Obscured American: Tony the Cook

When I lived closer to Center City, I’d take out-of-town friends to McGlinchey’s or Dirty Frank’s, but since moving to South Philly more than a decade ago, I’d drag people to the Friendly Lounge, because it really is friendly. In Philly, black bars tend to be called “lounge,” but Friendly is the haunt of middle-aged white guys, mostly, though there’s Chinese George and myself, and Vern, a black Vietnam vet, as well as a few others of various shades. A Dominican lady, Maria, advised me to abstain from eggs, cantaloupe and papaya after sundown. An admirer of Rafael Trujillo, she loved the fact that he had people’s fingers chopped off, or their nails yanked out. “I hate criminals. I like law and order.”

Mexican guys like to get trashed at the Korean-owned beer joint down the street. With so many men and no women, fights often erupt, so it’s nicknamed Stab and Grab. These tussles are mostly about staring, shouting, pushing or flailing, however. Months can go by before you’ll see a half decent right cross. No one has been killed. Neon-lit, and with tables instead of stools, it attracts few Americans. There was a morose Vietnamese homeless guy who would sit in there by himself, but he died recently, probably from a bruised soul.

Suddenly, I’m no longer in Leipzig, Germany, but South Philly. To ground myself, I’ve been going to Friendly, mostly to chat with Don, the co-owner and daytime bartender. Whenever someone mentions a distant place, Don would remind us he’s been to Montana for a wedding. Sixty-seven-years-old, Don’s spent his entire life in the Philadelphia area. Born in Camden, he now lives in Oaklyn.

So huge, the United States is hard to get out of. Airport worker Brent, though, has been all over, and so has George, a self-made millionaire. Retired building contractor Don went to Mongolia to shoot argalis. He ended up chewing on a raw testicle, “I got sick that day and all of the next day. Oh man, it was terrible!” Art and music teacher Terrence has been to Europe. His favorite destination, though, is Colorado. He’s there skiing right now. Only hours ago, we were admiring a photo he emailed back.

OK, enough of my babbling. I want y’all to meet a Friendly Lounge regular, and to hear him talk at length about his life, for no life is uninteresting. I had a similar approach with “An American in Brighton” and “Don Hensley in Huntingburg, Indiana,” but Tony is my neighbor, and just about each afternoon, you’ll find him at the far end of the bar in Friendly. By evening, he might drag his scrawny ass to The Dive, a block and a half away. Fifty-five-years-old, Tony is a cook in an Italian restaurant. There are always five guys in the kitchen, but no matter the shift, Tony is the only white dude. Everybody else is Mexican.

I have fun with them. They make me laugh, but sometimes they make me mad, because they do things I’d never do. I have to step back and realize, it’s their culture. I can’t get really mad.

They put peppers on everything. They put so much peppers on an expensive piece of meat or fish, you can’t taste it, so I’d say, “Why don’t you guys just eat peppers. It’d be cheaper. Why mess up the fish?”

We have about fifty employees, and about half of them are Mexicans. There are no Mexican bartenders, no Mexican servers because your language has to be good, your English has to be good.

I’m the only Caucasian in the kitchen, and they’re trying to recruit me. They want me to be Mexican. They’re teaching me Spanish. I’d say, “You need to be working on your English, not me on my Spanish. If we were in Spain, I’d be struggling to speak Spanish. I’d be embarrassed not being able to speak it.”

Each day, I learn a few more words of Spanish.

Some of the guys are learning English. Some refuse. They insist that this will be the new Mexico. They’re going to change me, and I don’t want to change.

The head chef is Mexican, and he’s very articulate, his English is good. Although it’s not his culture, he cares. Same with the sous chef.

Basically, they leave the Mexicans to their own devices, because they’re good at what they do. They’ll get together, they’ll come up with a plan and it works. Don’t try to understand it, don’t try to change it, just let it go.

The Mexicans would come to me and have me act as a liaison to management. You need a really good English speaker to communicate with management, which is white. That doesn’t mean I can’t be replaced. There are other guys out there who can do that, and you don’t even have to be white. Your English just has to be good, and you must know the culture. South Philly, you know, the mentality.

