If You See Salem…

When one owns their own business, it’s not all glory and glamour. In fact, it can only be described as down right thankless. Living the diner life is not for the faint of heart. One needs guts and gumption to pull it off day after day. My father had both.

It seemed through out my years growing up in “the land of burgers and fries” that my father wasn’t just my “dad”. He was Salem, father to not only his children, but to those that needed it, whether it was an employee or a customer. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a father as “one who might care for another as a father might.” This particular definition describes my dad perfectly. Over the years, my father hasn’t always been the easiest person to work for or with, but one fact has always remained true. His bark is worse than his bite. I remember the first time I truly saw the depth of my father’s heart. It was on our second family trip to San Francisco, my father’s hometown. We were visiting family. I was 16 years old at the time, and we were on a street corner waiting for my mother to finish paying for her purchases in a store. There was a homeless man digging in the trash, eating the left over chicken wing bones someone else has discarded. I watched my dad walk up to him and say, “Hey, man. You don’t want to eat that.” My father, Salem the Magnanimous, pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, and handed it to the hungry man. This instance has not only stuck with me since, but it has been my guide for how I should treat those less fortunate or just down on their luck. I’ve never seen him deny anyone in need. So, why should those residing in his business be any different?

In fact, it was on our first family trip to San Francisco that we had to come back early because our cook at the time, Andy, had to be bailed out of jail.  Andy got into a fight with his girlfriend’s ex-husband and ended up with a broken jaw and an extended jail stay.  We had to come home early so my dad could cover his shifts, and because my father is who he is, to bail Andy out of jail.  He was pretty banged up, and I’m fairly sure he had wires holding his jaw in place, but he came to work.  However, not everyone shares my father’s principles.  Andy stopped showing up for work, and simply disappeared leaving my father with his debt.  It was par for the course when dealing with a certain breed of cook.  It wasn’t the first time my father had bailed an employee out of county lockup.  My father’s long-time cook of 14 years and manager, Kelvin, got into some trouble a few times, mostly for a suspended license.  He needed to be bailed out a couple of times, and my mother and father helped him get his license back.  In fact, they helped Kelvin out quite a bit, but his story is for another day.  Needless to say, my father got left holding the check, again.

It should be noted that when my father wasn’t paying legal fees, he was playing savior in other ways.  I remember an instance where one of our waitresses found herself with a flat tire.  Tammy was with us for a couple of years.  She and her husband even played babysitter for us a couple of times.  Tammy was pretty with feathered, chestnut-brown hair and big teased bangs.  She wore dark blue eyeliner and sheer bubblegum pink lipstick.  This was her signature look.  It was the late 80s.  For some reason or another, Tammy’s husband, Dan, couldn’t be reached.  So, she called my father to rescue her from the side of the road.  His generosity didn’t just extend to his employees, but to his customers, as well.

If you were  a loyal customer, frequenting one of his establishments anywhere from 3-5 times a week, he knew not only your name, but a little bit about your life, and even though you frequented the diner 5 times that week, you only paid for 3.  My father always believed that loyalty should be rewarded.  Looking back, my dad wasn’t just a boss, the guy who signed the paychecks and barked orders.  He’s been many things:  father, brother, savior, provider, and friend.  No matter the circumstance, my father helped if he could, whether it was changing a flat tire, providing food, financial assistance, or late night rides home.  He has even been known to buy a bike or two for those employees with no driver’s licenses who have a long way to walk from their homes.  Actually, he did just that pretty recently for a particular dishwasher’s birthday.  Granted, this dishwasher got it stolen a few months after he received it by leaving it unattended, but once the gift passes hands, my father is no longer liable.  Each diner has been less like a business and more like family, and every family has its duds, who, of course, provide the Diner Life community with nothing but entertainment.

So, if you see Salem, while visiting Johnny Angels Diner in Jacksonville, FL, give him a big “Hello!”  If he looks angry, please remember that he suffers from chronic stress, and RBFS (Resting Bitch Face Syndrome), a genetic flaw I, unfortunately, inherited.  He might look angry, but in fact, he is a man, whose heart is deeper than his pockets, and who has spent the better part of 30 years raising children, customers, and employees.  Give him a break and a big smile.  I’m willing to bet, you’ll get one back.

