George & Gus, Then & Now
We first met Gus Zissimos & George Anagnostou on the 4700 block of Eastern Avenue back in 2015. This episode, we reunite with George & Gus, we listen back together to their original recordings, and we ask them, “How’s life changed in the past six years?”
Aaron Henkin: From WYPR and PRX, it’s Out of the Blocks. I’m Aaron Henkin. Here’s how the 4700 block on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore’s Greektown neighborhood sounded back in 2015.
[Multiple voices from 4700 block of Eastern Avenue at once]
AH: It’s been six years since we recorded that episode and this week, we’re reconnecting with a couple of folks we met back then. Gus Zissimos calls himself the “Greek Sinatra.” He’s eighty-five years old now. How’s your singing voice these days?
Gus Zissimos: It’s good. If you want me to sing a song for this, I’ll sing you a song whenever you’re ready.
AH: And George Anagnostou is still buying rounds of coffee for his friends at the Greek Village Bakery.
George Anagnostou: I’m still the same. I don’t care if I got a million dollars or one dollar. It would be the same.
AH: We’re gonna listen back with Gus and George to their original segments and we’re gonna hear what’s been going on with them since then, right after this.
AH: What do you want to teach me to say in Greek?
Gus Zissimos: I want to teach you how the Greeks say “s’agapo polee.” I love you very much.
AH: S’agapo polee.
GZ: Bravo. You said that perfect. Are you sure you’re new to Greek lessons? You sound better than me. This is Gus Zissimos and I’m gonna put a CD here and do some songs for you guys. Hello? Hi? Okay.
[music and singing]
GZ: Well, I was… Back in early fifties, I was walking up in North Avenue with the WFBR radio station there. It was Sinatra singing. I told my brothers, “I want to know who sings that.” He says, “That’s Frank Sinatra.” I said, “Where you have to go get that CD? I have to learn Sinatra’s song because I want to listen to Sinatra.”
AH: Wasn’t CDs back then, though.
GZ: No, it was just a small record. It was 45s… I don’t know what size they were.
AH: I wonder if you might want to give us a quieter version of a song, like an acapella version. Maybe even an old Greek song.
GZ: I have a lot of Greek songs. You want to hear a Greek song?
[singing in Greek]
GZ: I’m so happy I’m in the United States with my family here and I become a citizen back in 1960. I went to City College which was across the street from Memorial Stadium. And I’m proud to say I passed the questions, hundred questions of writing, because I want to become a citizen. I want to be like everybody else who was born and raised in this country. I grew up very, very poor but I thank God all that has happened to me because it makes me a better person.
AH: Is it true, Gus, that you sang the national anthem at Memorial Stadium?
GZ: Yeah. We went there with a group from the Peabody. Yeah.
[singing the national anthem]
GZ: (2021) Aaron, that was beautiful. I can’t believe I sang so clear and everything I say was very true, because that was the way I grew up.
AH: That was six years ago that we did that conversation. Let me ask you, how old are you now, Gus?
GZ: I’m eighty-five.
AH: You seem as young as ever.
GZ: Well, I have good genes. My mother lived to be a hundred-and-three years old and I’m thinking about all that and you don’t know how grateful I am.
AH: Last time I interviewed you, we were in Greektown down in Southeast Baltimore. We’re not in Greektown anymore. Tell me where we are now.
GZ: Aaron, right now we are at 3038 Roland Avenue, which is a beautiful senior building and it’s big in Hampden, which is… My family bar is still in 36th Street, Zissimos Bar, which is owned by my daughter and my son in law.
AH: I was gonna ask you about that. So, yeah, for people who aren’t in Baltimore, Hampden is sort of across town from Greektown but, yeah, there’s a Zissimos Bar here. I always wondered after I had met you if that was part of your family’s… So, that’s your family bar right here in Hampden.
GZ: Yeah. It’s a matter of fact, everything is still in my name. The licenses are still in my name and everything.
AH: Do you get over there? Do you get to sit down at the bar once in a while?
GZ: Yes. I walk. To go down there, it’s like three blocks but one block is double. It’s easier for me to go down but to try to get back up, it’s all uphill. But I make it okay, and it’s good exercise for me because I want to still stay healthy because I have a lot in me. I like to sing and do a lot of things for people, like I used to go to senior homes, volunteer and sing. I sing at church. Considering that I’m blind, I sing by memory. And I have a lot in me and I just can’t wait to get out again because I feel like I’ve been in jail and I’m too young to be in jail. [laughs]
AH: You’re vaccinated now. Are you… More people are getting vaccinated. Are you gonna book yourself a return to the stage?
