Although I did not get to spend enough time with my grandfather he was an important part of my early childhood. Pandelis, or Peter as many more commonly called him, was a sensitive and caring individual who sadly suffered from and eventually died from alcoholism. My parents were divorced when I was very young, perhaps I was two or three years of age, as a result I did not see much of my father for quite a while so grandpa would sometimes fill in.
My grandfather would often almost "magically" appear with an offer to take me out for a walk or to the park. He had been exiled from the house by his wife, my grandmother because of his frequent drinking. I never knew if he started drinking heavily before or later when his son was killed during WWII.
He was born in Greece on the island of Chios where he served in the Navy as a very young man. Eventually he developed an interest in cooking and worked at various restaurants in Greece, and later here, at small diners in the New York area.. Among his other flaws, he was apparently extremely jealous of any attention another male in particular might direct towards his wife. There were a few stories of Pandelis chasing people away from my grandmother, one such story depicted him with a clever in his hand, although I never witnessed it or confirmed the validity.
We lived in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan which at the time provided a community for a rather vast Greek-American population among others. The were many other groups including latinos, Irish, Italian, and Jews depending on which specific part of the neighborhood you wandered into.
Highbridge park and the Harlem River were nearby which often became our day-hike destinations. Holding onto my grandfather's hand we would seemingly explore the universe, train tracks, boats, freight trains, and the not so clean water ways. One of the habits I developed was collecting all sorts of small rocks and carrying them home in a tin bucket. I was able to sustain this "hobby" until my mother discovered my collection. Insisting that the rocks were very dirty, I was "encouraged" to carry the rocks into our Clawfoot bathtub and proceed to wash them with soap and water. Needless to say, the result was gradually making the tub filthy, so I almost ended my rock collecting career were it not for my Aunt Dorothy who later introduced me to the "geological collections" at the Museum of Natural History.
On many occasions, Papoo as we knew him (Greek for grandpa), would take me for walks around the neighborhood, for a while these were exciting. Unfortunately a negative pattern eventually evolved. As time transpired, Papoo would begin to notice the many nearby bars. These bars became his priority and the subject of his thoughts. I am estimating that I was 10, 11, or 12 years old at the time. From that point on, Grandpa would come to the house and take me out to the park or for a walk in or around the neighborhood. Unfortunately quite often he would "discover" another local bar, enter it and seemingly never return. Frequently I waited outside of a bar because I was told it would only take a few minutes. Of course at 10 or 11 years of age, I gradually understood what was happening. Grandpa would often give me a quarter or 50 cents to keep me occupied while I waited. Eventually I learned to walk back home since I knew the neighborhood well.
This pattern continued for a while and was not much of a problem as I grew a little older and could eventually find my way back. It was not much of a problem at all until the day I think of as the "final straw." Back then there was an amusement park just across the George Washington bridge. It was named Palisades Amusement Park. Papoo showed up at the house early one morning and offered to take me there. Of course I was excited about the idea.
For the better part of the day I was able to enjoy myself and try a several rides and amusements. Sometime in the late afternoon grandpa discovered one of his bars in a large white tent. Sure enough, he suggested I wait nearby for a few minutes while he went inside. I recall him giving me a couple of quarters as per usual to buy ice cream or find something to drink.
As the afternoon turned into evening I continued to patiently wait near the tent. Not certain what to do, I eventually dicided to walk into the tent. I was immediately hollered at by the proprieter and several others. I tried to explain why I was there but an eleven year old had no business in a bar and I was forced to vacate. I found my way back to another bench and sat there waiting, this time impatiently. The sun was setting and I was at a loss as to what to do but I continued to wait. Several strangers passed by and asked why I was there alone. I repeated the story of my predicament several times. It became darker as another stranger again asked me why I was alone. After hearing my explanation, he suggested I call someone but at this point I had no more coins. He suggested I use the payphone to dial the operator. I managed to reach my grandmother who was with two of her best friends, I often referred to them as "The God Squad." They instructed me to sit on the bench near the phone booth and wait until they met me. To this day I can't comprehend how quickly they arrived. They were a motley crew of characters, my grandmother, my "godmother" who knew how to address any sort of problem, and their friend who we appropriately refered to as "Red" due to the bright red color of her hair.
I found myself daydreaming and falling asleep as a bus stopped near by and the three friends swiftly ran through the front door. I noticed each of them wielding an umbrella and grasping it as one might hold a club! They eventually found me and of course asked if I was okay. I was then told to wait there for few minutes. The last image I remember seeing was of the three women walking into the the tent bar together and eventually hearing a muffled shouting in the distance.
After that incident I only saw my grandfather one last time. He was permitted to visit with me after being hospitalized. Prior to his hospitalization he had been living in a tiny rented room at a strangers apartment. He died shortly thereafter from liver failure. In spite of his problems and in spite of his unintentional abandonment, I always thought of him as a loving and compassionate man.
My first cameras were an 8mm Keystone and a great big box containing a tiny Kodak Brownie "Holiday Flash" and all the equipment necessary for lighting and film development. I recall jumping for joy when I viewed my first self-processed image including fingerprints, dust marks, and faded grey edges! The joy of my chemical darkroom work had begun!