I hadn't had any intension of taking that diner job. I'd just given up on a failed hairdressing career. Actually I was a shampoo girl. My fate had been sealed several years prior when I'd gotten caught ditching my high school Spanish class. That was my solution to some nasty bullying. All I knew was that I couldn't go back to that class and when one hapless guidance counselor got the unpleasant duty of reprimanding me, he'd tried to scare me with some line about needing Spanish coursework for when I applied for a university. Silly fool. College? Me? I'm one of six children and a girl. Didn't he know anything?
"Well, what are you going to do with your life?" he'd asked me.
"Be a mother and a wife, of course." I thought, "what else?" But he seemed to want an answer. I knew I liked to write and to read books. But you can't make a living out of that, can you? Hmmm, well, I also knew a girl who was in a program to become a hair stylist. I liked blow drying my hair. I was pretty good at styling it. I really couldn't think of any other profession at that moment and I figured he needed an answer. It was his job after all. Guidance counselor. So, I gave him something mostly so I could get out of his office.
"I want to be a hairdresser," I said.
Oh that sweet man! From then on, he worked with a vengeance to get me into the 2-year cosmetology program and my hairdressing career was off and running. The first thing I learned was that I didn't really like to touch other people's hair. But the commitment was made. So, I'd give it all I had, which turned out to be very little. I never made it past shampoo girl and I was tired of living in my parents' house. Remember the six kids?
So there I was writing my name and number on a ripped paper that the owner of the diner had given me.
"Monday morning? Six 'o clock a.m.? I don't think so," I thought.
I was sure I'd find something with better hours. So I gave that Greek guy a sweet smile and said, "Sure, I'll see you Monday morning. Thanks for the job!" And when Monday morning rolled around, I hadn't gotten any better offers.
There were so many things that I learned from that job. Most of which I cannot repeat here. But what struck me immediately as I entered the kitchen that early Monday morning, were the names by which cooks were known. One veteran waitress introduced them to me. They were Big Gus, Little Gus, Crazy Gus and Orangoutang. Really. Those were their names. At first I thought they were teasing me but those names remained for as long as I worked there.
Those roller coaster restaurant years, provided me with much material for Your Own Kind, a 1970s coming of age tale. And the characters are those that hold a special place in my heart.
May I have the pleasure of introducing you?
Here is an excerpt from Your Own Kind in which Sarah is introduced to the kitchen and the cooks:
. . . To the right of them stood a long row of deep sinks filled with encrusted pots and pans. Sarah focused on a young man bending over the sink, seemingly deep in concentration. His body swayed with the movement of the steel wool in his hand, his forearm moving up and down where beads of sweat became long drips sliding slowly down his golden skin and disappearing into the sink. But Jeannette did not mention his name and instead guided Sarah to the right of him where a pair of dark eyes from behind the steam table watched her with amusement.
"This is Big Gus," she said.
The man nodded, an indifferent greeting, but his smirk told her he had seen where her eyes had been. Naughty girl. And Alexandros, the young man washing the pots and pans also felt her gaze, but lacking the words in English to protect himself, he stayed within the sink, glancing sideways only when he was sure she would not see.
"Over here is Little Gus," Jeannette continued and a man much larger than Big Gus nodded toward the women.
"Well, he was a skinny little guy when he started here. Came over from Greece when he was just a kid."
Jeannette continued. She pointed to another young man, this one in a grease-laden apron, squinting intently at Sarah from the other side of the steam table.
"Believe it or not, his name is Gus too, but he has an eagle tattoo, so. . . "
Eagle rolled up his sleeve and flexed the bird, which sat atop a brightly colored American flag.
"Eh? You like?" He smiled at Sarah.
"Yeah. Yeah. Stay away from her Romeo."
Jeannette picked up one of the pickles that were laid out for the lunch patrons and threw it at Eagle."
"Ah, you like the pickles." He laughed and shook his head wildly, "God bless America!"
"Just ignore him," Jeannette advised. "Okay, here comes Lou. He's the chef."
A large round man in kitchen whites approached them.
"Chef, this is Sarah. Sarah, Chef."
They talked for a few seconds and then Chef turned to the cooks behind the steam table. He barked at them in a language Sarah had never heard before, his voice punching the air with authority, just long enough to show Sarah the degree of his importance in the kitchen. But the cooks just looked at each other and continued with what they were doing.
Both Sarah and Jeannette turned at the sound of someone loudly clearing his throat behind them. There stood an older man, no more than four feet high, within the metal jungle of a large dish washing machine, his smile stretched from ear to ear, his white apron coming to his ankles.
"Oh," said Jeannette, "this is Zeus."
Sarah looked down at the small man and envisioned a few moments in time, some forty years before, two parents cooing over an infant, naming their newborn son with such expectation. . .
Your Own Kind, The Nifi, and Among the Zinnias are available in paperback and ebook. And they are free if you have Kindle Unlimited. I hope you will give one of them a try!
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