To America

by Cheryl Gougouris

It was 1950 and Niko was full of the kind of bravado, audacity and certainty that only comes with being twenty and knowing the world is yours. Three weeks ago he had boarded an old Greek tanker on his way from Athens to the University of New Mexico, where he had been accepted into the first class of foreign students. Everyone at home knew where America was. But where the hell was New Mexico?

Niko, who was passionate and knowledgeable about the sea, had wanted to join the Navy but he failed the entrance exam three times, closing the door forever on that dream. When he tried to join the merchant marine his father had confiscated his papers, saying he would never have a family or friends if he chose that life. Niko knew his options were narrowing. One day his friend Petro walked up to him and put an application from the University of New Mexico into his hands saying “Look, they are recruiting foreign students. I have been accepted and expect to see you there too. What do you have to lose?”

Niko laughed out loud; he had never thought of leaving Greece. “I’m not taking no for an answer” said Petro. “I will meet you tomorrow and we will work on the application together.” Driven by Petro’s insistent nagging he discussed it with his parents and sent the application never expecting a response. When he received his acceptance letter he had to read it three times before it sunk in that it was real. He ran into the kitchen and told his mother. Smiling broadly she said “This is men’s business. Discuss it with your father”. When he reached for the telephone, she gently put her hands on his shoulder and said, “This is important. Go to his office. Discuss this with your father in person”. Niko smiled appreciating once again his Mother’s wisdom. He watched his father read the letter and carefully fold it. With wet eyes his father said “ I am proud of you. But America is far away and we have few resources to support you over there. I will give you one third of my income, but I can only do this for one year. I have to provide an education for your two brothers who are following closely behind you”.

Niko felt a hard knot in his throat, his eyes filled with tears and he heard a sound coming from his chest - almost a moan but more gentle, as he felt the full understanding of this offer, and the sacrifices his family would be making. “Father, I know I will be able to find work once I am there. I know I can do this.”

His father stood and embraced him, and with tears running down both of their cheeks he said “You have my blessings”.

Dawn had just broken as they approached the Galveston harbor, leading to Houston. He knew he would have to make his way by Greyhound bus from Houston to the university. The pilot would be boarding the ship soon and the Captain asked Niko to translate the pilot’s orders to the crew at the front of the ship who spoke only Greek. Pilots, the professionals who guide ships into harbors around the world, are highly skilled and respected in Greece, so he was eager to meet this American, although he was skeptical when the tall, thin, man in cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat boarded the ship. The Captain, understanding Niko’s reaction said to him in Greek “Just wait until you see him in action. He is very good”.

The cowboy took control and skillfully guided the tanker within inches of other ships down the narrow channel. By the time they docked Niko’s skepticism had turned to awe and admiration. As he was about to approach the pilot he heard from the dock below a shrieking woman’s voice, screaming toward the ship. Looking over the railing he saw a small, heavy set woman in curlers, waving her arms and yelling “ Hurry up! We are going to be late! You promised we would leave on time! How can you do this again?”. She continued yelling, but he didn’t understand everything she was saying or who she was yelling at.

Suddenly the pilot approached the railing, yelling. “Sorry, honey! I am coming. Be right there, sweetheart. Coming… coming .” In that moment the tall, skilled cowboy he had admired became a cowering, wet noodle. Niko’s mouth fell open as he tried to collect his breath. In his country this scene was inconceivable. For a woman to publicly humiliate her husband, and in curlers no less! In fact, the colonel in charge of the American base in Athens had recently given orders that no American women were to be off base in curlers. He knew he had come from a patriarchal country… but where had he landed? He was shaken as he contemplated this scene. The Greek captain, looked at him, chuckled and said in Greek. “Welcome to America”.

Niko picked up his two suitcases and approached the gangplank; those suitcases felt as if they weighed 1,000 pounds, and in that 50 foot journey he knew he was leaving everything familiar behind.
Niko understood English better than he spoke it and always carried a Greek -English dictionary in his pocket. With the help of the crew he made his way to the bus station. He approached the man selling tickets, smiled and said “How do you do”. The man’s toothy smile spread across his face and he said very slowly, drawing out each sound “Haoowwdy”.

Niko quickly reached for his dictionary. “One moment sir” he said, holding up his hand as he looked frantically through the H’s for the word howdy.

