Burrito

by

02/17/2003

Greenwich Ave. & Jane St., ny, ny 10014

Neighborhood: West Village

Jason knew that some kind of incident was imminent the moment the tattooed monster crossed the threshold into the small space in front of the counter. The other customers shrank away as the monster ordered his food. He was overconfident, full of bluster, and trying desperately to project toughness and hardness. Even though it was a laughable display it was working to a certain degree. His overly articulated physique, the convict appearance, the fawning sidekick with him, his impatient manner, they were all an invitation and a provocation to any small offense. That he thought he shouldn’t have to wait was clearly evident. He ordered two burritos without beans and stepped back to edgily bide his time.

He came in at a time when people could get despicable. A need for immediate gratification pushed their baseness to the surface. This impatience made for embarrassing displays, unpleasant demonstrations of humankind at its pettiest. It was almost a war. They wanted their lunch served with alacrity and if it wasn’t, overwrought responses were often unleashed, from yelling and screeching to pleading and threatening. All for some inauthentic serviceable Mexican food made in nearly fast-food time. These reactions came from people who appeared to be perfectly nice, normal citizens. They were closer to outbreaks of ugliness than their benign exteriors betrayed. The monster was past that breaking point before he even walked through the door. He didn’t need time to get frustrated. He’d already run down the steps to the subway platform and seen the lights of his train receding into the tunnel. He telegraphed his impending eruption by the way he took up physical space, by just being. The space behind the counter where Jason stood was cramped, the whole room measured twelve by twenty feet. Almost all of it was taken up by kitchen equipment, steamers and grillers, hot storage for meat and beans, a cold storage table for tomatoes, lettuce, jalapenos, and chips, a refrigerator for beer and soda. There was a tiny bathroom in the back and a sink and a little counter where the food was bagged. At higher levels were shelves stacked with boxes, plastic cups and aluminum food containers. Passageways barely a foot wide made a horseshoe shape through all the accoutrements of food preparation. The scarcity of space evoked a prison cell, a debilitating thwarting of movement.

A narrow counter with two cash registers bisected the area between this cage and the outside world. On the other side of the counter was a small triangular compartment for the patrons; it was only a few feet wide and bordered by the door and a large window looking out onto the sidewalk. There was a small shelf for eating on, three stools and two posters showing the various peppers of the world in color, with a potency rating of spiciness for each one. The triangle was stunted and close and when it filled up with people it got too cozy. It was like being in an elevator. Fine when there were only a couple of customers but increasingly uncomfortable with each new person. And unlike an elevator everyone didn’t follow social convention and face the same way. The workers and the customers were face to face across the meager counter. Sometimes conflict arose in this hot sweaty elevator that wasn’t going anywhere. They were in a hurry, their tempers rising, and the workers were doing their best while not being too concerned and were apt to rebel with sarcasm and a lackadaisical attitude. When the battle was joined it could get unfriendly.

It wasn’t always like that. When Jason arrived in the morning the little space was empty and serene and as clean as it ever got. Its deep-rooted smell, which clung to the body for hours after a day of work, was at its lowest ebb; a pale odor at this point, slightly altered and alleviated by the disinfectant from the night before. Jason would put the money drawer in the register and turn the lights on to the sound of the ventilation fan lazily starting up. Once a week the first things to be dealt with were the dead and dying mice caught in the glue traps that had been left out overnight. Either cold and truly dead or half alive, squishy and still warm. They lay hidden to be discovered, like finds in a morbid Easter egg hunt, and then thrown in the trash. Usually though it was mild setting up and making miniature sandwiches out of two tortilla chips with some cheese and a jalapeno pepper as filling, drinking Coca-Cola out of a brown plastic cup, and going out on the sidewalk to smoke a cigarette. The street would be uncrowded and sedate; Jason would daydream as the moments ticked past and indolently killed time.

Handsome with smooth, copper-brown skin, long hair and a trace of a mustache, Tony was a Dominican born in the city and the manager of the take-out. He was four years younger than Jason, almost a teenager but with a manner that made him seem older. He was at ease, confident and possessed an innate knowledge of urban life that Jason envied and admired. Tony was slyly curious and interested in the things Jason knew about, the residue of a college education and extensive travels, and Jason was learning from Tony about the city and its Byzantine social customs and unfamiliar mores. Tony also had a comic side and an incredibly accurate talent for mimicry, of ethnic stereotypes, celebrities, and customers as soon as they walked out the door. They were comfortable with each other and fed off of their respective differences. Jason would bring a small backgammon board and when it was slow they would open it on a stool behind the counter and play, withdrawing from the world in the warmth of nascent friendship and simple competitive pleasures.

