It will take me awhile to become fully American again, I think. While going all over the city to show up for vacuous interviews, I remembered an Armenian restaurant that I had been to once or twice, never actually to eat, only to say ‘hello’ to the owners who are, obviously, Armenian. I accidentally, met these people years ago, when I first returned from Armenia. There’s actually nothing to suggest that the restaurant is Armenian in anyway. It is merely another nondescript Mediterranean place on the outside.
When I first returned to California, I went to this place because a friend of mine was working there. She had said that she thought the owners might have been Armenian. I obviously didn’t put too much stock in this because I’ve been introduced to all kinds of Albanians, Kurds and other Middle Eastern people over the years that acquaintances of mine had thought were Armenian. It’s very awkward approaching them with a hearty ‘Barev!’ only to me started at blankly. Of course, knowing that on the other end your friend has told this person that you speak their language; they’re waiting for you to say something intelligible, in Abkhazian or whatever, but getting nothing but gibberish.
I was happy to find that the owner, when he came out was indeed Armenian. I think I started the conversation by saying something like “neretsek, bites inchu kilikia-i gaijur chunek stegh? Ays kotayk lav@ chi” (Excuse me, but why do you not have Kilikia beer here? This Kotayk is terrible!). I think he was really surprised to hear some un-Armenian-looking guy suddenly berating him in eastern Armenian (the diaspora speak the western dialect, for the most part) about his choice of Armenian beer selection. It was the beer selection that tipped me off initially that he was Armenian. If you weren’t Armenian, I don’t think you would ever go to the trouble of tracking down Armenian beer to serve. I think it’s a point of pride, even at the best Armenian places; I can’t imagine anyone orders that stuff, at least not more than once.
After I explained that I had a preference to Kilikia because I drank a lot of it in Armenia, and in the states all I could find was this terribly sweet Kotayk that was nothing like the Armenian original, we began to talk about what I’d been doing in Armenia. I had only been back for a few months after living there for over two years. It was the first time I conversed face-to-face with someone in Armenian since I had left, and if I had had a few drinks before going over there I probably would’ve been pretty close to tears.
The owner and I had a nice conversation. He’s had things to do, but he kept darting back over to the bar where I was sitting to ask if I needed anything. I wouldn’t have to pay, he said. I kept telling him ‘no’ and he kept asking. It was very much like being back in Armenia.
Eventually, I decided to get back to my friends. I thanked the manager and started to go out. He yelled after me to come by any time I’m back in town. Since then, I’ve been back once or twice for a Kotayk, still no Kilikia.
It occurred to me to stop by the place while job hunting, but I’d been trying for years to stop into a café where I used to work and see the owner there. We always missed each other. Owners are very elusive people. I decided to call instead. See if I could set something up. When the phone began ringing, I realized I had no idea what I was trying to set up.
“Hello,” bright sing-song waitress voice.
“Yeah, uh, hello, is the owner there?”
“Can I ask who is calling, please?”
“Uhhh, yeah, um, well, I met him a few years ago, uh, I used to live in Armenia and he and I spoke to each other. I’m actually looking for a job now and, uh, I thought I’d see if he, um, could talk to me.”
“Well he’s not in now, but I’m the front-of-the-house manager, if you’ve got a resume why don’t you drop it off with me in the morning.”
‘Yeah, sure’ I thought,’ just so you can get a look at the weirdo who just made the strangest call to your restaurant. Maybe his resume will be equally amusing: experience: I once talked with your boss.’
I wasn’t even going to go in the next day. In fact, I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t ended up being way too early for another interview that I had out in the Marina. The interview was at 1 and I wasn’t particularly thrilled about it. It was 11 and I was already out in front of the café where it was to take place. It was an incredibly bland kind of place. I had applied for the job because the ad made it seem like the café was in the middle of the Presidio park. I had pictured some little forest ranger’s station that had been converted into a café, a place that few customers ever found, but that was preserved in complete tranquility, sunlight filtering through the pine boughs and that sort of thing. The reality was a concrete block of a building on the marina green that had a nice view of the Golden Gate Bridge, but almost no other redeemable qualities.
As I sat in front of this place whiling away the time until my interview I suddenly remembered the phone call I had made, and how I had told that manager that I would be in before noon. I had my bike with me and decided to drop by, I certainly had time.
The front-of-the-house manager was actually really nice. Perhaps she had mentioned the strange phone call to the owner and he had actually shown some interest. Every time I have gone into a business looking for work I feel odd. I am not there for the customary activity of buying something. I am there to ask for something and it makes me feel like a bum. In asking for a job, one essentially has to look at the employees and say, “I want what you have.” No one every responds well to this statement, no matter the context. The odd feeling descended on me as I asked for the manager. She came out and looked over my resume, very briefly, mentioning a delivery job. Hmmm. I hadn’t expected that, but OK. She says the owner’s not in, but that his son is. She went and got him.
