Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A Short History of Cars

1951 Fleetwood
Cars have always been a big part of my father's life. He once bought a house on Upton Street- one half of a duplex actually, but it came with, count 'em nine garages. (You can still see the garages- tiny little stalls from the alley between Van Ness and Upton Streets.) Before he had his own car, my Dad would steal my Papou's car- a circa 1930 maroon Chevrolet with black fenders. Papou kept it in a garage about a block away from where they lived on Macomb Street so my father had to swipe two sets of keys- one for the garage and one for the car.  My Papou never understood why that car got so little mileage per tank of gas.  He even took it back to the dealer to complain.

My father can tell you about every car he has ever owned starting with the Model T Ford he bought on the sly with the money he earned from picking up golf balls and selling papers. His father thought he was too young to have a car, but that didn’t stop my dad. He lied about his age, forged his father’s name, and got a permit when he was only fifteen. His friend, Fred Brown hid the car at his house until it was too late for my Papou to stop the deal.

After the Model T, my dad upgraded to a 1927 Chevrolet-2 door coupe convertible and from then on it was convertibles all the way. He wanted to modify the Chevy so he went up to the Friendship depot and got a straw bench from a retired streetcar. Then he cut the trunk lid, reversed the hinges, and made his own rumble seat.

The next car was a 1932 Desoto with black fenders. He bought that one from a chef from Altoona who was working for Papou at Macomb Cafeteria. Then, just before WWII, Dad swung a brand new 1940 Hudson V8 with back windows that buttoned in when the top was down.

The Hudson (parked in front of Wash. Monument)
After this factories stopped making cars and started making war machines. Those were dark days for my father. During the war, he pre-ordered four cars- and when they started rolling off the assembly line he was right there. The first was a 1947 green convertible Studebaker,


which he sold as soon as the 1947 green convertible Buick came in.

Next was the maroon 1947 Town and Country Chrysler which he totally loved….

until the 1947 emerald green Cadillac showed up.

And that was the end of the line…until around 1951 when a pink one caught his eye.

A few years later, my brother would follow unwittingly in his shoes. Not knowing of Dad’s escapades, he’d climb down the tree outside his bedroom window on Davenport Street and “borrow” the car at night. The difference between father and son here was that my brother got caught because Dad always checked his mileage. My brother’s only recourse was to buy his own car with the money he made from a temp job at the post office. He got a 1939 Buick, shaped like a torpedo. What little paint it had was blue. There was an antenna in the middle of the windshield. No brakes, no insurance, and once again, a forbidden purchase. He parked it about a block away and walked home. He got away with this until about nine months later when Dad found a traffic ticket in his wallet.

For my dad, it was Cadillacs right on up to the seventies when Cadillac stopped making convertibles. Even then my cousin, Peter Sclavounos, managed to find him a custom made red Eldorado- which turned out to be the last stallion in line, and Dad’s personal favorite with its chrome spoke wheels and big white side walls.

But Dad eventually got the fever for a new car again- and it had to be a convertible. That’s when my all American Dad converted to BMW, and it was somewhere around then that he got the bright idea of buying my mother “her car” for their anniversary. My mother didn't learn to drive until her late twenties, and she doesn’t particularly enjoy it, but she wanted her freedom. She avoids the Beltway at all cost, although I have to say she’s a little bit of a lead foot for a supposedly timid driver. She drives to get there, and she does just that. She’s always hated the top down for the unspeakable things that happen to her hair, but she’s always driven a convertible because that’s what Dad loves, and Mom has always "gone along with the program". Even now-just this year- for their 71st anniversary, Dad went out and bought her a bright red Toyota Salera convertible. My mother was totally gracious about it, too. She said she liked the color. And just like when he was a kid, Dad got away with it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Restaurant Biz

 When my father, George Cokinos first got married, his father asked all the Greeks in town not to give him work because my dad dared to marry Bebe Calvert, a non Greek. Papou hoped he'd give my mother up, but stubbornness also runs in our family. Fortunately for him, George already had a job at the Macomb Deli (where the Zebra Room is now) right across the street from where his parents lived. Every day, his mother would go over there trying to convince him to reconsider his marriage. She offered him bribes like a trip to Greece. She proposed sending him back to G.W.U. When all else failed, she cried. Nothing worked. George didn't particularly like the restaurant biz, but that was what he knew. He was nineteen years old with a baby on the way. His resume was limited and  included picking up golf balls at a driving range, selling The Saturday Evening Post, and being a busboy for his parent's restaurant, the Macomb Cafeteria.

Later, the golf ball experience may have helped George get work picking up hangers off the floor for the Hecht Company, but the $15 a week was not cutting it for him. Finally a friend, Steve Demas, took pity and hired George as a helper on a laundry truck. My father worked hard. He was promoted to Service Manager and soon got to drive a Ford coupe with the words QUICK SERVICE LAUNDRY lettered in gold on the door. By then George was 21 and had two children to support.

Finally my Papou broke down and allowed the young family to live in a road house he already owned called the Hollywood Inn out in Camp Springs, Md.

At the time it was somewhere near the middle of nowhere. My Papou originally bought the property for the congregation of St Sophia to use, but it was just too far away from town. Or maybe too rowdy.

Hollywood Inn 1938
My parents could live there rent free, but the catch was they had to run the restaurant. So by day, George worked for Quick Service and whenever he had a chance he put flyers on people's cars advertising the Sunday chicken dinners at the Hollywood Inn.

