The Way it Was
By Helen Chester
How many of you remember the way it was? Well, I do.
There was that night at a weekly meeting of Balkan Co-op when somebody said, "Hey, let's all go down to the Intersection afterwards!" And I asked, "What intersection?" And later, when the dancing ended, I followed someone down the freeway to Alvarado Street and found out that it wasn't just any old intersection, but the Intersection Folk Dance Center.
It wasn't even open then. Not officially anyway. But already a couple of after-parties had been held there. Spreading the word, preparing the public -- a nice place to go after you'd been dancing somewhere else and didn't want to go straight home. I remember that this tall guy let us in. I think we paid 10 cents for some soft drinks and maybe we donated a quarter or so to the management. The place seemed promising. A couple of weeks later it opened -- really, that is. I found out that the tall man's name was Rudy. There was another fellow too, shorter, who flirted a lot with all the girls and whose name was Athan. He seemed to know an awful lot about Greek dances; Rudy, however, liked to tango.
Remember those first months? We used to sit around in a big crowd -- all five or six of us (eight or ten if we were lucky) -- and talk and stare into space and wonder where everybody else was and why the world was not yet beating a path to the door. In between we got up to dance, and I learned that great new dance, the "hasapiko."
It was a novelty then. We'd sit and talk far into the night and then someone would suggest that we all go up the street to Al's for breakfast. Other times we'd cook breakfast right at the Intersection. Athan was invariably chief cook and I somehow always ended up doing the dishes. As we straggled out to go home, the sky would be turning pink and golden as the sun came up. The freeways were practically deserted and a sort of happy tiredness would slowly envelop one as he drove homeward.
Remember what the place first looked like? Since then, a lot of things have changed, fallen apart, been replaced. Some things remain: the tree in the corner, for instance. Everyone thought it was such a good idea -- sort of outdoorsy looking, especially in the winter when we were all dreaming of summer and the real out-of-doors. It was nice -- until it warmed up and the termintes came out to see if it was spring.
Then there were the tables. They were the most ethnic, atmospheric looking things you'd ever hope to see, made out of barrel ends. The only thing wrong with them was that they weren't very sturdy. One by one they collapsed -- quite literally -- and were replaced by less exotic, but more predictable counterparts. It was sad to see them go, and sometimes incredibly funny. Like the time a middle-aged woman just arrived from Yugoslavia came in and sat down, resting one elbow on the table. The Intersection wasn't crowded and into a chance moment of silence one could hear a staccato "tunka-tunka-tunka" as all of the slats in the barrel table fell out one by one. The poor woman was a bit upset, no doubt afraid that she had done something terrible. Rudy blushed.
The only other piece of furniture that is really worth mentioning was the sofa. Yes, we had a genuine honest-to-goodness sofa in the Intersection. A bit dilapidated, perhaps, but comfortable. As the evening wore on one was apt to find it occupied by semi-unconscious dancers, some snoring peacefully. It was a boon and a blessing, and its passing was mourned by many.
In those days the Intersection was truly a do-it-yourself, all-hands-fall-to project. Most of the kitchen utensils had been donated by well wishers and nothing matched. When there was work to be done people were commandeered on the spot. Athan's battle cry became, "Hey, -----, will you pick up some cups?"
The back room was different then. Described in three words, it was a vast junk heap. Everything of past, present, or possible future value seemed to find its way in there. There were records, paints, posters, mops and brooms, the remains of the tables, Rudy's clothes, boxes of soda, and so on. There was even a bed, where people put coats and occasionally themselves when the sofa was already occupied. Eventually, the room was cleaned out and reorganized, but it nearly took a natural calamity to get this accomplished.
Well, this is what the place looked like. But what about some of the things that happened there? A few of them will never be forgotten, and will forever occupy a warm place in the memories of many of us.
Remember, when the place first opened, how a number of people tried to come in free? The argument went something like this: "I'm Greek." "Oh, well...?" "Athan's Greek." "So what -- you still have to pay. It's only 50 cents." No kidding, at that time admission was only 50 cents. And finally, they all paid voluntarily and more or less cheerfully, although from time to time a plaintive protest could still be heard, "But I'm Greek!"
Once paid for and inside, their presence helped to make the Intersection what is was and is. Without the Greeks, would any of us have learned to play tavli; would we have ever heard that anguished complaint: "Oh no, not another Greek dance!" Or its equally pained counterpart: "Why don't you play another zeimbekiko? You never play any Greek dances anymore!"
