By John F. Di Leo -
The mob boss from the south of Europe encounters an unexpected demonstration as he makes his rounds in Athens one September Wednesday...
Greco was feeling sorry for himself. As his career decline approached four years of sheer misery, he was beginning to wish he had become a fisherman, hotel clerk, tour guide, archaeologist… heck, anything would be better than running the rackets in times like these. How do you shake people down when the people don’t have anything left to be shaken out of them?
Wednesday, September 26 was a particularly bad day for Greco, as he wandered through Athens on his regular collection run.
It wasn’t a difficult job; you get up in the morning and shower and dress, like everybody else… maybe put on a leather jacket or a wool pea coat, depending on the weather, a traditional Greek fisherman’s cap as a rakish nod to the past… affix a blackjack to your belt and keep a set of brass knuckles in your pocket… and head out to work. A lot like your typical commuter, Greco thought, except that his hours were his own, and he got more fresh air than most people.
There were hundreds in the streets of Athens, maybe even thousands! Not shopping, not providing business to his clients so they can make their payment… no, these people were yelling, shaking their fists, carrying signs and blocking traffic!
Greco approached one of the shops on his route – this clothing store had always been good for a hundred or so a month; they didn’t want their windows broken – and he tried the door.
Locked. Ten o’clock in the morning and a clothing store was locked? He shielded his eyes and pressed his eyes to the glass; nothing. Not a movement inside. A couple more empty racks among the full ones than usual… a couple more bare shelves among the full ones against the wall… unusual… but still, there’s plenty to sell; why wasn’t Makis’ boutique open today? No sign in the window… So he rapped on the glass, a couple of times, but still, not a trace of movement.
“Hey, Greco!” came a voice from the street. It was a clerk from the shop, the young man who worked the cash register for Makis. “Nobody’s in there! It’s closed today!”
Greco was upset. He didn’t like to see businesses closed unless he closed them; they had no business closing on their own, darn it. “Why? It’s a Wednesday! Why close on a Wednesday? You’re losing business!”
“What business?” shouted back the cashier. “Nobody’s shopping today! We’re demonstrating!”
“For what?” asked Greco, who hadn’t been keeping up with current events ever since he cancelled his newspaper subscription back in … um… come to think of it, he thought to himself, I’ve never had a newspaper subscription. Fancy that…
“For the strike, of course!” yelled back the cashier, retreating into the crowd and getting himself lost amidst the hundreds of people and signs.
“Well, that’s stupid,” muttered Greco to himself. He thought about writing a note to the shopkeeper, but then decided against it. There’s something so emasculating about saying “I stopped by to shake you down, but you weren’t home. Call me.” Greco would just return tomorrow. Inconvenient, but that’s life.
So he gave up on Makis’ place and made his way to the next stop on today’s route, a restaurant on the next block. For the size of this demonstration, walking wasn’t as hard as he’d feared; the thousands of shouting rabble were in the streets, so the sidewalks were mostly empty. “Glad I’m not driving today,” he chuckled, as he considered all the commuters who drive to work, confronted by streets made impassable by a host of chanting fools.
He arrived at his destination: Zinovia’s Restaurant. Located on the fringe of Athens’ downtown, this one caters to the business crowd; there’s always a table or two in the window with a couple of executives going over some papers; the coffee and baklava almost an afterthought as they negotiate their deals. Boy, if only I could get a piece of that action, thought Greco, instead of just going after the host. But he’d never figured out a way.
And this certainly wasn’t going to be the day, either. The restaurant was closed. Again, no note in the window; Zinovia simply hadn’t come in today. “What about all the people who planned on doing business here?” he thought to himself. “All the people who planned to meet up here for a sales call, or for lunch or dinner? Don’t your customers matter to you?” Greco shook his head. There’s just no respect for other people anymore, no respect for your obligations.
Greco took another look at the crowd; boy, they were noisy… and he patted under his coat to be sure he had remembered his blackjack. He had. No problem. He walked on to the end of the block, and turned down an empty street.
