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Stories from Zaphra

by Zaphra Reskakis

Another View from the Bridge

One rainy night in 1950, there was a knock at the door. I opened the door to see a skinny, shivering, wet kid. He said  “Thio Vagelli? Ego ime. o Haralambos o yios tis Marikas.”  We were surprised, but welcoming. This was our first introduction to my cousin Haralambos, aka Harry, my dad’s sister Marika’s son.

Mom dried him off , and we hugged and kissed him. Both my parents talked at once as they asked him about  their families in Greece. Harry had jumped ship in Hoboken. He was seventeen, he spoke no English, and only sheer guts brought him to our doorstep that rainy night.  Harry stayed with us,  and one of dad’s friends, hired him to work in the kitchen of a large hotel dining room that he managed.

Harboring an alien may have been an illegal act, but we all considered it an act of charity. The Greek immigration quota was very low, but Greece had been devastated by the second World War, just as it had been after the first world war. As a result, the oldest son of many families would sign on to a ship and work as a seaman for as long as the trip would take, but with the intent of jumping ship in America. The young men worked hard and sent money to support the family in Greece. Harry worked with other lathreyi, greenhorns, as illegal aliens were known in those years, in the hotel kitchen.  Unfortunately, all Greeks were not as charitable as my family. Some, who were considered traitors by my dad, made money by turning in lathery for, I think, fifty dollar a head. After eight months, Harry was picked in the kitchen with the other latheryi working there.  Dad hired a lawyer, paid the fine and Harry was deported.

Several months later, again, there was a knock on the door late at night. This  time our visitor was not quite as skinny or wet. He said “Uncle Ang, it’s Harry.”   While in the States he had learned some English. All latheryi went to school to learn English as soon as they landed and were on the lookout for a wife. Preferably a Greek girl who was an American citizen and if not a Greek girl, then an American girl who would be paid for a marriage that was often never consummated.  The groom got a green card and in, I  think,  seven years the illegal alien would take the test for citizenship and become legal.

In order to meet a prospective Greek bride, the young men would go to Greek social functions at hotels and picnics. They were known as the nifobazara, bride’s bazaar. This is where marriage arrangements were made. The Greeks here wanted their girls to marry Greek boys, preferably American citizens, but sometimes Greeks from Greece were acceptable, preferably students, but illegal aliens as well.

One of these places was Terrace View, a picnic grounds located above the George Washington Bridge on the Palisades. One Sunday we were all there, me and Harry, my parents and loads of friends. Suddenly someone yelled, “Immigration”.  The lathreyi scattered, as the clarinet and bouzouki music continued to wail and blended with the wailing of the picnickers. Some of the young men scurried down the Palisades and jumped into the Hudson River, while others raced across the George Washington Bridge.  Harry was caught on the bridge. Again, my dad paid the fine and Harry was deported.

A few months later, Harry was back, but this time my dad said, “Enough. Harry you gotta get married. I ain’t Rockafella. How many times can I do this?” Harry said, “But I’m not even twenty.  I’m too young. I’ll pay you back, Uncle Vaggeli.”

Mom and I were surprised when Dad said, “I have a friend who has a nice daughter. Anna is nineteen, she’s a nice girl, a virgin and her father will even give you a dowry.”

This remark about the dowry raised a red flag for mom and me because lathreyi were lucky to get married to a Greek-American girl and no dowry was ever expected. Dad would not be deterred and one Sunday, about a month later, Anna and her family came to visit. When they left, Harry said, “Thio she is not very attractive. I know she is a virgin and even comes with a dowry, but she is four times my size. I can’t even talk to her. We don’t know each other; I am not marrying her.”  Dad would not listen to Harry, or my mother or me. He said, “She has beautiful skin.” Three months later Harry and Stella were married.

 They lived together in a marriage of mutual respect. They had two children and in twenty years, Harry, who was a hard worker, worked in construction and all areas of building trades. He made good contacts and had a good reputation. In a few years, Harry owned his own business in commercial construction and repair.

One day in the seventies, Harry called me and said, “Zaph, you better sit down for this one. Guess what?   I am sure you remember when I was picked up on the George Washington bridge. It looks like I may be getting another view from the bridge. I won the bid to do repairs and paint the bridge.”

A House is not a Home
Once pink, now, dull, chewed, bubble gum colored paint
Flakes, fall down in silver dollar size.
Once green- ivied covered wall
Now, shrouded grey.

Glass panels in the door.
Misfit, shrunk.
Right wall, bare.
Left wall, nine buzzers

Nameless licorice buttons
Five, worn through,
Four, barely used,

Dirty finger dirt drenched.
Her crimson covered nail buzzes.

Not for the sound,
But for the touch.
An ancient key, her child’s key
Groans in the lock.

The door’s maw creaks and opens.
The foyer beckons.
She sighs, she hesitates.
Gingerly, she tiptoes in.

Into a journey of a painful, oft- remembered time.

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