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What I Remember (7): Friends and Fans

This is a transcript of a recording made of my father, George, and his friends recalling his life, at his 76th birthday party in 2000, and from his 80th birthday party in 2004.


George Soter’s Memories (2000, 2004, 2006)

This lady and I, after I got out of high school, I went to college in Chicago at a place called Roosevelt College, first called central YMCA College and then it became Rooosevelt later. It was Central YMCA college and we proceeded alphabetically and her name began with an R and mine was with an S and we sat next to each other. And we kept making jokes and everything. We became very close friends and part of my secret life is Jean was a terrific dance… modern interpretive dance. She studied dance and she got me involved in going to dance classes and I went to dance classes with Jean. It’s amazing to 50 years later, still be friends with somebody.

Six Decades of Jeannie Memories (2006 eulogy)
Jean and I met in September 1942 in out first college classes, just fresh out of Chicago’s Albany Park high schools (hers, Von Steuben; mine, Roosevelt). We were seated alphabetically and her maiden name, Reisapfel, plopped us next to each other. Almost from the first day, we didn’t pay as much attention to the classes, as we did to exchanging jokes and funny lines and comments. And folk-dancing. That accidental college seating arrangement started a life-long platonic love affair.

I was soon drafted the following March, but before that, I became part of Jean’s Habonim circle--an honored goy (I was Greek) participant--and took part in the pro-Israel parties, dances, sing-alongs, and meetings that were then part of her life. All warm and heady stuff. Half a year later, as a U.S. soldier on leave in London, and nostalgic for all that Jewish camaraderie, dancing, and activism I’d taken to, I even looked up and visited the London Habonim office, thinking I might find an English Jean there; but the London Habonimsters were seemingly much less democratic and only puzzled by my unseemly, to them, Chicago connections and, of course, there was no Jean equivalent to welcome me.

Jean and I exchanged funny letters during the war years. And in post-war 1946, we came together again back home where, at the University of Chicago, two other ex-GI’s (also Greek-Americans) and I shared a ratty off-campus apartment, cooked most of our own meals and where Jean (who didn’t like to cook) was often one of our most welcome quick-to-dance and hilarious joke-telling guests. It was a kind of pre-Hippie gathering place. (When it was announced a few months ago that a movie had been made about comedians exchanging versions of the infamous famous joke “The Aristocrats,” I instantly remembered that Jean had introduced us to the joke early on, and that it was part of her voluminous joke inventory, and I sent her a copy of a review of the movie that she much appreciated.)

For the next few years, Jean worked at a social agency on Chicago’s colorful Maxwell Street where her circle of friends came to include a group of gypsies--and more dancing. And then, Jean migrated to New York, America’s dance capital, where she and Alex found each other. They danced horas and mazurkas and even some Greek circle dances until they happily found their unique tango niche. And made their historic dance footnotes.

In 1949, my wartime girlfriend Effie and I were married--Jean was the matron of honor at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Three Hierarches in Brooklyn--and, soon, we too had moved to Manhattan. And then, our children and the Turney children were often sandlot playmates, and we were all active members of each other’s circles, part of one another’s families.

In Chicago, Jean had even learned from us a bit of cooking--how to make the then very popular tuna casserole which was the easiest cooking in the world: you boiled some noodles, mixed in a can of tuna fish, a can of Campbells cream of mushroom soup, covered it all with American cheese slices and baked it in the oven for a few minutes. She became adept enough at this recipe to serve it to Alex’s parents one night; Alex’s mother who was also a non-cooking housewife, was impressed and, assured that it took no cooking skill or serious kitchen time to make “this wonderful casserole,” asked Jean for the recipe which she carefully wrote down, and even called while preparing to cook, to make sure she had the instructions right. When Jean spoke to her the next day, asking how it had turned out, Mrs. Turney sighed and said, “It wasn’t as good as yours.” How could that be? “Well,” Mrs. Turney explained, “Maybe it was because I didn’t have tuna fish and so I used a can of tomato herring...” This anecdote became part of Jean’s wonderful inventory of real life funny stories. She was able to see the humor in all sorts of things, both big world events, small dance world happenings, and little kitchen disasters. And she was able to give life to all these varied events.

As the years went on and Tango gave a new focus to Jean and Alex’s life (after all, what do you do when the children move on and start their own lives?), there came the moment when they became “movie stars.” It started out as a lark, and soon their six-minute Tango Octogenario became the hit attraction throughout the world, including the New York Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival and festivals in Europe and South America. They were the stars of a NY Times Anemona Hartocollis“Coping” column headlined “After 55 Years Still Dancing Cheek to Cheek.” Jean and Alex were thrilled with all the attention. “Think of it! At our age we’ve become celebrities!” They certainly had. Although for their friends, they always had been celebrities.

