As is my custom, after I read the Trisagion (Memorial Pray) at my parent’s grave, I then go to the older Greek section of Cypress Hills Cemetery to first pray over the final resting place of my childhood companion, Nick Gardelis. He was killed in action in Vietnam, in 1970. We were over there at the same time, but in different Army units. Nick had written me a short letter, stoically predicting his own death. My mother waited until I was home to confirm, that he did indeed make the supreme sacrifice, and that her mother, my grandmother, Yiayia Eleni had also passed away. My last visit is to the gravesite of my grandparents. On this windy, late October day it was the name day of Saint Demetrios (James or Jim in English). My grandfather’s tombstone is engraved James Alexander, but in the Brooklyn neighborhood of my childhood he was known solely as Jimmy the Greek.
He died in January of ’55, when I was barely six-years-old. However, my remembrance of him is so vivid that he could have departed yesterday. He didn’t live to see his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers finally win a World Series from the mighty New York Yankees, in the autumn of his passing. There was not a more passionate fan of the “Brooklyn Bums,” as they were affectionately called, than my papoo. One time, he was able to hold on to some money long enough to outfit his three oldest grandchildren in Dodger uniforms. We would accompany him to one of the various bars that he frequented and be introduced as his “gang.” He would have a “quick one,” before taking us to Prospect Park.
Yes, Jimmy the Greek loved his “Kosciusko.” That’s what he called the bottle of booze that he tried to hide from his wife in the small railroad flat where we all lived. Whenever Yiayia Eleni could find the bottle, she would empty out some of it and then fill it back with vinegar or salt. When papoo, in the middle of the night sneaked a nip of the adulterated alcohol, he would spit it out as well as spitting out a string of Greek curses that he learnt as a young seaman in Greece.
Another time, yiayia, who didn’t like to waste electricity, had fallen asleep in the only bathroom we had. Papoo coming home late that night went into the darken bathroom to have a nightcap. From this new and yet undiscovered hiding place in the bottom of the clothes hamper, he retrieved his “prized nectar.” At the sound of the bottle being uncorked, yiayia awoke and screamed. Papoo dropped the bottle, which broke on the tile floor. He cursed a blue streak, waking even the neighbors upstairs, declaring that the devil must have put her there. I never felt the threat of papoo hitting yiayia; she was built like a Sherman Tank.
In many ways those days were innocent times. Most of the houses and apartments on our block could be opened with the same type of skeleton key that everyone possessed. Neighbors that we knew were honest and sometimes even a little naïve. There was Mary; she would come over to tell fortunes with playing cards. Her fur coat carried the heavy smell of mothballs. What puzzled me then as a little boy was that for all the times that she read the cards, she always foresaw a good destiny. Whenever she seemed on the verge of seeing a bad occurrence – she would curl her tongue and quickly reshuffle the cards and make it turn out okay. She would endlessly talk about her grown children in the same house with her; Karl, Walter, Henrietta, and even her canary, Pretty Boy. My older brother John would entertain her by mimicking the bird’s whistle.
One summer day, papoo was walking by Mary’s house while she was sitting on the front porch. Mary asked “what’s wrong Jimmy?” Hearing him moan out quite loud and seeing that he had his hand to his cheek. Papoo complained that he had a bad toothache. In those days a home remedy for tooth pain was a shot of whisky swallowed after first letting the strong drink first numb the infected area. So, kind-hearted Mary invited papoo into her home for the cure. A few days later, Mary bumped into my mother at the A & P. She asked about papoo and his toothache, saying that it must have been very severe because he had drank half the bottle of Four Roses. Mom laughed when she told us later over supper that she somehow managed to keep a straight face as she thanked Mary for helping her father. She explained that she didn’t have the heart to tell Mary that papoo hadn’t had a tooth in his mouth for the last ten years.
There were so many of us living in that small apartment that my mother was constantly rearranging furniture, in an attempt to accommodate the growing children, her parents and dad. One night she decided to switch the furniture in the living room with that of the girl’s bedroom. The problem was that the doorways were narrow and the kitchen was in the middle of the apartment. When my father and brother John tried to lift a couch pass the kitchen it got wedged overhead by the refrigerator with the legs extending sideways. I recall running back and forth underneath the couch. No matter what my father and John tried to do, they just couldn’t get it free. Papoo went to Al’s candy store on the corner, to get help. At the store, they certainly didn’t believe papoo, that a “couch was stuck on the ceiling.” They just thought that he had too much to drink. However, two of his friends offered to walk him home. It then became four men trying to get the couch unstuck. After a futile half hours work, they finally listened to my mother’s suggestions and were able to turn it free in an instant.
Yes, Jimmy the Greek had a weakness for drink, and he certainly wasn’t an Ivy Leaguer, but his fifty-six years of life was anything but tea and crumpets. He was an orphan from the Laconian village of Kresmasti. People on the island of Hydra who let him keep his family name of Alexandrakos adopted him. He frequently sailed back and forth to Africa before finally coming to America. He had a hot dog stand outside Kings County Hospital. That spot cost him two dollars a day for the cop on the beat – whether or not he made that much money that day. When his horse became lame and was put away, he pulled the cart himself, sometimes to the accompaniment of taunts from passing automobile drivers, until he could afford another horse.
Papoo had Peter Lorre’s large watery eyes, the roughest unshaven face and the softest feelings for his grandchildren. His Sunday morning pancakes were so heavy that we called them pound cakes, but they were heavenly delicious. When he cooked fish, he ate the head, calling it brain food. Every so often, when he had a few dollars, large tins of feta cheese in their own milk, gotten off ships from Greece would appear in the refrigerator. Papoo would also stock the family up with Kalamata Olives and good olive oil. He enjoyed the simple pleasure of listening to the Prodromides Radio Show for the music and news from the old country. One special Christmas, he gave me my first bicycle.
I don’t hear them call anyone Nick the Greek, or Jimmy the Greek, much anymore. I guess that’s progress of a sort and maybe ethnic tags belong in the past. But, it is also my legacy and I don’t shrink from it. I remember those days when we had less, but we also had so much more.
So, Jimmy the Greek, on your name day I pray for your soul. I whisper that the 1998 Yankees won the World Series in four straight games this year, but heart for heart they couldn’t match the ’55 Brooklyn Bums. My papoo, I can only hope that you and yiayia now buried together for eternity, are finally getting along.
As I head down the gentile hill to the car, I see a flock of geese flying overhead, in formation, across the darkening sky. Squirrels are scampering up and down trees. The leaves are changing to bright fall colors. I don’t feel the chill in the air, only the sweet warmth of remembrance.