Issue 22 / Summer 2020
We were all farm animals to Alfonso: waiters were burros; waitresses were burras; prep cooks, dish washers, and bus boys were bueys. Instead of the colloquial, “Que onda, wey?” Alfonso would say, “Que onda, buey?” When I asked Chuy what buey meant—as I’d never heard the word in my three years of high school Spanish—he explained that it was an ox, an old, tired ox that dragged a heavy plough and wore a heavy yoke.
“With no balls,” added Juan Cardona helpfully, making a snipping gesture with his index and middle finger.
Alfonso regarded us all as lowly work animals, his fellow kitchen Mexicans and the gringos in the dining room alike. His tongue knew no hierarchy. He was an equal-opportunity insulter, a Mexican Don Rickles, minus the tux, plus the kitchen whites and checkered pants, droopy eyelids, black Pancho-Villa mustache, all crowned with a head full of thick, black curls.
One time, a pretty and dignified Mexican woman in her late thirties came into the restaurant. She wore a dress, subtle make-up, and had a neat shoulder-length haircut. She was plump, but not fat and had excellent posture. She had a neutral expression, yet walked with purpose.
“That’s Alfonso’s wife,” Patricio the busboy told me as I sat in a back booth rolling silverware up in napkins one afternoon before the dinner rush. Sure enough, she headed straight through the double swinging doors, into the kitchen. I paused, anticipating some yelling or cursing, which would have been audible from where I was sitting, but there was none. A few minutes later, she exited the kitchen with the same neutral facial expression and left the restaurant.
After that day, I’d been forced to regard Alfonso differently. With a wife like that, he couldn’t possibly be a trash-talking crank all the time.
He always used the corner of his white apron, never the back of his hand, to wipe away the sweat that accumulated on his forehead and trickled down his temples during busy lunches or brunches (he rarely worked dinners). His loquacious bandido mustache gave his mouth the air of being permanently downturned, which, with the choleric vertical crease just between his brows, implied permanent distaste for his fellow human beings. He was perpetually either pissed off at or disappointed in us.
“You didn’t put the temperature on this cheeseburger, burra.”
“Your chef salad is up, burro,” he’d say as he flicked his wrist and slid the bowl across the aluminum counter so that it stopped just short of the edge.
He would blame us whenever a customer asked for something extra, like a side of mayo for their fries or some grilled onions to top their burger. And if a customer sent something back, he’d scold us as if we had encouraged it.
“There’s nothing wrong with this pinche Monte Cristo,” he’d say. Or simply, “Chinga a tu madre.”
To his credit, though, he vastly expanded my working Spanish vocabulary. From Alfonso, I learned pínche, pendejo, chingáda, chilángo, and cabrón. I never used these words myself, but I responded with appropriate amusement or indignation, depending on how Alfonso used them toward someone else or leveled them at me. Then there was buey, which I also never used, because I knew my place. Buey implied a churlish and absurd fraternity among men who were desperately needed by their jefe and customers, but were otherwise dismissed as irrelevant and even burdensome by California gringo society. Buey was a word that was off-limits to women in general, but to me in particular.
The guys in the kitchen knew I was a single girl in her mid-twenties living far away from her family. As such, it was acceptable for me to hear vulgarity in Spanish, but not to use it myself. If I did, I would lose any esteem I had garnered from being an independent college grad from New York, and I did have some serious cache: in fact, Patricio—who called me Beauty instead of Maria—often described me as “ed-do-CATED,” his parlance for “educated,” which was the highest compliment of character afforded any of the wait staff. To be ed-do-CATED didn’t just mean to have a formal education, as it does in English. Instead, it meant one had manners and a sense of propriety, maybe even some eloquence. It meant one was self-possessed, knew the right thing to do in a given situation, could present oneself to maximum effect, treated others with dignity.