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The Guitarist Made My Cheeseburger

In Loving Memory of the Great Chris Cornell

It’s been mentioned before that there is a particular breed of diner employee that has the potential to be hazardous to one’s health, The Cook.  However, it was not always so. Growing up watching the revolving door of a locally owned business, especially one as transient as  the restaurant business, I observed my fair share of employees making their way in and out of our front doors, but none was so interesting to my questioning mind as the cook.  They always came with a story. As I contemplated the progression of this particular character that is always present when one lives the diner life, I found that they  grew more dangerous the older I became.  However, at this point, the danger zone is still safely out of reach.

My earliest memory was of Tom, who became less like employee and more like a friend.  Tom was very young, eventually joined the U.S. Navy and moved on.  He kept in touch over the years, and lives in Australia now.  Tom was a fond memory of when I was very young.  He still visits from time to time.

Then, there was Dave.  He was one of my favorites.  I was about 8, maybe 9, years of age when Dave came to work at Deerwood Deli, my father’s first voyage into the restaurant business, and my home away from home.  He was unlike any other person I had come across in my young existence.  Dave was tall and very thin with a fair almost luminescent complexion.  His very long, straight hair was of a dark, chestnut-brown that stood in stark contrast to the paleness of his skin.  His eyes were dark, his cheekbones high, and his fingers were long and graceful.  He wore big, black combat boots, cut-off grunge shorts, and t-shirts with skulls on them.  He would tie is hair up in a bun for work, showing off the shaved part underneath.  Sometimes, he would add in a hat for good measure.  The skull t-shirts used to make my very Arab, very spiritual mother cringe.  She thought it was bad for business.  So, she had my father start making Dave turn his t-shirts inside out for work. Many of my “attributes” are very much a casualty of creativity.  Even as a child, I was unusually observant.  I would watch Dave as he worked, mostly because he was fascinating.  I would sit in the kitchen after school, as was my custom, and watch the cook, well, cook.   In all honesty, it usually depended on who the cook was at the time.  If I wasn’t interested, I found more interesting things to occupy myself, which usually included my homework.

One day, because my young inquiring mind couldn’t handle not knowing anymore, I asked Dave, “Why do you have long hair?”  He looked down at me, gave a kind of slight smirk without showing his teeth and said, “Because I’m in a band.” Many a young heart has been stolen with those very words. For me, it meant a couple of things.  It answered a number of questions about his wardrobe, and yes, I might have just fallen a little “in like” with Dave The Cook, sometimes musician.  It was one of the best times of the late 20th century.  We were in the heyday of grunge rock, when flannel, long, greasy hair, and combat boots ran rampant, but most importantly rock n roll was transitioning from the loud shriek of the electric guitar of the 80s into the low soulful base guitar of the 90s.  Dave was in a metal band, and he played the guitar.  I know because I asked. My younger self had no shame.  From then on, my fascination with him grew just a little bit everyday.  Make no mistake, it wasn’t just the fact that I was a young girl who went to private school, and was sheltered from such things, but it was the music and the fact that he was involved with it.  I can thank my parents for my eclectic tastes in music, film and the arts, but especially music.  My mother gave me folk, oldies, country, and Elvis.  Yes, I said Elvis.  That’s a story for another day.  My father gave me soul and rock and roll.  Growing up, music was always a big part of our lives.  It always spoke to me, and still does.  So, Dave, who was different, had really pretty hair, and yes, just a little bit cute, could touch it.  It blew my little mind.  Needless to say, Dave made a lasting impression.

Dave came with a girlfriend.  Her name was Toni.  She used to come in close to closing time and wait for him to get off work.  I had a small fascination for her, too.  Toni was everything I wasn’t, not yet, anyway.  She matched Dave in an uncanny way.  Toni had crème colored skin and long, straight, brown hair that contrasted her complexion much like Dave’s.  Although, her hair was not as dark as his so the contrast was not as dramatic.  She was thin, not too tall, with a small elegant bone structure.  I remembered thinking that her fashion choices weren’t too stellar, but she came in one day wearing a pair of black stiletto tie-up ankle boots that were common for the early 90s.  I wanted them more than I wanted a pair of jelly shoes.  They were pointy and high, and they made the perfect sound on the concrete when she walked.  I still want them.  In a small way, I was a little envious of Toni.  She was pretty, grown-up, dating Dave, and she could wear high heels.  Looking back on the memories through the eyes of an adult, I can only smile at the carefree and slightly silly musings of a child.  I do owe Toni a small debt of gratitude.  Most of the time I was doing my homework while she was waiting for Dave to get off work.  One particular day, I was having more of a struggle than usual.  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder reared its ugly, two-headed face when I was  around 7 years old, and on this particular day, Toni played my savior.  I was anxiously rewriting my homework answers over and over.  I couldn’t get them just right.  Even as I type, I can feel the anxiety I was experiencing come back hitting me in the chest.  I was erasing so much that I was near to putting holes in my paper.  I started to panic.  Toni came over and stopped me.  She asked me if I needed help, and she essentially guided me through writing my answers.  It wasn’t the only time she did this.  It didn’t happen too often, but it occurred more than once.  The memory always stuck with me, hovering like a shadow.  Toni the angel in high-heeled boots, the girlfriend of Dave the metal head cook, saved my young little life, so to speak.  From then on, I tried to follow what I learned from her.  It didn’t always work, but it was something to guide me.  Yeah, Dave was one of my favorites.  I still can’t help but smile, and yes, I still have an odd fascination with musicians.  My parents were never thrilled with that fact.