Relieved to be away from the din of the protests, his relief soon turned to frustration as he saw that the next stop on his route, Sergio’s wine shop, was also closed. At least this one had a sign: “Closed for the strike. Will reopen Friday.” On the one hand, it was frustrating that yet another store was closed, but on the other… since Sergio was often broke these days, he often paid with a case of wine, or ouzo or metaxa. That would be a challenge to lug through the streets on foot today; he made a note to himself to return on Friday, and headed on, now thirsty. A shot of metaxa would do nicely about now…
Greco’s next client was an antiques dealer another block down, with a huge picture window on each side of the door, just down the block. His perfect kind of customer; these folks sure didn’t want their expensive windows broken! He’d missed Nicos’ shop last week, so this change in his route was fortuitous. He tried the door, and it opened. Thank goodness!
Greco walked inside and said “Good morning, Nicos! How ya doing?” as he always did, while closing the door behind him, without a second thought. Then he opened his eyes and looked around. Empty. Every shelf, every table, every counter. There was nothing there, and just a single lamp added to the natural light from the beautiful windows.
He looked around… was it closed for inventory? Was Nicos moving to a new location? Had he gone out of business, like so many others? “Hey, is anybody here?” he shouted to the emptiness.
A face poked around a corner and said “What does it look like? The place is closed. Shut down. Kaput.”
“Who are you?” Greco asked the face.
“I own this worthless shell of a building.” A hulk of a man turned the corner and entered the room. Greco wouldn’t try to intimidate this guy. “Just trying to make it presentable to show to new clients, as if that’s likely,” he continued.
“So, where did Nicos move to? What’s the new address of the store?” Greco asked, pen and notepad in hand, ready to take down the new address.
“Nicos moved out last week. No forwarding address. I dunno, maybe he changed his name to avoid the taxes; maybe he donated everything to a museum, maybe he found a rich client who bought him out. Beats me. All I know is, he left me a voicemail at midnight last Saturday, saying ‘I’m outta here; you can keep your stupid country.’ I have a feeling he went to America or Australia or something. What, did he owe you money?”
Actually, he was paid up with Greco, the last time he had checked… so… “No, not exactly. Oh well. So what do you have planned for this place now? Who’s the next tenant?”
“Next tenant?” The landlord stared at him. “There’s nobody looking for rental space these days! No new businesses… A couple years ago, I would have just told the government I had space available, and I could’ve got top dollar renting to some bureaucracy… but not anymore. They’re watching their own spending now... Finally… About forty years too late,” he added under his breath.
“Nah, I’m just cleaning it up, sweeping the floor, so I can show it to a couple realty companies and hope for lightning to strike. But the odds are, young man,” the landlord added, “this place won’t bring in a drachma for years. I’m just stuck with it.”
“But it’s a beautiful place,” said Greco, trying to boost the landlord’s spirits. “And so convenient to the business district!”
The landlord snorted. “Business? What business. No business going on today. Half the country’s in the streets. Nobody’s making anything; nobody’s selling anything; nobody’s producing anything. Worthless people making it a worthless day.”
Greco didn’t seem to be making a move to leave, so the landlord sought to put an end to this. “So, is there anything I can do for you? You wanna rent this place or not? If not, let’s be on our respective ways, all right?”
Greco got the hint. He wasn’t used to such a summary dismissal, and would have taken action… but what would be the point? He tipped his cap and headed out, leaving the landlord to his sweeping.
Greco decided to head back downtown, taking a long way around the next square block. He used to have a couple of clients on those two streets, but he lost them years ago. One had been a small injection-molder, one of those old-fashioned family businesses that supplied nearby manufacturers. As their client manufacturers closed or moved away, so did they. He didn’t even know what happened to them, whether they sold the business to somebody who moved it to greener pastures in Italy or Germany, or just sold the machinery for parts and shut down. Greco didn’t care; he never thought about the businesses that had left his life. They were gone, why waste time thinking about them? He just hoped they’d be replaced by new marks.
