The letter I remember most was short and ebullient, like she was. “Stephen!” she wrote in her left-handed, oval script in blue ink from a fountain-pen, on blue onionskin Air Mail paper: “I have just this minute discovered another Greek beverage to temper my consciousness. It is absinthe, made of wormwood, they say. Yannis the waiter who brought it to me now looks like an Impressionist painting in his white shirt and black pants against the blue of Iraklion Bay. In fact, this liquid has inspired an epigram just for you: ‘Absinthe makes the ouzo founder!’ Ha ha! You must get over here!”
She was my girlfriend Deborah Cuomo, the younger sister of Jim, my jazz musician roommate from college. Deborah preceded me to Greece in 1967 and lured me there with tales of the Bohemian lifestyle we could explore amid the splendor of the Minoan ruins. She was a 20-year-old adventurer, one of those indelible characters who flourished in the 1960s, furiously absorbing and rearranging language and aesthetics.
The letter was typical of our airmail courtship—jokes, art and literary references and reports on mind-altering substances, framed in word-play and wrapped in come-over-and-join-me entreaties. I was drafted out of graduate school and my newsroom job at LBJ’s radio-TV station in January, 1967, but executed a switch from the Army to the Air Force, via an Air Force recruiting coordinator who picked me up while I was hitchhiking to say goodbye to her brother (things happen on the open road. As Walt Whitman wrote in 1856, “What is it I interchange so suddenly with strangers? What with some driver, as I ride on the seat by his side?”). Deborah and I had an Air Force convergence. Her father was a career man in the U.S. Air Force Security Service, the euphemism for spy work, and Deborah had joined her parents at Iraklion Air Base on the Greek island of Crete. I joined her in 1968 when, by subterfuge, I got myself assigned to Athenai Base, the American Air Force installation that shared runways with the old Athens Airport. We carried on our long distance romance for the year I was in Athens, before I got involved with the Greek Resistance and had to leave both the Air Force and the country. We stoked each other’s love of wise-cracks, the gritty writing of Joan Didion, and the bold swagger of Norman Mailer. We were looking for experiences we could recount in their styles.
In early 2006 I began to pick up faint trails of Jim and my mentor when I was in Athens, Allan Wenger, as both men’s traces in the jazz and film worlds began to link from one obscure website to others. When I found Jim, he emailed me that he had an archive of music and drama performances that included me and Deborah. When I called from the cheap but nice Hotel Nevers near Place de la Republique, he said, “I just found the last picture you took of her back then.” That was hot. I’d lost all my pictures of her in the many times I’d moved over the decades. If only I hadn’t gotten so busy. If only I’d had an inner archivist.
Allan Wenger’s internet trail was even fainter than Jim’s. Allan was now the unofficial director of English dubbing in Paris. Thirty-eight years before, he had been a teacher of American culture in Athens, Greece, who led me through the expatriate underground in that great city of myth and archetypes until he was captured by the secret police, managed to talk his way out of being held for torture with an inspired and desperate bit of improvisation, and asked me to help his family escape to Paris. He himself hopped the first plane to France at 5:30 the next morning. In 2006, I got his Paris phone number in an email from a French documentary film producer mentioned in the credits of a film described on one site that had a link to another site that had a link to the producer’s home page with his address. When I got Allan on the phone the first time, I identified myself as “This is Steve, you know, the guy you dubbed films with in Athens.” Allan stopped me cold by saying, “Dubbed films together? That’s not all we did. We were in a play together.” Into my silence he said, “Just you and me, Zoo Story, a two-man play by Edward Albee. You don’t remember that? Man, we rehearsed together for eight weeks! I slapped you around the stage, I was Jerry and you were Peter. How could you forget that? I guess you better come look at my files, Steve-o.”
On the flight across the Atlantic, I dug and raked my memory, but couldn’t bring up anything about being in a play with Allan. This gap in the memory tapes shook me up. Was I competent to write a memoir of that time when I couldn’t remember eight weeks of intense rehearsal with my best friend in Athens?
People and events revolved, dissolved and materialized in my head as I began to walk up a street called rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud on a cold and wet January day in 2006. My story, and the story about my story, ran through my mind in bursts of alternating current. I wondered, how many other pieces of me did I leave on the cutting room floor? And why?
Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud is in the 11th Arrondissement, a few streets from the well-known landmark Place de la Republique. I was as excited to be in Paris on my own at 62 as I was to be in Athens on my own at 24. After several blocks running north and gradually uphill, I overtook a big man in a violet caftan. His weight had squashed the flip-flops on his bare feet to a layer thin as cardboard and his calloused heels touched the wet pavement with each heaving step. His skullcap glistened with raindrops. I refrained from passing him because I loved all versions of the color purple and was curious about where the big Muslim guy was going. It was five years since the planes flew into the World Trade Center and Bush and Cheney had made Islamic a synonym for terrorist, but Jim had told me a few days before, when we talked over a trans-Atlantic fiber-optic cable, “Hey, I’m happy in this Muslim neighborhood. Nobody has a problem with my accent or my height here.” He’d been a five-foot-four ex-patriate without papers since I last saw him in 1969. He blended in and got gigs playing in coffeehouses and bars.
Purple and I climbed the long rise toward Belleville and its teeming community market. There are people of all colors and clothes there: women in African-fabric head wraps, Asian men in snap-front caps, babies swathed in blankets and peering from strollers, high-fashion babes in long magenta mufflers. There were noses soft and wide, long and Roman, curved and Semitic. I wondered if I should be nervous tailing this guy through a neighborhood with more Arabic writing on shop signs than French. But not a vibe of suspicion did I feel. My friend Jim told me later, “Those guys burning cars you read about are out in the high-rise suburbs where they didn’t even build them corner stores or kiosks or places to get jobs. No, no, the folks here don’t want to burn it—it’s their home and it’s working for them.”
We passed one shop whose windows were filled with fliers and posters of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, a comix series from the Sixties. I wondered what Muslim folks made of that dope-drenched humor and bawdy graphics. Jim told me it was the last remaining head shop in Paris in 2006, at least the last obvious one. Next door to it was a travel service that displayed pictures of the hotel rooms that pilgrims could get when they arrived on the hadj pilgrimage to Mecca, with an aerial shot of the massed crowds circling the cube-shaped shrine draped in black cloth.
I kept pace with the big man at a respectful distance.
The purple caftan turned into a doorway, and as I passed the open door I could see rows of men kneeling in dim light. Ahead on my right was Le Chat Noir, the venerable Black Cat coffeehouse where Jim played gigs, jammed into a corner with his keyboard, sax, and microphones. Guys lined the counter sipping from steaming mugs and leaned across tiny tables framing their talk with gestures amid the cigarette smoke. Jim had told me, “Another block and you turn left.”
Up the side street, rue Vaucouleurs, I found his house number on an oak-trimmed doorway that was once respectable. To the right was a restaurant with Arabic pin-stripe writing on the window. Inside, three old men held cigarettes aloft as they watched Arabic captions on al-Jazeera scroll from right to left on a TV hanging in a corner. Jim later told me, “I eat there almost every night. I’m often the only one. The restaurant makes no money. They sell heroin on the side.” The door to Jim’s building was ajar, so I went in. Stairs curled up immediately to the right. I stepped onto the wooden treads worn smooth and concave across their middles. The criss-cross grain was unmistakably oak, a beautiful piece of work circling up at the heart of this fading building built in 1865. The banister spiraled up like a vine, smoothed by unnumbered coats of shellac and eight generations of hands. I felt I was ascending Paris DNA linking a colony of cubicles where thousands of pilgrims to Paris like Jim, like me, had come and gone.
“Keep coming up until the stairs end,” Jim had said. “I’m the door on the right.” Cooking meat and spicy smells wafted up the twisting stairwell. I wondered how Jim had changed. He had warned me in an email that he had had a stroke in this little room at the top of the stairs, was barely able to call 911 or whatever you call in Paris, and they came and escorted him down these stairs, holding him so he didn’t fall, found his stomach full of blood from a fleck of lamb bone stuck in his esophagus, and stabilized him. They kept him for several weeks because he described strange sensations of floating. Finally an old doctor the other docs called “The Seer” came in and sat at the foot of his bed and let his face fall into his cupped hands. “Ahhh,” he said after ten minutes. “I have it now. It is Wallenberg’s Syndrome, Monsieur. There was a separate bleeding in your brain. You will have to go through rehabilitation and you will never be the same. What plan do you have?”
“Plan?” said Jim. “Like medical? I don’t have a plan. I’m a tourist.”