Besides being regarded as ed-do-CATED, I was unburdened by the resentment many of my San Diegan co-workers felt toward Mexicans, and the guys in the kitchen could feel that I was different in that regard. Finally, I didn’t seek to become a Californian. Because I wouldn’t assimilate entirely, I seemed immune to the seductions of the San Diego surfer/beach-bum lifestyle, and the fact that I still had strong family ties back east furthered the impression the guys had of me as different from the others…or so, I imagined it did.
One way I resisted assimilating was by absolutely refusing to change my accent, particularly my nasal a’s. After a time, having to endure the endless Southern Californian fascination with and derision for what was widely regarded as my mispronunciation of words like “coffee” (caw-fee) and “talk” (tawk), I began to feel, as a New Yorker in San Diego, as foreign and as resented for my foreign-ness as the Mexican guys at work. I even started to think of them as mi gente. But I wasn’t really one of them, I was to learn.
The other cook was Jesse, a tall, thin, Mexican man in his late forties or early fifties with a trim black mustache, prominent Adam’s apple, and straight black hair that he wore in long layers, like Tom Petty. His cheeks were slightly pocked, as if he’d once had acne, but the scars didn’t mar his looks. They just made him a bit imperfect.
If Alfonso was Don Rickles, Jesse was Sam Elliot. Unlike Alfonso’s rapid-fire trash talk, Jesse spoke slowly, more thoughtfully, and in a lower register, like a cowboy from west Texas. Alfonso’s round and petulant-looking baby face was reminiscent of one of those big Olmec heads from my middle school Ancient Civilizations textbook, whereas Jesse had the fine, narrow features and slightly hooked nose of a Mayan king or warrior, like Pakal of Palenque.
Looks aside, their temperaments were vastly different, too. Jesse was more reserved than Alfonso: he would talk to you if you talked to him, but he often left you wondering just what he thought, whereas Alfonso let you know exactly what he thought, especially if he thought that you were a burro.
Jesse, who was from Guerrero, was a long-distance runner in his spare time. He’d run the Boston Marathon once and said he wanted to run the New York City marathon some day. He was married, too, and he always mentioned his wife and daughters with great fondness. In the kitchen, he was the epitome of efficiency, and even when it got busy, he never lost his temper or complained. He had the odd combination of stoicism and empathy, which made him a natural leader.
Whereas Alfonso used aggression to assert his kitchen authority (a hostile Chihuahua comes to mind), Jesse never did. For one thing, he didn’t resort to name-calling. When he used buey, it sounded less like an insult than when Alfonso said it. In my two years working with Jesse, I never saw him yell at a prep cook, dishwasher, waiter or waitress. And he never tried to make you look stupid, even if you said something that actually was. One time, he gently corrected me when I told him that chimichangas were one of my favorite Mexican dishes. “Maria, chimichangas aren’t Mexican food. They’re Tex-Mex.”
I could imagine how Alfonso would have handled that scenario: “Burra, only gringos think chimichangas are real Mexican food.”
Jesse worked nights, so unless it was a busy holiday, like the fourth of July, you were as unlikely to see him and Alfonso together as you were to see Superman and Clark Kent in the same room. When there was a lull in the dinner crowd, or as ten o’clock approached (the kitchen closed at ten sharp on weeknights), Jesse sometimes asked me to make him coffee. He had a very specific way he liked his coffee, and there were only a couple of people on staff who knew how to make it. Once I became one of them, I felt like I’d been accepted into a small, prestigious club whose members possessed secret knowledge.
Eventually, I grew to appreciate the ritual of making Jesse’s coffee for him, even if it was time-consuming: first, I’d take an iced-tea glass and put about two inches of half-and-half in it. I’d microwave it for about forty-five seconds, until it was steaming. Then I ripped open three packets of honey and stirred them in. The honey would dissolve nicely because the half-and-half was hot. After that, I’d go to the Bunn coffee machine and fill the rest of the glass with regular coffee. I’d give it another stir, nuke it for half a minute more, and slide it across the counter to him. He’d say, “Thank you, Maria,” and sip it slowly as he started closing up the kitchen.
