“Is That You Lee?”
by Andreas Economakis
My grandma Houdie was a weird bird. I mean, we almost never saw her on account of her ill relations with my ma and the fact that she lived in faraway California, but when she did show up in Greece, man, she made a colorful impression. I hate to admit it, but I was kind of embarrassed of her when I was a kid. She was a wiry, chain-smoking, sharp-tongued woman with bony hands and painted hair, all energy and tension and cigarette smoke. She sure made heads turn whenever she entered the room. I wondered if all American grannies were as loud as Houdie. She was definitely an oddball grandma for a little Greek-American boy doing his best to fit in with his little normal Greek peers and their little normal Greek yiayias.
Houdie had the most insane make-up I have ever seen, some sort of psychedelic throwback to Pharaonic Egypt, deep purples and browns and blues caked under her high-lit eyes. She looked like a mummy on acid. What a figure she must have cut when, aged 80, she up and bought a convertible sports car and raced around the wealthy streets of Carmel, skeletal hand clutching her long cigarette outside the window. She was always a maverick, a real character, not giving a nickel about what people thought. My Uncle Ric called her a genuine flapper, and boy, she could sure bend her elbow in the speak-easies of her day. Though her big drinking problem came later in life (causing all sorts of grief to her kids), in her early years she found other outlets for her rebelliousness.
In her early twenties, around the time she was trying to make it as an actress in Hollywood’s silent movies, she made a trip to India with her parents. One day, while walking around some village outside of New Delhi, she came across an execution in the village’s dirt-caked main square. Crowds had gathered around a kneeled man with his hands tied to a stick behind his back. She pushed her way to the front of the crowd, her hands clutching her camera. The executioner raised his sword and swooshed at the condemned man’s neck. At the exact moment that the sword sliced through the man’s neck, sending his head tumbling to the ground, she snapped the photo. Frozen in grainy black and white, the photo shocked me to my very core. I’ll never forget the column of blood squirting upward from the man’s neck and the alert happy faces of the bystanders. I remember turning all goose-bumped toward my Uncle Warren, seeking some sort of explanation. He smiled and turned the page of the family photo album, saying that he had the same reaction to the photo when he first saw it as a kid. To this day Warren has his doubts about the authenticity of the photo, thinking she may possibly have purchased it and added it to the family album for effect. Effect. Yeah, I guess you could say that Houdie was different all right.
Houdie, or Hildreth as she was born, was a pretty woman when she was young, part of the reason she decided to become an actress. Though she gained some notoriety on local stages, she didn’t have much luck in film. She did get some bit parts in a few B-movies of the silent era before moving on, including a small role in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Volga Boatman” (released in 1926), a film that was probably trying to ride on the profitable coattails of Eisenstien’s 1925 masterpiece “The Battleship Potemkin”.
While trying to make it in Hollywood she lived in the posh suburb of Pasadena, a place she frequently returned to for visits even later in her life. Always a lover of exotic animals, she decided one day to procure for herself a small Capuchin monkey. This species, as my Uncle Warren explains, looks a lot like a miniature gorilla. On the way back home in a taxi with her new little gorilla, she noticed that he was turning all blue and ill in his cage. Not missing a beat, Houdie pulled the poor little ape out and dangled him out of the window of the speeding car to cool him down. Luckily, the monkey (and the shocked taxi driver) survived the highway ordeal.
Houdie grew very attached to her little Capuchin friend. She bought him a big cage, which she kept in her bedroom. Every morning the monkey would wake up and beat his chest like his large macho cousins, howling. Houdie loved to see him do this and would rush to catch the spectacle. One morning she was in the shower when she heard the monkey start to beat his little chest. Head covered in a plastic bathing cap of the era, the kind with the fake plastic flowers on it, she raced all naked and dripping to the cage. She peeled the sheet off of the cage and gazed at the monkey with a wide grin on her face. Startled by the suddenness of the move, or perhaps by the sight of a grinning naked woman with plastic, dripping flowers on her head, the monkey widened his eyes and fell backwards clutching his little chest. He died of a heart attack on the spot.
