San Francisco History

San Francisco's Foreign Colonies:
No. 4 — The Greeks

By Robert H. Willson

There are 11,500 Here and They Operate More Than 500 Restaurants; "Coffee and Conversation."

Do you not see how dangerous it is for a person to speak of or undertake what he does not understand? If, therefore, you desire to gain esteem and reputation in your country, endeavor to succeed in gaining a knowledge of what you wish to do.

This is one of the utterances of a man still renowned for his wisdom after many centuries have passed, Socrates. Consciously or unconsciously the modern Greeks seem to have brough this philosophy to America. Their attitude among strange and new surroundings is well expressed in this ancient bit of wisdom.

"When Greek meets Greek!" This expression, too, may date back to the days of the Spartans, but some modern wag has made a joke of it by adding: "They start a restaurant."

Well, as a matter of fact, there are 564 restaurants owned and operated by Greeks in San Francisco. Socrates gave one good reason—they understood the restaurant business. Another reason is that the Greeks are not afraid of hard work. Preparing, cooking and serving food at competitive prices means a lot of hard work.

Coffee Houses.

Here is another version of the same adage that may be original, "When Greek meets Greek they go to a coffee house." If you want to find the social center of San Francisco's Greek colony you will immediately set out for the coffee house in the vicinity of Third and Folsom streets. There is a Greek population here of approximately 11,500 and there are 26 coffee houses patronized almost exclusively by Greeks. The Athenians used to talk politics, religion and philosophy in the streets and market places; the coffee house offers the modern forum and club. Here you find "coffee and—" not "coffee and doughnuts," but coffee and conversation.

The Greek coffee house you will find to be one of the most characteristic and unique foreign institutions transplanted in every detail to a new environment. The coffee house proprietor belongs to a distinct class. He is not a business man. He has none of the ambitions of the Greek restaurateur or grocer. It is not his ambition to make money or build and equip a larger and more elegant place of business. He merely hopes to go right on providing entertainment for his fellow man and sharing in it. His equipment consists of plenty of tables and chairs, a large room without heat, where guests may sit with their overcoats and hats on if they are cool, cups, a coffee pot and a small stove; no food is served in a coffee house. The business can never be very large.

All-Day Seat.

One cup of coffee entitles you to sit for an entire afternoon or evening, reading the newspaper, talking with your friends and neighbors, or perhaps playing cards. The proprietor himself serves you, and if business is not too brisk, will sit down and join in the conversation, if it happens to interest him. You have to be an interesting talker to entertain the coffee shop proprietor. He is apt to be a pretty good storehouse of information himself, having been a listener or participant in many thousands of these round table discussions.

The favorite Greek coffee is really what we know as Turkish coffee, a thick and heavy syrup of the pulverized bean. A number of other drinks may be had in the larger houses, but coffee is the favorite. Here, also, are to be had the narghile water pipes, which the Occident regards as Turkish. The bowl of this pipe rests on the floor beside the table and the stem is long enough to be handled comfortably by the smoker while he engages in conversation with his companions.

"Though thou pass beyond thy landmarks, even to the pillars of Heracles, the share of earth that is equal to all men awaits thee, and thou shalt be even as Irus, having nothing more than thine obelus moldering into a land that at last is not thine."

Ancient Philosophy.

The Greek habitue of the coffee shop accepts also this expression of the philosophy of 2,000 years ago. He finds in a new and foreign land work, wages and freedom. It is his privilege to observe and discuss all that passes before him, and to take part only in such matters as concern him. If there be but six feet of earth for each of us what matter where it is so long as we live comfortably.

Many of the characteristics of the modern Greeks are traceable to the influence of the Turks, who for a long time have wielded a sinister influence over the little archipelago that once did so much for civilization and culture. Individually the Greeks are strong and powerful men. Their wrestlers are famous in the arena. Collectively they are somewhat uncertain and apprehensive because of their more or less precarious national existence for many generations. The ancient Greek statesmen wielded a powerful influence for political liberty, and while the modern Greeks are still mindful of it they are perhaps slow to realize it. They think well of American principles and institutions but find it more or less difficult to adapt themselves to such changes of environment.