He comes out speaking Armenian; I walk up to him speaking Armenian. We are happy to see each other, although we met only once before. I tell him I’m looking for work. He immediately offers me a shot at the delivery position. I have no experience with deliveries. He says it doesn’t matter. I don’t have a car. Again, it doesn’t matter. He says it’s only a couple of days a week. That seems to be the only catch. I walk out the door already beginning to think it over.
It’s funny. Since I’ve been back here, I’ve applied to probably 30 cafes and have gone into interviews at a few of them. I’ve got a lot of experience in cafés—but I couldn’t manage to get a job at one of them. On the other hand, I’ve got absolutely no experience working as a delivery driver and now I’m doing it. I can’t help but to wonder if a bunch of guys with years of delivery experience applied to the job I have now and are currently at home, scratching their heads, trying to figure out why they never even got a call back.
Between deliveries, my co-worker and I have lunch at the restaurant. It’s free, not even any of that 60% off stuff, it’s just free; also, I can take whatever I want, so it’s more like a free buffet. After we finish eating we have one more delivery to do and then it’s time to go home.
After work, I stop by and see my friend at the bike shop where he works. I need a few things. When I get there he’s out for a smoke. We stand around and talk for a while. Then we go in and I tell him the things that I need. He gives them to me and we keep talking. After a while it seems slightly uncomfortable to continue the conversation because he’s now sitting behind the counter and I’m still standing in front of it. The customer/clerk relationship keeps trying to assert itself and interrupt out friendly banter. Every time the conversation fades, I find myself toying with the items on the counter, like, ‘you wanna’ ring me up for these?’ While he keeps looking everywhere but at the items on the counter. I finally take the hint and pocket the things. Before we part ways I ask, just to be sure, if he wanted anything. ‘No,’ he says.
I go to pick up Gina from work. I’m waiting outside reading a comic book when she comes out with a whole bag of baking mixes.
“What’re all those?”
“Cookie, bread, pancake mixes, the owner gave me all this stuff to try.”
She got about four big bags. All labeled ‘gluten-free!’ and ‘vegan!’
“That stuff looks like it would’ve been expensive.”
“Yeah,” she says, “it would’ve been, but she just gave it to me.”
I think for a moment before I ask her if she’s eaten already.
“Yeah, I get my lunch for free every day, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I say, “yeah, I guess I do.”
I haven’t really been driving regularly since I was about 17. When I lived in San Francisco years ago, my roommate Mikey had a car and we took turns going out to the Western Addition about twice a week to move the thing to a different parking spot. Other than that, I’ve only driven rental cars driving back and forth across the country before and after I left for the Peace Corps. Naturally, having a job for which the main duty is driving, I had a few concerns, the main one being parallel parking.
“I used to be able to parallel park pretty well,” I told Gina the night before I was to go in and drive up to Marin county for my first day of deliveries. “But now I’m nervous about it. While I was driving around with my co-worker the only time he really had to parallel park was right in front of the restaurant. There’s only one spot there and it’s hemmed in pretty tight by other cars. You know how the parking is here in some places.”
“Oh, you’ll be fine,” she tells me, much as she always does when I’m worried about something.
The next day, I’m getting everything together for the deliveries with my boss. He tells me to go out and get the car, which was parked a few blocks away. “Just pull right up front here,” he tells me indicating the spot, which is barely a spot, wedged as it is between two rather large SUVs. I try not to really think about it as I’m getting the delivery car, but when I’m having trouble even getting out of the spot the car’s parked in, I start to feel less sure of myself.
I pull up in front of the restaurant and the boss is already there on the sidewalk, motioning for me to park right between the two monster cars, completely oblivious to the fact that he’s going to have to fire me in a few minutes when he realizes that I can’t properly parallel park. I flash back to my first driver’s ed. test. When someone had told me that I didn’t need to worry about parallel parking because as long as you did OK on everything else it wouldn’t really matter.
“OK, now let’s try the parallel parking section,” the instructor says. I groan and pull up along the orange cone. Somehow, as I’m backing up, I end up perpendicularly parked in the spot. I give him a nervous smile. “Let’s try it again,” he says. And I do, twice more until I’ve failed the test.
I’m imagining my boss telling me something similar after two or three unsuccessful attempts to park the delivery truck. I’m right up against the car ahead of me. I sigh, and begin backing up.
A minute later, I’m outside the car, beaming. Somehow it’s almost a perfect job. The truck is flush with the curb, almost a textbook example. Probably beginners’ luck, but who cares, for now, I act like it’s something I do all the time and I go inside to get the deliveries, hoping that the next time will be just as easy.
‘I hate this place,’ I think to myself, ‘why do I keep coming back in here?’ Niles, California, a small town that’s sandwiched between two larger suburban towns, is the exception out here in the southern East Bay in that it’s got both a walkable downtown and stores that are smaller than warehouses. Niles itself is nice; it isn’t Niles I hate, not at all, it’s this bar, really the only bar near where Gina and I live. As far as I know, there are only two others within walking distance. One is to the north, and since we have to walk that way every day to get on public transportation, it’s not very appealing. The other is an almost perfect little place that seems to be exclusively Mexican. We once tried to order a few cans of Tecate in there.
