Monday, March 26, 2012

New faces in my neighborhood

I live in a suburb of Athens, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Syndagma Square. I’ve been in this neighborhood for over 11 years. The area has always been considered a middle-class / upper-middle class neighborhood. There is a pleasant pedestrianized square here, lined with shops and cafes, and a large green park nearby making the city seem more livable… The economic crisis can be felt everywhere and many shops in and around the square here have closed their doors and stand empty. The area looks and feels… different. The places I see are changing and so are the people.

On the way to the supermarket today, I passed the usual places. The florist was outside busying himself with arranging and re-arranging the pots around the entrance of his store. The shoe repair guy was hovering around the doorway to his shop, smoking a cigarette. Only the pro-po shop or “pro-potzidiko” (lottery/betting agency) was busy. This is no ordinary pro-po shop. They used to occupy a tiny space a few doors down from their current location.  However two years ago, a large Chinese restaurant on the street closed its doors and the space became vacant. That’s when the tiny pro-potzidiko moved a few doors down and rented the larger space. The new and improved pro-potzidiko is booming.  The former Chinese restaurant has become the neighborhood betting mecca, complete with colorful screens and monitors all around the shop, displaying lotto results, sports scores and electronic betting games. Long tables line the front of the store, and through the floor-to-ceiling windows I could see the usual neighborhood characters inside. They sat chatting and smoking, checking their lottery numbers, filling out new lottery slips, scratching their instant tickets hoping to become instantly rich. The tables always seem to be filled with people hoping to catch a break, hoping that today is their lucky day, hoping to walk out with a winning ticket in their pocket... 

I headed for the supermarket. Lots of people hustling and bustling around the square, running their daily errands. Rushing past, talking on their cell phones, clutching the hands of whining kids who lagged behind them. The cafes were filled with people. I noticed a hunched figure on the sidewalk. I’ve seen her around for years.  Almost as long as I can remember. An old lady with a black kerchief tied around her head, white hair poking out in messy locks, black threadbare clothes, brown wooden cane with a black rubber stopper at the end. She approaches whoever is near her, a gnarled, wrinkled outstretched hand, each time repeating the same plea in a shaky voice: “Please, just a little something for a little old grandmother.”

I finished with the supermarket and as the glass doors swooshed open I looked up to see some new “familiar” faces outside. A young dark-skinned man with a thin face, hand outstretched holding a plastic cup, eyes beseeching everyone who exits the supermarket: “Please, kind lady, whatever you can give me” he says as everyone walks past him.

A bit further down, I saw another new familiar face.  A few months ago, the first time I saw her, I didn’t realize what was happening.  She was neatly dressed in clean clothes, she didn’t look scruffy or disheveled, and there was nothing about her appearance that would make her stand out. As I walked past her, I heard a soft voice “Please, ma’am. I’m unemployed. I don’t have enough money.” I glanced around, not realizing where the voice was coming from. She does not stand with hand outstretched, audibly begging, approaching people. Rather she just blends into the scene, looks like a “regular” pedestrian -only when someone walks near her does she make her quiet plea, making brief eye contact, pausing for a second, trying to decide if she should keep walking or wait.  So I saw her again this morning, people rushing past her, not noticing. She has light hair and fair skin. She seemed to dissolve into the background of the noisy street.

And just a bit further down, I noticed a guy walking along. Skinny, dirty, spaced out. I couldn’t tell if he was crazy, on drugs, homeless or all of the above. He scuffled along the busy sidewalk, paused for a second, pulling down the back of his sweatpants exposing his ass. He walked along nonchalantly scratching his butt with both hands, face outstretched to the warm spring sunshine.  I looked around and my fellow passers-by were completely oblivious. No one blinked an eye.

Sounds surreal. Sounds like it can’t possibly be true. But this is what I see every time I leave my house and walk around my neighborhood.

I made my way home, thinking about all these new familiar faces that have popped up in and around my neighborhood during the past few months, past year. Am I the only one who notices them? No one seems to talk about this new change in the neighborhood. Are we looking right through them? Pretending they are not there? Are we too scared to talk about them because we fear one of us might soon become one of them?


Anonymous said...

I know the economic climate is still bad but Greece will survive and flourish again. I hope some day to live there myself. Your blog is great.

Anonymous said...

I have read your words and they make me want to cry - as a Greek American who lives in NYC but always comes back "home" when I can, I find your stories shocking and unbelievable yet I know they are true. Please keep on writing and sharing your thoughts on our homeland.