 

 

Two Old Hens and a Pack of Smokes

Part of living the diner life requires one to become an anthropologist of sort.  I’ve spent my life watching the revolving door of small business reality as patrons have come and gone never to return, but sometimes they stay becoming not only customers but friends, and on the rare occasion, family.  As mentioned before, the diner life thrives on the premise that it is the people who make living the diner life what it is.  These are their stories.

Popular culture has yielded famous female duos that are memorable for not only their comedic flare but the loyalty they held towards each other.  Indeed, women have been pairing up for centuries, but the 20th century produced the most memorable.  Lucy had Ethel, and Laverne had Shirley.  If you’re a BBC enthusiast, then you will remember that Edina had Patsy.   Well, the Deerwood Deli created Agnes and Bernice, an elderly couple of friends that spent Monday through Saturday mornings sitting at an outside table smoking their cigarettes and drinking their coffee as if it was the very liquid that gave them the will to live.

Darling Agnes was the epitome of southern sweetness.  When I would come in for my morning shifts, she would always greet me with a loud and cheerful, “Hi, Nikki!”  As I fumbled my way to the front door of the diner, they usually received a less than enthusiastic response from me that sounded like a grunted, “Morning, ladies.”   To say I was not  a morning person was an understatement.  Not much has changed in that regard.  Sweetness radiated from Agnes.  She was a slightly rotund woman with tanned, crepe-like skin that was likely the result of a tanning bed.  Her sheer, ice pink lipstick was always in place and seemed to bleed onto the rim of her coffee cup.  Agnes’ attire was usually very stylish, and her frosted blonde hair was always coiffed just so.  Even her walking cane screamed, “Touch me. I’m fancy!”  Unfortunately, Agnes suffered from a sort of arthritis in her legs and knee joints.  So, moving around was not very easy for her, but she didn’t seem to let it hinder her social life.  The rumor of the restaurant was that sweet, adorable Agnes was loaded, as in swimming in  financial assets.  Both she and Bernice were widows, and it could only be assumed that their husbands left them well taken care of.

Bitter Bernice, as I liked to quietly refer to her, was the antithesis of Agnes.  From upstate New York, Bernice was every bit the Yankee.  She spoke with a heavy northern accent, and rarely filtered the things that would come flying out of her mouth.  She drank her coffee black, and never wore makeup.  Honestly, Bernice wasn’t bitter.  She had a softness to her, but it was often clouded in her brash nature.  The “bitter” title came as a result of the fact that her lips were always puckered as if she had just eaten a lemon and couldn’t handle the sour tang.  Hence, her moniker, “Bitter Bernice” was born.  Her eyebrows sat above shrewd, brown eyes like two bushy caterpillars that badly needed to be trimmed.  She had a slight olive skin tone, and her brown hair was usually presentable but plain.  Bernice didn’t go the extra mile with her appearance as Agnes did.  With Bernice, what you saw was what you got.  The pair of them were glued to the same outside table every day, smoking and drinking as they gossiped about the latest news.  Sometimes they ate, most of the time they didn’t.  For Agnes and Bernice, breakfast consisted of black coffee and nicotine.  Their routine never wavered as though one thrived off of the other.  The pair of them never gave into their perceived stereotype, old widows who seemed to have been forgotten about by their children.   No, they were more than that.  They were women who loved, laughed, and seemed to live for the friendship of the other, and everyone else be damned.

After my father sold Deerwood, we heard that Agnes eventually passed on, leaving Bernice to her own devices.  However, it should be noted that no matter the separation in physicality the spirit lives on in what is left behind, the memories and the love of one old broad for another.

I Call Her Black…

Just as  the customers that frequent an establishment form an attachment to the place, it can, also, be assumed that the same goes for the employees, as well.  In my thirty-two years of watching the revolving door that is the restaurant business, there have always been a few constants.  First, the tips on any given day may or may not be lousy.  Sweet tea or coffee will always be the leading beverages ordered by southern patrons.  The cooks, no matter how much I may enjoy their witty repartee about diner food, will likely piss me off by the end of each shift.  And finally, Theresa Black.  I call her Black…

Black was and still is a sort of institution in my living the diner life as she has been working for my family since I was just shy of a year old.   It was 1985 when a bleach blond Theresa Black came stumbling into my young life after having just gotten laid off from Krystal’s, where she was flipping mini burgers to make a buck.  At 19 years of age, Black was already the quintessential poster-child for teen angst and rebellion.  She had feathered bangs, earrings spanning up and down both ears, and wore clothes that were always slightly a little too tight.  As I grew older, Black’s fashion choices, while usually questionable, always intrigued me.  She was the type that changed her hair color with the seasons.  She once told me that she couldn’t remember her natural hair color,  but she thought it was a brown hue.  That was Black, free spirit extraordinaire.  Nothing and no one bothered her. As I look back at her many faces over the years, it is striking to me how our own perception of a person may change as we change.

Up until the age of eight, I called her aunt Theresa, if that is any indication as to Black’s role in my life.  I actually thought she was blood until I realized that my olive complexion and dark hair were not genetically linked to Black’s fair skin tone and hazel eyes.  Nonetheless, her place in my life went unquestioned.  She worked for us for five years as I watched her make sandwich after sandwich before HE was hired, and then, it all changed.  The eighteen year old son of a distant relative needed a job, and my father happily obliged by giving him a cooking position.  His name was Chuck.  He was a typical Arab-American boy in that he was spoiled by his mother, and loved women.  Please understand that not all Arab men are as such when they are young, but for the purposes of this story, Chuck was both.  It must be noted that he was, also, a cook, which, looking back, should have been a red flag.  As I have learned through anthropological observation throughout the years, as well as, personal experience, cooks were and are always trouble.  However, those are tales for another day.  In the first year that Chuck worked for us, he and Black became super close.  My aunt, my mother’s youngest sister, Chuck, and Black were a dynamic trio for a while going to clubs, hanging out, and living it up in the late 80s until a romantic situation began brewing between Chuck the cook, and Black.

I remember the few occasions I caught them making out in the store-room or walk-in refrigerator.  To a young child of four, it was confusing.  I didn’t understand why they wanted to swallow each other’s faces.  So, naturally, I would get spooked and run to my mother to tattle on the kissing couple.  I was most definitely a mood killer.  As time progressed, the couple dated seven months before, Black found herself in the family way.  To say this put a kink in their plans, was putting it mildly.  However, as it happens more often than not, Black found herself with a newborn baby girl, her first of two, and no father to help.  It was odd that this little girl, and my younger sister were exactly a year and  fourteen days apart, which could only lead to a lifelong friendship.

This wouldn’t be Black’s only heart break.  I watched her for years taking chance after chance, taking life as it came.  Three years after her first child was born, Black moved in with us for about a year.  I would watch her get dressed after work for her nights out, as she would brush her cheeks with blush and torture her eyelashes with blue mascara and an eyelash curler.  I was fascinated.  Then, I would wait for her in her room until well past midnight so she could regale me with the PG version of her night.  Sometimes I would just sit and sleep with her, while she wrote letters to her little one, who was living with her parents in the Philippines at the time.  This became our nightly ritual until she moved out.

For the next twenty years, Black would go through a series of heart breaks that not only defined her, but made her hard.  She was always a worker.  Often  times, Black would take on a second job on top of the manager position she already had with my family to make extra money.  It was during one of these times, that she met Critter.   Yes, that was really his name.  I remember the exact day she told me about him.  I had come home from school and sat down to eat with her on her lunch break as was our routine.  I was about eighteen years old at the time, a senior in high school.  She said, “I met someone. His name is Critter.”  I thought she was joking.  She wasn’t.  In case his name didn’t give it away, ol’ Critter turned out to be another disappointment.  He did give her a parting gift, though.  He was thoughtful in that he gave Black her second daughter.  Fourteen years after her first abandonment, she was right back where she had started.  The difference was that she now had two children to care for.