Sergio and Jesus would arrive a little later in the morning. They were the Mexican cooks. What they did really wasn’t cooking, they were preparators. They put out a tortilla, tossed some meat, beans, and cheese in, put that in a steamer for a minute, then finished off with the cold ingredients before wrapping the tortilla up and putting a lid on the aluminum foil dish they went in. Theirs was an economy of motion, a graceful dolloping of some sour cream here followed by a practiced sprinkling of the right amount of lettuce or peppers there. They were somewhat conversant in English and doggerel dialogue was constantly going on, Spanish to Spanish between Tony, Sergio and Jesus, their broken English countered by Jason’s underdeveloped Spanish, and standard English competing via Tony and Jason’s conversation. A Spanglish Babel infused with laughter, a shared good-humored exasperation with their hopefully temporary lot.

Besides the cooks and Tony and Jason there were the bike delivery guys. Two from Bangladesh, two Poles, three Americans and one Puerto Rican. They rotated but in the day it was almost always Khaled and Saleem. Their relationship verged on being a vaudeville act. Khaled was mischievous and extroverted while Saleem took the pensive and serious role, the contrast leading to cub up routines in excited and speedy Bengali. As uncannily cliché as it seemed, they both had the goal of becoming taxicab drivers.

In a way their job was enviable. They got better tips and were free to roam the city and explore its geography while seeing fleeting instants of other people’s lives, see them naked, their existences and intimacies exposed to the anonymous deliverer for the time it took to hand over a bag of food. They could imagine and dream other realities from these brief encounters. But it had its drawbacks, especially in the winter. Jason’s jealousy waned as he watched Khaled and Saleem set out against the frigid wind off the river or come back soaked from snow, covered in slush, their fingers frozen blue with icicles forming on their mustaches. On these days the customers tipped less; out of maliciousness or more probably as a reflection of the weather’s depressive effect of the psyche, translated to their purse strings.

All of the delivery guys shared one fear unanimously. It was being sent with an order to David Croudos’ apartment. He ordered two or three times a week and when he did it was like Russian roulette, the loser in the cruel lottery having to make the delivery. He did sound creepy on the phone and was a poor tipper but it was nothing compared to the descriptions, brought back by the unfortunate messengers, of a stench appalling in its resplendence, in its evocation of rot, death and decay. They dreaded going there and their fear and revulsion betrayed an almost primal superstition. They were all visibly relieved upon each return from this apartment of horror.

There were two bike guys who didn’t last very long. A new employee showed up one day to do deliveries. He was tall and sturdily built and dressed in overalls and clunky boots. He looked like a farmer straight off the tractor, a little out of place, and he had a southern drawl and drooping, sleepy eyelids. The only thing missing was a stalk of wheat between his teeth. He seemed amiable enough and was sent off with his first batch of orders. An hour and a half later he showed up. He had the bicycle but none of the sixty dollars that he was supposed to get for the food. He was also slower and practically somnambulistic. His eyes drooped even further and he didnÕt appear to be too concerned with explaining where the money was or where he had been. He went down to the basement and passed out. He had scored some heroin, showing that junkies come in the most unlikely packages. He was let go.

More innocent and less willfully subversive was the friend of Khaled and Saleem who showed up one day. He had just arrived from Bangladesh and couldn’t speak any English. He was out of his element and scared, the look in his eyes was that of a deer inching up to a salt lick, ready to bound away at the first sign of danger. But he couldn’t run away and on that fine fall day he was sent off with his first order. After an hour Jason and Tony were wondering aloud, “Where’s the new guy?” He finally showed up and when questioned looked at Khaled and Saleem pleadingly. They made assurances that he had just gotten lost this one time and would get the hang of it.

