Pericles on 34th Street
After ten years of writing and rejection, HARRY MARK PETRAKIS hit our target right in the center with this pungent starv. Mr. Pet raids is thirty-three years old, married, anti has two young sons. When yon are in your early ttreaties,” he wrote, publication seems a story away. It is only later that you learn the obligations of talent. You learn that no one can really do for you that which has to be done. Yon learn what it means to try to balance the wanting to write within the nomad patterns of life and family. From arrogance you come full circle to humility when for days oral weeks and even months there appears to be no sane reason for continuing.”
by HARRY MARK PETRAKIS
LOUIE DEBELLA’S bar was located on the corner of 34th Street and Dart Avenue, the last store in a group of five stores owned by Leonard Barsevick, who besides being a landlord operated the Lark Wholesale Clothing Company across the street.
My name is George. My last name is not important. I’m Louie Debella’s night bartender and I count myself a good bartender. I might mention a few of the qualify places I have tended bar, but that has nothing to do with this story.
If I have learned anything from fifteen years of tending bar it is that a bartender cannot takes sides with anything that goes on across the bar. He has got to be strictly nonpartisan. A cousin of mine in South Bend, also in the business, once tried to mediate an argument about Calvin Coolidge. Somebody hit him in the back of the head with a bottle of beer that was not yet empty, and besides needing stitches he got wet. Now when I am on the job I never take sides. Thai is, I never did until the episode of Pericles.
As I understand it this fellow Pericles was a Greek general and statesman who lived back in those Greek golden years you read about in the school history books. From all reports he was a pretty complete sort of guy who laid down a set of rules and was tough on everybody who did not read them right.
If you are wondering what a Greek who lived a couple of thousand years ago has got to do with this story, I guess it all started because the storekeepers in our row of stores gathered in the bar in the evening after they locked their doors for a glass of beer.
The first man in was usually Dan Ryan, who had the butcher shop. Ryan was a heavy beer man and needed the head start on the others. A little later Olaf Johnson, who ran the Sunlight lunchroom, came in with Sol Reidman the tailor. Olaf had a huge belly that was impossible to keep under it coat. Sol liked nothing better than to tense Olaf about when the triplets were expected.
The last man in was Bernard Klioris, who had n little grocery next to Sol’s tailor shop. Bernard usually got lost in the arguments, and swung back and forth like a kitchen door m a restaurant. He had a sad thin face and was not so bright, but among our patrons you could hardly tell.
Last Tuesday night after I had served Ryan his fourth beer, Olaf and Sol and Bernard came in together, with Olaf and Sol arguing as usual.
“She told me she was a Republican,”Olaf said. “They want some lunk for Congress. I told her to come by you and get her petition signed.”
Sol waggled his bald head indignantly. “Who gave you leave to advertise my business?“ he said. “A man’s politics is a sacred trust that belongs to him alone.”
“She only had a petition, not a gun,”Olaf said. “I knew you was a Republican so I sent her.”
“How can anyone,”Ryan said from the bar, “be in his right mind and still be a Republican?”
Sol waved a warning linger. “Be careful,”he said. “You are stepping on the Constitution when you ridicule a man’s politics.”
“I read about the Constitution,” Bernard said.
They lined up at the bar. I poured them beer. All they ever drank was beer.
The door opened and Nick Simonakis came in. He was the vendor who took his stand at night on the corner of 34th and Dart. He had a glassed-in wagon that he pushed into place under the street lamp, and from the wagon he sold hot dogs and tamales and peanuts. Several times during the evening he locked up the wagon and came into the bar for a glass of wine. He would sit alone at a table to the side of the room, his dark eyes in his hollowcheeked face glaring at the room from above the white handle-bar mustache. Every now and then he would sip his wine and shake his head, making his thick white hair hang more disordered over his forehead.
Other men might have thought he was a little crazy because sometimes he sat there alone talking to himself, but like I said, I do not take sides. At other times he gave up muttering and loudly berated the drinkers of beer. “Only Turks would drink beer,” he said, “when they could drink wine. One for the belly and the other for wisdom.” He would sip his wine slowly, mocking their guzzling of beer, and the storekeepers would try to ignore him.
“The sun-ripened grapes,”Simonakis said, “hanging until they become sweet. Then the trampling by the young maidens to extract the lovely juices.
A ceremony of the earth.”
“Beer don’t just grow in barrels,” Olaf said. “Good beer takes a lot of making.”
