IT’S STILL ALL GREEK TO ME
The good don’t always win
And might makes right
The Sword of Damocles is hanging above your head
Ever since my restaurant went out of business back in April, I follow the same fruitless routine every morning. While drinking multiple cups of coffee, I search on-line for employment opportunities.
“Dad”, my younger daughter declared one morning, “your outfit screams of unemployment”. She was, of course, correct. I was wearing my usual internet job-search outfit: red, floppy, elastic banded shorts monogrammed with black-winged death skulls, a black t-shirt with a silver airbrushed portrait of Popeye on it, and a disintegrating pair of flip-flops.
The flip-flops constitute half of all the footwear in my wardrobe. The other half is a pair of sturdy work boots. They provide a modicum of arch support for the pancakes I call my feet. It is too little, too late for all of the joints north of my feet, though. My knees and hips are playgrounds for arthritis and bursitis—the end result of four decades spent on my feet working in the restaurant business—hastened less by bad fashion sense and more by orthopedic cluelessness. I have no regrets, though. My stiff, aching joints are the badge of an odyssey.
The odyssey began sometime in the early 1970’s in Baltimore. I’m not sure of the exact year because I’m getting forgetful—and, back then I was a stoned, clueless high school dropout with the awareness and attention span of a pile of rocks. For me, dining out meant carryout, never anything fancier than pizza, tacos or Moo Goo Gai Pan. Restaurants were a place other people went to eat, especially fancy ones. The only way a stoned, unemployed drop out could ever eat at one was to work at one.
Then, as now, restaurant work was the most viable employment opportunity for the tired, poor huddled masses, as well as for clueless, otherwise unemployable teenagers. Immigrants flock to restaurants for work, either because they are skilled restaurant professionals worthy of a decent wage, or they are biding their time until the doctorate that they received in the Old Country pays off in the form of a “real job”. Teenagers easily get restaurant jobs based on the simple qualifications that they are breathing and ambulatory. No skills are required…just sturdy feet and legs, and a willingness to take a lot of crap for a low wage.
Bussing tables was my first restaurant job. It was memorable only for the monotony and the standard-issue busboy uniform: white shirt, clip-on black bow tie, yellow waist-length “bus” jacket with wide lapels, black pants and high-gloss black shoes. Other than looking like an organ-grinder monkey, I didn’t mind the uniform. I hated the shoes, though. They were uncomfortable. They gave me blisters. They were made for dead people. Unlike my non-work shoes, they required daily maintenance– scraping splattered food crud off of them, then buffing and polishing them back to a lustrous glow. The only maintenance my non-work shoes required was periodic applications of duct tape and odor eaters.
Promotion from busboy to kitchen helper came at a restaurant named Gambrinus. The place was a model of consistent inconsistency. It suffered from an enormous identity crisis. It was sort of this, sort of that—with nothing ever clearly defined. Even the most clueless employee could seem competent. I thrived there.
Gambrinus was sort of a Greek restaurant. The owner—Mr. Leo—was a wealthy Greek/American businessman. I guessed that the restaurant was one of the crown jewels of his empire, but it was more likely a venture of whim, serving as an entertainment venue for his three-piece suit and gold-chained business buddies. The menu seemed whimsical also—there was a smattering of delicious Greek comfort foods, an overabundance of pedestrian American steak and seafood dreck, and a few puzzling pseudo-Mediterranean entrees. It all seemed alien and exotic to me back then, though.
Most of the kitchen staff were native-born Greeks who could barely speak English. The chefs were large, burly, loud men. They were very intimidating. Their chef coats were always splattered with blood from the whole lamb and veal carcasses that they had hacked into servable portions. They were all chain smokers. They all had impressive, bushy mustaches.
The one woman who worked in the kitchen—Tessia—was also loud and burly. She also had a mustache—better than anything I could muster, but not as impressive as the other cooks’ mustaches. Tessia didn’t smoke. She was very kind and could speak passable English. She was the liaison between the Greek-speaking cooks and the dining room staff.
A few Greek-American guys worked in the dining room along with a melting pot of Iranians, French Moroccans, Bolivians, Brazilians and Americans. The dining room staff constantly whined about everything, and in multiple languages. They complained about the brutish Greek kitchen staff and the idiotic cheapskate customers. They bitched about not being able to get “real jobs” and they pissed and moaned about what a shithole Baltimore was and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. They mostly complained about how little money they were making in tips. Business was usually slow. If they owned the place, most of them declared, things would be a lot different…but they didn’t own the place so nothing ever changed. Mr. Leo owned the place. Change didn’t seem to be on his agenda, nor did he seem to have an iota of knowledge about the restaurant business. He seemed, at times, more clueless than me.
