Wall Street Greek's Fine Arts contributor and New York Stories Columnist Nicholas Zaharakos sees more than a little of himself in this piece. "Grape Leaves," takes place in 1956. It is the world through the eyes of an eleven year-old boy. It speaks about ethnic and generational differences and how "ordinary people,"somehow manage to get by. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and... the guilty.
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“Mary Keenan, Felicia Annunziata, George Theodorou.” When Miss Toomey called me to pick up my composition entitled “Spring,” I thought there was a mistake. I thought she made a mistake because she gave out the highest graded papers last. Everyone knew that, even though when you shuffled up to her desk, she would hand you the paper turned over, so that nobody else was supposed to see the mark you got. I was used to getting D’s and C’s. Miss Toomey would give out the topic Friday afternoon.
“Class,” she would say, “In my 35 years of teaching fifth grade here at P.S. 92, I have come to believe firmly that writing well is the most important foundation for a good education. Now, I expect everyone to hand in their papers on Monday. Remember, I’ve been around the block a few times. No excuses, I’ve heard them all – the cat, the dog, even the canary ate it, will not be accepted.” She resolutely intoned.
She had a peculiar way of standing. Her arms would be hanging, not by her side, but more towards the back of the floral print dresses she wore. It was like someone was holding her from behind. She would squint long and hard. Pete Reilly, who ate the free cafeteria lunches with me, said, Miss Toomey still has glass imbedded in her eyes from a car accident. I don’t know if that was true, but I was sure of one thing, she didn’t like me.
“George, you don’t have to shout the Pledge of Allegiance to show patriotism. George, I can see brussels sprouts and potatoes growing out of your ears, George…”
Miss Toomey gave me a strange look when she handed back the single sheet of loose-leaf paper. I waited until I got back to my seat to turn the composition over. It was marked an “A”. She even wrote on the top, “this imaginative and touching.”
Walking home along treeless Nostrand Avenue, I tried to understand Miss Toomey. When I made up the stories I handed in, she thought I didn’t. When I told a true story, she figured it was something made up. Somehow, my brown briefcase seemed a lot heavier because of the “A” paper inside. I was also puzzled that she didn’t read any of the essays out loud today, as she did all the other times.
I paused by the Linden movie-house. They were featuring East of Eden, starring James Dean. My 15-year-old sister, Alexandra, who wanted everyone to call her Alix, pleaded with my mother to let her see it. She has a picture of the young movie star walking in Times Square in the rain. It’s taped on the wall on her side of the bedroom. On Grandmother Maria’s (Yiayia Maria) side are kept the dark-wooded Icons that she brought when she came from Greece.
Coming to my block, I looked up at the lamppost with the piece of rope swinging in the March wind. That is where we hung what they called an effigy of Casey Stengle, the manager of the New York Yankees. That was the best part of the celebration, after the Brooklyn Dodgers won the ’55 World Series from the “Yanks” last year. The cops made Rocky Pignataro climb back up there to cut the dummy down after the parade. Then they gave him some kind of summons that he tore up when they left.
“Georgie, Georgie! You want maybe to earn 15 cents to deliver a bundle to Mrs. Obermeyer on Maple Street?’ Stan, the Laundry-man, sang out in his Polish accent.
My family lived directly over his store in a railroad flat of six small rooms. My older twin brothers, Gus and Paul, and I were his pool of delivery boys. He never rang the doorbell. Stan just stepped out of the launderette, cupped his hands to his mouth, and yelled up for one of us. When it snowed, we would shovel a path around his property. He paid us according to the number of inches that fell.
“Georgie, give me your book bag, I’ll put it by the register.” In an instant, I was holding two pillowcases of fresh-smelling clothes, on my way to earning the price of a big bottle of Pepsi.
* * *
“How was school today?” My mother asked while rinsing escarole in the sink. The blue gingham apron was bright against her widow-black dress and sweater. My dad was killed in the last days of the war, two months before I was born.
“I got an “A” on my composition. Here, do you want to see it, Mom?” I asked eagerly while placing it on the kitchen table next to a pile of potato peelings on yesterday edition of the Daily Mirror.
“George, not there, it will get dirty. Save it for after supper.”
I put the composition on top of the refrigerator, between two boxes of cereal.
“We’re going to eat early. I have to go over to Mrs. Merrill’s to do some sewing.” She started to sponge clean the table. “See if you can find your brothers. Change your clothes first”
“Okay, mom,” I said softly.
* * *
It was the Greeks against the Irish in triangle at Al’s driveway. My brothers were playing against Smithy and Mike, who were also in the sixth grade. However, they went to St. Francis of Assisi on Lincoln Road. Triangle was a slap-ball contest we invented for when there weren’t enough guys to get up a regular baseball game.
There was no second base—first and third were the side bumps of the curb before it dipped to make it easy for cars to get in and out of the garage. The goal of the offense is to slap a grounder past the pitcher. The pink Spalding was delivered on one bounce. The hitter got two strikes. The defense was a pitcher between the two bases, and the catcher. Fouls were automatic outs, as well as hitting the opposite sidewalk on a fly. Home-plate and the scoreboard were written in chalk or with a piece of stone. A game takes about half an hour tops.