“Cuando vale la cerveza?”
“Cinco!? Cada una? Verdad? En las latas son cinco?”
“No, es demasiado.”
The bartender was not in any way annoyed. She hadn’t actually opened the cans so she was still able to put them back, while giving us an inscrutable-kind of smile. One that could have either said, ‘stupid gringos; come in again and I’ll tell you the beers cost ten dollars!’ Or, ‘yeah, I guess these are expensive, but, hey, if people pay that much what are we going to do?’ I liked the place, and as we walked by it again last night, I thought about stopping in to see if the beers were still five dollars. But then I realized that I would feel like a moron if the same bartender came over and told me that the beers cost five dollars. If she remembered me, which was likely in an all-mexican bar, she’d probably wonder why I was asking the same question again. It’s not like I could reasonably expect the prices to have gone down within a few weeks.
Thinking this, Gina and I walked past the Mexican place. There’s a little pizza place where one can get a Blue Moon for something like 4 dollars, but I didn’t feel like sitting in a pizza place. I wanted to feel like I had gone out and done something when I got back home. When we last had a beer at the pizza place, it was less memorable than stopping to have a soda or something. There didn’t seem to be any reason for us to be drinking a beer in this pizza place. It was a place for eating greasy meals and maybe lingering for a while after. It was a place to eat with your family, or a group of your friends. It was not a very good place have a single beer with your girlfriend on a Saturday night. It felt like even passersby were wondering why we didn’t just stay in and have a beer at home.
We passed the pizza place as well, and I started to complain that I would’ve liked to have done something that night. Gina reminds me of my options. I don’t like the sound of them. There’s only one choice left, the biker bar. It’s coming up on the left.
We’d been to the biker bar exactly twice before. The first time was great. Gina’s brother and sister and brother-in-law were all in town. We had ourselves only just moved in and hadn’t even been to Niles yet, when it was suggested that we go. We went to a nice restaurant and had a couple of beers and, since it’s been a while since we’d all seen each other, we decided to change the venue rather than call it a night when we paid the bill. After a couple of beers and some pleasant conversation, the biker bar wasn’t a bad place to find oneself. We ordered some more beers and were soon dancing to the ridiculous covers the band was playing. It was slightly ironic, but still we were dancing and enjoying ourselves a great deal. When we went home, I remember thinking to myself, OK, there seems to be a few places to go right down the street.
About a week later, Gina and I went back by ourselves. It was lightly raining and the walk was somnolent, but relaxing. We talked about looking for jobs and the future. I opened the door for Gina knocking down a wall of sound that should’ve stayed intact. The door was practically blown off its hinges by bassy classic rock, slamming glasses and the raucous, shrill shouts of drunken, middle-aged women. Right away, I was annoyed. The bar didn’t have anything cheap, so I bought Miller High Life or something that had a slight malt-liquor taste to it. We sat down over in a corner. I couldn’t hear anything, everyone was yelling. Not like classic bar it’s-loud-in-here-I-have-to-yell-to-be-heard, but rather an I-think-I’m-just-going-to-yell-for-the-hell-of-it. Most of the yells were sharp, yippy almost and made me feel jumpy, like when someone comes up behind you and honks an air horn. I wanted to smoke. It’s the kind of place that still seems like it should be filled with smoke, even after the ban. You can’t take your beer outside; you can’t smoke inside. The only thing to do would be to leave the beer and go smoke, which didn’t make any sense. So I just stayed in there, feeling annoyed and drinking my beer as fast as I could without chugging the thing. We left the moment we were finished. On the way home I tried to explain what I had felt.
“I don’t know what happened; I suddenly just felt extremely annoyed with everything going on in there. The way maybe a child or a cat will annoy when it does the same annoying thing over and over, only it was like a whole room full of people doing things like that.”
“Yeah,” Gina said, “I know what you mean. It’s just sad, they’re all middle aged people acting like they’re teenagers.”
“That’s not even what annoys me,” I added, “it’s like the whole collective feel of the place. It’s like it’s stupid, depressing and agitating all at the same time.”
This talk went on for a while. I think by the time we had gotten home we agreed that we wouldn’t go back there again.
And, accordingly, a few weeks later, here we were again, in front of the door.
“Well,” I say with a sigh, “we might as well go in.” It’s even louder and more stupid in there than it was before. There’s lots of yelling, there’s a band playing that has too many songs with the phrase ‘hoochie-coo’ in them and this time we end up paying over five dollars apiece for our beers. Almost before we’ve sat down I’m irritated to the point where I can no longer possibly enjoy myself. I launch into some kind of invective against the place that I can’t seem to stop.
When we left about ten minutes later, I felt an almost tangible sense of relief. The strange part is, as we walked back home I tried to think of what it was that really annoyed me so much about the place. I’ve been to plenty of places with bad music and people yelling, but whatever it is that upsets me about that place is much deeper, deeper an apparently ineffable.