Wall Street Greek's Fine Arts Contributor and New York Stories Columnist Nicholas Zaharakos offers his latest effort; it is "The Kindness of Strangers." This work illustrates how the experiences of childhood influence our adult character and behavior. Above all, it is a story about the power of memory; the sweet as well as the bitter.
Alice Angela Applegate known as “Triple A,” by the other corporate officers was browsing through the half dozen resumes on her desk. As the Controller for Flagship Financial Planning, she intended to add another accountant to her staff in order to assist with special projects. Alice had just about made up her mind to select the young woman graduating this upcoming June from well-regarded Pace University with excellent grades when she got to the last resume.
“Emmanuel Pappas! Manny Pappas! This can’t be!” She took the single sheet of paper to the window as if reading the document by natural light would make more sense out of this odd coincidence. It wasn’t just the name, but also the “numbers,” so to speak, that were adding up, that this was the Manny Pappas of her childhood. The listing of ages for applying for any position in today’s world is definitely prohibited. However his home address was the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, where Manny and she had both grown up. By examining the dates of his graduation from Brooklyn College and employment it was easy to figure out that he was her age of forty-five.
Alice had a spacious rosewood paneled corner office on the tenth floor of the old Paramount Building in Times Square. On December 31, 1999, she would be eye level with “The Ball,” dropping to greet the third millennium with a catered office party. She was certainly looking forward to this “mother of all celebrations,” with her husband, two daughters, special friends, and clients. But right now her mind’s eye went back to her unhappy days at the C. Papadopoulos Parochial School.
She was a chubby and light-haired fifth grader named Vassiliki Chronis then. Vassiliki is the Greek equivalent for the American Betty or Alice. Her widowed mother struggled to pay the tuition at the only Greek Orthodox parochial school in Brooklyn at that time. Miss Maniatis had her favorite pupils and Vassiliki wasn’t one of them. Alice could even after all these years, now see herself so clearly as the child who was always left overlooked. She would have only the most minor of roles in the many pageants that the school was noted for. At the Christmas play she would be one of the non-speaking angels. At the dignitary audience filled Oxi Day commemoration she portrayed a silent stretcher-bearer carting offstage a fallen hero. Oxi! Is the Greek word for No! That was Greece’s response to the Italian government’s ultimatum for surrender during World War II. It heralded Greece’s valiancy, sacrifices, and contributions to the ultimate victory of the Allies.
The one time she wasn’t overlooked in the fifth grade brought a rueful flush to Alice’s face. During a Greek language exam, Vassiliki had asked Miss Maniatis if she could be excused to go to the bathroom. The thick-glassed spinster wouldn’t let Alice go despite having granted permission to Maria and Stella earlier.
“Vassiliki, you can control yourself for the remaining 15 minutes!”
Obviously, little Vassiliki couldn’t; Manny Pappas gave her the nickname of pissy pants. He also made it his solemn duty to call her that every chance he got until she graduated from the eighth grade.
“Well Manny Pappas your application for a better paying job is headed for the circular file,” Alice said firmly to herself. “I also see that you’re still using Lotus Spreadsheet, when anyone worth their salt would be utilizing Microsoft Excel by now.” Alice put the resumes to the side as she busied herself for the remainder of the day updating the CEO on the progress of the Y2K compliance committee that she headed.
* * * If there was one unbreakable rule in the Applegate household it was this; breakfast and supper were sit-down events with all the family members attending. Daughters Ourania and Stephanie were encouraged to talk about anything that was on their minds. Because Jonathan worked out of the high-floored apartment and because he had a flair for cooking, he usually made dinner. This evening he had prepared boneless chicken thighs with crispy roasted potatoes.
“Jonathan, everything is delicious,” Alice smiled appreciatively.
“I used a Thai-Ginger marinade and precooked the potatoes in the microwave before putting them in the oven to brown. I also made extra for your lunch tomorrow.”
Ourania was a freshman and Stephanie was a sophomore at prestigious Stuyvesant High School. They took the subway together to the school located near the World Financial Center downtown. At this point, Ourania hoped to be a veterinarian, and Stephanie wanted to be a writer like her father. Sibling rivalry which had been in remission had again started to escalate.
“Whose turn is it to do the cleanup tonight?” Jonathan asked his daughters.
Stephanie pointed to Ourania.
“It’s not fair! Yesterday you only made a salad and ordered pizza. Stephanie hardly had to do anything, now you expect me to scrub pans and clean all the dishes!” Ourania protested.
Stephanie responded by sticking her tongue out at her sister.
“Girls, chill out!” Their mother commanded. “You both get the luck of the draw, whatever your father or I decide to fix for supper is our concern. We don’t ask too much, just that you both help out a little. Besides we eat out often enough.”
Ourania recognizing the finality of her mother’s voice sullenly resigned herself to the cleanup task. Stephanie barely concealed a smirk. Alice wanting the scale to be evenhanded with her daughters spoke up again.
“Stephanie, please make some decaffeinated coffee for your dad and I.”
