Breathing Fire

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Every Wednesday I grill filet mignon and salmon on an outside grill across the patio about 40 feet away from the seating area, so that the smoke doesn’t bother the customers. It’s a popular special and, now, during high season it gets crazy, especially at dinner time when it’s dark and the cold, January air cools the grill down every time I have to open it. Large groups ordering both steaks and salmon across the range from rare to well done. Some tables everyone orders off the menu, except for one, so the kitchen is waiting on me before they can serve the rest of the plates. I have to run back and forth to deliver the orders to the kitchen and coordinate the timing of the next plates.

I used to enjoy it. The rush, cooking outside, even the running back and forth. But now I’m tired. My right knee is giving out. Between the exhaustion and stress of all the life changes going on, like having to find a new restaurant space and trying to sell my house while another is almost finished that I’m going to have to find a way to pay for, I can’t make my way through this head fog.  And then there’s the dizziness, I feel like I’ve had too much to drink and the ceiling is spinning all the time. And then there are the mood swings. No one is safe. The butcher sent me a brisket with 2 kilos of exessive fat, he had to listen to my ranting about being a Jewish girl who knows how much fat a brisket should have and how dare he try to teach me about brisket! The kitchen staff doesn’t know how to turn down a flame or pay attention to any food on the stove covered with a lid, so they burn the pans and the food, which makes them, well, incompetant and wasteful! The waiters walk past dead plates and dirty tables and neglect to check the beverage deliveries for which I’m over-charged or shorted half a case of wine.  Johnny just has to breathe in a critical manner while I’m driving, change the music to Selena or some hokey country shit, spend too much time gelling his hair, be a computer game zombie, color coordinate the candy (this could go on and on) and he’s toast.

What I’m saying is that this particular time of my life is blowing the irritating stuff I deal with constantly on a daily basis out of proportion and at some point my fuse shorts. So, when I’ve run over 2 miles back and forth to the grill, it’s not a good moment to have to deal with kvetching customers. Wednesday night, smack in the middle of a dinner rush, not a single indoor table available, a table of three women start to complain. My son has just walked in with no intention of staying, but gets caught in the web of restaurant insanity and stays to help. While I’m at the grill, one of the three women starts whining about how long they have been waiting for the food. Kauil goes to the table to show them the slow food snail printed on the bottom of my menu, explains to them how the specials are all grilled by order and this is not fast food, something that should have required no explanation as this was not their first time and they had front row seats watching me limp my way through the last stretch of my grilling marathon while they down wine and margaritas.

“Bullshit,” one lady snaps at my son right as I’m walking in with the next order up.

“Well, you have 2 options, you can wait patiently or you can leave,” he tells them.

“What’s going on?” I butt in.

“We’ve been waiting for two hours and I’m hungry!” she yells.

“You have NOT been waiting for two hours!” I yell back. Only 30 to 40 minutes before I had opened the door for the third person at their table. That the other two ladies had arrived earlier and were having drinks waiting on their friend was certainly no fault of ours.

“You’re being rude,” she snaps at me.

“Well, if you speak to me like that, then this is the way I respond,”

“You’re always rude, I was here since 5:15” one of the other three says to me, neglecting the fact that her friend did not arrive until 6:15, the order not taken until 5 or 10 minutes after that and it was 7 p.m. sharp. Then I heard “Fuck you!” from the other one.

I don’t remember if I made any nasty remarks back, because my head was sizzling with rage while still trying to focus on my full grill. I grabbed the pots I use to transport my steaks and salmon and took their two salmons and steak off, however rare they were, when they had asked for their salmons well done.

“Let me know if you’re going to stay before we plate these,” I said as I walked by them. They stayed. They ate. When I saw they had finished I told one of the waiters to give them their checks, so they could leave, not only so that I didn’t have to look at them anymore, but so that the people waiting for a table could take the table.

I was outside grilling the last of my steaks and salmon as they were walking out. Johnny tells me he’s going to go talk to them.

“Don’t,” I order. “Customers that speak to me like that while I’m busting my ass to cook them dinner shouldn’t come back.” One of them starts to say something back to me, I cut her off. “You don’t deserve to be here!”

And they don’t. Maybe perimenopause is just what I needed. And a long, hot soak in lavender and epsom salt.

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Receiving Roses

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Having restaurant customers is much like having children. You pick up after them and keep their forgotten belongings safe until they return. Obviously you feed them, often remembering their likes and dislikes and accommodating the fussy eaters. With some you are in a constant communication battle. Some even stomp out swearing they’ll never be back and the next thing you know there they are. And sometimes you even have to clean  their shit.

The most recent wasn’t the first, there have been many unpleasant bathroom incidents, many smeared toilet seats and splattered bowls. One woman even wiped her ass with my wall (I’m sure not on purpose), dropped a few turds on the floor, stepped in them and tracked them all the way out the front door.  Usually I’m the one to discover and clean up these messes, that or the staff ignores them so that they don’t have to. But the most recent was by far the worst.

I was squatting in the kitchen shuffling through a shelf before making a supply run, when I hear a deep, loud “baaahhh”. It was Johnny, I see him running outside. I’m thinking ‘dog fight’. We get a lot of customers coming in with their dogs and sometimes they don’t get along and Johnny will run out to break them up. But instead it was my brawny boyfriend with a weak stomach looking for someplace to puke. One woman is leaving the restroom and immediately a man rushes in. One of the waiters points at the floor and I yell at her to watch her step as the woman who has just left the bathroom steps in one of the droppings, she’s oblivious as she tracks the diarrhea on to my doormat.

The man stays in the bathroom, he doesn’t even lock the door, he just stays inside my small, one toilet bathroom. I open up the cabinet under the sink right outside the door, ready to start my clean-up routine. Plenty of paper towels. Spray Cloralex. Hold my breath and try to have a brief out-of-body experience. But the reality is the mess outside the bathroom is just the beginning, so we do a quick clean-up with a bucket, soap and an old mop we just throw away. Then I start to plan what to do when the man comes out. One of my customers, who has been witnessing the event, wisely tells me that he is going to need a change of clothes or at least something to wrap around his waist. I remember that I have a pair of women’s capri sweat pants in my car, so Johnny goes to get them just as the man has started to come out of the bathroom. I tell him to stay there. We’re getting a change of clothes and a plastic bag for his beige, soiled bermudas. I hand him the pants and bag and he disappears again into the restroom. One can only imagine his embarrassment as he stepped out to face us and the army of cleaning supplies. He promised he would return my pants. He kept saying he needed to give my dishwasher, who had bravely stepped up to the bucket and then the bathroom, some money. I knew no one wanted him to start digging into those shorts for his wallet, so I assured him it was ok and not to worry.

