The joyful & unbroken creative power that sustains the universe.
I get to work a few minutes after 5:00. No one says anything my tardiness. I zip off my jacket and squeeze it into a cabinet under the bar along with the straws, stop tops, and rags. I’m a bartender at an Indian restaurant.
First I take the cover off of all the alcohol bottles: vodka, gin, rum, tequila, triple sec. Bowman’s alcohol, the cheap rail stuff. Four bucks a bottle I bet. Bowman’s vodka tastes like it is distilled through a vacuum cleaner. I unveil the finer liquors. The scotches, a drink for gentlemen: Johnny Walker, Macallan, Glenfiddich. With only a shot – you can absorb some sophistication by drinking molten gold. It’ll put hair on your chest though – so watch out!
I’m now already cutting lemons in the kitchen. Why are you still reading about the alcohol? Stop lagging behind! Hurry up! Rapido rapido! In the hospitality business there is no time to lose, not even for the people reading this paper. So move your ass!
In the kitchen I greet the cooks, Udu, Alok, and the bread guy Peter. They’re all smiles and enthusiasm. Ram, one of the waiters, comes up from behind and picks me up, threatening to put me in the tandoor. I slap him in the face and his scheme to bake me into a crispy piece of naan fails.
Peter tells me another bread maker in Deli murdered his wife this way. He cut her up into pieces and put her in the tandoor. Not the smartest murder, but it would make a good CSI episode.
The tandoor method of making bread hasn’t changed much over the last 5,000 years. It is basically a large fire pit heated to a temperature over 400 degrees. Baking bread in this Neolithic machine is a dance with fire, a dance that Peter partakes in ten hours a day, six days a week. He takes a piece of dough and spins it like a pizza – a process that seems simple enough. Yet after this task comes the dangerous part. He has to place the dough on the metal walls of the fire pit, with his hand as his only tool. He does this task a hundred times a day; I bet he could do it with his eyes closed and playing baseball with the other arm. He shows me his arms, the hairs are charred and multiple burns cover his flesh.
I walk past the cooking area and ask Oscar, one of the kitchen staff, for help.
“Donde esta la juga de pina?”
Oscar reaches up and grabs the pineapple juice for me. He laughs about my height – I am muy chiquita.
Oscar has a bright red scar on his finger that stretches from knuckle to nail. He refuses to get medical attention. Like most of the staff he shrugs it off, and leaves the healing process to fate. The other kitchen worker, Maria, reaches for a crate containing about 40 dirty dishes. It looks to be about 20 lbs. Much like with Peter and his bread though, Maria does this task almost as often as she breathes. She is also eight months pregnant.
Now I am back at the bar. Rapido, rapido! The waiters yell as I make drinks. The entire wait staff is Indian, yet they frequently communicate with one another in Spanish. A habit they picked up from the kitchen staff. Their “rapido’s” end up transforming into “lapidos or shlapidos.” And then through the two American staff members, it morphs into “lapedo.”
The waiters gossip amongst themselves in a cocktail of different languages – Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Spanish, and English.
Moti Moti Moti! Ram clucks as he walks behind the Pakistani hostess.
“I know what that means!” she yells, “Stop calling me fat!”
She explains that her language, Urdu, is almost identical to Hindi.
“Look at these guys!” She yells over to me, “Aren’t they creepy?” Everyone laughs.
I make her favorite drink. A virgin Mai tai: pineapple and cranberry juice. If you’ve never tried the combination you should – it’s a nice tropical drink to enjoy on a breezy summer afternoon.
I myself drink the Chai tea prepared by the bus boy. It’s an eclectic mix of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and sugar. The American customers miss out on this delicacy. Their chai tea is served bland because the waiters assume American’s don’t like the more complex flavor.
Then the drink orders come in.
“A Taj Mahal with two glasses, one coke, one diet coke, and a pinot greeeeseot (pino gregio).”
No sooner do I start to make this drink when a second order is yelled at me.
“A curry leaf martini, an appletini, and two mango margaritas!”
“Lapido ! Rapido!”
In the middle of the order, water jugs begin to breed on the bar top. Each one requires ice and water from the sink. One, two, and now four jugs lay before me. The customers propagate quicker than the jugs. A tall skinny Indian man has been waiting for service for about ten minutes. He begins to wring his fingers and check his watch. A couple sits down at the bar – they need menus – and someone to take their order. All the while the jugs keep multiplying, the wait grows longer, the curry leaf martini is half finished and the other drinks haven’t even been started. The couple needs a place matt. The tall skinny man needs change for his purchase.
The phone begins to ring.
Welcome to ____, Fuck you. I say – I wish I could say.
“Welcome to ______, how can I help you?”
“What are your lamb dishes?”
We have over 40 items on the menu. I don’t have time for this. Ram asks where his drinks are for the second time. I shove the phone into his hands and try to finish his order.
A woman with curly hair wants to pick up her take out order at the bar. I place a bag before her and go over the items on the receipt. Yes, yes – she insists the bag is her own. She waves me off, and walks out the door with the food.
20 minutes later a man is upset because his order is missing.
Raj, the head waiter, gestures for me to fix the problem.
I pull an apology out of my ass.
For the third time Ram comes by asking for his drinks. The customers have already finished their food, they’re wondering where their drinks are.
“Have you made the Appletini yet?”
He begins making a drink. It is a bright green fluid in a cocktail glass garnished with a cherry.
“I made that drink already! That’s an appletini!”
I hear a string of Malayalam explicative accentuated with English “Fucks!”
Raj helps me take orders. I continue making the drinks.
The customer traffic dies down and sanity is restored.
A woman in her 40’s drinks a margarita and insists to her husband, on the phone, that she hasn’t had a drop to drink.
A man in a blue blazer and a crew cut is texting his friend.
“He’s at the Congressional Black Caucus hearing the president speak. We were supposed to catch some drinks tonight – but hey, when you get tickets to hear the president speak, it’s kinda hard to turn a thing like that down.”
“Can you text your friend to tell Obama I said ‘hi?’” I ask.
Obama never returned my “hi.”
Guess who I’m voting for?
The last few customers trickle out and the clock on the register hits 10:30. Closing time!
“Turn off the sign Drew!” I yell to a waiter. “Lapedo Lapedo!”
The neon “Open” sign is turned off. We eat biryani rice – my favorite.
I collect my tips.
“Oh you’re rich!” The bus boy jokes.
“Yeah, you and me are gonna run off to Vegas.” I reply.
I drive Ram home. Most of the staff doesn’t drive – not because they don’t know how, but because their driver’s licenses from their home countries are not accepted in the U.S. Two of the staff members bike home. Eight of the staff live together.
“This is no life.” Ram says. “Work six days a week. Ten AM to Ten PM. In America and don’t have time to see America. But what can you do?”
Their days aren’t linear, but cyclical, like the Goddess herself. Each day begins and ends exactly like the one that came before. No one calls out sick and few complain on the job. As a customer we only see exotic food and smiles. Little do we know their backstory. All we know is that they are a joyful and unbroken creative force that sustains our experience.