I was floating down the street, awareness consuming weakness, down a street full of holiday lights and the scent of cooked lamb. Cats were weeping — but no, it was her begging me to wake up. The taxi-driver and street men were carrying me on stout shoulders, back to the dispensary.
Oh, please wake up.
Christmastime, the 24th of December, in the ancient metropolis where the word metropolis was invented — Athens, Greece. 1971.
We were street urchins, two American kids stranded with no money on this, the ostensive holy of holies, away from our families, basted birds, trees festooned by myth and tinsel stars. Hitch-hiking through Europe, finally South, away from the Austrian winter, a bitter cold Florida babies such as we were utterly unprepared. Athens in December is cold, gray, tired, dingy. A huge city, unforgiving in the murky wet chill that reached through the marrow. Not sunny. Not warm. Anything but quaint.
The girl (for girl she was at 19) was sad. No holiday dinner. No money. No goddamned sense. Waiting around the American Express office with an international congeries of wastrels, tourists, wankers, back-packers and leering, curious Pervs, hoping for money wired from home. No dice. 30 Drachma between us, hardly enough to afford another night in the funky Youth Hostel, a good hour’s walk away from Syntagma (Constitution) Square where a magnet of misadventure awaits lost children.
In desperation we trudge three miles to the U.S. Embassy hoping for help, a meal, shelter, brandishing passports, begging, pleading insisting on our rights – We’re Americans. We’re hungry. Tired, poor huddled masses of two. Children adrift.
Sorry, the embassy is closed for Christmas. The staff is gone until after New Year.
Can’t we get something? A loan? A sandwich?
If you’re hungry maybe you kids should have thought ahead before stranding yourselves in Athens; now look at’cha; sleeping on the streets like frightened beggars. Where are your parents? Sorry, no one here can help you. Go away. Come back after the holiday.
Good Fucking Luck- I spout in return. The Middle finger erect. God Bless ‘Murica. Thanks fer nuthin’, War Piggies. (In 1971 the war in Vietnam was still raging.)
I was a feisty 17 years-old, six months away from draft age. Hippy hair down to my ass. Almost prettier than my girlfriend, who has miserable gray circles under her eyes from lack of sleep and hunger. We weren’t like those college brats with a pocket full of graduation money, a prepaid Hostel card and a Eurail Pass. We transported the hard street of shoddy tropical Miami to this world of exotic Greek babble and confusion. We were far from tender brats looking for soft diversion. The ‘real thing’ was our constant companion stateside, and other than not knowing one word of Greek, the haggard muse remained previously informed. Pervs everywhere. Shining eyes waiting to pounce. Offers of bread for sex —with either of us. Chocolate whores. Loose yanquis. Nope, faithless souls we were not. Sex for our generation was given freely, not sold. Especially to the chronically prurient and repressed men lining the streets, drinking ouzo, waggling worry beads obscenely at every unescorted girl passing. Mouths hanging half-open imagining taboo sex with runaways and waifs.
For an ancient culture, I quip acidly, they sure seem pitifully unevolved.
We walked back to Syntagma Square, singing the songs off Joni Mitchell’s album — Blue. She knew every word. Girl stuff, I’d poke. Until the words ended up defining every step of our journey. I sang low harmony with her to help keep our spirits up. In fact, other than escaping snow, it was Liv’s idea we go to Greece— to find the Matala Moon. The wind, in from Africa.
‘…it’s comin’n on Christmas, they’re puttin’ up trees..’
Let’s go to Crete. Like Joni did.
I bet she didn’t hitch-hike across the Peloponnese. I bet she never slept with sheep on a freezing hill outside of Igoumanitsa. I bet she never had to lie her way into a hot bowl of bean soup, and a ratty hotel room.
‘…it’s comin’n on Christmas, they’re puttin’ up trees..’
We’re in it now, Fum-child.
Damn straight. I won’t let any stinking letch mess with you, Liv.
My brave man, she grinned. Keep your blade in your pants.
