Saturday, February 26, 2011


“Alex, what race are you?” she asked as she stood by the sink where he was busy washing dishes.

This was a perfectly normal conversation starter for our boss. And yes, it was just as shocking for us to hear this question and similar ones when we first started working at the store. But what was really distressing is how quickly we became accustomed to her ways.

A small, short, Indonesian woman whose entire emotional state lay within her almond eyes. A former quality control manager, those eyes were almost always lit with concern and terror. She would give a yelp that sounded midway between a dog whose tail was being stepped on and a woman whose purse was stolen whenever she saw a customer look toward the cash register with intent. Especially when no one was at the register.

However, regardless of how easily excitable she was, she did take a very keen interest in all of her employee’s personal lives. Some would think perhaps too keen of an interest. Such as what exactly Alex’s race was.

Alex is officially a Mexican-American. Mexican in that his mother is Mexican and he is a mocha brown shade with a prominent Aztec nose. American in that he was born in the United States and has almost no Mexican culture in him, aside from the occasion trip to Taco Bell. He can communicate in Spanish, but then so can I, and I never even knew Mexico existed until I was ten years old.

“Oh, I’m Mexican.” he replied looking up and giving her a crooked smile that causes his cheeks to spread into wide dimples that make him look very similar to Barak Obama, “But people usually think I’m from somewhere Middle Eastern. Or from India.”

There are two reasons for this reply. The first being that our sweet, kind, caring, motherly boss does not like Mexicans. In her defense, she came about this conclusion because all the previous Hispanic employees she hired she had to fire fairly quickly. Technically the one was Guatamalan-Cuban, but to her that still meant Mexican. So we warned him beforehand that he should tell her that he was Indian. He decided to take the middle path instead.

The second reason he brought up the Middle-Eastern/Indian connection was because it was true. One day we went to an Indian Restaurant for lunch, a place I’d been to before. The food was good, if a tad expensive and rightfully so as it was as authentic as the flapper-style golden skirts hanging from the ceiling. However, the service was horrible. Except for this time. The second he walked through the door, the waiters were all over us. Or more accurately all over him. They barely paid any attention to the rest of our group. But because he had never had Indian food before, he just sat there in silence. Instead of tipping them off that something may be off, it seemed that they treated Alex with even more respect and awe. Here was a man not lightly to enter into conversation. Someone who delegated his ordering of food to those non-Indian slaves he had to accompany him. What awe! What majesty!

And they served him like a true raja. Appatizers and side dishes on the house. Larger portions than any of the other guest (all American) were getting. They would ramble off at him, possibly in Urdu, and then he would look at them, look at me, and I would answer for him. Not that I knew Urdu either, but I just kept saying yes, especially when their hand gestures widened with their smiles.

We were just finishing off the meal when the owner himself walked out to meet us. Alex gave a small bow of the head, more of a nod that one would give to a child than anything else. Later he would say it was because he was so scared the owner would figure out he wasn’t really Indian that he didn’t know what to do. Seeing that nod, the owner’s eyes widened and he swallowed slightly under his bright orange shirt collar.

He began speaking Urdu at Alex, but seeing Alex look towards the rest of us, he realized his error and quickly switched to English. Obvious this great man wished not for his friends to be excluded from the conversation. How magnanimous.

“Thank you wery much sirs. I am so wery happy to haf you here in my restaurant. You would like dessert, yes?” he said, smiling extremely wide so that I caught a glimpse of his silver fillings.

“Ummm.” Alex said, looking at me with terror in his eyes.

“It would be free of course. As an offering of gratitude.” The owner bowed as the words rolled like oil of his tongue.

“Sure. That would be great.” I answered for Alex, the owner’s eyes shifting towards me for a second with contempt before returning to their normal state of glistening appreciation at Alex.

Whatever it was he brought us was delicious. It had the texture of chopped cashews, the taste of honey and cardamon exploding in chunks, with the richness of butter underneath it all. I loved it. Alex picked at it with his fork, moving it back and forth, and leaned over the table to me and whispered.

“Dude, what is this stuff?” he sounded extremely worried.

“I think it’s squash,” an Indonesian friend offered.

