A Presumption Of Fluency
A COMELY matron of amiable approach and I were introduced lately, and much to my surprise she greeted me in Greek. Then, much to her surprise, I responded in kind, and that concluded my total competency in that language. Did I ever tell you about the 100 pairs of shoes I owned when I went to college? That's how I came to be a good friend of Mr. Constantine Photiades and learned how to say tee-canis. Mr. Photiades was a cobbler with a shop halfway between campus and downtown, and he was something of the patriarch in the small Greek community of our town. He had become friendly with Professor Thomas Means of our classics department in an interesting way. Professor Means didn't know much modern Greek, but you couldn't stick him on anything B.C. As he was a folksy sort, he would bow to Mr. Photiades when he walked past the cobbler shop, and the occasional tee-canis led Mr. Photiades to presume Professor Means was fluent.
Mr. Photiades had been sending money back to Greece to keep an orphaned nephew in college, and the boy was destitute after the government began stealing the money from the mails. English-poor and knowing not where to turn, Mr. Photiades came out while Professor Means was passing and asked for help.
Professor Means had to hunt up a student with Greek background before he comprehended the problem, and then he called the Greek consulate in Boston and got some action. Mr. Photiades was grateful, and Professor Means was touched by the little cobbler's generosity toward the waif back in Greece. Professor Means made a point of suggesting to students and faculty that they take their shoes to Mr. Photiades.
This generated general interest in the cobbler, and it came to pass that everybody who walked by, leaving shoes or not, would make his tee-canis and brighten the day for Mr. Photiades. Mr. Photiades came to believe everybody at the college spoke Greek.
It was already a college tradition that Professor Means opened every first class with a few words about Mr. Photiades. In my first class with Professor Means, I didn't get much about the Sapphic fragments, but I heard all about Mr. Photiades, his nephew, and the villainy of the Greek postal system.
I grew up in a shoemaking town. We had several factories with quality that ran from calfskin Congress Boots to inexpensive men's footwear. The one that made discount shoes had a high percentage of ``damaged'' shoes. The inspectors tossed these onto a big table in the packing department and anybody could come in to pick his own size for 25 cents a pair. Sometimes the damage amounted to no tongues and two lefts, but often it was no more than a twisted stitch nobody would see except the trained inspectors.
Mr. Brawn, who was boss of the packing room, bought eggs from me, and he used to watch for damaged shoes in my size and save them. Every time I took eggs to him he'd give me a pair of shoes and give himself 25 cents credit. These were not good quality shoes to begin with, without regard for shop damage, and 'twas a jest about town that the pasteboard box they came in would outlast the soles, even in wet weather.
So I had over 100 pairs of 25-cent shoes and I matriculated them the same as I did me. And not long after my first class with Professor Means I took three-four pair one afternoon and went in to let Mr. Photiades repair them. They were coming apart at the welts, and I was pleased to have some small business for Mr. Photiades. I made my tee-canis and mentioned that Professor Means had sent me.
Mr. Photiades was not amused. There was, I admit, a language problem, and his remonstration was all Greek to me. But I slowly got the idea. Mr. Photiades was not about to lower his professional artistry to making repairs on 25-cent shoes. I hadn't thought of it that way, since I was trying merely to give a kindness to a man Professor Means had recommended. That Mr. Photiades might sully his reputation because of me hadn't crossed my mind. When I understood, we parted, and upon thinking things over I agreed that a 25-cent shoe didn't require any 50-cent tap.
Then Mr. Photiades told Professor Means about this and said he hoped I had not been offended by his refusal. Perhaps Professor Means would speak to me and make sure there was no offense. So next day in class Professor Means told about this as preface to the Hellenic hexameter and the sustained hilarity at my expense was educational.