He was given another order. A few seconds later Jason looked up the street and saw him walking the bike. Then he got on it and shakily attempted to pedal. He went a few feet, tottered, and fell off. He tried again and went a few more feet before toppling over. Then he started pushing the bicycle. Tony had joined Jason and they both watched, silently comprehending the real problem. He didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. When he got back he was discharged by the restaurant manager who Jason and Tony had told, somewhat reluctantly, about his lack of skills. They were both laughing while simultaneously ruminating about the hell of confusion they knew the recent arrival must have been going through. Not knowing the streets, trying to decipher the foreign scrawl on the ticket, pushing the metal machine he had no idea of how to use. They took it for granted but how could he have ever known? His incomprehension and loss of balance weren’t his fault. Sometimes Jason had to descend through the trap metal doors in the sidewalk to the basement to get supplies. The ceiling was low, it was always hot and crowded with boxes of bags and aluminum food containers, stacks of beer and soda and cannibalized bicycles. Down there he was instantly in solitary confinement and felt like a stowaway in the hold of a ship. One particularly sultry night he had to stay below longer than usual, it had been busy and a lot of goods had to be replenished upstairs. He was sweaty and his arms felt stretched out from carrying heavy loads up the rotting wooden stairs. Finally around midnight he was finished and went across the street to the subterranean office to count out the night’s earnings. The manager that night was from the restaurant’s other location; Jason had just met him. He was about forty and wan and bitter, and he exuded an air of having been repeatedly demoralized by the city. In the cramped space they sat knee to knee counting out the money, shiny with perspiration and funky with the smell of the food and grime.

As they counted the manager began a desultory ramble about the ills of the city and its quickening descent into depravity. His railing was scathing and all-encompassing, and as it went on he took on the aura of a messianic prognosticator of the coming apocalypse. Jason was so tired he just listened and nodded assent. The manager cited example after example, final indictment. Recently his neighbor, an old Polish immigrant, had been beaten and robbed in his apartment. Then his tormentors had poured gasoline over him and set him on fire, killing him. As he finished he stared off into space past Jason, the fire and brimstone drained out of him. Jason got out and onto the street and tried to taste the fresh air but the tortured and charred old man stayed with him for a long time past that night.

But on a clear fall day a little later there was no sign of the imminent melt-down of society. There was no conflict or danger. The street outside was placid and uncrowded, unhurried under the bleaching of the sun. Jason and Tony set up and then ate a meal, one of the endless combinations that they concocted using one of the four basic building blocks, the burrito, the enchilada, the quesadilla, and the taco. A burrito with chicken and extra cheese or a enchilada with mole sauce and sour cream or tacos with no meat and extra jalapenos or a quesadilla with beef, chicken, rice, salsa, sour cream and some added red sauce. In its infinite variety of combinations and numbing overall taste it blended together so it seemed like they never had eaten anything else. It was free, and for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And with it came the smell that occupied the body and the olfactory senses, always reminding them of the never-changing fare and the job that went with it.

The lunch rush began, banishing boredom with sheer volume of manual repetitive tasks. The phone started ringing, Jason would ask for the address, phone number and order (with the very important special instructions) in rapid succession. The reply for how long it would take would invariably be answered with “Can’t it be faster?” Then he would tear the ticket off the pad and slip it into place in a small metal crevice over where the cooks worked. With the people that walked in he would ask their name and write it on the slip so they could be called for when their order was done. Often he and Tony guessed or estimated the name they wrote on the slip, or when it got busy invented monikers “Blue hat” or “Tweaker” that facetiously and succinctly described the person. There were regulars. The gay man who was one of their favorite and friendliest customers who they had dubbed “Peter Jesus” for some forgotten reason. Or the dottily inebriated former television comedy actress who always carried her toy poodle. Pretty women, handsome men. Fleeting meetings and imaginings across the counter consisting of light banter and innuendo and predictable jokes about the anti-flatulence bean additive they sold. The operation hummed along, Tony and Jason symbiotically laboring and laughing. Into this fairly cheery scene walked the two men. One was white, muscular and pumped-up. His arms and part of his neck were covered with indistinguishable tattoos. He radiated animosity and ill will, like Popeye’s nemesis come to life. His companion was black, smaller, and a lot skinnier. He walked in and inhabited the space right behind and to the side of the larger man. Together they were a caricature of the bloodthirsty duos that pillage through movies set in those lawless days that follow nuclear annihilation.

At first their antagonism could be ignored. There were too many other things happening. The phone ringing, taking money and giving change, bagging orders. The tattooed man had to wait a while before he and his cohort stepped up to the register to order. He did so in a peremptory fashion, brusquely specifying that the two burritos had to be absolutely devoid of beans. The shadow was silent. Jason’s eyes met theirs for the first time, there was an ocular transmission of arbitrary hostility coming from both of them. After the exchange of money they went to the corner and brooded.