‘…I wish I had a river, I could skate away…on-nnn…’
I just wanted adventure. I was no stranger to risk. But Liv? My god, she was intoxicating. My first real love, stolen away from all distractions and competitors, her scent of patchouli clinging to my body like a sorcerer’s charm — masking our unbathed bruised bodies. Never had I been given such surprising sex. Never had I been so in puppy-love that I would face down a raging Greek intent on rape or usury. Those things are universal. To those base glimmerings of unwanted lust, I was no stranger. Neither was she. Cruelty is universal — it speaks every language. We were children of the seventies— runaways. The wanderers were our new family. When it mattered, kindness appeared out of the ether, sustained us.
‘…I made my baby cry-yyy…’
She made a man out of me. Sort of. That Man thing is hard to describe. At the very least I was an unrepentant heterosexual in an era of nascent gender bending. Shapeshifters were we, the babies of freedom. Rebellion. Rock n’ roll. Pretending and imagining a new reality free of expectation. Lost as hell. Better than the reining expectations of the free society.
Birth. School. Military. Work = DEATH.
The accumulation of plastic wisdom destined for a boneyard or landfill.
Like Steinbeck wrote: If you want help, go to the poor people. The poor people understand. The poor people will help.
Like those gypsy kids who tried to beg the coat off our backs on the road to the Patra ferry, when they realized we, unlike they, were lost and hungry, those moon-eyed gypsy boys fetched their big brothers – who looked us over, knowing immediately our hearts, brought us to their camp and fed us, lost gadjos, children without a compass, where women clucked their tongues in pity, showed us where we could sleep safely among them, and sent us on our way the following morning — with a sign and a blessing.
That was some powerful blessing. From that moment to this — as I sit typing — I should have been killed by my own misadventure a thousand times over. They saved both our lives by surrounding us with magic.
I can’t prove it — but I know it is so.
The road to Athens, paved in sheep blood, stained wool, and unseeing eyes hung for sale in the open market. Exotics. Future stew. Children with more guts than sense. Shattered waifs, running from the Land of Plenty, seeking authenticity, cynical of jingoes or golden dreams.
We were too busy (actually) trying to survive another day in the great unknown to begin analyzing our situation — to do so would have required wisdom neither yet possessed. Only now, fifty years later, can I grasp the true meaning of:
What. The. Fuck. Were. We. Thinking?
Tourists come to Athens for the Acropolis. The crumbling monuments. The Mother of Democracy. A Plato sandwich with tahini on the side. Souvlaki. Lovely, mouth-watering spinach pastries, sweet buns.
We lived like litter blowing down the streets chased by rats. Bemused by authentic defecation hidden within the interstices; corners tucked full of desperate offal. Cyrillian alphabet hawking impossibilities. A hard city full of refugees, transition, and gritty politics.
She and I made it back to Syntagma Square, starving and bone-weary. Rejected by our own government. Or, more accurately — Outpost of Taxation and Primacy. There were still armored tanks in the streets from Papadopoulos’ take-over. Stone-faced soldiers, smoking, leering at us both, dreaming of a stolen anonymous fuck from immoral hippie vagabonds. This is universal also. To be poor and lost is to be a thing worthy of abuse, spent seed and discard. The soldiers loitered on tanks, bored, smoking Turkish tobacco, making sidelong jokes, laughed, groped themselves. Spit on the street as we drifted by. Yelling obscenities we well understood without the specifics of glossary.
Everyone wants to fuck us, she laughed. Or they want to fuck you, Jonny-Fum. You’re pretty.
Great. So, I had to travel a thousand miles from Lincoln Road to be perved? Write me a postcard.
They like boys more than girls here. Maybe you’d like it, she cocked one eyebrow, gurned at me. Liv had younger brothers my age. She knew how to tease a kid trying to be a Man.
Shut up and sing, Liv. You’re not funny.
Of course, I am. Only you are funnier than me. Cutie-pie. She mocks and giggles for the first time in days. I let it go, stomp ahead of her, annoyed, overwhelmed and outgunned by the whole situation. I knew plenty of street Spanish. I could survive the Miami streets. This jabbering guttural tongue? (Greek to me.) I couldn’t even cuss them out or warn them away. I was 130 pounds of hapless skin and bone. When you look as effeminate as I did in 1971, it was prudent to perfect a feral street-snarl and an affect of danger.
