The Marlborough Man may be dead as the dust at the Acropolis, but his legacy lives on strong in Greece. In almost every pocket or handbag is a red and white deck of the iconic American brand of smokes. The men saunter down Athlion Street thumbing their stone komboloi with one hand, their lighters with the other as they check out the female real estate. Women yak on the phone, holding their purses to their shoulders with a pinkie, turning their heads to snatch a drag from the cigarette held between two stained fingers. A nattily attired dude sporting matching tan sweater and slippers-shoes lounges on his snazzy scooter.
On the grimy marble-curbed sidewalk outside the Syntagma Square subway stop in Athens, a rough-skinned woman in a faded flowered dress positions a plastic crate in front of the sliver of a hardware store front beside our hotel. There’s a largish bundle under her other arm, held tight to her hip. She sits down in the slanted morning sun, modestly spreading her skirts over her splayed knees. She arranges the bundle – a limp dark-haired child of about four – on her lap and sags back against the store window, the child lolling in her arms.
I’d been told that the professionalism beggars dose the children with strong cough syrup, to make them drowsy and compliant and ill-looking.
The woman has perfected pitiable – the supplicating murmurs, the limp wrist positioned, palm up. She’s selectively soliciting passersby for change, shaking a handful of bait-coins around the bottom of a brown paper cup that says Coffee Time on the side. Her face gives her away, though. Her most remarkable feature is a slash of a mouth. The restless flickers of lowered eyes alternating with splintered glances seeking out the next mark.
Late in the afternoon, on my way from the hotel to catch a train, I’m in time to catch a dark-skinned man taking her place on the stool. They have a brief, rapid-fire conversation and she tips the contents of the half-filled cup into a fanny pack at his waist. In his arms is another flaccid child that he drapes against his shoulder before he fires up a half-smoked Karelia cigarette. As I pass, his eyes are challenging and his voice is more strident than the woman’s. The cup he waves is empty.