Skeletons, overgrown spiders, and inflatable ghosts are sprouting in Southern California neighborhoods as Halloween is around the corner. Kids are planning to return to trick-or-treating, and horror movies are showing up on cable and streaming services.
But for Zócalo Commentator Joe Mathews, being inside a real-life haunted house is a reality. Luckily, his ghost appears to be benevolent, and has given Mathews a lot to think about recently.
Opinion column by Joe Mathews:
Ten Octobers ago, my family moved into our San Gabriel Valley home, and people started knocking on the door. Some knockers were neighbors. Some were trick-or-treaters.
And some were looking for Steve.
I had no idea then who Steve was. I certainly didn’t know that he was dead or that Steve wasn’t his real name.
But I would learn the story of the gentleman who had lived in my house. While my efforts to reach his family would be unsuccessful, the knockers kept coming, and the neighbors have filled in details. Among the story’s larger lessons is that you should count yourself lucky to occupy a haunted house — if you’ve got the right ghost.
Stavros Koutis, whom the knockers knew as Steve, was born in 1909 on the Greek island of Ikaria, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Ikaria is named for the mythological Icarus, who famously died young after flying too close to the sun.
But Ikarians are famous for living longer than almost any other population on earth — a talent for aging well that is attributed to diets rich in vegetables, goat’s milk and herbal tea, and lifestyles full of walking and social gatherings.
Stavros, too, would be blessed with long life and vigor that would awe his California neighbors well into the 21st century. But his journey took him far from home.
In a tribute published in an Ikarian-American magazine in 2011, Stavros’ daughter said that her father dreamed of becoming a schoolteacher. But poverty and wars kept that profession out of reach. So, starting as a teenager, Stavros worked as a sailor, transporting coal around the Aegean.
In 1938, he married Polyxeni Tsakalia. To support their four children, he joined the merchant marine. In the 1950s, he jumped ship at a U.S. port.
For nearly 10 years, he worked in painting and construction in Chicago and other cities, while dodging immigration authorities.
Eventually, the family was able to immigrate legally in 1966. Two years later, they purchased the 1,400-square-foot house where I now live for $20,500, county records show.
Stavros became a community pillar. When he wasn’t babysitting grandchildren, he chatted with locals on long walks to visit friends and discuss Ikarian history.
He also had the greenest of thumbs. On the small lot he grew peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and other vegetables, and cared for a canopy of trees producing avocados, and various citrus. A giant fruit-producing South American cactus plant guarded the house’s rear. He shared some of this bounty with grateful neighbors and used the rest in his own skillful cooking.
After his wife’s death in 1997, Stavros chose to stay in his home — and aged so gracefully that he became a local marvel. How could any person, of any age, be so generous, know everyone, and have the energy to exercise so vigorously in his yard? At age 100, he did 1,000 repetitions on his rowing machine.
After he died in 2011 — eight days after his 102nd birthday — the neighborhood couldn’t quite believe it. Which is why people were asking us about Steve when we bought the place eight months later, and why neighbors were still talking about him at our 2019 block party.
“My father was a simple man of the sea and the earth, and enjoyed both to the fullest,” his daughter wrote.
Can any life be better than that?
I’ve long written about the history of other Californians’ houses, but not my own, because I didn’t know the place. In normal times, I’m rarely home while I’m out working or shuttling my sons around.
But when the pandemic shut things down, I finally got to know the house. I couldn’t help but feel Stavros’ presence.
His fruit trees still produce reliably, his roses bloom, and the avocado tree grows more bountiful every year. The yard is perfect for exercising, and the front stoop remains the place to be social with the neighbors.
Our family is no emblem of healthy living. But we have avoided getting COVID-19, at least so far.
Maybe that’s just luck. Or maybe, somehow or somewhere, a great, Greek ghost is still watching over his place.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.