Compulsively Jason’s eyes kept drifting over to the corner at the insipid tattoos. They would travel up the messy and badly inked canvases and meet the eyes that were looking right at his. Jason took more orders and went about his business but he kept being drawn by some magnetic force to those arms and eyes. It became a staring contest, a test of wills. And each time the exasperation and impatience exhibited in those confrontational orbs grew. They accused Jason of purposely delaying the production of the food. Then the man would confirm his displeasure by rolling his eyes for his little friend, who would smirk towards Jason in agreement.

As the minutes passed the other customers became a mute audience, almost absent. It was just the enemy and Jason and Tony. Jason instinctively knew that Tony sensed what was going on, how things had gone beyond a typical case of customer annoyance to a real face-off; one in which there were innocent bystanders who weren’t aware of what was going on. The heat and steam along with the inexplicable hate turned the atmosphere miasmatic. Jason couldn’t think of anything else. He had only been in the city a short while and hadn’t fought in a long time. Now adrenaline had clandestinely seeped into his whole body. He was scared.

Jason heard the snap of a bag being opened behind him and then Tony’s voice. “Tattoo . . . here you go.” Jason had prophetically written “Tattooed Monster” on the slip before the situation had escalated. The bag was handed over and immediately inspected. Opening up one of the containers he asked angrily, “Does this have beans in it?” Tony calmly took a look, using a plastic knife to fold back a flap of burrito to expose some black beans. Tony apologized for the mistake and said it would be fixed. An emphatic “Jesus Christ!” exploded from the tattooed man as he rolled his eyes again and then glowered at Jason. His suspicions had been confirmed. He was pissed and wanted everybody in the vicinity to know, to understand that Jason and Tony’s stupidity had led to a colossal blunder that was going to prevent him from doing something very, very important.

The couple returned to their corner of disservice while Tony turned to the cooks and instructed them in Spanish to hurry up with the correct order. Now Tony was involved in the conßict, a triangle of antagonistic sight lines formed between Tony and Jason and the two skulking figures in the corner. Jason peripherally interpreted a glance from Tony that meant “Whatever, it’s cool” while the monster’s muscles rippled and the veins in his neck became more prominent. Awakened to the situation, the other customers stood still and quietly studied their shoes. There was a combination of dread and expectancy. Would Tony and Jason produce the right assemblage of flour tortillas and various other ingredients before they got physically attacked? The phone kept ringing, Jason answered and took orders with an unnaturally controlled voice. Tony kept snapping bags open and filling them, nonchalantly smiling and handing them to customers who turned with relief and slipped out the door. With every person who got their food the mimed display of rage in the corner became more performative. His face really was getting red. The sidekick did his best to look disgusted and potentially violent. Time slowed down, just eyes to eyes, the sounds of chips dryly crackling, meat sizzling, the dull bang of a spoon against metal. Then the dam burst. The monster’s composure, such as it was, broke. “You!” he yelled, looking straight at Jason, “What’s your fucking problem! Where’s my fucking food?” Then, addressing his captive audience, “This idiot can’t get it right!” His lapdog salivated and antiphonally egged him on, adding “yeah” between outbursts. Everybody else was silent, the moment of reckoning had arrived. Jason glared into the monster’s eyes with hate tempered by fear. He was expecting him to lunge across the counter at any instant. Somewhere deep down Jason was also experiencing a contradictory impulse, an effervescence of laughter struggling to escape at the foolish clown screaming at him. It was restrained.

Right then Tony said, “Here’s your order.” The bag was in his hand. Tattoo grabbed it and pushed his way through to the door, dramatically triumphant. As he opened the door he turned around defiantly and glowered one last time. With the pip-squeak sniggering in support he declaimed, “I’ll kick his fucking ass,” as they both passed through the door. In their absence a vacuum was created by the malignant atmosphere they took with them. Jason giggled nervously and looked at Tony. With his characteristic tranquility he said, “Don’t worry about it,” and then with contempt in his voice, “Yeah, he gets all badass when he leaves.” They both laughed. The customers all deßated a little with sighs of relief. Khaled and Saleem went outside to smoke cigarettes. The phone rang, the cooks turned back to their jobs, equilibrium returned. When things got quieter they would pull out the backgammon board and play a few games.

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