My 8th Avenue kings

By Jenny Morelli, poet and freelance writer. This piece was first published in ETC Magazine, Stockholm, Sweden 1998. Translated from Swedish by Martin Rundkvist.

Spring 1998. On the same day as the peace treaty is signed in Northern Ireland I return to New York and the corner of 8th avenue and 29th street. My former boss George Melis is on duty. He owns the Estoril Sol, the Penn Bar and the newly opened deli Alexander the Great.
George is in his early sixties, with a characteristic Greek nose and a big belly, wearing a white shirt, a dark suit and a tie. I see him through the open door. The corners of his mouth are firmly lowered. It is the afternoon break. George is sitting by the window, reading the New York Times by the meager daylight shining in. He hasn´t seen me yet. I love this guy, don´t ask me why. I am back in the realm of Once. It is as if time stopped here in 1974. That´s when the restaurant opened, and the furnishings are intact. Maybe that is why I like it so much. The walls inside the Estoril are painted dark brown, little wooden Portuguese roosters perch on glass shelves, colorful paintings show matadors and seductive Spanish ladies, like the ones on the postcards my grandparents used to send me from Mallorca in the sixties. The chairs are upholstered in beige worn fabric, two cloths on every table, the bottom one the color of toothpaste, then a beige one on top. Things are the same. George is on the phone when he sees me coming. “Jenny´s back and she´s gonna write about us” he tells the receiver. He greets me with deep affection, then asks if I´m hungry. Yes I am, and I have missed Josés cooking, so I order Linguini Calamari. Pasta with squid. A nameless waiter in a dark suit serves me water in a large glass. Everything´s just the same. George Melis opened the Estoril in 1974. Portuguese cooking was popular back then. In the 1950s this neighborhood had started to turn Greek, many Greeks worked in the fur business and some are still around. In the 1960s a whole bunch of them arrived on special work permits. But now, in the late nineties, the business has shrunk. The Greek furriers still come to the Estoril to meet their friends after work. They sometimes bring their own Greek food and sit around in the bar, cozily. Today Peter and Anastasios are here. “The 80s were great”, says Anastasios. “The 80s paid for my house, my car and my kids´ education”. “You mean the Reagan years?” “Yeah, God bless him!” “So, what´s business like these days?” “I get by, that´s all, people haven´t got the money any more.” “Who buys furs?” “There aren´t enough rich Americans, many of the people who could afford furs don´t like them anymore. Wearing furs has become politically incorrect. Don´t ask me why. We mostly export our stuff to Russia now, that´s where the fur buyers are in the 90s.” Glenn, the waiter, arrives with salad plates filled with feta cheese, sliced onions, anchovies and tomatoes. The heavyset Greeks munch away and have drinks. Peter and Anastasiois have been coming here for twenty years, but I´ve never seen their wives. Where are they? “Our wives? At home, of course!”, says Anastasios. “What are they up to?” “Well, what do I know? They shop in the daytime. They clean the house, talk on the phone.” “They never go out with you?” “No, never. They stay at home and we go out after work, that´s how it´s been and that´s how it´s always gonna be. We make the money and they spend it, ha ha.” The three Greeks laugh and take a sip from their drinks. That´s really how things are and it´s a good setup. “Anyway, they don´t want us to come home too early. My wife gives me a hard time if I´m back before eight or nine in the evenings.” Peter says. “You know, the best way to make a marriage work is for each one to keep to themselves. I´ve been married for 37 years, and we´re really happy. We never meet.” At the entrance to the restaurant is the bar, and that´s were the Greeks hang out. At the back of the place, the Bangladeshi waiters are standing, and the basement is Spanish territory, workplace of José the chef, from Santo Domingo. His assistant Felix keeps him company, as do the dish washers from Puebla, Mexico. The kitchen is the heart of the restaurant, warm and sweaty. A trapdoor opens onto the sidewalk above. This is where the groceries are taken in. A steep staircase leads up into the daylight on 29th Street. On aluminum shelves sit boxes of cucumbers, artichoke hearts, lemons, mushrooms and tomatoes. There are also fresh herbs: parsley, tarragon, coriander, rosemary, garlic paste and