tisdag, mars 07, 2006

My 8th Avenue Kings- part 5

Skinny George has gone all melancholy and actually become skinny. He is the current night manager at the Penn Bar. He got is name to allow people to tell him and his boss apart. George Melis is XXL but no-one ever calls him Fat George. He does get called Sulky George once in a while because of his temper. But the less obese George is called Skinny George and everyone in the neighborhood knows who you mean. He used to be a furrier and would come here as a guest, but now he’s quit the business. “There’s no money in the trade anymore. And besides, I’m old and tired.”, he says with melancholy eyes. Skinny George was one of the Greeks who came here on special permit in 1962 because he was a skilled fur finisher. Now he works the night shift at the Penn Bar. “Working at the Penn is good for him”, says Sulky George. “He used to be here all night before anyway and spent all of his money. Now he gets a salary and free drinks. And he doesn’t have to get up in the morning and stitch furs. I take care of the drunks in this neighborhood. I assume responsibility, ha ha.” My old workplace The Penn Bar has replaced the Swedish and Finnish barmaids and has a Spanish look these days. When I was working there we even celebrated the Swedish Lucia on December 13th. Everyone dressed up in white robes and white paper cone hats, marching up and down 8th Avenue singing Christmas carols. I remember being stopped by one of the black inhabitants of the flop house next door, the Vigilante Hotel. He thought the KKK had come to town. Then there were poetry nights with all the regulars sipping their Dewars and waters and listened politely to long readings of poetry in Swedish. But the Swedes didn’t stay. The Hispanic cocktail waitresses are young and pretty and they don’t want to talk to me. On the other hand, the bar is full of men who do. Skinny George buys me a drink and I tip the bartender but it doesn’t buy a smile from the girl. Instead she gets up and starts dancing to the juke box. Grupo Niche: “Una aventura”. Skinny George suddenly decides she’s going too far, making too sexy moves, so he leaves the bar and grabs the girl’s shoulder. “Get back behind the bar! Don’t make a disgrace of yourself!” “Are you like a father to the girls?”, I ask him when he returns. “Well, not really, but these Hispanics are just too wild. They can do what they want in their free time, but they have to behave in here. Look at them, they just can’t stand still.” Further down the bar is a green-eyed girl with blondish hair. She’s kissing a tall well-groomed man in a suit, a Greek businessman. Skinny George notices them and whistles. The girl is another employee. She can’t do that! He hurries over and whispers in her ear. She pouts but obeys. Garbage Mike, who came along with me here and is starting to feel his drinks, turns to me in confidence. “Those Hispanics aren’t like you and me. They love to dance, eat, make love – and that’s all. No conversation, like you and me. We’re on another level. We got class!” Mike’s tired now and sways a little. We say goodbye and he goes to get his car. Before leaving, he says, “You know what everything in this world is really about?” “Love, maybe?” “No, kiddo, money. Everything's just about money. Remember that.” The waiters at the Estoril sit at the back of the place eating Veal Parmigiana, breaded veal chops with cheese and tomato sauce. They share the day’s tips, only five bucks each because of the weather. Bangladeshi waiters are hard to get these days. They’re discreet, polite and speak good English. America has a new generation of servants. I ask the waiter Sol why they all have Spanish names even though they’re from Bangladesh. “George gave us our names.” “George named you?” “Yep.” “So what’s your real name?” Sol takes out his wallet and shows me his American Express. It says Abdul Sattar Chowdury. “What about the others?” “Marko’s name is Anwar Islam and Lou’s is Mohammed Alal Hossain.” “Hmm…” Lou’s been in the US for two months, and I ask him why he came. “I taught math and made fifty dollars a week. Then I won the Green Card lottery and came here.” “Are you staying?” “I don’t think so. I make a lot of money, but no, I don’t think so.” “Why not?” “I don’t know, wouldn’t want to raise a family here.” “How much are you making now?” “Fifteen dollars a shift – twelve hours – and tips.” “What’s the tips like?” “Depends, from five to twenty dollars at lunch, twenty or thirty in the evenings.” “How many days a week do you work?” “Five or six. And from three to half past five it’s quiet, we just sit here. And we get good food.” “What’s it like to be a Moslem in the US?” “Oh, there’s endless prejudice about us. TV and the papers make Moslems out to be all terrorists. But what can you do? We’re here to work. That’s it.” Nick the old waiter who started three days ago happens to walk by. “Don’t talk to the riffraff, miss Jenny. You’re much better than them.” And he turns to Sol. “Don’t you see, this is a classy lady! A lady of breeding and poetry. Much too good for you!” Sol shakes his head at me tiredly. “The old man is crazy.” After Nick’s left he says, “He’s too old to be a waiter. He forgets things, and he’s slow.” “How old is he?” “He says he’s eighty-eight.” The atmosphere in the Estoril actually hasn’t been good since Nick started. George watches him constantly and Nick himself has a bossy attitude, not at all as servile and discreet as the Bangladeshi. Neither the boss nor the other waiters like him. It’s only a matter of days before he’ll get fired, says George, who’s waiting for an opportunity to vent his anger at the newcomer. If I want to talk to him I have to do it now. “Have you been a waiter for long?” “Off and on for all of my life, Miss