The management (and everyone else who was handy) worked hard in those days just to keep the place running. How many of you have seen Rudy with a staple gun in one hand, a determined look on his face, in the process of "redecorating?" It didn't happen too often, but when it did it was everybody stand clear and step lively or risk getting stapled to the wall along with some poster.
A more regular "happening" was taking out the trash. Admittedly, everyone did a bang-up job of getting it out of the Intersection. The only drawback was that it all ended up in the back of Rudy's bus. Then when it had piled up, Rudy, in the guise of the midnight marauder, would drive off up the street and deposit it, with many furtive glances, in the trash bin of a nearby restaurant.
There have been times when the Intersection could have doubled as the local lost and found. Pairs of shoes, single shoes, coats, sweaters, scarves, and other things turned up every so often. Occasionally, even a person was "found," stumbling bleary-eyed out of the back room where he had sacked out and been forgotten by the world until daybreak and closing time.
Once in a while, there was some sort of catastrophe. The most regular occurrence was having a fuse blow out, plunging the room into sudden music-less darkness. The cause of this was as frustrating as it was simple. It was the garbage disposal. Whether the situation developed as a result of one more drain on already overloaded electriclal circuits, or whether the dispolsal was jinxed as some of us thought, will probably remain a mystery. It rarely happened when Rudy turned on the disposal, but just let anyone else touch the switch and sweet darkness reigned.
How many of you remember the Great Flood? No, I'm not insinuating that in some far-off time a number of Intersection habitues filed on board the Ark humming an early version of "Strose to Stroma Sou." The event I speak of was much more recent, following a couple of days of heavy-for-California rain. Those who made it to the Intersection were greeted at the door with a mop or a sponge and were told to head for the back where others were already bailing. Personally, I will always feel that this occurrence was the prime cause of the clean-up and reorganization that finally took place in the back room.
Will all who have ever helped to clean out the refrigerator please stand up? Now that was a job. Anyone embarking upon this perilous acivity knew the trepidations and the faith of a Columbus setting forth over uncharted seas, sure that if he just kept going he would reach India. He experienced the thrill of a Schliemann who uncovers the ruins and relics from the dark past, long forgotten and buried, or lying hidden beneath a jungle of rotting vegetation. I don't know what you found there, but I'll tell you what I found. First, there was plenty of rotting vegetation: three tomatoes, one green pepper, one half a cucumber, and some lettuce, to be exact. There was also a stale loaf of bread, donated months ago by Millie Libaw, crumpled wrapping paper, which had once enclosed some salami, and a message from the phone company. It was almost a shame to remove objects that were practically history.
Another occurrence in the cause of maintenance was the Great Floor Painting. This event took place in the wee hours, usually around the early part of the week, after nearly everyone had gone home. Those who remained, either by chance or by purpose, soon ended up on hands and knees, busily restoring the dance floor to some semblance of newness. Normally, these evenings were like any other painting project: the work progressed steadily and uneventfully as beer was consumed and more and more paint inevitably found its way onto the workers' hands and clothing. One such night, however, will live in infamy. That was the time Athan went to work with all the artistic flair and enthusiasm of a Tom Sawyer, deftly wielding a two-inch brush.
The days passed. Summers came and we sweated and cursed the ventilation, but we kept dancing. Year 'round, the walls echoed with music and calls of "yassoo" and "hoppa." Time brought new faces and new dances. It made the stove a little more temperamental and added more scars to the floor. The "money can" became battered and worn, but it still occupied its time-honored spot on the piano by the door.
The Intersection changed, as we all changed, but it remained a sort of second home to those who frequented it. The "family" was small to begin with, but like most families it grew, and the small, comfortable, homey residence became too crowded.
The Intersection is no longer on Alvarado Street. It now has a new street and a new home. Still, something of the old remains. Look around you, for the things we just couldn't bear to part with. Many are still around. Look at the faces -- they will look familiar too.
Once upon a time we had a song. It's still pretty appropriate, summing up the feelings of those of us who are new and those of us who do remember the way it was:
"When you hear old Greek songs, do you suffer?
Does your heart start to beat in your chest?
If it does, then come to The Intersection --
It doesn't cost much, but it's the best."
Used with permission of the author.