It was a beautiful November morning in Houston, decorated with incredibly blue skies, almost unreal yet most definitely a gift from the gods. I was listening to my beloved manic mechanics, Click and Clack, on a rerun of NPR's Car Talk when I stopped to say hi to my friend Botti at the Montrose Shell service station. There, I was shocked to discover the episode was a rerun, as I'd missed the news that co-host Tom Magliozzi passed away in 2014. I was sad for a bit, but then I had a Eureka! moment and I came up with a plan for Botti and I to go down the street to our local public radio station, KPFT, and pitch a new show about cars, inspired by Click and Clack. Botti was agreeable, but in return, shared a story about KPFT, because Botti always has a story, and every story is intended to make you laugh. This particular one I cannot share publicly, because I have children, capisce?!
The Montrose Shell ain’t no Parthenon, but in Houston, it is definitely where the Greeks gather. Nestled on the corner of Montrose and Richmond, across from the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral and its school (also known as the grounds of the annual Greek Fest), very close to Greek restaurants Niko Niko’s and Theo's, it's a convenient meeting place—right in the heart of Montrose, the progressive epicenter of Houston. The afternoon I visited, there was a Greek guy sleeping in Botti’s back office. Another Greek customer was telling us about his great backyard honey and tomatoes.
I have a connection with the Greeks: the Mediterranean. Those of us from the coast all believe in having the highest quality foods and we want to convince our neighbors that precisely we (me!) possess the secret to the best of any dish or any recipe. My honey comes from the bee and is squished into a jar right there next to the bee…so it’s better then yours. When Botti talks about the character of Greeks, it sounds so much like my countrymen, Croats.
My geekdom comes in waves, and sometimes it shows up as “Greekdom.” It’s because I studied ancient Greek throughout high school, and it was one of my favorite subjects. Our teacher, Mr. Brucic, always had his eyes pointed to an imaginary spot in the back, in the true fashion of a former opera singer, while he encouraged even the weakest attempts toward the ancient Greek language and the mastery of its culture. We loved our Greek teacher because of the plethora of Greek myths he would present to us in his beautifully theatrical way. We all had to memorize the first 10 verses of The Iliad, and I think we thought of it as our Bible. Homer’s Iliad was indeed considered the bible of sorts for Greeks at the time, its timeless tale of the Trojan War providing wisdom and guidance. This book was divinely inspired, as it starts with the invocation to the Muses, and those words are imprinted in my brain forever: Menin aeide, thea, Peleiadeo Achileos.
Modern Greeks like Botti will appreciate all that ancient Greek reciting effort and will recognize some words from the old dead language. Yes, they are happy and proud that the rest of us gringos still get excited about that ancient Greek stuff. But they often don’t know how to recite it themselves. There was only one time when I ran into an American lawyer who went to some highbrow small East Coast law school where he learned how to recite the same verses from Iliad. So the two of us did it in unison at Denny’s one morning. It was a bizarre yet extremely satisfying experience. It felt like belonging to a sect.
It is a well-known fact that all Greeks in Houston all know each other. They may be considered one large family related through a myriad of cousins, aunts and questionable relationships. So how did I get an in into the Greek community? I dated a Greek. (This was a long time ago; now it’s ancient history.) I remember asking my father for advice about my Greek boyfriend back then, and I can still hear his answer crystal clear ringing in my ears: “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.” My dad knew a few Latin proverbs and he used them in crucial moments, always ready with a translation: “Be afraid of the Greeks even when they’re carrying gifts!” This sentence came from Virgil, describing the large Trojan horse, the “gift” that the Greeks brought to their enemies in the city of Troy—with Greek soldiers hidden inside it.
