Archive for July, 2008


Efrosini Holding Neocles

Efrosini Holding Neocles, originally uploaded by neocles.

My earliest memories go back to the house my parents lived in when I was born, at 818 “S” St. in Fresno CA. We were Greeks on the edge of Armenian Town. I don’t quite remember living there, since we moved when I was about two years old. But I almost do. I remember being at the house, although I think it was when my parents were going back and fixing it up to sell when I was about three and half years old.

I remember the look of the old wooden house, the wood floors, the old door knobs, the pulley clothes line that stretched from a window to the far reaches of the back yard. I remember the feel of the hot, powdery dirt in the Fresno summer, and the way it smelled when the water from the bib fell onto it, making dusty explosions that turned to mud. I vividly recall, even now, the smell of the cellar we retreated to for lunch once the sun was high and hot. We sat at a card table and ate in near darkness, the only light streaming in from the cellar door at the top of the stairs. There was a certain musty smell of damp concrete that I encounter every few years, and when I do I am transported back to that cellar more fully than any sci-fi invention could ever achieve.

I toddled around the front yard and wandered into the yard next door. There I encountered the old Armenian woman who lived there. She was very old and bent over, wrinkled and gray. In my memory, she was wandering around her garden tending to her plantings, she wore nothing above the waist and her breasts hung low and flat. She spoke to me in Armenian and I understood nothing of what she said to me. I stood and stared up at her, a little afraid, but not too much, perplexed by the sound of this language. She smiled as she spoke and chuckled around the edges. My mother called and I turned to go, running through the powdery dirt that burned my feet. The smell of Sycamores wafted by as I scrambled up the front steps.


My Brother-Cousin

Father and Daughter

Tommy asked for forgiveness. Tommy Panos and I were first cousins; our mothers were sisters. Our families lived in the same city, Fresno, then on the same block, then right next door with a pass-through in the fence. Our families were close, and I am an only child, and so I always looked up to Tommy as my big brother. He was five years older than me.

I remember when I was about four years old, Tommy’s family would come visit ours on West Cornell Ave., and Tommy would push me around the block on my tricycle — me on the seat and Tommy standing on the step behind me, steering and pushing with the other leg as on a scooter. Typically, the ride started out fun, and then got exciting, then got thrilling, then got terrifying as Tommy jumped off and I frantically tried to steer until my trike slowed to a manageable speed. Then I was ready for another lap.

A few years later we both lived on Griffith Way. I would beg to hang around with him. Tommy would offer to hike me on his bike to go to the 7-11 to get candy or a slurpee. I would get on the handlebars of his Schwinn Varsity 10-speed. Tommy would take off and by half way down the block we would be moving pretty fast. That’s when he’d simply jump off the bike and see how far it would stay up with me on the handlebars before it went crashing over. He’d laugh hysterically, but then come and get me up and hug me, and then buy me some candy.

I would beg, beg, beg for him to take me on his paper route (Fresno Bee) with him. This meant he would hike me on the back of the heavy-duty Schwinn with the paper bags. I don’t know how he survived hiking me along with all those newspapers. Getting to go along meant helping too, and that was fine with me. He would ask for papers and I would pull them out and hand them to him as needed. We would always stop at the 7-11 and get black pepper beef jerky, some candy or a coke.

There was only one catch: Rover. The huge carmel-brown dog at the corner of Swift and College or so. I can’t remember if it was a hound or what. I just remember that Tom would miss that porch and I would be sent to go get the paper and put it on the porch. That meant facing Rover. That deep bark blew my hair back and set me to tears. Usually Rover was lying around right in front of the porch and I would start to inch my way toward the ivy to hunt for the paper, the dog bellowing at me the entire time. Tommy would laugh and laugh. Then, he’d buy me all kinds of treats at the 7-11. We’d sit around and he’d counsel me on bikes and cars and making paper airplanes, anything else that his quick mind conjured. Somehow, I never got bitten. I also never quit looking up to him, appreciating his spirit, sense of fun, and sheer coolness. But I never got over my fear of dogs. It was nice of Tommy to try to break me free of it. Sort of.

We told all these stories before, when Tommy was my best man. We laughed and laughed, and ate and drank, and laughed some more. By then, he had gone off to San Francisco and success selling bond investments. He still had his sense of fun and his need to share everything he found and everything he enjoyed with those around him.

Once when I was about 17, i went to the Bay Area for a concert, and, of course, my friend and I stayed with Tommy. When my friend left the next day, Tommy had insisted I stay the weekend to hang out with him and said he’d get me home. Sunday afternoon came and no arrangements had been made. Tommy called an agent and arranged to fly me back to Fresno. The next flight out of Oakland was in about an hour. We took off from his house in Orinda, drove insanely fast to the airport, and ran to the counter. He slapped the ticket in my hand, and gave me a push. I ran through the terminal and got to the plane with the hostess impatiently holding the door open for me, the last person to get on, for my very first plane flight ever.

There were many other firsts for me and Sarah with Tommy. And Tommy always insisted on paying for everything. Our first time dining at Fourth Street Bar and Grill in Berkeley, back before anything else was there at all; our first time at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, and at the famous Stars, and innumerable other restaurants, bars and theaters. My first, and only, show at ACT to see Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And to the Bammies, and concerts, and to nightclubs here and gone. He took me on my first hike up to Cataract Falls on Mt Tam, and after the hike, straight to Frogs Spa for a soak and a massage. He loved food, and loved to cook, and the list of foods and dishes he introduced me to is endless.