The man nodded and slowly said, “Just tell me where you want to go son”.

“I am going to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, sir. How long does it take to get there?”.

“The trip is about twenty-four hours, give or take some. The bus will leave in about two hours”.

“Will there be bathrooms and places to buy food sir?”

“Don’t worry, there are plenty of bathrooms and stops along the way”.

Niko asked the man where the toilet was and he quickly pointed it out. As Niko was thinking how best to express his thanks in English, the man said “Son, let me give you some advice. Just remember that there are a lot more horses asses in Texas than there are horses. If you keep that in mind, you should be fine”.

“Thank you again sir for all of your assistance”. But Niko spent many hours on that bus contemplating how exactly that could be possible.

When he entered the toilet, he set his suitcases down, dumbfounded. In his country public toilets were to be avoided at all costs. In fact, his father, the director of a local government tax office, had a reputation for having the cleanest toilet in the city.
If only his father could see this bathroom! He wished he had a camera so he could send home a picture. America, he thought, must be the cleanest country in the world.

Niko was impressed with the comfortable, air conditioned bus which was only half full when they left Houston. He enjoyed seeing the sprawl of Houston disappear as they drove along highways studded with smaller and smaller towns. For a couple hours they drove along a highway where for what seemed like hours all he saw was dirt, low bushes and cacti. He had never seen anything like it. He kept looking at his map and referring to his dictionary trying to figure out where they were. When Niko looked up occasionally he noticed the mother and daughter in the seat across the aisle looking at him and he smiled at them. The girl, who Niko guessed was about seven or eight, had red, curly hair, freckles and bright green eyes. The mother smiled, nodded back at Niko and returned to her magazine. The girl read a storybook, but from time to time she would look at Niko and smile. She whispered to her mother who got pink in the face and said “He isn’t from our country. That is why he has the dictionary and map.” This was loud enough that Niko heard, and the girl smiled, covered her mouth, and made her shoulders go up to her ears. She knew he had heard. Some time later the mother brought out a brown bag, opened it and took out a square package wrapped in crinkly paper. She took out a paper napkin, unwrapped the package and took out some triangles of white bread with a brown and red filling. She handed one to the girl and took one herself. Niko watched because he was curious and he realized he was hungry. The girl took another triangle and napkin and reached across the isle, extending it to Niko with a big smile.

“Thank you very much” Niko said as he took the offering. He eagerly popped the whole triangle into his mouth as he would have done with a tiropita - a triangle shaped cheese pie - back home. His mouth was filled with the thickest wad of gooey, strange tasting spread. He tried chewing it, but the more he tried, the more the soft bread, and the thick, sticky brown paste formed an unmanageable ball in his mouth. It was dry with only the sweet gooey red spread offering any relief. The girl’s wide eyes watched him carefully as she popped another triangle into her mouth and smiled. If no one had been watching him he would have spit the whole, horrible thing out. But not wanting to appear rude, he kept trying to swallow it. He moved it around with his tongue as best he could, he tried to break it up with his tongue and teeth to no avail. He watched how the girl was moving her mouth and jaws and did his best to follow her. Eventually and with great patience he was able to swallow the concoction. Pleased that he had survived this experience with his dignity intact he turned to the girl “My name is Niko. Pleased to meet you”.

The girl smiled broadly, wiggled in her seat and said “My name is Sarah”.

“May I ask you what you call this food?” Niko asked.

“It is my very favorite sandwich in the whole world, it is peanut butter and jelly. Do you want another one?” Sarah asked.

Now that Niko knew the name of the dreaded item he would make sure to remember it, and never have it again. “No thank you, Sarah. I think one of these sandwiches in enough. Thank you”.

After four hours, several stops and more clean bathrooms, the bus was full. At the next stop, an old grey-haired woman entered the bus with an overflowing shopping bag. Knowing there were no seats on the bus, Niko automatically took her shopping bag, put it on the rack above, put the old woman in his seat and stood beside her. The woman tried to move and say something but he was blocking her way, and with his hands he assured her it was fine. Resigned that she couldn’t move she sat in silence. After they had been driving about ten minutes, the bus driver looked in his rear view mirror to check the bus. He said loudly “What are you doing there young man?”.

Niko looked around, not sure who he was speaking to. Everyone on the bus turned their heads and looked out the windows; no one spoke.

