Greek philosophies from an IC dining hall worker
By Kristin Leffler
“You know what they say the Greek philosophy is?”
His accent is powerful, strong. He tilts his head down a bit, looking under his blue eyes to emphasize the importance of his inquiry. His hands urgently beat the dining hall table to the rhythm of his words.
“Learn any job you can. And…you’re never hungry. You know why?” He leans in closer.
“Because you’ve learned so many jobs, somebody’s gonna give you a job.” His hands swing out as if he’s throwing the wisdom in the air to whoever is willing to catch it. He relaxes in his chair. Lesson one complete.
From Sunday through Thursday, John Mavros works in the Terrace Dining Hall, moving swiftly, quietly, tending to the swarm of hungry college students who slide their trays down in a robotic fashion, stopping to scoop food onto their plates. One carrot falls; he is quick to pick it up. The stack of plates is stripped one by one; he is quick to refill it. At 73 years old, Mavros does his job and does it well.
“I’m not meant to sit down. I don’t want to muck around. I want something to do. Working is good for life because you’ve got something to do.”
When he first moved to the United States from the port city of Piraeus in Athens, Greece, in 1964, he worked three jobs—painting houses and public buildings during the day and working at restaurants at night. Mavros’ lifelong desire and need to earn a living was instilled in him at an early age growing up in Greece.
“It’s a beautiful, lovely land,” Mavros says about his home country. “You got a nice space to sit down and eat, you got a lot of place to walk on the port, you got coffee shops, you got ice cream, you’ve got taverns, you’ve got anything you want. It’s beautiful. Beautiful, gorgeous.”
At only six years old he took his first job in a coffee shop, relaying the port workers’ orders to his boss. He continued to help support his parents, brother and sister by working at a jewelry store and a shoe store. In 1941, the effects of World War II impacted their family.
His voice quiets and his eyes shift downward as if the memories have finally caught up to him.
“Too much. [The war] affected us too much,” he says.
After his father lost his job and their house was destroyed by bombings, they moved into his great-grandmother’s one-room home. He was young, but he knew what his responsibility was to his family. It didn’t matter what he was doing. Work was work.
“My mother and father don’t have any money or food. I’m looking through the garbage to find food to eat,” he says. “I had to work to help my family. My family didn’t have any money, but still I work for my family because I know what happens. That’s the game”.
He sits forward and lays his hands on the table, palms up.
“The Greek philosophy says one hand washes the other one, both wash the face.”
He rubs his hands together, right over left, left over right, and then flings them upward with a shrug as if emphasizing the simplicity of the theory. Lesson two complete.
Mavros applies this same belief of family commitment and respect to his work in the dining hall. He sees it as a functioning family and expects a certain level of respect from those he serves.
“Some kids don’t give a damn shit. If your mother and father say, ‘Hey, take those dishes over here,’ you say no? Respect [us] just like your family at home. If you respect us, the workers, I respect you more.”
But Mavros has no tolerance for students who allow the drinking and partying scene to impede on their academic life. He knows how hard people must work to be able to obtain an education, and it’s something he says has too much value to throw away.
“My dream? I wanted to go to school. But [I had] no money. It’s too bad.”
Mavros worked for a small company his father started after the war, joined the army, and then ended up as a cook on a ship that he took to the United States, where he decided to stay. For Mavros, achieving a better life meant staying focused and driven.
“If you know what you want in life you’ll never lose it,” he says. “Life is using your brain. Keep your mind straight.”
He cuts the air with his index finger, slicing it with every other syllable.
“The Greek philosophy says if your brain is right, your body is right. If your brain’s not working, your body feels tired.”
He points to his head and to his heart, back and forth, and then opens his hands, widens his eyes and leans back again. Lesson three complete.
“Whatever I said for you is insight for my life,” he says as he adjusts the white dishtowel draped over his shoulder and returns to do his job and do it well.
Kristin Leffler is a freshman journalism major who really does give a damn shit. E-mail her at email@example.com.