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.

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.