For all of us who had the chance to share in Jean’s wonderful life--the early Chicago days, the Habonim group, the dancers of all kinds, her fellow employees in the bookstore world, Alex and the children and grandchildren--we feel her absence and remember fondly Jean’s ready smile, her quick repartee and, most of all, the deeply understanding way she had for friendship and love.

John McCrosky is the second oldest friend here. In the early 1960s when I was working in the advertising business, he came, he was interviewed for a job and the job was to work on Renault cars as an account executive. And I was a terrible interviewer. Because I wanted to hire the first person that came in, I felt sorry for him. At any rate, I said, “You have to work on Renault cars,” and it was like Seinfeld. I said, “Do you speak French? Not that it makes any difference…” He said he spoke a little French. We hired him and we became very, very close friends from that time on. That was another 40 years on, 1960 it was. So we’ve been friends for 40 years, 50 years.

Let me tell you about Maggie; I’ve known Maggie since before she was born. Maggie’s father and I were in Berlin, Germany together in the army and we became quite close friends. I think Tom liked me, Tom was the quintessential WASP and he liked me because I was Greek. We had a long lasting friendship and at some point Maggie was born and that friendship was transferred from her father to Maggie. We were like surrogate parents to Maggie, to all the things she went through. When we had our shop, she was a model and posed for photographs. And she was a great customer. All we had to do was call her up and tell her we had a bad week and she’d come down and shop.

Anthe was part of Effie’s family from Greece. She was a close friend of Effie’s sister, in addition to which she was a leader in the Greek Civil War. She was terrific. In addition to which she is also an engineer, she worked for the Bell System as an engineer and she has a terrific accent, a little like Nana Mouskouri. I have to tell my Anthe story. At one point, there was a strike going on at the Bell Telephone System and Anthe was an executive, a vice president and what have you and she had to take over some supervisory role or some everyday role. Somebody called her and said, “There’s a man on the wire who wants his… You handle it.” So the man got on and said, “I want my home telephone number. We just moved in and I don’t remember it and I’ve had a big argument with my wife and I have to call her.” So Anthe looked it up and she said, “It’s an unlisted number, I can’t give it to you.” And he says, “You have to give it tome, because I had this fight with my wife and I want to make it up.” So Anthe says with her wonderful accent, she says, “Why don’t you slip into the back door through the kitchen, read your telephone number, come out and telephone?” And he says, “There is no back door!” And he got very furious, he says, “Look, if you don’t give me my number, I’m going to destroy this phone booth.” And Anthe says, “You put one finger on that phone booth and I have a button here which I will press and I will blow you up.” This is the Bell Telephone System.

Let me tell you about Irma. Irma is one of our friends from Riverside. She had all these kids and we had all these kids and at some point we opened this shop, Greek Island, and we needed a person. So Effie said to her, “Irma, do you want to work in the shop?” Irma never worked in a shop, she’s still now working in a shop because of that. She was terrific, she was the best sales person in the world because she never pushed anybody.

Now I have to tell a longish story. At some point in the ‘70s, a woman came in at Christmas time and spent a fortune and all the while she was spending all this money she kept talking about the charities she gave to, the things she did. She kept name dropping all these fancy places and we were very worried—she spent $1,000—how she was going to pay for it. So at the end she says, “I’ll pay for it by check, but you hold the check until you clear it at the bank and I’ll pick the stuff up tomorrow.” And then a few weeks later we saw the paper and there was some crazy woman and it was her, who was going around spending a lot of money. Okay, time lapse. A year later in the summer, this woman comes in and she announces to us that she was engaged to marry Marlon Brando. And she was going to be flying to Cannes the next day in a private plane and she was buying a lot of things; clothes, things for Marlon’s children. And she had all this conversation while she’s shopping and she spent several thousand dollars. Half of us thought, this is great, Marlon Brando’s wife and the other thought said, she's a phony.

At any rate, she bought all this stuff, she paid for it, she had the money and she left it there to be picked up the next day. To make a very long story short, the next day she came in and bought some more stuff and she came in with her masseuse, Ingrid, to find things for her. Two funny things: at the end of all these purchases, like any good Greek merchant—she spent several thousand dollars—I decided to give her a gift. We had some little votive offerings that are silver things and I said, “Please give this to Mr. Brando.” I don’t remember what it was, but it was a thing. And she says, “Well, no, you have to write a note, say best wishes or something, make it more personal.” And it said, “Dear Marlon, best wishes…” and she took it. Then a couple of hours later, her masseuse, Ingrid, called and said that they had left an envelope there. Irma went back to get the envelope, she found it and she said, “I’m going to look in it,” and she did. And Irma found these newspaper clippings that said that this woman who was going to marry Marlon Brando was the woman who a year before was in for Christmas and was talking and standing and had been written up in The Times. So Irma said, “Look who this is, this is Jean Janssen. So anyway, the woman came and picked that up…

