Tuesday, March 12, 2002
The Ottawa Citizen
My line of work exposes me constantly to reminders about how lucky I am, and to the great strength people find in coping with adversity most of us would consider devastating.
In a recent phone call, George the Greek told me he was upset with me and I needed some attitude adjustment. At 9:30 a.m. yesterday I showed up at his home as ordered and he proceeded to beat me up.
The beating was good-natured and verbal, but I had earned it.
George is 62 and multiple sclerosis has reduced his mobility to nothing. He spends his days on his back operating a speaker telephone that he activates by pressing his cheek to a large button placed near his face. He plays the stock market and his days pretty much consist of nothing much. He doesn't ask for much, and he'd like old friends to know he's still around.
That was the reason I mentioned him in one of these recent columns. In doing it, I committed a cardinal sin of my craft. I got his name wrong. I've had it wrong for 40 years and it was planted so deeply in my mind that it never occurred to me to check it.
So I stood beside his bed ready to take my licks. "Give him that envelope from the government," he said to his attendant. "Keep the envelope," he said to me. "Whoever addressed that envelope got my name right."
It's George Alexopoulos. I apologized again.
"And something else," he said. "You said I had no movement. That I couldn't even move a finger. Watch this." Then he concentrated and showed he could slightly move his right shoulder. He showed great satisfaction and figured it was something worth celebrating. He told his attendant to break out a bottle of ouzo. Polite no thanks didn't work and I had to remind him we were both too old to get into Greek liquor at that time of day.
He's a hard man to say no to, and he started offering Greek sweets from a treasure trove kept near the foot of his bed. "You have to try them. They're from my village in Greece."
Then he started the next phase of his list of corrections. "You said I was a waiter at the Plaza Hotel (Sparks Street near Bank until the mid '60s), but I was a bartender." He had to bend on that one. He sometimes helped with meal service.
While we talked, his attendant was exercising him, moving and bending his limbs to try to keep tendons stretched and circulation moving. Question: George, are you always this cheerful in the mornings?
"Depends on the stock market," he laughed. "And that's another thing. I'm famous for one thing and you didn't even mention it. I lost $4 million in the stock market and you didn't think that was worth mentioning."
George calls me sometimes with stock tips, and sometimes I take a flyer. I figure a guy in his circumstances is due for some good luck. Through middle age his mobility became increasingly limited and 12 years ago he moved into a wheelchair. For almost 10 years he has been immobilized, except for that bit of motion in his head and shoulder.
"How did you do on my last tip?" I was reluctant to answer in front of his attendant. I didn't want anybody to know I was taking stock tips from a paralysed former bartender who took a $4-million bath in the market. I also didn't want George to know I waited too long. He had told me to move immediately and I didn't. Then I saw the stock moving and jumped in. Too late.
One of the things that keeps George occupied is keeping his death notice updated. At one point it seemed to be getting impossibly long as he kept adding the names of friends. It's also one of the reasons to show up for my beating. Am I out of favour? Am I off his list?
The notice wasn't on its usual spot on the wall. "They painted and haven't put it back yet," he explained. But he assured me I'm still on the list, which is getting shorter as we outlive many of the rogues and rounders who haunted the old Plaza in the '60s.
One thing about being beaten up by George Alexopoulos is that it leaves a good feeling. He can be chippy and cheerful and seems almost unmindful of his limitations.
Step out of his place and the sunshine is brighter, the air sweeter, and all is well with the world.
George is a reminder about how much we take luck for granted.
Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor.
© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen