LETTER FROM GREECE#10
World cut diamond fine,
air swept clean by a west wind,
mountain, olive, dry grass quiver.
I take off my glasses to test the clear,
okay, not that sharp and how could it be?
We create the world we see,
human filters are myriad and layered
and not focused on clarity.
Still, I want to see further.
I heard from my friend, Dr. Brandes, re my speculation that global warming may bring more Saharan dust storms to Greece.
“I am sitting in Pécs, southern Hungary, ready to go to Osijek, Croatia, reading your words...
I think the political situation in Greece/the crisis, especially with the young guys, calls for something "new". It will set free a lot of creative approaches to life and work, hopefully also to politics. At least that is what I hope...
We will see if the crisis will force the Greek people to overcome old habits and foul society traditions. I am really intrigued. By the way: Looking at the countries Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Greeks still live a "fat" life.
Well, please keep me posted! And do not worry about Sahara dust/climate change...if you look at my tree ring data from Taygetos from the past 500 yrs. there have been worse years/periods of drought/heat (coming with African air masses?) in the past than in our days.”
I’m developing a relationship with this Roma woman who works the streets of Sparti shaking down thems that got. I’m not that good at age guessing, but with the Gypsies it is particularly difficult. The women age swiftly. The beautiful thirteen-year old is hard, weathered and tough at twenty, perhaps because she’s the mother of two, or more. So this woman is maybe thirty, let’s say. I’m using that social term, relationship, very loosely. If I’m anywhere in her vicinity she’s on me, flies to shit. She can be incredibly annoying. If I give her a euro, she wants two and will follow me through the farmers’ market bugging me relentlessly. So much so that sometimes I stiff her ‘cause she was so aggressive in our previous encounter. And, if you give to one Roma, all the rest descend on you. The middle class attitude is: damn, why doesn’t she show some appreciation? Or, oh, that lovely word, gratitude. But really, why should she show gratitude for the undeniable fact that I was born into comfort in the States and she was born in a structure made of scrap wood and plastic sheeting along the river on the outskirts of Sparti to a harsh Roma life without, really, the possibility ofanything else? Why should she show appreciation for the change I toss her way, money I didn’t even earn? A near sighted vision might be, well, I didn’t have to give her anything. Better question, what did I do to have that power, to give or deny? Nothing. So much of life functions this way.
I’m in the supermarket queue. Through the front windows a small gaggle of beggars is milling about the shopping cart rank. There she is and she sees me. I know she’ll be waiting and I’m trying to arrange change. Not that you can believe in, but change you can hand out, which doesn’t require any faith. It’s hard, makes noise when you combine it with others, you can buy shit with it, though not much. (Shortly after the last presidential election in the U.S., I critiqued Obama to a couple of my American friends. They were indignant and moved to name calling, but here mere months into his second term I don’t imagine that would be their response. Faith melts ‘neath the dull heat of the current political situation.) Okay, I’ve got some two euro coins. What a high rolling muthafucka! I should have a limo idling out front, or, really, a guy on a motorbike wearing a balaclava. How do we get away with it? I grease the palms of the old folk regulars and my gypsy woman. Immediately two children with her start haranguing me for baksheesh and then,she calls them off! They give up reluctantly, but do. Hey, that is progress. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it respect, hey, that ain’t never coming, but I’ll take it.
From what I write you might think that the streets of Sparti are dense with beggars but that’s not actually the case. Since the economic crisis the number has risen slightly, that is, there are a few Greeks asking for handouts, very few. It’s mostly the Roma, who work it through feast or famine. I’m unsure how much the crisis impacts them, though they can’t be immune. The men sell stuff off trucks and the past few years they’ve become quite organized and on market days earlier this year were on every corner selling artichokes and now, garlic, great ropes of it. Cheap ceramic pots. And now they’re being blamed for an increase in burglaries and drug trafficking.
