See Your Food (Watch Your Neighbor) | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

See Your Food (Watch Your Neighbor) 

Scenes from a Corner Cafeteria

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

I started eating at the Valois Cafeteria in the late 70s, when I first came to Chicago from France. I hadn't been around Americans like the bunch in Valois. We would walk in off 53rd Street, under the "See Your Food" sign, and Larry behind the steam table would remember how we liked our eggs. Peaches knew exactly how much cream we took in our coffee, and Alex would always charge a different sales tax for an identical breakfast. We could count on a nod of recognition even from the old guys who could take a sudden and inexplicable dislike to us.

Slowly I realized that this place was one of the last cafeterias in Chicago. It was one of the last establishments where for 32 cents you could get a cup of coffee and share a table for nearly as long as you wished, one of the last eating places in town that served the function of the boarding house: food and family and shelter.

Spiros, one of the Greeks who ran the place, was drinking one of his "half-cup black coffee"s one evening when he gave a little jump: "You know, I think this place is 50 years old this year." 1932, the Depression. In those days the owner didn't even have a menu. He would go down to the wholesale market, Spiros said, and buy up whatever was bruised or cheap or just left over. He cooked up a big soup, turned out slabs and slabs of corn bread then biscuits, and fed his customers. It was hot, cheap, and filling. That first owner would let some people run weekly tabs. Spiros saw the log once and has been trying to find it again ever since. The totals in it fascinated him, haunted him. "It was little writing with every day marked down under the names: Monday, corn bread, soup. Tuesday same thing. At the end of the week, maybe 30, 40 cents to pay. And the customers were broke, you know, but somehow they always came up with something to pay, because they realized then that Valois would keep them fed."

In 1982, I was down and out and needed feeding myself. Spiros gave me a job at "See Your Food." Throughout the long, hot summer I wrote down what I saw and heard. Here are a few selections.

Sitting around a table with Costas, Cristos, and my boyfriend, Bobby. (I've changed the names of a few characters.) Finishing the bottle of champagne from our good-bye toast to Cristos. Talking about here and there. Raul and Adrien have finished mopping the dining room and kitchen. They've gotten cleaned up and are having a glass of champagne (talk of cerveza and tequila in lots of Spanish). They leave. The four of us are alone. A guy none of us knows comes in patting his pockets and heading for the phones. "Closed, man." "I just want to use the phone." He makes his call and we're alone again.

We are talking about farms, farms in Greece. Costas's father had a large place and raised lambs. (Spiros's father has a farm near the same village. All these farm boys are in the city now, still making and selling food.) Costas remembers the comfort of farm life: "Eggs, bread, meat, milk, you don't have to buy them. You understand what I mean?"

The coffee maker kicks on with a bump. I don't move, but turn my head slowly toward the kitchen. Costas doesn't move either, just his hand a little. "Is nothing."

Talking about quails in Greece and wild pheasant in Chicago and the Israeli duck that tastes like goose. Costas isn't concentrating. "Cris, you lock the back door?"

Later Costas turns off all the lights except for a little lamp behind the steam table. What were we talking about then, all of us so tired? Costas is checking the thermostat, turning off the air-conditioning. Turning off the water in the steam table.

It's nearly 11:30, a cool/hot evening with a full moon. People stand on the sidewalk in groups of two and three. The liquor store is still open. The grocery store closed about half an hour ago. I remember Duke once described a guy "leaning way over to one side, as if he's carrying something heavy on his hip." I'm looking at posture. I'm looking at hair and clothes. I'm looking at the full moon and at the mine field I'll walk through to get home. It's a balmy night and Bobby and I walk home along the park, past Rudy's apartment building and he tells me how Al said Rudy died.

It's a tenderhearted week for us. Sunday Rudy died. (Al told Bobby that Rudy had eaten breakfast at Valois that morning, then gone up to the roof garden of his building to look at the lake. Rudy was a sleekly handsome old man with elegant habits. He sat down to look at the lake and passed out and was gone.)

Now Cristos is going back to Greece, on Saturday, spending his last days here worrying that the air traffic controllers will go on strike so that he won't be able to fly out, or that he'll get a summer cold and his trip will be miserable, missing us already, worrying about his mother and sister being on their own on the south side of Chicago, apprehending the narrow life of the village that he is returning to, feeling frustrated that he cannot give a clearer and more exciting explanation of the quail business he wants to start.

