Two weeks ago a man set up a makeshift bed on the sidewalk outside our home. For a mattress he uses a pile of newspapers, for a pillow a cement sack, and the stars serve as his blanket. He has taken up residence because the mayor of Hania in Crete revoked his license to sell fruits and vegetables and he expects someone in our family to do something about this injustice. This morning, as I leave home to visit my brother in his Ministry, where I work as a part-time and unpaid economics advisor (this is a socialist government, after all, and one doesn’t insist on payment), I see that his living quarters have improved drastically. He’s erected a small shack—a cube-shaped structure plastered with my brother’s and father’s most recent election campaign posters. My father stares like some visionary into a rising sun; my brother smiles back at me harmlessly, his jacket tossed casually over his right shoulder. To one side of this new domicile sits a small glass box perched on four brass legs, an iconostasis. Inside the glass burns a candle in front of an icon of a saint. Probably the Saint of All Unlicensed Fruit and Vegetable Vendors.
As I get into my car he takes a step in my direction, then stops. He is uncertain of his status and perhaps worried that one of my father’s bodyguards will sweep him off the sidewalk. Bodyguards are part of daily life. He doesn’t know how careful we are with anything that may be used against us in the press. Kicking away a poor man sleeping in front of your home would be considered selfish and unsocialistic, especially now, in the year 1989, with my father facing trial on charges of corruption, charges made more believable because he had the gall to marry a buxom stewardess and dump my mother after forty-one years. People whisper that she runs the government and not my father. She loves the baubles we never grew up with: the gifts from foreign dignitaries and local businessmen. The scandals are hers and not his. But he is the elected one and he will be indicted. (Although three years later the special tribunal will find him not guilty and he will win the national elections once again.) Right now I’m living the full tragedy. Father-hero undone. Son flees to other pastures.
I carry a soccer field’s worth of guilt and a sense of obligation that would crush Jean Valjean. Maybe the man outside the home can sense that. Maybe he knows I grew up in a house where anybody and everybody came in and demanded a share of whatever they could get. One of these days he’s bound to come up to me, hover close to my face, put his arm around my shoulder as if we’ve known each other since the birth of this universe and give me his “you’ve-got-to-do-something-about-people-like-me” look.
Thankfully, he keeps his distance.
I am going into Athens to hand over a demographic chart predicting student population up to the year 2015. It took me about a month of hard work, but hard work was what our whole family was into. The old subway is full. I hang onto a broken leather strap and lurch back and forth like a puppet whenever the driver decides to slow down or speed up. The wagons are imports from Socialist Romania, from former “brother” Caucescu. Most of the straps are broken, mine included. In the face of a short woman with square-rimmed purple-colored glasses that magnify her eyes I see a parent insisting I pass her fifth grader who flunked all his classes; next to me, staring out the window at the buildings going by—the train still hasn’t dipped underground—a man in flared pants and a belt with a bronze buckle stamped with some designer’s rectangular symbol reminds me of the man who promised to show me the greatest archaeological find of this century if I would promise to make him curator of the museum of Salonika. My sleep is bracketed by their telephone calls and my mood tempered by their anxiety. Such is the lot of “son of the prime minister,” or “grandson of the former prime minister,” or “brother of the minister and future prime-minister,” a prediction that will come through about twenty years later, when the whole country is in debt, running for cover from the assault of the capital markets.
To avoid chance encounters I carry with me my escape clause: a book or a newspaper in English, like the Herald Tribune. When I read I can pretty much ignore everything around me short of a mugging. I usually hold the book or newspaper up high so someone who recognizes me will reconsider and think I’m actually a tourist (My hair is light-colored and my eyes are not as dark as the average Greek’s owing to my American mother.)
The first things I see when I emerge from the metro are my father’s election posters, plastered in Warhol-like repetition on a wall. Rather than take a taxi as initially intended, I decide to walk to my brother’s office. This sudden change in plan has an instant effect on me, like the joy brought on by an unexpected visit from a good friend. Cool spring winds sweep through the streets. Something is swirling inside me.
