“…‘Make yourself calm. Cleanse your mind of all needless thought and calculation. Travel to the center of your being and hold yourself there.’ ”
— Robert Silverberg, Lord Valentine’s Castle
Thirty-two-year-old Pavle Ikonic is doing an oddly formal kind of four-step, a version of the fox-trot possibly. It is a dance movement from two generations ago: aristocratic almost, genteel. He is a tall and handsome young man with sandy brown hair and fashionable blond highlights that may well be natural rather than daubed on in a salon. He is sweating. Ikonic is from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and has been sign-spinning (though he does not so much spin the advertisement but rather cradles and rocks it in time to his foot movements) since February of this year. Today is a cool and overcast Saturday in May. He started this line of work for H&R Block, which, unlike Liberty Taxes, requires no unusual getup. After tax season he went to work for Viva Pasta and its manager Florian Ritt on University Avenue near Sixth. Ikonic is wearing headphones and listening to something boss, either Couvine Bailey or Reeves Gabriels.
Ikonic has been in the United States since October of 2007. “I won a green-card lottery,” he says in his Eastern European Slavic accent that is not unpleasant. “Every year the United States government offers this all around the world. I was lucky enough last year. No money is involved. It cost me $700 to $800 dollars in taxes for receiving one. Then there were traveling expenses and airfare. Again about the same. But the green card enables you to work while you are here.”
Ikonic was educated in Belgrade, primarily in music and specifically jazz, but also has studied psychology. “I have also worked all kinds of job for a living. The economic situation in Yugoslavia is not that great. I have worked as an electrician for a while — the whole voltage thing is different here.” His musical instrument is guitar. He owns two electric guitars, a Fender Stratocaster Squire and a Carvin. “I also play a little piano.” Ikonic has taught music on occasion as well.
When asked who he likes as far as jazz musicians go, his smile widens and he says quickly, “Coltrane!” and laughs. “ ‘My Favorite Things!’ ” he adds and laughs again; it is a song from The Sound of Music, and Coltrane’s version is at least as famous as Julie Andrews’s.
As for the United States, “I love it. I was really surprised when I came here. The people are really nice. People are more polite here than in Yugoslavia.” I tell him that surprises me. The conversation reverts to music, and he tells me that much of what he listens to while spinning the sign for Viva Pasta is techno music. I tell him I am not a fan of the stuff, but I can see the utility of it for his kind of work.
“When I first started looking for a job over here,” he continues, “I would see sign-spinners all over the place, but it seemed to me most of them just stood there. I thought to myself, if I had to do this job, what if I did some [dance] moves? I remember thinking I would probably dance. Definitely. And then when I had my chance, working for H&R Block, I got my MP3 player and put in my Duran Duran and stuff and started dancing. I think I attracted more people than I would have otherwise.”
Did he ever study dancing? “No. I never studied, but I do actual dance moves, yes. I think of it as a musical thing. A musical job. Not marketing or advertising, although it is.”
Ikonic left Yugoslavia amidst much upheaval there. “Kosovo had separated from the rest of the country, claimed independence, and there were major demonstrations, major upheavals. Most people in my country felt that the right side of that issue was not our country’s but Kosovo’s. Even the American Embassy near me in Belgrade was stoned. They threw rocks because the Americans made this statement that Kosovo should be separate, and it really was a minority who disagreed. It is definitely a religious problem too. There are Muslims and Orthodox Christians involved. I am Orthodox Christian. It was violent. There was a lot of damage and many people were hurt, but mostly damage. It is not a very good situation over there right now.”
Does Ikonic get bored standing out on the sidewalk in front of this mini-mall all day?
“Not at all. I think it’s the best thing I can be doing right now. I am outside, and it is a chance to remain active. I remain moving, and it is a kind of self-expression.”
“Performance art?” I suggest, and he laughs.
“Yes. Performance art. I like that.”
Margaret Alvarez is 25 years old. She stands on the corner of University and Richmond in front of the Healthy Back. She holds a sign made of Styrofoam with the name of the store lettered in blue on white; it is lightweight but bulky and catches the stiff breezes angling off the intersection from all points of the compass. No elaborate dance moves or sign manipulation for the young Mexican-American, though wrestling the placard against the wind creates the impression she is brandishing the sign both deliberately and at random, but toward particular drivers. In fact, she may well be focusing in on one passerby or another at any given time, as she admits, “I like to watch people and their body language as they’re driving or riding by. I’m a people watcher, a people person in general.”
She may not be blatantly studying anyone from behind her horn-rimmed sunglasses, but the odds are, to one degree or another, she is. A college graduate from Seattle University, Alvarez studied both psychology and criminology. Undecided on a career, she is currently considering law school or work as a probation or parole officer. She works for the Healthy Back on weekends only. During the week, she will be working the phones at CVS Travel Agency. She lives in the South Bay with her mother and sister. Her headphones, this Sunday afternoon, are delivering the music of Irish folk musician Damien Rice.