|April Is A Good Month
By Akrivoe Emmanouilides
April is a good month in Manhattan. When you walk through Central Park there are little flowers popping up all around and the trees aren't as bare and brown as they were just a week before. People smile a bit - not much mind you - but every once in a while somebody breaks down and gives a little grin. I like April - it surprises you. Some freaky years there could be snow, like last year in the middle of Passover week, but the April I'm going to tell you about was good, warm in that tricky way that says "Don't get too comforable but enjoy this day while you can."
I was selling jewelry out of a little place on 8th Avenue - 8th and 44th. The neighborhood wasn't the greatest, but there are worse. You could still see a double feature up on 42nd for a buck, eat a decent meal at the Parthenon, and meet the guys for a beer or two at Jack's. No big deal, but I'm not fussy, pretty easy to please, I guess. We would joke around a little, look at the girls, and if there was one that gave us a signal - well, it was worth a try. I met Frances that way. She didn't look like a 'Frances," still doesn't. We had a good time every once in a while. Things were simpler then, I think, but maybe not.
It was April 1950, just after I met Francie. We finally got married in '55 - Thank you God - so April is special for me, and every year I think about all the different Aprils, and some I remember better than others.
My store was jammed in between a shop that sold records, newspapers, gifts, miscellaneous stuff, and a hot dog joint. Both were run by Greeks like lots of the places on 8th Avenue. Those people worked as hard as anyone I've ever met - maybe harder - and they were a lively bunch. When they were working, forget it - they didn't stop for anything else. But afterwards, they had a great time eating and arguing, dancing and drinking. Not in the business, mind you, but down at the 8th Avenue night spots. That's where the sailors went to listen to the music and eat the food that was like the old country.
The Greeks liked me well enough so I got invited more than a few times to the Acropolis or T he Grecian Gardens. They weren't exactly the classiest night clubs, just big plain spaces with pictures of the sea or Greek ruins on the walls, lots of wooden tables and chairs, and waiters who treated you as if they were doing you a favor to take your dough. Most of the customers were men, and you got the feeling that they'd rather be there than wherever it was they lived. Once in a while there would be a few couples who came to eat and listen to the music. The music was what made those places special.
Down front, on a little stage four or five guys played instruments they had brought with them when they came over on the boat: clarinet, mandolin, bouzouki, drum, maybe a violin. And there was always one woman who kept time on a tamboruine. She was never skinny - I figues that Greeks like their women strong and healthy - and when she wasn't slapping the tambourine she stared out at the customers with a blank grin, looking as if she wished she was someplace else.
Even though I didn't understand the words, my pals told me that the songs were about leaving home to go to sea, their weeping mothers, loneliness, unrequited love, even war and death - cheerful stuff like that.
In my business things are slow mid-week, and it hadn't been one of my better days. The guy was short and dark and wore a brown double-breasted suit and hat. His nose looked as if it might've met the end of a boxer's glove a while back, and he walked with a cocky swagger. There was something familiar about him, but in this neighborhood dozens of short, dark and not too well dressed guys come in looking for a job or change or the men's room.
The girl was much younger, a good looking redhead who couldn't have been more than tweny-one. She wore a navy blue dress under a neatly tailored checked wool coat. They weren't what I'd call a 'perfect match,' but what do I know?
"What can I do for you folks today?"
"We want a wedding ring, just a simple gold band, for her."
I pulled out a box of rings and showed them a few I thoughty they could afford - nothing over $50.
"How do you like this one, honey?" The redhead let him try it on her right hand. "I like it very much, Nick, and it fits well."
"She'll wear it," Nick said. Kinda funny, no? You think they'd wait for the wedding, wouldn't you?
He handed me $50 and pocketed the box. The girl whispered something to Nick, and he noddded.
"We've just come to New York and our things are being sent on. Do you know a place where we can stay for a few days?"
"Even though it was still early the girl looked tired and worred and like she needed to sleep.
"There's a big old hotel up on Columbus, just west of Central Park that always has rooms. It's seen better days but it's near the subway, it's reasonable, and they don't ask questions. Give them this card and I'm sure they'll find you something."
They grabbed a cab headed crosstown.
I saw them again a couple of Saturdays later. Both my hot dog neighbors were named George, and they celebrated their nameday on April 23. To Greeks namedays are more important than birthdays and they invite all their friends to eat and drink and dance with them. Both guys were bachelors who lived out in Astoria so they collected everyone they knew at The Grecian Gardens which was like a second home anyway.
Nick and the redhead were sitting at a corner table that was spread with little plates of appetizers: (fried squid and smelts, feta cheese and olives, grilled lamb's liver, and a basket of crunchy bread.) She had a glass of wine and he had a bottle of beer. She was still wearing that blue dress and he hadn't change his suit. The ring was on her left hand now. They recognized me, but my guys were playing host so I couldn't very easily get up until we'd had a drink or two together.
"Did you find the Everett alright?"
"Yes we did, thanks. It's just as you said it was," she smiled. "It must have been an impressive place once. I've never seen such a big bathtub." Nick pulled out a chair. "Care to join us for a drink?" The Georges were dancing and losing themselves in memories. Greek men dance with their souls, and even if a dancer is all alone on the floor he pours out all his loneliness and pain and doesn't care who's watching. He doesn't see anyone. It's a private love affair between him and the music.
He introduced himself as Nick Stavros and her name was Aliki. He had an accent but it wasn't like the other Greeks - more polished maybe, even educated. He had traveled a lot on merchant ships but since he'd found this 'wonderful girl' he was going to settle down at a steady job and take care of her. It came out that they'd eloped because her parents didn't exactly aprove of him, and as soon as some details were straightened out they would get married. I figured the ring was needed for appearances.