One time, I had to park my car in the alley out back behind the kitchen instead of on the street because La Jolla was full to the hilt. It might have been the fourth of July. Anyway, after doing my closing tasks, I’d gone out through the back door and discovered my car wouldn’t start. I came back in the kitchen and explained my problem. I thought Chuy or Juan Cardona would volunteer to help me, but instead, Jesse did. He followed me outside and looked under the hood. Apparently, besides running, he also fixed cars in his spare time. He determined that I didn’t need a jump start, but fiddled with something, and suddenly, my car started right up. He told me to carry some Wire Dryer spray and showed me where to spray it if it happened again. I thanked him, but felt like I wanted to do something more.
On my next dinner shift, I started talking about how the Margaritas in San Diego and Baja tasted far better than the ones back east. I then casually asked him what his favorite tequila was. He said, “Hornitos,” which I’d never even heard of. The next day, I went to a liquor store and got him a small, twenty-dollar bottle of Hornitos. I gave it to him at the end of my shift, a token of gratitude for helping me with my car. He held the bottle in both hands, regarded it, smiled appreciatively and said, “Thank you, Maria.” There was nothing mocking in his smile. It seemed quite genuine. But in retrospect, I wonder if my gift had reduced his fixing my car, a gesture of kindness for which he did not expect repayment of any kind, to a mere transaction. I wonder too, if by giving him a bottle of tequila, I’d unintentionally designated myself as the patróna and him as the poor campesíno who relied on me to reward him for his services. It pains me to think that might have been so, but Jesse had too much dignity to let on that I’d insulted him in any way, even if I had. I guess I’ll never know for sure.
What I was really trying to say with the bottle of Hornitos was that he had made me feel taken care of when he’d fixed my car that night, not like some clueless burra, but like a daughter or a sobrína, someone he was looking out for. And I never forgot that stuff.
Jesse would often say, “We didn’t cross the border, Maria. The border crossed us.” I knew what he meant: not only was the entire western part of the United States once part of Mexico, but the Californios, the resident Californians before the west was packed with U.S. settlers, were Mexicans, just as the first residents of Texas—Tejanos—were. Jesse appreciated the irony that now the gringos in San Diego acted as if the Mexicans who crossed the border at Tijuana were the foreigners, the same way I appreciated the irony that when the British forced my Irish ancestors to speak English, they unwittingly gave them an advantage over the non-English speaking immigrants who came to the United States. History was rife with irony.
In one of our ongoing history discussions, Jesse told me about the Treaty of Chamizal. He said that it was the only time that the U.S. had given back land to Mexico or any other country, and that John F. Kennedy–whose name Jesse spoke in a reverent tone–had recognized that the few hundred acres of El Paso land that the U.S. had claimed north of the Rio Grande, a water border which had shifted in places because of flooding and erosion, really belonged to Mexico.
In the days before Google, I took his word for it, even though with my bachelor’s in international relations, extensive reading, and college classes in Latin Caribbean Studies, I had never even heard of the Chamizal. But Jesse was right. The treaty, which was actually signed in 1964 by Lyndon Johnson, (a Texan, another historical irony) gave about six-hundred acres of that same El Paso border land to Mexico. The resolution to this U.S.-Mexico land dispute, which had been going on since the 1800s, was remarkable, yet had gone unmentioned and untaught not only in high school social studies class, but even in college history and political science classes. Hell, it hadn’t even made it into Lies My Teacher Told Me or A People’s History of the United States. So in a way, besides being my ersatz uncle, Jesse was my history tutor.
I wasn’t a very good waitress: I was the kind of waitress who would bring out your hamburger and forget the ketchup or mix up the orders by placing them in front of the wrong customers. I relied on my personality instead of competence to earn my tips. I also hated being too busy and would rather give away one of my tables and make less money than stress myself to the hilt and make more. Greed—or the motivation to make cash—was an earmark of all the good servers, and it was something I sorely lacked. I figured that since I already lived by the beach in a nice apartment complex with a decent car and money to afford clothes, good haircuts, and entertainment, I couldn’t justify busting my ass for a few more dollars.
