GR US

A Greek in New Jersey – Part1

The National Herald Archive

Immigrants arriving to the US. PHOTO: Public Domain

My name is Mihalis Vlachopoulos born in the village of Platanas, Laconia in Greece. I came from a poor family only completing second grade. I was barely literate in my own native Greek and I arrived in America on September 9, 1905, to make my fortune and return to Greece a rich man.

I cleared immigration at Ellis Island with a small craft taking us to New York harbor where my cousin Alexandros was waiting for me. When he saw me coming down the plank, he immediately rushed over to hug me. I was happy to see his welcoming face after experiencing a rough sea journey from Patras to New York. Thank God! We made it to America.

Alexandros lived in a small apartment in Manhattan working as a bootblack. I think he came to America around 1898 or 1899. I stayed with him for a few weeks before heading off to Newark, New Jersey. He originally arranged for my passage to America through a Greek labor agent named Ioannis Skliros. I said my goodbyes and caught the train to Newark. Meanwhile, Alexandros telegraphed Skliros telling him that I had just left New York.

I arrived a couple of hours later and was greeted by Skliros at Newark's central railway station. He drove us in his black Ford motorcar to Greek town with its restaurants, barbershops, shoeshine parlors, florists and candy stores. I would start work the next morning at Stavros (Steve) Stavropoulos's shoeshine place at 7 AM. I would be sharing a room with three other males not far from the parlor. I wasn't very keen on the idea but had no choice. I needed a roof over my head in a strange city with no friends or relatives. My real journey was about to begin in America.

The next morning, I arrived at the shoeshine parlor to start my first day of work. Stavropoulos owned a two-story building on High Street with business conducted on the ground floor and upstairs was his private residence. He welcomed me, explained my duties which meant starting at 7 AM and finishing at 8 PM. I was paid the princely wage of two dollars a week. Initially, that seemed a lot of money for me.

I queried my first paycheck why I had been paid $1.50 instead of $2. He told me that Skliros received a percentage of my wages for getting me the job. I thought that was strange and would ask Skliros to explain this discrepancy. Skliros came to the parlor and told me he was entitled to take his commission. I thought Alexandros had paid my passage but to my surprise, it was Skliros who did. I was angry with my cousin for failing to tell me that Skliros was a parasite leeching off his compatriots.

I worked very hard over the next five years paying off my debt to this horrible man. I saved money as I didn't want to be a bootblack for the remainder of my life. At every opportunity, I wired some money to my family in Laconia to help them out. My folks were grateful for my financial assistance. One of my brothers, Ioannis, wanted to come to America. I wrote to him to be patient until I could buy my place.  

Working as a bootblack was not easy though it had its good moments as well. As I said, the working hours were very long with few breaks. Throughout the day, we had a steady stream of customers who wanted their shoes or boots cleaned and polished. Some Americans didn't like us Greeks and spoke to us as if we were nothing. Others treated us with courtesy and respect. The good ones tipped us for doing a good job. I became good friends with a couple of them and called them by their first names. Some customers shared their personal stories with me and we also discussed the state of American politics.

It was October 1912, the American newspapers reported that war had broken out in the Balkans. The Greek Consul in New York called upon all Greeks to enlist in the Greek army to fight against the Turks. I rushed to New York to enlist only to be told by the examining doctor that my enlistment had been rejected due to flat feet. I wanted to defend my homeland but rejection would prove a blessing in disguise.

As war raged in the Balkans, I got my first real break since coming to America. Stavropoulos came up and asked me "do you want to buy my business?" Initially, I didn't know what to say. I was shocked, surprised, and uncertain whether I could run a business. Steve told me he had great faith in my ability and always thought that my friendly disposition with the customers had greatly helped his business. "Why do you want to sell your business," I asked. " I am tired of Newark, I want to move to California where the weather is warmer and sunnier," Steve replied.

I told him to give me two days to think over his offer and he consented to my request. I accepted his offer to buy his business. The only obstacle stopping me from buying his business was financial. "Don't worry Vasili, I will lend you the money. l know you will succeed and you will pay me back," Stavropoulos said. His response gave me a lot of confidence and the will to succeed.

I will say Steve was a stern boss but treated all of us like family. Yes, he worked us very hard but always complimented us for doing a good job. I met fellow Greek bootblacks who worked in other shoeshine establishments where the owners treated them like trash. Some Greek owners used to beat them for no apparent reason.

I will never forget Steve for allowing me to anchor myself in America. I was about to become my own boss. What I thought would be a short stay in America turned out to be a permanent one. I will continue my story.