But they never were, or, hardly ever were, anyway, nowadays. So few new restaurants, so few new stores, no new manufacturing, ever. Where the old plastic molder had been, there was now a government welfare office. Where an old bookstore had been, there was now a government education administration office. And where an old custom boutique had been – so successful for so many years – just an empty storefront, vacant since 2009 when the owner had retired in disgust. “The hell with you all!” read the sign in the window, for months, until the letters faded, long after she had moved to Australia with her children.
Greco kept walking, without a penny to show for his morning’s travails, and returned to the business district. The demonstrations were worse, much worse than he expected. There were thousands (the newspapers would report some 50,000 or 60,000, in fact, took to the streets that day, though Greco never read a newspaper).
The thousands in the streets were now shouting, chanting, screaming. He stopped at the corner, looking at a sea of people – from college kids to old folks – all shaking fists and hoisting signs. You couldn’t even understand the words; it was a cacophony of the inarticulate, more a primal scream than an expression of political thought.
But politics was indeed what the day was about, and it was beyond Greco’s ken. “What a waste of time!” he shouted unintentionally; he hadn’t realized it was so loud until it was out, just an unconscious reaction to all the noise surrounding him.
His words were, however, within earshot of one old man, seated on a park bench just around the corner. Just a few feet away, in fact, around the edge of the building, or he wouldn’t have heard. The old man turned toward him and nodded. “Yes indeed, it is. And worse. Worse than a waste of time.”
Greco didn’t realize he’d be heard, and wasn’t interested in having a conversation anyway… but to be polite, he nodded, and said “Sure is,” thinking that would be all there was to it.
But another had heard, too; one of the demonstrators, just on the edge of the street, heard them both and said “No, this is important! This is how we tell the government that we’re angry!”
The old man on the park bench looked at the young demonstrator with interest, a girl of, perhaps, college age, or thereabouts. “You don’t think they know you’re angry already? The voters threw out the old government in June and elected a new government. Of course we’re angry. We’ve told them that. Now shouldn’t we let them do their work?”
“That’s not enough!” shouted the youngster. “We need to stop the state to get their attention! We have our rights!”
“Platitudes, mere platitudes,” said the old man. “Sure you have a right to demonstrate. But not to disrupt the economy. You’ve shut down Athens today, and for what? For nothing. In America, the Tea Parties have had lots of rallies the past few years. The Tea Party crowd leaves their offices on their lunch hour, then they have a quick rally and go back to work. Or they have a longer demonstration on a national holiday or a Saturday, when businesses are already closed anyway. They make their points known without costing anyone their paychecks.”
Greco had nothing to contribute to the discussion, but he didn’t particularly want to go back to his rounds, so he just leaned against the wall of the building and listened as the old man continued to address the young lady.
“Why are you upset, my dear,” asked the old man, “I mean, you personally?”
“Because of the cuts, of course!” she answered with fury. “Didn’t you hear? Twelve billion more Euros in cuts! And the new prime minister is okay with it! He’s obeying the troika!”
“Yes, yes, my dear. We all know about the cuts,” nodded the old man, though he was mistaken; Greco, silent nearby, didn’t know a thing about the cuts. The old man continued. “But why did they go up? Why did the troika – that’s the EU, the IMF, and the European Central Bank – insist on more cuts, forcing the new administration to apply them?”
“I KNOW who the troika is; don’t patronize me!” yelled the girl. Actually, Greco was just thinking that he was glad the old man had mentioned it; he’d been hearing people talk about ‘the troika’ for months and he had no idea what they were talking about.
“I’m sorry; didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” said the old man; he clearly wanted to keep her there awhile for this conversation. “They keep demanding more cuts because Greece isn’t able to pay its bills. We have to bring in business to pay our bills; if existing business activity doesn’t produce enough to raise the needed revenue, we have to raise everybody’s contribution or cut spending so the government can at least avoid going into even MORE debt. “
“Why don’t they just raise taxes? They can collect it from the rich, and leave us alone!”
