The San Marco Hotel
The Gilded Serpent presents ....
The Greek Scene
More North Beach Memories
posted October 17, 2003
The clinking of bar glasses and chink-a-chink of finger cymbals were far behind me and the strains of the syrto had grown faint beyond memory. I had long forgotten the North Beach of the '70s and the constant carnival that was San Francisco in those days. I was a born-again New Yorker, street-wise, cynical, and thoroughly involved in living the day-to-day life of a working woman in the most challenging city in the world.
One day, however, I came across a special from a tour company on the Internet offering airfare and hotel for a week in Athens and Mykonos for a staggeringly low price.
I had traveled through much of Europe, but had yet to visit that particular part of the Mediterranean. Although I no longer reeled from the experiences of my younger days in San Francisco, I had still managed to maintain a healthy distance over the years. But this time, curiosity won out and off to Greece I went.
The trip was downright grueling, but finally arriving in Athens - the hills, the stark, low buildings with their neo-classic decorations, and especially the little square parks that dotted the city - all reminded me of San Francisco. I spent my days wandering through Plaka and headed for lower Mitropoleos for moussaka or lamb with lemon sauce almost nightly.
It wasn't until I was ensconced in my room at the San Marco hotel in Mykonos, with its bougainvillea-lined terraces, barren hills and teal blue sea beyond, that I got the full impact of being in Greece. Actually, it wasn't until I turned the radio on in my room and heard the heavy beat and mournful lyrics of the zembekiko that I was suddenly transported back to those memorable days, and the emotions welled up within me. Had I really once been a part of that? I shook my head and barely held back the tears thinking back on it all. I gave in to the music and whirled in slow circles, my arms outstretched, eyes closed and head thrown back.
While pounding the pavement of North Beach for a job in 1972, I stumbled upon the Greek Taverna on Columbus Avenue. I had recently worked at the No Name Bar in Sausalito, a famous watering hole for writers, artists and assorted crazies. But there was "something in the air" at the time that seemed to be driving people, including me, off the deep end in Marin County, and I needed to broaden my horizons and explore what the City might have to offer.
Peter Haramis, one of the three brothers who ran the Greek Taverna, happened to be in the club when I dropped by, and after a brief interview I was hired. Peter served more-or-less as the patriarch of the family, I later discovered, and did most of the hiring and firing. Evidently, he was anticipating letting go one of the waitresses who had violated one of the Taverna's disciplinary codes, which I will go into in a bit more detail later on. And so, it began.
North Beach, of course, was the entertainment mecca of San Francisco at the time and was usually hopping well into the wee hours of dawn. Enrico's and the dozen or so topless clubs along Broadway, along with the bohemian coffeehouses on Grant Avenue, drew tourists, hippies and curiosity-seekers alike. The management of the Greek Taverna catered more to the tourist and business-class trade, preferring the kind of customer that opted for "dinner-and-a-show", and less to the large working-class Greek population in the Bay Area, who were more likely to frequent the Minerva Café, Oakland's Athena Taverna, or the suburban clubs of Walnut Creek and San Jose.
The Greek Taverna, in spite of the strict policies of the management, had a very warm ambience. Having gone to parochial schools, I was used to sitting quietly with my hands folded when I wasn't called upon to perform my duties, so I got along well with the management, initially. The Haramis brothers insisted upon a well-groomed, punctual and reliable staff. They looked upon a job there as more of a "career" and that made it all the more attractive to me, although the money I earned was meager.
Unlike some of the cavernous Greek clubs with their "tinny" acoustics, the Greek Taverna exuded warmth, with densely carpeted floors, rustic hatch-top tables and little wooden barrels that served as cocktail tables along the front of the bar. There was a "sunken" dining room with arches and cozy corner tables arranged around a wooden dance floor. It had a lot of charm.
The walls were covered with posters from various regions of Greece, fishermen's nets and artifacts carried back from frequent visits to the homeland. The Haramis brothers-Peter, Steve and Jimmy-were from Nauplion, a lovely seaside town in the southern Pelopponese. They were fiercely proud and, well-sometimes, just plain fierce!
The kitchen put out good food and the prices in those days were quite reasonable. Entrees cost around $4.50! Work-night meals usually consisted of a small square of moussaka with roasted potatoes, or a Greek salad with fresh feta and crisp romaine and a small chunk of bread. My uniform was a short tunic with Greek key ribbon trim that someone else had left behind. Soon I made my own, one in turquoise velvet with black and gold ribbon along the high neck and long, wide sleeves, and an off-white one with gold trim that I wore with a dark green velvet vest and gold chain belt.
I arrived promptly at 7:30 each night, in time for Steve, who ran the bar, to start up the tape of "Never on Sunday," which usually indicated that they were officially open for business. Steve was the most laid-back of the brothers - I would even venture to say that he was sort of a father-figure to many of people who frequented the Taverna.
There were three Greek musicians who stood on a small, elevated platform in front of the dance floor. Petros sang and played guitar. There was, of course, a clarinet/bouzouki player and a drummer. The music started around 8:00, and the musicians generally started the evening playing very low-key dinner music. Then the show!