bottles of wine, olive oil and vinegar. José is resting on a stool with his head in his hand. It´s four o´clock. Lunch is over. Dinner starts at six. He just got one of his rare phone calls. José´s father, who´s 80, has been taken to hospital. But there is no time to go visit him. José has to prepare dinner. “I´m really tired. Muy cansado.” “You work pretty hard, huh?” “Oh yeah, very hard. But it´s OK. Six days a week, seven sometimes. Twelve hours, Monday to Friday. Saturdays, I start later in the afternoon. We open at four.” “How much are you making?” “It´s OK.” “I mean, how much does George pay you?” “Don´t wanna talk about that.” José doesn´t like my questions. He likes to talk about love and love making, which he calls chici-chici. According to José, Hispanic women are muy caliente and incredibly good at chici-chici. American women on the other hand are “too mucho frio”, and not as good at the art of love making. José and I used to be friends, but now after I have finished college and become a writer, it seems that I have become someone else. I feel sort of like a representative of the authorities, asking him about salaries and taxes. I take José´s picture. Absolutely no full-figure shots! “My apron is too dirty”, he says. When I tell George that his kitchen staff isn´t forthcoming with answers to my questions, he grins. “That´s right”, he says, “I cut their tongues out when they started working for me.” “But you should tell them to give me some answers.” “No! Why? If somebody works for me, then they need to pledge silence. And if you´d start working here I´d cut your tongue out too!” “OK, but how much do you pay José?” “500 dollars a week.” “Can he get by on that? I mean, he´s got two kids and the older girl is at college.” “Really? Well, that´s more than I know.” “But he´s been working for you for fifteen years!?” “Yeah, but I don´t talk to my employees, ha ha!” “How much does the dish washer get?” “200.” “Isn´t that a bit low?” “Heard any complaints?” “No, can´t say I have.” “Well GOOD! What do I know, they´re probably on social security too. Not my problem. If I can get a dish washer for 200 a week then I´m happy. They´re happy and I´m happy.” Across the street from the Estoril Sol is Walter´s Pub. There you go to see Walter, to drink, listen to the juke box, play pool and possibly do drugs. Bars like Walter´s are all over Manhattan. A long wooden bar and stools in dark wood, stone floor, mirror walls, streamers and knickknacks. Spring is here and Walter himself is standing out front on the sidewalk, his arms crossed. He´s a good-natured man, seventy-two years old, from Czechoslovakia. He has run Walter´s Pub for twenty years. Entering from the sunny street you find it even murkier than at the Estoril. Heavy drinkers and cocaine users shun the light. It illuminates your life. And one of the basic services provided by this pub is for the customers not to have to see. But at three o´clock the bar is empty. The patrons come later on and then they often stay all night. Walter closes at four in the morning, sometimes later. One of the regulars both here and at the Penn Bar was Big Mike. Big Mike reminded me of Obelix, the sidekick of Asterix in the French comic. He was a very tall, very fat, red-haired jovial American who dealt coke and tipped the cocktail waitresses royally. A very popular guest, in other words. But he´s disappeared from the neighborhood. “George told me Big Mike´s in jail and has aids, is that true?” Walter launches into a rant when I mention George. “That George is a liar and a moron! All he can ever say about people is bad stuff. Big Mike owes George 4000 dollars´ worth of rent, and that´s why he never comes here. And he hasn´t got aids, that´s baloney! George stinks! Can´t get one true word ou
t of him. He thinks he´s the goddamn king of 8th Avenue. All Greeks have delusions of grandeur, they think they´re the sons of Zeus! Pah! Did you see the deli George opened? What a name, huh: Alexander the Great! George is out of his mind!” When I tell George that Walter thinks he´s suffering from delusions of grandeur, George seems very pleased. “Did he say that? That I´m the son of Zeus?” “Well, no, he said you think you´re the son of Zeus.” “Oh really. Well, if you talk to Walter again, would you please tell him for me that he SMELLS?” “Why?” “´Because he´s an idiot and a bastard.” “But why are you two so mad at each other? You must have known each other for twenty years!” “I never knew him! I´ve never even talked to the guy. Well, OK, once twenty years ago, and then I told him that he