Sunday, November 30, 2014

Restaurant Beat

I carried $200 with me when I arrived in the US, a teenager with money to burn in her pocket.   Mom helped me setup a bank account and put the $200 inside then told me to get a job or watch it disappear in a week.  She provided room and board so I just had to earn enough to cover school and other discretionary expenses.

One ad in the PennySaver prompted me to drive out to National City, a remote town edging the boarder of San Diego and as it turned out, Mexico.   The diner sat on the corner of 74th street and Del Dios, a stilted shaggy structure featuring dark brown shingles and a light brown roof.  I climbed a set of metal stairs to face a painted blue wall and step inside a red door.  It was full of large men in blue overalls, side way baseball caps, heavy 5 o'clcok shadows, and tobacco stained teeth.  Later on I learned this was what they called 'a trucker's stop'.  They paused their eating and drinking to stare at me, a deer lost amongst a herd of rhinos.  Many stared at my non-existent chest area and lost interest when they failed to find what they were searching for, a few seconds later and returned to their plates of food.  The smell of fried onion, chicken fat and lard caked my face and clung to my hair like a gel that won't quit, so I took out a Kleenex and that provoked the men to mimic me and wipe their foreheads with whatever they had on hand: napkins, sleeves, food wrappers or their own hands.  One man licked his finger and traced the letter "W" on his forehead.  He had pale brown curly hair that stuck on the edge of his face, which was so chubby they drooped towards his shoulders. His width spilled over the narrow bench and his extra large blue plaid flannel shirt failed to covered his belly, neither did his jeans which fell low from where he sat.  He ran his tongue around his greasy lips and winked at me, twice.
Not an actual photo of the restaurant in this story

I turned to walk out the door, but it was jammed.  Besides, it had taken me an hour and a half to drive here, my stomach sinking lower and my hands gripping tighter around the steering wheels as I drove closer to the border.  Mom had warned me that if I missed the exit, I could make the mistake of driving straight into Mexico.  Given my visa was temporary, they would not allow me back without some serious paper work and weeks of delay.   I got lost twice, making wrong turns and searching through the maze like one way streets.   My shoes felt heavy, my eyes scanning and searching for something that could keep me here. 

A woman in a low cut red T-shirt shouted at me from the other side of the food counter: "You ordering?"  her voice cracked a little between the hisses of the grill; her thick blond braids fell below her shoulder blades.  I could swear she almost smiled at me.

"Do you have an opening?  I saw this..."  I showed her the section of the paper where I had cut out the name of her restaurant. 

"Yes.  When can you start?"  She asked.

"Oh. Um, what do you mean?  What do I have to do?"  My heart began to race, did she mean I could have the job?

I had visited five other restaurants by then.  They had clear windows,  white table cloth and polished floors that reminded me of ice-skating rinks.  The managers wore ties and asked me politely whether I had any experience.  When I shook my head, they all said without expression that they would take my number and maybe give me a call later.  The way they avoided my eyes and froze their lips like ventriloquists gave me the feeling they weren't going to call.   So my search continued.

"You serve food. Look around, this is all we have.  Bring food from the counter to the table.  Keep things clean.  Show up at six and you leave at ten.  Pay's $4.50/hr, got it?"

My head began to nod though I couldn't quite process what I had heard.  I desperately needed to get it.  It didn't sound so bad, almost as easy as cooking and serving food at home.  Home.  How I wished there were some resemblance to home there.  Mom's apartment was two weeks new but it smelled like her, something I instantly remembered though it was years ago when I lived with her last.   Since then I had quietly grown up from a clingy eleven year old into a full blown rebelling teenager in Beijing.   Yes Beijing.  My home in Beijing smelled like a mixed salad of many different flavors, the loud mouthed neighbor lady who carried me to the hospital when I fainted in the middle of the yard; the playmates who grew up with me climbing trees and taught me all about boys, my great aunt who cooked while she chattered and told me her life stories over and over again, my brother who taught me about chess, doing well in school and about rebellion, and my 'gang of four' besties from school who came over and cooked me a lavish meal for my sixteenth birthday.   

I scanned the diner again, telling myself the money was amazing and I could handle it - the drive, the food, the smell and the customers.  But everywhere I turned I tasted fear, despair and danger.  Black bars over windows, and grease or some other gray substance covered the glass surfaces.  Formica table and chairs were all bolted to the floor.  If I turned around from the counter and took two steps I'd reach the end of the diner.  Car horns blared outside and once or twice, a train came through on a nearby track, the entire place shook like a feverish patient receiving an ice bath.  The man in blue plaid shirt held down his plate with one hand, and reached out towards me with the other, displaying his meaty fingers and where he was going with it.  I opened my mouth to scream but something lodged in my throat and only a few croaks escaped.  I inched towards the door and was about to run headlong into the blackened screen mash when it popped open wide.

My 4 feet tall mother stood on the other side, one of her shoulders slightly more hunched than the other.  She reached her hand out to me and grabbed my arm.   Turned out she had been trailing me while I cursed her, my father and my whole damned existence on my way up here.   Feeling fingers pressing down on the back pockets of my jeans, I jumped and ran towards mom's hand.   Together we dashed down the medal stairs and across the cramped parking lot into our cars.   I coughed a heavy breath of chicken grease, cigarette smoke and blue plaid sweat once I got in, tearing up a little but laughing once I saw mom beaming next to me.

One week later I met Luke and Kacy at school, who introduced me to their old boss, the owner of the Panda Garden restaurant located in a respectable shopping mall.  I started as the hostess there at $2.15 an hour the week after that.


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