A gentle Cristos, big and handsome and fighting the sweetness that is rising in him. "You know too much about this place not to come back," I tell him.

He's returning to a family farm that has been deserted for some time. What exactly must he do to revive it? I imagine a house of fieldstone, whitewashed, with small whitewashed rooms gone gray from smoke and generations of hard workers too tired to concern themselves with the place where they rested. The heat would come from a fireplace--would there be a bread oven in the wall nearby?

What will Cristos do in the evenings? In Chicago he works nearly every night until ten, in a stream-of-consciousness of appetite and money, then he prowls the city until dawn, drinking, courting, eating a 2 AM snack of fried shrimp at a takeout stand so crowded you have to take a number at the door. What will he do in the evenings in his farmhouse in a village of 1,000 souls? Devise baroque schemes to make love to the beautiful widow?

This means it's finally summer!" Spiros was partly laughing, partly caved in against the stainless-steel refrigerators. A drunk had just asked him when he got off work, so he could be waiting for him in the alley to beat him up. Duke starts to tell me the guy is a typical hot summer night customer: old enough to know better, strappy T-shirt showing his muscles, visor hat, red cowboy bandanna. As he is talking, a man fitting his description comes through the cafeteria doors headed straight for us. He is barely coherent, definitely drunk, with a mean edge that he intends to develop while he spends a little time with us. "Gimme a hamburger and fries."

"Now sir, I can give you a hamburger with everything--lettuce, tomato, and onion, that's "everything' here. We ain't got no french fries. Or I can give you potatoes boiled or mashed with sauce or gravy. But no fries." The guy looks at Duke, leans against the low wrought iron railing. He looks something between stunned and nasty. "No fries?" Think that one through. "Well then, you better throw a piece of cheese on that thing."

"Yes sir. Step to the register, your hamburger will be ready in about five minutes." He comes to the register, where I am filling in. "A cheeseburger with everything: that will be $1.48, sir." (We use sir a lot with possible killers.)

"Hey lady, you're stealing my money!" He wants to climb over the register and pound me. I get the money from him dime by dime and agree with him that he might be more comfortable waiting for the cheeseburger in the fresh air. Meanwhile Duke is saying "Andale, andale!" to Raul, who is cooking it. "Step on it, Raulito!" It's done, wrapped, Duke calls the guy back, we're massing our troops. He has the bag, turns toward the door, we start whistling and polishing stainless steel, with a common thought, "Just get him on the street again, where he will be somebody else's trouble." When he stops by Duke, he starts unwrapping the burger. "That woman took all my money, I want to make sure I got what I paid for." And he's doing a burger inventory: bun, ketchup, mustard, meat, onions, lettuce, tomato, it's sliding all over the counter. I am watching out of the corner of my eye and through unclear peripheral vision seem to see Duke guiding the whole unruly sandwich back into its wrapper with his big carving knife. Our main meat man, Duke. Now Spiros, who has been trying to have a little time on the beach, chitchat with the customers, relax a little, has felt the building pressure, and finally comes on patrol. "Hey, what's going on here!" Chicago's rhetorical question. A few implied threats and the guy is truly gone.

A little later Spiros, Duke, and I are standing together, saying nothing and all thinking of the same thing, I know because our arms are crossed and our shoulders are kind of leaning toward each other, toward a central truth that comes from Spiros: "You know, I never really worry when a guy threatens me and you know why?" Duke barely moves, just his famous eyebrows, "Sure. The guy who really wants to hurt you won't let you know ahead of time. He likes to surprise you."

"Yeah, the guy who's gonna talk about it is just noise. I'm afraid of the guy who gets mad at me and don't say nothing."

Wednesday night shift. Bridget had a toothache last night. The left side of her pretty face was swollen and she spent the evening holding her cheek to call attention to herself and get real sympathy instead of strange looks.

Bridget is in the first week of letdown after a year of being the cute, bright high school senior with the promising future. After a week of Senior Tea, Senior Costume Day, Senior Prophecy Day, Yearbook Party, Senior Prom, Graduation at McCormick Place, Bridget is now another high school grad on the streets. Not yet in college, not really unemployed, not really on vacation, she's working part-time in a job that may have become, in 24 hours, a terrible presentiment of failure or the source of information that will motivate this girl to get her ass in gear.

