Care to guess what the most popular course is at prestigious Harvard University? Yup, it’s HAPPINESS. And if you walk into a bookstore or browse the internet, you quickly see that we Americans are very serious about our pursuit of this elusive quality. We seem hell-bent on going out, tracking happiness down, beating it over the head with a club and then dragging it home and putting it over our mantle. Well… maybe that’s not how we’re supposed to do it.
Jimmy Rokos is the subject of this article, and if you think you can whip out your checkbook and buy happiness…guess again. You might learn a thing or two from Jimmy. I know I have. Here goes: Jimmy is Greek. He’s 64 years old and moved to America, The Land of Dreams, in 1973…illegally, he is quick to add, and that’s one of the first things you notice about him. Jimmy is without guile and extremely comfortable in his own shoes. He was caught almost instantly in Manhattan and sent back to Greece. The second time he came to America, he ended up in Allentown, PA…legitimately this time, and his pursuit of “The American Dream” began in earnest.
But his is a different kind of success story: When asked what his dreams and goals were, he begins smiling. ” When I was little, I had nothing…nothing. I was number 7 of 11 children and my BIG goal, my only goal was to have a bicycle so I could get around in the mountains. That’s it…didn’t have to be new or fancy…just a bike.” He worked…and he got his bike and was happy. I asked him how his dreams and goals changed, now that he’s accomplished his goal and has a beautiful restaurant in scenic New Hope, PA. Again, that ready-smile flashes across his face. He says, “When your big goal is to have a bicycle…coming here, having all this, having my own restaurant is so far beyond any dream I could have had…How much more could I ask for?”
Rosebud: If for a moment, you think that Jimmy could have shot higher, you just missed the point, the pivotal point of this article. No one cares to admit it, but most of us secretly use financial success, or educational status, an impressive job title, fancy house, fancy car…fill-in-the-blank…to bolster something. Perhaps insecurity? A bit of poverty as a child? An abusive parent? And now, we are, by God, going to make up for it! Steve Jobs, multi-billionaire admitted late in life that the huge driving force in his life wasn’t computers, but filling in the gap in his self esteem from having been an orphan. Perhaps he wanted to show his mom, wherever she was, that she should have kept him. Citizen Kane… Rosebud.
Let’s dig a little deeper with Jimmy, get some answers. The thing that prompted this interview was a tiny seed, which grew over the course of several years. Pamela and I began going down to The Eagle Diner, Jimmy’s restaurant, and we immediately noticed everyone was happy…not a please-the-customers-for-a-big-tip, happy, but the genuine thing. Customers, waitresses, busboys, everyone. You can’t fake that, year in, year out. The Eagle is Jimmy’s extended family. I ask him: Do you have some special screening you use when you’re hiring? Do you have some kind of radar for spotting happy people? Jimmy’s answer is another chuckle. “No. Quite the opposite. Everyone in this area wants to be a CEO. We’re always understaffed. We hire everybody”. Follow-up question: Do they change once they start working here? “I hadn’t really thought about it but…yes. They do change. They get happier. And once they are, they want to stay. …It’s contagious…or maybe addictive…something like that.”
At this point, it’s beginning to look like it’s too much to believe. Human nature being what it is, I want to find some Achille’s Heel. I ask him, “You’re married for 37 years…happily?” “Yes.” “Do you ever fight?” “Not much. Not the way you think. We both go quiet. We don’t talk. We just think, cool down, figure things out. Once we have it figured-out, there’s no fight anymore. Not a good idea to fight when you’re angry. You say things you shouldn’t. If something really bad or really sad happens, I go out and drive. I drive, sometimes for hours, put on music…cool down.”
Marko: Jimmy and I are talking at a little table in the back of the restaurant and his son, Marko, age 35, comes over (Zisi is Jimmy’s other son, age 28 is down, working at their other restaurant). Marko is hovering by the table next to ours, listening-in, perhaps watching over his dad to make sure I’m not doing any damage. But then. I crack a stupid joke. Marko has his dad’s excellent sense of humor and laughs. I ask Marko about his dad. “I’ll tell you about him,” he says. “There’s a building on fire, people screaming, racing around. Five fire sirens blaring, flashing lights, cop cars pulling up, fire trucks spraying water. A guy walks up to the front door. He pauses, lights a cigarette and looks around. He calmly says, What’s up? That’s my dad.“
How Many Hours in the Week? I ask Jimmy how many hours a week he works. He lights a cigarette and looks around. “You, know, I never thought about it…” Then he starts counting. He works seven days a week, comes in around seven in the morning, leaves seven or eight at night, with an hour nap somewhere. Those are long hours…… What about retiring, Jimmy? For the first time in the interview, he makes a face, like I said something disagreeable. “Never. I see good people come in, happy, healthy…then they retire. They get less healthy and after a while they seem…less smart. I want nothing to do with it.”
Religion: “What about religion?” I ask. “I am, of course, Greek Orthodox,” he says. “I go to church sometimes, but to my mind, if I need to talk to God, I can do that anywhere…doesn’t have to be a church. That’s about it.”
Jimmy vs. Donald Trump: I never met Donald Trump…but I’ve seen him on TV a thousand times. He always seems to have the same expression: angry, bordering on very angry. Yes, he’s rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams…cars, golf courses, casinos, sycophants… Just doesn’t seem to be very happy. I think he might be a bit like a lot of very successful people, he’s proving something. Rosebud????? Maybe. Honestly? Right now if I had to choose between being Donald Trump and Jimmy, it wouldn’t take a millisecond to answer. It’d be Jimmy in a country-minute. He’s the real thing and happiness trumps a whole lot of other things.
Stop in at the Eagle Diner in New Hope. I’ll buy you a cup…or you buy me a cup.