Two days later a well-dressed, balding, American man in his 70’s walks in carrying 3 dozen roses, his elegant wife wearing a full, floral skirt by his side holding a reusable shopping bag with my washed and folded sweats. I’m so impressed by their graceful manner of responding to a situation that so many would hide from and never show face. They thank me, they stay for lunch, they swear I’m an angel. I’m not. I’m just a mom who also has customers.

Shattered

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The other morning I was laying in bed thinking about what to title this story that has been needling my thoughts and shaping the direction of our lives for the past 3 months. The Rolling Stones’ song played in my head. The image I have when I step outside my house is this.

It was about 5 a.m. Sunday morning, September 30th. It was my birthday and it was San Miguel de Allende’s birthday celebration too, Every year they celebrate the founding of this historical town with at least an hour of fireworks before the break of dawn, people gather in the main square, here called el jardin, they party and watch the fireworks. The next day is followed by parades of indigenous dances and more fireworks. Johnny and I were laying in bed listening to the incessant thundering when one of the shots sounded too close to home. Then there was pounding on my metal door and screaming. We both jumped out of bed and ran up the stairs, the two dogs with us barking.

My son, Kauil, had been out partying with his half brother from Holland (Yoris and his mother, Olly, had been visiting for a month and were to be leaving the following day) and his two cousins from Monterrey. Apparently a car had rear-ended him at a speed bump. That car was filled with angry young men and was caravanning with another car full of thugs. Kauil thought he had lost them, but the 2 cars ended up in front of our house. They shot at his car, then continued to smash the windows with night sticks. Kauil and Yoris were getting beat with the night sticks and his two cousins, one who is a large girl and the other a gay young man who had hooked up with a guy at one of the clubs they had been to and invited him home, were trapped in the backseat.

Johnny ran outside barefoot in boxers. He told me to hold onto the dogs, something he regrets, in retrospect thinking they would have helped, the other possibility is the guys with the guns would have started shooting aimlessly. But I held the dogs back and called the police. Johnny jumped in front of Yoris, who had already been hit in the head with a nightstick, and started swinging when one of the guys said his name.

“Hey Johnny.” Johnny squinted to make out the guy’s face, he didn’t have his glasses on and is pretty blind without them, but from his voice and taking a good look he knew.

“I know you, I know where you live,” he yelled. Then proceeded to take the nightstick away from one of them and beat him with his own weapon. With that distraction the two cousins and the lover were able to get out of the car and run into the house. Kauil was half way down the street, he wanted to get some of our hoodlum neighbors for back up, but was stopped by two of the guys. Johnny continued swinging until they finally left. Shortly after the police did show up, they examined the gun shots to the car, the broken glass that covered the seats and the street and requested paperwork. Then came the ambulance, the day had only just begun.

When Kauil finally got in the house he laid down on his bed bleeding.

“My arm’s broken,” he said. He had a head wound and seemed like he was losing consciousness, so Yoris and his cousin accompanied him in the ambulance. The police told us we had to go file a report and left. Johnny and I went to meet them at the hospital, first stopping by the restaurant to leave a note saying we would not be going shopping and they could order all the vegetables from the veggie store. When the x-ray came out it was determined Kauil would need pins and a metal plate to put his arm back together. He had used his arm to protect his head from the beating with the metal night-stick, so his bone wasn’t just broken, it was shattered. But thanks to that arm, his head only required a few stitches. Yoris also got stitches in his head and Johnny had to have the glass removed from his feet. The car was also going to require putting back together, they smashed almost every window of his Volkswagen Sportsvan, which has quite a few panels of glass, plus the tail lights and side view mirror. Unfortunately we had not yet acquired insurance, since it was a used car that we had just finished replacing engine parts for. Kauil had a full schedule of yoga classes he was teaching and new wheels and in a flash it was all taken away.

To make matters worse, the thugs that were responsible put word out amongst the gang at the bottom of our hill that it was Kauil and Johnny that had attacked them. So, one Sunday on our way to brunch, while stuck in the middle of traffic, one car coming towards us and one car behind us, a fist comes at Johnny through his open window. I honked and revved until the taxi in front backed up. We no longer drive down that street, instead we take the less direct highway route. Johnny, who has many family members at the bottom of our hill, no longer visits them. And I have put my house up for sale. The police were given all the information we had about the culprits, but have done nothing.

San Miguel de Allende has been my home for 23 years, I fell in love with this Libra town where beautiful brass scales and paintings of St. Michael holding his sword over the devil bellow his feet were sold in every home decor shop in town. I  knew the moment I saw the churches and stone walls dripping in bugambilia and walked the cobblestone streets that this would be my home. I have never felt scared or threatened until now. Whenever there has been negative press about Mexico I have always taken the stand that bad people exist and bad things happen everywhere. The difference is that in most other places something is done about it. My son has now decided to go to college, so I am hoping that this event happened to take Kauil down the road he is meant to travel. But still, the scales have been tipped and my sense of home has been shattered.

Lost and Found

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Of course when you have a restaurant, especially in a fairly small city, many customers become so much more than just customers. You learn what they like and how they like it. Their presence becomes a part of your routine, a stability that anchors you through a turbulent job, because while you have impatient complainers there’s the comprehensive look from the kind regular. Rick Roberts was one of those people for me. He wasn’t my best customer, he could spend hours sipping on refills of iced tea while working on his poetry or reading a novel. He always wanted to know what I had left over, especially if it was something I had made just for my family. It was rare that he ordered a full plate. He would order Monday’s meatloaf special without the mashed potatoes and green beans on Tuesday, cold with some ketchup.