Bridge completed four years of high school work in three, while holding down this grueling three- or four-day-a-week job at the cafeteria. Low-cut T-shirts, high-cut blue jeans, insolent, prototypical jailbait with the shadow of a churchgoing grandmother behind her and a sharp tongue of her own that somehow cuts horny 45-year-old Valois diners down, but not so much that they don't come back howling for more, just begging to be put in their place while Bridget plucks biscuits for them and slathers french dressing over their salads. She's got that two-fisted look, one hand waving them forward, the other behind her back with a little pearl-handled pistol. She's going to make it through college all right, then graduate to a three-piece suit with a slit skirt in business administration, maybe an MBA from Howard. And then this little girl will ace them all by the way she handles herself, and that came strictly from the south side. Right, Miss Bridge?

We're all telling stories tonight. All the old guys are in strange combinations, not dining with their usual partners. Doc is sharing a table and stories with Smitty and Bernie and Crazy Louie.

Smitty, who is usually neckless and slumped over coffee and complaints; Bernie, sleek and hatchet-faced, ordinarily cursing everyone who ever wronged him and made him end up taking his meals with "scum." Smitty and Bernie sitting erect, smiling quietly, eyes urbane and dancing eyebrows expressive. I watch them changing character, imagining them dressed in dinner jackets, drinking cognac, smoking black cigarettes with Doc, who is telling them this story:

"I shot a cop. Actually it was two cops. I was in a house and they were trying to come in to get me. I had a gun with seven bullets. I told them to go away but they kept coming in. I shot the first one, the second one came in I shot him too. I told the others I had five bullets left and I would use them, they went away, back to the station, I think, and came back with their captain. He talked me into going with them. Lucky for me, I knew a judge, he got me in court right away and got me out of it. I must've dreamed for three and a half hours last night!"

Big laugh. "A dream like that and you don't get no sleep." "How do you dream? I don't do no dreams." "Sounds like a western to me."

Later Duke was carving roast beef, playing the roast like a violin with his long carving knife. He was dreaming about old Paul, carver and meat server at Valois for 40 years and Duke's immediate predecessor. "Yes sir. Paul was a fine old gentleman. He was still working full shifts here when he was 79. His daughter and son-in-law came in about three years after that and told me he died. He came from Russia and lived in this country 60 years and he never could talk good English. One time was carving prime rib for an old woman and he says, 'Lady, you like it wit de bone in or de bone out?' She was boilin' mad, 'You old fool, what kind of question you asking me?'

"When it was slow he'd keep them forever with questions: 'You like de gravy all over or gravy on potatoes only? You like de meat sliced thick or you like it sliced thin, my friend?' You'll notice I say 'My friend.' I got that from Paul.

"When that line was backed up all the way to the door he could really move it. There was never anyone as good as Paul."

I used to get my shirts done for me, washed and ironed at the laundromat. Now, a few months ago they charged me 50 cents a shirt, just like this one." Duke smoothed his perfect collar and patted the sleeves of his short-sleeved white drip-dry shirt. "I've got 30 shirts I get from the catalogs, they never wear out, perfect fit, and there's always something new. Same thing with my slacks and shoes. Look at these shoes, not a scratch on them and I've been wearing them for over a year. Some guy sold me seven pairs of men's socks, I took them home and asked Trinki if she wanted them and then when I asked the guy how much I owed him he wanted $2.50 a pair and Trinki wore clear through them in a couple of weeks. And then the guy who sold them to me comes around talking at me because I won't give him a cigarette. Look at these shoes after a year!"

The laundry upped its price to 75 cents a shirt. "And I've got 30 of 'em. There's no way I can keep that up. So I have to start doin' my own." But Duke lent his iron to one of his ex-wives a long time ago and it disappeared with her. "A nice steam one. I think she got away with the ironing board too."

It took Duke about a month of research and conferences to get a new iron and ironing board. He had a staff at the end and even called me in as the ironing consultant: steam or no steam? "Just get what's cheaper, Duke, and buy a new shirt with the difference." He had one of the people from his residential hotel out checking the neighborhood hardware stores for him. Casimir, ageless, small-bellied, ball cap, big suspenders, and a giggle straight out of an ancient sacred tree trunk, Casimir turned professional for this job, submitting written reports on the state of the art in irons on the south side of Chicago. After hoofing around in the dust of a torn-up 53rd Street in 90-degree heat, he would come to the cafeteria to deliver his report in the food line and receive the courtesy of a piece of apple pie a la mode and a Boston coffee. Perks for the pensioner. This was living.