SMELLS!” George is in a great mood. “Son of Zeus, that´s me all right”, he croons to himself on the way over to his newly opened deli. Linda McCartney died today but Mickey Dooley is still alive: he´s a seventy-two year old who´s been living on this block for years and who used to frequent all the bars in the area. He´d always drink red wine and coca-cola and he would call it “poor man´s sangria”. One day I run into him in the street. He barely wants to say hello. He has become thin, old and shamefaced. “Hey, Mickey, good to see you! How are you?” “I´m OK.” “How about a drink or some coffee?” “Nah, I´m kind of in a hurry…” “Well, nice to see you Mickey. How are you doing anyway?” “Well, you know, I´m OK. Gotta go, people waiting…” I hardly recognized him. Five years ago he used to be a cheerful old guy who knew everything that happened in the neighborhood. He´d come around Walter´s Pub quite a lot. But not anymore. “Mickey?” says Walter when I ask him. “Oh yeah, he´s slowly killing himself. Doesn´t come around here anymore, just sits at home, snorting coke and watching TV. I´ve tried to get him to come down here a few times, even told him he didn´t have to pay. Buy ONE drink and I´ll give you three on the house, I said, but he doesn´t want to. Says I only want to get him drunk.” According to Walter, Mickey has a 1000 dollar pension and 300 dollars from social security. He could have a good life. “Where did he say he was going when you met him? To the airport?” “He said he was meeting someone.” “Oh yeah, sure. He hasn´t got any friends and nowhere to go. A few years back he bought a car. Think he ever went anywhere? All he ever did was move the car from one side of the street to the other for cleaning nights. What a sad life. No kids, no grandkids. Just him, the dope and the TV set.” A few days later I catch a glimpse of Mickey through his window behind the plastic streamers above the Alexander the Great deli. “Hey Mickey! Come on down!” “Nah.” He shakes his head. “Please! Let´s just have some coffee.” “Nah.” “Can I come in for a few minutes?” “No, can´t…” “Well, can I at least take your picture?” “OK, go ahead.” Mickey waves and smiles briefly. Henry the dealer doesn´t arrive at Walter´s until evening. He shows up in a white shirt with a black dog-bone printed pattern, gold rings and thick glass pilot shades. He puts his arm around me and then zips away straight to the bathroom at the back. “Be right back. Give her whatever she wants”, he tells Michelle behind the bar before he goes. Henry´s Puerto Rican, a bit past 40, came here as a kid, sold ice cream from a stand to start with. He´s lived in the neighborhood for fifteen years. He has an apartment in the building across the street. Henry hasn´t exactly worked to get rid of his accent. And it takes a while to learn his language with all the lost consonants. Back from the men´s room he says: “You OK Jenny?” RU OK? U nee´ mony?” “Everything´s fine.” “I te´ u, I´m yo frien´, u havva proble´, you comma to me.” “Thats nice, Henry.” “Need anything?” “I´m fine, thanks.” “Goo´, goo´.” I ask him about his clearly new pair of shades and Henry tells me he´s had to change his lifestyle completely. “I got diabetes a few years ago. Woke up one morning and felt like I had a thousand knives in my leg. Saw a doctor right away and it turned out I had a blood sugar of 420. So they gave me medicine. It´s better now, but my eyesight sucks. And I can´t do as much as used to. But now I work out at a gym.” “How´s your sugar now, Henry? You taking care of yourself?” “Sure I do, sure I do.” “But you still drink, don´t you?” “Yeah, but not too much.” At the moment he´s having a glass of tequila with a vodka chaser in a special cooling glass provided by Michelle. “What about coke?” “Yeah, a bit, not too much. I´m good now, I go to the gym.” “How´s business?” “It´s OK. The 80s were better, but I´ve got my customers. It´s OK.” Henry´s paranoid, constantly looking over his shoulder. Threats may be anywhere. And he´s probably right, the threat isn´t just something he´s made up. “You can´t trust people anymore. It used to be easier.” But not anymore. He glances towards the door, here comes a strange face. Henry jogs off to the bathroom again with the guy who came into the bar. An acquaintance tells me that Henry´s smart and only deals to people he knows, that´s the way to do it. Big Mike on the other hand would deal to strangers, and look at him now. If Henry didn´t deal coke he might get a job washing dishes. Now he makes an OK living, he doesn´t cash in big, but he survives. Henry