by Andreas Economakis
My grandmother Anastasia, or yiayia as I called her, must have studied Zen. She could spend hours seated motionless in her jewelry store in the Nile Hilton, a geriatric Greek sphinx staring blankly ahead. Overwhelmed by the utter tranquility in her shop, I would escape as often as I could whenever I visited her in the summers, wandering around the dusty and chaotic streets of Cairo for as long as I could stand. I would beat a hasty retreat to the cool sanctuary of the air-conditioned Hilton, with its refreshing “Asir Lemoon” lemonades and overwhelmed pink tourists, only when my feet could carry me no longer through the blazing Saharan heat and pungent city smells.
Cairo has a peculiar odor. Anyone who’s ever visited this ancient bustling city of 17 million or so souls will attest to this. You become aware of the city’s pungency from the very moment the airplane doors crack open on the sizzling tarmac of Cairo International Airport. I’m not a smell specialist, but if you put me in a headlock I guess I’d equate the city’s smells to a batch of ripe tropical fruit fermenting in old petrol smog. The Hilton was a natural haven from all this, a controlled oasis of sorts. Like any desert wanderer, I would invariably end up at the oasis when on the verge of heat stroke. In fact, I think the Hilton’s café was named The Oasis, if my memory serves me right.
There was a bookstore next to my grandmother’s shop and I started buying and feverishly reading anything I could lay my hands on. I would sit in this red and white vinyl chair behind the spotless glass of the jewelry store’s front door for hours, my head buried in Hemingway and Kazantzakis and London and Marquez. Occasionally, I would peak out at the crowds of sweaty tourists that drifted by, chuckling to myself, knowing full well what state the poor sods were in. I’ve never been good at playing salesman and I generally ignored my grandmother’s pleas to help with the odd customers who walked in, preferring my role as family bookworm. My grandmother would yell at me for reading so much, telling me that it was bad for me.
One day, I looked up into the Hilton lobby and saw Boy George walk by. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There he was, in his black robe, jewels, long hair, bangles, make up and signature bowler hat. “Dirty, filthy hippie!” my grandmother blared out, shifting uncomfortably her seat. “I bet he sleeps with dogs!” she added. I stared at my grandmother with wide eyes, not so much surprised at her comment but at the fact that she had moved in her seat. I explained that he was a famous musician, a very rich, dirty filthy hippie. “Really?” she asked all bright-eyed and bushy tailed. My grandmother might have been conservative, but a fool she was not. Visibly excited, she asked me to bring him into the store so she could meet him.
I ran out into the lobby and caught up with Boy right before he went into The Oasis. “You’re Boy George!” I said, eyelashes batting up and down over the big stupid grin that was plastered all over my face. Boy stopped and turned toward me, smiling. A pleasant smell overtook my nostrils. 150 degrees outside but the man smelled like a bouquet of freshly cut flowers. I told him that my grandmother wanted to meet him and pointed to our shop. He courteously followed me in and I made the introductions. Boy’s presence seemed to overwhelm my grandmother. It was as if an alien from planet Zork had stepped into her inner sanctuary. She totally forgot that she wanted to sell him some jewels. The only thing she could think of to say to Boy was that his make-up was perfect. Her own was always too heavy, gooped on as if with a builder’s spatula.
Perhaps feeling awkward at all the silence, Boy smiled and excused himself. My grandmother sprang back to life and asked me to ask him if I could take a photo of the two of them together. Boy said of course and I trained my pocket Hanimex on them, snapping what was to be my first “celebrity” photograph. Boy kissed my breathless grandmother on the cheek and exited with his invisible bouquet of sweet flowers. I ran up to Boy in the lobby to thank him. Right then another member of Culture Club walked up and looked at me with a mischievous look. Then Boy asked me if I wanted to join him and the band for a drink up in his room. They all giggled flirtatiously. I kindly declined and wandered back to my grandmother’s store as Boy and the band headed to the elevators.
“A nice man,” my grandmother said, “even though he dresses and smells like a girl.”
“Yeah,” I replied, my eyes trained on a white poodle that was being led through the lobby toward the elevators by a tiny bellhop in a silly outfit. The bellhop and the poodle followed a giggling Boy and the band into the elevator.
“But you can’t judge a book by its cover,” I added, just as the elevator’s doors closed with a ding.
This piece is part of a collection of stories on blindness entitled: The Blindness of Life.
Copyright © 2011, Andreas Economakis. All rights reserved.
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