Next to the Greek restaurants in San Francisco come the Greek grocery stores; there are 380 of these, and they are constantly increasing in number. The restaurant owner has perhaps a large investment in equipment and fixtures, and he must carry a considerable pay roll for service and kitchen help. Although his business apparently is large, his profits may be small. The grocer with less equipment and a much smaller payroll, finds that his own energy and industry constitute his chief investment, and since he is not afraid of hard work and long hours, is able to make the grocery and market business remunerative.

Shoe Shiners.

If the Greeks were suddenly to desert San Francisco the extent of their business operations would be more fully realized. You would find so many restaurants closed that there wouldn't be sufficient provision for everybody's dinner, and when you went to the market to take home your dinner, you might find it closed also. After a day or two you would begin to feel a little shabby and remember that you hadn't had your shoes shined. There are 120 shoe shining stands in the city, owned and operated by Greeks. There might be a shortage of candy, for many of the small candy shops and factories are owned by Greeks, as well as some of the larger ones.

San Francisco has its Greek millionaires. While a million dollars in these days is no fabulous sum of money, still it is quite beyond the most extravagant dream of the average Greek. Way back in the days of Xerxes, it is related that the wife of Typhos administered an effective cure for the gold fever. The lure of gold took possession of Typhos and he gained such power and wealth in the accumulation of the precious metal, that he was able to employ most of his fellow townsmen in mining and bringing gold to him. His wife finally had the goldsmith design all sorts of fruit, vegetables and grains in solid gold. These she set before him for his dinner and then explained to him that so much of the time of all the people was employed in producing gold the fields and vineyards were lying fallow and unproductive of sufficient food. Whether it was this lesson or the development of a Greek philosophy that turned effort and thought in quite another direction, the Greeks as a race have not been keen on the amassing of big fortunes. Here, however, we have Vareila and a number of other pioneers in the Greek colony who are rated as very wealthy men.

Work and business after all are necessarily much the same among all nationalities and races. If you would know a stranger you must go to his home or join him in play. There are frequent large social gatherings of the Greek colony, where you will find pictures of a life quite foreign to that of your own city. A Greek dance is not at all what it is on one of Isador Duncan's programs. It is much more like a Shell Mound Park picnic. All the members of the family attend, even to the babies in arms. Refreshments are served, a la barbecue.

Dance Leaders.

The dance itself is usually started off by the men, who form a large circle, holding hands. One assumes the position of leader, and is followed by the others. A school boy would be apt to consider it a new version of "stump the leader." To music which suggests some sort of a weird folk dance, the leader executes such steps as the peculiar rhythm of the music suggest, and the others follow, not in time, nor in exact imitation, but in their individual versions of the step. When the leader has made a number of rounds, and apparently exhausted his repertoire, he falls back into another place in the line, and a new leader advances. The dance goes on until the orchestra decides upon a little rest, whereupon fresh dancers come to break into the circle, and after a short pause, the same program is continued. This dance is gay and gymnastic, rather than esthetic. The music is simple and Oriental. This type of dancing, however, is passing rapidly even among the members of the Greek colony. For one of the larger dances they have two dance halls, one upstairs and one down. The families and those who are not yet familiar with American customs, taken possession of the lower hall with its three-piece, stringed orchestra and modern Greek dancing. The young people in largers numbers go in for the fox trot, the waltz and the jazz orchestra upstairs.

One is surprised to find in going about among the Greeks of San Francisco how tenaciously they cling in some of the old ideals of Greek philosophy and culture in spite of the great changes of industry, social condition and political surroundings among which they now find themselves. They regard with great pride the many fine examples of classic Greek architecture that are to be found in this city. The Greek boot-black likes to deposit his money in a bank harbored by Corinthian columns. He is not averse to paying taxes when he learns that some of the money is used to support the architectural beauty of the Civic Center.

For Education.

It is difficult, of course, to get into the Greek life without speaking the language. Thumbing over the pages of the Almanac of the San Francisco colony one finds them harking back constantly to the wisdom and philosophy of the Golden Age. The transplated Greek believes in study and education for his children. He quotes Pythagoras: "He that knoweth not that which he ought to know, is a brute beast among men; he that knoweth no more than he hath need of, is a man among brute beasts, and he that knoweth all that may be known is a God among men."