Botti complains about corruption in Greece and he likes to tell this one joke about the Greeks: God went to Israel and asked a poor man what he wanted. The poor man had a neighbor who plowed the land with machinery while he did it manually, so he asked for the same machinery, and the Lord gave it to him. God then went to Greece where a poor Greek guy was plowing land manually and his neighbor had a donkey to help him plow. God asked the man what he wanted, and the man said he wanted his neighbor’s donkey to die. Oh the Greeks, oh the Greek humor! They are the best. Amy Sedaris is probably the funniest American Greek, and her brother David is one of the country's best writers, all thanks to those great funny Greek genes, combined with the ever so inspiring tragi-comic dysfunctional Greek family saga.
Greek is one the oldest European languages; the arts and sciences were born and developed using it, with many books written on subjects from math to gastronomy. The first encyclopedia was written in Greek. So many Greek words are roots of all our intellectual language, so if you studied ancient Greek, you will really understand words like metabolism (from meta-ballo, meaning "to change") to hedonism (hedo-ne, meaning "pleasure"). Eukharistos (as in "taking the eucharist," or communion) is the word for “thank you” or “thanksgiving.” So many Greek words seem to have a deeper meaning, because they are the root of our international intellectual words. For example, “metabolism” is the same word in English and in Croatian. Greeks: connecting the world. Or, could it be “making the world great again"? Sometimes I feel like we were all really made up by the Greeks.
Botti was born in Alexandria, the capital of Hellenistic civilization for centuries, although it's located across the Mediterranean from modern-day Greece in Egypt. With all that history behind him, no wonder Botti's Montrose Shell feels like Greek theater every time I stop by. And I so look forward to coming to see Botti at Montrose Shell, even though I should probably be crying, because it means my car is broken. One of the many reasons I love this little service stations is the fact that it is always full of interesting customers: artists, doctors, drifters, philosophers — you name it.
I have known Botti long enough so I can say, without asking him, that his favorite genre of drama is comedy—maybe sometimes merging with philosophy. Through the years, coming to the Montrose Shell and talking to Botti has been, for me, like a Houston version of Plato's Dialogues with Socrates, with so many colorful local characters in it. Every subject is tackled here: politics and art, religion and science, crime and punishment, pleasure and pain, love and sex. I sometimes think of Botti as the Philosopher King of Montrose.
However, it is probably safe to say that to Botti, comedy comes before philosophy, because, ultimately, it’s the healing laughter that we all seek. He is able to entertain and help customers all at the same time. He is fast, he is here and there, swift like Hermes—almost as if he owns shoes with wings so that he can be everywhere in a flash. He communicates brilliantly whilst protecting us travelers. And that he does by fixing our broken cars all while making our broken lives happier. Botti reminds me so much of Hermes, the Greek god of communication, travelers and even our connection to afterlife. Why not have someone like Botti guide you to your afterlife?
Botti has been a manager of the Montrose Shell since 1983. He graduated with a degree in hotel management, though I think his university should give him an honorary PhD and send their students to him to learn management and social expertise. Botti dreamed of going back to Greece after graduating, but this job in Houston chose him. His Greek boss, Fivos, informed me of yet another very typically Greek thing: that this service station is the best educated service station in the world. Fivos started naming among its staff a doctor from Russia, a scientist, et cetera. Fivos readily admits that Botti has added another dimension in customer service, and Botti adds to this thought, in his typical jokey way: “I am like a hairdresser of the gas station business.”
I feel so many fluffy white pillow clouds around this little gas station in Montrose, so many happy memories, and I would like to use this opportunity, as a thanksgiving to Botti for remembering my birthday every year.
But one day sticks out in my memory, from all these colorful years. And it was the day of tragedy, the day that I found out about my sister’s sudden death, I was sitting on that very familiar bench in front of the Montrose Shell. I remember how all those happy clouds came around me, and how Botti’s very compassionate helping words lifted me up that day in a big way. That day I saw him again as Hermes, the Greek god who can guide us to the afterlife.
This great energy around Montrose Shell means so much to so many people in Houston because one mortal man, its manager, the amphitheater’s director, with a large theatrical personality, expands its light in the universe. If the walls could speak, they would be painting a picture of this never boring, always happening, undercover epicenter of Houston’s life and culture for decades.