How I Became the Youngest Child Laborer in the History of Our Town

When I was three, everything belonged to me. I don’t mean abstractions like hope or the future, I mean cheeseburgers, tuna sandwiches, the hot dog sitting on another person’s plate. Thanks to the passionate and injudicious devotion of my parents, who let me wander around our family restaurant without any fear of reprisal, I staggered from table to table, grinning at customers while pawing at their food like a crazed bear cub.

The free drinks my parents offered as compensation went a long way to protect me, as did my inability to speak English. Greek is a cute language, especially when spoken by a small child. Words like “loukaniko” and “zambon,” shouted with enthusiasm, were usually enough to earn me an appreciative slice of pepperoni. To be fair, it was a small price for the customer to pay: in our tiny Western Massachusetts town, a tableside visit from a foreign kid was a lot cheaper and easier than taking the family to the petting zoo thirty miles away.

So while my father worked the oven and my mother made pizzas and the teenage afterschool girls poured sodas and rang up orders, I roamed among the dining room and, when my hunger was satisfied, climbed obsessively up and down the wooden stool in the back of the restaurant that had been put there exclusively for that purpose. For my parents, the arrangement was better than any kind of formalized daycare, it kept me close by and it also gave my sister Katerina, a precociously responsible seven year old, something to do when she got out of school every day.

In our tiny Western Massachusetts town, a tableside visit from a foreign kid was a lot cheaper and easier than taking the family to the petting zoo thirty miles away.

“Keep your brother from get lost,” my mother would advise Katerina in her broken yet commanding English, and my sister would nod with all the heartfelt obedience that, ten years later, she would jettison upon discovering boys, vodka, and popularity.

Unfortunately, my sister would do much more than keep me from “get lost.” She would follow me around, bossy and unimpeachable, rattling off a list of prohibited behavior. I was told not to go in the women’s bathroom, not to crawl on the floor (“It’s for dirty babies”), not to unplug the jukebox, not to headbutt the sweaters hanging from the coat rack, and finally, not to talk to myself in public — later amended to include no talking to myself while alone, after I was caught chatting to the dough mixer, one arm thrown chummily around its steel shoulders.

My sister was skilled at the obvious stuff, and never hesitated to use force in her bounty hunting, dragging me out from underneath tables by my warm brown corduroys and then apologizing to diners, in the family’s best English, “He thinks he’s your puppy;” but frankly, she had lost touch with the thinking of a three year old. At seven, she had lived more than two of my lifetimes, and as a consequence, she had long since forgotten the joy of placing a pickle inside of a napkin, the drama of an untied shoe, or the compelling mystery of ham. If she could have recalled this hypersensitive interplay of sensation and imagination, she might have anticipated my vanishing that day in June, when I escaped my parents’ restaurant and became the youngest child laborer in the history of our town.

Like my parents, my sister believed that familial attachment kept me inside the restaurant. This was a charitable misunderstanding. The truth was that fear kept me from leaving. Not fear of the outside world, fear of strangers, or even fear of werewolves — though this last one would surface a few years later when, not-so-coincidentally, my father grew his first and only beard — but rather, fear of The Door: a huge, forbidding burden of silver metal, inset with two giant glass panes thick enough to repel a rhinoceros, and able to slam shut with deadly speed. It wasn’t an irrational terror; The Door had nearly severed my finger once, when I had curiously plunged my hand into the jaws of the hinge.

With such a formidable guardian, there was little hope of an unaccompanied exit. But then one afternoon, in the middle of the lunch rush, I saw an unprecedented vision: The Door was open. Some customer, tired of the early summer heat, had fastened the broad metal hook on the back onto the ring bolted into the building wall and then forgotten to release it afterwards, leaving it flush against the wall, helpless. I didn’t know who had chained the beast, I had been too busy telling secrets to a bag of sour cream and onion chips to notice, but as customers behind the counter blocked my parents’ visibility of the exit, and my sister distractedly pummeled the block of frozen ice in the elderly ice machine that had seized up yet again, I didn’t bother asking. I stashed my snack/confidant behind the jukebox and ran outside.

My parents’ pizzeria was flanked on one side by a hardware store and on the other by the town’s only bar. The hardware store was an easy miss — I wasn’t one of those little boys who played with toy trucks and plastic hammers and legos, I preferred stuffed animals and the laundry bin; if it weren’t for the fact that I also loved to punch things, behaviorally I was a girl — and the funky, stale smell emanating from the underground bar was no more appealing then than it is now. So I ignored both places, toddling along State Street past the alleyway and the apartment building and the boarded up ballroom and the lesbian-run used bookstore where, as a teenager, I would irritate the owners by requesting Charles Bukowski novels, until at last I ended up outside of Mulligan’s Market.

Billed as a health food store and organic market, Mulligan’s Market was a mysterious new arrival in our town of farmers and paper mill workers. Today, even the most heartfelt redneck isolationist can’t help but know of the existence of kashi and vegan tofu dogs, and has possibly downed a tofutti-cutie in a moment of tasty self-loathing — but this was 1979, before cholesterol had become a public hazard, when “nutrition” was just a word used contemptuously by fat people. In the wilds of Western Massachusetts, a health food store was an absolute unknown. I’d like to think that I was tapping into some sort of local zeitgeist as I scrambled up the steps to Mulligan’s Market and pushed open the flimsy screen door, that I was a regional pioneer; but the truth of the matter is that I was just reckless from being consistently unpunished.