The old man laughed softly as if he was amused. “You are a Turk,” he said. “I excuse you because you think and talk like a Turk.”
“Say, old man,” Sol said. “Someone wants a bag of peanuts. You are losing business.”
Simonakis looked at Sol with bright piercing eyes. “I will lose business,” he said. “I am drinking my wine.”
“He must be rich,” Ryan said, “and pushing business away. I wish I had gone into peddling peanuts myself.”
“It is not a case of wealth,” Simonakis said. “There is a time for labor and a time for leisure. A man must have time to sit and think. This made Greece great.”
“Made who what?” Olaf asked with sarcasm.
The old man swept him with contempt. “In ancient Greece,” he said coldly, “an elephant like you would have been packed on a mountaintop as bait for buzzards.”
“Watch the language,” Olaf said. “I don’t have to lake that stuff from an old goat like you.”
“A land of ruined temples,” Sol said, and he moved from the bar and carried his beer to a near-by table. “A land of philosophers without shoes.”
“A land of men!” Simonakis spit out. “We gave the world learning and courage. We taught men how to live and how to die.”
Ryan and Bernard and Olaf had followed Sol to the table, drawing their chairs.
“Would you mind, old man,” Ryan said as he sat down, “leaving a little bit of credit to the Irish?”
“I give them credit,” Simonakis said, “for inventing the wheelbarrow, and giving the world men to push it.”
“Did yon hear that!“ Ryan said indignantly and looked fiercely at the old man.
The old man went on as if lie had not heard. “A model of courage for the world,” he said. “Leonidas with three hundred men holding the pass at Thermopylae against the Persian hordes. Themistocles destroying the great fleet of Xerxes at Salamis.”
“That’s history,” Olaf said. “What have they done lately?”
Simonakis ignored him. He molioned to me and I took him the bottle of port. He raised the full glass and held it up and spoke in Greek to the wine as if performing some kind of ceremony. The men watched him and somebody laughed. Simonakis glared at them. “Laugh, barbarians,” he said. “Laugh and forget your debt, to Greece. Forget the golden age and the men like lions. Hide in your smoking cities and drown in your stinking beer.”
“What a goat,” Olaf said.
Sol shook his head sadly. “It is a pity to see a man ruined by drink,” he said. “That wine he waves has soaked his head.”
“Wheelbarrow indeed,” Ryan said, and he glared back at the old man.
IT THAT moment the front door opened and Leonard Barsevick, the landlord, walked in. He carried an air of elegance into the bar. Maybe because of his Homburg and the black chesterfield coat he wore.
The storekeepers greeted him in a respectful chorus. He waved his hand around like a politician at a beer rally and smiled broadly. “Evening, boys,” he said. “Only got a minute but I couldn’t pass by without stopping to buy a few of my tenants a beer. George, set up the drinks and mark it on my tab.”
“Thank you, Mr. Barsevick,” Olaf said. “You sure look like a million bucks tonight.”
Barsevick laughed and looked pleased. “Got to keep up a front, Olaf,” he said. “If a man in my position gets a spot on his suit he might as well give up.”
“That’s right, Mr. Barsevick,” Ryan said. “A mail in your position has got to keep up with the best and you sure do.”
“Say, Mr. Barsevick,” Bernard said. “You know the leak in the roof at my store I spoke to you about last month. It hasn’t been fixed yet and that rain the other night . . .”
“Wait a minute, Bernie,” Barsevick laughed. “Not tonight. If I promised to fix it, I’m going to have it fixed. Leonard Barsevick is a man of his word. Ain’t that right, boys?”
They all nodded and Olaf said, “Yes, sir,” emphatically.
“But not tonight,” Barsevick said. “Tonight I’m out for a little relaxation with a baby doll that looks like Marilyn Monroe.” He made a suggestive noise with his mouth.
“You’re sure a lucky man, Mr. Barsevick,”Olaf said admiringly.
“Not luck at all, Olaf,” Barsevick said, and his voice took on a tone of serious confidence. ‘ It’s perseverance and the abilily to get along with people. I always say if I didn’t know how to get along with people I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“That’s sure right, Mr. Barsevick,”Ryan said. The others nodded agreement.
“Fine,” Barsevick beamed. “All right, boys, drink up, and pass your best wishes to Leonard Barsevick for a successful evening.” He winked broadly.
The storekeepers laughed and raised their glasses. Everybody toasted Barsevick but Simonakis. He sat scowling at the landlord from beneath his shaggy brows. Barsevick noticed him.
