Saturday, April 18, 2020

Texas Recollection


     "A change is as good as a rest," Irish playwright Brendan Behan once said, and I can vouch for its factuality. I'm also glad that EGD readers enjoyed Caren Jeskey's debut effort here last week, "Texas Walkabout."  The usual next step would be for her to vanish. But Caren must not have gotten the memo, because she sent in a second essay, which I've dubbed "Texas Recollection." I am pleased to post it today, despite knowing my readers well enough to suspect that a second essay might provoke alarm in ways that a single essay would not (as reflecting another favorite line, "Einmal ist keinmal und zweimal ist immer," or "Once is never and twice is always.") Remain calm. Writing continually for the public is difficult, trust me on that, and few are up to it. Either she will continue or she won't. As I like to say when people begin debating events in the future: "We don't have to argue about it—we can just wait and find out."

     For eight years I rented a huge apartment in Chicago on Washtenaw where I lived above my landlords, Angelo and
Eleftheria. Angelo is now in hospice care due to COVID-19. He cannot see his family. He is lucid and the nurses are kind enough to arrange FaceTime visits, but it is beyond me to comprehend the sadness he and his wife must feel to be apart in what may prove to be his final days. 
      When I lived there the greatest pleasure was the garden of edible plants and flowers they cultivated in the front and back yards, and all along the walkway between. Grape vines yielded juicy bunches and fruits and vegetables seemed to spill out into the lawn and fill buckets. 
     As devout Greek Orthodox practitioners there was no dearth of the sounds of prayers and the aroma of Frankincense filling my apartment year round. Sometimes I would lay on the floor of my kitchen with my ear pressed to the hardwood just to hear Angelo sing. They made sure to bring me spanakopita, tiropita, baklava and other delicacies regularly, taking care of their single tenant who was often alone. Angelo once asked me if I lived on my back porch because every single time he passed me on the way to his grand babies upstairs he'd see me reclining in my chair, enjoying the strong fragrance of jasmine from their trees and watching the sun set in the West. They included me in Greek Easter and the little granddaughters marveled at my nose piercing and offered me eggs to crack against theirs as a part of the tradition. I felt safe and loved knowing this couple was below me for all of those years.
     Our neighborhood had many hidden gems such as HarvesTime Foods on Lawrence where you could find a variety of Greek and Bulgarian feta cheeses, an olive bar, Krinos brand taramosalata also known as Greek caviar, freshly baked bread, local coffee beans, a burgeoning produce department and long handled Turkish style coffee pots along with the finely ground Bosnian or Greek style coffees these pots are designed for. I learned from my good friend Snezana how to properly boil these coffees three times for a perfect cup. Snezana and other friends like Lyndee and Elle would come over to my huge flat and we’d cook up tunes on guitars and percussive instruments and sing our stories to each other.
     My landlords had allowed me to pick out the paint color for the kitchen and I chose a vibrant lime green. A good friend Chef Courtney Contos whose father was the founder and proprietor of the famous Chez Paul—the restaurant where Ferris Bueller was given a proper suit coat on his day off—gave me a wooden potato and onion box that rested in the corner, and she also helped me outfit my kitchen with gourds of sea salt with little wooden spoons, Le Creuset and other posh supplies that I still use to this day, nearly 15 years later. I had countless happy moments in that kitchen with friends gathered around the table while I served charcuterie and we drank sparkling water, coffee and wine with the back door wide open to the porch and the sunset and the garden on endless summer days.
     I only got in trouble with Angelo and 
Eleftheria one time, when a flippant friend spun a wooden top on the dining room floor well past eleven pm one Saturday night. I was horrified and told him to stop, but the irreverent soul that he was spun the top at least two more times, wood spinning furiously on wood. I heard about it from the landlords the very next day and apologized profusely, which they accepted. I wonder why they did not hear or maybe they just didn’t comment on the times I came home later and once even fell into the tub drunk after a long night at a neighbor’s house or perhaps DANK Haus or somewhere farther away like Cafe Mestizo in Pilsen where I’d bike to and from to play music with Snezana in our duo, The Adaptations.
     The Washtenaw apartment represented many things to me. It was safe, warm in the winter and breezy with a roomful of windows open in the front and the back door open all night in the summer. It was a place where I knew that despite difficult neighbors like the 6’7” bouncer from The Green Mill clomping in at three in the morning more often than not, who looked at me like I was an alien when I asked if he’d try to be quieter, I was safe and sound in this household. There was a grace about the landlords downstairs that kept me there all those years.
     As this virus ravages so many people in our world right now I wish I could rewind to 2014 and still be living in that place. I’d have more dinner parties and isolate less. I’d play more music with Snezana and other friends and now we’d have a solid band. Our first album would be called Greek Easter. I’d be closer with my landlords and spend more time sitting in the yard with them. I’d stop playing the Peter Pan story and running around so much, and I’d settle down with a nice man
. Eleftheria would finally be able to give me the potted jasmine tree she’d be saving for years that was to be a gift at my wedding. Angelo would be all scrubbed up in a fine suit and have a dance with me, and we’d know that all is well.

