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.

Dadddy Did What?!

If one knew my father, then they would understand that the title of this post was uttered numerous times throughout my childhood, and still is.  However, in his defense, most times were provoked.  It was one such provocation that put his restraint or lack of into question.

I was no more than two years old as my mother was still pregnant with my brother when my father was almost arrested.  My mother and I were at home when she received a call saying that the police were at the deli, and my father might be in trouble.  I know what some might be thinking…what could the kind, smiling man pictured above possibly have done to warrant the need for law enforcement?  Well, let us just chalk it up to a good old fashioned ethnic temper, a trait that I, unfortunately, inherited.  See, my father had the smile of a saint, the vocabulary of a sailor, the temper of a viper, and the heart of a lion, true, loyal, and pure to the core.  Much of these attributes have stood the test of time.  Yes, even his temper.

It was 1986, and my father had stopped taking personal checks as a form of payment as he had been having too many of them bounce.  On one such busy day, a customer of foreign decent wanted to pay with a personal check.  My father politely declined, and informed the man that he no longer took personal checks.  To this, the man became irate.  He huffily informed my father that he did not know how to run a business.  My father remained calm and continued to explain his reasoning to the man, even though he had the right to refuse the payment.  The viper temper had been heroically put into check until the male customer in question made a vital mistake…well, three vital mistakes, in fact.  After a few minutes of arguing, the man called my father a stupid Arab, spit on the deli’s glass front door, and spat the words “spit on America”.   To this display of irrationality, twenty eight year old Salem Ghanayem, father and husband, who had immigrated to this country when he was five, had only one choice.  He punched the angry, spitting customer squarely in the face…twice.  It was all very dramatic.  The police were called and small droplets of blood were spilled.  When my mother arrived with me in tow, and my cousin, who was an attorney, by her side, two policemen had my father outside the restaurant’s front door questioning him.  I remember thinking, “Is my daddy going to jail?”  In the car, my mother had told me what my father had done, but not why.  My mother was not one to sugar coat things, especially to her children.  She didn’t hide much from us, which, in terms of parenting, can only go one of two ways.  I like to think her instincts were correct, and that my brother, sister, and I are better people for it, even if it was vastly uncomfortable at times.  Luckily, my father was never charged and he was able to go about his day, due to a good Samaritan customer, who had witnessed the exchange and convinced the officers that he was an off-duty cop who saw the whole ordeal, and vouched for my temperamental father.  In actuality, the mystery customer was just angry at how my father was treated and so he came to his defense.  He was definitely not a member of law enforcement.

So, my father was in the clear, until later that night when my grandfather, my mother’s father, called and wanted to see him.  My grandfather had heard about the incident, and wasn’t happy.  See, word travels fast in ethnic communities, and in the Arab community of Jacksonville, Florida, word of mouth was like wildfire.  It took one spark, and the whole thing went up in smoke.  Cliché, but no less true.  Since, my grandfather’s nickname was “the godfather” as he was the oldest member of our community, the news of the day always got back to him.  Apparently, there were some Iranian friends in town, and the man my father had punched was the son-in-law of one of the elders.  So, my father was called before “the don” to explain himself.  And my father did.  He told my grandfather what the man had said and done to which my grandfather replied, with his mouth half open in astonishment, “He did what?”.  My father repeated himself twice before my grandfather in his thick middle eastern accent said, “I would have hit him again”.   My father was saved for the second time that day.

So, what was it that caused my father to lose his temper in the first place?  What was it that allowed my grandfather to promote my father’s obvious loss of control?  One word.  Patriotism.  To men, like my father and grandfather, who came to this country whether to build something better or were the product of that dream, any threat to it was inexcusable.  The irate male customer had spit on my father’s “soda pop” dream, literally.  He had reduced my father’s heritage to a despicable, slanderous word, and he had unforgivably insulted the country that gave him the opportunity to have a dream in the first place.  To them, it warranted a good ass-kicking.

Looking back, I can’t say I blame my father.  As we travel through life, especially in today’s chaotic and violent world, we lose sight of the real heart of a tradition.  We forget that not all immigrants are the enemy, and that not all natives are friends.  Don’t misunderstand.  In this instance, he was blameless.  However, in all of his confrontations with customers throughout the years, he wasn’t always so innocent.  No worries, though.  That was my father’s only knock out thus far.  The best lesson I learned as I went through life was “Don’t poke the Salem!”  I’m still not very good at heeding this advice.