She didn't say much, just kept time to the music, nibbled at the food, and looked at him as if everything he said was unforgettable. I gave them my phone number and went back to the double Georges.
Once in a while I'd see him next door reading a Greek newspaper; he didn't seem to be in a particular hurry. She had found a job down in Washington Square at NYU, but he said the right opportunity had not turned up for him.
Next thing I see him grilling hamburgers in a winow on Lexington when I went over to Bloomingdales to get my mother a birthday gift. He waved me to come inside.
"This is just until I can get into the union and get a job in one of the big hotels. I speak four languages and they can use people with my skills. We've found an apartment and want you to come for dinner - how's next Sunday?" I took the address and wondered if Aliki had been able to get a new dress.
The apartment was in the basement of an old brownstone on 80th. It was one large room with a closet-size kitchen. The landlady had furnished it with less bad taste than usual, and there weren't too many personal things around. Whatever we were having smelled good. We drank cheap wine and talked about New York and what we were all doing there.
Turned out that she and I were both from Philly - Philadelphia - and that we'd gone to the same high school but at different times. We lived a couple of miles away from each other but there was no way that we could have met. Her folks sounded as if they were pretty strict, and nice Greek girls didn't ever get acquainted with nice Jewish boys unless they were their girlfriends' brothers - and I didn't have a sister. She'd found a job working for a professor at NYU and talked about the people she'd met in the office. Most of the names didn't mean much to me but I took her word that they were somebodies.
I'd finished high school, done my time in the service and come to Manhattan to get rich. I still had a long way to go, but my dad had set me up in the jewelry business - a family tradition - and if things went well I was going to go to college and break tradition.
Nick's story was like something out of an adventure novel - or comic book. He claimed to be the only son of a wealthy Greek cotton merchant and had grown up in a palace on the Nile delta with servants and tutors. His father had been an adventurous sea captain who married his mother for her considerable dowry but was less than faithful. When she died of a broken heart Nick went off to sea, hating his father and never returned to Egypt. He had traveled all over the world, and it didn't sound as if he had been exactly saintly either. I wondered what that innocent young girl was doing with him.
By November the city was cold; no snow yet but you certainly needed to wear heavy clothes and a hat. Sometimes on Sunday when 8th Avenue was quiet and the store was closed, Fran and I would go up to Central Park. Even though I knew about the Metropolitan Museum, I hadn't had a chance to see what every guidebook talked about. We walked up Fifth Avenue looking into shop windows and wondering why anyone would pay more than $100 for a raincoat The chestnut guys were out, and lot of them were Greeks like my neighbors. We bought a bag and ate them as we walked.
The banners outside the Met advertised an impressionist exhibit which Fran said we could enjoy and understand. It was good to get out of the cold and see what I had been missing.
We followed the crowd and what do you know. There was the little redhead standing in the gallery almost hypnotized by the paintings. I watched as she went from one to the other. She seemed not to be aware of anything but the colorful pictures - ballet dancers, beautifully dressed women and children, scenes of the French countryside, mist covered haystacks. She was still wearing her spring coat but with a sweater underneath.
"Hi there! How are you doing? She seems surprised to find anyone who knew her.
"We're fine. Nick works on Sunday so I have plenty of time to see the city. At home in Philadelphia the Art Museum was my favorite place and these pictures are like old friends."
We invited her to join us for lunch and walked over to a deli that had great pastrami and corned beef. She told us about her job and that Nick has moved on to a better job. It came out that her parents were still not talking to her, but "I'm pregnant and maybe they'll change their minds when they see their first grandchild."
Poor kid. Fran, who has a soft heart, patted her hand and told her to call if she needed anything.
We got through the winter and now here was another April. She hadn't called so we figured all was OK. But one day here came Nick looking not exactly the best. He'd been let go from his third job and she'd been in the hospital with toxemia and anemia, not good signs. He asked if I knew of a pawn shop that was legitimate. I sent him to Max, a pal who was as honest as any of the guys who runs such a place. I wondered what he had to sell but didn't ask. He came back in an hour looking relieved but not exactly happy.
"My wife is better, and the doctor says she and the baby are going to be fine."
I couldn't help wondering about her and how she was stuck with a guy with big ideas but small prospects.
In May they had a little boy, and her mom and dad came and brought diapers and clothes, a crib and a carriage. We were invited to the christening where the little guy was named Dimitri for her father. Her folks did not look overjoyed exxxcep when they fussed over the kid.
One day a couple of years laer she walked into the store with her son, a cut little fellow, better looking than his dad.
"Nick left us," she said. "Poor man, family responsibilities just got too much for him, I guess. We're going back to Philadelphia where he can find us if he wants to."
Fran and I helped her pack their few belongings. We took them to Penn Station and paid the fares to Philly. What do you say to a girl like her? She had believed a fairy tale, hoped for a miracle and got neither. A couple of months later we got a picture of the kid in front of Independence Hall. In the envelope were two $20 bills and a note. "Thank you. We are going to be fine." That guy didn't know what he gave up.
I never did get to college, but my Irish Catholic wife and I had four great kids. I stayed in the jewelry business, and we're still married. When 8th Avenue changed, we moved out to the island and did the conventional things - house, yard, station wagon.
I still sell wedding rings, and the gold, silver and diamonds that people seem to want. Sometimes when I show a couple a plain gold band I wonder if the redhead kept hers as a souvenir of a New York April.