For one thing, he had named the place Gambrinus. Initially, I thought that it was some sort of actually pronounceable Greek name. But it wasn’t. The place was named after the Flemish patron saint of beer. At the time, Flemish to me might as well have meant a condition of pulmonary congestion, rather than people from a region in Belgium. What did a snot-clogged Beer Saint have to do with a restaurant that lamely portrayed itself as being a Greek restaurant? Beer needed a patron saint? Who knew?
The odor of stale beer pervaded the restaurant, leaking into the outer corridors, all the way up to the second floor of the high-rise office building in which it was located. Some of the employees referred to the décor as “Greek Freakish”. It appeared to be the end product of a bad experience on LSD and a vague concept of ancient times, thrown together on a shoestring budget. It was a collage of mismatched bad taste. There were small murals on the walls of Spartan or Trojan soldiers marching in ant-like order, and toga-clad gods and goddesses in the repose of grape-eating foreplay. There were large, dark plastic urns with impressions of mythical beasts on them, scattered throughout the place, filled with odd-looking plastic plants that were filmy from the resin of tobacco smoke. The twenty or so tables were covered with dingy yellow tablecloths, barely illuminated by tiny Christmas tree lights that were strung everywhere. Bouzouki music constantly whined and twanged on the crappy sound system. It was depressing.
The bar and lounge was a little less depressing but no less weird. A large, darkly stained oak bar with a polished granite top faced out on several cocktail tables and booths. There were plenty of Christmas tree lights, but also colorful track lighting that shone down onto a small stage where, every Monday night, a belly dancer would jiggle her stuff to the music of a live Bouzouki band. There were no murals on the wall. Instead, the walls had a collection of framed photographs—different sized and hung crookedly—of famous Greeks, none of whom I recognized except for Jimmy The Greek and Vice President Spiro Agnew. I did recognize the two non-Greeks on the wall, though. There was a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her murdered first husband, JFK. I guessed that this was some sort of clumsy display of Greek/American solidarity or a pathetic homage paid to the ghosts of Camelot. Conspicuously missing was a portrait of Jackie O’s second husband, Aristotle Onassis. It made no sense. I assumed it was Mr. Leo’s idea.
I also assumed that it was Mr. Leo’s idea to move me from bussing tables to a position as a kitchen helper. It was never beneath him to engage in small talk with the help, even with peons like me. On occasion—usually during the rare instances when I was overwhelmingly busy—he would take me aside in confidence. “Michael”, he would say, followed by something such as, “is that Bobby giving you a hard time? If that Bobby’s giving you a hard time, you tell him that I gave you permission to kick his ass…okay?” “Okay, sure thing, Mr. Leo”, I’d respond nervously, trying not to drop the fifty pounds of dirty dishes I was balancing on a tray with one hand…while also wondering why he called me Michael instead of Joe. As to who “that Bobby” was, I had no clue. Nobody by that name worked at the restaurant. Still, if “that Bobby” ever did materialize, an ass kicking was in store for him if he ever gave me a hard time.
One day—during another uncharacteristically busy lunch—Mr. Leo beckoned me to the waiter’s station: “Michael”, he said, handing me a white kitchen apron, “go back to the kitchen and help those malakas out of the fucking weeds.”
“Malakas” was the one Greek word that I knew. It is a noun. It means a “jerk off”, connoting many other unfortunate qualities such as laziness, cluelessness and misfortune. Everybody at Gambrinus qualified as a malakas at some point, for whatever reason—especially me. If not a malakas, one was a “shoemaker”—an interchangeable sobriquet offered in English by the Old Country melting pot of waiters and busboys. It was one of the few English words I ever heard the Greek cooks use. That shoemaking was a worldwide profession of luckless, indolent wankers was a cultural revelation to me.
Less of a revelation was the necessity of getting someone out of the weeds. Getting in the weeds was very common at Gambrinus. It is restaurant slang for being hopelessly overwhelmed—usually to the point whereby reason and rationality are abandoned and panic takes over. Getting in the weeds is easy. Being assigned the task of getting a bunch of malakas out of the “fucking weeds” sounded like a death sentence to me.
The malakas Mr. Leo commanded me to get out of the fucking weeds were the Greek cooks. Considering the fact that I knew only one word of Greek and couldn’t cook my way out of a box of Bisquik, it seemed like a fairly ridiculous order. Besides this, the cooks scared the shit out of me. They had always yelled at me a lot, even when they weren’t in the weeds. I never understood what they were yelling, but they would throw enough “malakas” and “shoemakers” in their gibberish to drive home the fact that they were really pissed off. Sometimes, they would even throw kitchen utensils and wet bar towels at me.