“I’m not sure, but it’s good. Try it.” I said, taking another bite.

“Man, I’m not sure if I wanna eat something that’s pink like that,” he whispered, referencing the shade of salmon-fuscia that the dish had running through it.

I glanced up just to see the owner’s face duck down behind the swinging door from the kitchen. Alex pushed a small mound of the coarsely chopped pink dish onto his fork. He raised it up, brought it close to his mouth, and crinkled his nose at the scent. He took the bite and those same dimpled cheeks dimpled in revulsion. Apparently cardamon is not a part of the Mexican-American palette.

“O, you no look Mexican.” our boss said as he revealed to her his terrible secret back by the sink, “Maybe, Middew-Eastern. Or Pakistani.”

“Yeah, I’ve never really gotten that one.” Alex said, not sure what to say to the random accusation of Pakistani heritage.

“O ya, maybe when you go to airport, they all Oh No!” she cried throwing her hands in the air.

Yes, she went there.

Not that there is anywhere she wouldn’t go. And for some reason it is always poor Alex who gets the brunt of the blows. Part of his job involves taking boxes filled with frozen brownie bites and transfering the brownie bites to smaller containers. The problem being that brownie bites tend to solidify into solid blocks of concrete when frozen. To remedy this we first used coffee cups, but then our brilliant boss, either fearing for her precious cups or the possibility of actually having to pay workman’s comp, bought the mallet.

Standing by the table, she directed Alex in pouring the brownie bites.

“Alex, so you take mallet. Is this.” she said, holding it up in case he had any question as to which one of the many mallets she may be referring to. “You hold here, on wood handle.”

A lesser man would have demonstrated to her exactly how well he could use the mallet, by smashing her through the face with it. But to Alex’s credit, he resisted the urge and just nodded and smiled as she continued.

“But you must be very gentle. When you hit. You hit with the mallet. Like this. Gentle. Okay?” she said handing it to him but then retracting the proffered weapon to reitterate, “Gentle. No hard. You hit with mallet. On wooden handle. Gentle. Otherwise, it make hole in bag. That is why, is important for us to hit gentle.”

So there he was, standing at the table in the back tapping away at the brownie brick with the mallet using the wooden side to hold on to as he had been so graciously taught, going as gently as possible. And she was right! When he hit it gently, the bag did not rip at all. Incredible!


Nothing else happened either. Not even the ice sitting loosely on top of the brownie brick stirred. Alex continued, having learned early on that there was no point in arguing. He just stood there. Tap, tap, tap, tap.

She walked to the front to check on customers and he sighed with relief. He had not been tapping a whole minute before he heard the pitter patter of her small feet as she ran back to the office. Passing him, she stopped, looked at what he was doing and went to the back. A few minutes later she was back, standing there. Wordlessly.

Alex didn’t know what to do. He kept on tapping, feeling her gaze slithering over him. He turned and smiled, seeing those concerned filled eyes just watching the rise and fall of the mallet. When he turned to ask her something, she was gone, her tapping feet echoing from the hallway to the back office. He shrugged it off and kept tapping.

“Alex, you have girlfriend?” Her voice startled him so much he almost dropped the mallet which should only be held by its wooden handle.

“Ummm, well I did.” Alex said, trying to be as vague as possible.

“Oh, you need girlfriend!” She said as if it explained everything.

Alex, so used to simply agreeing with her, didn’t even question it and simply laughed dryly. “Sure, I’ll get right on it.”

“See, you need girlfriend.” She said taking the mallet and bringing it down in several hard successive blows, shattering brownie shards everywhere, “You need girlfriend because you too gentle man.”

At that point Alex couldn’t take it anymore. He burst out laughing. To this day we are still not entirely sure what having a girlfriend has to do with being too gentle. Did she mean that by having a girlfriend Alex would have enough anger and frustration to take out on the brownies? Or that Alex would soon learn how to hit hard? Or not to be too... gentle? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that if Alex ever went to a airport, the security guards would take one look at him, throw their hands in the air, and in a voice reminescent of a small Indonesian woman yell, “Oh no! Pakistani!”

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