returns to the bar. “I´m waiting for my son.” “Aha, how old is he?” “Twenty-one. He´s a smart kid.” “What´s he doing?” “Studying psychology and law at college.” “You got a good relationship?” “Yeah, I love him.” “What would you say if he took up your kind of business?” “You mean work in the street?” “Yeah.” “I´d talk to him. Tell him it´s not a good life, but then, you know, he has to make his own choices. I can´t force him.” “So how´s his mom?” “She´s good. We got divorced a long time ago, but she´s good, a good mother. I´ve always given her money. You know what I do for a living but I´m still a good man. I want respect. I support my child, I help people, I want people to be happy. I don´ want to hurt nobody.” “I know, Henry.” “Yeah. Listen, do you need anything? Need money?” “No, thanks, I´m fine.” A well dressed, handsome twenty-one year old shows up. It is Henry´s son. Henry introduces him to me and we shake hands. Henry passes him a wad of bills, and then the kid vanishes out the door, fast. “Isn´t he handsome?” Lisa is one of the bartenders at Walter´s. She came here in 1989, at twenty-two, from a working class family in Manchester, England. She ended up in New York by chance. Left home at twenty, hitch-hiked through England, worked her way, went to Israel, to Florida, met people from New York, came here, and started working at Walter´s right away. She and Henry used to be a couple but now they´re just friends. She used to work here every night, living at Henry´s place. Now she´s been married for two years. Lisa beams when she tells me what her husband does. “He´s a professional wrestler. We do well. Live in Queens. Maybe we´ll have kids.” At one o´clock at night the bar is packed but I have to go home. First I have to go to the store. Suddenly Henry pops up behind me. “Want me to walk you home?” “No, I´m fine.” “Need anything from the store?” “Just some coffee.” “I wanna pay.” Henry moseys into the store and tells me to get anything I want. A small tin of coffee isn´t enough. “Have some more, have some more!” So the sum is, finally, thirty dollars, and Henry pays. “Thank you so much, Henry. You are a good man.” Next morning, I call Helena who worked here as a bartender for many years, but who now lives in Las Vegas. She´s known Henry for a long time. “He´s such a sweetie”, she says. “He is like your big brother. Once I wo
rked at this restaurant and got into an argument with the Yugoslavian head waiter who grabbed my arm really hard, leaving a bruise. When Henry saw the bruise he went straight there and talked to the guy. Like, touch Helena one more time and I´ll fuckin´ kill you. That´s Henry. He cares.” Eric Clapton plays in Madison Square Garden tonight and the Estoril Sol is full. Glenn the waiter quit last Friday, so George has called the agency for unemployed waiters and gotten a new star who has just started. This guy looks really old. White hair, glasses, and the black suit and bow tie you would expect. Nick is his name, and he´s definitely under stress. He makes mistakes, stumbles, forgets to serve water right away. I hear George bellowing from the bar, “Stupid!”. George rails against the old man who looks completely confused. He hunkers down as if he´s expecting a blow. George´s oldest son Jimmy tends the bar tonight. He´s twenty-seven and has a law degree from Cambridge, England, the pride and joy of his father. But a good degree doesn´t automatically get you a good job, so Jimmy helps out at the restaurant. He joins in his dad´s wrath, hassles the old waiter when he´s nervously about to stick a straw in a glass. “Don´t forget the lime”, he snarls, and Nick nods submissively and rushes out among the tables, arms windmilling. Being new isn´t easy. Tonight I have a date with Garbage Mike. He´s wearing a dark grey polo jumper and a pale grey classic-cut suit, his grey hair is plastered back from his hairline and a large ring is on his left pinky. Born in 1939, grew up on Coney Island. “Beautiful place. Nice, clean and safe back then.” Garbage Mike´s real name is Michael Volpe. He looks like a 50s movie star: David Niven, Clark Gable or even better. Unreal. His smile is dazzling and his temples are charmingly grey. A tattoo on his arm is from the 50s when Elvis was the King and all the cool kids drove motor bikes and got married early to girls they didn´t love. Mike didn´t miss out. “We were married for five years. It was hell: no sex, no love.” “So why did you get married?” “Everybody did. It was simply what everyone did.” “Is that her name you´ve got tattooed on your arm?” “No, thank God, it