Even for a man in his mid-seventies he was still cool and sexy. His hair pulled back into a ponytail, a well-trimmed, grey beard, his Mexican, cotton button down shirts open revealing his grey chest hair and Buddhist emblem prayer beads hanging from his neck. He rode a motorcycle. He had a bold smile and always called me “baby”, “beautiful” or “sweetie”. And then there was his poetry. I’ve never met anyone that could recite their poetry like him, a trait that I truly admire, because I don’t have it! Some of my most mundane moments were interrupted by Rick reciting a love poem that would move me to tears. One day when he commented on the beauty of one of my female customers, I suggested he ask her out, he was about 15 years her senior, but for most men that would be ideal and he said,

“Baby, I’m at the age when I can still taste, the problem is I can no longer chew.”

So, when one morning last September while standing on line at the supermarket another customer told me that Rick was missing, I knew I was fixing to get bad news. For a few days it was a mystery. Both his motorcycle and dog were in his house, there was no forced entry or apparent robbery. He was not a wealthy man, so very doubtful that he would get kidnapped. He didn’t go out at night drinking and pretty much frequented places close to his home, like my place. We hadn’t seen him in close to a week and actually had been commenting on it, but there had been weeks that he went home to visit family or had come into some money and was frequenting places other than mine. After all, it’s not like he was required to check in with me or forbidden to eat elsewhere.

It turned out that Rick was not missing, he had had a heart attack and died on the floor right next to his bed. The police had looked for him in his home, but apparently not very hard. When they finally did find him, the smell making it impossible for them not to, a close friend entered with the police to identify the body. For some unknown reason the friend did not make arrangements for the dog who was lucky to be alive after a whole week alone with Rick’s body. So, when the body was sent to the morgue Rick’s dog was sent to the pound.

The morning I found out there was a rescue mission going on by 2 of Ricks’ friends who thought that maybe the dog was still in the house, but finally discovered that he wasn’t there. I got on the phone and called the police to find out where he had been taken. To the pound they told me. I called the pound to find out what I needed to pick him up. Just a photo they told me. So, I called the women who were on the rescue mission and asked them if they wanted to go or should I?

“You go,” they said.

“Ok, but I need a picture.”

“The only thing is that the only photo we have is of Mella (Rick’s dog that had died a year and a half before), but they probably won’t notice the difference, because both Mella and Jackie are black and white,” one said. “And also, don’t count on keeping him, because Rick’s family or other friends might want him”

“So, what are you saying? Should I leave him there?” I was annoyed and heart-broken at the thought of Rick’s dog, Jackamo, spending another minute at the pound. So, I walked out of the restaurant at about 2:30 with a picture of the wrong dog on my phone and a piece of meatloaf in a plastic bag and headed over to the office that handles the paperwork for the pound.

When I get there and finish with the red tape, the secretary tells me how to get to the actual pound, which is across the highway from the office down a dirt road. And also informs me that the workers at the pound were called away on an emergency and wouldn’t be back for at least an hour. Hmmm, what to do? Well, I wasn’t going to hang out waiting at the pound for an hour in the hot September sun, so I decide to pick up some things I need and go back to the restaurant. I sucked back an iced tea and had a bite, then called the secretary that had attended to me to see if the dog pound attendants had returned. By this time it’s 3:40.

“Yes, but they leave for the day at 4,” she tells me.

“Well, can you call them and ask them to wait for me? Please tell them I was already up there earlier, I might be a few minutes after 4, but I’m on my way.” She assures me she tell them and I haul ass up the winding highway on the busiest day of the weak in that part of town due to the big Tuesday market. I find my way down the dirt road to a weed-filled lot with metal structure and a locked fence, there are no signs, but I imagine it’s the pound because I can hear the barking and there are a few strays up front. I’m furious and instead of declaring defeat I decide to go back to the office and yell at the bitch I had been dealing with. The first thing she says when she sees me is,

“They were waiting for you.”

“Really? What time is it?”

“4:10,” she says after checking her phone.

“So, they waited maybe 3 minutes? I’ve spent my day trying to retrieve my dead friend’s dog and they couldn’t wait more than 3 minutes? And don’t you think you could have informed me they only worked until 4?” She looks at the floor and kind of shrugs.

“Well, can you ask them to go back? Or can someone else open up and give me the dog?” I ask.

“They’ll be there tomorrow morning,” she says. But if I learned anything from my high school years in Italy, when you really need to get your way with government officials, cry. I plopped my ass down on a chair, curled my knees in, dropped my arms to the side portraying a heaviness that means I’m not moving and just let the tears roll. “You might have to wait a while,” she says.

“That’s ok, I’ll wait.” Shortly a friendly looking man comes out of an office, he has a walkie talkie and tells me he’ll meet me over at the pound. I head back over to the fenced lot with the barking dogs and the nice man opens the gate to doggie hell.

There are about 10 cages of really funky looking dogs. Now my problem is that I only met Jackamo a couple of times and the photo I have is a lie.

“What does he look like?” the man asks. I have to tell him the truth.

“I really don’t know, but he black and white.” There are at least 6 dogs in the cages that are black and white and one female puppy tied to a tree. I know none of these are him, none of them have so much as a collar and none of the males are neutered, but still he takes me in front of each of the dogs like I’m identifying mug shots.

“Is that him?” He asks looking at the black puppy tied to the tree.

“No, that’s a female puppy, I’m looking for a male who’s about a year old.”

“Is that him?” He points to a growling pit bull-like dog who’s standing against the cage.

“No, that’s not him.”

“How do you know?” he asks.

“Well, he has balls, Jackie doesn’t.” They laugh. He calls the dog pound attendants that picked Jackie up and that didn’t wait for me. They tell him he’s tied to a tree, but not the female puppy that’s tied to a tree, but tied to a mesquite tree away from all the other dogs. He walks over a mound of rocks and through some tall weeds and motions me to come. Tied to the mesquite shaking inside a wood dog house is a black and white, mime-faced boarder collie with his tags hanging from his collar. “That’s him,” I declare.

“Does he bite?” asks the man.