Duke got the iron and two weeks later the board, ironed a few shirts, which we all admired, and then started to wonder why he should be working six days a week behind the steam table, on his feet, and then go home and have to iron his shirts, when there were all kinds of women in his life, eating his food and yelling at him, who should be able to do a few shirts while they're at it. He's building up his nerve, meanwhile ironing a few more shirts. Meanwhile settling up some old accounts he had kind of let slide, like getting back the $1,000 television set he had "loaned" to an old girlfriend. "She hasn't actually brought it back yet, she's--cough--having trouble getting the truck set up." And then one afternoon he came in, triumphant, a clean white shirt with a few more little dents in it than usual. "Well, I got Trinki to do six shirts. She said she'd be happy to but never really did know how to iron very well."

That evening, Trinki came in with Consuela, her daughter from another union, and they had prime rib dinners on the Duke.

Something is happening to Smitty, it must be because he's started talking to Bobby. Smitty is the one Alex calls Smutty Smitty, because he's always cussing out any creature that moves faster than he does, or anything that even enters his heat zone.

The second-to-last time I saw Smitty, he was trying to cross the street in front of Valois, walking out between two parked cars. When a car didn't stop for him he started to call the driver a few things; the driver slowed for that, gave him the finger, and answered with his own list. Smitty looks like he's about 90, a short guy, no neck, no bones, seems a little pudgy and at the same time looks like his dirty suit is stuffed with air and crumpled newspapers. Every capillary in his face is exploded. Two mean little blue eyes. I've seen him smile a couple of times. Cristos says he's a nice guy who's just been misunderstood and Spiros says that if that's true he's been misunderstanding Smitty for about ten years now.

Smitty's got a room in a little hotel nearby. It's a place that's OK, a few bugs, but you know if you die the manager finds you right away.

So what's up with Smitty? He's started talking to Bobby. And this is the way it happened. First, Cris "presented" Bob to Smitty. After that Smitty would nod to Bob and wouldn't snarl at him in food line even if Bobby got too close. He started watching Bobby sketch people at Valois. He liked to see someone work like that. Now I think he likes Bobby. Last night I walked into Valois to see Bob and Alex eating at one table and Smitty having coffee at the neighboring table, conversing with them. Smitty was telling part of his story and Bob believed it, and I decided to believe it too, just because I think Smitty is too mean to lie.

He's 84 and worked his whole life. He was a janitor for the city of Chicago for a long time and that means he worked for Daley and probably had a patronage job from one of the Irish committeemen. (A couple of the guys who eat at Valois say that Smitty was a guard at the Museum of Science and Industry when they were little. They are still afraid of him because he would chase them out of the museum sometimes.)

Did he ever marry? No. "Almost, but she died from cancer before the wedding." He was nearly 50 at the time, and she was a young Irish girl, a cousin or niece to a family he knew in his neighborhood, probably. They met, courted, prepared for the wedding, and then she died. Now Smitty says she was the only woman he ever loved and that once you've loved a good woman you can't go with other women. "Sometimes women come around to my place and want me to go with them. You know what to do when a woman comes around you? Just tell her you haven't had a hard-on for three years. That makes her go away." Smitty growls and even if he says a long sentence you could swear it was just four or five words. Bobby asks Smitty how he's gotten this old. "I drink whiskey." How much? "Enough to make me feel real good. I had some yesterday!"

We can't understand why Smitty is "nice" to us now. Even a day ago he would scowl at us and we'd see how close we could walk up to him and scowl back. He never cursed us so we could hear, but he didn't much like us. Bobby is saying, "I don't know, but I get such a strong feeling about it . . . almost as if . . ." There's a possible reincarnation on his mind.

"You mean you feel almost like you were there, Bobby?"

"Yeah, that's it."

"Do you think maybe you were the colleen in love with Smitty?"

"Oh God, no! not a girl!"

