It’s a sliver of a diner in a white American suburb: metal and cracked granite, red leatherette stools, three large fans in constant motion. The smell of grease from the grills brings them in, the comfort of that smell. The lack of perfection. Every store in this affluent town sells jewelry, clothes, or beautifully confectioned pastries. The buildings are imitation England long ago, a pretense that we live in some charming village in the past that never existed.
Here is where they come. The divorced man with Bell’s palsy. The retired lawyer. Dads taking a fleeting sabbatical from their wives and children. They take choice seats at the counter, looking for the right moment to play their bit part.
“Do you believe the Patriots still have it, Gustavo?”
“Gustavo, you have a bye in the first round?”
An immigrant Latina, I can pass for white American but speak the language of the cooks who run the show. I spy on this crossroad of cultures: The mostly-white folk with good haircuts. The Mexican cooks at the grill, here to earn a living, who pivot between customers at the counter and the grills, hot at their backs. They chop and slather and slam and pour. They do this on their feet for hours.
Gustavo, the head cook, is thick-set and short. Mustache. Dimples on cheeks. Under that knit cap he’s clamped his long, thin ponytail in two places. The skinny cook is shy, holds back. All nervous smiles. He’s Gustavo’s straight man. A third Mexican works as a waiter. I don’t see him now. He’s taller, whiter, knows how to sweet talk the customers.
“Gustavo, do you have a straw on you?” That’s the real estate broker with an office in town.
“Maybe.” Gustavo slides his eyes sideways, avoiding contact.
“Talking to me?” the customer asks.
“Who wants to know?” says the cook.
The customer appears to enjoy Gustavo’s slight.
Jib jab jib jab. Gustavo aims his gossip towards his knife-wielding pal. “Ay chuleta! Se fué a centroamérica, empreñó a una chamaca. Y la metió en casa de su mujer.” (I’ll translate: There’s this guy who went to Central America, made a girl pregnant, then sent her to live with his wife.)
“¡Yiiiiiiii, Colmo de los colmos!” (That’s the last straw!) The skinny cook acknowledges Gustavo’s chatter, chopping with an eight-inch knife as wide as my hand. Tip of knife down. Tip down. Sweet peppers. Onions. The knife moves fast. Hard-boiled eggs. Iceberg lettuce. He grabs a white PVC tube and squirts salad dressing on the inside of a large metal bowl. He adds the lettuce, onions, sweet peppers, and egg and swirls them around with his hand. He scores an avocado half. There it goes on the customer’s plate.
The cooks’ uniforms are like cellophane. You can see clear through to Gustavo’s gold, chain necklace. Sheer rubber gloves are skin. Gustavo slathers soft butter on pieces of bread that look like panini, slams them on the grill. He ladles circles of yellow egg liquid, spreads it thin with a wide metal spatula. He reaches over and places the omelet with garlic-crusted bread in a customer’s vicinity. Gustavo accompanies the reach with a twisting motion of his knife.
The customer: “Don’t pull it out unless you intend to use it.”
“¡Yiiiiiiii! Hijo de la perra!” The skinny cook yells in his high-pitched voice.
Gustavo stares straight ahead. The knives, no one seems to notice.
The diner’s a border town. Like I imagine a Mexican border town next to an American city: Things could go either way, but you’re likely in a safe place. After all you are an American.
“Gustavo. You want the New York Post?” The customer pushes his paper forward on the counter, gets up to leave.
“It’s the paper, Gustavo. It’s not always about you, Gustavo.”
There’s juice here.