“I hope not,” I say. He pulls on the rope to get him out of the house and I hold out my fingers that I had stuck in the bag of meatloaf before I walked in. “Come on Jackie, let’s go baby.” I clasp the leash to his collar and lead him to the car. I open up the bag of meatloaf, but he’s too scared to eat. When I take him in the house his tail is curled between his legs, he sniffs throughout the house, Maddy, our other dog follows and sniffs him. She’s wagging her stump, she’s interested. That’s my biggest worry, that Maddy and Jackie wouldn’t get along,  But by the second day it was clear Jackie found his new home. And now it’s clear Jackie and Maddy found each other.

They Lay Waiting

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The past few months of my life have been a restaurant owner’s nightmare. Being short staffed and having to ping-pong myself between the kitchen and the tables. One lawsuit from a waiter still hanging over my head, plus the inevitable lawyer’s fee to pay. Trial kitchen help comes and goes and in the mean time the steady kitchen staff gets frustrated and resent having to share tips with those that aren’t pulling their weight. I ask a waiter who had left me in the lurch, but needs the work and wants to return, to come back on our busiest days because one of the other 2 is periodically absent. But the two full-time waiters elbow him out of the job. So, I hire a part-time 18-year-old girl to come in and have a restaurant work experience before she goes of to college. I figure they can’t resent this innocent, young girl and they don’t have to split tips evenly with her, just throw her a bone. But they behave like spoiled children that don’t want to share and hate their mean mommy that’s making them. Meanwhile I’m spreading myself across toast as thin as melted butter, doing the work of those that aren’t there and strangely enough watching the balance of my bank account and cash stash dwindle. I spend my closing time doing the numbers over and over. The lists of groceries for the next day were long, so the food was going, but where was the money? I know you don’t have to be a genius to throw away a ticket and take the same amount of money. But right in front of my face?

I didn’t consider myself to be totally naive. In my 23 years here I’ve certainly been stolen from enough. My gold jewelry left with the very first maid I had when I went to spend Christmas with my family in Mexico City. All that was left for those that followed were things like flatware and underwear. In the boutique I had there was quite a bit of theft until I started doing inventory, after which there was only the occasional item taken by a sly customer. There have been many car batteries and stereos. Plumbing supplies and ceiling fans taken while my house was being remodeled. But here in the restaurant I thought that my constant presence was enough of a deterrent. I did decide to move the expensive bottle of tequila up to the front fridge because it seemed to empty awful fast in the back. But my 2 waiters were trusted to make change out of the till and my restaurant being the simple, rustic place that it is there were no computer systems or cameras to keep them in check and being as overextended as I was I suppose you couldn’t really consider me present.

The tip off came one morning. Johnny gets a text from the waiter that was elbowed off the job telling us not to let the 2 waiters, we’ll call them Alex and Miguel, in the till. This bite of info was gnawing through my brain for about a week until a Saturday afternoon when I’m throwing a small going away party for my plaza neighbor, Gayle, who was moving to Greece. I put out some hummus and Greek nachos (pita chips topped with a spiced jocoque, goat cheese, olives, roasted peppers, chopped parsley, olive oil and a squeeze of lime juice) and sit myself down with a glass of red wine to join the party. Shortly I realize that the only waiter in site is Alex, something I had noticed earlier and stepped out into the parking lot only to find Miguel leaning against a car chatting with the guy washing cars. So, I walk inside and ask the rest of the staff, “And Miguel?” They all shrug, except for Alex, who says he went to look at his car.

“And where’s his car?” I ask.

“Out in the parking lot,” he says.

“Well, I already checked the parking lot and he’s not there.” Alex just shrugs and he and I wait on the tables. A half an hour later Miguel walks in and barks at the kitchen staff.

“What am I going to eat?”

“Well, Miguel, since everyone already had their lunch during the hour that you were gone, go grab a pita bread and some hummus and feed yourself.”

“It wasn’t an hour, it was 40 minutes,” he argues. I don’t bother arguing, instead I return to the gathering. No more than 10 minutes go by when Miguel bends over and huffs in my ear,”Why did you tell everyone that I was hanging out in the parking lot while they were all working?”

I look him in the eye, wanting to say, ‘you’re not going to intimidate me you macho, Mexican fuck’. But instead I say in a deep tone, “because it’s true.” I was so angry the rest of the workday. I felt the waiters stampeding over me and that the kitchen staff was standing with them. I asked Johnny to pay out the salaries, because I didn’t want to look at them.

The next day, Sunday, my day off, I had an appointment for a massage with a woman who I also considered a friend. My stress level was maxed, plus I had severe burns on my chest from a wave of hot oil splashing on me while frying fish. I felt feverish and dizzy from the heat that was being emitted from my body, The oil sizzled on my skin until I cried, out of physical pain, out of anger and exhaustion. When the massage was over I thought I was going to faint. She put wet towels on my chest that turned into hot water drenching my body over and over. Then my massage therapist/friend started chiming in,

“They’ve been stealing from you, you can’t let them back here, you know that!” She was into her first or second glass of wine. There wasn’t enough water to re-hydrate me or ice to cool me down and her words kept spilling like a drunken pour. Until finally, sometime after a lunch I invited her out to, I flipped, I jumped out of her SUV in the middle of the country (I say that meaning in a place away from my car and town):

“Fuck you both (massage therapist and boy friend, Johnny, who spent the whole afternoon telling me everything I had to rearrange in my business)! You have no idea what it’s like to be MMMEEEE! Let’s see you guys jump behind the grill and cook when someone doesn’t show, take the orders, pay the bills, do the menu planning, organize caterings and events, deal with lawsuits. On top of it I have to fire the waiters who are probably going to sue me. Let’s see if you want to pay all the money they’re going to suck out of me. Fuck YYYOOOUUU!” I stomped and screamed and cried and steamed heat, the relaxed ball of silly putty I should have been after an hour and a half massage turned to Medusa,  snakes slithering out of her fire-red, frizzy hair, blistered, bare feet jumping in a puddle of bubbling lava. So, it was decided, Johnny had a new position in the restaurant, the cashier.

Monday we came to work with new receipts from Office Depot and told the waiters what the new system was going to be: No Hands in the Till Except Johnnys’ and Norens’. Miguel huffed and puffed and like a cocky teenager bellowed,

“That’s just perfect!” The next day Alex didn’t show up for work, I immediately saw the increase in cash and Miguel walked out by Thursday. Yes, he hit me up for a nice chunk of money, but it was worth it to have it over with swiftly.