“Tres bién,” the Seer said, “so we begin your rehabilitation.”
“Viva la France,” Jim says recalling it. “Viva le Socialisme.”
I stood in front of Jim’s door, my heart beating in my chest after the five-flight climb and because I was so excited to see him. I ran my hand through my silver hair and took a deep breath. I knocked. The last time I knocked on his door in Illinois, in 1967, his sister Deborah answered and I fell in love with her. For a second this door was a screen and I could see 24-year-old Jim and 20-year-old Deb laughing and coming to let the younger me into their house. And then the door opened and a guy who looked like Jim’s grandfather was grinning at me through deep crinkles. He had a black fedora on his head, its narrow brim circling his gray hair like a planet’s rings, a black suit jacket tapered at the waist in a beautiful French fit, from the flea market no doubt, a long red knit scarf wound around his neck. “You found me!” he cried. We stared in wonder across thirty-eight years. His big eyes with the long lashes like Deborah’s danced in their folds of flesh. His voice was gravelly, but he still had that Chicago accent, each word marinated in sarcasm and spoken in bold musical phrases without a trace of hesitation. “No, no, no” was the downbeat to many of his bursts. “You can’t do they-at [Illinois accent], that’s not the way that works!” I was relieved that the stroke hadn’t affected his speech, one of his glories. My five-eleven height engulfed his five-four in a hug. “Easy!” he laughed, holding his hat on his head with one hand while the other braced against the doorway. “No no, my balance is gone, I’ll fall straight to the ground floor and end up in the Algerian stew of the day! Come into the pad, pilgrim!” he said, sweeping an arm into the 9 x 12 room. Stacks of books, papers, music charts, and CDs filled shelves and surfed onto an electronic keyboard. Two couch cushions on the floor in one corner were his bed, with a clock, a gooseneck lamp, and an ashtray atop a little box serving as a nightstand. Jim turned into the room, wobbled, and put out his hand to steady himself. “I’ve found some great stuff for ya in these scrapbooks,” he said, setting out across the room like a man walking on ice. One of the Jazz Princes of Bohemia, the Charlie Chaplin of the bandstand, he handed me a photo of Deborah that I had taken 38 years before and had not seen since. I had emailed him before I came that I had heard she had died twenty years before, but I had not been able to confirm it or find any traces of her. The last time I saw her, she never wanted to see her family again. I was now the last link between her and her siblings. The parents were dead. To me, her brother could be more of a link to my own past than I was able to be for Deborah’s, because she erased her traces. Jim kept boxes of records on everybody we knew—playbills, fliers, college yearbooks, newspaper notices, and reviews of his appearances, including his world-record piano performance of an Erik Satie piece for 24 unbroken hours.
The five floors of steep spiral stairs had taken me into the labyrinths of memory and back into my old friend’s life. Winding up and winding down that staircase with Jim, whose spatial world but not his language or music was now untethered by his stroke, led my mind and body deeper into images from my younger life. It was fitting that he didn’t live on a ground floor, but had to make tense journeys up and down, clutching the banister with both hands, to leave his room. An elevator would have been safer, certainly quicker, but wouldn’t have given him exercise or encouraged poetry at all.
I continued to walk up and down these Muslim streets of Paris for a week of cold January days and nights, as first Jim, then Allan, would sit for an hour and go over albums of documents, photos, and playbills, drain carafes of wine, gobble plates of mussels and stew, laugh and fill in gaps, then open new gaps with some memory I’d erased. When I was a slender guy in a U.S. Air Force uniform in 1969, a novice at sex and drugs, unaware of the torture and desperation that coursed below the streets of Athens and haunted the olive trees of the villages, I had made a visit, like so many tourists of two millennia before me, to the ruins of the Oracle at Delphi. For centuries before and after the classical Greek period of the Parthenon and Plato, people had come to Delphi to ask the Oracle about their futures. The Oracle was a team of women who inhaled magic incense and spoke enigmas to the soldiers and kings. That had a ring to it that any pot-smoking fan of Bob Dylan’s could recognize. The Delphic Oracles were long gone by the time I visited, but there were others to tell me what was next in my 24-year-old life. Now, in Paris, I was asking two of my personal oracles to predict my past, which was not at all as neatly stored in my memory as pieces of it were in their scrapbook collections. Allan had flicked on the lights in a wing of that museum I didn’t know about by telling me of our eight weeks of rehearsal together. Why had I erased it? What was I afraid of in it? Before coming to Paris to see Allan, I had written over 200 pages of a memoir about my time in Greece in 1969 during the military dictators’ reign of torture. But I was working only from memories neatly trimmed in my mind. Now I saw how much I had edited them. Now I knew I had to get to Athens and find my muse from 1969, Athiná. She had been very thin and coughing blood when I last saw her. I was praying she was still alive, that she had escaped a dark fate at the hands of the Colonels, the military dictators who took power in a coup with U.S. and NATO approval in 1967, and that she had some key details, or another whole film reel, of our time together that would help me tell my story in full.
