The Difficulty in Traveling to a Place that Doesn’t Exist
by Paul Kennebeck
The doctor’s office was not far from the Metropolitan Museum of Art where the medical emergency (trouble with a contact lens) began. The lens collapsed in the Greek antiquities section while looking at an absolutely perfect, immaculately preserved black figure vase from the Classical period. The contact had begun its fiery implosion near the Minoan artifacts, survived through the display of kouros, hung in there through some statuary copies of Polykleitos, and then gave up.
This visit to the Greek antiquity section of the Met was a way to make up for the previous day’s troubling adventure by taxi, traveling through the outer boroughs of Manhattan to Nassau County, where no one ever takes a cab from Manhattan because it requires a revolving credit line to pay the fare.
The purpose of the cab ride was to visit Greek Town, which might be in Astoria, N.Y.
When the Senegalese cabbie took us from the Upper East Side to the far side of the East River where we thought we should be, he parked the taxi near a number of desperate-looking brick housing projects whose only resemblance to Greece was their economic status. This being a location we had no desire to be at, I showed the cabbie my iPhone, which displayed a map marking where Google said "Astoria NY Greek Town" was located.
The cabbie studied the picture on my iPhone and compared it to the picture on his tablet. He put down both devices on the passenger front seat and looked out the window at the decrepit brick buildings. The cabbie was soft-spoken and very kind; it became immediately clear that there is no cognitive relationship between human kindness and knowledge of New York topography.
(Why are we still learning basic life lessons when we've been enrolled in the course for so long?)
* * *
We wanted to find this elusive Greek Town because it is loukoumades, spanakopita, tiropita, Metaxa, ouzo, tsipouro, calamari, stuffed green peppers, bamas, baklava, prosforo, real yogurt, souvlaki, avgolemono soup, pasticcio, moussaka, black olives, brown olives, red olives, feta if it’s the real thing, lamb cooked in lemon, oregano, salt, and pepper. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, democracy, Socrates, Plato, Praxiteles, Euripides, etcetera etcetera.
By way of background, it is worth noting that the Greek Towns in Vancouver and Toronto are delightful, sporting many esoteric grocery stores, restaurants, tavernas, shops for baptisms, bridal dresses (but not in that order necessarily), tourist swag, and books and magazines. Some streets in Toronto bear both the English name and the Greek name: Danforth Avenue = OΔOΣ ΝΤAΝΦΟΡΘ. Since it has been purported that Astoria possesses the greatest number of Greeks living outside Athens, it followed with Aristotelian logic that the charm of its Greek Town would surpass all others.
We heeded the advice on my iPhone and the cabbie’s tablet, traveling many miles east to Rockville, in Nassau County. The cabbie left us off. Very cold.
We did not see a Greek Town. We discovered a Greek restaurant and spoke to the non-Greek waitress who said she had no idea where Greek Town was. Having had no breakfast, we crossed the street to a Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s been decades since donuts appeared at an office breakfast meeting—the past 20 years nothing but bagels, cream cheese, bananas, and bottles of juice and water. The chocolate donuts hit the spot out there in Rockville.
So, what to do?
When you are in need of the basics in life, go to the Church Lady. Every church has one. (They make the church run, in my experience, by which I mean the secular day-to-day stuff, like turning on the air conditioning and getting the keys to the bathroom. I’m not talking about their ability to explain Pauline Christology, the errors in the synoptic gospels, or the influence of the Q document on Mark. The guys on the altar can answer your questions about that.)
Using Google, I found the phone number for a Greek church in Astoria, explained our dilemma and, when I told the pleasant Church Lady we were looking for Greek Town, she told us to come to 35th Avenue and 30th Street in Astoria.
The next step was to do the New York cab thing where you stand in the street by the whizzing traffic and raise your hand and wave like a politician at election time. But no cabs. I asked the donut guy where to catch a cab and he pointed down the block to the Rockville Railroad Station where all the cabs are. Turns out it’s against the law for a cabbie to pick up a passenger on the street in Rockville when the passenger on the street needs a cab.
I was willing then and am willing now to accept this as a fact of life.
* * *
In Astoria, we exited the cab to a pleasant residential neighborhood. Nice homes, green lawns. (The trees were just beginning to leaf.) But no Greek Town. At a bodega-like store that sold food and lotto tickets we got directions to walk five blocks north to Broadway, where we would see Greek restaurants. It wasn’t as miserably cold as it could have been.
On Broadway we saw no Greek Town. We entered a Greek butcher shop (Pascha lambs hanging in the window) and asked directions to Greek Town.
Maybe cutting up small dead animals gave the butcher an attitude.
"What are you looking for?" he asked.
"A street of Greek shops, restaurants, stores, bakeries—"
"There’s a Greek restaurant up the street."
"No, no. A street of restaurants, shops, pastry shops—"
"There’s a pastry shop past the restaurant." He had attitude—the type of guy who can throw a bowl of warm goat intestines at a fellow butcher and get away with it.
We ate at the Greek restaurant up the street: stuffed pepper, a cold Mythos beer, and the kind of beans that always make me think of Hannibal Lecter. The waitress gave us the recipe for the killer beans. (It’s vegetarian.)
In the ensuing conversation with the Greek waitress about our search for Greek Town, it occurred to me what might have occurred to you, dear reader, long ago. There is NO Greek Town in Astoria. The waitress gave us the address of a Greek specialty store we wanted to visit. Seven blocks away. It was not as cold as it could have been.
We walked the seven blocks to the precise address of a Greek store that did not exist. We took a cab back to Manhattan. And it became clear why it took Odysseus 10 years to find his way home after the Trojan War.
* * *
OK, maybe I’m no good with e-things. Every time I use my iPhone I learn the temperature in Cupertino. Maybe when the cabbie got on his tablet and me on my iPhone and we both got the same Google map for Greek Town, we screwed up. Here’s another thing, even worse, though probably too unrealistic to be true: What if Greek Town was one more block over? Maybe two?
It also occurred to me that someone, anyone, any waitress, butcher, chef, cook, could have said:
"Sir, you are a stupid and uneducated traveler."
"Tell me about it."
"Sir, as stupid and uneducated as you are, you should know a fact I am about to tell you."
"Always willing to learn."
"Sir, you are a stupid and uneducated traveler because, you see, sir, there is no Greek Town in Astoria."
Not a single soul ventured to tell me that.
It wasn't until much later, when we were back in Manhattan and we went down to Wall Street to actually see the men and women who’ve dumped my IRA into the East River, that we confronted the horribly metaphorical signs pictured above.
But tomorrow everything would be good.
Tomorrow we were going to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and visit the Greek antiquities section. D
Paul Kennebeck lives with his family and practices law in Denver. Besides enjoying reading and writing, he enjoys various things Greek, among them the country’s history and its wonderful food. He may be reached at email@example.com.