That happened about 8 months ago, I finally got a chance to finish this story. That was also the last time I got a massage. Being the tangled up wad of stress that I am after all the holiday events, I finally scheduled one, plus I still had another hour and a half coming to me from my prepaid package with the masseuse/friend. Having long ago received and spent her money she cancelled last minute on me 2 weeks in a row. Sometimes employees aren’t the only ones that need to be fired.

P.S. Where the Pillow Falls

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I’m getting used to waking up and not knowing who’s going to be there. My house has become the place where many of my kids’ friends party, eat, sleep and bathe. That’s ok, I like the kids, these would be the kind of kids I would hangout with if I were a teenager. And honestly it’s easier to have them at my house than having to look for mine when it gets late and I start worrying … not like that doesn’t happen too. Being the mom of the flop house is not easy. Keeping food in the fridge is not easy. Sleeping through the parties. Not yelling at them when I’ve been woken up. Coming up with the taxi money at whatever hour whoever maybe knocking at the door.

One night my daughter’s friend Wendy showed up at 5 a.m., no one could hear her  banging on the door but me. She was wearing the highest heels and shortest skirt possible. I opened the door for her and went back to bed. Her pumps were frantically tapping across my daughter’s bedroom floor. I go back upstairs to find out why Wendys’ shoes won’t shut up. She was looking for change to pay the taxi. I shake the change out of my bag, taxis here rarely have change, and the next morning gave Wendy a long lecture about how dangerous it is for her to be out alone at that hour, dressed like she was and how taxi drivers are not saints, they’re men in cars.

So, now I can fully appreciate what the people who took care of me when I was growing up did. Bob and Nancy Cogswell probably have a lot to do with my open house. I started staying with them when I was about 9. Their middle daughter, Perelandra (nicknamed Pere), was in my class. Plus they had an older daughter, Camille, a younger daughter, Alima and Marc (Nancy’s first born from a prior relationship, but who was raised by Bob).  They were perfect. The mother, father and house full of siblings to play with. Very different from life as an only child with a single mother who worked all day pursuing her career as a fashion designer.

My mom took her first business trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong when I was 7.  We lived in Honolulu at the time, my mom befriended a Swiss chef and his wife at a French restaurant we would go to. They offered to look after me because they had a parakeet, but were trying to decide whether or not they wanted to have kids. I hated them. They ate like they were in a fancy French restaurant every night. I loved escargot in garlic and butter and filet mignon, but at a certain point enough was enough. Towards the third week with them I started rationing out my Halloween candy in order to survive the rest of my stay with out eating dinner. But every time my mom called my stay was extended.

“Are you crying?” my mom asked.

“No.” My voice cracked, but I held back the tears, because I didn’t want to cry in front of the uptight, Swiss lady who sat on the edge of the bed listening.

The next time she was asked to go on a business trip to Hong Kong, like I said, I was 9. We lived in Mill Valley and I took matters of where I would stay into my own hands. When I first became friends with Pere and family they were living in a Winnebago, nicknamed the Winnie, outside of Bob’s automotive shop. A bizarre mix of hippie mechanics surrounded by Playboy pin-ups, car parts and grease with kids running around drinking Swiss Miss with little marshmallows and watching cartoons. Nancy must have been going nuts raising kids, pets and all in The Shop while their beautiful home nestled in the mountain, surrounded by Red Woods was slowly being built, because they moved into a rental. Which is where I came into the picture.

I don’t know how it was discussed, the dates and money details of leaving your child with someone else. Apparently not with much clarity, because my mom dropped me and my suitcase off one evening when the only one home was Marc and the rest of the family had gone to the movies. I remember the surprised tone in their voices when they walked in and said, “Oh, look, Noren’s here.”

I never heard a single complaint out of Nancy or Bob’s mouth about an extra kid being dumped on their doorstep without a penny in her pocket. They must have discussed it privately, like when it was decided that it was time for us to be scolded, usually Alima and I, usually for weaseling out of going to school or disagreeing about what game to play. Being called into the room by Bob made “the girls” shake in their shoes. He was always laying in bed reading a fantasy novel, he barely looked up, but his deep voice resonated into his long beard. There was no yelling or spanking, simply a clear command.

“Alima, Noren, put your clothes on, you’re going to school,” he would say and briefly raise his eyes from his book. Fairly quick and painless I thought after my first scolding. Nothing in comparison to the cursing, shrieking hysteria of my mom that even made my teachers tremble when they called her to discuss my poor attendance or incomplete homework

Nancy didn’t discipline, she role modeled. French-born, still with a thick accent even after many years in California, she tied her straight salt and pepper hair  back into a neat ponytail and took a daily sun bath so her skin was evenly bronzed. She flowed through her routines with steady elegance. She picked us up from school and took us to the supermarket. We followed her like ducklings excited about that night’s dinner plan. Other moms might be frazzled, scolding their children as they tried to make it through their daily chores, but Nancy did it with a smile. Other moms might be halfway through a bottle of wine before the daily dinner preparation, but Nancy didn’t need it she cooked with contagious joy.

She made Chicken Casserole, Shepherd’s Pie, Peasant’s Soup (a beef and beet soup that we topped with sour cream),  Bratwurst with sauerkraut, her plentiful dinners fit for whoever might wander in that night and always accompanied by large green salads with perfect chunks of avocado and a dijon vinaigrette mixed in a big wooden bowl. For school Nancy made the fattest sandwiches always filled with lunch meat, Monterrey Jack or Cheddar Cheese, avocado, tomato and sprouts, smeared generously with mayonnaise and mustard on whole grain bread or she made a creamy tuna curry salad sandwich to die for. She always included a piece fruit, cookies and a drink. This bad ass lunch was packed in a paper bag, the top neatly folded, and each lunch labeled with a name. And each name had one letter that was a heart, even mine. For Easter Nancy made Easter baskets filled with fake grass, chocolate bunnies, yellow marshmallow chicks, collaged cardboard eggs that fit inside each other, wrapped in transparent plastic and tied with bows . My Easter basket was the same, not a smaller version, not a candy short. On December 1st everyone got a calendar filled with chocolates, even me, even if my mom was going to be home by Christmas. At parties people asked,

“Who’s this?”

