Drug dealers. Rapists. Refugees. Terrorists.
According to some who speak ignorantly and irresponsibly, these are the kinds of people I have worked alongside for over twenty years. Having infiltrated this country to work 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week clearing away people’s dirty dishes, cooking their food, cleaning up the messes made in the restroom, they are biding their time until the moment when they can all rise up and awaken from their conspiratorial slumber, impose sharia law on all of us and establish a dystopian Caliphate in America. Yes, it is only a matter of time before these good, hard working, loyal people throw away all they have worked for by taking on many of the menial, thankless jobs that we think we are too good to do, to become jihadists and overthrow the American government. These cooks from Mexico, and barbacks from Ecuador, bussers from Bangladesh, washroom attendants from Senegal, Porters from Mali, doormen from Nigeria, bartenders from Morocco, Maitre D’s from Tunisia. All of them are in fact, simply committed to quality service, to making people happy and to making a decent living so they can provide for their families and themselves. They have all been next to me in the trenches of service during the combat that is dinner rush on Friday night. Armed with freshly polished silverware, uniformed with a smile, decorated with a Sommelier’s pin or a Cake tester, their Esprit de Corps is unshakable, and their work ethic is incredible. The restaurant industry has given me a lot, but nothing more valuable than the quality and diversity of the people I have met while working in it.
Several years ago, before 9/11, I worked at an iconic restaurant in TriBeCa called The Odeon. The Twin Towers loomed in the background every day as I rode my bike the 17 minutes it took to get there down West Broadway from my apartment in the East Village. Knowing that I would never see that view again was one of many things that shattered my heart the day they came down.
I formed a lot of special friendships at The Odeon and many of them persist to this day.
When I began working there, there were a lot of Moroccan people working there, so much so we all used to joke and call it the Moroccan mafia. One of the Manager/Maitre’ D’s, several servers, a bartender, a veteran food runner, a barback, and many others were all from Morocco or Algeria and they were an integral part of a team there that crushed service every single night at one of the busiest, most profitable restaurants in the city. Everyone at The Odeon knew each other’s name, we knew the owner’s children, we went to ball games together. And, as is the case in any restaurant, you chat about each other’s lives and we saw each other through a lot of milestones in life. From relationships (some of them with each other), to kids, to moving. It was very much like a family there. We had great perks too. We would stay after our shift and get a nice table and have a big dinner and several bottles of wine with the regulars, we’d go visit Paul and Michelle who lived above the restaurant, I could borrow Cameron’s BMW to run errands. Back then the bartender closed the restaurant so we’d wrap up at around 2-2:30am, and sometimes sip wine and chat until 3 or 4am, clean up after ourselves and go home. We never overdid it and management allowed us to treat the restaurant like our home. We’d sit there and gripe about service issues, share stories about sports, politics, books and sometimes, religion. I grew up fairly Agnostic but went to Catholic school for first and second grade and was primarily Methodist on both sides of my family. I got to learn all kinds of things about Islam from my Muslim friends at The Odeon and, as I got to know them better, I was fascinated by the devotion they showed to their religion.
Long before the word Inshallah was perverted into something death cultists say before they blow themselves up or murder innocent people, I overheard it there, from a very erudite, alcoholic, cartoonist regular of ours who was talking with my fellow bartender Abdul. Abdul was from Casablanca and they were talking about how in Portugal it is fairly common to say Oxala as a salutation. They were talking about it’s origins coming from when the Moors ruled there from the 8th to the 15th century and it was a way to bestow blessings on something, or someone. I remember thinking how special the historical convergence of these two things were, and I was moved further as Abdul and I talked a bit more about it afterwards.
As I have said, as friends and co-workers, we saw each other through various periods and milestones. And the holidays were a big part of this, since often the keenest expressions of culture and belief come through their observance. When Ramadan came around all of the people of Muslim faith at The Odeon fasted during daylight hours. This meant no food or water of any kind when the sun was up. I was astonished since somehow I had never heard of this practice before. Odeon had a very busy lunch and dinner setup started early so there was a often a lot to do before the sun went down and the thought of not being able to drink or eat anything was unfathomable to me. Yet, everyone who practiced Islam there did it for a month with relative ease. I was so impressed I thought I’d try it but I flunked after 2 or three days when I accidentally sipped a beer when I was out with some friends on the weekend. These people I worked with were not fanatics, they were not fundamentalists, they merely practiced their faith with deep commitment and discipline. They were kind to others, true to their beliefs, and sought to balance their spiritual growth with some degree material success.
The food runner Yusef was going to Medical school then and is now an Anesthesioligist, one of the servers is a very well known hairdresser who lives on Park Avenue South and has a house in East Hampton, the bartender Abdul is now a partner in two successful restaurants here in the city, one of which is located in an iconic hotel in Times Square. I think of the countless people they have served and saved, and made look beautiful and feel happy over the 16 plus years since then and it is truly inspiring,
As I look back on those times, I am so very thankful to have known that precious group of people and to continue to know them. I am also sad though because the things that I am hearing proposed now are frightening and awful and ignorant and dangerous. I wonder what my life and experience at The Odeon might have been like back then if not for Yusef, and Abdul, and Sebnem, and Hafid, and Tariq, and Mohammed. Without having fresh Moroccan tea to sip on all night when we had to work on Thanksgiving, without the band that played and the dancing we did at Abdul’s wedding party at Layla. Without the obsessive talks about Jeter’s batting average with Yusef and why the acronym RBI didn’t make sense to him. About Fadwa being upset because I didn’t make it to Marrakech from Haifa that summer due to a travel snafu. Or yelling at Tariq to stop talking to guests because he loved talking and laughing with the guests so much and he needed to hurry up and bring Lincoln and his wife their bread before their Country Salad arrived. If you take all of those experiences and people like that away from our lives, is there anything truly worth experiencing? To me, it becomes just a damn job. A series of trips back and forth to the Micros terminal and making drinks and dropping checks. Putting down full plates and picking up empty ones. If you remove all of those kind, loving, passionate, hard working people, there’s just a building left, made of wood, metal and stone, lit up by talking wires, with a sign out front, and it is empty inside.
The Moroccan Martini created by Abdul Tabini:
2 parts Stoli Ohranj
1/2 part fresh lime juice
1/2 part Agave nectar
Splash fresh orange juice
4 mint leaves
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass along with ice. Shake passionately to insure the breaking up of the mint leaves. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a mint leaf.