A Story of an Immigrant and an Ungrateful Youth
It was ordained in 1973. The Beach Boys were falsetto-ing while the Mamas and the Papas were crooning me back to California. My purpose in life was singular.
Knowing all too well of my determination, my parents personally drove me from Indiana to San Francisco. Although I was 21 and could legally do whatever I wanted, they informed me that I had exactly two weeks to find a job and a place to live, or I’d have to go back with them. Rather than burst any parental bubbles, I summoned every shred of determination.
I had a fistful of dimes, the “help wanted’ section of the San Francisco Chronicle and my mother by my side while I survival-dialed from a sit-down payphone in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel. No, we weren’t staying there. It was just a lovely place to use a pay phone.
I was educated to teach French, but the jobs I was calling about were far from academic. I would take anything that would keep me in my beloved San Francisco. And after being sent on a few dead-end interviews that first week, I landed a full time job at a mortgage banking firm in an art-deco building on Sansome Street for $550 per month.
One requirement down; one to go.
Greeks network with other Greeks, and I was no exception. I called the two local Greek Orthodox churches and began asking around for elderly immigrant ladies looking for a renter. Both referrals I received were out in "the avenues." The first offered me a garden apartment whose windows faced a sloped backyard. The warped linoleum flooring and the dank, dark atmosphere were not what I had in mind.
The second house was on 42nd only a few houses away from Fulton Avenue, which bordered Golden Gate Park, way out by the beach. Mrs. Artemis Morphopoulos greeted my mother and I, speaking nothing but Greek as she led us back to a spare bedroom next to her own. The room had two twin beds with matching green bedspreads and pictures of ladies in turn-of-the-century garb over each headboard. The rent? $80 per month. I was good to go. I figured with all this money coming in, I could bank a lot of my earnings for my own little studio apartment before long.
Before he left, my father bought me a black and white TV set on a rolling stand, handed me $40 and wished me luck. He said that I should “stick it out” now that I had made the decision to move so far away from them. Even though I had relatives in the area, I knew my parents would worry, so I pledged to write them often.
I began getting used to the commute to the Financial District, bagging my lunch each day. Co-workers chuckled as I arrived with an umbrella during my first week. After eleven years in Indiana, I had forgotten that overcast mornings didn’t mean rain in the middle of a San Francisco summer. A rhythm took hold as I got up at the same time each morning, boarded a bus full of open newspapers, and worked an uninteresting job as I tried to establish my new existence. Adulthood at last. Not quite what I had in mind.
Mrs. Morphopoulos sometimes offered breakfast or invited me to join her for dinner. At age 76, she moved slowly, spoke only in Greek (to which I mustered my best responses in broken sentences and bad grammar) and I noticed she never threw anything away that had been given to her. I was convinced that she was unaware of how some of her memorabilia appeared to the outsider. In the breakfast room, the built-in breakfront boasted family photos, little porcelain lady figurines with parasols (similar to the artwork in my bedroom) and a number of chotchkies that must have been given to her by family members. Even a few stray Cracker Jacks prizes were displayed. One was a plaster ashtray with a figure of a golfer ready to make a putt. At the bottom was a saying, “Old golfers never die – they just lose their balls.”
In the living room, heavy silk drapery hung onto the floor. At least six inches of fabric splayed itself at the base of each drapery panel. I couldn’t understand why they had never been hemmed to the appropriate length, so one day I asked her daughter, who visited several times a week. The explanation was touching. Because immigrants like Mrs. M had so little when they arrived in this country, they were eager to display everything they had accumulated over the years to demonstrate their newfound prosperity. The extra fabric was a way to showcase success – an excess that made it clear that they had “arrived” at last in the new world.
One night I heard my matron moaning. Freaked out that she might be having a heart attack, I knocked on her door and asked what was wrong. “TSARLI HORS!!” was all she said. I asked her to repeat herself. “TSARLI HORS!” My Greek-American brain finally unscrambled her response. The old lady had an excruciating charley horse.
She asked that I call her daughter when it seemed evident her pain would not subside. Her daughter arrived and after a while, I peeked into her room to see if she was better. There, I saw a mustard plaster on Mrs. Morphopoulos’ back. Old world remedies were alive and well on 42nd Avenue.
During my stay with her, she spoke not a single word of English to me. Everyone she spoke to on the phone spoke Greek, so I surmised she had no command of English whatsoever.
One day I heard a conversation taking place from the toilet room in the long hallway. Her row house had about 10 inches of clearance from the house next door, whose mirror-image toilet room window faced her own. She was speaking in English with a very thick accent with the old lady next door, who had an obviously heavy Russian accent. “Halloh! How are yoo?” – to which the Russian lady answered, “How ees yore femly?”
It was too precious. Two elderly ladies, sitting on their respective thrones, panties around their ankles, being social.
Within eight months, I had saved enough money for a deposit on a little apartment. Mrs. Morphopoulos was beside herself that I could not keep her company any longer. I had moved on to a more interesting job and had set my sights on getting on with an airline at SFO, so my star was beginning to rise. I said my goodbyes and told her I would keep in touch.
But I didn’t.
Youth is wasted on the young. Despite our best intentions, we’re on a mission to go places and see things while meaningful ties go by the wayside before it’s too late to notice our lack of sensitivity. A few years later, after I began donning an airline uniform and boarding people onto planes at SFO, I inquired around about Mrs. Morphopoulos and found that she had passed away.
I wonder if she knew how often I reminisced about my short time with her.
My new frontier had become akin to her too-long drapery, successful in its own way, meaningful only to me.