One day, during a busy brunch, I found myself slammed, which meant I had five tables (each station was comprised of six tables) seated simultaneously. The booths were teeming with squirmy kids and impatient parents, hungover college students, surfer types and their girlfriends, old couples out with old friends. The bar was a virtual assembly line of mimosas and screwdrivers, while orders of Cobb salads, Monte Cristos, burgers and omelets were streaming out of the kitchen. Normally, I would have given away one of my tables to one of the more ambitious servers, but everyone else was in the weeds, too, so I carried on as best I could.
The busboys that shift, Patricio, Jesus, and Hippolito, hustled in their usual manner. They were pretty amazing to behold, a model of seamless efficiency. They were the invisible mechanism under the face of the watch that kept the restaurant running smoothly, and they were tipped handsomely for it. Each server was to tip the busboys fifteen percent of their own tips (we tipped the bartenders ten percent of our tips), and since in my incompetence, I leaned on the bus staff more than the ambitious servers did, it never occurred to me to shortchange them or pay them less than their share. In fact, at the end of every shift, after counting my tips, I rounded up before handing the payout over to Patricio.
A few weeks prior, though, Patricio had approached me after a shift and sheepishly asked me if I had been tipping them the right amount. I was indignant. If the bus staff sometimes felt the fifteen percent I was giving them was too little, I argued, it was because I hadn’t made a lot in total tips. I regularly had customers who, during lunches and brunches, would only tip me ten percent. There was a tendency for people to tip less in the daytime, I had noticed, and being a New Yorker, where leaving a twenty percent tip even for mediocre service was the norm, this tendency to under-tip really galled me. Now Patricio and the others, who I considered mi génte, were accusing me–the screwed over–of being the one doing the screwing over. And it hurt.
I made my impassioned case to Patricio, and he apologized. It was settled, and I knew he convinced the others I hadn’t wronged them because they continued to bus my tables in the same reliable manner as always. If they hadn’t believed me, they would have made me suffer the way they’d made Karen, one of the most ambitious senior servers, suffer. Because she patently refused to tip them their share, they had stopped bussing her tables altogether, forcing her to actually bus her own tables. Neither the owner of the restaurant nor the managers ever intervened in the matter because they understood, as I did, that this was a form of kitchen justice, a mini-huelga, an act of protest by the busboys that was justified.
The brunch that day was brutal. I kept checking my watch to see if the end of my shift was near, but time was plodding along like a weary soldier. To make matters worse, Alfonso was in rare form, sweating profusely, cursing in two languages, yelling at everyone, flinging Cobb salads dangerously close to the counter’s edge. Near the end of my shift, a family asked me to pack their leftovers to go. I went into the kitchen and placed their food to the side, on the aluminum shelving above the garbage, and reached for a to-go container. Just as I did, Alfonso growled, “Burra, your food is up.” I turned and grabbed the order from under the heat lamp and started to tray it up, trying to avoid his wrath. Just as I was finishing, the kitchen door swung open. It was Hippolito, carrying a tray of dirty glasses. I turned to ask him to fix a to-go bag for my customers, but before I could even form the words, he’d taken the plates I’d set aside and slid the contents into the garbage.
I panicked. I imagined being chewed out by the customers whose food just got tossed, them leaving me a small tip or not tip at all, and them complaining to my manager on their way out.
“What the fuck, Hippolito?” I exploded. He looked at me, stunned. I had never cursed at or raised my voice to him before. “That was supposed to be a to-go! That’s why I put it on the side. What the fuck? Now they probably won’t even tip me.” By this time, Alfonso had stopped what he was doing and was staring. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears as the wounded look in Hippolito’s eyes quickly flashed to anger.
I will never forget what he said next, slow and deliberate, through clenched teeth: “I keep forgetting, Maria, that you are a gringa.” He turned and walked out of the kitchen, and, instantly ashamed of myself, I turned to Alfonso. He remained silent, his eyes fixed on me, nostrils flaring.