Jonathan getting in sync with his wife added. “Please put the coffee in travel mugs, we’ll have it in the park when we take Cleo out for her run.”
That did the trick.
“I want to go out too, it won’t take me long to finish,” responded Ourania with newly found enthusiasm.
Not to be left out, “me too,” chimed in Stephanie.
With a knowing nod to each other, Jonathan and Alice moved into the living room with the aging golden retriever, half asleep, lying on the couch unaware of her role in the Applegate family drama. The sound of the belled-leather leash being taken out from the closet would alert her for her evening ritual in Riverside Park. Through the floor to ceiling windows Alice studied the orange sun setting across the Hudson River as she held hands with Jonathan. This was one of those times when she had the peaceful and yet powerful feeling that she somehow could see forever.
* * * Alice closed the door of her office to enjoy yesterday’s leftovers. She made it a point to limit lunch with the other corporate division heads to once a week. She considered that sufficient enough to maintain proper lines of casual communication. Alice actually preferred to use this hour to be alone and quietly seek new and unique perspectives on work. It was Jonathan who suggested this meditative approach as a means of finding the best solution to any of life’s problems and issues.
It gave Alice a warm glow to think about last night. Her daughters had paired off. Ourania tossed a stick a little ahead of Cleo. Stephanie chatted with her father about how his historical novel was progressing. Alice was content to witness this tableau as she strolled slightly behind. The late May evening breeze was refreshing. They reached the community garden with a plethora of flowers blooming which was the turning back point. Ourania and Stephanie were given permission to hang out at the Barnes & Noble on Broadway and 82nd Street until ten o’clock. Jonathan and Alice leashed Cleo for the walk back to the apartment.
Alice held the last bit of potato up, reluctant to finish a Tupperware lunch that in her opinion the 21 Club couldn’t come close to. Besides it was potatoes that in a large way gave her, her first start in the world of business. C. Papadopoulos School let out at 3pm. Young Vassiliki waited in George’s Coffee Shop for her mother to pick her up to go home together. Panagiota Chronis worked as a seamstress until 5pm. Vassiliki would nurse a plate of French Fries and a Coke at the counter until then. She could sense that George was somewhat annoyed at a seat being occupied for so long with so little money to show for it. She tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible by keeping her head in a book. One day, George was adding a check out loud.
“Bowl of clam chowder $1.00, roast beef sandwich $2.50, cup of coffee 50 cents, and rice pudding 75 cents. That’s $3.75.”
“It comes to $4.75!” Vassiliki spoke up in a voice that didn’t quite sound like her own.
George at first gave her an angry look, and then he rechecked his figures. “You’re right little girl!” After he corrected the bill and rang up the right amount he came over to Vassiliki and chuckled. “Well, I almost gave somebody a bargain today.”
Again, Vassiliki piped up without thinking. “You did, if the string on the clam finally broke.”
George put one hairy hand to his chest and slapped the counter with the other as he roared with laughter. “Well, little school girl, if you’re so smart you can sit at that booth and enter my petty cash receipts into this book.” He placed a bound green book with numerous bills and receipts sticking out of it on the tabletop.
Vassiliki never had to pay for her French Fries and soda or anything else from that day on. She enjoyed adding numbers into the ledger and double-checking that they balanced to the total amount of all the bills. George’s accountant, Sam Rosen thanked her for being so neat and meticulous. When she turned fourteen, she started to work for him on Saturdays and after school during tax season. He encouraged her to go onto college and treated her like she was one of his own children. It was around them that she got a more sophisticated view of the world. It was Sam’s daughter Rebecca who introduced her to Jonathan on a blind date to the Metropolitan Museum.
Reminiscing about how far she had come in her life would always lead Alice back to her mother. It had been seven years since she had passed away. Vassiliki was the only child that Panagiota had conceived at 41-years-old, after many years of trying. Alice was grateful that her mother had lived long enough to see her so well established. Her mother took such joy and pride in a lifestyle that she never had a possibility of attaining for herself. Alice had to go through her mother’s things after she had died; in a neat bundle she found every Birthday, Christmas, and Mother’s Day card that she had ever given her. There was one more thing that Alice didn’t know about until then. On top, in her mother’s unmistakable neat script was a thank you letter that she had written to the Philoptochos Society (Friends of the Poor). It was thanking them for helping her to meet the tuition at the C. Papadopoulos School. It was returned to her with this unsigned note written on the bottom. “If someday you are able to show kindness to somebody else that would be wonderful and more than payment enough.”
* * * Alice was confident that the interview had gone well. There were no misunderstandings that the staff accountant position was a challenge. There was a one-year probationary period. She also had made it clear that some extra hours were required, and that there were expectations of keeping up with technology and skills of the day. When it was over they stood up to shake hands,
“Thank you, Ms. Applegate for this opportunity.”
“Well, Mr. Pappas,” she replied without a hint of any prior recognition. “I believe in giving people a chance; that’s how I got here.”
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