First published in The Record, March 28, 2018
Death, Taxes and Transcendence
Never in the history of the world has a Statue of Liberty boogied like Alexander Jeremy Bernard. His performances are singularly ecstatic. Like the real Lady Liberty, Bernard is tall, handsome and classically proportioned. He stands 6 feet, 5 inches, with bony shoulders and long, tapered fingers. From his altitude, Bernard sees plenty of huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Unlike the original Statue of Liberty, which hasn’t budged from her concrete pedestal in New York Harbor since 1886, Bernard loves to dance. On a recent afternoon, Bernard was found at his job, on the sidewalk outside Liberty Tax Service on Main Street in downtown Hackensack. He wore a shimmering green robe. On his head sat a floppy foam crown, which resembled the Statue of Liberty’s crown if Lady Liberty got drunk, passed out and woke up with her head smushed against a dresser.
Under the crown, Bernard wore a pair of padded Mpow-brand earphones. He pressed “play” on his phone, flooding his ears with Dladla Mshunqisi and the Distruction Boyz, a South African group that makes hypnotic electronic dance music.
The Lady Liberty of Main Street began to shimmy. His hips wiggled. His heels kicked out from side to side. His head spun in a half-circle to the left, then spun back to the right. Each body part moved independently of all the rest except his hands, which tied it all together with pops and snaps.
“Eee! Eee! Eee!” said Bernard, 21, yelping to the music as he pranced.
Around him, the world moved grimly on with its duties. A trickle of people walked into the office of Liberty Tax Service to perform the drudgery of federal income tax compliance. Cars on Main Street honked and jostled. Pedestrians hustled to their next errands, chins tucked into their coats to shut out the cold.
Bernard was sweating-hot. His to-do list was short. He simply danced. He danced with such abandon he forgot to carry the Liberty Tax Service sign, failed to look up, failed to make eye contact with the people passing by.
“It’s the best thing a man can have, to dance and make a living at the same time,” Bernard said.
As a walking advertisement for Liberty Tax Service, Bernard’s performances are merely adequate.
As a reminder that joy remains as essential to a well-lived human life as air and water, the Lady Liberty of Main Street is transcendent.
“I see him down here all the time,” said Chris Arciniegas, 21, a Bogota resident who drove to Hackensack to buy hair gel. “He’s just so happy. I love to see it.”
Every year at this time, thousands of people take up posts along highways and intersections across North America, waving signs for tax preparation shops. In the United States, those who work for Liberty Tax Service wear a gown of thin green fabric and a foam crown scrunched onto their heads with four elastic straps. In Canada, the costume is a floppy red maple leaf, which is adorable.
Most sign wavers just stand around. A few seem almost aggressively sad, especially on wet and cold days, when their robes turn brown and their drooping crowns get obscured under layers of hats and hoods. Their sadness makes total sense. The job combines low pay, no opportunity for advancement and the looming specter of April 15, when every tax prep sign waver inevitably gets fired.
“Listen, it’s hard to get people to do this job,” said David Bernstein, who owns the Liberty Tax office on Main Street in Hackensack. “The best quality of a waver is if they show up every day. Second is if they actually work.”
Bernard has worked for Bernstein four months a year for the last four years. He is paid $10 an hour, four hours a day. The job gives no health insurance, but it does offer flexibility.
“I don’t ask them to dance. I ask them to wave,” Bernstein said. “I don’t ask them to show up in the rain and snow. If it’s too cold out, I ask them to stay home.”
Bernard meets these low requirements, but only just. His approach to the job might best be described as loose. On a chilly Tuesday recently, Bernard appeared at Bernstein’s office a few minutes after his 2 p.m. shift was scheduled to start. He strolled to the back room, where he took his time donning his green robe, which appeared to have coffee stains down the front.
He grabbed the Liberty Tax sign, which is made of white corrugated plastic. Then he walked outside, placed the sign on the ground, and fiddled with his phone.
A man drove by in a white Jeep Cherokee, spotted Bernard, and honked. Bernard couldn’t hear the horn over his music. He did not look up. He spun his thumb past Mr Killa and Buju Banton, two Jamaican dance-hall musicians, before landing on Dladla Mshunqisi.
“I’ve been working on my freestyle!” Bernard said, shouting over the music as his legs began to twitch.
Bernard danced for a while. He performed a slow pirouette. He kicked kung fu kicks like Elvis in late career. At one point his legs traced the salsa, while simultaneously his hips did the cha-cha, his head performed a hip-hop pop-and-lock, and his hands flicked as if to disco.
His torso remained perfectly still.
It was incredible.
“It’s like he doesn’t have a care in the world,” said Jim Dolack, who watched Bernard from inside his shop, Merit Trophies & Engraving, two doors down from Liberty Tax.
“He’s the most energetic Statue of Liberty I’ve ever seen,” said Deana Dolack, Jim’s sister and co-owner.
Soon, Bernard got antsy. At 4:45 p.m. he went inside, removed his costume, then wandered off in search of snacks. He returned at 5:15 p.m. carrying three bottles of orange juice and a Black & Mild Filter Tip cigarillo. He replaced his costume and walked outside, where for a few minutes he smoked, drank juice and danced. Then he walked back inside and locked himself in the bathroom for 15 minutes.
