Kamis, 16 Februari 2012

FIRST ENCOUNTER by Peter Nolan Smith

America was in a deep recession during the summer of 1974 and I had returned to Boston after a two-month hitchhiking trip across the USA to discover that banks and corporations weren't hiring long-haired college graduates. I finally found work at the Shaba, an Israeli restaurant on Beacon Hill, as the cook. I had never been to Israel and had never met any Israelis. My knowledge of Middle East cuisine was zero. The young manager, Ari, taught me how to cook falafel, spread hummus and bab-ganoush on a plate, and toasted pita bed. At the end of my training Ali declared that I was head chef. My pay was the minimum wage. I worked sixty hours a week. My take-home pay with overtime was about $130. It was better than nothing.The two waitresses at the Shaba were from Tel Aviv. Ari came from Jerusalem. The three of them ordered me around like a slave, but I didn't mind the bullying from the two girls. They were very cute and I thought I might have a chance with one. Sillva was a skinny redhead with freckles two months out of the army and I sometimes caught her looking at me. She always smiled, as our eyes met for a moment.I was good-looking in a Neanderthal way."Are you doing anything after work?" I asked one night, washing up the dishes. My job included that chore. "I am meeting with friends." Sillva made it sound like none of them were a boyfriend. "I'd invite you, but israelis like hanging out with themselves. It comes from not being able to trust anyone.""Not trust anyone?" I had been a hippie. We believed in peace and love."Israel is surrounded by hostile nations. The Nazis killed Jews and everyone watched. Who should we trust?""I understand." I had dated a Jewish girl in high school. My best friend was a Jew from Long Island. They were nothing like Israelis. I put away the final pot. I was free to go."You do?" She took off her apron. Her hipbones jutted above her jeans. Her skin was darkened by the sun. I imagined her in an army uniform for a second. "Yes, in grammar school I had been beaten by bullies. Everyone watched the show. No one did anything." The three boys were not the SS, but their punches left no marks. "After that I didn't trust too many people either.""Maybe one night, but not tonight."Outside Ari, the other waitress, and Sillva walked toward Charles Street. I was living at home. The last train to Ashmont was at 12. I made it with five minutes to spare. There was no way I would ever get together with Sillva and I resigned myself to being the cook. Life was easy without desire.The next month I labored from 9 in the morning to 11 at night. I never complained about the hours. I needed the money. The three Israelis drank and laughed together in Hebrew. I was an outsider. Sillva and I never had time alone. Ari and the other girl made sure of that.The night Nixon resigned from the White House I was frying falafel in the kitchen and upon hearing the news I ran into the street to join in the celebration. Massachusetts was the only state to vote against Nixon in 1972. Car horns blared throughout the city and I turned around to see the two waitresses standing in the doorway. The manager had the night off."What?""Nixon was a good friend to Israel." Sillva eyed me with suspicion."Every president has been a good friend to Israel." The USA supplied them with arms."Not Eisenhower. He backed Egypt in the seizure of the Sinai Canal." Sillva stepped aside for me to enter the restaurant."Eisenhower was pissed, because the French and English hadn't warned him about the war and this gave the Soviets a free hand in Hungary." I had read about this war in several books. Every author concluded it was a mistake."Who cares about Hungary? They were Nazis." Sillva spat out the accusation without any opening for a rebuttal."Zsa Zsa Gabor is Hungarian. She's no Nazis.""I thought you were different, but you're like everyone else. No one cares about Israel." She was actually close to tears. My attempt to apologize was waved off by her friend."You are what you are. Sorry won't change that.""If you say so." I couldn't see what I had really done wrong, but saying sorry is what you're supposed to say to a crying woman. We didn't speak for the rest of the night. Orders were placed on the counter in silence. I left without a good-bye and the next morning Ari fired me as soon as I walked into the restaurant. "We have a new cook coming from Jerusalem."It was a lie, but I didn't need an explanationEither you were with the Israelis or you were against them. I stopped by the restaurant several times for my last check. The next week the manager said it would be ready later in the day. He was lying, but Sillva said, "Make him his check. He worked for it."As the manager went into the office, I asked Sillva, "I didn't mean to hurt you.""You can not hurt an Israeli. We do not get hurt." "Sorry.""Don't ever say sorry to an Israeli. It's a sign of weakness.""John Wayne said the same thing in THE SEARCHERS." It was my favorite John Ford Movie."Then he must be Israeli too." She turned away, as if she expected me to become a pillar of salt. Ari came back with the check. I cashed it at the bank. I spent the rest of the day at the Sevens on Charles Street. The bar was a dive. None of its patrons cared about Israel. They were there to drink beer and I was too.

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