“What?” I said sarcastically. “Mexicans don’t ever get pissed?”
I can’t remember much else about that day. I don’t know if those customers complained or yelled at me. I don’t even know if they tipped me. But I do remember how Hippolito’s words had hurt me. I apologized to him in private later, and he never held a grudge, but I felt something had shifted. I wasn’t, as I had believed, one of them, an honorary Mexican, a fellow foreigner in a strange land. And now, I never would be. It was as if I’d lost an important ally or friendship. Though Hippolito had forgiven me, I knew he told the others what had happened, and so they would always think of me a little differently than they had before. It had taken so little for the ugliness to surface, the dormant toxicity that I felt was beneath me, beneath them. Gringa. I never imagined I was one of those. The term embodied all the things I loathed about San Diego. One thing, though—I think Alfonso was a little bit nicer to me after that day.
In two years, I would go from being an awe-stricken tourist to an ex-pat to a refugee whose only longing now was to return to my home and family. I had experienced all the emotions of a doomed-from-the-start relationship with San Diego. We had progressed from the heady, honeymoon phase to our first lovers’ quarrel, but the make-up was superficial because the underlying conflict was never articulated and therefore, never resolved. The downward spiral was set into motion, and resentment and indifference took root. Before I knew it, my love for the place was gone, choked off by alienation and replaced by the deep reprobation that is often the result of a lover’s betrayal. How I had been betrayed by a place wasn’t clear until years, even decades, later, when I slowly came to grips with all the aspects of my love-hate relationship with San Diego.
One time, near the end of my stay, after I’d decided to drive cross-country back home to New York, I gave Jesse the litany of all my disillusionments with San Diego: the weather was great, but the people were phony; I didn’t like the way they treated the Mexicans; there was no decent public transportation; the newspaper sucked; there were no great museums or artistic movements; men in their thirties still dressed like boys and rode around on skateboards; there were too many boob jobs and tattoos, too many fake hippies who secretly voted Republican; almost everyone came from a broken home and wasn’t talking to their parents or siblings; no one was well-travelled; the provincialism teetered on chauvinism and xenophobia (“You’re from New York? I’d never go there,” was a popular reaction I’d get when first meeting people.); San Diegans would say rude things unabashedly, like the previous quote, and then accuse New Yorkers of being rude. Jesse listened patiently until I finished.
“Doesn’t this place get you down?” I asked him.
“Maria, it’s like a carnival,” Jesse said. “One person goes to the carnival and has a great time. Another person goes and has a terrible time. Which person is right? It’s still the same carnival.” In its simplicity, his metaphor was deceptively profound. In less than fifty words, Jesse had summed up the conundrum. I’d revisit his words many, many times in the coming years, and each time, they would reveal something new.
My last night at the restaurant is a blur. The only thing I remember is that two co-workers—a tall, British aspiring actor named James and a single mom named Jennifer—”whip-creamed” me, a long-standing tradition for wait staff who were moving on. Near the end of the shift, as I finished my closing task of marrying the ketchup bottles in the kitchen, they jumped me and squirted whipped cream down the front and back of my shirt as the three of us laughed maniacally. I think Chuy, who was in the midst of making the last Chicago-style pizza of the night, was horrified by the ruckus. He shook his head after and said, “You need your family, Maria.” As I showered that night, I had a hard time getting the slimy residue from the whipped cream entirely off my skin. But it made me laugh to remember the childlike giddiness, the three of us acting with such crazy abandon, Chuy’s mild disapproval. In a way, it was a perfect metaphor for my time in San Diego. In my two years there, I had gotten creamed unexpectedly, and the residue—the good memories and the bad—stayed with me for a long time.
When Mary Lynn-Giannakou is not writing, she’s reading, and when she’s not reading, she’s planning what to read next. She lives in New York with her husband and two daughters. When she’s not signing permission slips, she teaches English to adult speakers of other languages. Her writing has appeared in Points in Case.