“This is Noren, our adopted daughter.” They answered.  Going home was difficult, but so easy to fall back into life with the Cogswells. I joined them every summer for vacations in Yosemite. Bob went to every Grateful Dead concert in the Bay area and there was always a ticket for me. As a teenager I think my relationship with Bob and Nancy and the importance of their guidance became stronger. Nancy and I giggled and acted silly in public, “the girls” would say,

“C’mon you guys, you’re embarrassing us.” But we never stopped, like when you try to stop laughing in a serious situation it just makes it worse. No one could tell a dirty joke like Nancy or swear in a way that made it cute. Being with her made you feel like you were in a protected bubble of light and fun.

The more I was left with immense freedom to do what I chose and fearlessly boarded planes alone to India and Italy the less I felt like I was being looked after. Until Bob and Nancy reminded me that they were there. I called them from the gas station at the bottom of their hill to see if they could pick me up after staying out all night without the courtesy of a phone call. Bob picked me up. Once I got in the car there was a short silence and Bob said simply,

“Noren, Nancy worried about you all night.” I think I finally shook the way his daughters did when they were little. As we drove up to their finished home where the fog pillowed the tips of the Redwoods, I silently scolded myself.

I am re-posting this because Nancy recently passed. I am sure that Nancy’s passing was filled with the same grace that was present in everything she did. Where ever it is we go, I am sure that she has gone to a place as light and beautiful as she. I have been absent for so long that I missed watching her age. The reality of illness and mortality never tainted the memories I have from when things were just beginning. Throughout the years I’ve been able to hold tight to the naive illusion that somehow Nancy would be the one that could defy reality. She would be the last line of the book that you wish would never end that magically continues. The taste so good it doesn’t wash away. The scent so sweet you never exhale.

 

Quicksand

I tried to go on vacation. It’s hard to walk away from my restaurant. No matter how I try to plan and make things as easy as possible for the crew by stocking up with frozen and dried goods, I always feel that I haven’t covered all my bases. Last May I closed the restaurant and gave the crew their vacations all together while I oversaw projects. Painting, refinishing furniture, re-staining the polished concrete floor, taking my daughter to an expensive therapist an hour outside of town. The projects drained me of all my funds, left me no time to hang-out at home and then when we re-opened the customers slowly trickled back in. They forgot about us, wondered if we were closed for a week or two or maybe the whole month, scratched their heads and decided to go elsewhere. So this May I decided not to close. I alternated weeks for the staff to take vacations. This seemed ideal due to one girl’s health issues that kept her out of work and then my head cook and waiter needed a time out from each other due to his reconciliation with his wife and her broken heart. Mind you while each of the workers is out I’m the one that steps in to fill their shoes. Needless to say, I was in desperate need of a vacation!

My boyfriend, Johnny, and I had plans to go to an all-inclusive resort in Ixtapa and then spend a night at one of the beaches in Zihuatanejo. I thought that once I settled into the first class bus with a few drinks and half a sleeping pill in me I would doze off to a movie for the seven and a half hour ride and wake up at the beach ready to get into my bathing suit, tie on a sarong and enjoy. All my anxieties would drift away. The restaurant would be out of reach. During San Miguel’s slow, hot month of May when everyone is brain-dead from waking up throughout the night in pools of sweat, I figured I could throw my hands up for a week and entrust my home and restaurant to my kids and staff. I let the excitement of travel set in and dozed off. Until 5 a.m. when the lights came on and the driver’s cabin door flew open.

“Manos arriba, hijo de tu puta madre,” the chauffeur obeyed and stumbled towards the back of the bus with his hands behind his head. The two men behind him had shirts wrapped around their faces, one had a gun. “Give us your jewelry, cell phones, wallets,” they yelled at the passengers. I elbowed Johnny to wake him up and slipped him my phone and fumbled for a $200 peso bill I had in the front pocket of my purse to give to the thieves. Johnny has an i phone. I just have a stupid, smart phone I rarely answer, forget to charge and mostly just use to listen to music at the gym.

“Hide your stuff,” he whispered. So, I slipped my purse under the seat. The men ordered the passengers to not look at them, so I stared out the window. I didn’t see Johnny give them his empty head phone case. They got off the bus and we were on our way again. About another hour into our trip the bus driver stopped and suggested we go back to file a report. Of course no one wanted to go back and I’m sure we weren’t the only ones suspecting the bus driver was in on it.

Once there and settled in I tried to just focus on the beautiful beach, water aerobics, zumba at the pool, open bar, the luxury of not serving or feeding anybody else and the comfortable air-conditioned room allowing me to finally get a full night’s sleep while my dream state relaxed to the crashing waves, no honking cars or barking dogs, just ocean. My daughter called just to ask for permission to take money and said everything was fine. The next morning my son called with a restaurant shopping question.

“So, how are things going in the restaurant?” I asked crossing my fingers and praying for a good answer.

“Well, it’s ok. It seems like there was a problem between Martin and Ivonne (another couple of employees that had been having a relationship), but it looks like everything is worked out.” Not the answer I was looking for, but he didn’t want to give me details, he was busy, on his way to his yoga class, so I let him go. I wanted to trust that everything was ok, but I figured I’d better call. I spoke to the head cook. She was hesitating to give me the whole scoop, but slowly some of the story came out. Martin and Ivonne had a fight in the restaurant while customers were dining and their co-workers were providing all the service. Martin left Tuesday night saying that he would not be back, he couldn’t work with her. It turns out she had cheated on him and as hard as he tried to stay focused on work he couldn’t. She persisted arguing with him until it turned into pushing and the cook had to ask them to take it outside the restaurant. He was embarrassed by their behavior and said that he would be in to officially resign on the Monday that I would be back. Wednesday, one of our busiest day, the cook came to work. Noon came and went, customers rolled in but none of her back-up showed except for the dishwasher. Martin had already told her that he wouldn’t be back, but she expected Ivonne to show and not knowing what to do and the orders building up she called her and Ivonne came in to work. No one even considered calling me! Had I known I’m sure I would have told them to close, put up a sign: “Closed for Repairs, See You Monday.”