14 comments:

  1. Thank you Caren Jenskey for your piece of nostalgia. It was so vividly written and sensually descriptive that I almost felt I'd lived in those apartments too and experienced those tastes and smells, sounds and sights. We can never return to the magic places of our past but when you can remember them this clearly and with such bitter-sweet consciousness they will never be lost. The memory brings more joy for having survived intact than the pain of the loss to the past, which could otherwise be too sharp for it to be bearable. I salute you, Caren, for your generosity of spirit and your talent for exhuming the past, making it vibrantly alive again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Ian- perhaps we can meet in Chicago one day and take a walking tour, and I will show you this place.

      Delete
  2. Enjoyed both of Caren's efforts. One problem I see with her writing, which I also see in my own efforts at times, is her attempt to pack every single detail in each sentence. I certainly understand the desire to tell the truth, the whole truth, but I think that if Caren persists in writing for the public, she will have to trust her readers to understand nor only what's said but also what's implied or even just assumed.

    john

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I vastly prefer the work of Mr. S to Ms. J, and it's for the same reason you expressed so well. I hesitated to comment at first, because I was trying to come up with the right words without appearing to be overly harsh, or even snarky.

      Judicious copy editing would greatly improve her pieces...along with shorter paragraphs. Ask the man who knows--not only was I both a copy editor and a proofreader for years, but I have the same problem with my own work. Edit and re-edit, find a proofreader for typos, change a word or even a whole sentence, and cut, cut cut...by a third...or even by half.

      I'm often a little embarrassed at the length of my comments at EGD, and I have always been grateful to Mr. S. for allowing them to be published as written. He probably doesn't have the time to edit or proofread here, and he could just choose not to run them instead. But he usually does, and my cup runneth over with gratitude.

      Do these pieces by Ms. J. remind anyone else of the personal narratives that used to run in the Chicago Reader, during the Seventies and Eighties? Those lengthy slice-of-life stories about Chicago, by Chicagoans? This one resonated with me because I also lived in Rogers Park, back in the day. It now seems long ago and far away, because it was, and it is.

      Delete
  3. I love your descriptions of your landlords. I very much want to know them better. Makes me think of putting pen to paper to share about Mama and Papa Klein from that village in Germany from my own youth.
    Tha k you for the vignette into that moment in time. We must all call up those times in our bodies right now as we navigate such uncertainty.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for commenting- it does feel good to reflect upon and make meaning of the past and I hope you try it too.

      Delete
  4. Thank you Caren for this wonderful writing. It's difficult to think of your landlord alone at this time. Beyond difficult. You brought his home to life. Your landlords' love of flowers and family, fruits and vegetables makes this reality seem bearable. As the sun shines strong on Chicago today, after snow twice this week, I salute you and your homage to Washtenaw.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Debi- enjoy the sunshine, bottle it.

      Delete
  5. I loved this column. Being Greek Orthodox I have experienced much of what Caren describes so perfectly in her essay. Brings back many memories of my life living in an apartment in Chicago and hanging out in the Lawrence, Lincoln, and Western neighborhood where many Immigrant Greeks lived at the time. Thank you for posting!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That area is rich with so many things. Happy Easter!

      Delete
  6. With this piece,you rewound the tape to the beginning of the previous decade and to the end of the one before that. And what a wonderful tribute to Angelo and Elefteria.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Amazing writing! You so eloquently and vividly describe the details that I can hear the children playing and smell the aromas from the kitchen. God bless Angelo and Elefteria in this difficult time.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thank you for sharing Caren. God bless Angelo and Elefteria at this difficult time.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for your comment, which will be published at the discretion of the proprietor.