a large white room, Stepanka Horalkva wears a short girlish skirt. When she moves her head, her ponytail bounces playfully. There is a brilliant smile on her face that says something courageous and hopeful about her. Two prints of ink are stained into her skin. They show through her sleeveless top. One is a Japanese letter that means “love” and the other one is a gigantic circle tattoo-ed into the center of her back. Only a narrow crescent shows.

“I think a circle for me is a metaphor for life,” she explains. “Everything is a circle, you know?”

 

People around Manhattan still doubt the young Czech woman. Stepanka remembers going to a cocktail party and introducing herself as a Manhattan Artist. The man she was talking to looked at her as though she were a liar. He didn’t believe her. Being a potter in Manhattan defies the odds of almost-inevitable failure that so many assume to be the status quo in a city that is more notorious for swallowing starving artists than it is for letting them live.

Some New Yorkers might never know what it really means to feel filled up after being hungry just to be part of this American place – a place known for its chaotic, unfair, and tragic ways – to survive it all despite the starving. But Stepanka Horalkva knows that there is beauty in starving. She has lived it. Hard. Finally, she is full.

It is easy to grow up in America with the notion that the American Dream is about hard work and making heaps of money, not about hard work and finding your passion. It seems that the passion story often runs along the lines of this: to be a starving artist isn’t about hard work, it’s about starving. That narrative is a great misfortune to anyone with energy and passion to do their work for the sake of doing it.

Fortunately, Stepanka never cared to listen to it.

When I ask her what hard work means, she can’t answer. The question doesn’t make sense to the successful Manhattan artist.

“It’s not work,” she says. “It’s passion… I never do anything that doesn’t feel right. And I know that I will never ever fail.”

 

May, 2012

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