Instead I came home to hear the full story about the fight and how one waiter didn’t show at all on Saturday and how I had a lawsuit from an ex-waiter that had quit walked out mid-day almost two years ago and accused me of unjustly firing him. Plus I had to cater a party Sunday evening, so I couldn’t think too much about what I was going to do about Ivonne. Ivonne, who I really didn’t like much, a chatter box who wasn’t very good at the job. The only thing she had going for her is that she was responsible and showed up. But it didn’t seem fair that slutty Ivonne, who had instigated the whole conflict, should keep her job while broken-hearted Martin walked away from his like a gentleman without even asking for his pay for the two days that he worked before the big fight. So, I decided to ask her to resign as well. Instead she summoned me to labor court. I had two legal issues on my plate, I felt like my world had been sucked into some evil vortex, I cried as if life as I knew it was over. I mean, I make people happy with good food and fun parties, I don’t do law! And the unknown, possibly intangible, amount of money that I might have to pay them and the lawyer terrified me. Yes, no doubt, I needed a lawyer.

The lawyer set up an appointment with Ivonne to see if we could settle things without going to labor court, but he said she was unreasonable. She wanted me to pay $25,000 pesos when the lawyer came up with $4,400 pesos as an appropriate severance. So, there was no way around it, I had to go. The mediator asked Ivonne questions about her salary and if she had received her Christmas bonus, paid vacation and if she was owed any back salaries, I was relieved she didn’t lie. Then the mediator came up with her account of $12,000 pesos that included a nice chunk of money for unjust termination of employment. I began telling the mediator the story. Again I was relieved that Ivonne didn’t lie, she twisted the story around to make Martin the bad guy, but she didn’t deny having a fight in the work place. The mediator scratched the unjust termination off the account and asked Ivonne if she would like to accept our offer. No, she held firm to the $12,000 pesos. The mediator opened a legal bible and showed her a clause at the bottom of the page and asked her to read it.

“Now would you like to work with their offer?” she asked once Ivonne had finished reading.

“No,” she said.

“Could you please excuse us for a minute?” The mediator looked at the lawyer and I and we stepped outside.

When we were motioned to step back in the bidding began, an agreement was reached, papers were signed and I was officially rid of Ivonne.  And yes, life as I knew it ended. The trusting, naive hostess/cook died and a business owner was born,

 

 

Lioness on the Loose

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I did something the other day that I’m not real proud of…o.k. maybe just a little. And I’m aware that writing about it is a bit embarrassing and that my daughter might get even more pissed off at me, but since I’ve already publicly embarrassed my kids, why stop there?

I’ll fill you on in on some of the history. My daughter recently suffered a break-up with a guy after a very intense year-and-a-half. She’s 17, so there is a heightened level of intensity concerning everything from wireless headphones to relationships. And as her mother I suffered with her. I knew in my head that this was a lesson for her to learn, that I couldn’t take away her pain or distract her with a new toy or lollipop so to speak. But I did try to remind her that she had friends before her life spun like the second hand on a clock around her boyfriend and what d’ya know she actually listened to me. The sleep-overs and late nights out with girlfriends started again. It was so nice to see my daughter laughing with friends as opposed to howling and sobbing in her bedroom alone that my home being occupied by a bunch of teen-age girls was a small price to pay, even if some of these girls were not ones I wanted my daughter hanging out with. Two of them are sisters who have moved out on there own, because their parents are too screwed up to take care of them. In turn my house has been open to them. I have come home not to find my daughter, but rather the sisters. They roamed freely through the house, ate, bathed, did laundry and helped themselves to my daughters wardrobe. And shortly after my daughter rekindled her friendship with the sisters, one of them started going out with her ex-boyfriend.

Yes, I know this is none of my business. I know that the hurt she feels when she sees them together around this small town where they have mutual friends is not a pain that I can make go away. None the less, after more than a few glasses of wine at a community event on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I tried. My son and I had just been talking about how the fact that we get older doesn’t necessarily mean that we “mature” or that the essence of who we are and what we enjoy in life changes. At 21 he looks at people my age, 48, who still like to get high and boogie and thinks that he’ll be different. And maybe he will be…my yogi son has always been more mature than his rebellious, adolescent-minded-mother. So, having just said that I walked over to one of the sisters and threatened her. It’s a blur, but I said something along the lines of:

“If you or your sister do anything to hurt my daughter, you’re going to have to deal with me.” Well, with the most arrogant teen-age tone answered me back. Like I said, it’s a blur, but it went something like:

“I’ve never done anything to her and I don’t have to answer to you, blah,blah,blah,” the words kept spilling out of her snotty, little mouth.

“Well, you ungrateful bitch, after all I’ve done for you and your sister, and opened my home, and fed you and paid for taxis and this is the thanks we get!”

“And I thank you, but…”

“But you and your sister and that piece-of-shit-guy better stay away from my daughter and you can never step foot in my home or my restaurant again!”

“Well, I don’t ever want to step foot in your house or restaurant again!” There was an exchange of fuck yous and my work there was done, until I was faced with my son, looking down at me (because I come up to his arm pit), shaking his head.

“Mom, really? You had to do that? You had to fight with a 17 year-old? Why?”

My roaring chest deflated like an untied balloon farting through the air. It hit me that I had just behaved like the mom of a little girl who’s being bullied on the playground and then on top of being bullied she’s embarrassed by the way mom ran out to protect her. And on top of it, mom was drunk! And she refuses to admit she did anything wrong, instead she roars,

“Stay away from my cub or you’ll be lunch!”

