Sinfonia Concertante

June 1971

I was as lonesome and low as ever I had been. Here I was in Fresno, of all remote places—remote from the big cities I was used to and the people I knew there. Fresno means “ash” in Spanish, the town being named after the Fresno River that flows from the Sierra Nevada and nourishes the groves of fig trees and other agricultural treasures of the Great Central Valley of California.

My life was in ashes. I lived three Volkswagen Beetle-hours away from my two young children whom I visited every weekend. My marriage had crumbled. I had a job in “Fresno County Mental Health.” My belongings, other than clothes and necessaries, fit into two wooden orange crates—mostly books and records. I had no disposable income after giving most of my paycheck to my soon-to-be former wife.

My father said Beethoven brought him through The Great Depression when he was struggling to hold the family business together after all his senior relatives died, and then jobless and working a government make-work job for a year until the day I was born in January 1937. We had music in the house, always— not only Dad’s Beethoven and Brahms, but Aunt Angie’s Tchaikovsky and Chopin, Mom’s Bach (Ave Maria), Aunt Bee’s and Uncle Harry’s more eclectic selections, and Grandpa’s popular Greek ballads and dances.

I was the one, much later in life, who “discovered” Mozart. It was Mozart who rescued me.

I don’t know how I came upon his Sinfonia Concertante, but there it was and I played it on my portable turntable and speakers of barely adequate fidelity. It was a warm and clear Sunday morning, the first weekend since I moved to Fresno that I had not visited my two children some 200 miles away.

The first movement began in the major mode quite cheerfully, but not yet extraordinarily, but then … as the introduction concluded with the string section approaching then lingering in the upper registers, out of the sky came a sublime violin voice that soared like a bird down to earth to play for me.

My heavy heart began to stir. I opened the door to my apartment to let in the sun and warm morning air. I eased myself to a sunny spot on the floor, let the music wash over me, and was taken by Mozart to a place where, after the daily playing of the piece in all its movements, I recovered my natural optimism and my life began again.

The music eventually attracted a woman a few doors away on the second level overlooking the communal swimming pool, but that’s another story…

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Gin & Tonic

My first taste was at age twenty-one when I was a driver for an old salesman of agriculture-industrial belts in the valleys of California between the coast and the Great Central Valley.

Mr. Brett couldn’t see or hear too well, but he loved his life-long job. He hired me as his eyes and ears and for my driving capabilities (I was a good driver, having learned at age fifteen).

My life was on hiatus between the US Navy and San Francisco City College; I, needed something remunerative to do before classes started.

Mr. Brett paid me $1.50 per hour, plus lodging and food along the way. At the end of each day, we would register at a hotel in Salinas, or San Luis Obispo, or a smaller town, and go to the hotel bar for a gin and tonic.

As Ernest Hemingway would undoubtedly have said under the same circumstance, “it was good.”

As a native San Franciscan and a city boy (the family lived five years in Brooklyn before repatriating), I was fascinated by the atmosphere of rural California, where all its real wealth then was, perhaps still is.

The rhythms were slower but more purposeful; perhaps the purpose was clearer and certainly more fundamental. We’re talking about food here: garlic and onions in Gilroy, broccoli in Greenfield, salad vegetables in Gonzales (now grapes), more towns and crops than I can remember, now fifty-six years ago.

I’m currently sipping on my second G&T, and these memories are flooding back.

I was twenty-one, I had served as well as this geek could in the US Navy as an electronics tech, and I was now entrusted with the safety of this kind and loquacious man who lived in Marin County, near San Rafael. His family accepted me graciously; I realize now they wanted to assess my ability to care for their paterfamilias.

Ah, sweet memories. Ah, gin and tonic.

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Ronnie, is it really you?

Artemis Helen Pavellas, née Pagonis 1917—2007

Artemis Helen Pavellas,
née Pagonis
1917—2007

“Ronnie,  is it really you?”

“Yes, Mom, it’s me.”

I took her soft hand, skin smoothly worn but still intact through decades of household toil.

We were on her couch in the living room. The sun filtered warmly through the thin curtains.

We sat silently together for a period of no-time.

She’s gone now, peacefully, smiling to the end, according to my sister. Diane’s gone now, too.

I wonder, still, some thirty years later, if Mom believed me.

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Despised

Ronald Alexander Pavellas Berkeley High School Class of June 1953

Ronald Alexander Pavellas
Berkeley High School
Class of June 1953

He was everything I wasn’t: big, strong, athletic, blonde, popular, wealthy, and stupid.

We were both seniors at Berkeley High, but I was 15 and he was 17. He drove a new convertible; I rode a bicycle to school.

Why he chose me as the object of his disaffection was not fully clear to me, but my refusal to pay obeisance to him probably figured in the equation.

He had a twin brother who joined the action once in a while. At the coffee shop, one of them tipped my coffee over, flooding the counter and my lap, saying: “I’m Mormon and we don’t believe in drinking coffee.” As punishment for my loud and profane objection to this, he and his cronies pantsed me during one of the most humiliating days of my life, in full view of all those full-bodied, angora-sweatered girls who never otherwise noticed me.

I wondered what caused these brothers to focus their attention on me. Perhaps I did, or didn’t, fit a stereotype for them. Perhaps I engendered cognitive dissonance in them which they couldn’t resolve except by violence. I’ll accept that as the reason.