When Bobby read this he said two things:

(1) That Cristos did not present him to Smitty. This is how it really happened: One night, completely by himself, and with nothing but a past of gruffness between them, Bobby sailed over to Smitty's table with a cup of coffee and said "Good evening, Mr. Smith." He was a little drunk and had a stranger sort of nerve than usual and some goodwill he wanted to find a home for. Perhaps Smitty succumbed to the sound of his own name.

And (2) "The ending was wrong. Reincarnation was your story." Smitty visits the grave of his fiancee every year. "Once you love a woman, you can't leave her." Bobby was looking ahead of him seeing Smitty with a bouquet of flowers--"What impressed me is that a man like Smitty can be faithful to the memory of love so old."

One night a ghostly, distraught man walked toward Spiros with a shameful, halting step. He looked a decaying 65. A big man, bloated but not really fat, terrible puffy bloodshot eyes, with shadows like bruises under them. Stringy, wispy gray hair and beard, like a big Chinaman's. The dregs of a white suit. An apparition to make you think you were tending a waterfront bar in Singapore.

Spiros was carving meat, round of roast beef, rare; prime rib, very lean; roast half chickens, moist, meaty birds. Sharp knives. And a head full of accounting, tax problems, overhead, and low profit margin. What was his last thought before this guy wafted through the door? That he should've raised the prices of pies and salads three months ago because his cost had gone up steadily for the last 18 months? "Listen, Spiros, could you float me for a few days?" He is a regular, not daily, but probably has eaten here over a period of years.

This happened in that rough three days a few weeks ago when guys were coming in, maybe three or four in a night shift, coming in drunk or stoned or just feeling mean, causing trouble, so loud or threatening that Spiros had to physically throw them out. That is to say, hook his arms under their armpits and drag them out the door. (Like that guy who held on to the wrought iron railing and kept shouting his joke about the "chink in the red hat," while Spiros pulled at him like a piece of crabgrass. Later we all agreed that was the first guy to be thrown out of Valois for telling a boring joke.)

On the breakfast shift: It's late, 8:30. The shopkeeps are having second coffee. I hear Doc's plucky "Oi!" somewhere at the end of a story out there. Mary and her daughter Janet have just come in from the airport, where they put Mary's husband, Maurice, on the plane for a rest home out west. They are looking complicated and semipublic: the family flower of various self-interests opening and closing over a passionate heart. My friend Alex and his friend Larry come in looking like the shades of their future selves: tall, lanky, filling out in shoulders and necks and legs, poised, athletes, artists, the best times of their lives. They know it in the sure way that 16-year-old boys know it and they've decided to enjoy it. What are they doing? Cutting class? I never get to the question. They want to sit at the window table, but don't want to share it with Fred, the newsie--all 96 years of him, all churning, toothless, biscuit-chewing jaws of him. They take the table by the phones instead. This is a morning for perfect youth.

Walking home toward the park. The Magician is buying a paper from Steve on the corner. We'll walk together a while. These days when I pass people in the streets I'm all at once lazy, curious, and loath to speak at all. The Magician and I pat the air around ourselves to find a congenial and worthy matter for three blocks' conversation. The Magician finds: He bats the chain around his neck as if he were punishing a favorite pet. "I'm going to the park to find the charm I lost in the grass yesterday."

Gene the Magician, dressed in six degrees of white, a white knit skullcap over wiry gray hair, doing t'ai chi in the park: as his poised right hand sails ahead in martial motion, he snags his gold chain full of charms, and a tiny Star of David falls somewhere in the grass (a point wedged at the base of a blade of grass, deep in the spring jungle of tender, coarse new grass). That is how it happened. "I'm not worried. I know where I was. I can go back as much as it takes. I'll find it. I've found my rings, sometimes I'll be lying under a tree and I'll take my rings off and put them on the ground and then after I go home I jump: 'My rings!' Then I go back the next day and find them there--waiting for me."