 

The Little Arab Girl Gets A Bubbie

When I wasn’t pillaging the dessert case, I was inserting plastic forks into electrical sockets. Yes, this happened.  I knew not to go near it, but my mother wasn’t looking, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  So, I experimented with a plastic fork.  Just as I was about to go in, plastic prong poised above the opening of the outlet, my mother stopped me with a loud and resounding “Don’t do that!”  My investigation was over.  She was a buzz kill like that, always preventing me from hurting myself or burning the place down.  It was at this point that she began to let me socialize with the customers.  They usually got a big kick out of playing with the roaming toddler, and it was out of this social time that I eventually became the adopted granddaughter of Sidney and Myrtle Goldblatt.   Don’t misunderstand, I spent an inordinate amount of time with my mother’s parents, who, also, owned a restaurant, but when I could no longer stand the boredom or my parents needed a break, it was Sidney and Myrtle that rescued me as they only lived two minutes down the road from the deli.

Sid and Emma, I called them, were a Jewish couple that used to frequent the deli before my father bought it.  Emma was actually a sweet southern gal that had converted when she married Sid.  They had a daughter, whom they had adopted in infancy, but since she was in her teens, I didn’t see her much.  However, she had a devil dog named Abe.  He was a poodle from hell who was not used to children, and on more than one occasion he would trap me on Emma’s reclining chair.  So, it was to be that on most days, after they came in for their coffee, which they drank black with sweet n’ low and are the very reason that I, also, drink my coffee black, I was whisked off to their house, where I was allowed to play and eat to my heart’s content.  I drank coke with crushed ice, and ate matza crackers.  I, even, had my own shelf in the snack cabinet that was at my eye level.  In fact, it was during one such day of rummaging in the cabinet that I let out my first expletive.  I was hungry, as usual, and I was  looking for something delicious to eat when I found nothing to my liking.  To this, I slammed the cabinet door and yelled “Fuck It!”  Emma wasn’t happy, to say the least, and she had a very long talk that afternoon with my father about watching his language in front of his two-year old daughter.

I knew the dradle song by the time I was four years old, and during Hanukkah, Emma would give me chocolate gold coins.  One year, she gave me a guitar!  I loved that thing, but my mother wouldn’t let me play with it.  She thought I was still too young.  Most of my childhood is wrapped up in the Goldblatt’s.  However, I did not have Sidney for very long.  He passed when I was five rather suddenly of acute lymphatic leukemia.  He was gone in a matter of weeks.  From what I can remember, Emma took it pretty hard.  I started spending more time with her after that.  There are three things that I will never forget about Sid.  He held me in his reclining chair and would rock me to sleep for my naps.  He took me fishing on their dock.  Their house was on a lake.  And I had a rather nasty habit of picking my nose, so, whenever my finger found its way up a nostril, Sid would ask me if I was “digging for gold”.  There’s a portrait of him hanging in my parent’s home.

As I said, I spent more time with Emma after Sidney’s death.  She would take me up and down the south coast, all the way to Myrtle Beach.  We visited her sister’s cabin in Clayton, GA quite often, and we would sing on the way.  She took me to the Cabbage Patch hospital to visit, and she bought me my first pair of moccasins and cowboy boots.  The moccasins stuck…the cowboy boots, not so much.  She bought me my first pair of ice skates, and it was because of her volunteering and running the concessions at the, then, coliseum that I learned to skate.  Although, I used to get yelled at for walking on concrete without my blade guards, skating became my favorite thing to do.  I was heartbroken when the city stopped putting ice down.  She took me to visit the home she was born in.  Emma was one of seven brothers and sisters.  Her mother passed away when she was sixteen, and she sort of raised herself and some of her siblings.  Although, for her sixteenth birthday, her mother had bought her a small wrist watch and she kept it until she later passed it on to me.  She told me it was a tradition her mother had started with her brothers and sisters.  I’ll never forget what she said to me when she gave it to me.  She said that she wanted me to have it because she didn’t know of anyone that would take care of it.  Even at ten years old, I remember thinking it was odd because Emma had a daughter.  She wasn’t wrong, though.  The watch rests in my jewelry box still in the bag she handed it to me in.