I pretend it’s my first time ever in the city of Athens. Everything is now tinged with the exotic: the gypsies selling plastic chairs from the backs of pick-up trucks, the open satchels of pistachio nuts, the slices of white coconut sliced up like small boats, the small blue signs stuck in the rows of dried nuts indicating the price per bag. Two bright-cheeked girls dressed in blue, the color of the conservative party, are handing out pre-election “literature.” Pretending to be a tourist, I can’t read Greek, can’t read what it says against my father or brother, whether it calls my father a thief or a womanizer. One of those leaflets claims I had taken five million dollars from no less a personage than Saddam Hussein while I served in the Greek military, for the sale of Greek bullets. I throw the leaflet into a large cardboard box that serves as the disposal unit for a corner kiosk.
Somewhere in the middle of Athenas Street I stop. I lift my head. I can almost feel the goose-pimples.
There it is. The Acropolis.
I am seeing it for the first time. Again.
I look over my shoulder, back from where I came. With a sudden move, like DeNiro in the movie trying to fool himself in the mirror (you talkin’ to me?), I turn again towards the Acropolis. I can’t explain why I have such an obsession to pretend that this is the first time I’m seeing the ancient monument. Maybe that’s the only way I can get some satisfaction. By pretending.
Maybe because a stranger can’t feel guilty about the problems of the city.
After seven years of government by my father and his brood of socialists, everybody and everything seems to be a walking accusation. A crumbled doorway inside of which an old man stares at me and waves a picture of my father, a drain pipe sticking up from the street, a street urchin selling Kleenex to cars, a school with broken windows, a traffic jam, a cloud of pollution over the city: these are things, I tell myself, we didn’t fix. A hospital on strike, a man dead because the emergency ambulance took too long, an ugly apartment building going up on a beach: our fault. Yet the ancient monument seems to dispel all pessimism, these small, useless pangs of guilt of the mortals.
The monument is sometimes grey, sometimes white and sometimes yellow. Whatever its color, it is dominating, impressive, queen of the city. Like a voyeur, I am drawn to it, not only by its presence but by the numerous positions in which it presents itself. I have learned a number of useful facts about the temple, mainly because of my American friends who ask me to serve as an unofficial tour guide when they show up for their summer vacations. The stairs that lead up into the Parthenon temple itself, three of them, have a separate curvature, called a kurtosis, which means they are bowed upwards but appear straight to the eye. And yes, the four centimeter deep indentation in the floor of the Parthenon at the south side was probably a small pool full of water to protect the ivory statue of the goddess Athena, to provide moisture. And yes, the drums that make up the columns are airtight, cut to a ten-thousandth of a centimeter, with greater precision than today’s laser instruments can bring to marble; and yes, each column of the Parthenon curves inwards, slightly, not a one of them has a straight line to it though you’d think it did, wouldn’t you; and yes, the flag flaps a loud noise, and a decade ago someone jumped off the Parthenon, but suicides on the Acropolis are never written about to avoid encouraging emulators. . . . And yes original reconstruction really did some damage, but then Lord Elgin himself did some serious damage when he chopped out his favorite frieze from right there, look up and gaze at the empty area . . .
I lose contact with it briefly, behind a kiosk, but then rediscover it between the newspapers hanging in the air, one of which briefly catches my eye: “Socialist leader Papandreou faces jail sentence.”
In the meat market behind Sophokleous Street I stare at bovine heads on hooks, their tongues hanging out like bells. A man in a white apron hacks a lamb to pieces and then like a coroner lays out the liver, spleen, intestines, and the spongy lungs. For fifty drachmas you get a small glass of ouzo, a bowl of tripe, and a seat at his greasy butcher’s block. Not a political poster in sight. An octopus is splayed out on a wire, its dried suckers big as bathroom plungers. The fish are beautifully arranged along ice-packed crates, their eyes in an even row like beads on a string. A man tries to sell me two kilos worth of shrimp wrapped in a newspaper funnel. Another with a moustache stretching from one ear to another lifts a glass of ouzo and then downs it in one gulp.
The reserves of good will bought by the brief walk along Athenas Street and the visions of Acropolis dissipate at the entrance of my brother’s building. A small crowd of students and their parents are shouting slogans against my brother. I really hope they don’t recognize me. The sidewalk is strewn with glossy leaflets. Someone’s voice crackles through a bullhorn. The students flunked their exams and are demanding a “recall.” A doorman is preventing them from entering but I see no police. I slip in through a side door and, once inside the elevator, I lean against the siding, relieved to get by unnoticed. The elevator shudders and rises slowly. I read the graffiti on the walls as we pass each floor. The only red university is one that’s burning, says one. Beneath the pavement, the beach. Paris, May 1968. This country is living inside a revolutionary time capsule.