Tommy had keen senses and became a connoisseur of everything in which he took an interest, from primitive art to jazz music. But more than that, he could not really enjoy anything unless he was sharing it with those whom he loved. One of the things he loved to share was people. He introduced so many people to each other, and gathered so many smart, interesting, and wonderful people around him, he was the hub of an incredible 360 degrees without separation. He was the most generous person I have ever known or ever will know. He wanted to do everything for everybody. He wanted to at least do something for each person he ever bumped into.

Somehow, in a way we will never understand, this desire consumed him. His most selfish act was to take himself away from this world and all those who love him so much, in order to escape the feeling that he had to be there for everyone.

Tommy. Honey. Brother. I love you. I miss you. I forgive you. I hope your wondrous spirit will continue to teach me and guide me.

Obit in sfgate.



apricot saga

About the apricot. In 2003 or so, I went down to Dwight Way Nursery and found this Blenheim apricot. It is supposed to be a dwarf or semi-dwarf, I can’t quite remember which.

I knew that there was some challenges to growing stone fruit around here. I know that they like a good cold winter to set fruit well, and, of course we don’t get much of that around here. A couple days of frost here and there is about it. Also, I know some people with peaches who report that periodically large chunks of the tree die for no apparent reason. Probably a blight that likes the relative dampness.

I chose apricot for a couple reasons. First, I thought that the smallness of the fruit might make it more likely that it will ripen. Secondly, my father planted an apricot at the house we moved to when I was five years old. That was a fabulous tree. It had a wonderful shape, an incredible crop almost every year, and the memory of it reminds me of my father. It lived for over 30 years until the renters i had in the house killed it and almost all the other fruit trees in the back yard through a couple fresno summers with no watering whatsoever.

In any case, my apricot produced no fruit the first season, about six or eight fruits the next couple seasons, and about a dozen last season. My friend Rocky had become fond of teasing me about the size of the cobbler he would be limited to in trying to do something with the “annual crop”. And last year, when the tree started the growing season with a perfectly balanced, bowl shape, and good new growth and budding, it suffered the mysterious die-back. One major branch on one side and a couple nearby small branches suddenly quit leafing, shriveled up, and died. The rest of the tree was basically okay, but it was misshapen and unbalanced. I put off my hopes to this year for both fruit and a return to form.

This year, there was not much weather during the spring. No hail, wind, or much rain came along to knock the beautiful blossoms from the tree. As the season progressed there was not a lot of new wood growth–not the several feet that previous years had seen. But it soon became obvious that there was a lot of fruit on the tree.

Around June 1st or so, my Neighbor Hugo said to me as we were admiring the tree, “you might get some 2x4s under a couple of those branches for support. You wouldn’t want them to break.” Well, I didn’t think this was much of a possibility. The aforementioned Fresno apricot never broke a branch no matter how laden with fruit. But after a couple of days, I took it more seriously, seeing that this young tree’s branches were still slender and there was a lot of fruit on them. What had been a narrow upright shape had now settled out into an open bowl of a branch structure. I propped them up with several bamboo sticks I had around.

The First Broken Apricot Branch
Then about a week later, we had a very windy night. I came out in the morning to find the largest branch of the tree broken, taking down about six feet of height from the tree and several pounds of not yet ripe fruit. I tried to salvage the fruit. Some, I picked and tried to ripen in a paper bag. Much of it I left on the broken branch in the hopes that what was left in the branch would continue to feed the fruit until it could ripen more. Each approach had success rate of about 2% of the fruit involved.

I was pretty disappointed, but there was still an incredible amount of fruit on the tree, so I got over it.

More Broken Apricot Branches
Then the other shoe dropped. About two weeks ago, not one, but two branches on the other side broke, despite being supported. There was a about 10 lbs. or more of fruit that had to be brought in. Fortunately, it was much closer to being ripe. I ripened much of it, and began eating it. As we did what was left on the tree, still a lot, was ripening and being brought in.

Loaded Apricot Branches

The past week we have been eating apricots like crazy. I gave some to Hugo next door. I gave some to my mom. We brought a bag to Fresno over the holiday. I made about four pints of preserves. I brought some to work. And still, we have a several pounds to pick and finish off the crop.
Making Apricot Preserves
Jars of Apricot Preserves

The lingering question is what the broken limbs mean for winter pruning, next spring growth, and the general shape and health of the tree. Only time will tell.


growing things

Down the Garden Path

I live in Albany in the SF Bay Area. I like to garden, and I especially like to grow edible things. I am originally from Fresno, CA. Fresno is smack in the middle of the most productive agricultural region on the face of the planet. Collectively, these facts usually add up to some cognitive dissonance for me about this time of year.

In Fresno, you can grow practically anything and reap a bountiful harvest. In much of the Bay Area you can grow even more things, but the harvest part is much, much more challenging. This is often referred to as a “Mediterranean” climate, and to me, that brings to mind Greece. Note however, that Mark Twain did NOT say, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in Athens”. The correct reference would be to San Francisco.

So while it is true that the climate in the Bay Area is mild and lots of things will grow, not everything fruits and ripens here. It just does not get hot enough for a sustained period for many fruit trees and vegetables like tomatoes and peppers to really produce a nice harvest. It gets frustrating because things do OK, but not great. Sometimes a plants, like tomatoes, just don’t look happy at all, no amount of feeding, watering, not watering, trimming, etc., cheers them up.

As with real estate so with gardening: location, location, location. I am still experimenting with varieties and locations. And admittedly, some things do just well. Lettuce comes to mind.

In the case of fruit trees, which no self-respecting Greek-American would omit from anything but the tiniest of gardens (for example pots on the apartment veranda), I began my efforts with a Blenheim apricot. But that is enough ranting for now; my experience with the apricot tree will be the subject of the next post.