Another noticeable thing is the absence of the radical and the reformer. The Greeks have learned that society cannot be upset in a day and made right the next. They realize the fact that age attains a balance and equilibrium that is often strange to youth. Here again they quote Alexis: "The nature of man is in some respects very much resembling wine. For, like new wine, the youthful mind requires to have its fermentation thrown off, and its roughness skimmed; but when its excessive violence has abated, and the fury which swam on the top has disappeared, and settles down, continuing pleasant to all future time."

Even in the ordinary chatter of daily events that goes on in the coffee hosues, you  may find many a Greek who will quote as his excuse for the many hours spent there this little tribute to the value of friendship by Aristotle: "In poverty and the other misfortunes of life, men think friends to be their only refuge; the young, they keep out of mischief; to the old they are a comfort and aid in their weakness; and those in the prime of life, they incite to noble deeds."

About one-third of the Greeks of California live in San Francisco, the other two-thirds are scattered about in other cities. The Greek is by long experience and habit a city dweller. One of the elements of stability that Greece always lacked was that large agricultural population which has been the substantial foundation of western nations.

Two Greek newspapers, a Greek church and many other institutions add to the home-like environment of san Francisco to the Greek settler newly arrived.

The college student who has wrestled through a couple of years of rudimentary Greek will appreciate something of the seriousness of the situation which confronts the Greek immigrant on his arrival. To the Latin races, with a common basis of grammar and a considerable vocabulary that is practically the same, the English language offers but a minor problem. You find the Greeks, however, progressing rapidly in their understanding and use of an adopted tongue, and many of the better educated coming to a point of attempting English verse. They are naturally fond of the more poetical expression and, therefore, aim at the more difficult parts of the language.

Turning again to the Almanac of the Greek colony one finds this contribution from George Orphanus, a Woodacre Greek:

"Glorious morning of another day
With life rested from yester's fray
With the King of Heaven the source of light
Imbibing dew from His heavenly height.
With the flowers, again blooming,
The mother earth her beauty reassuming
And every heart beating with delight
Enjoy, my dear friend—ere falls the night.
Morning of divine communion
When God's smile can clearly be seen
My soul seeks the angelic union
With cherubs and seraphs to convene."

It is not long since the newspapers announced the award to a young Greek student in Berkeley of a prize for sculpture. It will be remembered, too, that now and then the name of a young Greek volunteer appeared among the lists of those mentioned for heroic service with the American troops in the World War.

Patriotism, beauties of nature, poetry and the arts still have their strong appeal to the Greeks. This sex problem, which has apparently gained such a prominent place in current discussion, has apparently not reached them in any seirous degree. What do they joke about in the coffee houses? Not the questionable nor risque. The Greek idea of wit and pleasantry is the play upon words. The pun is not subtle enough for their idea of humor. When the Greek laughs most heartily back of it you are apt to find some keen bit of repartee or a droll figure of speech.

Care in Cooking.

Another word as to the Greek restaurant, since it has become so conspicuous in the popular mind. You may find on almost any business street of San Francisco an American restaurant, owned and operated by Greeks, but if you wish to enjoy a Greek dinner in a Greek restaurant you must find your way to the heart of the Greek colony among the coffee houses. There you will find a Greek bill of fare, and if your guide is an apt interpreter, your epicurean tastes may encounter a new sensation. The characteristic Greek cooking reminds one somewhat of the Chinese, not in the character of the dishes, but in the time and care spent in the preparation of food and the attention that is given to unusual combinations of ingredients. The Greek dines not only with the purpose of satisfying the discriminating taste, but with a valuable knowledge of food values and the diet that promotes health and physical strength.

To sum up something of the confident and buoyant attitutde of the Greek mind, there is perhaps nothing more apt than one of their favorite lines from Aeschylus: "It is pleasant to lengthen out a long life with confident hopes, making the spirit swell with bright merriment."

Source: San Francisco Examiner. 9 December 1923. K3. Pictures not included: Dancers, parents and children, three men conversing, and a coffee house sketech.

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