Smithy almost got creamed by a Buick going up the street as he headed for home. That made the score three up, bottom of the seventh.
“Georgie, you watch out for the cars and call the pitches.” My brother Paul whistled through chipped front teeth.
Smithy and Mike ended up winning, five to three. Both sides wanted to play another. When I told my brothers that mom wanted them home early, they settled for sips of my soda that I had bought at Tufano’s.
* * *
My yiayia sits at the head of the dining room table while we have our supper of pot roast. She wears a kerchief even indoors. She is hard of hearing and speaks broken English.
“You be good in school, you get a politician’s job,” she often sermonizes while nodding her head.
“Mom,” Alix announced, “for my ‘Sweet Sixteen,’ I want to use your bedroom for my guests to put their coats away.”
“And to play Post Office in,” butted in Gus.
I was tempted to laugh along with my two brothers, but Alix had murder in her eyes.
“Mom, please it’s bad enough that there will be hardly any room for us to dance and,”…she was searching for words…”and that we live in this dump…and…”
“Stop, Alexandra, if you go on about that again I won’t let you have the party. You expect me to have my own mother stay in her room like a prisoner because you’re afraid that she will embarrass you. If it weren’t for her cleaning homes on Maple Street I don’t know how I’d keep this family together.” Mom ended the heated discussion. “She will stay in the kitchen with me and that’s that.”
I felt sorry for Alix, who had told me about her plans. I had no idea there were so many details; the cokes would be iced in a large metal washbasin. The dining room table would be moved to the side and used for the chips and dips. Her best friend Kelly would have her father bring the hi-fi to play the 45’s. There would be plenty of Fats Domino, Bill Haley and The Comets, and some by the new guitar singer, Elvis Presley. They would alternate playing fast and slow music. The “Bunny Hop” and “Musical Chairs” would be used to get everybody up.
When supper was over, Gus and Paul were given permission to watch television over Smithy’s house, we didn’t have a set. I reminded my mother about my school paper.
“Georgie honey, tomorrow, I have no time now. I have to go over to Mrs. Merrill’s and use her sewing machine.” She kissed me, saying, “You help Alexandra, and be in bed by 8:30.”
I wanted to protest, but could see it wouldn’t do any good.
We cleaned around yiayia. As usual, she stayed at the table and had a cup of chamomile tea. She was the only person I knew who didn’t drink tea that was made with a tea bag.
I was drying the dishes as Alix handed them to me.
“Georgie, Kelly lent me Chuck Berry’s Wee Wee Hours and Maybelline. Do you think I should play those records?”
I shuddered, remembering my brothers saying that his songs had hidden messages about dope and cheating women. I was afraid they would explain them to my mother. “What are you going to do about Gus and Paul?”
“Pray,” she said with a laugh that tossed her ponytail. “I invited Rocky Pignataro and asked him to talk to the twin angels. He’ll set them straight. I’m really worried about yiayia though. Who knows? She may decide to dance the Greek Lindy!”
“Alix, do you want me to help decorate?”
“Sure Georgie, you can help blow up the balloons,” she smiled. “What’s this about you getting an “A” in school?”
I took the essay down from the refrigerator. “Here, do you want me to read it?” I asked anxiously.
“Yes, I’m glad at least one person around here isn’t a knucklehead.” She sat down as I started to recite.
“Spring! In spring, the leaves on the grapevines grow back after the winter. Spring is the time when I go with my yiayia to pick them because then the leaves are tender.”
I glanced over the paper at Alix. Her eyes were big, and her mouth fell open. Everyone thought we bought the preserved leaves in a jar that the Lebanese sell on Atlantic Avenue.
“We go to the Italian houses. You can tell if a house is Italian if it has a big backyard. Sometimes they use the backyard to store junk metal or newspapers that they sell to the truckers. Sometimes they keep a pigeon coupe on top of a garage there. If you see a wood frame in the back then you know they have grape leaves growing on it. They use the grapes that appear in the fall for wine. My yiayia uses the leaves to stuff with meat, and to cook them like the Irish do with cabbage. My mother says that they were my father’s favorite meal.”
I peeked at Alix again. She stared at me just like Miss Toomey had done earlier. I was getting nervous as I finished quickly.
“We look to see that nobody is home, then we pick the leaves, but not too many from any one spot. If a door opens or if somebody yells, we run. My yiayia can run pretty fast. Also when I go to church with her, she makes me sneak under the turnstile so I don’t have to pay the subway fare. When we get home, she treats me to a Dixie Cup ice cream. She has me eat it in the bathroom so I don’t have to share it. My yiayia does other unusual things. When mom would make a Betty Crocker chocolate sheet cake yiayia would hide coins in wax paper for luck in the cake before it was iced. She also gives you a birthday card written in pencil. Then it disappears until the next birthday with another name over the eraser.”
“What do you think?”
Alix sat silently for the longest while.
“I think you should have gotten an A+” Alix started to laugh and cry at the same time as she hugged me. “And, the next time you and my yiayia go harvesting grape leaves, count me in.”
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