The elevator lurches to a stop at the sixth floor and I walk up the final one. Milling in the foyer outside my brother’s office is another group of people. They sip coffee from white plastic cups that burn their hands, so they hold the cups from the rim and squeeze them slightly, which cracks the plastic, and that means that the coffee spills out, so they are obliged to lean forward and hold the coffee in front of them, like it smells bad. They think I’m one more civil servant and let me slip by. If they knew I were the minister’s brother, they would accost me and force me to listen to their unsolved lives and insist that I discover the whereabouts of their applications for something or other, applications whose dismal peregrinations through the dismal offices have left them most certainly lost in the one of the seven floors of this building, or maybe piling up in another building that belongs to the ministry, but whose existence only a few old-timers suspect.
The security man opens the door a crack and then swings it open all the way when I tell him my name. The door shuts. People bang against it, shouting, “Tell him to come out here! We’ll talk to the brother!” Inside the offices the secretaries are warm and friendly. I’m not another request. Stacks of envelopes sit on chairs. One of the women is sifting through a pile of strangely-shaped sheets. These are the personal requests my brother receives nearly every day—handed to him by people in the street, in the restaurants, in his electoral district, on the beaches, while he’s jogging, in parliament, written on whatever is handy when they see him: pages torn from spiral notebooks and notepads, yellow stick-its with bits of dirt collected from the lint of his jacket pocket along the gluey edge, half an air-mail envelope, wrinkled scraps of newspaper margins, the cardboard edge from an Antinicot 22 cigarette pack. These she enters into the computer and discards the authentic request into the wastebasket.
There is still one more hurdle to pass before I enter my brother’s office. A man comes up to me, a party loyalist with a white mustache and a high, wrinkled forehead. His eyes, around the corners, seem filled with wet mucus. He looks sad, as if the bowstring of his soul has snapped. He coughs and then exhales a strong stream of smoke right into my face. “I was in your father’s youth movement in the sixties,” he says. “I was in the streets of Athens in the sixties . . . threw bricks against the King’s men . . . jailed for two years . . . founding member of the socialist party . . . ” I nod my head and try to look attentive. He is too smart for my evasions and won’t accept my silent nods. “You! After your father and your brother, it’s you!” He grips my shoulders, “With you we will get our revenge for all the things left undone. You’re the fussbudget, you’re the one who likes to fight back!” I imagine him as he once might have been, leading a group of students into battle against the police, speaking in villages about the right to a free education, all the old slogans. I look away from his moist eyes. I know what he wants. He wants someone to wind up the clock of his life, to set it at seven a.m. and not at quarter to midnight. “For now though,” I say, “for now it’s the Big Guy and his first son, OK?”
I push past him and enter my brother’s office. He’s holding a phone receiver to each ear—engaged in a trialogue, interpreting for one, intervening for the other. When he sees me, he nods his head to indicate the couch. There are more than ten telephones on his desk, multi-eyed bugs looking up at him. Behind him a picture shows my father with a loudspeaker standing on top of a van in a mountain village, another one shows my grandfather inaugurating the National Theater.
Fifteen years of politics haven’t taken my brother’s body too far away from where it once was. His shoulders are broad from a steady regimen of weight-lifting; a recent diet makes him look trim and healthy. But more and more he adopts a distant air when he talks to people, looking askance and fading as if he’s thinking of something else. Maybe that is the way he is dealing with the fact that ship is going down hard and fast.
From the streets comes the rhythmic chanting of the crowd.
“Tell me something new.”
The shouting grows so loud it sounds like it’s right outside the door. His secretary walks in and tells him that indeed, the crowd is close by. They’ve rushed up the stairs and are now in the foyer of the seventh floor, mingling with the people who came for individual requests and favors. He asks her to lock all doors to his office. The voices ring with the triumph of their recent advance. A woman’s voice—with an insistence and a righteousness that I have never felt about anything in my life—calls for his resignation.
“Maybe I should,” he says. I know he never will resign. I knew that the first day I saw him in Greek parliament. “Hey, I’m not in it for life, after all.” But you are, I want to say, you are. We look at each other. He sits back in the leather chair and tells his aide through the intercom that he wants no interruptions.
