Growing up in Greek America, all the Greek grown-ups in my life, struggling immigrants like my parents, seemed to my childish eyes, like part of one big extended family. No wonder I bestowed the honorary appellation of "Thio" or "Thia" (Uncle and Aunt) on all of them whether or not they happened to share any familial connection to me. They seemed so much like my own parents, in countless ways, that there was no denying some sort of mystical, unbreakable linkage existed between us.
After all they reveled in doing things that appeared so strange to normal people. Normal people didn't stare at the sediment in an empty demitasse cup of Turkish coffee trying to divine the future. They didn't carry lighted candles home from the midnight Resurrection service to burn the sign of the Cross above the doorway of their front door. You never heard our American neighbors singing nostalgic off key songs about faraway little villages with unpaved streets and barefoot children. Normal people didn't do that sort of thing, only Greek immigrants like my parents and their gaggle of like-minded countrymen, far from home.
Families, when they weren't going to school or work or church, were going to each other's homes where the women competed to see who could cook more food and the men competed to see who could tell the tallest stories. These gatherings were vociferous to say the least, punctuated by the incessant chatter of men, women and children. The aromas and the sounds of music that wafted through those homes could transport the adults there to another time and place. One that was essentially lost to them, never to return except in their imagination and fading memory.
Thio Kosta and his wife Eusebia, which means "piety" in Greek, were close friends of my parents. Thia Eusebia had grown up with my mother in Constantinople and Thio Kosta, like my father, was from Northern Epirus. They were all refugees in the second Greek migration from Turkey after the Pogrom of '55. Thio Kosta, one of the hardest working men I ever met, was the closest thing I ever had to a papou, since I never had a chance to meet either one of my grandfathers. He was the first person to introduce me to the world of work and more importantly, to the nobility of failure.
Thio had a dream. To rise above his station in life. America represented his chance to become a business owner, to be his own boss, to leave something tangible behind for his family, to be somebody. In America he worked at menial jobs, anything to feed his family and save enough to invest in a business venture. Thio and Thia scrimped and saved as only the immigrants of their generation could. They lived in a small walk up apartment in a tenement building located in what was once a Greek ghetto on the west side of midtown Manhattan. In the 1940s and ’50s, the streets of the neighborhood affectionately known as Hell’s Kitchen were sprinkled with Greek businesses, so much so that the neighborhood’s newsstands carried no fewer than three Greek-American dailies. Today, about all that remains of Manhattan’s Hellenic outpost is a spanakopita bakery, a restaurant, a grocery and a little collection of Greek books and artifacts in a dusty antique store at Ninth Avenue and West 43rd Street. It was an area that, in its heyday boasted the only Greek owned department store named after its owner and founder, Prodromidis. It was a place where Greek immigrants could shop with the helpful guidance of Mr Prodromidis himself. I remember in the back there were booths in which one could listen to 78 RPM vinyl records with the latest hits of artists like Nikos Gounaris and the Trio Bel Canto. The store was arrayed with Greek products of every type including icons of Christ, the Panagia and assorted Saints that stared down at you as you walked through the store. Their eyes had a piercing quality to them as if they could gaze into your heart, yet their countenance seemed to me, always serene and merciful.
We were frequent visitors to that apartment on the fourth floor of a dingy tenement building at the end of what felt like a interminable climb up long flights of stairs. It was small, cozy, and warm. In it, you were transported immediately to a simple Greek home that could have just as easily been in any part of the Greek world as in the middle of Manhattan. Its two windows did not enjoy an expansive view of the mountains or sea but overlooked instead a large air shaft in the middle of the building which towered over what seemed like a dark foreboding abyss below. I always felt at home and content in that apartment, safe from the tumult of the city with its incessant cacophony and never ending activity which could be rather scary even for the bravest of eight year olds. Thio's son, Mike was in high school, a gifted soccer player, he towered over me. Secretly, I prayed that someday I too might be as tall and as athletic as he was.
Thio's chance to break into the big time came on a family outing to Rockaway Beach. Back in those days a family of meager means could rent a small room with a kitchenette in one of the many inns in the neighborhood that bordered the long boardwalk and beach along the Atlantic coast. That fateful day, Thio Kosta and Thia Eusebia rode the subway for an hour and a half from Manhattan to the Rockaway peninsula in far off Queens to visit our family. After a sunny, hot day at the beach we went back to our little apartment to enjoy a feast prepared by Mama and Thia. In the coolness of the evening all of us went for a stroll down the wooden boardwalk serenaded by the crashing waves. Baba and Thio took turns giving me dimes and nickels to play the arcade games. As we walked, Thio spied a green shack on the beach with a For Sale sign on it. It was as if he had discovered a sea chest filled with golden dubloons. He could talk of nothing else for the rest of the evening except converting what was to others a derelict wooden shack into a thriving ice cream and candy stand. He pictured it teeming with long lines of thirsty and hungry beach goers holding dollar bills in their sweaty little hands which they would gladly trade for an ice cream cone or bottle of soda. What could go wrong?