“Yes, you, the one standing. I am talking to you” the driver continued.

“Yes, sir” Niko replied.

“What are you doing with Grandma there?” the driver continued.
In the best English he could muster, Niko replied “She is an older person with a heavy load, and the bus is full. Of course I am giving her my seat”.

“Just send Grandma to the back of the bus and take your seat”.
Confused and uncomfortable Niko stated firmly “No sir”.

The bus driver pulled the bus to the side of the road, opened the doors, turned off the motor and said to the whole bus “Someone better explain things to this foreigner because this bus isn’t going anywhere”.

The old lady tried to get up but Niko politely stood his ground, gently touching her shoulder and saying “I am giving you my seat Madam.”

After minutes of awkward silence, a young black man approached Niko from the back of the bus. “Look man, this is Texas. This old woman here can’t ride in the front of the bus. She is black and has to ride in the back of the bus. I will give her my seat so she has a place to sit. If I don’t take her back there, he means it. He won’t move this bus. I appreciate it man, but let me take Grandma“ .
Niko’s eyes stung, and his throat ached from the rage he felt but couldn’t express. While the young man helped the old woman to the seat in the back, Niko remained standing. He was not naive having lived through the Nazi occupation of Greece and the brutal civil war that pitted Greek against Greek, reducing all of free Athens to a twelve-block area. He had known cruelty and the quiet heroism of everyday people. Niko had read about discrimination in America, but he was not prepared for the ache in his stomach or the strength of his indignation. He had been raised in a family grounded in filotimo - a Greek philosophy of dignity, honor, justice and doing what is right for the greater community all wrapped up in one word. He was determined to stand beside that empty seat until they reached New Mexico.

With each stop along the way the bus emptied out, while Niko stood in silent protest. He must have fallen asleep because the next thing he knew he was jolted awake as the bus came to a stop. It was dark and approaching midnight. The driver announced a fifteen minute stop and Niko went to search for the bathroom. As he entered the bathroom Niko covered his mouth and nose, retching from the smell. He found himself in a room with a bare, cracked concrete floor. The walls, once covered with white tiles had more bare spaces than tiles and there were no mirrors. The one sink had stopped working and the collected dirty water dripped onto the floor, running slowly toward the drain in the middle of the room. The only urinal overflowed with urine and water which joined the flow toward the drain. There were a couple of buckets near the urinal where men now peed. The towel holder was empty and a pile of old newspapers served as the only paper he could see. There was one stall with a door but the smell of feces was strong and Niko did not have the stomach to go inside. Rubbing his stinging eyes he looked around and saw four black men staring back at him, smiling and nodding, and pointing to the doorway. Confused, Niko went out and looked at the sign above the bathroom door which read For Colored Only. He stumbled into the toilet for whites, trying to breathe through his sadness and anger and confusion.

Back on the bus, he stood, too exhausted to think or feel, relieved when sleep came quickly. He must have slipped into the seat as he found himself awakened by the predawn light. Rubbing his eyes and looking out the window he saw that they were in a small city. Trucks were picking up garbage, folks were opening shops and a few people were walking on the streets. The next thing he knew the bus had rammed into a car, which spun around and hit a light pole. The driver, who was slouched over the steering wheel was not moving and there was blood on his head. The bus driver told the few remaining passengers to stay in the bus until he came back.
Niko watched and listened intently from his open window. About ten minutes later several police cars had arrived and folks were gathering around the scene of the accident. The officers were questioning the bus driver, who insisted that he had the right of way.

A young boy tugged on his father’s coat and kept crying “Daddy, Daddy, is the man dead! Is anyone helping the man?”.
The father finally went up to one of the officers and said “Excuse me sir, but where is the ambulance?”.

The officer looked around, and yelled out to one of the other officers at the scene, “Hey Sarge, anyone call an ambulance?”. They realized that no one had. Within ten minutes the medics arrived and began to tend to the unconscious driver, who was taken to the hospital.
Finally the police left and the driver got on the bus and saying “Relax. You’ll be in Albuquerque in a couple of hours”.

By now Niko could feel and smell his own fear for the first time. His heart was racing and his palms were sweaty. If they could hit and kill one of their own, and let him bleed to death without help, what was to become of him, a foreigner? He had barely been here for twenty-four hours. Welcome to America indeed.