I suspected their obvious dislike for me stemmed from the possibility that they had overheard me and a couple of busboy buddies making fun of them. Actually, we hadn’t make fun of them–we had made fun of their language, particularly the tongue-twisting surnames many Greeks seemed to have. For instance, the “Leo” in Mr. Leo was one syllable of a long, complicated, unpronounceable last name. It was merciful that we were allowed to call him just “Mr. Leo.” His real name was Something-something-leo-something-something-opolous. Greek last names always seemed to end in something that sounded like opolous.
Given this tidbit of Greek language knowledge—usually aided by the inspirational effects of a joint or two—my busboy buddies and I would invent Greek nicknames for some of our other, less-cool, non-Greek coworkers. The names were assigned to them on the basis of an unfortunate physical condition that they possessed, an infamous act or, simply, on the basis of their demeanor. There was Denny Pop-a-lot-o-pus, a busboy with a horrible acne condition. Fernando Got-a-lot-o-butts-but-not-a-lot-o-bucks was a fat-assed Bolivian bartender who never tipped the busboys. Patrick Pukes-in-stacks-o-pots was the Haitian dishwasher who, one New Years Eve, chugged a whole fifth of gin that he ended up gacking into the pot sink. And, there was Gilbert Prick-a-saurus, a Moroccan waiter who was just a big dick…and on and on…just harmless fun. Nevertheless, I was pretty certain that the Greek cooks were not pleased with this.
To my surprise, when I entered the kitchen to bail the malakas out of the weeds they cheered me—“Good boys!” they cried, “Joes to help work keechin!” It was a heroic moment, but only a moment—“Many dirty deeshes…you go wash…make deesh clean!”
They weren’t kidding about the “many dirty deeshes”. Patrick Pukesinostacksopots had bailed out of the kitchen—shit-faced drunk—long before the lunch rush began. None of the cooks had noticed he had left until they began running out of clean “deeshes”. A mountain of pots, pans and dishes awaited me in the dish pit, a hot, steamy closet of a room with no ventilation. I became the malakas in the fucking weeds—but throughout the next several hours, the cooks treated me kindly and respectfully. They even helped me when they had time. Later, Mr. Leo came back and thanked me. He asked me if I might want to pick up a few dish shifts. Ever the obedient soldier—and basking in the glow of all of this Greek adulation—I said “sure”.
The few dish shifts ended up being a lot of dish shifts—so many that I ended up giving up my bus shifts. Dishwashing is a miserable, monotonous job, but at least I didn’t have to wear the dead people shoes anymore. I made a little more money than I did bussing tables and my meals were free. Besides, Mr. Leo had hinted that I might even be promoted to prep cook at some point “in the near future”.
The future never comes quickly enough for a teenager. After several weeks of washing dishes, I began pestering the cooks to let me do cook stuff. Of course, because I didn’t speak Greek, I spoke with them using the standard American method of communicating when confronted with an incomprehensible foreign language—I spoke to them very loudly in Pidgin English while conducting silly pantomimes. “Me learn-ee make-ee spinach soup-ee today?” I would ask them, while holding an invisible wire whisk, stirring an equally invisible ten-gallon soup pot. They would usually stare back at me for a few moments—a look of disgust and pity on their faces—snort and say, “No, Joes clean” or “Joes wash deesh”. They probably thought that I was severely retarded.
Tessia—the lone woman of the kitchen—came to my rescue. She began to teach me things…not food stuff, though. She began to teach me how to speak Greek.
Within a few weeks, I could count in Greek up to one hundred. I learned the proper greetings for different times of the day, how to say thank-you and please. Eventually, I could form a few useful sentences such as, “May I have a clean bus bucket please” or “How many potatoes do you need me to bring you?”
The cooks seemed genuinely impressed and began encouraging me. Being cooks, they taught me the dubious skill of swearing in Greek—much to Tessia’s disgust—and I became bilingual in profanities and vulgarities within days. Within a month or so, they actually began showing me some useful kitchen skills like how to hold and handle a knife. Eventually, step-by-step, they would show me how to chop vegetables, make roux, soups, sauces and simple pastries. My dynamic with them and perception of them completely changed. They were no longer hostile brutes. They were wonderful, patient teachers and willing mentors.
Even Mr. Leo was sincerely impressed with me. He actually began calling me “Joe”. He would tell me stories of Greek culture, history and customs, and quiz me on what Greek words I had learned. He would give me advice. One time, he took me aside and told me, “You’re never gonna be really smart until you realize that you don’t know shit”. Words to live by, I suppose.
Years later, long after Gambrinus had gone out of business, I ran across a quote in a book I was reading: “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing”. It reminded me of what Mr. Leo had advised me decades before. Socrates had said it—Mr. Leo had paraphrased it in a way that a clueless teenager could understand it. He wasn’t clueless. Mr. Leo was a philosopher who just happened to own a restaurant. His apparent cluelessness was because his business had turned him into an anxiety-filled, exhausted stress case. He was a lot like Damocles—probably all restaurant owners are.