“You didn’t give this gentleman a drink, George,”he said. “What are you drinking, sir.”
“He ain’t no gentleman, Olaf said. “He is a peanut peddler.
“An authority on wheelbarrows, Ryan said.
Simonakis cocked a thumb at Barsevick. “Hurry, landlord,” he said, “your Monroe is waiting.”
Barsevick gave him a cool glance, but the old man just looked bored. Finally the landlord gave up and turned away pulling on his suede gloves. He strode to the door cutting a fancy figure and waved grandly. “Good night, boys,” he said.
The boys wished him good night. Simonakis belched.
ON TILE following Thursday the notices came Irom Barscviek’s bookkeeper announcing a fifteen per cent rent increase all along the block. All the storekeepers got a notice of the raise becoming effective with the expiration of their leases about a month away. Louie was so disturbed he called me down in the middle of the afternoon and took off early.
That night the storekeepers were a sad bunch. They sat around the table over their beer, looking like their visas had expired.
“I don’t understand it,” Ryan said. “Mr. Barsevick knows that business has not been good. Fifteen per cent at ibis time makes for an awful load.”
“With license fees and the rest,” Olaf said, “a lunchroom ain’t, hardly worth while. I was not making nothing before. With this increase ii ain’t going to get no better.”
“Two hands to sew pants will not he enough,” Sol said. “ I must sew with four hands, all my own.”
Bernard looked distressed from one to the other. “Mr. Barsevick must have a good reason,” he said.
“lie’s got expenses,” Olaf said.
“He should have mine,” Ryan said. “Beef is up six cents a pound again.”
Simonakis came into the bar pulling ofl his gloves. He ignored the men as he walked by them to bis table against the wall and signaled to me for his hot 1 le of wine.
“1 am going to buy a wagon,” Olaf said loudly, “and sell peanuts and hot dogs on the street.”
“You must first,” Simonakis said, “have the wisdom to tell them apart.”
Olaf flushed and started to get up. Sol shook him down. “No t ime for games wit h crazy men tonight,” Sol said. “This matter is serious. We must organize a delegation to speak to Mr. Barsevick. It must be explained that this increase imposes a terrible burden on us at this time. Perhaps a little later.”
“Shoot him,” Simonakis said. lie waved the glass I had just filled with dark wine.
“You mind your own business, peddler,” Ryan said. “Nobody is talking to you.”
“A Greek would shoot him,” Simonakis said. “ But you are loads.”
“ I get my rent raised,” Olaf said, “and now I got to sit here and be insulted by a peanut peddler.'
The front door opened and the room went quiet.
Barsevick closed the door softly behind him and walked over to the storekeepers’ table and pulled up a chair and sat down like a sympathetic friend coming to share their grief.
I guess they were alt as surprised as T was and for a long moment no one spoke and Barsevick looked solemnly from one to the other. “I hope you do not mind my butting in, boys,”he said and he motioned to me. “George, bring the boys a round on me.”
“Mr. Barsevick,” Ryan said, “the boys and me were just discussing . .
Barsevick raised his hand gravely. ”1 know, Danny,” he said. “I know what you arc going to say. I want to go on record first as saying there is nobody any sorrier than Leonard Barsevick about this. That is why I am here. My bookkeeper said I did not have to come over tonight and talk to you. 1 told him I would not stand for that, that you boys were not just tenants, you were friends of mine.”
“It is a lot of money, Mr. Barsevick,’Olaf said. “1 mean if we were making more, things might be different.”
“I know that, Olaf,” Barsevick said. “Believe me, if there was any other way 1 would jump at the chance. I said to Jack, my bookkeeper, ‘Isn’t there any other way."' I swear to you boys he said, ‘Mr, Barsevick, if that renl is not increased it will be charity.’” 1 brought the tray of fresh beer and set the glasses around (he table. “Not that I mind a little help to my friends,” Barsevick said, “but it is not good business. I would be shamed before my competitors. ‘There’s Barsevick,’they would laugh, ‘too soft to raise his tenants’ rent.’ They would put the screws on me and in no time at all I might be out of business.”
Everybody was silent fora moment, probably examining the prospect of Leonard Barsevick put out of business because of his soft heart.
“We know you got expenses,”Ryan said.
Barsevick shook his head mournfully. “You got no idea,” he said. “I mean you boys got no idea, I am afraid sometimes for the w hole economy. Costs cannot keep rising and still keep the country sound. Everything is going up. Believe me, boys, being a landlord and a businessman is hell.”