I tell him the story I heard at the cafeteria of a miraculous find: A woman lost her engagement ring. She was helping neighbors push a car out of the snow. The car was parked several doors down from her house. She had had the engagement ring for probably 30 years. Lived in the house for 30 years. Walked past that parking place six or eight or ten times a day, every day. In the violence of the moment of pushing the car (spinning tires, shoved cardboard, blankets, rags under the tires, the shared fantasy of the fatal heart attack) in all of that terrible activity, her engagement ring fell into the snow. She knew it even as it was sliding from her ring finger. She could see the shaky little tunnel it made as its weight of white gold and 1.5-carat diamond and ribbon engraving carried it out of sight. How carefully they must have scratched for it, like tracking some tiny wild animal. Dig carefully, don't frighten it further underground. They couldn't find the ring. Different people looked at different times, some probably secretly by moonlight. There was hot treasure on the block. When did she give up? Sometime in early March, on that magic late winter day when we all give up in Chicago, after being so good and so strong in the arduous adversity of winter. "I know now I'll never see it again." And then she still thought about it every time she dried her hands or fiddled with her wedding ring during a phone conversation. The snow melted, the streets finally dried, and the terrible papier mache debris of winter finally blew away. Her daughter was coming to visit one day and saw the ring on the pavement.

The Magician and I had walked less than half a block, past Big Jim's Smoke Shop, under the viaduct, past the Lebanese Brothers' Grocery Store. We were walking past Norman's Hair Village, now boarded up, the iron grill locked, a gothic-lettered sign tacked to the boards: "Be kind, remember everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." The Magician's sideline is beauty.

A steamy, stormy night and a slow night shift at the cafeteria. Our regulars must be clinging to their furnished rooms like cockroaches, turning slowly under the 40-watt bulbs. They aren't at the cafeteria. Duke, Ruthie, and I are behind the steam table: pacing, polishing, prodding our little garden of food, singing to ourselves, murmuring our favorite words. Sometimes, magically, the three of us feel like chatting together and we meet gracefully in our little dance of boredom.

How did we start talking about turtle meat?

"Once I was at the big picnic along the lake. This was years ago. They caught a couple of turtles in the water and cracked them open. You know, you got to use a sledgehammer, something like that, then gut them and so forth. They had big kettles so they parboiled them. The funny thing about turtle meat is that it tastes like all kinds of stuff. There's cuts that taste like chicken, and other ones that taste like fish, some taste like beef, then there's frog legs. Why you can even eat the eggs, great big ones! One of those turtles was a female and she was full of eggs. We hard-boiled them and ate them like that. Yes sir, turtle is a rare meat." That was Duke talking, the old Navy cook. Cookie, the meat man, l'artiste. I could picture him at the picnic, gritting his teeth joyfully, looking evil, looking bad, with his laminated gun permit on his hip and under its plastic a picture of him 70 pounds heavier, "a guy people walked around on the sidewalk."

While he described his turtle dinner, Ruthie was making faces, groaning with fascination and remorse from her own memory of turtle meat. "I had to hold the tail and a guy pulled its head out to cut it off. I won't ever do that again! But that's the only way to eat turtle meat. You've got to be there when it's killed."

Here comes our old pal Casimir for a slice of apple pie a la mode and a cup of Boston coffee, a little something to make the evening pass sweetly. And I wonder if old Cas has ever participated in turtle meat.

Notes from a Thursday night. Joe, one of the neighborhood merchants, sits down, half on, half off the chair. He's waiting for his hamburger and talking about his July trip to Europe, jumping into the details as if we'd been talking about it two minutes ago. Finally he calms down, has his food, and starts to talk about a conversation he had in Italy once in the bar of the Britannia Hotel . . . was that in Naples?

"I was talking to this Italian guy. He worked for a big oil company in Italy, he was a big shot and a communist. He told me he was a communist and I believed him. So we were watching TV, and there was something like a burlesque show on, naked women. I couldn't believe it, in Italy! I asked him if it was something special and he said no, that's what our television is like all the time. Then we started to talk some more, he was trying to trap me, like the Stalinists used to. But I could see him coming. I just let him talk. I just said 'Oh, oh yeah.' He said, 'I hear Perry Como is boojwa.'" Joe said this real slow, with a south-side Chicago version of an Italian accent. Then he wriggled on his chair like a dog sighting a squirrel and backed up a little and repeated what the Italian had said: "I hear Perry Como is boojwa." In a cartoon Joe would have been passing his paw over his face in frustrated rage. "OK. Now I don't say nothing. I know where this guy is headed and I'm going to let him hang himself, right? And he's smart. He's not attacking Irish or black or Spanish-Americans, he's going after Italians, so what can I say, right? So next he says real slow: 'I hear Frank Sinatra refused to shake the hand of the common man.' Whoooo, that's too much for me, time to step!" Joe is now pulling his cap down a little, giving it an extra tug on the brim.