Dang if they didn't misspell his name here

During World War Two, Papou talked George into running Churchhill's Bar and Grill with my Aunt Catherine and Uncle Mimi who had just arrived from Greece in 1939. Churchill's was where Cactus Cantina is now on Macomb Street. If you go there, you can see the old glass door just about in the middle of the building where my mother used to sit at the cash register. The grill was open from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m. My dad had to work the night shift until Uncle Mimi learned how to mix a cocktail.

At the end of the war, they were able to sell Churchill's and buy their own linen service- Modern Linen. Soon my brother and all three of my cousins were drafted to go work there. They hated it. Everybody hated it, except for my uncle and my father who thought it was a piece of cake compared to running Churchill's.

My brother Pete and cousin Pete hanging around Churchill's

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Beach

As soon as April rolls around, my parents are off to the beach. They make the three hour drive to their house in South Bethany every weekend from about April until October. After thirty plus years on the road, my mother is tired of the commute. (She's not fond of sand or sun on her body, or what water and  wind can do to her hair, but my father loves it all. He comes from a long line of beach lovers going all the way back to his father's roots in Greece. You know those families that send photo cards of themselves all dressed in white posed at sunset on the beach? Well here's our family's version:

Summer 1927

One problem for my mother is the way my father drives. He is a big proponent of relaxing with one finger on the wheel and cruise control at his feet. When the exit for Route 50 pops up up,  he is usually in the far left lane, crosses four lanes of 495 and maybe cuts off a dump truck to make the ramp. My mother is rigid with fear, but the process doesn't seem to bother him a bit.

My father is 90, and he didn't wear a seat belt until he was about 85 when he was pulled over near Denton for speeding in his red BMW convertible. The cop was so astonished at Dad's birthday- April 1916- that he dropped the speeding charge. He did give him a ticket for not wearing a belt, and that's what got my father. Not the years of my mother nagging, not the safety warnings, but the $25 ticket.

Holly's just after the Bridge or Jimmy's Grill in Bridgeville is a regular pit stop. My mother likes that. She gets to get out of the car and have a soft shell crab sandwich on white bread. Short Brothers is also on their beat. It is one of the tiniest farm stands on 404. No advance signs, no wind gadgets, it just appears near the Delaware line. Diane, who is the ever present farmer's wife, knows my whole family and will report on one member to another as we go by. She will pick you out the best corn or a good melon if you ask.

My parents have been going to the Eastern Shore since there was ferry instead of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Back then they couldn't afford to spend the night and would pack up three sandy kids at the end of the day and come back home.

Much later, when I was around, we stayed at the Del-mar in Ocean City, MD. It was the kind of hotel with rocking chairs on the double decker porch. We slept in saggy beds and my brother and I had to cling to the edges to keep from landing together in the middle. My brother remembers the time when our Papou set a small rubber replica of dog do-do on the floor in the dining room. A waitress shrieked when she spotted it, and ran in the back to get a bus boy. When they returned, my grandfather had already slipped the offending object back into his pocket. He was a hoot.
My clearest memory was not so funny. I remember my father got a huge splinter in his foot while walking on the boardwalk. He had to go to the hospital in Salisbury. I never went bare foot after that one.

My parents have had a beach house of their own since the late 1960s when ocean front property was cheap and risky. They were among the first to build in South Bethany, but had to rent it out for many  summers. We went almost every weekend in the winter, but it was usually gray and cold with a biting wind. None of my friends wanted to come with me after a while.

Nowadays my mother stays off beach, and occupies herself with planning all the meals and cooking. She also loves the cocktail hour. (or two.)  which ay contribute to how my parents stay married through all these years going to the beach.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Big Fat Greek Funeral

Greek funerals are not for the feint of heart. The one I went to today lasted from 10 a.m. until after 3 p.m. This included processions, prayers, incense, weeping, wailing, flags on cars, a trip halfway around the Beltway at speeds ranging from 30- 50 miles per hour, a graveside service, and most importantly- lunch.

Lunch is always fish, and always after the priest blesses the meal, no matter how hungry you are. This funeral is amazing though because before the meal Ledo's pizza is being handed around which totally takes the edge off.  While we wait for lunch to officially begin,  my sister is already staking an early claim. She orders our coats off and drapes them over multiple chairs because the exact number we need is x, and god help us if we have to sit with y which equals someone we don't know. We definitely need places for my father, George, my mother, Bebe, my cousin, George and two or three other people named Nick or George. And possibly Pete. Cousins near and distant swirl by. The deceased, Jimmie Deoudes, was our cousin by marriage since  he married a Cokinos. Here's your cousin, John, my sister says. John who? I say. I have at least two. Now I seem to have three. "I'm the bad one," this John says. "That's all you have to remember about me." Then he shows me his black silver studded belt buckle which lends a certain credence to his claim.

A bunch of these old Washington Greeks are in the food business. The widow of the tomato king is here. The coffee man is dead. The cheese guy, too. My father is the linen guy, and also a restaurant guy. A bunch of restaurant families are here. My father is 90 and was born in Washington, but his father came from Greece around 1904. There's a guy telling stories while we eat lunch. He has a very thick Greek accent. He is talking about how Cousin Jimmie couldn't get in some fancy joint because he didn't have a tie, so Jimmie took a hundred dollar bill and a-ah- how you say-- paper clip-- and put it there on his collar. So the manager said who IS this guy??? But of course, he got in.

Everybody laughs.

Now the church ladies come scurrying through taking plates and serving coffee. The church ladies rock. No one is in a hurry to go. It's almost 3:00, but everyone knows Greek funerals take their own sweet time. There are cookies on the table- the twisted buttery kind that my grandmother used to make and lives full of stories. We linger just a while longer before we make our good byes.  you go on ahead. This is gonna take a while.