“You know the story about our grandfather? He was standing outside the parliament building and a passerby cursed him. Pappou scrutinized his face, then he shook his head and said, ‘Strange, I don’t remember helping you.’” I’d heard it before. We shake our heads. The ship really is going down, way down, down into the depths of the waters, and we both know it, but there is little we can do about it. Indictment in parliament, plus a brand new air stewardess for a stepmother whose nude pictures graced the center of Paris-Match, Hello!, and just about every other trash paper. In a few weeks Time magazine will put my father on its cover and draw prison bars around him. Revenge for a former American citizen gone rogue.
“You see the picture of her today?”
My brother nods his head. “The one where she’s half naked or the one where she’s touching the fisherman?”
“You still working on mom and dad’s divorce?”
“I get about ten calls a day from each.”
“It might not be the best idea to be the middleman.”
“Yeah. I’m doing it cause no one else can.”
“Yeah. We all need to feel indispensable.”
“But . . . ”
“It’s OK. But I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”
“And me in yours!”
With each shout against his name, with each insistent yell of “Liar!” or “Our children demand an education!” my breathing grows faster. Each call against my brother is a nail in my heart. He is paying for the sins of his father; but he wouldn’t be in politics if not for his father, so I don’t really know which way the whole thing plays out. The crowd has no historic memory, I think. The party’s past successes are meaningless when weighed against the here and now.
When they shout against my brother I want to hide. He doesn’t flinch but I know he is hurting.
Theodore, my best friend, who is convinced he will die before he’s reached forty, has recently described to me in great detail, relishing my every reaction, the symptoms of a heart attack. Ever since that description I have been checking myself. Evenings I sense a tightness around my chest. Walking in the street or sitting down for dinner I imagine my hand clutching at my throat, my tongue out, bloated like a sausage, and see myself suddenly keeling over like Omar Sharif chasing after the lovely Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago.
Sitting in George’s office, my left arm suddenly goes numb. Needles prick my chest. I drink water. The taste is metallic. I wonder if the president of the water company is truly interested in iron content of the water of Athens or if he was simply given his post because his uncle has political connections, and is interested only in how many ties and suits line his closet and knows nothing about chlorine levels and bacilli. I wonder how things still function in this city; I am constantly amazed that lights still change colors, that ambulances respond to emergency calls, that the police chase thieves, that the electric power company delivers current to all homes, and that the sewage hasn’t simply spilled into the streets on account of bad management. I worry that one day this city will look like the movie set for Planet of the Apes, with silent streets and rusted cars and people hiding inside half-ruined homes.
“How can they be shouting against us?”
“Eh, you know,” he says.
Rub me here, I interrupt. He gives me a vigorous massage. I am taking him away from his ministerial duties but I can’t help it. Pinch my arm. Harder. Good. That hurt. Means I’m not numb, right? It’s as if something has locked its arms around me, holding me and not letting go. A man loves a strong embrace but not with that lover, not yet. I lie back on the couch. It squeaks in leathery protest. There’s not a damn thing wrong with a heart that doesn’t smoke or drink, my brother says, and brings me yet another glass of water.
“You’ve got a panic attack,” he says.
“Alexander the Great died at my age.”
“Wait until you conquer a few empires.”
The election campaign has taken me around Athens, where I go to lend my “name” to support various candidates. I tell George about some of the things I saw. Before and after each speech—I usually introduce the candidate—there are the requests. Rather than the collective solutions it’s the personal tragedy. In New Ionia I arrived in the middle of a suicide attempt. An eighteen year-old had climbed on top of a roof when I arrived. If he didn’t get into the civil service, he shouted, he was going to jump. Around me people said I should promise I would get him into the civil service. Say it, they urged, say it and make him come down. Maybe because this was the nth time I had been asked to do this, or maybe because I was stubborn, or actually curious that anybody might want such a job so much that he would give his life for it, or because something about the man reminded me of the Cretan fruit and vegetable vendor living outside our house, I shook my head. No, I said. I didn’t hold a missal of jobs in my pocket, but people thought I did. The youth had curly hair, and wore a T-shirt tight enough to define his muscles’ sculpture. He had decided that it was in this street, in this evening of this decade and in this part of the globe to go for broke. He made a beautiful move toward the edge like a diver, hands back, head bent. “OK! Entaxi!” I heard myself shout. I don’t know if he heard me. He paused and looked at us as if in disdain for being so solidly located on this Athenian earth—the only time he actually acknowledged our presence—shrugged his shoulders and, with his back to us, climbed down a wooden ladder that was leaning against the wall. He disappeared on a motorcycle that was sitting at the base of the ladder, lifting a leg up like scissors before straddling the seat. I told George that I was left with a sense of incompleteness which remained with me all day.