“Is that so?” asked the old man. “Who do you mean by The Rich, pray tell?”
“Well, you know, the bankers, and the manufacturers, and the shopkeepers.” She stammered a bit, then caught her groove and went on. “Look up and down the street! Don’t you see them? The restauranteurs, and booksellers, and car dealers, and financial analysts, the travel agents! Raise the taxes on them; don’t cut my pay so I starve!”
The old man asked her to look again, up and down the street. “What do you see there, between the restaurant and the liquor store? A vacant storefront. What do you see over there, between the bank and the government service office? Another vacant storefront. Down this block here, every fourth building is empty. Across the street on that block, every third. Go a couple blocks farther, and every other building has been unoccupied for years. The people you want to rob further have already been robbed to the hilt, bled so dry that they can’t pay any more. If you raise their taxes again, or devalue their currency any further, they’ll just go bankrupt too. And then there will be even MORE empty storefronts.”
The girl had calmed down a bit, and actually seemed to be paying attention now. So the old man continued, “Every additional shock drives more companies out of business. And when companies go out of business, that puts their employees on the dole too. It becomes an ever-deepening maelstrom.“
The old man stopped for a moment to see if Greco was also still listening; he hadn’t said a word in a while. Confirming that he was, so the old man still had his audience of two, he continued.
“Let’s say there are twelve people, eleven of them working, all contributing a bit to support the twelfth. Now one of them stops working, and you have ten of them working to support two. If another stops, nine are working to support three. At this point, one quarter of the economy is unworking, supported by the other three quarters.”
“We have a 25% official unemployment rate,” the girl volunteered. “So that’s where we are now, right?”
“Not quite” said the old man, smiling at the fact that she was paying attention. “In addition to paying for the quarter that’s not working, we need to make payments on mountains of debt from generations of overborrowing. So three quarters are really paying for everyone’s past, and their parents’ and grandparents’ past, as well. We’ve known this cliff was coming for decades, but we didn’t do anything about it, so now we’re stuck. We HAVE to pay for it. Somehow.”
Greco asked a question. “The government has printing presses. Can’t the government just print more money?”
“Haven’t you heard of the Euro?” asked the girl. “Greece doesn’t print our money, Europe does.”
“That’s right,” said the old man, "but they can’t do it either. When you print more money than the economy creates, it devalues the currency. You wind up satisfying a bill with less valuable money. That’s legal, though shifty… but the important thing is that it devalues all the money, not just the bill you’re paying at the time. Printing more money – also known as monetizing a debt – robs everyone on earth who holds that currency.”
“Oh, I get it!” said Greco, as a light went off in the mobster’s head. “It’s like taking a pearl necklace with forty pearls on it and taking out five, then passing it off as the same thing, even though now it’s only got thirty-five pearls.”
“Exactly right,” nodded the old man. “That’s the problem. With so many countries dependent on the Euro, its managers have to watch very carefully to make sure they don’t devalue it much, at least, not enough to appreciably rob the billions of people who hold Euros.”
The girl had heard enough. “See? You agree it’s a terrible thing! You agree it’s a horrible mess! So why don’t you join in our strike? It’s peaceful but loud, because we’re angry, and we want the world to know that they have to solve this mess! It’s a general strike! It’s the whole country! Join us in the street!”
The old man shook his head. “You don’t understand. Let’s think about this another way. How much money does our country produce? What’s our national GDP?”
“That’s easy,” said the girl. “It’s about 230 or 240 billion euros.”
“Okay, “ said the old man. “after figuring for weekends, vacations and national holidays, that’s about a billion euros a day that our country produces, right? We produce a billion euros each workday, approximately.”
“Yeah… I’m with you… so what’s the point?” Greco was also paying rapt attention; he had a feeling that the old man was leading up to something worthwhile.