"I pull out my big pack of lies and I'm just laying it on him: 'First of all, Perry Como gives all his money to the poor. Do you think he lives in a fine big house in Hollywood? Well, no sir. I'm an American, I know, I've just come from America and I can tell you that Perry Como lives in a simple flat like you and me. He rents it. Yes, he had a fine house, but he sold it and what do you think he did with the money? That's right, he gave it to charity.' Now the guy didn't expect this, but I can see he's believing it. I've got him now, though, and I won't drop him. 'And I happen to know Frank Sinatra personally. I have been to political rallies with him. One night I personally saw him sign six different checks to charities. And did you know that for the last 15 years he hasn't touched a penny of his earnings, gave them all away. He lives very simply on the meager income that he got in the old days.' Well, that guy didn't say anything, he just gave me a long look and said, 'Is that so?' and started talking about the TV show again."

Meanwhile, I'm watching Spiros, who's sitting next to Joe, and Spiros is squirming and thrashing the way he does when someone else is on his turf, the turf of a story about putting something over on someone or spotting a bullshitter. I stir up my little bit of trouble: "Well, Spiros, glad to see that Americans are finally lying as well as Europeans." Spiros is trying to look cool. "I would be surprised," he says. "I usually believe that Europeans know how to lie better." Then Joe comes back: "Spiros, if you're from Chicago you can do it with the best of them. They always say that if you're from Chicago you can make your way, you know when they're lying to you, because this town was born crooked, lived crooked, and it ain't dead yet, but when it dies it'll die crooked." This of course charms Spiros and we're back to talking about the Italian TV show.

"Hey! How about this!" All I can see is Gwen's sprawled hand, shining with chicken fat from busing tables after the Tuesday Night Special. All around Gwen: "Yeah?" "Take a look." "Is that a real diamond?" "Sure, a diamond!" "She's engaged." "I haven't seen an engagement ring for quite a while." "How big is it?" Gwen says: "Quarter carat." We all say: "Looks bigger, looks like four or five carats." Gwen says: "They did a trick with the setting." Her hand hasn't moved, but her fingers are twinkling and twitching slightly.

Gwen has a pretty-shaped head, close-cut hair, a full lower lip that could give her a dull look if her eyes didn't always outshine it. She gives an impression of constant good nature backed up by a slow but snappy retort. She started working at Valois a few months ago and took to the place and its people (as we took to her) real fast. I never know what to make of her. We're friendly. Bobby says she writes poetry, he heard her telling Cristos about it one afternoon before she went on shift. (People tell Cristos things they don't say to anyone else.)

Tonight is fiesta. Gwen's in celebration, wearing no apron, hostess at her own reception, an engagement party in See Your Food. She's going through the tables, removing dirty dishes, bringing glasses of ice water, wiping away fallen biscuits, bringing the hot sauce, her left hand prancing through it, inviting looks, inviting questions. "When will you be married?" "In about a year, maybe next April, our anniversary is April 13." I ask her anniversary of what? Meeting? Falling in love (the hour, the minute), or . . . I remember a year ago, another hot summer night behind the steam table, when Ruthie and I were on shift together and she gave me that sly look and said she'd be glad when shift was over because she and her sweetie were going to celebrate an anniversary. I told her that she didn't have to worry about being too tired because somehow the night shift never left you tired, in fact . . .

"Anniversary of when we first met," Gwen is telling me. "How can you remember that? What happened?" "Well, I knew we were meant to meet, because I was late for school, running to catch my bus. Most of the time I would take the Number 6 Jeffery but I'd missed it, and I was going to have to take the Number 1: and he was sitting there in his car. He offered me a ride and at first I didn't want to go, but then he gave me a ride."

"What made you trust him, Gwen?"

"He said he was on his way to the bank."

Very slow shift tonight, the magic night for Duke. Why? "It's the night before my day off and it's payday." Very slow. Duke, Pete, and I, shifting from foot to foot behind the steam table. We are physically oppressed by boredom, legs aching, swallowing aspirins, gulping water, drinking little slugs of coffee to fool our bodies. Pete is slitty-eyed. Pete, who will get off work here at ten, cruise for a couple of hours, maybe get a beer at a club that won't card him (he's 20), and then pull into the Dominick's parking lot where his car will stand for eight hours while he works a second full shift stocking shelves.