I was amused when I learned the word ‘malaka’. It served me well in the coming months. The universal jerk-off rejoinder resides everywhere among jocular males, but only in Greece is the word masturbator a ubiquitous greeting, insult, and friendly backslap.
‘…they’re puttin’ up reindeer, singin’ songs of joy and peace…’
I waited until a tourist family got up from a table, leaving half-eaten plates of food, and scurry over to take the scraps, running away from a pair of outraged waiters who cursed my temerity.
Hunger staunches pride.
Poor girl. She was a vegetarian. So hungry she squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed the scraps of souvlaki and crusts of bread. Weeping. Longing for home. Even the broken unhappy one she left behind.
I’ve never been a thief. Anything I could bullshit a rube out of was fair game— but stealing? This was the first time I had considered robbing someone with a spork.
If you’d just whore out, Jonny- we’d be eating like royalty.
Unfunny is, ironically, funny. Like me eating a goat carcass.
Sheep. Not goat.
I think I’m gonna vomit.
‘…I wish I had a river so wide…’
A blonde fellow appeared, cat-like, in front of us, holding two sandwiches wrapped in paper. He was a mild-mannered hippie with a long ponytail. Ripped jeans. Wonky glasses.
Hi. I saw what you did back there. Trust me, the last place you ever want to end up is a Greek jail.
Yeah. Like I was just telling monkey-boy here, she remarks. Elbowing my ribs. A signal to focus.
I’m Willy. From Indiana. You two ooze lost kid. He hands us each a sandwich. Souvlaki. Liv smiles politely, looks at the greasy paper. She looks positively green.
Where you two staying?
My street-sense flares, I wait for the universal body-language of the ubiquitous roving Perv. Watching every twitch on our benefactor’s face. He’s older, in his twenties. Pock faced, pleasant, non-confrontational. Another refugee.
I live up there. He points toward the Acropolis. High up, in the Plaka. I got pretty cheap rent. I teach English to Greeks. Not rolling in dough, but enough drachma to get by. You?
We starve for a living. I quip
Business is good, she adds, cocking her head to one side, narrowing her chestnut eyes.
No money from home? He asks, thumbing toward the American Express office.
Not yet. If it comes at all. It takes two weeks to get mail from the States.
Well, he sits down next to Liv; if you want, you two can crash a couple nights at my place. It’s a long climb though. A thousand steps straight up. Where you two from?
Florida, Liv answers. Elbows my ribs again. We don’t have any money to pay you.
Indiana Willy shrugs – not necessary. I have an extra spot. Nothing fancy. Do you have gear?
Back at the Hostel. I’m still studying his eyes for signs of hunting perv-spider. He scribbles on a sheet of paper, hands it to me. My address. Just show it to one of the shop keepers, they’ll point you in the right direction. If you get lost, keep asking. They’re pretty cool up there. Not like the Square. This place is full of trouble. Creeps and grifters.
Yeah? Like us?
He smiles graciously. I hope not. You’re just a couple of kids. This is a tough spot.
Liv elbows my ribs again, this time harder. Ask him about work, she whispers in my ear.
You know where we can get a few bucks? Working, I mean. Something other than prostitution. I grin without humor. He grins back. Yeah, different culture here. I guess you noticed.
They think Jonny’s cute. Liv cackles. Shows him her pearlies. She has an alluring smile. Mischievous.
I grind my teeth, glare sideways at her.
No offense, but at first, I thought both of you were female. He sees me darken. Don’t get mad. Now that I’m close, I see the difference. Greek men are kinda into boy sex, not all of them, but they don’t see it as wrong. Cultural thing. Boys are for pleasure, women for procreation. You’re either a sister, mother, wife, or slut. Friendship isn’t usually on the table where Greek women are concerned. Boys, on the other hand…
That’s because they think all American or English hippies believe in free love. We’re all sluts. Although some are willing to pay for it. He sees me darken again, suspiciously.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t judge. Just a different culture. Not trying to get weird. I just don’t want you to get popped by the Greek cops or hustled by wanks. It can get very ugly. Bad shit happens to tourist kids in Athens. Especially if you don’t know the deal or the territory.
Yeah. The deal. Right. We see how much the Embassy is willing to help.
