Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Midnight at the Oasis

I spend 75 percent of my time on the phone with two 15 minute breaks when I fly to New York to meet a guy who doesn't know me from Madame Tussuad's.

"Where the hell did you come from?" He's walking in the theater district around 47th Street pulling a shopping cart that's filled with a bunch of stuffed plastic bags. "I'm in a hurry," he says.

"I have as much right to the street as you do," I tell him. He's grinding the wheels into my ankle. What an idiot. I give the cart a kick. There's plenty of room to go around.

"Ill show you who has to slow down." He hooks his leg behind my knee. But before he can, I spin away and land on the other side of him, near the curb.

"Stupid motherfucker," he says in an accent that could be Eastern European, maybe Romanian, and keeps pulling the cart along the pavement, waiting at the crosswalk. It's around 5pm and the temperature is a dropping fist. I don't have gloves and my hands are cold.

Now we're both there waiting for the light to turn green. All the yellow taxis are speeding by. After all, it is New Years Eve. "What you got in that cart?" I'm half hoping for gloves. Mine are in the car.

He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand and stares at me with brown eyes, not too sure if he wants to answer. His hair is also brown. His olive complexion is overgrown with stubble.

"You stupid, man."

"Henry," I say and offer my hand. At that moment, the light turns green and he barrels across the street, a few taxis are still trying to edge their way over the white line to make a photo finish. I have no idea why I'm following him, except that I have nothing better to do. Shoving my hands deep inside my windbreaker are not keeping them warm. Waves of people are hurrying by, women in high heels with cleavage and rhinestones, men in suits, perfume and cologne mix and freeze into slush. There are enough kids on skateboards and people in jeans and t-shirts to fill up a baseball stadium.

He parts the crowd behind his wheels. I'm the first one there following behind him.

"Julio," I say. "Wait up!"

"My name's not Julio," he turns around and looks at me over his shoulder. "Scum bag."

Whatever did I do to deserve such endearment? Cars are honking and there's the general din of people shouting with cell phones ringing from a hundred different top ten lists. We pass a few Greek restaurants and I smell gyros and grilled onions. I'm beginning to lose him, but now I have to keep up, just to see if I can. "Wait up! Hey, shopping cart! You! Me Henry! It's New Years, man. Bad luck to start off with bad vibes." And just like that he turns around and grabs me by my wrist and pulls me along side him with a few people jumping away like they don't want to be contaminated.

"Danila!" This time he extends his hand. "Hurry your feet."

"Where we going?"

"To the restaurant," he says. "I cook tonight. It's a big party." Danila thumps the side of the shopping cart. "This way. We're almost there." And he turns the corner on two wheels to a rundown looking restaurant called the Oasis on 8th Avenue with a striped white and green awning. "In here?"

"You got gloves? My hands are freezing"

He pulls me inside. "It's warm."

It was warm alright. Two other men and woman were standing behind a chopping block and looking up at us holding steel knives. "Danila," says the woman, wiping her hands on an apron. "We thought you'd never get here."

"The streets are like subways. No room to move." He points at me. "Henry will help us. Right?" He looks at me while he removes several slabs of beef from the shopping cart and throws them on the chopping block.

Now I have a lot of experience in customer service but none in cooking. I think what the hell. I know how to make scrambled eggs, but I can see that eggs are not on the menu. The men are mixing a yellowish sauce and drizzling some over a long rectangular tray. One of them gives a few twists of a pepper mill and shoves the dish into the largest oven I've ever seen in my life.

"You!" One of them points to me. "Wash up back there. Put on this jacket and then you can work the desk." He throws a cranberry jacket at me and goes back to his cooking. Danila opens a door to the outside of the restaurant. There are several crystal chandeliers and a mosaic tile floor. I quickly count about 30 tables and a 150 seats. This is a big place.

"Where did the accident occur?" I ask in my cranberry jacket. "At the corner of MacArthur and Broadway?" I see it on my screen. I press the phone and dial for someone from the sheriff's office to arrive and make an accident report. Insurance has its demands. The dispatch desk says that they're sending out someone right now. It's probably helping to add a little spice to their evening. Mine too. Plus every accident is different. Sometimes it's the driver, sometimes something else. You never know.

We can't ask the police to do things like that because they have enough homicides in this downer to fill the front page of a newspaper. The City Manager says that they need 40 news officers just to keep current with retirements. Anyhow, the county Sheriff's Office knows how to fill out paper work as good as the next person. If I was starting out all over again, I might consider a job with the police. They get great pensions. But then I don't think I'd like the work.

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