Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Downtown Diner Experience


No requests for any stories. Fine, I guess.

Well, I'm befriending the guy who seems to manage Downtown Diner. He's behind the counter all the time, anyway. I don't know his name but he's from Egypt and I gather he's Muslim. I'm trying to update my hardcopy journal with the highlights of our conversations.

He smiles whenever I come in, or gives me a double thumbs-up if I'm just walking by on my way to or from work. He's from Egypt but has lived in Minneapolis for nine years, sharing a downtown apartment with a friend. His wife, mother, and three children are back in Egypt. Usually he visits them every three months, but work has been difficult lately and he hasn't seen them in 14 months. Once, I asked him how his weekend was and he said he couldn't think of anything else but how badly he misses them.

I asked if there were any plans to bring them to the States. He said they couldn't get visas to live here, but he wouldn't want it anyway. He wants his children to finish high school and college before they move to this country, if they do at all. Here, his religious morality showed: he expressed concern over the sexual promiscuity of young adults here, and he didn't want his children to get mixed up with that. I wondered briefly whether he were as adamant and fundamentalist about this as what we hear in the news, families that stage "honor killings" when a child interacts too wholly with Western culture. I had to wonder, though I couldn't imagine him ever doing anything like that.

His children are 15, 14, and 12. He talks with them on the phone and they want things: cell phones, laptop computers. His youngest wanted a phone, "so I do some research. I find dis, uh, Nokia, is good phone. But she say, 'No! I want best phone!'" He shook his head and we laughed about child politics.

Recently I told him about my weekend, about hosting Passover dinner and going to my mom's for Easter. I wondered what opinion he would have about my mom being Catholic and my wife being Jewish, but he was completely unphased. He said they have a tradition around this time in Egypt: the children dye eggs. I have to research what holiday it is that occurs around Western Easter. I said we do the same thing, our children color the eggs and we hide them for the kids to find.

"You hide de eggs? With de fish?" He wondered whether I was describing a strange tradition in which we conceal entire cooked meals under furniture. Apparently they don't hide their eggs. As for the fish, he opened the oven door and I saw a couple large pans covered in foil. "Is holiday meal," he said, "fish and rice. I'm making a lot!" He closed the door and looked at me. "Is ready in maybe an hour. You come back."

Dead curious, I worked at my desk, trying to focus on my editing but so anxious about this treat! An hour later I ran back to the store where he was having a late lunch, sampling his own creation. He saw me, waved quickly and darted into the back, and after a couple minutes handed me a large to-go container. I thanked him profusely and carried it back to the office like it was a shipment of gold.

It was a whole fish, head, tails, and all, coated in spices and served with a bed of rice. I lifted a panel of crispy skin and scales, and it opened as cleanly as a door. The meat slid gently away from the spine and bones, and it was so tender in my mouth. I forked in some seasoned rice with it, and savaged about half of it in this way before packing it up--I had already eaten a full lunch and was now stuffed, and I wanted to bring some home to share with Rebecca.

The next day I complimented his cooking and thanked him very much for the gift. He said, "No problem. You are a good man." I'm trying to think of something nice I could present him with, and I'm leaning toward a photo portrait with the Holga. It's impossible to get a clear shot of the front of the restaurant: even when the LRTs aren't parked there, there's all sorts of signage sprouting from the platform. But I could get a nice shot of him behind the counter, get it enlarged and printed. After that's done I'll write up a nice article about this for Open Salon and maybe the New York Times.

But I've got to find out his name, first. I don't even know what to call him.

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