The Inside Rail

I was in love. Twenty-one and head-over-heels, walk-off-a-cliff in love with a beautiful Greek girl from Birmingham, Alabama. I met Annie Kontos at Atlantic City Racecourse, she was wearing a red dress, my life was never the same. I came home for Thanksgiving, 1991, the first time to meet her family, her whole family. Mom, dad, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and cousins – everybody was a cousin.

The only things that came faster than the hugs and kisses were the food and the drinks. Food is love. Love is food.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding came out 11 years later, I could have written it that week. The only thing missing was the Windex.

Still in college and riding jumpers for 90 bucks a pop, I was concerned about impressing Annie’s dad, like really concerned.

A self-made man, he took a family-run fruit cart on the corner and turned it into one of the biggest produce distributers in the south. I didn’t know anything about fruit, distribution or making money and certainly didn’t know anything about the University of Alabama’s football program.

After a couple of days, I thought I was getting somewhere as Papou (everybody called him that) started calling me, “My man.” Like all day, every day.

“Hey, my man, you know the name of the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby?” he’d ask, always laughing when telling me it was Aristides. His God-given name was Aristides but his family changed it to Steve, thinking he would never make it in this tough old world with a name like Aristides.

“Hey, my man, I don’t think there’s too much horse racing in there today but here you go,” he’d say, handing me the sports section of The Birmingham News.

“Hey, my man, grab yourself a Buffalo Rock,” he’d say about his favorite drink.

“Hey, my man, how are the horses running?” he’d ask, uncertain of what I actually did for a living.

It was beautiful, the father of the woman of my dreams liked me, I was his man.

Papou and I got up early, drank coffee, read the paper, he’d call me “my man” five times before breakfast. I sat in a chair on one side of the living room while Papou sat in a chair on the other. The day after Thanksgiving, Papou went back to work, well, he was in the same chair but now he was working. He pulled up a tray table, placed a cardboard box full of papers in the middle, a phone, a regular, push-button, landline phone sat on the right. I never heard the phone ring and he never dialed a number, but he was on the phone for hours, hitting the call-waiting button like he was plugging holes in a leaky dike. Before the internet, before caller ID, before cell phones, before texting, Papou sat in his bathrobe, working that phone like Hendrix worked a guitar, starting and ending every conversation the same way.

“Hey, my man…”

He would talk for a while, part banter, part salesmanship, then shuffle them off the phone, “All right my man, OK, my man…” Then he’d hit the call waiting, “Hey, my man…”

I was crestfallen. But undeterred.

I kept going to Birmingham, off and on, marrying Annie in 2006. Annie’s mom died in 2000, it was brutal. Vibrant, vivacious, soulful, the thread that wove everything together, it was never the same after that. But Papou kept going, strong-willed, determined to live his life, going out five, six, seven nights a week, always taking the corner table, back to the wall so he could see the scene, know the score. Friends and family would gather at Dugan’s, Bottega, Highlands, Jinsei…he was the man about town, scoffing at socializing with his age group, “they’re so damn old,” he’d say.

On the way home from dinner, he would drive by a dozen places, looking in the windows to see how business was going. It would take an hour to drive five miles.

He made friends, young and old, rich and poor, suave and certifiable, somewhere along the line, he picked up – or picked – the nickname, “The Guru.” He’d say, “Love and finance are my specialties but I can help you with anything,” We were at Bottega, one of his regular spots and a guy cried the blues about not being able to find a woman. Papou looked at him, “Well, damn, look at you, you’re 20 pounds overweight and look at how you dress…no wonder you can’t find a woman.” Most people would have argued or been hurt, not this guy, he nodded, agreed and I swear he went for a run the next morning and bought new clothes the next afternoon.

The greatest optimist I’ve ever known, he lost his wife, a son and his eight siblings but swore he never had a bad day.

Steven Alex Kontos, 97, died July 9, 2018.

Rest in peace, my man.