I asked him if he'd knocked over a pile of anything. He said no, he'd been lucky so far, but the other night a guy spilled a cottage cheese display. Somebody else's troubles. Even if you help them clean it up, you didn't do it. You are the little angel that just walked up and said "Well, what happened here? Let me help you."

Pete is working two hard, physical full-time jobs. His father (Greek, here for four years) is a full-time baker and recently opened a penny arcade with a friend. Wanting to make a little more money for the family but mainly wanting to keep the perpetual motion going.

Last week, after work, I was walking home and Pete passed me in his car. "I give you lift." Enter the universe of Pete's car. It's big and American. Angora dice on the rearview mirror, but not merely hanging there: Pete's built a little mobile out from the mirror, with an array of Greek beads and good-luck charms. This car is adorned like it's part of Pete's body. We miss the turn for my place and he does a U-turn on the head of a pin with a cop car half a block off and advancing. Pete's a Driver and they don't bother us. He knows what he can do and takes no chances.

So tonight we are bored, past the point of sociability, but I rally: "If you were living in Greece now would you have a car?" His eyes open completely. He can't believe the question. He is even disgusted, but in a polite way. "Hey! I been drivin' since I was six years old. Sure I had my own car when I was in Greece, I have it since I am 14 years old. My old man was moving things, yeah, a furniture mover and I helped him starting from six years old. I went everywhere in the truck, I helped drive and I carried things." How did he work the pedals with his little six-year-old legs? I can't understand his answer, only that it was never a problem. "Your dad must've liked having you around." Pete just smiles. "Sure. Four kids, I'm the only boy and I'm the oldest."

The day I met Pete, the day I was training him to replace Cristos as cashier, I asked him about Greece. "How long before you left did you know it was going to happen?" "I was 16, happy with my friends. I knew three months before that we were going to leave." He couldn't speak or read English then. He just came to Chicago and got caught in one of the worst winters of Chicago's history. He couldn't even drive a car here. He stayed at home a lot for a few months, school and home. A good little boy. By springtime he was learning some English, the roads were clear, and he was behind the wheel again.

Dear Warren,

Here's more gossip from Valois, the cafeteria where I work, eat breakfast and dinner, the eating establishment that has become my country; the reason I've stayed on in Chicago a full year past the time to move on, the cafeteria where I established the reputation of being the meanest cashier since Queen. (She would go after them with a broom if they complained about prices or questioned her sales tax.) This, then, is the news from Valois, fresh from 6:30 AM today:

Rudy, an old guy, came here in the early 30s with his family, got a job in one of the big catalog places and lived happily ever after with the catalog, his mama, and his blue Chevrolet, Baby. Rudy lived very simply in his rented apartment, organizing his pensioner's week around trips to the tailor to have his suits adjusted. Rudy died last summer. He liked Bob Hope, never left Valois without strolling from table to table, singing "Thanks for the Memories," was nevertheless considered a private gentleman who kept his own company.

Rudy would take such a long time to choose his food, looking up at the price list (which he knew by heart) wistfully . . . looking like his heart would break and that he'd spent his last food money two weeks ago and had to eat crackers and tea for two more weeks until his next social security check came and it wasn't true after all that old folks don't have much of an appetite (all that was left of Rudy was appetite and two maniacal blue eyes, blue and bulging like two lascivious oysters, if that would be possible).

Well, Rudy died and we all spoke of him with regret and marked a pause at 5 PM every day, the time he would come to start his dinner with a cup of coffee and think about tonight's food. And Rudy left two million dollars in his estate.

Even if it's not really true or not entirely true, it gives me a funny feeling. Here's the way the news came: 6 AM today a guy comes in and tells Spiros that he saw in a magazine (which one he can't remember) that Rudy left $2 million to an assortment of religious organizations and what else, who else, there's no information.

OK. What can I say, he's dead, but when I think about the trouble he gave me when we raised the price of ribs 25 cents! I'm on the phone at 7:45 to one of the Valois gang: "Did I wake you? Good, listen: Rudy, etc." At 9:30 that man is telling his teenage son, who can't believe anyone with that kind of money would eat at Valois. And Spiros is working the rest of the joint spreading the news. By 11 AM the first six-hour shift of regulars knows and the lunch crowd is catching on fast.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Oslo Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place
September 10

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories