Of Innocence and Immigrants

It was ordained in 1973, but I had decided long before that.

Just as soon as I had my college diploma in hand, I would make a beeline back to California. It helped that the Beach Boys were falsetto-ing surfing songs while the Mamas and the Papas were literally endorsing my plans.

Knowing all too well of my goals, my parents personally drove me from Indiana to my native San Francisco. Mom and Dad  had moved us  “back East” to my dad’s hometown of Muncie, Indiana to open their own business when I was nine — old enough to have remembered what life was like in the Golden State. Although I was 21 and could legally do whatever I wanted, they informed me I had exactly two weeks to find a job and a place to live, or I’d have to go back with them. So I summoned every shred of determination rather than risk the bursting of parental bubbles.

With a fistful of dimes, the “help wanted’ section of the San Francisco Chronicle and my mother by my side, I survival-dialed from a sit-down payphone in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel. We weren’t staying at this high class establishment. It was just a lovely place to use a pay phone while being strategically located in case of impending interviews.

My degree was in secondary level teaching, 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 the 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 condition down; one to go.

Rents in San Francisco were pretty much out of my income range-to-be even in the early ’70s. Being of Greek descent, I unashamedly decided I would play the ethnic card when looking for living quarters. 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, where post-war San Francisco saw thousands of densly-placed  “row houses” built, each with a patch of grass in front that were mostly paved over by now.  The first referral was for a garden apartment whose windows faced a steep hill. The warped linoleum flooring and the lack of sunlight were not welcoming.

The second house was on 42nd Avenue near Fulton Avenue, way out by the beach, where I once frolicked with my brothers at the now condo’ed over Playland. A kindly lady, whom I will dub Mrs. M, greeted my mother and I, communicating in 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 sporting parasols perched atops the headboards.

The rent? $80 per month. I was good to go. I figured 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 I should “tough it out” now that I had made the decision to move so far away from them. Mom just had a worried look on her face.

I began getting used to the commute to the Financial District, bagging my lunch each day to save my earnings. Co-workers chuckled as I arrived with an umbrella in hand during my first week. After eleven years in Indiana, I had forgotten that overcast skies 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, took the ceremonial walk from the bus to my office and pretended that being an accounts payable clerk was an important job.  In my mind, the most important thing about it was that this job was in San Francisco.  This first foray into full-fledged adulthood was not quite what I had had in mind, but I reasoned it would have to do until I could find a path to a more satisfying existence.

Mrs. M sometimes offered breakfast or invited me to join her for dinner. At age 76, she moved slowly, kindly spoke haltingly to me (to which I mustered my best responses in broken Greek sentences) and never threw anything away that had been given to her.

I was convinced she was unaware of how some of her displayed memorabilia appeared to an outsider. In the breakfast room, the built-in breakfront boasted family photos, little porcelain ladies with parasols similar to the artwork in my bedroom, prizes from Cracker Jacks boxes and a number of items I could tell were given to her by family members. One was a plaster ashtray with a figure of a golfer posed ready to tee off. At the bottom was a saying, “ Old golfers never die – they just lose their balls.”

The living room was old-world-formal with overstuffed furniture surrounded by heavy silk drapery hanging 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 their hard-won success – an excess making it clear that they had “arrived” at last in the new world.

One night I heard my matron moaning. Terrified she might be having a heart attack, I banged 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 me to 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. M’s back.

Everyone Mrs. M conversed with on the phone spoke Greek, so I surmised she had no command of English whatsoever.  A college friend of mine visited and it was during that week I realized that Mrs. M. understood and could speak English better than I could speak Greek. The  minute my friend left, however, she spoke not a word of Engllish to me again. My Greek improved dramatically out of sheer necessity. Even having spent a year at an American college in Greece (where I defaulted to English whenever I could), did not result in as much fluency.

On a Saturday afternoon, I heard a conversation taking place from behind the toilet room door in the long hallway. Mrs. M’s 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 in 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 immigrant ladies occupying their respective thrones exchanging pleasantries.

Within eight months, I had saved enough money for a deposit on a little apartment. Mrs. M 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. I said my goodbyes and told her I would not be living far away and would keep in touch.

But I didn’t.

If it’s true that youth is wasted on the young, then never moreso than on me. Despite my best intentions, I was on a mission to go places and see things while some meaningful ties became abandoned, demonstrating my youthful insensitivity. A few years later, after I had begun boarding people onto planes at SFO, I phoned to inquire about Mrs. M. and found she had passed away.

I wonder if she knew how often I reminisced about my short time with her. The stock of immigrant women from whence she came would never exist again. I knew it in my heart of hearts.

I also knew that my new frontiers had become like to her too-long drapery —  meaningful success only to the person earning it.

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Filed under Dena's Lady Boomer Column and personal musings

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