The table of diner’s laughed when they heard me ask our cook what “de jour” was made of. I had been in New York City only a week.
No one had ever spoken French to me before.
The manager gently explains to me that du jour means daily and that tonight it is a chicken vegetable.
Red faced, I return to the table and give them the news and take their order. I cannot look at them, not just because I am embarrassed.
A braless and well-endowed woman sits on the outside aisle, six inches from where I stand. She is wearing a soccer shirt made entirely out of red net. Her eraser sized nipples protruded from the holes.
She rests a hand on me as she asks for the third time, for a list of our ten quiches.
As I am reciting, I see that my roommate Con has dropped by for dinner.
I wonder how his job hunting is going. We had been searching together just two hours before.
Although I already had secured a job, I could not face going back to it. Tonight I had walked into “Le Café Coco” at the perfect moment.
The two handsome brothers were speaking angrily to one another behind the counter
I stood respectful and silent while the older one retorts, “Do me a favor? Let ME fire her when she comes in!”
Then he turns and asks what he can do for me.
The scary truth is, that although I have worked in a food service for years, I have never actually waited on tables before, except when I ran a pizza house the summer I was fourteen. But that was in East Hampton, and if I didn’t do it properly, no one ever complained. All my other jobs were Kitchen, bussing tables or serving fast food.
Fortunately, the skeevy job I am escaping from has taught me to get the drinks first.
“Perrier,” says the man next to Nipple Lady. He is the one who asked for du jour and laughed the loudest at me.
His French accent sounds authentic to my ears when he orders the sparkling water.
Years from now, I will learn to spit in the food and drink ordered by men like this. But today I keep my country bumpkin head down in shame and do as I am told.
I am so rattled that when I reach Con to give him his menu, that I fling his silverware upside down on the paper napkin on the table before him.
I am terrified I will fail this job and have to return to the one I just left.
Con wasn’t with me the day I got the waitressing gig at that foreign place. Looking back I realize it could have been Egyptian, Turkish or even Albanian
My Connecticut eyes did not recognize the culture when I took the job.
The handsome man with salt peppering the edges of his dark curls looked quite like Omar Shariff when he played the part of Dr. Zhivago.
As he interviewed me, a small old woman with a black kerchief tied under her chin pulled on a cigarette silently and watched.
At last, she says something I cannot understand to Omar.
He turns to me and asks “You will make the dishes clean?”
He points to the sink behind us. At the pizza house, I cooked, cleaned, did everything but banking and paying bills. The prospect of “making dishes clean” does not alarm me at all.
To be honest, I had been hunting for hours and had heard the answer “no“ more than thirty times before Omar hired me. So desperate is my quest for work, that I don’t notice my surroundings when I take the job.
I only thanked him with relief, then met my roommates at the bar to get roaring drunk to celebrate.
Jim brought me downtown to the job the next morning. It was on his way to a gig he had as a crossword puzzle editor.
He promises to meet me back at a certain bench in Washington Square Park around three. He has a dealer there and he wants to pick up a little weed before we head home.
There is music playing when I enter the corner storefront. It is wonderfully melodious and rhythmic. It is punctuated by tinkling cymbals that remind me of belly dancing.
Omar hands me a dirty white apron with no pockets. It is the kind you see the butchers wear. He shows me how to fold it in half, but unfortunately, there is no clean side. The whole thing is stiff with filth.
The door chimes open and in walks a disheveled man wearing long dirty hair, and a military flack jacket.
Omar hands me silverware and water in a cold and greasy glass.
I feel bad about giving my first customer this grimy vessel to drink from.
The man doesn’t seem to notice, instead, he orders the daily special without even asking what it is.
Omar pours a cup of steaming liquid from a pot on the stove. I look inside as I carry it to the table.
There are things floating in it.
The next dish with the special is an appetizer, which I am told is in the refrigerator. Inside are several industrial sized open cans holding a variety of dull colors.
Omar chooses three but after smelling one of them, he puts it back into the fridge and pulls a different one out.
Soon he is ladling vile looking puddles onto a plate, along with triangles of flat bread.
Omar hands me the plate and directs me to offer the man more tea.
But the man seems reluctant for more of the polluted looking brew.
Instead, he accepts more water from the pitcher I bring over to him.
Omar has three messes bubbling on the stove now. Each one to me is more repellant than the other. The only thing I recognize is the rice, but there are things in it that look like turds.
The customer looks at the plate appreciatively and tucks into it. Two other people drift in and take a seat to peruse the menu.
The music by now is starting to making me a little jumpy. I find I have a pathological need to move and step to the beat when I walk. It’s stressful trying to keep a rhythm for hours at a time. Even the musicians on the endless loop of tape must have taken a break now and then.
Instead, I am compelled to step at every drumbeat, swaying my ample hips to the pulse.
The couple, after taking in the dirty environment drifts out the door quietly.
Omar catches them and calls out heartily “Come back soon!”
Omar’s mother occupies a dark corner of the kitchen.
She is seated on an upside down milk crate, with her kerchiefed head bent intently over a project she is working on.
I can’t see what it is that absorbs her so much, that she never stops to flick the growing ash on the cigarette that juts out between her lips.