Who is brave? The longtime war correspondent and now vigorously partisan political activist/journalist Chris Hedges once wrote, “Physical courage on the battlefield is common, but moral courage is very rare.” That makes sense in that soldiers risk their lives for each other all the time. How could you enter combat without believing that your fellow soldiers would take that risk? But to speak up against the atrocities committed by men in battle everyday on every side of every conflict, that is breaking ranks, that will be looked upon by your fellows as betrayal. There is never any joy for the whistleblower. So what is bravery, what constitutes courage in the quotidian middle class existence? I’m not interested in extreme sport and the like, nor am I’m considering occupations that may call for it regularly: fireman, policeman and the like. Physical danger is not necessary for courage to come into play. There are other kinds of risk. I don’t know.
I have been brave a couple of times, I suppose. You be the judge. It’s 1982 and I’m living with Nancy in an old two-storey wooden house in southeast Portland, Oregon. We’re living your regular bohemian life, making art, playing music, writing, all that good stuff. Okay, and she had a day job. Our bedroom was upstairs, no bed, just a mattress on the floor. One night we’re in bed snoozing away when Nancy whispers in my ear, “Mark, there’s someone in the room.” I came out of a deep sleep instantly, opened my eyes and peered across the floor. There, vaguely illuminated by dappled street light coming through the window, was a guy on the floor going through my pants pockets. Damn that’s bold. We were right at the same height and I paused for just a couple of counts before screaming, “GET OUTTA HERE! GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE, GODDAMNIT!” I’m loud to begin with and this was as loud as I’ve ever been. The thief leapt to his feet, paused there in the door way for just a moment, I was still screaming, and then was down the stairs and gone. I jumped up and was going to chase him but Nancy convinced me to wait, he might still be downstairs and dangerous. Our phone was downstairs too, so she shouted out the window to some neighbors and they called 911. The cops eventually came but by then we’d already gone downstairs and inventoried our losses. People who break into old beat-up rental houses are generally junkies, so they need stuff they can fence quickly. He took my camera, a really slick mobile tape recorder and my alto saxophone. Steal my axe, that is some cold shit, muthafucka (There are, I imagine, those who feel that stealing my sax is a righteous gesture). And the little TV we had. He had loaded that stuff out before interrupting our dreams. There wasn’t anything else of value in the house, which was why he was upstairs going through my pockets. Desperate.
I have two things to add to this. One, it made me glad that I didn’t have a gun or even a baseball bat next to my bed. I might have used it and that would have been awful. The stuff he took, we replaced it (Nancy went right downtown and put a down payment on another horn, bless her heart.) and it certainly wasn’t worth someone’s life. If he had attacked us, or Nancy, then I would have used extreme force—I don’t have any weapons, but you know, kick him in the nuts, hit him over the head with something really hard, take a bite out of his throat. I wasn’t a tough guy then, but I wasn’t a wimp either. The other thing is, just two or three days before we had asked Nancy’s alcoholic uncle Billy to move on. He’d been sleeping on the couch just below the window the thief had entered. He’d have stepped right on Billy and Billy would have resisted. I had felt a little bad about asking him to move on but there was no way he could stay. He didn’t have anything to do and so would sit around watching me while I wrote or painted or whatever. I’m sorry, these are solitary activities, or communal ones, but not performances to be observed. If we hadn’t thrown him out, it would have played out differently. Probably wouldn’t have been robbed, but people would have been hurt.
Seven years later I have a family of four and I’m running a little Mexican themed bar/restaurant in the old town area of Portland. I often walked to work but this morning I got on the bus about nine AM. Having paid the driver I turned and began to walk down the aisle. About eight rows back on the right some big guy is leaning over the seat behind and beating on someone. Once again, I don’t think, I just say, very loudly, “HEY! STOP HITTING THAT GUY!” The assailant stands up and faces me. He’s big, much younger than me and giving me a dull evil look. Seated next to the victim is another guy who is obviously the boss of this outfit and he starts talking fast and loud. “Who the fuck are you, Mr. Good Fucking Citizen? If you know what’s good for you you’ll mind your own fucking business.” I was committed at that point, stood my ground and said, “I don’t know about all that, but you don’t need to hit him. You’ve already got him scared shitless.” This prompted a stream of invective from the Mouth, though he called off his Muscle with a nod of the head. There’s at least fifteen people on the bus and they are staring straight ahead, they see nothing and hear even less. Same for the driver. The two gangstas are black, their victim is a small white guy maybe nineteen. I sit down two seats ahead after reiterating my no need to beat him suggestion. The bus starts up. The Mouth rains more abuse and threats on me and then turns his attention to the punk, lowers his voice and tells this poor bastard just how deep the shit he’s in is. Four blocks later the tough guys, there was a third I hadn’t seen sitting further back, got up and off. The Mouth pointed his finger at me and parted with, “You better watch out, muthafucka!”
