by Aaron Wolfe
At 21, when you’ve just dropped back into college, it’s the middle of winter, and everyone you know is gone, it’s easy to fade away.
I stayed in town because I had a job. The kind of job you can’t just walk away from. The kind of job that has responsibilities, that is important to stick with because you’re feeling kind of blue about the fact that it’s only been a semester and you already feel like blowing off every class and sitting by the side of a pond with a bag of sunflower seeds, a grapefruit, and ten grams of hash. Plus, if I didn’t stick around who was going to cook the lamb souvlaki?
I was a glorified short-order cook (hat and all) at the Grecian Corner, a third rate restaurant with two main distinctions: its location and its lamb souvlaki. The Grecian Corner was the very first restaurant and, by extension, the first public restroom when entering Northampton from the east. It was no coincidence, then, that it was the first and only restaurant I had popped my grungy head into during my two-minute job search upon arrival in town. As for the lamb souvlaki? It was pork. Pork is cheaper than lamb and according to the owner, Andy Dolmakia, more palatable to stupid Americans. It was precisely this type of intellectual rigor that defined my interview.
“What you want!” Andy was a particular kind of Neanderthal that didn’t ever speak in questions. Every word out of his mouth was declarative. The phrase “It is raining outside!” could either be a statement of fact or a question about the current state of the weather. Often the only way to tell was to wait and see how long he’d stare at you after speaking.
“Oh! No, I’m not hungry. I’m just, um, looking for work. I was just–well, I…” so far, so good A.W. Keep it up. You’re sure to impress him with your stammering and sweating.
“You want to work!”
“What you do!”
“I…well—see, I was hoping to be a waiter.”
“You cook! You can cook! You know how to cook!” Oh, I see, he’s asking me. Okay.
“Yes. I have cooked before.”
“In home or in restaurant!”
“Home, but,” and here it was: “I can learn.”
“Okay. Waitress for tits and ass. You start in kitchen tomorrow. 10 a.m. Don’t come late. I fuck you if you late.” I was fairly certain he didn’t mean he’d actually fuck me. It had to be some sort of funny malapropism and he had meant that he’d fuck me up, or I’d be fucked, or something like that. Either way, I made a mental note to set my alarm for 8 a.m. and to not find out. It’s worth mentioning that, months later, just before he sold the restaurant to a pair of Turkish twins who closed the doors forever, Andy recounted his version of the reason he hired me.
“Lefty,” he always called me by the name given to me by the 60 year old prep cook, Papi, which was much less offensive than his other nickname for me: Hebrew-Cuban-Sonofabitch. “You know why I hired you!” I had no idea. “I asked you can you cook! And you said, ‘fuck you Andy! I cannot cook!’ That’s why I hire you!” It is a wonder the restaurant lasted as long as it did.
Being a cook is unbelievably hard work. The first day I cut my finger twice, burned my elbow on oil, spilled no less than three dishes on the ground, and may or may not have caused Papi to pour scalding water down Andy’s pants. The second day I made Greek salads for six hours forgetting the feta cheese, and burned a pita so badly that we had to convince a table of four not to leave. The third day I was taught the lunch menu, made about a thousand sandwiches, somehow burned my cheek on a frialater, and served a lamb souvlaki platter to an Orthodox Jew before remembering like Charlton Heston in some much lamer version of “Soylent Green” that “THE LAMB IS PORK!”
That night I had my first anxiety dream of the job. Whenever I start a new job I have an anxiety dream about it. When I worked in a bookstore I dreamt I had to alphabetize the whole store while a precocious 8 year old kept removing and reordering the books. As an assistant to a manic-depressive jingle writer, I dreamt he was chasing me around his hot pink studio while yelling at me to tidy up. And when I worked at the dairy farm I dreamt I had to hand-milk a 30-foot tall cow. After the third day of work I had a strange mix of erotic fantasy and horrible anxiety: the tall Latina waitress was going down on me while Andy crumbled feta cheese and yelled orders. I wanted so badly to enjoy it but I kept getting distracted by the fact that we hadn’t defrosted enough for that many orders of Shrimp Santorini.
I awoke the fifth day stinking of cheese and onions. It had permeated every inch of my body. No amount of showering would ever sufficiently get the smell out.
On the sixth day of work, Andy fired the only other cook in the restaurant, tossed me the keys, showed me where the money was and said the fateful words that would define my employment for the next six months: “I’m going to the club. If my wife calls, I went to the club.” The club, I found out, was the Hellenic Men’s Club of Springfield, Massachusetts. They apparently ran bingo games, cultural activities, and movie nights. Andy never went to the club. He went to his girlfriend’s house, or when he was in trouble with her to the other girlfriend’s house. And if he was in the doghouse with both of them, he went to the Indian casino to “Find fuck and make some money. Lefty, stop being such a pussy!”
Suddenly I was working 16-hour days, opening and closing the restaurant, paying out the waitresses, burning myself constantly, slicing my fingers raw, and learning how to turn off the part of my moral/ethical makeup that was revolted by this philanderer. The excuses became more complicated, the schemes more elaborate. Soon I was calling his wife with some made-up restaurant crisis so that Andy could sleep over at the librarian’s cousin’s house. Once, while cooking lamb chops for table 3, Andy told me that the IRS was investigating us. “No big deal, Lefty, just make sure anyone asks you’re my nephew, you don’t have ID but name is Aaron Dolmakia!” The Grecian Corner was a cult, Andy was God, and I had just surrendered the last bit of my identity to him.
When it would snow, which it often did, Andy would call me up at 8 a.m. to tell me not to bring the waitresses in. The snow would keep people at home and there was really no reason to have three of us to deal with the one customer that might stumble in. Those days stretched on for eternities. I’d sit in the window watching the snow pile up in Northampton, wondering if I still existed. I felt certain that only a lone custodian sitting in a fire tower in the Southwest for months on end knew the kind of loneliness and despair that I did.
At 21, it turns out, it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself.
Maybe that’s why I never ratted him out, told him to go fuck himself, and walked out with an armful of frozen pita. I needed the money, I needed the distraction, and I needed the structure. I also liked taking a break and sitting in the alley smoking a cigarette, dreaming about something better.
Eventually, Andy was caught cheating on his wife. She screamed at me on the phone that she was at the club, that Andy was nowhere to be seen and I better not be at the restaurant when she got there because I’ve been covering for that scumbag for too long. When I arrived at work the next morning, he was asleep on the counter. I made him coffee, he made me drink it with Ouzo (a disgusting blend) and we sat in silence: two miserable men.
“Lefty,” he growled, a look on his face like a man ready to bestow the wisdom from a lifetime of mistakes on his young apprentice, “you know when it’s time to die?” It was the first time I ever heard him ask a real question.
“When you’re bleeding from your dick.” With that, he stood up and walked out.
We closed a few days later.
Aaron Wolfe lives in Brooklyn where he works as a film & TV editor, musician, writer, and general trivia whiz. He is a second generation Holocaust survivor, a third generation socialist sympathizer, a four-time college drop out, and a little embarrassed about it all.
He records covers and tells stories every night, and makes jokes and observations on Twitter. His band, Wolfe and the Wayside’s lives online. And you can tell him what you think about it all at email@example.com