“By closing down the country on a workday,” the old man continued, “you’ve managed to cost the country another billion euros. That’s been the cost of your little temper tantrum. Some of it will be made up – some people who would have shopped today will shop tomorrow instead, that’s certainly true, but not much. Most of the business that would have been done today is just gone, gone forever. Your unions’ general strike has cost the country a billion euros.”
Greco got it before the girl did. “So you mean, we’ve just gone in the tank another billion, we’ve made our situation worse by another billion today, because of this stupid strike?”
“Yup, pretty much,” answered the old man, happy that his point was understood. “The pain will be split, of course, it won’t be evenly distributed… but it will be manifested in slightly lower tax revenues when we need more not less… slightly lower pay to business employees whose employers now will have less to pay their staffs in salaries or bonuses… slightly less money in the national coffers to use for debt repayment, for paying government employees, for upkeep of the harbors and other tourist attractions.”
“But they HAVE to take care of the tourist attractions!” shouted the girl. “That’s our main business! We need to keep our tourists coming back from Europe and Asia and America!” Greco nodded ecstatically; he knew how important tourists were to the shops and restaurants and nightclubs on his route.
“Yes,” nodded the old man. “And how do you think today’s general strike will affect the tourism business? We already have hotels and restaurants going out of business so that tourists have to take out travel insurance before they come here, just in case. What if they arrive during this mess and are greeted not by a thriving tourist attraction, but by 50,000 screaming fools in the streets? What if tourists arrive ready and willing to spend their foreign money here, and we’ve closed all our businesses so they can’t buy anything or eat anything? What if our airports are closed so their arrivals or returns are such a nightmare they swear never to return to Greece? What if their cruise ships were scheduled to call Piraeus today, and they cancel the call entirely and spend an extra day at Istanbul or Malta or Bari instead, so some other country gets the tourism dollars that were intended for us?”
The girl was crestfallen. So enthusiastic had she been, half an hour ago, she couldn’t bear to hear anymore. Neither could Greco, for that matter; not into introspection at all, he had spent his life avoiding ever caring about anything outside his own protection racket. He never thought he’d need to.
Both thanked the old man for his eye-opening information, and walked away, their minds newly aware of the self-destructive nature of the unions and their general strikes.
The old man just sad there, shaking his head, watching the demonstration play out. The people yelled ever louder, chanting “People, Fight, They’re drinking your blood!” in time to the beat of a drum. Just blocks away, the demonstration was turning violent, as hundreds of protesters winged Molotov cocktails (bottle bombs fueled by gasoline or diesel fuel) at police in riot gear, starting fires in the street and insuring both participants and innocent bystanders.
A few blocks further still, protesters set fire to trees in the national garden, and used hammers to chop up sidewalks and marble from the garden, further endangering the people present, ever more reducing the odds of future visitors to Athens, adding that much more to the cost of government. The old man didn’t see that happen, but they all read about it in the news later. Hours from now, it would make the old man cry.
The old man shook his head. It seems like all he did these days was shake his head. Tens of thousands of euros in damage, millions of euros in lost activity at the ports, in the shops… hundreds more businesses giving up the ghost, thousands more people unemployed and unemployable, adding to the crushing weight of the unsustainable dole.
The old man remembered an old American politician… from Illinois, was it? Oh yes, Everett McKinley Dirksen, the gravel-voiced senator from back in the days when Illinois elected people who understood economics… how did he put it? In English… the man had moved back home to Greece so long ago, he hardly thought in English any more, but now the words came flooding back. “A billion here, and a billion there, and pretty soon… you’re talking about real money.”
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance lecturer. His columns appear regularly in Illinois Review.
Greco the mob boss, and the other characters of this story too, are fictional, and any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental. The Greek general strike, however, and the violence and destruction that resulted, are the historical fact of Greece today, and perhaps, Heaven forbid, may become the historical fact of the United States tomorrow, if we Americans fail to learn the lessons that bombard us every day.
Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included. Follow John DiLeo on LinkedIn or Facebook, or on Twitter at @johnfdileo.