The Greek Taverna offered a belly-dance performance as part of both the "dinner show" and a later "cocktail show." If business was good, a third "cocktail show" was presented. The belly dancers were usually quite pretty and management preferred them to wear spangly costumes and to dance in high heels, although there was an assortment of more "tribal" types, like Rhea and Aida al-Adawi, who also danced frequently. I even got to see a performance by the amazing Galya, who appeared to have awakened from some ancient tomb to cast a spell upon all of us.
When I first started, there were two belly dancers working at the Taverna. One was Latifa (JoAnn), a very young and beautiful girl of 18 who never smiled, whose photo was on the marquis high above Columbus Avenue. The other was Nawal, an energetic dancer who worked on Saturday night and whohad studied with Bert Balladine. She wasn't a particularly sensuous dancer, but was tall and broad-shouldered and had fantastic muscle tone. She really engaged the audience with her all-American looks, vibrant personality and boundless energy. Eventually, in spite of a heart murmur, she would leave to work for an airline.
I usually arrived at the club earlier than the dancers and, while we shared the same dressing room, we mainly crossed paths "on the floor." The air emanating from the dressing room was always full of patchouli, musk, Bellogia, White Shoulders - and often, sweeter scents. The dancers were the "videttes," while I was the "help," so bonds between us rarely formed. I enjoyed their dancing, however, and marveled at how different their styles were.
Rhea was powerfully energetic, humorous and extremely personable-Aida, a mysterious and all-knowing goddess, and an expert Middle Eastern dancer. Karisma was a pretty showgirl type, a favorite of the management who danced at the club for many years before marrying and moving to Greece. There was the novice Asmahan, who sewed such gorgeous costumes and struggled so hard, and who went on to truly master the art and become a Middle Eastern star. There was Mary, who danced with the sword both at the Greek Taverna and the Plaka Taverna on Kearny, and the voluptuous Tarube. There were so many over the years that their names escape me, and many of them became close friends and confidants of the Greeks who were regulars at the club.
There were the usual politics at the Taverna, of course, and if management felt that a dancer was holding back on her tips, she rarely made another appearance. An unwritten rule (though occasionally verbalized) was Stay away from the Greeks! Anyone who embarked upon even the most discreet affair eventually ended up looking for other employment. Those who played by the rules stayed and became part of a close-knit family.
The house was usually full for the weekend dinner show and the atmosphere was vibrant. Following the belly dancer's performance, the Greek dance music would begin. Jimmy (Dimitrius), was the youngest of the three Haramis brothers and served as the "entertainment manager." He would usually follow the belly dancer's performance with a rousing syrtaki, or "Zorba's dance" to a cheering audience. Then he would grab a few people from the audience to dance the syrto. Jimmy was handsome and always impeccably dressed, but had an arrogant air which was distressing. I was told that he had been a performer in Australia, part of a well-known trio.
It wasn't long before I was asked to join in to dance the syrto. I liked the music, the dancing, and the whole scene in general. While many good-looking Greeks frequented the Taverna, I pretty much shied away from them. I was invited to celebrate Greek Easter in Oakland after work one night, which was a lot of fun. I didn't know much about the culture, but I loved to hear the Greeks argue vehemently about politics and anything else. They delved into and analyzed everything and everyone, and it was fascinating to me.
I caught on to the dancing rather quickly, as I had been involved with modern dance and ballet most of my life and had done some folk dancing while attending a Lithuanian parochial school while growing up in Baltimore. Soon I followed the belly-dancer's show, dancing the hassapiko with a couple of the Greek waiters. It was fun being part of the show and I had literally entered into a new world.
On Monday nights, when the other Greek clubs often closed early, the local working class Greeks came to the Greek Taverna to drink and dance. Those nights were very different from weekend nights-and the people, too, were different. They were often boisterous and unpredictable, but they spent lots of money and were very generous to the dancers, the musicians and the wait staff. They were hard-working Greeks, and they were out to have a good time. Opa!!
The music rose by several decibels on these nights, and Peter or Steve Haramis would often motion to the musicians to quiet it down. They didn't seem too happy on these nights, preferring the staid, conservative dinner crowd. Usually some plates would get broken on these nights, too, which didn't help matters. I found it all very foreign, but highly entertaining. And it was such a joyful experience to see these men dance!
All the time I worked at the Greek Taverna, which would eventually span a period of ten years with time off for good (or bad) behavior, I especially enjoyed watching the men dance. When I wasn't taking orders for drinks, I watched intently and practiced dancing in small circles by myself near the service area of the bar, trying to follow the rhythm and steps of that one dance in particular.
The men who danced this dance, which I later learned was called the zembekiko, always appeared inebriated. They staggered about with their arms outstretched, a cigarette dangling from their lips, sometimes falling forward, then stopping short to quickly spin around. They waved their arms rhythmically from side to side while snapping their fingers, then slowly falling to their knees and bending over to grasp a glass of ouzo that had been placed on the floor in their teeth and tossing it down. They rose up, spun around, bowed, clapped their hands, jumped up and slapped their heels to cries of, "Opa!" and "Yasoo, manga!" Friends came up to toss handfuls of bills on the stage.
