Wednesday, March 6, 2013

off to see the wizard...

The zipper on my jacket broke last month and instead of trying to find a tailor who can replace the zipper, I found it easier to just walk around with an unzipped jacket for weeks… The other day, I happened to mention the broken zipper to an aunt and the seemingly dull subject led to an interesting conversation.

“A broken zipper, you said?!!” she put down her coffee cup and leaned in closer.

“I know of a φερμουαρατζής, a zipper man – probably the last one left in Athens…”

And so the story began… It was just a few days ago in fact, that her friend went to the zipper man and waited in line for two whole hours. He only charged her a few euro to fix the zipper, you see. He has tools and old machines that can magically repair zippers instead of replacing them with new ones, which can be very costly. The place is downtown, she told me - in a narrow street, it’s hard to find, you have to go early as people get there as soon as the zipper man opens and a line forms right away… It’s a first-come, first-serve kind of thing, you can’t just drop off your item and pick it up the next day. You go there, wait in line and he fixes each person’s zipper on-the-spot… τσακ-μπαμ! Likity-split!
Two hours in line didn’t sound “likity-split” to me, but nevertheless, I was intrigued…

My aunt told me she’d ask her friend for the exact address of the zipper man’s place. Last night she called to give me the address but insisted it wasn’t at all straight-forward. It’s in a neighborhood with a maze of little streets and a jumble of family-run stores from days gone by: old spice shops, a hand-made lamp store, one of Athens’ oldest cheese shops… The zipper man’s store is practically hidden, you pass a church and then you’ll see a τυροπιτάδικο, a cheese-pie stand on the corner. She instructed me to ask at the cheese-pie stand and they would direct me to the zipper man. I was tempted to ask her if I needed to whisper a code word, or give them a secret handshake in order to be led to the Wizard of Zippers.
So today, around noon I went to the address to see if in fact this urban legend existed. I didn’t see the cheese-pie stand but I was able to find the zipper place on my own. I saw an open doorway next to a lamp/religious icon shop, with the word φερμουάρ (zipper) spelled vertically with red letters on the door frame.

A long hallway led to a spiral staircase which led to a basement workshop. There were two women standing in line in front of me, one guy sitting on the stairs and from the mirror on the wall above the spiral stairs I could see the reflection of the room below – the line continued down into the workshop and about 5-6 more people were crowded into the tiny space. It was kind of quiet, I stepped forward and looked closer. The zipper wizard sat behind a large worktable covered with tools, tiny boxes, bits and pieces of zippers… His hands worked quickly, snipping and snapping, clipping and clacking and with a flourish he held up the finished product, a zip-front sweater, and said “ορίστε madame,” here you are – to a lady who stood across from him, watching him closely with bifocals perched on the tip of her nose. The guy sitting on the stairs clapped and everyone seemed relieved. The bifocals lady had various items of clothing and had taken up a half hour of the zipper wizard’s time. She was finally done and ascended the spiral staircase triumphantly.
Άντε, the line will start moving now,” another lady said, complaining that she had already been waiting for 45 minutes. I wondered if I should stay and wait or just give up and go have a coffee somewhere….

The grandmother in front of me, who sat on the only stool in the hallway, held a plastic bag on her lap filled with children’s jackets. The woman next to her looked at the bag and smiled knowingly. “I’ve been coming here for years, he’ll fix those for you and your grandkids can still get some use out of those jackets.”   
“My daughter told me to forget about it, to give the jackets away. I told her ‘if you have money to throw away, then go buy new jackets…’ I said ‘give those jackets here, I’ll have the zippers fixed and it will only cost a few euro’… these young people… they still haven’t learned the value of money,” she shook her head in disapproval.

The other woman went on to explain that she is a retired teacher and has seen generations of children pass before her. “Generations of kids who don’t appreciate anything,” she went on…
“No wonder all the Albanians came here to work” the grandmother added, “they're good workers - the men, the women, the young people, they know what it means to struggle to earn money… there’s nothing shameful about hard work…. In my day, I lived in a village, we worked in the fields, we picked olives… nowadays in the village all the young people sit in the café all day while Albanians and foreigners work in the fields…”

The retired teacher agreed. “They are hardworking people, not like the Greeks. We are the worst kind of people on the earth. All we want to do is steal from one another, take the easy way out, cheat, and pretend to be grand and important…. Greeks don’t want to send their kids to work in the fields, or work as waiters, noooo, we don’t want our neighbors whispering behind our backs, saying ‘ohh look at them, they sent their kids to work in a restaurant, they are poor’… Greeks... we all wanna act like big shots…”
I wondered if I should add my two cents, and tell them that I am the daughter of Greek immigrants, that I grew up outside of Greece and spent many of my teenage summers working in restaurant kitchens, or as a salesgirl at various stores – like all of my friends did… not because our parents didn’t have money to give us an allowance but because that’s just what everyone did – get a summer job, learn how to make your own money, learn the value of a dollar, see what it takes to save up your own money to buy something special… But I decided to remain quiet and just keep listening…

The retired teacher continued… “these younger generations… we have handed them everything, maybe because we wanted to give them everything we didn’t have… but we have created a nation of young people who don’t know how to survive…”
“Just look at this neighborhood” the retired teacher continued, “these small businesses are closing their doors, one after another. I’m surprised this zipper shop hasn’t closed. The knife-sharpening shop down the street closed years ago. Who has their knives sharpened anymore? No one, that’s who. The knife gets dull, they just throw it away and buy another one… Your zipper broke, just throw the jacket away and buy another one… no one values anything anymore…”

An hour later I finally made my way back outside into the daylight, my zipper fixed for only €2.50. I paused at the nearby square, along one of Athens’ main avenues, to get a bottle of water from a kiosk. Blue riot police buses lined the sidewalk, the cops stood around talking, their shields stacked up against the side of the bus like dominoes. I stood there drinking my water, looking around. Many of the surrounding buildings were still boarded up, shops either closed or damaged during the riots and fires of Feb 2012… some doorways and window casings were still charred and black…
On my way home, I sat on the bus looking out the window… I noticed that the usual trash pickers were out in force. It is now very common to see immigrants with supermarket carriages poking through the trash for scrap metal, all over Athens, in every neighborhood (another ‘new’ normal). I watch as a guy looks through a huge garbage bin, his carriage filled with all kinds of metal items – from discarded ironing boards, to empty olive oil tins. He pulls out a broken umbrella, the metal parts were bent and twisted. He puts it in his carriage and moves on to the next set of garbage bins as the bus rolls past him and an old man sitting next to me comments to no one in particular, “they have to do something, they might as well live off what we throw away…”