Monday, May 24, 2010


John: I applied for a job at a restaurant called BARBOUNI... (pause) do you know what Barbouni is?
Me: yes.
John: It's red fish.
Me: Yes I know.
John: Red Mullet.
Me: Yes.

This is generally the sort of conversation I have with John. He is a thunderous man with arms like tree trunks and an explosive voice. If you meet him in his house, he'll begin the show and tell. All of his diplomas from various programs and cooking schools. Photographs of himself when he graduated. His Chinese swords. His books on the ancient Greeks. His house is filled with drawings of ancient Greek warriors amidst strange other trophies...wooden giraffes, fat buddhas, a coffee mug shaped like a boob. They're all placed ceremoniously throughout the house, spaced with the eye of a curator so that each gets its due attention. Everything is in it's place. I mean, EVERYTHING. Even the rubber bands placed on the bill of a porclain duck, sitting on top of the refigerator.

John is a very tidy man. His ironing board is in one room where his shirts and shoes are lined in a neat row. He enjoys doing laundry. Watching him put up his wet thing on the clothesline is something like watching a surgeon, each article of clothing carefully spread out and the clothespin, gently gently.... that's right.... okay the next one..

But this is the interesting contrast of John. In every other category, John would get on better with roughnecks and dumptruck drivers than surgeons, but John doesn't realize that. There is a part of him that believes in his books on conspiracy theories, ancient Greeks descending from aliens, the like, and this continuously gives him the confidence to approach anyone regardless of letter or social status and lecture them on what he believes. He belongs to an extreme right wing political party and attends regular meetings. In the past he has given a large percentage of his earnings toward it.

John hates Jews, Albanians, Bulgarians, Africans, and Pakistanis. He tells you about the way they're destroying the world, how the New World Order is using them to poison society and eradicate all of the intelligent races, namely the Greeks. He likes Americans, the English, the Canadians, but not as much as he likes the Greeks.

John is trained as a “chef.” In his life he has worked on many yachts, in the kitchen serving the Press during the Olympic games, and in various other places.

He has been out of work for almost three months.

There was a short stint at a sleezy beer eaterie that was so far down the coast, he spent ten euros out of the thirty he made nightly just getting there and back. When the owner started shortchanging him week after week, he got angry. Wrestled him down in the kitchen, demanding his money. He never quit or was fired; I suppose it was assumed.

He felt the freedom to act like this because he had promise of a job in Santorini that was coming shortly, but the owner of that restaurant kept prolonging the date when John should get on a boat and arrive. So John sat. He buzzed the owner day after day asking if it was time and finally the owner gave in.

The job lasted one and a half weeks. The owner wasn’t prepared to pay the staff, was already searchign for a cheaper replacement for John. John left in the middle of the night without warning and returned to Athens.

Sometimes I go over and help him send off his resume via email. He sits at his desk in front of the computer staring at web listings of positions. His eyes are dull and his skin has turned a pale yellow from being inside all day, only going out to buy bread and milk. He’s living on the scant bit of money he has left on his person and with several thousand euros to pay back for personal loans at different banks. He hasn’t been able to pay rent for the last five months.

John doesn’t have any friends. He has one man, a skipper, also out of work that he calls on the phone to shout about the state of the economy, the fact that the boats are not moving, the fact that there are not any tourists, the fact that Pappendreiou is a malaka, and not once does John wonder if there are any other reasons that he is unable to find work. He has a son that he lost thirty three years ago. He spent time in Chicago Illinois working as a cook in a diner, going to chef school, and met a Mexican lady. She became pregnant. They had the child together but the relationship didn’t last, and John has never explained why. On occasion he starts rambling on about his brother, who also exists somewhere in the world, but after a feud they don’t speak. His parents are dead.

I write all of this, and yet I must tell you I believe John is a kind man with a big heart. You look around at the people in your life and in general I think you might be able to make out a pattern. They all are intelligent, or they're mostly unique, or they're beautiful or wealthy or maybe some combination... but in general you surround yourself with people you find value in, and underneath the hateful talk and the bullheaded logic, I just believe that there is something gentle that's been harmed somewhere along the way. But I don't understand him at all. He's not someone you just "shoot the shit" with to make things lighter, or tell a joke, or take on a walk... he's just not.

What to do about the Johns of the world? How do you pull a bull out of a deep, dark well? Or do you just stay at the top, talking down, keeping them company until their light goes out?

How do you keep from being a John, when you don't fit in, when you're disappointed and learn to expect to be screwed from some angle by anyone you meet? How do you keep from becoming old, bitter, hopeless, and mostly alone? I know that the answers seem obvious, but to me, being so close to someone who managed to get through life without learning these things, it's terrifying to watch. A horror movie. A moral tale, only with a real person.

How do you try and change things for a John?