The zembekiko is most often danced by men. While the Greek women, too, will sometimes dance it, they usually perform it very differently. They dance around slowly and gracefully with arms outstretched, while the men seem to act out a kind of story. Theirs resembles a dance-pantomime - sometimes looking grief-stricken and forlorn, as if they had lost all with a roll of the dice, tossing everything into the air symbolically and turning away from it. Sometimes they looked self-amused and mischievous, offering up their personal Dionysian joy to the gods. Sometimes the dance was elegant and sexy, danced by any of the handsome young Greek men.
Not having access to Greek records, I practiced to Marvin Gaye's "Heard it Through the Grapevine." The unusual rhythm of the zembekiko, which is 9/8, is actually very close to the rhythm of that song! I was not so much determined to learn the dance as I was driven to dance it! And it wasn't long before, having been seduced by the music, dance and charm of the Greek scene, I was listening exclusively to Greek music. I also met George at the Greek Taverna - another restless Virgo spirit who would be an important part of my life for a number of years, and who eventually settled in Anchorage to become a successful restaurateur. We kept in touch over the years.
While I lived in San Francisco, I graduated from San Francisco State University in communications, had been involved in fashion modeling and acting for several years, lived on a houseboat at Gate 6, and sailed to Mexico on a 36-foot Block Island Cutter. Ultimately, I felt that there was nothing more for me to do in San Francisco. Spurred on by my mother's illness, I left for New York in 1992. I packed 22 years of my California life into a U-Haul and headed East on Interstate 80. I watched in my rear-view mirror as San Francisco grew smaller and eventually disappeared behind me.
I recently discovered The Gilded Serpent website and a listing for the new Minerva Café. I was surprised to discover that George was now co-managing the restaurant with his old friend Bill Glimidakis. I was so excited to relive the "old" days in San Francisco! I called George to say I would be coming out. It was finally time to visit the City and see just what had changed, both in the City - and in me.
San Francisco now looked to me more like a town than a city, the wide expanses of sky flowing freely above the low buildings. A short drive out to Bush and Divisadero brought me to Minerva Café. I was overwhelmed to see Vasili, Niko (so much like his father Bill) and, of course, George. I was in time to celebrate both George's birthday and mine - two survivors who had marched to the beat of their own drum and who at last were reunited in friendship.
I danced like I hadn't danced in years, requesting a special zembekiko, Giati Kale Gitonisa, that I had danced to so many times to the strains of Stratos Dionysios, and of course, O Paliatzis, my old favorite. And what story did my own dance-pantomime tell? No doubt, that I was terribly happy to be back in San Francisco among these familiar faces, dancing my favorite dance.that I, too, had perhaps gambled and lost, but I had also won. That I had lived and learned.traveled the world and survived. I was now officially a manga!
After a searing heat wave the cool fog once again rolled in over the graceful hills, and hovered above their buried ghosts. This city, which once held so much for me, now held only memories. It was finally time to say goodbye.
I look back at the Greek Taverna fondly and have developed a great respect for the Haramis brothers and the way they ran their business. Their example is one of hard work, commitment, and smart real estate investments. I visited the beautiful town of Nauplion while on a recent trip to Greece and I thought about them. Unfortunately, as times changed, business declined and the Greek Taverna closed. The venue became a jazz club called Jazz at Pearl's.
I have yet to visit a Greek club in New York, but understand that there is only one that still features Greek dancing, Thiasos on Avenue of the Americas. Eighth Avenue once was home to scores of Greek nightclubs. But most have moved to Astoria or Long Island. I have seen commercials on local cable TV for venues such as Laterna in Bayside, Queens, which cater to well-heeled Greek families, of which there are many.
I recently attended a Rembetika concert at Town Hall featuring Petros Gaitanos and Sophia Papazoglou. Their performance was moving, as they told the story of Greek emigration in song and poems. Gaitanos, who holds degrees in traditional music, was warm and his voice well-trained. He wandered about the stage in a white suit, sometimes kissing the musicians or touching them affectionately.
The silvery vocalizations of the beautiful Sophia Papazoglou, as she executed the melisma, were riveting. The hall was filled with Greek families, many of whom were probably neighbors, fellow church members or business associates. Non-Greeks in the audience were viewed with curiosity if not downright suspicion. But the concert itself was superb, sponsored by the World Music Society.
Below are some links to more information about the zembekiko:
- For instruction on the steps to the dance, see www.btinternet.com/~argyros.argyrou/dances/Zeybekiko.htm
- For more information about the unusual rhythm of the zembekiko, see www.khafif.com/rhy/garlofis/garlofis.htm.
- There is even a bronze sculpture http://www.johnleon.com/zembekiko.htm dedicated to the dance!
- For more information about Rembetika, Laika and popular Greek music, see http://www.greecetravel.com/music/rembetika/.
Some trace the zembekiko to the emigration, while others trace it to more ancient cultures. It is somewhat of an enigma and, to me, an enchanting one at that!
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