“Shoot him,” Simonakis said loudly.
Barsevick stopped talking and looked across the tables at the old man.
“He is a crazy man,”Sol said. “That wine he drinks makes him talk to himself.”
Barsevick turned back to the men but he was disturbed. He looked over at the old man once more like he was trying to understand and then started to gel up. “I got to go now, boys,”he said. “I’m working late tonight with my bookkeeper. If we see any other way to cut costs I will be glad to reconsider the matter of the increases That is my promise to you boys as friends.”
“We sure appreciate you stopping by, Mr. Barsevick,”Ryan said. “We know there is many a landlord would not have bothered.”
Barsevick shook his head vigorously. “Not Leonard Barsevick,” he said. “Not even his worst enemy will say that Barsov ick clot’s not cut a si might corner when it comes to his friends.”
“We know that, Mr. Barsevick,”Olaf said.
“We sure do,”Bernard said.
“Shoot him,” Simonakis said. “Shoot him before he gets away.”
BARSEVICK whirled around and stared in some kind of shock at the old man. I guess he was trying very fast to figure out if the old man was serious.
“Don’t pay him no mind, Mr. Barsevick,”Olaf said. “He has been out in the rain too long.”
“You are a demagogue.”Simonakis spoke loudly to the landlord. “You wave your greedy fingers and tell them you are a friend. Anaaaaaaa!" The old man smiled craftily. “I know your kind. In Athens they would tie you under a bull.”
Barsevick stood there like rocks were being bounced off his head, his face turning a bright shade of red.
Sol motioned angrily at the old man. “Somebody wants a hot dog,”he said. “You are losing business.”
Simonakis looked at Sol for a moment with his mustache bristling, then looked at the others. “I have lost business,”he said slowly. ‘You have lost courage.”
A sound of hissing came from Barsevick, his red checks shaking off heat like a capped kettle trying to let off steam. “You goddam pig,”he said huskily. “You unwashed old bum. You damn peddler of peanuts.”
The old man would not give an inch. “You are a hypocrite,”he said. “A hypocrite and a libertine. You live on the sweat of belter men.”
Bursevick’s jaw was working furiously like he was try ing to chew up the right words.
“Let me tell you,”Simonakis said, and his voice took on a more moderate tone as if he were pleased to be able to pass information on to the landlord, “let me tell you how the hypocrite goes in the end. One day the people wake up. They know he is a liar and a thief. They pick up stones. They aim for his head.”He pointed a big long finger at Barsovick and made a rattling sound rise from his ihroat. “What a mess a big head like yours would make.”
Barsevick gasped and whirled to the men at ihe table. “lie’s threatening me,”he shouted. “Did you hear him? Throw the old bastard out.”
No one moved. I kept w iping glasses. A good bartender learns to keep working.
“Did you hear me!" Barsevick yelled. “Somebody" throw him out.”
“He is a erazy old man,”Sol said. “He talks without meaning.”
“Shut up!" Barsevick said. “You stick with him because you are no damn good either.”
“I do not stick with him,”Sol said, and he drew himself up hurt. “I am trying to be fair.'
Barsevick turned to me. “George, throw him out.”
I kept wiping the glasses. “I am underpaid, Mr. Barsevick,”I said. “My salary barely covers my work. Any extra service would be charity.”
The old man took after him again. “Who likes you, landlord?” he said. “Be honest and speak truth before your tenants. Who likes you.”
“You shut up!" Barsevick shouted.
“I mean really likes you,”Simonakis said. “I do not mean the poor girls you buy with your tainted money".”
“I’ll shut the old baslard up!" Barsevick hollered and started for the table against the wall.
Simonakis stood up and Barsevick stopped. The old man looked tall and menacing with his big hands and bright eyes and his white mustache standing out like a joyous challenge to battle. “You cannot shut up truth.”Simonakis said. “And the truth is that you are a leech feeding on the labor of better men. You wish to become richer by making them poorer.”
Barsevick stood there a couple of tables away from the old man with his back bent a little waiting for a word to be raised in his defense. No one spoke and the old man stared at him with eyes like knives.
“You old bastard . . .” Barsevick said weakly.
Ryan made a sound clearing his throat. He wore a stern and studied look on his face. “Fifteen per cent is a steep raise,”he said, “Right at this time when it is tough to make ends meet.”
Barsevick whirled on him. “You keep out of this,”he said. “ You just mind your own business.”
