Countless Polish-American dupas sat on the wooden planks that Emmanuel Nicolaidis uses in his custom-made furniture shop on Kirk Avenue off of 25th street. The boards are old pews from the much-lamented St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church, late of South Ann Street in Fells Point. (A dupa is what a Pole calls that thing between his lower back and upper thighs. There was a time in Southeast Baltimore where you could see red-and-white bumper stickers proclaiming: "YOU BET YOUR DUPA I'M POLISH" on many an American-made car.)
But this is a story about a guy who came of age a bit farther down Eastern Avenue, a Greektown boy whose family called him "Manoli," who grew up in the midst of a headstrong family, which included an ambitious father and five hard-working uncles, all of them in building trades.
"It would be the first day of Christmas vacation and they'd wake me up before dawn to go to a job site," remembers Nicolaidis, 36, who holds an English degree from UMBC. "Me and my brother and our cousins were the helpers."
It was a boisterous, determined family-his father, Minas, a painter; Uncle George, a civil engineer; Uncle Bill, an electrician; Uncle Elias, another painter; Uncle Emmanuel, another electrician; and his beloved Uncle Gus, a carpenter. ("To this day," Emmanuel says, "if I cut into a 2-by-4 piece of pine and get that smell . . . that fresh-cut wood smell, I think of my Uncle Gus.") They were a tight-knit clan who'd all known real hunger and deprivation back in Olymbos, on the island of Karpathos.
They were good-hearted but "short-tempered people," says Nicolaidis, who grew up at 511 S. Newkirk St. and now lives in Charles Village. "You were constantly getting yelled at. They'd throw things but they weren't mad. They were just expressing themselves."
Into this was born Manoli, the dreamy kid who played the drums and made elaborate architectural designs out of heavy paper and funky musical instruments out of wood and PVC tubing and copper pipe.
Nicolaidis made a marimba and a santouri-a Greek variation on a hammer dulcimer-and built three-dimensional models of "impossibly" fantastic buildings. All of which made his father smile while worrying that his boy would never support himself.
"In Greece they were barely surviving, and they brought that instinct here," says Nicolaidis, whose father arrived in Baltimore via Montreal in 1966 at 32 and first spotted his mother, the former Irene Prearis, at an Eastern Avenue bus stop two years later. "That experience leaves no room for feeding your soul.
"When you're a first-generation Greek kid in America, your parents are constantly reminding you that you have to take advantage of the opportunities in this country," he said. "They want engineers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen. That wasn't what I wanted."
"My cousin is a sweet soul, in his heart he's a poet," says Virginia Nicolaidis, Gus' daughter, of her cousin's failure to fit the first-generation Greek-kid model.
The kid caught between cultures (inside the house was one world, outside another) doesn't cut much pine anymore. He prefers pre-blight American chestnut from old barns, and works mostly with oak, cherry, and walnut.
The dark inner discs of a good piece of wood are the "heart" of it, he says, noting that "the rings of dead wood generate the color we love in furniture.
"I prefer working with walnut," he says. "It runs from gray to purple to [light] brown to chocolate brown."
Nicolaidis' goal this summer is to produce a showroom full of design prototypes-chairs, tables, and desks. At press time, he was putting the finishing touches on a sleek and gorgeous tool chest, the kind you can buy out of cheap metal for $100 or less. This is something different, the dovetailed drawers silent as they move in and out.
"It's also designed to be a dresser," he says. "Something to hand down if I have kids or grandkids."
His father has been to the shop, has seen the skill with which Emmanuel can manipulate wood-reading the grain, compensating for changes in climate-and the old man is beginning to believe hardwoods can be turned to hard cash.
And no matter what the species of wood that creates the dust in his studio, he thinks of Uncle Gus at the end of the day.
"He always told me, 'A job's not done until you sweep the floor.'"