Nothing to forgive at this point. While being queried about attending the 60th reunion, set a few years early because 25% of us were already dead, I learned that one of the brothers was in the 25%.

I didn’t make the trek from Stockholm to Berkeley for the reunion.

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California Accent

When our family of four moved to Brooklyn from San Francisco on New Year’s day, 1946, we had been living in public housing built during WWII. My dad had worked in the shipyards helping to build Liberty Ships. The neighborhood was called Sunnydale, in Visitacion Valley near the Cow Palace.

My best friend at the time was Mike M_. We were in the same grade, belonged to the stamp club, and were often considered the smartest kids in the class. Some teachers thought us, or at least me, a smartass and I caught some punishment for this.

After moving to the third, top floor of a tenement in a neighborhood of dock workers, I enrolled in Mrs. Jokiel’s upper-3rd-grade class at nearby P.S. 2 (the implication is that it was the second public school built in New York City). It was a very old, three-story brick building.

Dad and Mike’s father had remained in touch, so when Mr. M_ and Mike passed through New York on a trip to Europe, they stayed with us for a few days. Mike attended class with me. This coincided with a spelling bee Mrs. Jokiel organized each semester.

By random selection, the class was divided in two, then lined up on opposite sides of the room to face the other half. Mike and I stood side-by-side. I knew Mike and I could beat everyone in the ‘bee’, so in my mind, I was competing with Mike.

When it became Mike’s turn, Mrs. Jokiel gave him his word. It sounded, to a California ear like “CAH-ving,” which Mike parroted with a question mark in his voice. The exchange was repeated. In exasperation, Mrs. Jokiel said, “CAHving, like you CAHVE with a knife,” and she made cutting motions with her hands.

Mike responded, “Oh, you mean CARRR-ving!” The class erupted in laughter, and his California accent was mimicked by the others the rest of the day.

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Easter, Jelly Beans

I was born old and rational. I can’t remember when, or if, I ever believed in the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus (who sometimes posed as Kris Kringle for obscure reasons). I think my parents were aware of my being on to the ruse, but I acted out my expected role for the sake of maintaining family solidarity and for my younger sister who was deep into fairies. My reward was a chance at all the goodies.

I love jelly beans in all their wonderful varieties, especially the big ones with shells that crumble deliciously on my tongue. Chocolate was good, but not a top favorite. Soft, chewy sugar bunnies and chicks with a slight glaze on their surface were right up there, almost at jelly bean level. The same for sugar foam bananas.

I tried to get excited about coloring Easter eggs, but one was enough for me to eat. They took up too much room in my stomach, which room could otherwise be available for the sugary treats.

I thought to search for eggs and candies in backyard bushes or obscure places in the house was pretty stupid and a waste of time, but I went along with this too.

I was greedy with the jelly beans. I attempted to hoard them for later enjoyment, but I am addicted and just don’t have the discipline to keep them longer than 24 hours.

I liked having the relatives and other adults focused on me and my sister during the time the fairies were real for her.

It all faded when my sister had reached age nine and the family couldn’t maintain the fictions anymore.

I still look forward to those jelly beans at Easter time.

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Best Day

I was eight years old, visiting, for the first time, the home of Mom’s oldest sister, my Aunt Bee, and her husband, Uncle Tommy. Mom had taken me and my sister Diane, age three, on the train from San Francisco south to Newport Beach for a summer vacation before the three of us were to move with Dad to Brooklyn at the end of the year, 1945.

Newport Beach was then a typical California beach town, except it had an important business: the fish cannery which Uncle Tommy managed. He and Aunt Bee lived in a house on the large lagoon, about a mile from the ocean beach.

Soon after we arrived Aunt Bee took Mom, Diane and me to the beach on a sunny day. I had been to the beach at San Francisco, but it is cold and uninviting, other than to run along the surf line almost fully clothed. Newport’s beach was different. It was warm, with lots of people sitting or playing, relaxed and happy in the sunlight.

I was wearing only a pair of swim trunks as I meandered away from the blanket where the rest of the family lay, at around 11 in the morning. I was fascinated with the play of the surf against the beach and walked in it toward the big pier some distance from where we were.

I was aware only of the warmth and brightness of the sun, the play of water against my ankles, the feel of fine sand shifting under my bare feet, and the pleasant sounds of people as I passed by them.

I met a boy, a few years older. We walked together toward the pier. I don’t remember what we talked about, but whatever was said, or not said, it fit completely with everything else.

We found a dead fish bouncing in the surf near the pier. It seemed fresh enough to eat, and I thought I’d bring it back with me as I said goodbye to the boy and turned back toward the place where I had left the family.

I wasn’t in a hurry as I strolled, again in the surf, feeling larger than I had ever felt before. I had never been so free and happy.

“Where have you been?”

This was Aunt Bee shouting at me. She was angry, but I wasn’t afraid. I showed her the fish, but she grabbed it and threw it in the surf. She took my arm and would have dragged me if I hadn’t run to keep up with her.

There was Mom, tearful and looking worried. She grabbed me and hugged so tight I couldn’t breathe.

Aunt Bee angrily warned me about letting someone know where I was at all times. Mom just let me know she was worried about me. That was more important than anything to me.

It was the best day of my life.

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