Now and Then

No one explained to me when I was growing up that we were a family of very modest circumstances. Even if they had, I wouldn’t have understood. I never felt the absence of things. There was always food on the table, even if at times they were warmed up leftovers. As the eldest of three boys, I was bought new clothes now and then. My brothers were less lucky, though the start of school and sometimes Easter meant new clothes for them, too. We lived in a working-class neighborhood in the city. In the morning the air was redolent with the aroma of roasted coffee from the Maxwell House factory by the river; in the afternoons I’d come back home to the smells of sofrito and kielbasa. But I spent summers at my grandfather’s country house by the sea.

Oh, I knew that there were better streets in the city than the one we lived on, but I knew there were worse ones, too.

A disinterested observer would have pointed out that my brothers and I slept on a pair of sofa-beds in the living room. That the clothes were bought on sale from discount houses. That my mother was a fanatical coupon clipper, dinner was sometimes Taylor Ham-and-egg sandwiches, and my father, whom I rarely saw during the week because he so often worked late nights, drove a boxy embarrassment of a car.

The car was the only clue I had that we didn’t have much money. A red Rambler that always seemed to be dirty, however many Saturdays we spent washing and waxing it. Our car always stood out when we’d gather at my grandfather’s farm for some holiday. My uncles drove big shiny black cars that glided silently over the road, Chryslers and Cadillacs, with leather seats and electric windows. But then again, my father himself, a wiry fair-haired man whose mother spoke German, stood out among my mother’s lumbering Italian-Americans brothers, and our quirky car all seemed to me to be part of the package of who my father was.

I was happy growing up. We never lacked for toys, though looking back I can see that they were all inexpensive. Things like yoyos and tops and colored gimp we’d plait into bracelets. Occasionally something special like coloring sets or models of birds and monsters and knights in armor, though they were bought by my grand-uncle or grandfather and not my father. At Christmas we’d find things boards games like “Chutes and Ladders” and “Candyland” under the tree, and the Elgo red-brick-and-white-trim sets with which I would design and build suburban split-levels and ranch houses, the kind of house my father used to talk of taking us to one day.

There were treats as well, more often than not one of the dozens of ingenious ways that manufacturers had devised to deliver doses of sugar to kids: we slurped syrupy liquid from tubes of wax and picked off beads of pastel-colored sugar candies from a roll of paper. We sucked on straws filled with fruit-flavored sugar and clicked on dispensers that would disgorge a pill-sized sugared brick. I didn’t have music lessons or French, but I did have candy. We were fairly close to poor, but I never felt it.

I was telling this to a friend of mine who’s been laid off from his job. His wife still works and they’ve got some savings, but they’ve downsized, cutting expenses wherever they can. Kosmas is worried most about the kids. About the things they can no longer have. “But kids don’t really need that much,” I said. “A feeling they’re loved and safe and special. Regular times to eat. Hugs and kisses. But you know all this already,” I said.

“It’s different with my kids,” he said. “They’ve grown up having things, and now they’ll have to make do with less. A lot less. You and I didn’t have any standard of comparison. We grew up poor. But they didn’t. They have a standard, and it’s ‘now and then.’ And they’re not going to be happy with the ‘now’ .”

That made me think of something that the novelist Petros Markaris said about how Greeks once had a culture of poverty that helped them live well despite privation—and by well he didn’t mean materially. This culture of poverty has nothing to do with the now widely discredited theory first made popular by Oscar Lewis in his study of slum dwellers in Mexico City, the idea that the poor—“aliens in their own country”— have a distinct subculture marked by feelings of powerlessness, dependency and personal unworthiness. Markaris was talking instead of a set of values, including the importance of living in solidarity with others in community, which enabled Greeks for centuries to live, as philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin would say, poetically—literally so, when you think this is a country where ordinary people, even those who couldn’t read, would know the works of poets like in the songs they sang. It was a culture marked with the ability to celebrate the small things in everyday life and the resourcefulness to do it well with limited means.

This culture was subsumed, though not lost entirely, in the frenetic hyper-consumerism made possible by the inflow of cheap EU money. It was a sham prosperity, created by an economy fueled by personal consumption, construction, loans and a ever burgeoning public sector that generated jobs that served no productive purpose—a country where the public TV channels had twice as many as all the private channels taken together, a country where, as Stefanos Manos notes, the state-run Olympic Airlines was losing €1 million a day while the private Aegean Airlines was earning as profit of €100,000 a day.