GZ: Yeah. I was vaccinated twice and as soon as somebody calls me, I’m ready because I went to down… I sing for different places for Sopranos, Max’s on Broadway, Castaway’s, Philipo’s… There’s another place on Washington Boulevard, an Italian place, nice place that wanted me. And so many places that I can go and I’m ready to go as soon as somebody will call me. I will definitely go because that’s what I want to do, just get up there and sing and make people happy.
AH: How’s your singing voice these days?
GZ: It’s good. If you want me to sing a song for this, I’ll sing you a song whenever you’re ready.
AH: I would love that. Here, I’ll hold the microphone for you.
GZ: Aaron, I’m gonna do Sinatra songs. “Summer Wind.”
AH: When I last interviewed you, we talked about a lot of different things but I never got to ask you about your childhood in Greece. Tell me about what life was like for you when you were a kid, when you were in school.
GZ: Aaron, I tell you, that was the good days. I was born in Greece in a village called Simou. S-I-M-O-U. Simou. We live in a village with around over two thousand people. We had one teacher which was named George. He had a hundred-and-fifty-six children and he was built in the middle like…steps from this way, steps from there, in order to see the whole class. From first grade to second grade, from third to fourth, for fifth to sixth.
AH: You say Mr. George would stand in the middle of the room and teach all six grades?
GZ: Yeah. Well, he would sit there when we would… So, he’d teach the first grade and the second grade and he’d give us a homework, and then he goes to the third and fourth and teach them, and then gives them a homework. Then, he goes to fifth and sixth grade, teach them and gives them a homework. Now, when you are in a class like this… I was in the third grade. When he was teaching the sixth grade, I knew all the questions. When you are young, your brains...they’re like sponge.
AH: Because when you were young, in first and second grade, if you finished your homework early you could listen to what he was teaching the older kids.
GZ: Exactly. That’s how the kids should be today so they learn. But the kids today… This is another world we’re in now.
AH: Last time when I interviewed you, you told the story of taking your U.S. citizenship test, passing all hundred kids, and feeling so proud. And feeling proud to be a U.S. citizen. I wonder today, in 2021, how you feel about pride in being a U.S. citizen.
GZ: Well, I am very proud to be in America because I created a lot of things. I was in business for over fifty years. Altogether, I had, like, nine restaurants. Nine restaurants, different times. And I worked day and night for my kids and my wife, together. And I have accomplished all that, but the way I see things today, I’m worried about my granddaughters, for her kids, because what’s gonna happen? Because everything’s gone wrong. Aaron, the power is changing. The power is shifted in this country. Everything is turned upside down and these young generations today… I don’t know what is wrong with them. I see whites and blacks with the clique together, in the band together, and that makes me feel good because we’re all God’s children. We’re all supposed to be care for each other and work together and help each other. We’re all under the umbrella, you know what I mean? But other things are going on. It really bothers me. It makes me sick in my stomach and I don’t know what to do. I have a lot of ideas. Give me the power for one year, and I guarantee you, you can walk to a restaurant, in or outside, eat what you want to eat, leave your money under the plate, put the check, and nobody will touch it. I guarantee you. I’ll cut both my hands off if I don’t do it.
AH: Gus Zissimos for President 2024? It might not be too late for you to start a political career.
GZ: I know. Well, you know, I… Besides, I’m blind. I stopped teaching golf. I can’t play golf no more. I don’t drive because I’m legally blind. So, I have a lot of energy, a lot of fire in me, and I can’t do nothing about it. I’ll go out and sing for weddings and volunteer for lots of things just to help people to do things. My mission is just to do things for other people because you don’t know when God says, “Hey, it’s time for you to come with me.”
AH: Gus Zissimos. We first met him on the 4700 block of Eastern Avenue in Baltimore’s Greektown neighborhood back in 2015. It’s Out of the Blocks. More in a moment.
GA: You say, “Ti kaneis?” How are you? You say, “Kala.” Good. Very good, yeah. My name is George Anagnostou. I'm here in the Greek coffee house named Olympia
Coffeehouse. I come to the U.S., you know, very young. I come right at eighteen years old. We grew up, you know, poor and I wanted another life. I wanted a better life, from young. I just wanted to get out of there and do things I wanna do, you know? And I come here, you know… I love this country. This is the best country in the world, you know? That was 1972. Then I come to be manager of a big nightclub [00:14:11], it’s a big club in the Latin Casino, and then [00:14:15] palace. You know, it’s a big place. It used to bring big names here to Baltimore, you know… Four Tops, Temptations, Chubby Checker, big names, you know? I got a good life from twenty-three years old. Got everything. 1982, I think, was when I was out with some friends getting a drink, whatever, and what happened was I wind up in Shock Trauma. You know, I stay there for three months in the Shock Trauma. It took me two years to work good. I had to bring my mother from Greece to my house because I can’t just move around, you know?
