Sunday, March 13, 2011

Chapter IV - 'Chees bourger ena Coke!'

New York Harbour
New York in the late 40s must have been quite a place. The Flatiron building was still one of the tallest in the area and billboards would have decorated the streets like so many Christmas ornaments inviting people to eat, work and play. Rudy Burckhardt’s ‘Coca Cola Goddess’ at Astor Place would have smiled down on the multitudes, rosy-cheeked and thrilled to have her beverage in hand.

One might have taken in a double-feature at the Apollo Theatre or headed on in to one of the many lower level bars for some jazz where nicely dressed black men and sultry songstresses played cool to the regulars and some newbies. In the 40s, there would have been kids reading comic books on the corners of sidewalks lined with black Fords, De Sotos and Cadillacs.

A constant cacophony of traffic, advertisement, music and mayhem would have been an apt description of New York then (and now for that matter) and somewhere among it all was the little Greek diner where my Papou had been working. He, like so many others just out of the service or fresh off the boat, was working as a short order cook in some greasy spoon, catering to the clamouring customers sitting on red vinyl stools or in wooden booths from which cigarette smoke fumed like so many factories of the day.

Rudy Burckhardt's
Coca Cola Goddess 1947
My father still has the miniature Greek/English dictionary that Papou had when he arrived in America and what is interesting about it are the notes jotted down in the margins. These consist of little survival phrases such as 'Cook man', to describe his profession or my favourite, ‘Chees bourger ena’ Coke’. I don’t know if he came up with the latter himself after hearing it several times or if some navy buddy of his told him to say that anywhere if he wanted to get something to eat. I suppose it would have been near impossible to get moussaka, a nice plate of village horta (wild greens) or spearmint keftethakia (meatballs) on the streets of New York then so naturally, he would have made due with what could have been considered the native cuisine at the time.
Cheeseburger and a Coke
Whatever food he made or was able to eat, wherever he might have found himself, to Papou, New York City would have been a mad place that might have made him wonder at times if he had done the right thing now that the war was over. The peace and calm and colour of the Aegean, of Chios and the village of Lagada must have made for an unreal contrast. But the war was over and now Paul (his new American name, as it were) Haviaras awaited his wife whom he had not seen for eight years and the son he had never met.