Jenny. Despite my great age I have also participated in courses in political science at Columbia University. But studying costs, so I have to support myself in this demeaning manner.” “The other waiters tell me you’re eighty-eight years old.” “That is correct. Believe it or not!” Nick shows me his driver’s license. He was born in 1910. “So do you think you've got a good job?” “Waiting tables? No, I can't say I do! This is a job for the lower echelons. No one discusses anything here. In restaurants, no one discusses politics or philosophy – just food and money. And how much did we make today? Five dollars! It's awful! The customers are decent enough, I suppose, but the owners are terrible. Tycoons!” Nick makes a face. George snarls from the bar and Nick rushes off, with his back bent. Cowed, but wearing a grim and false smile. He's a proud man who only feigns subordination. And unfortunately he is not a good actor. Nick reminds me of Smerdjakhov, the Karamazovs' wily valet. Nick returns from the bar and sits down with a bottle of water. “But what can you do? Beg for small change on the Upper West Side! I've got to work.” He points at the glass of water. “This is my lunch. All I ever drink. I'll be on Letterman on September 11th to talk about my diet.” “You only drink water?” “Yes, and I eat yogurt and honey that I mix to the right consistency every evening. It's got to be Greek honey – not because I'm Greek but because I've discovered that it's the best kind. Three years ago I used to weigh 350 pounds. I've kept this diet for three years now. It's my invention and my pride. Not being dependent on food. People are like animals if they don't get food. But not me. I have liberated myself from taking pleasure in consuming human nourishment.” “But why are you doing it? To live longer?” “No, this isn't about living longer. I may have a year or two left on Earth. It's more about personal pride in handling a diet that few could master. It's about discipline!” “Don't you miss food?” “Yes, Miss Jenny, I'm only human. Sometimes I miss a cigar or a glass of brandy.” George is the big businessman in the neighborhood. He has a house in Nyack and two well educated children and money in the bank. He started at the bottom and worked himself upward. In an article about New York's immigrants I read that the Greeks who came to America in the 20th century weren't interested in upturning the establishment: they wanted to conform and become part of it. I ask George if this is true for him and he nods with satisfaction. He's happy with the capital he's amassed. “How much are you worth?” “Well, a couple of millions.” “Do you think you will sell the Estoril one day?” “I'm thinking about it. Maybe retire in a while.” “But when they build the Yankee Stadium here in Chelsea, the area will become more attractive. You could make even more money then.” “Nah, that'll take ten years. By then I'll be too old.” “What would you do after retiring?” “Don't know. Either stay here and keep an eye on the businesses, or go to Greece.” “Why not retire now – you've got money enough?” “No, I'd like to make a bit more!” “But what keeps you going? The kids are grown up, you could live well, I mean, soon you'll be dead.” “Yeah, but I'm thinking of building myself a monument with my name on it.” “What kind of monument?” “I don’t know, some kind of temple maybe where people could worship me, ha ha.” “How about doing good instead? You could build a school in Greece or that sort of thing? Go all soft and philanthropic in your old age? Like George Soros?” “George Soros is an asshole! He made his money at currency speculation! That's unethical! Nah, look at Bill Gates, he got rich by making inventions and building an empire, he's good.” “OK, but I was asking what you're gonna do with your money.” “I don’t know.” George clasps his hands behind his head. The conversation amuses him. I have his ear, which is a rare favor and of course a requisite for being here at all. I can tell that everyone in the restaurant is sort of afraid of him. Even his own kids. When George erupts, no one breathes, and everyone constantly adapts to his mood. He beckons at Sol, who arrives lightning-like and takes his order. Soft-shell crabs, fried potatoes, salad with blue cheese dressing, bread and butter. Sol jogs downstairs to the kitchen clutching the slip and returns with salad and bread. George starts eating, a napkin around his neck. Eating makes him tired, afterwards he'll take a nap in his chair by the door. His voice is muted. “So how come you came to America?” “I came here from Germany in 1967 with two empty hands after working on a ship for a few years. A lot of Greeks wanted to come here. We wanted to make money and get a good life.” “What were your plans?” “Get a job, get rich, raise a family. I started out as a waiter. In 1974 I bought this place with borrowed money. It took me years to get out of debt, before I knew it almost thirty years had gone by. So suddenly I'm sixty!” “Ever wonder what your life would have been like back in Greece?” “Oh yeah, I have friends and family there, brothers and sisters, most of them have retired now. They sit under the olive trees, drinking retsina. Pretty good life, peaceful.” “Wouldn't you like that as well? Taking it easy, instead of working 'til you drop?” “Yeah, if I sell, I'll might go to Greece with Garbage Mike and stay for a while. I'll leave my wife here, ha ha.” “But what really keeps you going?” “Money, of course. Wanting my kids to have better lives than I had. And as I said, it took almost thirty years to get out of debt. Time just passed. I've always just been working.” By Jenny Morelli translated by Martin Rundkvist, first published in ETC 1998 (Sweden)

Copyright © Jenny Morelli 2007. Alla rättigheter förbehållna.