The market was small and dark, with only a few customers wandering around and smelling things. I didn’t come up higher than anyone’s waist, so it was hard to see much. The wooden floor was unvarnished and scuffed with footprints. There were soup cans along the bottom shelves of the two aisles and bags of nacho chips just above them and in the red baskets people carried were mostly yogurt and dirty vegetables. In the back was a tiny café that sent out the aroma of coffee, a scent that I had always greeted with a hostility so ferocious it worked its way into my first recorded insult, shouted at my baffled and undeserving sister while we played Restaurant: “Katrina, shut your coffee mouth!”

A woman walked past me carrying bags of groceries and smiled. I waved. She waved back. I waved again. She waved some more. This sophisticated flirtation might have gone on for a while, but then I spotted, just over her shoulder, directly under the transparent plastic containers of what looked like kitty litter (granola), a huge barrel of peanuts. I lifted both hands and raced happily towards it, my fingers already curling with greed, my whole body exhilarated with a sense of mass ownership.

I grabbed a handful of peanuts and started cracking them open, stuffing the peanuts in my mouth and dropping the brown threaded casings onto the floor. Shell after shell split and fell, leaving a pile of wreckage around my small, Velcro-tab sneakers. Soon I was going too fast to swallow; as I jammed the peanuts into my mouth, half of the nuts spilled right out again.

And then there was a tall man standing above me, saying something that I couldn’t understand. This was nothing new; I couldn’t understand most things people said. I ignored him and kept eating.

Mike Mulligan, an ex-hippie with an unfortunate fondness for wearing snug jogging shorts, repeated what he’d said. When I continued to disregard him, he reached down and pried the peanuts out of my hands. This I understood. In any language, it means fight.

Mustering up all of my ferocity, I balled my hands into matchbook-sized fists, thrust out my lower lip, and burst into tears.

Mike grabbed me by the elbow and led me to his office. It had a desk and two chairs and a red telephone. An overhead light bulb dangled from the ceiling like a loose tooth. Mike sat down across from me. His mouth opened and squawking American noises came out. He wagged his finger for a while, and then he shook his head. I stared past him, at the bottom of the door — the part where, if I was a cat, I could have stuck my paw underneath. After a few more seconds, Mike removed a nickel from his pocket and pretended to give it to himself. He smiled and slowly did it again. I noticed a rice cake on a paper plate in the corner. I scooted off my chair, went over and took a bite. Mike exploded.

While he scolded me for an offense I couldn’t have possibly understood, even if he had been speaking Greek — not once had anything ever been refused to me; if I had asked for my parents’ kidneys, my mother would have promptly opened the silverware drawer to find a paring knife — he dragged me out of his office and to the loading dock just off the back of the store. With a scowl, he handed me a broom, gesturing at the filthy five by ten elevated wooden platform.

I may not have understood the idea of property, but even at three and a half I knew what a broom was. Find me the child of immigrants who doesn’t. Regardless, I played dumb, dropping the broom each time it was given to me, then looking up with the shamelessly exaggerated amazement of a soap opera actor who has just been informed that his evil twin brother was back in town again.

But Mike refused to be beaten — especially by an adversary not much bigger than his jogging shorts. He stuck the broom in my hands, wrapped his own around mine, and proceeded to demonstrate how to sweep, making my arms drag the bristly yellow head back and forth. After a few passes, he released me and motioned for me to continue on my own.

Cornered, sullen, and thirsty from the rice cake, I started my first job. As employment goes, I’ve since had worse; in college I used to deliver packages to the science labs every morning, handing over boxes marked BIOHAZARD to researchers in anti-radioactive suits who watched, in horror, as I rooted around in my jeans and sweatshirt for a pen to sign with, my sperm count falling like rain. The only bad part of sweeping the dock, really, was the supervision: Mike stood watching from the doorway, his hands perched on his womanly hips. But once he had decided I had gotten the hang of it, he walked back inside and left me on my own.

It wasn’t long before I began to enjoy the work. True, the broom was too tall for me, the equivalent of an adult sweeping with a ladder, but I liked shaping the dust into patterns — big circles and squares. I was just finishing a giant oval when I heard my mother hysterically calling out my name. “Pana-yo-tee! Pana-yo-tee!”

“Mama!”

“Pana-yo-tee! Katze ekei! Meen kouneethees! Erchomai tora!”

I stayed exactly where I was, as instructed, and moments later my mother burst through the backdoor and onto the dock. The broom hit the wood with a clatter. I ran toward her legs. She scooped me up, furiously kissing the top of my head.

“Pou esounai, moro mou? Fovithika! Meen xana — ”

Squawk squawk,” Mike said, in his gibberish language.

My mother spun around and glared at him, newly arrived, lurking in the entranceway.

Squawk,” he repeated, holding up peanut shells.

She began to explain something to him — that I didn’t understand his language, maybe; or that she would gladly have reimbursed him the twelve cents I had eaten, and there had been no need to conscript a laborer who was barely potty-trained — but Mike wasn’t interested in listening to her. He just shook his head and pointed down at the dock, insisting that I finish the job.

At this, my mother launched into a string of enraged Greek that I didn’t comprehend either, although I understood the basic premise, since her tone was so scorching that had I not tucked my face into her neck, I would have lost my eyebrows.

Squawk!” Mike shouted, firing me.

There is a gesture in Greek, the palm thrust straight out at a person, that does not mean, as tourists often believe, “Go away.” This is a generous mistranslation perpetuated by guide books. It is an obscene, scatological incitement, and it possesses a purity of contempt that is matched only by its filthiness.

My mother, not wanting to be misunderstood, did it twice.


Originally published at www.paniogianopoulos.com on March 24, 2013.