Not long after the monkey’s remarkable passing, Houdie up and got herself a big colorful parrot, the kind you see hopping from tree to tree in the Amazon. She named him Burdie. I’m not sure if Burdie had been smuggled into the US by my renegade Uncle Lee. Lee, who now lives in Panama, was (and is?) a longhaired hippie who at one point or other in the 1970’s was featured in a Playboy or Penthouse article for having escaped from a Mexican prison (where he was doing time for smuggling some sort of contraband). Remarkably, Lee returned to the prison and helped a buddy of his break out.
Anyway, I remember the parrot vividly as a kid when I visited Carmel for the first time in the mid 1970’s. By that point Burdie must have been 40 or 50 years old. He was a stately bird trapped in an un-stately home with a couple of whacked out people. Houdie, heavy on the sauce then, used to spend hours and hours in her bed, drinking from a bottle that she kept hidden in a riding boot next to her nightstand. She smoked cigarette after cigarette and had a nasty, lung-wrenching cough. Lee, who was slowly descending into a lifelong escapist ennui, lived with Houdie then. It wasn’t long before the stately bird adopted some the crazy habits of his two crazy roommates, especially Houdie.
The house where Lee and Houdie lived had a very loud front door. Every time Houdie heard the door slam shut, she would yell out from her bed “Is that you Lee?” something which would automatically set off her smoker’s hack. Day in and day out Burdie heard this same routine. “Is that you Lee?! Hack, hack, hack!” It’s not surprising that after a while our little Amazonian friend adopted the same repertoire. Poor Lee. To this day, I kind of feel that my uncle was driven to Panama not by his partying wild ways, but by having to endure both his mother and her parrot screaming “Is that you Lee?! Hack, hack, hack…” every time he came and went.
Not long after Lee wigged out and moved down south (after a stint living under bridges in Carmel and avoiding people like the plague), Houdie passed away (or dissipated like cigarette smoke). Burdie came up for adoption. He made the rounds with family members, not one of whom could stand him for very long on account of his “Is that you Lee?!” routine, which he recited in perfect Houdiese every time he heard a door open or close. It drove my relatives crazy and they eventually gave him to a family friend, Reed. Reed, a stoic Vietnam War veteran turned Big Sur artist, seemed like the right man for the crazy bird. My relatives must have figured that Reed had a stronger temperament on account of all the blood and guts and shrapnel and Vietnam mayhem and whatnot.
It didn’t take long for the Zen-like Reed to blow a fuse with the nutty bird. He decided to send him to a pet psychiatrist. The shrink must have been good, for Burdie was soon cured of his need to mimic Houdie every time he heard the door. However, he became kind of sad and stopped talking all together (I remember having a similar reaction after an ex-girlfriend of mine dragged me to a relationship shrink), something which made Reed sad as well. Reed eventually gave Burdie away and now no one really knows what the parrot is up to.
We spend our lives being embarrassed about or trying to erase or avoid certain things from the past. Only when they are gone do we realize how much we miss them.
Author’s note: I’d like to thank my Uncle Warren for the Capuchin monkey tale (and for many other fascinating family stories that I wish I could have included here). I also would like to thank my mother and my now deceased Uncle Ric for the parrot story, which I pieced together from their recollections (a while back) and from my experiences when I first visited California in 1977. Memory can be a fickle thing sometimes, energy and psychology sticking their tendril-like fingers in the mix and playing alongside the facts and history itself. Finally, I would like to thank my entire family for being who they are. I’m proud of them, I’m mortified of them, I love them, I can’t stand them, but in the end I am whole because of them. We all think our own family is the weirdest. Only when you start talking to folks around you do you realize how bizarre all human beings are. I guess we’re all in the same boat together. Call it the human condition…
This piece is part of a collection of stories on blindness entitled: The Blindness of Life.
Copyright © 2010, Andreas Economakis. All rights reserved.
For more stories by Andreas Economakis click on the author’s name below.