As much as I embrace the notion that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, more important things require my attention. I have to find a friggin job. There’s got to be one out there for me.
I heard the other day that New Balance might be hiring. Hell, I’ve sort of been a shoemaker. It would be nice to get a discount on shoes. I think I’m due for a new pair anyway.
August 19, 2012 at 1:51 am
Hey Joe…thanks for filling in the blanks. Never knew all this about you. Just know you are one hell of a cook. Really miss the Unicorn as does everyone I know…but you (and your family of course) were the one behind all of that. Do your thing guy, get in the kitchen! You belong there. Start out new and see where that takes you. New Balance can go to hell…that’s no place for you. Screw them. Get back on your horse and show the world what you’ve got. You have talent, experience and excitement in the kitchen…knock em dead. I believe in you.
August 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm
Thanks, Paula-Jo. All is good here. I was more or less kidding about the New Balance job. I use to jokingly call two cooks who use to work for me “shoemakers”. The irony is that both of them actually did end up making shoes @ New Balance. I have no regrets or sadness (anymore) about how things turned out for me @ my restaurant. All of the important things in my life–friends, family, etc.–are still intact. I hope that any sense of humor I might possess is also intact, particularly in what I write.
Thanks again for reading and the offering of your kind support.
August 19, 2012 at 4:57 pm
Joe, you may have a job as a writer… You have a knack for the word and we never would have known had the restaurant closed, there are blessings in all that we encounter in life…. Thanks for the chuckle and the insight into who Joe really is as a person…
August 19, 2012 at 6:17 pm
Thanks for reading, Cindi. My life has been truly blessed…and, as cliche as it sounds, I do believe that when one door closes, another one opens. Whether that door opens to career as a writer remains to be seen. I hope so–but if it doesn’t, something else will…hopefully not shoe-making, though. All the best!
August 19, 2012 at 5:20 pm
Wow… no wonder you’re so fucked-up! Ha ha, JK. Great post as always – best yet!
Out of curiosity, I went to http://www.iwl.me to see what famous writer your essay would be compared to. Are you familiar with Chuck Palahniuk? He’s among my favorite contemporary writers and I would not contest the comparison.
August 19, 2012 at 6:00 pm
Thanks for the comparison, even though I’m not familiar with Palahnuik. Maybe I should become familiar with him. I went to the same web site w/ a sample from Keep The Vampires Away and I was compared to Bram Stoker. I’m guessing that key words play a bigger role in determining to whom one writes similarly (damn awkward sentence there). Nevertheless, you flatter me. Thanks so much for reading! Always good to touch base with you, even if your wife does keep kicking my ass in Lexulous! All the best!
August 19, 2012 at 6:24 pm
Yeah, I suppose it would be algorithmically simpler to compare paragraphs via keywords than it would style, but having read you both, I can see similarities. Anyway, Palahniuk wrote Fight Club, among many other great books. I am absolutely certain you would like his writing, both style and subject. http://chuckpalahniuk.net/books
I think my favorites are “Choke” and “Lullabye”. I seem to recall liking “Survivor” but it’s been a long time since I’ve read him.
August 25, 2012 at 11:04 pm
You are such a wonderful writer. I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts. I can so imagine a teenager being tortured in this restaurant. Thanks for sharing.
August 27, 2012 at 4:08 pm
Hey Lee! So good to “see” you again. Thank you so much for reading. One of my old busboy buddies actually e-mailed me with corrections on the story (he & I were actually roommates for a while & he now lives in his native Brazil). Patrick was actually Jamaican, not Haitian. Fernando was Peruvian, not Bolivian. I really had to probe my depleted memory bank to write this piece & I’m happy that my errors were few. My torture wasn’t nearly as bad as my cluelessness–a condition I’m still trying to overcome. Thanks again for your kind words! Joe
September 28, 2012 at 8:28 pm
You should create a cookbook full of stories or maybe a book based on your experiences with recipes sprinkled thruout. That’s the job for you. Love reading your blog when I have time.
September 28, 2012 at 8:35 pm
Again, thanks Karen! You’ve hit the nail right on the head. That is precisely what this blog is, and what I’ve always intended it to be. Twelve years of restaurant ownership interrupted a formerly diligent writing regimen, and I’m just starting to feel as if I’m “getting my chops”. Thanks so much for your encouragement. It means a lot.
October 27, 2012 at 12:06 pm
Fabulous Joe! I can see
October 27, 2012 at 12:12 pm
you in those disgusting sneakers with a big smile on your face! I only wish you could add some of your fantastic drawings to your stories!