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Greek-American Stories: Possessions

August 6, 2019
Phyllis “Kiki” Sembos

At Dixon’s, that Sunday, the subject was about their first days in America and how few were their possessions.

John began. “My uncle and I were on the ship that landed in New York harbor and it was winter. It was really cold. Between us we had about $20, and not much else. Luckily, my uncle, who was a tailor by trade, found a good job at a tailor shop. He took care of me until I found a job. It was hard going for a long while until we got settled.” Dimos told them that he had come with $10 in his pocket. “I slept on a park bench, not knowing how to get around in this city until I found where my relative lived. My only possessions were what I wore. And, they were what I brought from my village besides socks and a change of underwear. I got directions to my mother’s sister, whom I met for the first time. She was very good to me. I was scared those first days before I found her.”

George told them he’d had $5 in his pocket. “I had no possessions at all except for the $5. It bought me breakfast, and I got a job in that same store. They hired me to clean up and help the cook. I had to prove I was a good mechanic before anyone hired me.”

Kipreos, looking around and realizing he was expected to tell them about his experience after arrival in New York, said, “I came with my uncle and two Cypriots who had connections to a society that helps newcomers from Cyprus, thank God. But, my suitcase had all my possessions. There were two suits, two pair of socks and a winter coat and four shirts. The society found me an apartment, had my clothes cleaned and helped me apply for a job at the hotel. I was trained in Cyprus as a pastry chef.” He said meekly, “I guess I didn’t have it as bad as you guys.”

Yiannis uttered, looking up. “Looks like you all had a better start here than me. You found relatives, jobs and a place to stay. I’m the only one that had the worst time.” Dimos asked him, “Didn’t you have anyone that lived in New York? I recall you have a sister here.”  Looking glum, Yiannis said, “I brought my sister here after I got settled. For me, it was very tough, those first days. I didn’t know a word of English, I didn’t know how to get anywhere, who to ask, and I was afraid because I was told there’s a lot of crime here. My only suit was what I was wearing. My shoes were worn out. Everything I owned was in a cotton bag my sainted mother sewed for me.”

John, very concerned, asked, “where did you go your first day after you left the ship?” Downcast, Yiannis told them, “I located a man who was from my town, Marousanakislaki. Hungry, tired and worried, I begged him to help me out.” Kipreos asked him if he did. Yiannis nodded. “He let me sleep in the back of his store, and I stayed there a while, hanging on to my cotton bag until I got more acquainted with the city streets. But, my patriotis was getting a little tired of me hanging around for over a month. What else could I do? It was tough finding a job and hanging on to my cotton bag that held everything I owned.” After a pause, he said, “Finally, he found me a job and a cheap apartment. So, I had to leave his place.” Concern and sympathy showed on all their faces as they realized their friend seemed to have had a tougher time for a longer time. Kipreos said sadly, “bet you wished you were back in Marousanakislaki.” Yiannis nodded. “But, I stuck it out! I’m a true son of Marousanakislaki.” George, curious, asked, “What was in that cotton bag that you guarded with your life?” Pausing, sipping his coffee, Yiannis took in a deep breath, sighing, and thinking back to that arduous time. “Like I said, everything I owned was in that bag.” Dimos asked, “Do you remember exactly what you had in that cotton bag?” With another nostalgic breath, Yiannis said, “Of course! How can I forget my mother’s gift of an icon to protect me and $2000.”

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