AH: You got in a car accident?
GA: It was five minutes from my house. I think I fall asleep and hit the telephone pole. Good thing my car was big. It was a Thunderbird, you know? Got that big car and they cut the car to get me out. My both legs was broke, you know, and things changed. Things changed.
AH: (2021) What was it like to listen back to yourself from six years ago?
GA: Beautiful. Fantastic. You know, it make me feel good, you know?
AH: The last thing you said to me in that interview was, “Things change. Everything changes.” What’s changed here on this block over the last six years?
GA: You know, things are not like they used to be. When Greeks lived here and kept their properties, it used to be clean, you know… The ladies take care of their houses outside the steps, you know, very clean. Now, you see trash and rats and anything else.
AH: Six years ago, when I met you, it was across the street at Olympia Coffeehouse. Nick Rigopolis’s place. Talk about… Talk about… That place is closed now, yeah? Nick is gone?
GA: Nick died. It’s a quiet, friendly place. Somebody else. We know, the guy. It’s very nice, clean. He’s tried to make it a, like, carryout. Changed the whole thing, you know? We’ll see how it’s gonna do. I hope he makes it but it’s too hard. I think he’s going to sell the place, you know? I don’t know. Maybe he’s… Spanish people [00:17:01] because the area is changed here, you know? There’s a lot of Latinos.
AH: This block is such an interesting block because it’s like the American dream repeating itself over and over again, one generation to the next. There was the Greeks--your crew--that came in the seventies and eighties and now there’s the Latinos and I know you old guys call them the “new Greeks.”
GA: The new Greeks. You know, they’re never gonna be Greeks but they’re hanging out with the Greeks because the Greeks… They got their business, painting business… They taking to work for the Greeks and after a while, now they own their own business. That is good, you know? They working, okay, it’s good.
AH: How do you think you’ve changed as a person over the past six years?
GA: I’m still the same. I don’t care if I got a million dollars or one dollar. It would be the same. Years ago, I hit the nightclub with a woman, like, “Watch this.” She said to me, “George, even if you got one penny in your pocket or you got nothing, look like a millionaire.” It was my… You know, the way I prepare, you know, the way I’m talking.
AH: You always have looked sharp every time I’ve seen you. You’ve got a… I mean, I can tell that you had some style and swagger back in the day when you were on the club scene.
GA: It was my life, you know? That’s how… I’m the same way now, the way I used to be all these years. I don’t change. That’s alright with people. I got a lot of friends and I got it because I help when I can help, I do, you know, whatever.
AH: You’re a generous soul, too. I know that about you. We’re here at the coffee shop, the Greek Village Coffee Shop and people are walking in, you’re buying them coffees. You bought me a coffee when I came in today.
GA: Well, you know, that’s respect. You know, I don’t see you all these years. You’re a good friend. That’s the way I look at you. You know what I mean?
AH: You and I looked together through the photos, portraits of everybody on this block and a lot of them are gone now, huh? Things have really… Kind of the old guard, the old Greeks, are kind of fading out now.
GA: All the good people, they die, you know? The ones supposed to go, they don’t go. The good ones are going. That’s the difference. It’s okay. So far, so good. Things change.
AH: You’re enjoying your retirement these days. How old are you?
GA: Seventy-three. The only thing I got… I got my girlfriend now and she’s really nice. You see that photo. I show you that picture yesterday? You didn’t see it?
AH: No! You say you have a girlfriend? No! That’s why you’re looking so young. Let’s see a picture of her. What’s her name?
GA: Crystal, Crystal.
AH: What an absolute beauty. You’re a lucky man.
GA: Sometime! [laughs]
AH: Last time I met you, you taught me how to say, “Ti kaneis?” How’s it going? What do you want to teach me how to say in Greek today?
GA: [speaking in Greek] That means you are a good person and a good friend, you know?
AH: George Anagnostou. We first met him on the 4700 block of Eastern Avenue in Baltimore’s Greektown neighborhood back in 2015. That’s gonna wrap it up for this episode of Out of the Blocks, an original production of WYPR and PRX. Big thanks this episode to Gus Zissimos and George Anagnostou. Thanks also to my co-producer Wendel Patrick, who creates an original musical score for each episode of the show. Wendel also photographs the people you hear in these stories and if you go to wypr.org/outoftheblocks you can see then-and-now portraits of everyone we’re featuring on this final season of the show. Until the next time, I’m Aaron Henkin. Thanks for listening. Out of the Blocks is supported by PRX and produced with grant funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, Patricia and Mark Joseph Shelter Foundation Inc., the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Portfolios online at bakerartist.org, and the Maryland State Arts Council at msac.org.