“I would say,” Ryan said slowly, “fifteen per cent more rent, to pay each month is my business.”
“I’ll make it twenty-five per cent,” Barsevick shouted. “If you don’t like it you can gel out!”
“I have a lease,” Ryan said quietly. He was looking at the landlord like he was seeing him for the first time.
“I will break it,” Barsevick said. He looked angrily around at the other storekeepers. “I will break all your leases.”
“I did not say nothing!" Bernard protested.
“The way of tyrants and thieves,” Simonakis said. “All who oppose them suffer.”He raised his head and fixed his eyes upon the ceiling. “O Pericles, lend us a stick so we may drive the tyrant from the market place.”
“Stop calling me a tyrant,” Barsevick fumed.
Simonakis still had his head raised praying to that guy Pericles.
“I’m going to put every one of you into the street,” Barsevick said. “I’m going to teach you all not to be so damn smart.”
Sol shook his head with measured contempt for the landlord on his face. “ You will not put us out,” he said. “First, you are too greedy for the rent. Second, you would not rent, those leaking barns again without major repairs, and third . . .” Me paused. “Third, 1 do not admire your personality.”
“ Amen,” Bernard said. “My roof keeps leaking.”
“O Pericles!” Simonakis suddenly cried out and everybody looked at him. “They are barbarians and not of Athens but they are honest men and need your help. Give them strength to destroy the common enemy. Lend them your courage to sweep out the tyrant.”
“You are all crazy,” Barsevick said and he looked driven and disordered. His tie was outside his coat and the Homburg perched lopsided over one ear.
“You are a tiger,”Sol said. “Tell me what circus you live in and I will rent a cage to take you home.”
“Do not be insulting,” Ryan said to Sol. “You will hurt the landlord’s feelings. He cannot help he has got a head like a loin of pork.”
“You ignorant bastards!" Barsevick shouted.
Ryan got up and came over to the bar. He stepped behind and pulled out the little sawed-off bat Louie kept under the counter. He winked at me. “I am just borrowing it,”he said. “I want to put a new crease in the landlord’s hat.”
Simonakis came back from calling on Pericles. “Do not strike him,” he said. “Stone him. Stone him as they stoned tyrants in Athens.”He looked at the floor and around the room as if excitedly searching for stones.
Barsevick in full retreat began to edge toward the door. He opened his mouth to try and speak some final word of defiance but one look at the bat in Ryan’s hands must have choked off his wind.
“Tyrant!" Simonakis shouted.
“Vulture,” Olaf said. “Stop and eat on me, and I’ll grind some glass for your salad.”
“Greedy pig,” Ryan said, and he waved the bat. “You try and collect that rent and we all move out.”
“Judas,” Sol said. “Come to me only To sew your shroud.”
“Fix my leaking roof,” Bernard said.
With one last helpless wail, Barsevick stumbled out through the door.
For a long moment after the door closed nobody moved. Then Ryan handed me back the bat. 1 put it under the counter. Olaf started to the bar with his glass. Bernard came after him. Soon all were lined up at the bar. All except Simonakis, who had gone back to sit down at his table staring moodily into his glass of wine.
Ryan turned his back to the bar and looked across the tables at Simonakis. He looked at him for a long time and no one spoke. The old man kept staring at his wine. Rvan looked back helplessly at Olaf and Sol and they watched him struggling. Bernard looked dazed. I held a wet towel in my hands and forgot 1o wipe the bar. When Ryan finally turned back to Simonakis, you could see he had made up his mind. He spoke slowly and carefully.
“Mr. Simonakis,”he said.
The old man raised his head scowling.
“Mr. Simonakis,” Ryan said. “Will you be kind enough to join my friends and me in a drink?”
The old man stopped scowling. He nodded gravely and stood up tall and straight, his mustache curved in dignity, and came to the bar. Ryan moved aside to make a place for him.
I began to pour the beer.
“No, George,” Ryan said. “We will have wine this trip.”
“ Yes, sir,”I said.
I took down the bottle of port and filled a row of small glasses.
Ryan raised his glass and looked belligerently at the others. “To the glory of Greece,” he said.
The rest of them raised their glasses.
“To At hens,”Sol said.
“To Mr. Simonakis,”Olaf said.
I took down anolher wineglass. I poured myself some wine. They all looked at me. I did not care I was abandoning a professional tradition of neutrality.
“To Pericles,” I said.
Simonakis stroked his mustache and sipped at his wine. The rest of us sipped right with him.