It was a sham, but it didn’t feel like that at the time. Kosmas bought 60€ rugby shirts for his kid who’d outgrow them in a year. It felt real enough, this prosperity, though there were voices that tried to warn us that this perverse ‘model’ of development was unsustainable. Perhaps we had an inkling that things were not all right when we saw banks outdoing themselves in offering eortodaneia and diakopodaneia (the notorious “holiday loans” and “vacation loans”). We laughed, but perhaps there was the slightest undertone of concern in our laughter. Or maybe not. It’s hard to remember now what exactly it felt like then. Back then before the loss.

The signs of loss are everywhere to be seen, and most tragically in the recent unemployment statistics that speak of 20% unemployed. Everyone knows it’s higher; the numbers don’t include my friends Luiza and Marios and Leandros, freelance graphics artist, music teacher and translator respectively, whose commissions have all but dried up, or those, like Menios, who never had a legal job and so isn’t on the unemployment rolls.

I see this loss, too, in the neglect and abandonment that seems to be claiming ever greater swathes of the city. One usually thinks of “depressed neighborhoods” in economic terms, but it really is more than that. The psychological symptoms of apathy and self-neglect, the aching emptiness and evacuation of joy are just as present. It doesn’t happen all at once but there is a point when the encroaching sadness is impossible to ignore: the fungus of tag graffiti that soon covers every imaginable building surface, the proliferation of for-rent signs in the lobbies of apartment buildings, the permanent state of disrepair into which more and more buildings fall–the equivalent in concrete to the depressive’s disinclination to shave or change his underwear.

One sees this loss in the closed up shops in my (working-class) neighborhood in Athens. First to go was the pet shop and one of the butchers, then a hairdresser and the tailor’s shop and the hole-in-the-wall that serviced PCs, and then two florists in the space of three months. Luxury items in a crisis, you’d say, not surprising they were forced to close. But then the corner supermarket closed and then the dry cleaner’s. We still have three pharmacies in the space of four blocks; the profession, with an obscenely high state-guaranteed profit margin and protective legislation regarding operating hours, is still “closed” to real competition. I wasn’t sad to see the supermarket close. It was a dirty shop with grossly overpriced goods that exploited its singularity for a quick profit. The prices didn’t seem to matter back then, before. At some point they began to matter, though.

“Mixer” by Panayotis Ioannidis, from his series, “The New Economy”

In his visually arresting series of photographs of “The New Economy” Panayotis Ioannidis has delivered a moving and eloquent narrative of this loss and abandonment. His photographs of empty shop windows, with their flotsam of dashed dreams—a mascot doll from the Athens Olympics, a lone table soccer figure lying alone on a shelf like a discarded mummy of a discredited sect, burlap-wrapped crates, a scrap of a “Made in Greece” poster that stands like a memento mori on a bed of crumbled wrapping paper in a display window—each in its own way bears witness to the ruins of an impossible economy. There always seem to be something missing in these works: the casing for an electrical box, the seats in an open-air theater now given over to weeds and rust, a chunk of a decaying balcony, the nameplates next to the buzzers on a business building (the last in an intriguing Rothko-like composition in which the repeating vertical blocks of the absent nameplates is recapitulated in a graffito to the right).

Nowhere is this abandonment, however, more strikingly emblematic of the crisis than in his photographs of empty billboards. Billboards were once ubiquitous in the city, not only on empty lots along the expressways, but also on the roofs of apartment buildings along thoroughfares in the downtown area. Legislation against streetside advertising in the city curtailed the use of these billboards as advertising surfaces, but that almost seems irrelevant. Even without legislation, the budgets are no longer there to use them. In one shot, the uncovered grids of a pair of billboards sit like awkward crowns of folly on the roofs of dilapidated low-rise houses. The foreground of the photograph is dominated by a futuristic three-headed streetlight (financed no doubt in part by EU money) that rises up like an alien probe, an anemometer whose readings were taken but not disclosed. The empty billboards have become literally a sign of the crisis; like an empty picture frame in a gallery or on a living room end-table, they are sad witnesses to theft or loss, heralds, now struck dumb, of a culture of wealth to which we were unaccustomed.


Image: From Panayotis Ioannidis’ series, “The New Economy”


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