Indiana Willy scoffs. You’ve been there? How’d it go?
Well, Indiana guy — we’re stealing leftovers off plates, if that tells you anything.
My offer still stands. I’m cool. No strange shit, I promise. He chuckles when he sees Liv elbow me in the same rib, he stands, strokes his pony-tail thoughtfully. There is one quick way to scrape some cash together, but I’m not sure I should recommend it. Greeks are weird about donating blood. They refuse to do it, so they’ll pay you two hundred dracs for whole, clean blood. I’ve done it when I needed money. Before I started this teaching grip. He thumbs up the street. Do you read Greek yet?
Indiana scrawls on another sheet. This is what the sign looks like. There are a few places up by your Hostel. If you’re really desperate, I mean. I’d be careful. Make sure they use a clean needle.
Okay, maybe I’ll see you two soon, maybe I won’t. Offer stands. Just be careful out here.
Thanks for the grub, man.
He nods, smiles, walks away. Liv chirp-chuckles. And they say there ain’t no Santa, she says in her best exaggerated southern drawl.
Did Mr. Santa Indiana say ‘careful’?
Yes, sailor. He certainly did.
He doesn’t know me, does ‘ee?
Nope, Jonny-Fum, my brave foolish warrior. He does not.
Fuck it. I’m game. Let’s go. I want something to eat. And wine. Lots.
You sure? sounds a little crazy. Liv sounds worried, unconvinced.
Baby, I say, pulling her close, licking her top lip, lasciviously – I’d bleed for your sweet love. And I’m tired of starving. It’s Christmas, I want to buy you some warm socks. And vegetable soup.
My crazy, crazy, boy-hero. My personal smelly elf.
She was the most beautiful, winsome, exotic creature I’d ever laid eyes on. Young men are reckless. They will die for love. They will die by bravado. They will tempt fate for soup.
And that is exactly how I ended up selling my blood twice in one day. Over 350 cc in two separate kiosks. Dirty places with questionable sanitary procedures. Cash money. I felt victorious. And dizzy. And weak.
And additionally – after screaming at a taxi-driver, who attempted to add a Christmas surcharge on our fare, I fainted dead away on the street like an exsanguinated monkey-pigeon.
Just like a Christmas miracle, I floated on the air, like hippie Jonny-Fum the Archangel, certain I had died, and my soul had begun its final sojourn into glory, glory, glory…
‘…I wish I had a river…’
Wake up, baby. She scolds between sobs – You can’t die and leave me all alone here, damn it. You cannot fucking croak on Christmas. Oh, Fummy baby. Wake up. I don’t need socks or soup. You gotta live, stupid-ass!
The taxi-driver and three other men had me hoisted above their heads, hauling me back to the blood bank before I died of exsanguination. A short, sharp argument ensued between the clinic nurse and a Greek bearing a gift (my limp body, five beats away from dead) who made them re-pump me full of enough blood to survive the blessed Holiday.
I most certainly would never have survived a trip to a hospital.
‘…I made my baby cry-yy…’*
Those Greeks saved my young, clueless life. They even threatened the clinic for trying to take back the drachma earned by my stupidity. The taxi driver, laugh-swearing in English, Greek and gawdknows what other languages — drove us to the bottom of the Plaka at a very reduced rate. His advice?
No stupid boy again. No die again. Merry Christmas. Go to fucking home.
I am not religious. I rarely allow for the supernatural in my life. But I do believe in anonymous Guardians who appear in time to preserve the lives of fools and babes. Christmastime miracles? That is an entirely subjective conclusion. As mentioned, I don’t especially celebrate the birth of a cultural ‘question mark’ these days – it’s too hard for the analytical part of my character to get past the economic blackmail and crass American commercialism. Maybe it has less to do with religion than simple universal kindness.
Kismet exists. Or stochasticity. I try not to over-think it.
Weird. I also try not to think of exactly WHOSE blood they pumped back into me. I only hope it has (quite literally) imbued me with something akin to basic common sense and perhaps a secret belief that good exists in this tired, old, cynical world.
I still have my doubts about the former, but never the latter.
All good children go to heaven.
(*River – lyrics by Joni Mitchell)