He smiles. “Those are good stories for when you become a writer.”
The shouting grows louder. I tell George to get me out of here. And not through the crowd. He smiles, a large broad smile. He signs a few more documents, calls in his staff, tells them where they will find him. “My brother’s not feeling well, so we’ll be leaving soon.” He speaks flawless Greek. It better be flawless. Won’t catch him reading an American newspaper in full view of the electoral body. Already tainted by the fact of his bi-linguality, his bi-cultural self, one that he has managed to hide far better than me, he insists on speaking Greek almost all the time. To bug him I sometimes call him George rather than Yorgos. I can be a pain. But I also think that if you pretend you’re a hundred percent people will keep looking for ways to trip you up, like asking you questions about Greek culture you can’t possibly know. Just out with it and be done with it.
Me, I read Baxter on the subway. I write in English. I will write about our duality. That’s your prerogative, he always answers, one you might lose if you were to enter politics.
Carrying our briefcases, dressed in suits and wearing ties, we help each other onto the roof through a trapdoor in the bathroom, stepping on the sink. An empty tomato crate, two tin cans and bird droppings, as well as a tangle of wires and an old air conditioner are strewn across the rumpled floor of the ministry roof. The sun is bright, blinding. We can see Monastiraki, the bazaar, Thisio, the hills of Lycabettus, the Greek Parliament, Constitution Square. A pack of yellow taxis, like hyenas, surround a bus.
The Ministry and the building next to it are close to each other. I look down and see a dark crevice. For a moment even this short distance seems foreboding and unbreachable, but then we leap across and we’re on the roof of the neighboring building.
Next to the debris and litter on the roof of the eight-floor building and an enormous hut for the air conditioning, George shows me a small rickety-looking chair.
“What,” I say.
The chair squeaks. It looks like it was saved from the garbage.
“Look,” he says. He stands aside like a conductor presenting his orchestra. I had kept my head low. Right in front of me, close enough to scratch, the Acropolis. The monument itself, with its missing friezes and its curved steps and curved columns and its white Pentelic marble . . .
My breath is short. Does George have the same urge, the same sense of awe as I do about this city and this monument? Does he play the same tricks?
“One afternoon I sat here until midnight,” he says. “They were looking for me everywhere.” Seeing my surprise he smiles. “I knew you’d like it here. Especially you, who wants to become an author.”
“The light,” I say, “the light always plays differently on the Parthenon, you know . . . and there’s also something else . . . it’s that . . . ”
He turns and looks.
“You see? You see the ancients? You see that no matter what happens around us, it will always be less, so much less than this?” For some reason he chokes up. I am unable to hug him. I tell him a few more facts about the monument, the ones I learned as unofficial tourist guide.
We stare at the Acropolis until the sun begins to set. We talk about my father, the fact he will lose these elections (although it will take three elections to dethrone him) and how our mother is going to deal with the divorce (by listening to Randy Travis and dancing by herself, among other things). Then we walk down into Constitution Square and jump into a cab, where the driver talks non-stop all the way home. Outside, George and I spot the fruit and vegetable vendor and tell the taxi driver to drive on. We are dropped off at the far end of the home and scale the fence. When we are inside we both laugh. It seems ridiculous to avoid entering your home from its entrance because you are intimidated by a poor man.
“That’s the way we were brought up,” I say. “That’s why you’re in politics, isn’t it? To help people like him?”
“We must help with programs and laws and not on a one-to-one basis—otherwise we’ll go nuts.”
The man from Crete is still outside our home. He seems to have forgotten his demands for a fruit and vegetable license. I don’t think he really wants to return to Crete. His sidewalk hut has grown larger. Next to the iconostasis are two wicker chairs, a wooden bench, and a small table where a woman, most likely his wife, makes him coffee on a small blue burner. I can always count on him to paper the outside of his hut with my father’s or brother’s most recent campaign posters. One Sunday, I saw two young men sipping coffee with him. I think he likes it on the sidewalk, close to the streets. He gets to watch people come and go from our house, keeps a pulse of our fortunes rising and falling. I think he will remain here, next to our house, for as long as he is alive.