It was such a pleasant surprise. As I browsed last Sunday’s edition of the Greek newspaper, To Vima, I suddenly stopped when I saw a photo. “But this is Jimmy,” I thought with joy. “He’s alive!”
It really was Jimmy – and he looked good. Much better than when he lived in the streets of Astoria.
Dimitris – he never revealed his last name – had come to New York some 30 years ago from Greece as a company representative.
He liked New York, and when his colleagues returned to Greece, he stayed behind. He started working as a painter. He was good at his job and he earned respectable money, some of which he sent to his wife, who, as he said, is a theologian.
In the meantime, he began to socialize at the “Elliniki Spilia” nightclub, the bouzouki joint that featured, as its slogan declared, “the big names” in Greek entertainment.
Those were the popular venue’s glory days. It was located on Broadway, between 31st and 32nd Streets, in the basement of the Crystal Palace catering hall in Astoria.
He “closed the place” almost every night. And he drank too much – soon he began not to show up at work. Since he could not pay his rent, he was thrown out of his apartment.
Jimmy moved to a friend’s apartment. But how long would that last?
And so, he ended up living on the streets and spending his money on alcohol.
He started to visit us when our offices were still on Crescent Street, just by the 59th Street Bridge in Queens.
He was our faithful reader, patiently waiting every day for the new edition to start printing, picking up some papers before leaving.
He gave them to restaurateurs he knew in exchange for a plate of food or for a dollar to buy a drink.
When we figured out what was going on, we arranged for him to eat for free in a local restaurant, the Ditmars. But he usually asked for money instead of food, to get his drinks. When I asked him why he did that, he smiled, as if he were saying, “what do you want me to tell you now? How can you possibly understand!”
We tried to place him in an institution to get him off the streets. He was ready to be accepted by the St. Michael’s Home for the elderly and a municipal institution. But as soon as he heard that the they closed their doors at night, he left in a rage. He would not accept that he could not…be free to go on his night time walks. The street had become his life.
We begged him to go back to Greece. One day he told me that his wife, after not hearing from him for so many years, had remarried.
But he had a daughter. He only showed emotion when he talked about his daughter. Deep emotion!
But he did not cooperate with us to find her. He was probably ashamed.
We continued to tell him to return to Athens to get away from the extreme heat and cold of New York’s summers and winters.
We would get him the tickets.
“Yes, yes I will go,” he would tell me, “but give me the money and I will buy the tickets.”
He wanted the money to buy liquor.
He always spoke to me in the plural. He was a fanatical follower of the singer Stelios Kazantzidis and…the former king of Greece.
In the end, he had lost much weight. The last winter before he left was a brutal one. It hit him hard. They also began to drive him out of the subways where he found shelter.
Many times, when he could no longer bear it, he would commit some minor crime just so the police would arrest him and send him to jail for a few days.
When he came out he was shaved, washed, and…restless – the cycle began again.
Finally, he understood he would not make it through the winter that was approaching, so when a friend of his told him he was going to Athens, he agreed to go with him.
For a while he visited our offices in Athens and would call me from there.
He had found his daughter, who loved him and cared for him, he told me – to reassure me. “Do not worry about me,” he would say, smiling. “Do not worry, but if you can send me…”
After a while, he stopped calling. He had taken his own path. The one he knew. Where he felt free.
The weather in Athens, of course, is not as harsh as New York’s. And surely, some people were giving him a plate of food. At least that’s what I hoped for. And so it appears from his photo, which was published in To Vima, as if by Divine Intervention, that he looks better.
I think often of my friend Jimmy. I ponder that as much as some of us at the newspaper tried, we did not manage to help him become free of his demons and change the course of his life.
But that did not make him less of a friend…