I glanced back at the victim but he didn’t want any eye contact. It hadn’t been a mugging or robbery, this young man had obviously gotten involved somehow with these guys and it was time to pay up. A little further into town he got off and ran into a well-known gay restaurant. I never saw him or the gangstas again. But that was not the end of my urban troubles.
The bar/restaurant, ¿Casa Que Pasa? was right in the center of the old hip part of the city. Unfortunately, a lot of Hispanic illegals were selling Mexican tar heroin on the street corner where my front door was. Often to rich young kids from the suburbs in their daddies’ BMWs. So if you wanted fajitas for lunch you had to run a gauntlet of hard-looking Mexican teenagers whispering about their wares. I had nothing against their business, but it certainly wasn’t helping mine. I would go out several times a day and try and move them on. Sometimes it worked. Usually I got a ‘fuck you!’ If the cops drove by they vanished into the air. Sometimes I’d get my waitress Rosa, from El Salvador, to talk to them but she had too much sympathy—the poor boys, there isn’t any work, they have to do something. Cool, but can’t they do it a block away?
Then a friend of mine, George the Greek, owner of the hippest rock club in the ‘hood and thoroughly plugged into the scene on the streets, told me that the word was that the Mexican guys were pissed at me and I was going to get stuck. Stuck? You mean stabbed? He nodded. Is this a sure thing? He shrugged, “Well, there’s not a contract out on you or anything, but that’s what they’re saying.” Jesus Christ, now that’s scary. But what can you do? For the next few weeks I avoided these guys on the street and looked over my shoulder relentlessly. And then I forgot about it, sort of. Two months later I walked into the bar one morning and there was the owner, a very rare sight. He proceeded to give me my walking papers, along with a severance and my accumulated vacation pay and I was back on the streets. It was in the morning and I went into a bar and had a scotch. Then I went home and said to my wife, “I got fired. How long would it take us to get the hell out of here.” We got out a calendar and figured with garage sales, emptying and renting the house, selling the car, going away party, we could swing it in three weeks.
Three weeks to the day we were still vacuuming the house when a taxi pulled up. Our neighbors said they’d finish and we rode to the airport with all the shit we could carry and our five-year old son. The teenage daughter had already left. We had one-way tickets to London, really cheap, 750 bucks total. It was the third of February 1990. We stayed in England for six weeks, bought a beater and drove to a small village in the mountains of southern Greece. I’m still here, though nobody else is. And now the country is breaking down.
Am I brave? Not if I think about it. But my mouth gets started before my brain has it sorted. I guess I’d act the same now. I’d shout at an intruder and would, at least, try and stop violence verbally. That’s my only weapon, my voice. But I don’t actively enter potentially violent situations. I don’t have that level of confidence in the power of speech. It’s a limited tool. If I was somewhere where people started shooting others in the street I wouldn’t walk out and shout, “Hey you guys, chill with the bullets!” I don’t believe we’re headed towards a breakdown of civil society here nor does it appear that the army is eager to try their hand, but the possibility for chaos exists. It always does. Greece had a very low crime rate before the crisis began, but it’s creeping up.
“anyone waiting for tears of regret or remorse was disappointed”
That’s from a report on the trial of Sergeant Bobby Bales, who yesterday pleaded guilty to the murder of sixteen Afghan villagers. He couldn’t remember dousing some of them with kerosene and lighting them on fire, but conceded he must have done it. “It’s the only thing that makes sense, sir,” he replied to a question from the bench. Sense, a curious use of the word for acts that were, indeed, the opposite of brave, but cowardly, venal, craven. Or, if you will, pathologically insane.
Brave or cowardly, what will it be?
Type of question that drives you
to look for a cat in a tree,
something not too risky to do,
that will throb blood up a bit
without the shedding of it.
6 June 2013