Moving to New York is a culture shock for virtually anybody, but few things shock more than being involved with how the city eats.
I came to New York wholly unprepared for the reality of making rent. I had a part-time job lined up that didn’t begin for another two weeks, but after crunching the numbers, I realized I would need to work a second job in order to make ends meet until something clicked for me on a full-time basis. I replied to an ad looking for wait staff at a Kosher restaurant on the Upper West Side. I took the job after a friendly interview with the manager.
“Well, you at least look Jewish,” he said jokingly, after I told him I had been raised in a Methodist household.
“I’ll do my best for you,” was the only adequate reply I could muster.
For two weeks, I endured the hour long commute from my modest third floor walk-up in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace to the restaurant. I knew right away I hadn’t adequately thought this through. To begin with, having lived most of my life in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, 10 miles door to door sounded like an easy commute. On Route 309 in Pa., a car obeying the speed limit can turn 10 miles into a 15 minute one-way commute. Ten miles on a New York City subway, however, made for a one-way commute of well over an hour, which became exhausting in a hurry.
Secondly, the job, advertised as a wait staff position, was really the owner’s idea of an entry level assignment. I was told that all waiters at this restaurant started off “behind the scenes” before being allowed to serve out on the floor.
It turns out that my job would principally consist of the tip-free, eight-dollar-per-hour post of taking orders over the phone. It was an unglamorous position, and one that called for patient attention, as well as a thorough knowledge of our menu. It was a menu I was already struggling to comprehend. What is a shawarma, and why must it always be served in a pita? What distinguishes one particular meat as being acceptable over another? Why is beef acceptable and pork forbidden? I won’t even delve into the utter horror that ensued when I came to work finishing up my late lunch…of a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread. My faux pas was unintentional, but one that I never quite managed to live down.
Having been in the city just three days and feeling utterly over my head in more ways than one, I was now faced with the task of taking dinner requests in an amalgamation of foreign tongues. On the phone, it seemed as if no two customers called in speaking the same language. Often, they spoke to us in a meta-vernacular of English, Hebrew, Spanish and other miscellaneous dialects. I tried to make it out while I was forced to deal with shoddy line connections and the commotion of a busy restaurant, four nights a week.
Truth be told, the position wasn’t as hellish as that description may have made it sound. After breaching the initial lack of familiarity, I was impressed by just how much I had in common with many of the young staff members. Most were younger men, much like myself, who were either fresh out of or still paying their way through school. One evening, I found myself in a literary discussion. I regaled another order taker with an anecdote from one of my favorite novels.
“So, then the guy leans over and hears his daughter talking in her sleep, and over and over again she’s moaning, ‘Toyota Celica, Toyota Celica…’”
(from over my shoulder) “Oh, is that White Noise?”
“Uh, yes. Yes, it is.”
“I love that book. Don DeLillo is amazing.”
“Yes. Yes, he is.”
I’m a great appreciator of MTV from back in the days when they still played music videos. During a break in the action, a co-worker and I took turns playing music videos we liked for one another. He extolled the virtues of Herbie Hancock’s “Rock It,” while I maintained that Wax’s “California” video was an under appreciated master work.
A particularly telling moment was when I came to work to find a fellow order taker updating his profile on AdultFriendFinder.com — on company time. He promptly closed the window and no mention was made of it, despite a mutual witnessing. Sir, if you’re reading this article now, I hold no judgment against you.
Idiosyncrasies aside, I still managed to find time between incoherent phone orders and ranting bill arguments to have a meaningful conversation or two.
“Sorry, but I really don’t know anything about Christianity. You’re a Methodist, right?”
“So — sorry for prying — but does that have anything to do with the Pope?”
I went on to explain the fundamental differences, as best I understood them. In college, I lived down the street from the Jewish Community Center, but aside from attending a friend’s Bar Mitzvah at age 13, I never had an opportunity to learn much of the intricacies of the Hebrew faith.
Another encounter was with a Rabbi who supervised food preparation. For privacy’s sake, we’ll call him Miguel. He was a polyglot, skilled in nearly 10 different languages, but none of them English. Every day, he would greet me warmly, though I don’t think he was ever aware of my name. Most often, he would approach me with a simple smile and handshake and point to the sky.
“Oh, uh…thank the Lord? Is that what that means?”
“Si, amigo. Si!”
I took great pleasure in discussing culture with my co-workers. Learning about their way of life and telling them of my own reminded me just how multi-faceted and intricate my own background is, having taken it for granted much of my life.
Despite my meager earnings, I never went home hungry. Shawarma quickly became one of my dishes of choice. Working in the restaurant instilled strict standards in me regarding Kosher cuisine. Even today, my mouth waters passing a Kosher restaurant as I wonder just how spicy their beef cigars truly are.
When my part time job started a few weeks later, the manager there offered to take me on a full-time basis by the end of my second week. With little time to focus on my other endeavors, I was forced to vacate my position at the restaurant. When I broke the news, there was no outcry of anguish, merely a simple,
“That’s great. We’re happy for you.”
Word spread quickly of my departure. Over my final meal of shawarma (one of the best I ever had, by the way), Miguel approached with a stern look on his face. He placed one hand on my shoulder, muttered something in Hebrew, and walked away.
“What did he say?” I asked a co-worker.
“He said good luck, and congratulations.”
To this day, nearly five years later, I have not returned to that restaurant. This is partially due to the distance, but largely because it holds a special place for me in my memory. It took full immersion in a culture utterly alien to my own to introduce me to this city. Sometimes you just have to jump in the deep end to learn how to swim. If I take nothing else away from it, I’ll hold on to that lesson. That and an unmatched appreciation for shawarma.