Two side stories I want to tell you. First is we’re driving home in a cab from that shop and we’re talking about this incident. Effie and Irma are arguing about whether this woman was genuine or not. Irma says, “I knew she wasn’t genuine. Marlon Brando would never marry a woman like that.” The second part is, two months later… While she was in the shop, I was telling her that we were going to be in Venice next month, I was going to be a judge at a festival. She says, “Well, that’s wonderful because we’re going to be going to Italy on our honeymoon.” And she says, “What hotel will you be at?” She wrote it down and so forth. So even though I knew all of this was some kind of a crazy scam, all the two weeks we were in Venice, when I’d show up to the desk I’d say, “Are there any messages that say Mr. Brando will pick you up?" It never happened.

NICK SOTER (from his 80th birthday, 2004)
You have been a wonderful father to me, and still are, for all these years. You have allowed me the freedom to do what I want, and while not agreeing with some of my life choices, you trusted that I would be all right in the end. And I am all right, more than that, in large part due to the sensibilities and values you have passed on to me. Those include, but are not limited to (legal language, to protect myself):

Respect for other people and their views, even if they are wrong (which I still have a hard time with); the social responsibility to treat other people with kindness and understanding, even if you don’t always feel that way; gentleness and softness as a way of communication for men, and that projecting machismo is not the best way for men to act towards the world; a love for the arts-writing, film, music, dancing; that simple pleasures are sometimes the last refuge of the complex; that the world is an exciting and invigorating place, and that we should all strive to see more of it; that the act of driving long distances, particularly if it is accomplished along a rocky coastline with a precipitous cliff on the right, is a meditative experience; that food is not just to be consumed in order to keep us functioning, but should be enjoyed with family and friends, preferably in a small taverna on a sunny beach under turquoise skies in the late afternoon; that being Greek is both an honor and a fact; that support of one’s family will always be the first concern, whether it be financially, emotionally, or intellectually; that money will come and money will go, but not to worry; that lying on a beach under an extremely hot sun interrupted by an occasional swim is a worthwhile and desired condition; that the way one looks can influence the way one feels, and therefore one should always dress appropriately; that working hard is the only way to work, but not all the time; that urban life has its benefits, which should be taken advantage of; that all living things have value, and plants and animals should be respected and enjoyed for what they are; that lemon trees can produce fruit in small pots on upper floors of apartment buildings when only receiving westerly sun; that generosity has its own rewards; that climbing up innumerable stairs in the hot sun to hear the actor’s whisper on the ancient stage is worth doing; that bouzouki music is part of a Greek’s soul, and going to nightclubs until 2:00 a.m. to hear it is a necessary part of a 14 year old’s summer program; that one should not harbor any grudges, except those necessary to maintain dignity; that people in the service business should realize that they are here to serve the customer, and that the customer is always right; that terrific things happen all the time, and that not-so-terrific things happen too; that being eighty can be fun and exciting, sometimes, just as life at any age, and; that life is for living, and for enjoying, with family and good friends over some fresh food and soulful music. I love you, Niko.

DORA MIRANDA (from 2004)
Dearest George,
What a great delight to be here to celebrate your birthday! I have celebrated twenty-five years with you including : family adventures to Greece; my dream trip to Paris; trips to Mexico, and our yearly sojourn to New York City. I thank you for your legacy of love and deep compassion that I’ve enjoyed with your son, my husband Nick. And the traditions I now hold dear of family and good food. Happy Birthday George, you’re terrific! Thank you for your generous heart, which has made me your daughter, Dora

ZOE ELENA SOTER (from 2004)
You’ve had a great 80 years with the people you love. Our family travels together and we couldn’t have done it with out you. You are a great grandfather and I love you. I wish you a happy, happy, happy 80th birthday! I love you Grandpa George

I’d like to tell a quick George story, this is one of my favorite stories. It’s George on lunch break and it’s a crowded 5th Avenue summer afternoon. Pedestrians are crossing the street and blocking traffic and there’s two guys in a van trying to force their way in between the pedestrians and they can’t make their way. The windows are down and the light turns red for them and the driver said, “I could have went! I could have went!” And George went like, “Excuse me, I could have gone.” And the guy said to him, "What did you say?" And George said, "The correct way to say that is 'I could have gone.'" And the guy said, “Well, fuck you!”