“Every day I tell Alex, ‘Alex, do not take a break between 5 and 6. Because that’s the time we have people out on the street,’” Bernstein said. “And look now. It’s 5:10, and where is he? Every day this happens.”
Bernard’s excellent dancing and his poor time management skills occupy two sides of the same nickel. His favorite spot to work is the corner of Main and Mercer streets, he said, where the railroad tracks offer a break in the streetscape, giving drivers more time to watch his amazing moves.
The drivers could see Bernard dancing by the train tracks, but his boss could not. Absent constant oversight, Bernard often abandoned his post.
“More people can see me there” by the tracks, said Bernard, who attributes his wandering focus to ADHD. “But my boss wants me here so he can see me. I used to roam away.”
Still, if a waver’s job is to attract attention to Liberty Tax, Bernard is a success. Every few minutes as he danced in front of the shop, another motorist spotted him. Many smiled. A few beeped their horns.
“Everybody knows him,” Deana Dolack said.
Outside, Bernard’s body moved in complicated ways. He cocked his head to the right, then swayed his entire body to the left. As Distruction Boyz played in his headphones, Bernard closed his eyes and sang along.
“Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” he said.
Bernstein looked out the window and watched.
“Believe me,” Bernstein said. “He’s no Frank Sinatra.”
The lovely ballerina was not swayed by Koza’s grand gestures, like running across the Rocky Mountains or the Alps. What mattered were the small things.
He showed up.
He paid attention.
He listened, and acted on what he heard.
“I was dating people because they had accomplished something. But Slava didn’t have any of those things,” Dronova said. “This person may not be famous or rich, but he has a good heart.”
The start of this love story seemed as improbable as its finale. Dronova and Koza met in 2009 when they were introduced by their mothers, who were friends. They ended up at The Cheesecake Factory in Hackensack.
“I think we really connected,” Koza said.
He is wrong, Dronova said. The date was awful. Slava was good-looking, she said, and he seemed nice. But he sat with his body turned away from her, his eyes cast downward at the table.
He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes ― something he told her he routinely does when his chess students misbehave. Later he walked her to her car, said “Bye!” and walked away.
“He seemed really smart and nice, but super shy,” Dronova said. “I could tell didn’t have a lot of social interactions with girls.”
They went on another date, to the movies, and that was all. Koza continued teaching chess and living with his parents in Bergenfield. Dronova continued touring the world as a dancer. They texted occasionally. Dronova made clear she had no interest in dating.
“I thought we could be friends,” she said.
Koza, meanwhile, believed he had met his soulmate, and lost her. Dronova seemed so kind, so smart, so beautiful. He went on dates with other women, but none compared to the ballerina. How could he get another chance?
Koza was jogging near his parents’ house when a thought occurred to him.
“People say they would go to the ends of the earth for love,” he said. “But they’re not trying to make it a reality. What if I turn it into a real thing?”
So he did it. Starting in April 2012 in Dillon Beach, Calif., north of San Francisco, and ending 118 days later at Lincoln Center in New York City, Koza ran 3,055 miles.
Here’s the craziest thing: He never told Dronova about the run. And he never said it was for her.
“Why didn’t I tell her? Well, it seemed crazy,” he said. “We didn’t know each other. It would seem weird and out of the blue.”
There was another reason.
“If I didn’t tell her it was for her,” Koza said, “there was still hope.”
A proposal overlooking the Rhone
He kept his secret for a year. Finally, in 2013, he texted the news to Dronova one night before flying to Europe to start his second run, 838 miles across Great Britain.
Koza may have been naïve about women. But his guess about how Dronova might react was spot-on.
“I said, ‘What? That’s crazy!’ ” she said. “Our dates didn’t go well. You don’t know me. So why are you still pursuing me?”
Koza completed his Britain run. A year later, he ran across France. He chose the country because Dronova often says she was born with a French heart, and also to prove a point about her French boyfriend.
“There you go. There’s France,” he said. “What does that French guy say now?”
The runs did not make Dronova fall in love. But they did get her attention.
“I had this boyfriend I was giving all my time to, and he was not willing to do anything for me,” Dronova said. “And this other guy who doesn’t know me, he went and ran across France only because I said I love France.”
In 2015 Koza ran across Cuba and Ireland, all for Dronova. She did not care. But while he was abroad, Koza bought her favorite soaps and skin lotions, which she couldn’t find in the States. When food poisoning sent her to a hospital, Koza left work to visit her in the emergency room.
“He showed up,” Dronova said. “When Slava said he wanted to be with me, he actually meant it.”
On May 31, Koza completed the final cross-country run of his five-year courtship. He ran 310 miles from Müstair in eastern Switzerland to the western border with France. Dronova was waiting there, on a bridge over the Rhone River. They kissed, and then walked uphill to Restaurant Le Virage, which overlooks the river valley.
Koza’s knees hurt. His feet were swollen. He did not care. Outside the restaurant, he dropped to one knee and proposed. She cried, and said yes.
“I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said in a phone call from Switzerland that night. “I’m so happy!”
Now that Koza has won the ballerina’s heart, he says his cross-country running career is over. He plans to take dance lessons.
“It’s terrific,” Koza said of the successful proposal. “It justifies everything.”