By Neal Pollack
Boris Gursky, an 81-year-old retired television dealer who was born in Ukraine and now lives in Alsip, has been stepped on by a horse, witnessed a fatal midair collision, and suffered from appendicitis, chronic nosebleeds, whiplash, and gallstones–his body is scarred from numerous operations. His stepfather tried to murder him, and his wife threatened him with a loaded pistol. His south-side Zenith dealership provided him a comfortable living and honest, stimulating work, but he had to close it in 1989, partly because he had prostate cancer. “My body had become so sensitive from staying too long in an environment surrounded with radiation from television sets.” All this according to his autobiography, The Perilous Life of Boris B. Gursky, which he’s just had published for $10,000.
Gursky now lives by himself in a three-story, eight-room house full of mementos–diplomas, photographs, old hi-fi equipment, and lots of Zenith products, posters, and promotional flyers. A glass cabinet in his living room contains a copy of the Pledge of Allegiance and a framed poster that reads “Live for Today, Dream for Tomorrow, Learn from Yesterday.” He still does 50 pushups a day and eats a lot of cereal. “It is what I eat every day,” he says. “It is my life.”
The first seven pages of his book cover his family’s growing fears about Stalinist purges, but they escaped from Ukraine in 1928 by simply applying for a visa to Mexico. Once there he spent two years as a leather worker and as a member of the Confederacion Regional Obrera Mexicana, a major Mexican labor union. Then his family moved to Juarez, where he became a shoe-leather salesman, sang Russian folk songs for a weekly radio program in El Paso, Texas, and learned how to repair radios through a correspondence course. This narrative is broken up by a three-page history of radio and a brief mention of his brother-in-law’s disappearance while seeking work in the Chihuahuan coal mines.
On page 40 Gursky reveals that his mother was raped by Bolsheviks, and that the man he’s referred to as his father up to this point, Gnat Gursky, is not. “I respected him mostly because I feared him,” he writes. “He had hit me and his hands were like hammers. He never gave me a penny and never took me to the movies or for a friendly walk–though I called him Father my whole life, he never had a kind word for me.” Gnat’s plot to murder Gursky is then described for about a page, though Gnat’s motive isn’t at all clear.
In 1939 Gursky moved his shoe-leather business across the border to El Paso, where he promptly fell in his bathtub and knocked his leg out of its socket. In 1942 his mother, Mariana, died of a stomach ailment, and Gursky sold his business and enlisted in the army. He was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he learned to drive a Sherman tank and dislocated his leg again cleaning the barrack showers. “This time,” he writes, “I knew what to do, and pushed my knee firmly and painfully back into the socket.” At North Camp Polk, Louisiana, he was promoted to corporal but then collapsed from exhaustion during a training maneuver in the swamps and spent a month in the hospital before being discharged.
In 1946 Gursky, now 31, moved to Chicago, taking a room at the YMCA on Division Street. “I heard that if you couldn’t find a job or make money in Chicago, you couldn’t do it anywhere,” he writes. Sure enough, his training in radio repair secured him a good job.
He writes that by this time he was ready to start a family. He met a woman named Lillian at a neighborhood dance and married her soon after. But she had tuberculosis, and they thought they couldn’t have children. However, eventually Lillian’s tuberculosis cleared up, and they had two children. The family moved to the south side, where Gursky opened his television dealership. He says Zenith named him one of its top ten dealers in the Chicago area in 1970.
Gursky covers a lot of ground in the last 40 pages of the book. Lillian disapproved of his working in the same building where he lived, and he demanded that she do nothing but stay home and take care of the children. “Our relationship became uncontrollable, something I had never imagined happening,” he writes. “The only possible reason I can think of was my poor condition after all those operations, after being sick and dedicating my time to the business.” In 1964 he asked for a divorce. “Her first action after that was to walk over to me and claw my face with her fingernails. I still carry the scars on my face from this, on the left side, close to my eye.” He also lost custody of his children.
Not having much to do after he retired 25 years later, he started his autobiography, writing longhand on a yellow pad. “Everything came to my head, from when I was a little boy up. It was so clear. I started writing. And it came out perfect.”
He’d seen an ad for Vantage Press in Writer’s Digest and sent off a draft. “Little by little it happened,” he says. “They sent me a special book about how everything is supposed to be written and so on. Typed, even spacing, and everything. They were very nice to me. They told me what to do–corrections. They said some of the words I used I might be liable for. They said, ‘Don’t do that.’ I had to change a lot. They told me everything, and they corrected everything else.”
It cost him $10,000, but that doesn’t bother him. “Whatever they told me, I would pay to them,” he says. “It was worth it to me regardless. Even if it had been $100,000, no problem. No problem. I don’t know how I make all that money. Sometimes I can’t believe it myself. I still have plenty. It’s in me, see? When I start doing something I never quit. I keep doing it, doing it, day and night, doing it until I finish. I’ve been like that all my life. I am very fortunate. I did not know who would risk publishing the story of my perilous life. But I always finish what I set out to do. That is my way.”
He sent the book to a lot of people, including everyone in the United States with the last name of Gursky. A copy is now in the permanent collection of the Alsip library. The copy that went to the White House included a letter that ended, “So far I survive but I am on a very expensive medication for Life. God bless Medicare and Blue Cross Blue Shield. On 12-9-95 is my Birthday 81 years of age, and I am in A very good shape yet. You are very busy in your job. If you find time please read my BOOK, I thank you.”
He says he hopes people come away with a clear message. “Life is perilous, and you must save and save and save. I know these things. I fell off the ladder over here last year while I was cleaning the gutters, and I busted my rear. I had another surgery. This happened after the book. That is why I say that the perilous life has never ended.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.