This is another quick story about George. In 1972, I was going to Greece together with the family and I’d just gotten my driver’s license learner’s permit. I was traveling with George and Effie and the three Soter boys plus all the Athens cousins and stuff. And George rents a Volkswagen van and we’re driving around Crete and George says, “Jonathan, you have the license, why don’t you drive?” “Are you sure? I mean, I just got it, I’m 17 years old, I don’t know if I can really…” He said, “Yes, of course you can, go ahead, do it. Come on.” “Okay.” So puts me at the wheel and I’m driving the whole family. I realize if I make one mistake on these winding Greek roads, I’m going to wipe out the entire Soter family, plus all their Athens relatives. But this is the kind of man George is, is… And it sets you up for life because you think… Well, you know, you’re a very young man and you think, all I need is for some guy with authority to believe in me.

George was walking on the street and a guy comes up to him and says to him, “Hey, I know you, you’re an actor, aren’t you?” George says, “No, I’m not,” and they’re walking along. The guy says to George, “No, I really think you’re an actor, you were in that big picture a couple of weeks ago, I saw it.” And George says, “No, I don’t think so.” He says, “Oh, sure, you must be.” And he went on for about five minutes talking about how great George was. And he was on the set with George and he worked with him and he remembers how great an actor he was. And then at the end of this spiel he says to George, “You know, I really know actors because I’m an actor myself and I’m out of work. And my wife is sick. Do you think you can spare a few bucks?" And George gave him five dollars. I said to him, “Why did you give him that money? He said, “Because it was a great performance.”

The first thing I want to say about George is… I never think about George, at the same time I think Effie. The first person I met was Effie and Peter introduced me to his mother and George was there. In some ways in the home, George was more maternal. But I can still never separate, and I think most of us probably can’t, when I think of George I always think… And still, today, I always think, George and Effie. And when I think of the home, the store… And a lot of times at the Soters there’s always boys and I was a boy in there, a lot of it was George and the art and his creativity in the house. A lot of it was George, but I always thought Effie.

I want to say something else, because a lot of you don’t know how personally, how deeply I personally feel about George, but what kind of a man George is. I came from a decent home and I went to college and I met Peter. And we went, we said, “Look, life is tremendous, isn’t it great? And we love each other, this is tremendous, so let’s do some things, what do you want to do? Let’s go see some things.” He said, “I’d go see Greece, you want to see Greece?” “Great, we’re going to Greece.” So we went to Greece and we came back and (inaudible) another year. And Peter said, “What do you want to see?” “Let’s go see everything.” So we went to Greece, we went to Italy, we spent months and we just lived in a cave (laughter), literally, I’m not kidding you. It was nothing, but our budget was two dollars a day. But George said, “When you go, I’m going to send you some friends, I know these people, you go see them.” So Peter and I, we had a budget of about $1 a day for food. That was enough, because we’d go into a restaurant and we would make friends.

Peter’s just like George, made all kinds of friends. We’d collect from them, we could pay for the meal, we wouldn’t have to put anything, it was beautiful. He said, “Look, I’m going to call some of my dad’s friends,” so we called them, and the next thing I know we’re going from Effie’s sister’s house in Athens, we’re riding in a BMW listening to Nat King Cole, we’re going to the best seafood restaurant near Athens. And there’s a guy, he’s telling a story, we sit down, we have beautiful shrimps and you never saw anything like it. But instead, it was the dollar, the pastichio next to the train station in the tourist section. It was beautiful. And everywhere we went, in France too, George said, “Go and see my friends,” and Peter and I would go.

But one year we went away on a vacation, I said, “Look, I’m going to keep going, I don’t want to go home, I’m just going to go.” I went and I spent six months in Africa, or nine months. A year later I called George and I said, “George, I’m in New York.” He said, “What happened?” I said, “Well, I had some trouble. My parents were divorced and I’m in New York and I just got off the plane. I was deported.” George said, “Oh, come on over, surprise Peter, he’s sleeping.” And I came over and I said, “I don’t feel that good.” So it turned out… I came over and I said hello, great, and I weighed 170 pounds, I was very skinny and I didn’t look that good. But George said, “You can stay a while, don’t worry about it,” and I could call home. My parents were getting divorced, they weren’t there, George said, “Stay with us for a while, don’t worry about it.” I’ve got Hepatitis and George said, “Don’t worry about it, stay with us, it’s no problem.” A couple of days later I woke up and I had lice because I was in jail in Africa before I was deported and George said, “Don’t worry about it, stay with us.” And I couldn’t get a job for a while and George said, “Don’t worry about it, stay with us, that’s okay,” you know? Three years later… I’m not kidding, three years later and George never asked anything from me and that’s the kind of man George is and his family is. I stayed with him all that time and he never asked me for a penny, he never asked me to clean the house, he never asked me for a penny. All he wanted was that… He supported me, at Christmas time he would give me clothing, anything I needed. So that’s my story about George.