With the Gaza Strip in the news recently I’ve been thinking about my first job in a hole in the wall greek and italian restaurant. My months there were like living in a Saturday Night Live sketch. One of the “chefs” was a Palestinian man in his mid twenties named Emad. He hailed from the Gaza strip and claimed to have been a guard for Yasser Arrafat’s mother-in-law (I never got the story of his journey from elite security detail in the Middle East to assembling veggie subs in small town South Carolina). When the restaurant was slow he’d sit outside and pitch rocks into traffic “like we did the jews in my back home”. He was prone to unexpectedly dropping to the floor in a fit of push-ups and belting out misheard Lionel Richie lyrics. Emad was tall, dark, handsome, eccentric and quirky so of course 16-year-old me harbored a secret crush. My mother knew her daughter all to well and she warned me away from him actually siting the Sally Field movie “Not Without My Daughter”.
My other co-workers were equally odd. Ken, the chubby 14-year-old dish boy had the mannerisms and personality of an old Jewish man, wore sweat bands on his elbows and forehead, and was Elvis’s biggest fan. He would gyrate and croon “Blue Hawaii” while scouring and scrubbing. Then there was Ralph…or Randy. I arrived for my shift one day and he informed me that if anyone should call asking for Randy I was to say he wasn’t there. Easy enough we didn’t have a Randy. It wasn’t until later that day that I saw the schedule where he had scratched out Ralph and replaced it with Randy in his Zodiac Killer scrawl. One of the other teenage waitresses found a card placed in her purse one day featuring an old lady gesturing rudely with her finger. Our rag-tag group was assembled in a staff meeting to sniff out the culprit. I voiced my opinion that anyone who would give the card without signing it was a weasel. Quietly from the back comes Ralph’s slow voice “I am not a weasel”. Mystery solved. It was Ralph, in the kitchen with a rude greeting card. Our motley crew also included Bernardo, a tiny illegal Mexican immigrant. His sly smile and my years of Spanish class were enough for me to maintain a 10 foot radius.
Except for the occasions that the labor board would stop by and the entire kitchen staff would disappear out of the back door, yanking the schedule off the wall as they went and yelling “Chris, mind the souvlaki!” things were going as well as they could in a failing restaurant. That all changed when the restaurants owner Abed (who was not fluent in English as much as American catchphrases “Workin’ hard or hardly workin’?”) decided to spend the summer back in Pakistan. He left the restaurant in the hands of Donna. Picture an albino California Raisin with a bad spray on tan, two layers of expired Wet n’ Wild makeup, and bleach blond hair (minus the first two jet black inches). Now put that creature in lycra bike shorts and a guinea tee. In her spare time Donna was a ring girl for a local amateur wrestling league which her Billy Ray Cyrus-esque boyfriend was a part of. Emad went to look for her once and found her out back in the boyfriend’s Chevy van. He came in looking dazed, simply said “Do not go out there” moved some pans and laid on the counter with his face covered trying to clear his mind of whatever he had seen. I received the brunt of her terrible personality; there were times I thought animals might speak to me when I took out the trash, it was such a Disney princess situation. She ran the already failing business so far in the ground that even my meager part-time waitress paychecks were bouncing.
I’m not proud of the way I quit that job, but all that time with illegal aliens and refugees must have rubbed off. One day when I’d had enough I crawled out the drive-thru window and waited for my ride on the corner. The only person who noticed my escape was Emad. I can still hear him yelling after me as I walked down the street, pondering what mediocre teenage job I’d get next: “Where are you going honey? See you…see me…see it together….”