I would not get to Greece for another three years of paycheck-to-paycheck work, when one of my wife’s relatives died and left us enough money to book roundtrip flights. But in the meantime, I had read and re-read Albee’s “Zoo Story.” At the first reading, some lines rang a bell, but I didn’t recognize most of it. But when I got to the end, where Jerry the street hipster holds a knife out at poor Peter, the nerdy suburbanite who works as an editor at a publishing house, and goads him to “defend his park bench” and, finally, begins slapping Peter and ordering him to pick up the knife and fight for his life—then, suddenly I was back on the stage of the darkened Hellenic American Union in Athens with Allan, struggling over Albee’s words of fury and desperation. Chills and emotions flooded up from my memory. I didn’t understand Jerry’s anger and I didn’t understand why Peter didn’t just run away from him. I didn’t want to be like Peter, passive, clueless and bullied. I was so afraid that there was something of Peter in me. But as Allan and I replayed that night, I thought there was a subtext for the young Greeks who’d sit in the audience, under the thumb of vicious dictators: as Jerry orders Peter, “You fight for your bench! Fight for your life! Fight for your manhood!”
We only got as far as the dress rehearsal with Zoo Story. We found out that Albee didn’t want it produced in Greece, as a protest against the Colonels’ fascist regime. So we canceled it on opening night, an hour before curtain, and improvised a poetry reading for the hundreds who’d bought tickets for the play. The reading was of poets who wrote about American democracy and its shortcomings: Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings. Drinking wine and talking with Allan in 2006, the goose bumps from 1969 came back to me: we had recited revolutionary lines to an audience whose government had banned our writers as well as the Greek classics, whose secret police were lusting to torture anyone, including us, who called out for defiance against tyranny. Allan’s friend Jack read Whitman’s anarchic call:
“Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Jack stood up as he read:
“I speak the pass-word primeval—I give the sign of democracy” He leaned out from the stage and held up the “V” sign for peace.
The students applauded wildly. Then I read Langston Hughes:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
More cheering and applause. I was so proud of my country, in that I felt joined to the long line of principled patriots like Walt and Langston, Dylan and King.
And when I got to Athens again in 2008, 39 years after I last saw Athina, I found her working at a job I would have predicted for her: as a special assistant to the Minister of Culture. She had told me many things in 1969 about the archaeology of Greece and the Parthenon and the tentacles of the junta. She took my wife and me to a favorite restaurant called Alexandria, where the owner and her close friend, Cleopatra, brought us our wine and salads with olives and tender chopped octopus. She had told me, when I first knew her, that the Ministry of Culture’s listings in the phone book in 1969 took up about three inches, whereas the Ministry of Security took up eleven columns. Now in 2006 it was reversed. The two final turns in my spiral of discovery were that she said the blood she coughed in 1969 was from severe bronchitis, not the tuberculosis I had feared. The Culture Ministry offices where she now worked were in the old central police station, where the Colonels tortured dissidents and ran a motorcycle to cover up the screaming.
Now, in 2013, the winds of change scream through Athens again, over the Acropolis, past Athina’s office, through the demonstrators in Syntagma Square and up Lykabettos hill by the balcony of Allan and Linda’s old apartment. No longer alone on their peninsula, Greeks riot against their failing government and their European Union banker overlords in Berlin and Paris. Perhaps we should call them a junta of bankers and European Union administrators. Though there are hundreds of thousands of two-wheeled vehicles in Greece, there are not enough motorcycles in all of the Eastern Mediterranean to cover up the wailing. The spiral will turn as it always does, the people will have more scars, another night will turn into day, and the descendants of Athena, Apollo, Alexander the Great, Helen of Troy, Socrates and Zorba will continue their struggle to live between Europe and Asia.