just says MIKE.” Mike runs a couple of businesses. A garbage collection firm (explaining his name) with a couple of trucks collecting waste from restaurants and private businesses. He owns two apartment houses in Nyack: “No pets, no kids”. Most of the tenants are old retired New Yorkers who want to live by the Hudson. Then he lends money at high interest to people who can´t get bank loans. According to George, Mike´s best friend since 25 years, Mike goes around collecting the interest weekly: borrow a thousand dollars from Mike, and you´ll have to pay forty a week until the money is returned. Mikes fiancée Beatrice passed away two years ago. She had cancer and had been sick for five years when she died. They lived together for twelve years. She was a waitress at a restaurant in the Upper East Side and Mike was crazy about her. “She let me do my thing, I could do business, and when she was sick and couldn´t have sex she was OK with me seeing other women. You know, when she was getting really sick and lay in bed all the time and couldn´t make love, right before she died she waved for me to come to the bed, pulled my pants down and she, you know, did it for me with her hand. That´s what I call tenderness!” Mike started coming to this neighborhood in the 70s. The fur trade was booming back then and there were lots of Greek nightclubs on the block. The Egyptian Garden on 8th and 29th Street, where there´s a fruit and grocery store now, had belly dancers and was open all night. It was on the second floor and you had to scale a really steep staircase. Mike reminisces about the bouzouki music and the prettiest belly dancer of them all, Jemima from Egypt. “She used to come up to your table and dance, snapping her castanets and driving you crazy”, Mike says and laughs happily at the memory. “I drank Dewars and water. Any number of them. Good times!” Twenty-five years ago, you could see Anthony Quinn shake his booty at the Egyptian Garden. His real name was Rudolph Oaxaca and he was a Mexican. “Afterwards you´d weave down those steep stairs and go to the Karate Club, an after hours bar on 3rd and 87th Street. We´d stay up all night. Didn´t do drugs, though. Just liquor.” Mike shifts to his favorite topic: women. “It´s really hard to meet someone it works with. I´ve seen a few women since Bea died, but it never really works out, you know.” “Maybe you´re not done yet with Bea?” “No, maybe I´m not, but look: I´m fifty-nine. What am I doing with my life? I´ve got a country house, I´ve got money, I can travel wherever I want, but it´s no fun doing that alone. I´m lonely. If I hadn´t come here tonight, I´d have gone home, drunk a few glasses of red wine, ended up in front of the TV and fallen asleep. What kind of life is that? I want to share life with someone. Share ordinary days. And I´m in a hurry! In five years I´ll be sixty-five! Things happen to your body, it won´t get any easier. I´m really longing for someone.” “Don´t you think you may have a hard time finding a new wife because you´re looking to replace Bea? That you´re looking for someone like her?” “I don´t know… You know, Bea was tall and skinny and flat chested and had great legs. I´ve always been a legs man, looking at their legs, I like them tall and beautiful. That´s my type. The women I´ve met who are my own age, they´re old ladies! And you know what? I went on a blind date a few months back. A lady friend of mine had set me up with a date. I pick up this woman and I´m totally shocked! She was short like a midget and wide like a bus! Being a gentleman, though , I kept smiling. I took her to a restaurant in New Jersey where nobody knows me, I was polite and well-mannered and, you know, but for heaven´s sake, I suffered! Never again!” “So are you seeing anyone now?” “Well, yeah, I see this wealthy dentist who owns a four story building in Gramercy Park on the east side.” “Is she any good? Are you two happy?” “Not really. She´s a career woman. She has her own summer house in Long Island, she´s got lots of friends, things to do. She doesn´t need me. I want to meet someone who needs me, someone to wait for me when I come home from work, you know. And nothing much is happening sexually either. No spark. We´ve dated a few times but we still haven´t had sex.” 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 Melis is the big businessman in the neighborhood. He has a house in Nyack, a long commute north of the city, 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 w
hat 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, translation by Martin Rundkvist