I not only seemed to fill a small void in Emma’s life, but it seemed that she filled a void in my young life, as well.  I was turning six when my father’s mother had passed away.  I did not get much time with her as she and my grandfather had only moved to Jacksonville from San Francisco a few years before, and she spent much of that time sick.  At the time of her death, my grandmother was only sixty.  So, it was Emma that filled the void I felt in my grandmother’s passing.  In fact,  I was with Emma the day my parents got the call, and it was Emma who broke the news to me.  From then on, if my mother’s mother couldn’t attend, it was Emma who came to every Grandparent’s day at my school.  As time went on and I grew up, I saw Emma less.  I wasn’t going to the restaurant as much because I had started driving,  and school was taking up more of my time.  When I would see her, she would kind of guilt me for not seeing her enough or coming to stay with her.  Emma had always wanted me to live with her.  She hated being alone, and I wasn’t ready to leave my mother.  So, when it came to Emma, my feelings became muddled.  Teenage guilt and frustration kept me from seeing her as often as I should have.

Emma eventually stopped coming into the diner…yes, she was around for the deli to diner transformation.  She loved it!  We lost track of her, and no one knew where she was.  My parents couldn’t get in touch with her family.  Until one day, a niece visited the restaurant and informed us that Emma had been put into a nursing home, but we didn’t know which one.  The search for Emma lasted a couple of years, longer than it should have, before my parents got the call.  I was working in my father’s current business, Johnny Angels, when my mother pulled me to the side.  She said, “Nikki, we got a call about Emma…”  I’ll never know what she was going to say because I didn’t give her a chance to finish her words.  In that split second, I knew what she was going to tell me.  Emma was gone.  I would never get to say “goodbye” or tell her that I loved her.  I would never get to apologize for abandoning her because that’s what I felt like I had done.   The tears didn’t stop for a while, but I had tables to take care of so I had to get my emotions under control.  I had let Emma down. Sometimes, I still feel that way.  During one of the toughest times of my adolescent life, during the period Emma had gone missing, I would drive by her home and remember the safety and serenity I always felt in the two-story structure.  I have very few memories that do not include the woman who started out as a customer but ended up as family.

 

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Soda Pops and Sundaes

It’s not the décor of a place nor the service of the staff that gives stone and concrete a heartbeat.  It’s not the vacancy of the parking lot nor the food being served that allows a stand alone building to develop  a soul.  It’s the people…employees and customers alike that make up the value of a business.  Watching with one’s own eyes is the only proof that is needed  to attest to the strength, oddity, and humor of the human spirit.

Growing up in a family business allows for a rare insight into the lives of  those that pass through the doors whether they be employee or  customer.  So, in that regard, I embark on tales of soda pops and sundaes where it is not the food being evaluated but those that are ordering it.

Growing up, my father owned a fifties diner on the south side of the city.  When he and my mother bought the small space in a strip mall, it was actually a Jewish deli.  It stayed a deli for about ten years before my dad got the itch to renovate.  Some might think it odd for a Palestinian ex-cop from San Francisco to own a deli turned diner, unless you where one of the rare few that actually knew my father.  He was an odd amalgamation of stereotypes, but it made him who he was.  He looked like any brown ethnic guy should with the heart of a cowboy, the temperament of an Italian hit man, and the imagination of a stoner.  And it was this strange mixture that urged my father’s fascination with the golden era of America, where the American dream was alive and well, living in the hearts of all who chased it.  He was fascinated with history, cars, music, and food…So, turning his kosher deli into a fifties diner wasn’t that odd of a  decision.  If anything, it was the next step.  Having inherited my father’s love of all of the above, I was ecstatic when my parents made the announcement.  My brother, sister, and I even helped my parents lay the black and white tile on the floor, or at least we would like to think so. In truth, we were no more than 8, 6,and 10 years of age, so our level of help was limited.  We were probably in the way, but my mother and father pulled it off with the help of some employees.  In four days, Deerwood Deli & Diner was born, and with it, my father’s dream of cheeseburgers and milkshakes at the lunch counter had become a reality.