Every now and then I can feel her watching me as I Samba around the kitchen.
I dance helplessly back to Long-hair. He has cleaned his plate.
I remove everything in front of him, dumping his dirty plate and silver into the bus pan to the down beats of musical percussion.
Omar directs me to a cloudy glass pastry case that is half full of Christmas decorations.
On the other side rests a tray of desserts that looked ancient to me. I hand the flat, grubby pan to my employer.
Before Omar hands the square of dusty pastry back to me, he sprinkles the top with a little cinnamon. But I don’t think it’s for flavor. I think he does it to hide the dirt.
Long-hair eats the sweet enthusiastically and tips me a dollar before he leaves.
The Lunch rush is over.
Omar gives me a small stiff square of terry cloth that I can tell once belonged to a bigger piece of fabric. I step over to the sink and turn on the faucet to rinse the stinky cloth but Omar stops me.
No need to use water he tells me.
I dust the food particles off the table and clear the remaining plate and cup.
Omar reminds me that I said I would make the dishes clean. I nod confidently. This is a job I am familiar with.
It seems as if many days have gone by since anyone in Omar’s place had “Made the dishes clean”.
The sink was already full of cold cloudy water that was soaking a stack of pans. It’s surface rippled in several oily rainbows.
Omar notices my dismay and hands me a pair of leaky rubber gloves that are wet inside.
I reach down to the bottom of the dish abyss to pull the plug and empty the chamber, but Omar tells me to use that cold brown water to clean the plates and silver.
Next, he tells me to rinse them in the standing basin of gray but at least somewhat transparent water.
When I am finally finished making the dishes clean, Omar again forbids me from pulling the plug on the greasy brown liquid.
The front of me is soaked and I smell like sour mildew.
Omar offers me some lunch, but all I can accept is a glass of thick black coffee. It is so bitter I am not afraid of pathogens. Nothing could survive in this cup of hot tar.
He sits down and questions me carefully about my background and family. He asks if I am a Christian.
“I am not sure about Jesus,” I confess.
He smiles and says “But you have God in your heart.”
I nod agreeably.
“Is good,” he says smiling in his mother’s direction.
Mother looks up from her project and finally reveals what she has been concentrating on so intently.
She produces a toothpick and the avocado colored rubber top to a blender. She has picked it clean of grime with a toothpick she is waving. She smiles and says something unintelligible to him.
He replies again “Is Good.”
“Ahhh, plastic!” she answers joyfully.
Omar orders me to go home and return the next day.
He will pay me on Friday he tells me.
I return the apron, fish the dollar out of my tip cup, and stick it in my back pocket.
I open the door to the beat of the belly dance music and prance out to the street, where the music mercifully ends.
I catch up with Jim on the bench in the park.
He has obviously caught up with his dealer. He is awkwardly rolling a joint on a crossword magazine that he balances on his knee.
Several people pass by, but no one seems to care about the loose marijuana that Jim is corralling into a jay on his lap.
I sit down beside him as he lights it up. He takes a long draw on it and passes it to me.
After a minute, he says “You stink.”
“I know,” I tell him.
I recount the day’s awful events and tell him that I have earned one dollar for my day’s trouble.
I tell him I cannot go back there.
“You should have gotten paid then. “ He tells me. “We can’t support you forever.”
“I know,” I answer glumly.
The good thing about my bad smell is that we get a seat on the train with plenty of elbow room.
I don’t care what Jims says, I think as I fill a wine glass with ice and lime. I can’t go back there.
I’ll move out first, I threaten to myself.
I bend over to fetch the green bottle of sparkling water.
I fish it from a glass case filled with ice that makes all the drinks look cold and inviting.
Shamefaced still, I carry the bottle, glass with ice, lime and a white bus towel on a tray to the table.
I can feel my roomie watching me intently from his seat at the table beside us.
I put my tray down and lift the green bottle as I wrap it in a white cloth. Placing the glass in front of him I crack the bottle top off with a church key from my apron pocket.
I solemnly pour the glass full, unwrap the bottle and place the remainder of the drink beside the glass.
I stand beside him respectfully as if he is tasting wine. I do not wish to be ridiculed by him again.
Du Jour man takes an experimental sip and spits the drink like a vaudeville sight gag.
“This is water!” He exclaims. “Don’t you have any beer?”
My roomie erupts in laughter and Eraser-Nipples looks down at her chest.
I smile with satisfaction when my face is turned from the pretentious bastard.
I still smell like a restaurant when I leave my new job. It is the way I will smell for the next dozen years that I live in this city.
My roomie hangs around until closing and we meet the rest of our household to celebrate in our new favorite neighborhood bar.
As of today, everyone in our apartment has a job.
Jim hands me a mug of draft beer when I settle down on my stool, but the cocktail napkin slips out of his hand and sails towards the floor.
As Jim bends over to try and catch it he says, “Omar called, looking for you today.”
“What did you tell him?” I ask anxiously.
“I told him you weren’t coming back.” he grunts bending over.
“What did he say?” I want to know
Jim hands me the white paper square and says “He cried.”