However, life smiled on Black and provided her with her on again, off again husband, Jeffrey, who not only provided a father for her new-born daughter, but a partner and life mate.  Theresa Black’s decisions were usually questionable, usually when it came to her love life, but one thing that can be said is that Black always owned her decisions, questionable or not.  She still does.  No matter her approval rating, Black has always done what SHE wants to, and the consequences be damned.  That’s what makes her who she is.  She is unapologetically true to herself and her care free nature.  It was during one of these unapologetic times that Black left Jeffrey, her then husband of twelve years,  for Kelvin, my father’s old manager, and yes, another cook.   As I mentioned previously, they are a dangerous breed for reasons that will become clearer with time.  It wasn’t her brightest moment, not because of her choice, but because she fell victim to another man, an empty promise, and another instance where it felt as if she wasn’t enough.

It’s five years later and Black has since reconciled with Jeffrey, but Kelvin left a traumatic scar that becomes an aggravated wound every now and then.  It didn’t help that Black had to watch history repeat itself with her oldest daughter.   Part of me feels as though she blames herself, but she’ll never admit it.  She isn’t one to show a weakness, which makes any tear I have seen her shed in the last ten years, not only rare, but precious.  When Black cries, it’s because she NEEDS to.  There is a purpose behind her sadness.

Some may judge her for the choices she has made in her life,   but I have watched a woman with the heart of a fighter and the spirit of a survivor live a life on her own terms.  Black has loved fiercely, lost tragically, and through it all, held onto her faith in the most troubled of times.  I have witnessed. I have learned. And I have always had my own perception, even if I wanted to shake some sense into her stubborn countenance. There is something Black has misunderstood this whole time.  It was never that she wasn’t  enough for each disappointment,  THEY were never enough for her.

*Names and dates have been changed to protect the innocent, and not so innocent.  Any similarity to real persons are purely coincidental.

There’s Still Some Flavor Left…

Before the cheeseburgers and shakes flooded our lives, the diner life started as the deli life.  The daughter of Palestinian Americans, it was inevitable for me to have been born into a family business, my birth right even.  As an Arab,  one’s family usually owned one of the following establishments: a dry cleaners, a restaurant, or a grocery store.  My mother’s father owned the last two at separate points in his life, and from that legacy, my mother tutored my father in the culinary art of owning a restaurant.

I was born into a small deli with a cash register dividing both the dessert case from the meat case that ran the expanse of the  front of the store.  Being the early 1980s, orange and black chairs littered the dining room, and the walls were covered in a newspaper print that looked like a very early likeness of Michael Jackson.  In fact, until I was around 10 years old, I thought it was Michael Jackson, and I wondered how my father got him on our walls.

As a relatively small child, I was allowed the run of the place.  See, when I assert that I was born into a restaurant, I am very serious.  So serious in fact, that my mother likes to inappropriately point out at astronomically inopportune times that I was not only raised in the family business, I was conceived in it, as well. So, from the day I was brought home from the hospital until I went to school, I spent my days in a restaurant.  My mother set up a playpen behind the counter, and when we were not as busy, she would allow me to wander the kitchen in my walker.  Once I had surpassed needing help to walk, all hell broke loose.  At this point, I was no more than 3 years old wandering behind the counter with my brother in the playpen sleeping.  Joey had just been born as we are two years apart.  I was always jealous of how much he got to sleep. To keep myself occupied and out of the way during the lunch rush, I became very adept at entertaining myself.  I had rules that I never followed, and as a result, I was in absolutely everything.

When my mother wasn’t looking, I would crack the door on the dessert case, and sneak my little hand in.  I would pick the dried frosting off the side of the brownie pan, and the pecans off of the top of the pecan squares.  If I was feeling especially bold, I would grab whole cookies and large pieces of baklava.  It was the sweet life.  When my father was tied up cooking on the grill or making sandwiches, I would climb the over 6 foot  refrigerator and steal cans of Coke and bottles of Perrier.  For a two-year old, I had refined tastes.  It must be noted that not all of my escapades were so adorable.  I am ashamed to admit that I, too, was once a disgusting child.  After the lunch rush, I would often take naps on the chairs at the tables.  Yes, please have  a seat, and don’t mind the two-year old napping.  It was during such naps that I found my favorite table.

The reason for my picking this delightful little area to hide was due to a very large, very pink half chewed piece of bubblegum stuck to  the bottom corner of my favorite table.  I remember when I first found it.  It looked so sweet and so pink.  I felt compelled to taste it, and so I licked the half chewed morsel. It was just as I had suspected.  It still had flavor!  From then on, I would taste a little bit here and there from the glorious sweetness…until my father found out that I was trying to eat the gum off of the bottom of the tables and had them cleaned.  I had lost the whole reason for choosing my favorite table in the first  place.  I was crushed. However, on the bright side, I had strengthened my immune system two-fold.