Ms. Fix It

 

Over the many months since I last wrote anything other than an order or a menu plan, my job description has taken a turn. I am no longer the cook, the control fanatic standing over the grill all day over-seeing every order going out of my kitchen, unless someone doesn’t show up and I have to fill the empty shoes. Now I’m the sole owner and hostess. I’m in charge of supervising my 6 employees, some who are very good and others whose best quality is that they show up. Which is a big deal! After 23 years of being stood up by employees more times than I can count, I settle for a lot of mediocrity. I settle for the sloppy cleaning lady, because she shows up and doesn’t rob me blind when I leave her alone in my house. When a $100 peso bill shows up in the laundry, she places it on top of the folded clothes, so I’ll gloss over the dirty windows and cluttered bureaus. And in the restaurant I have to pick my battles carefully. The truth is I can’t do this alone, I need people at their posts. So I keep the stoner, brain-dead prep cook on. I look the other way when 4 of my 6 employees are rubbing up against each other, the cook making the waiter a hearty breakfast before work and pursuing the their restaurant romance on my supplies. But do I really want to lose staff that at least call when they can’t come over a half a dozen eggs? Unless their efficiency is totally stifled and I have to step in like a school teacher separating kids in a classroom, which I have, I usually bite my tongue — which anyone who knows me, knows what a challenge that is. And since I have opted for keeping some less than brilliant players on my team, the other requirement on my job description is fixing their mistakes.

Like my kids who call me because they left their key in the house and need someone to run and let them in, my staff starts the day out with petitions of everything they forgot to put on my shopping list. The kitchen’s surface space is full of bowls of scrapings of screwed up orders, the taco salad that was without cream or cheese, the soup with no rice, the nachos with no guacamole, the hamburger with no cheese. The half a slice of brisket that they considered was too much for the sandwich. Ooops, the fish wasn’t ordered for fish taco Friday. The tortillas haven’t arrived. The chicken truck broke down, so our chicken order can’t be delivered. By the way the freezer isn’t freezing…something that happens when the door is left ajar.I walk through the kitchen throughout the day and close the deli case and refrigerator doors and throw away all the avocado pits and peels and paper towels cluttering the counter tops. I pull out all the shrimp shells, lime wedges and tomato cubes stopping up the sink. The wrong take out was given to the wrong customer. And the worst is when a customer has an accident in the bathroom, they tell me and I Cloralex the accident away.

And while this is going on I need to greet, smile and serve.

“How are you today?” People ask.

“Great, no complaints. And you?” I respond. In defense of the lie, sometimes pretending everything is great helps me forget the glitches and gripes. And for real everything is great, business is steady, I have a great team… no complaints!

Turning It Up

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Last month Jerry and I went on the Delbert Mclinton Sandy Beaches Cruise. I no longer find travelling exciting. Actually it scares the shit out of me. There was a time when I got on a plane like a school bus and hopping countries was like a boat ride in Disneyland. My universe has comfortably shrunk. So, going on this cruise was a big deal. To leave my house, restaurant, kids, dog, bird, car is a big deal. But I wasn’t just going to see the beaches of Tortola and St. John’s, or wake up to bagels and lox for a week, I was going for the music.

We started our journey at 4 a.m. to catch a 12 noon flight out of Mexico City. It’s a 3 hour airport shuttle bus ride from Queretaro to the airport, sitting that long is a challenge for me. I squirm a lot and try to get comfortable in reclining seats with foot rests and attached pillows, supposedly designed for comfort, but totally not taking into account the slope of a human’s back, sinking your spine into an unhealthy curve compressing it into your ass. My ass begs for mercy, but the bus is rolling along and I tell my ass that we’ll be there soon enough and after another stretch of sitting we’ll be there and there will be fun! But all of a sudden the bus stops. We’re at a total halt on a 3 lane highway. After about 10 minutes many of the other airport travellers start getting nervous. After about 20 minutes the bus driver opens his door and informs us that there has been an accident on the highway and the accident won’t be cleaned up and traffic won’t be let through until the insurance experts finish assessing the damage, but they will be veering us off onto a small one lane road that will take us there. I’m listening to other travellers call loved ones and employers, because it appears they will be missing their flight. Well, I don’t have a cell phone and even if I did who would I call and what could anyone do about this? And honestly I was still hopeful. I was hopeful until we arrived at Terminal 1 of the airport at 11 a.m., until 2 sweet, little, old ladies made their way down the narrow aisle, a stranger’s hand helping them down the steps.

“Oh, gracias, you are just an angel sent from heaven, may God bless you dear girl, gracias.”

‘Ok, grandma, move it along,’ I’m thinking, as I watch the minutes change on the digital clock. The porter attends to the 2 sweet, little, old ladies as if they were his very own grandmothers. He pulls their 5 large suitcases out of the bus rearranging the cargo like colored squares on a Rubix Cube, then flags over another porter with a dolly and carefully stacks their luggage on the cart for them. Blessings, than yous and goodbyes are generously bestowed upon all the porters and the bus driver as my face dropped into my hands and all hope was gone.

We missed our flight. The tickets cost more to change than to buy new ones.

“Let’s get on the next bus back to San Miguel,” I told Jerry. But we continued on, finally arriving at the hotel I had booked in Fort Lauderdale at 10:30 p.m. Instead of the afternoon of shopping in the U.S. (after years of not so much as stepping into a “Target”) and relaxed dinner that I had planned, we had a late dinner at a very cool restaurant-bar, “Ernie’s” and picked some stuff up at a 24 hour Walgreen’s. The next day I got to speed shop through “Ross” for bras, undies, sunglasses and flip-flops and pick up our 2 allotted bottles of wine, because the hotel required we check out at 11 a.m. and would let us leave our bags in the office for a couple of hours. My shopping plans ruined we just got a taxi and boarded the ship.

Finally, the ship, a haven providing comfort, an over-abundance of food and the most delicious music you could hear in one week. My feet moved, ass shook fingers snapped and palms clapped every day starting at noon. The 2 days when we ventured ashore, I felt the absence of the music. One of the musicians sat in a beach chair behind us and hung a bag with blues coming from it, I followed the sound and asked him if that was his bag that the music was coming from.

“Yeah, why?” I could hear his voice get deep and defensive. “Do you want me to turn it down?”

“No, could you turn it up?” Please let the music play and play so I can hear it! I stopped Keb Mo’ outside the dining room and took his hand like a silly fan, like the little, old ladies getting off the bus, and thanked him. “Thank you for such great music,” I told him. “Thank you,” I told one of the members of Mingo Fishtrap,”for that amazing cover of Fame!” I could have gone on from musician to musician, starting with Delbert, giving thanks and blessings. And though getting home felt like heaven, I wished the music would continue. I want to wake up every day and dance. I want my customers to dance into the restaurant, delight in food and music. Clap, tap their feet and say,”turn it up!”