I’ve worked in restaurants for thirty years, but here for just over three. They pay me pretty good. They take care of me. I get 13 an hour, under the table. I work 50 hours a week.

The Mexicans make much less. That’s why they’re hired. The Mexicans make around minimum wage, and they’re grateful for it.

Eight bucks is nothing, considering how much that restaurant makes. They can afford to pay more, but they don’t. By the same token, they do that because they can. In the Bible, they would call that usury. That’s right, it’s usury . . . using people.

The illegal Mexicans need to become legal. No free rides. This way, they’re not paying taxes, and they’re not able to be drafted. If you remember back in World War II, there was a thing called the zoot suit riot. Remember that? Illegal immigrants back then turned a blind eye to the war effort. The government said we need your help, and they refused. Because they wore these zoot suits, soldiers on leave would beat them up. That’s the zoot suit riot.

Nowadays, it’s the same thing, and I don’t want to be a Donald Trump guy, but if you gonna come here, you’ve got to learn the language, and insist that your children speak English in public. It’s our common language, not Spanish.

When in Rome, do what the Romans do. I resent the fact that they want to change my culture.

You’ve got to do what the Italians did, what the Irish did, you’ve got to fit in. Otherwise, why would you be here? If you don’t want to be an American, and act like an American, why would you come here?

I think they hold us in contempt, because they think it’s their country still, and it was. A lot of it was. Plus, they’re Native Americans.

In my line of work, you have to be strong, in your mind, to take the pressure. It’s the number one industry for heart attack. Over all these different jobs . . . number one. I’ve seen people leave the restaurant crying, stalking off. It just happened two weeks ago. The owner’s son walked off the job. It was because the other guys were picking on him. He wasn’t able to keep up with us.

When the owner’s there, she can protect him, but when she’s not there, he’s just one of the guys. We refused to give him that royal status. Although his mother is good at what she does, he’s not. He has a long way to go.

That’s something you never do. You don’t walk off your shift, period. I understand you’re unhappy. We’ll talk about it at the end of the night. You can’t look over and need some lettuce, and the guy’s not there! It’s like going to war.

It’s the only restaurant he has ever worked in. He’s in Vermont now, with his family. He’s finding himself. He’s a boy in a man’s body. He’s 24.

He didn’t care about his coworkers. That’s what I find hard to forget. He let us down, man. He’s like a deserter.

Restaurant work is physically and mentally exhausting. Some mornings, I’m like, “Man, do I have to go back there and start all over?” But it’s not like they’re going to kill me, I don’t think. You just do it and they pay you.

You may be able to handle the stress, but two years down the line, there may be someone you just can’t stand, so you may have to get another job. It’s like in the military, you may have to request a transfer to another company, because there are a couple of guys who are always giving you a hard time, for no reason. They don’t like you.

I was stationed in Twentynine Palms, in the desert. I was married, had a daughter. Being in that desert made me realize why Arabs and Jews are always so pissed off! Newsbreak! There’s grass everywhere else!

I enlisted right out of Frankfort High School.

It was a third black, a third white and a third Hispanic, and every day, there were fights. I was just this scrawny son of a preacher, but I had to learn how to fight. I was tired of getting beaten up.

In junior high, a black kid hit one of the teachers with an oak chair, knocked him out. He was pissed because he had failed a test. They had to bring in an ambulance, take the old guy out in a stretcher.

In 12th grade, I got my first job as a dishwasher at the Holiday Inn. Seeing that I was a pretty good worker, the head chef soon turned me into a cook.

“Will I get paid more?” I asked him. “Sure,” he said, “and you’ll get to eat all of these shrimp for free too.” I was always hungry so I said yeah. It was weird at first because all of these people were screaming at each other all the time, there was so much stress, but at the end of the day, it was all forgotten.

We would drink a punch made of brandy, Coke and oranges, cut into halves, and we would also do coke. We could only do this after the chef had gone home. The sous chef was cool. At the end of the day, we also threw hot, stuffed tomatoes at each other.

I was in the marines for six years. After that, I got a job as a manager at Jack in the Box, which I didn’t like. I like to cook.

I enjoy cooking. I think it’s an art. Sometimes you can see the customers eat your food. Especially with the very old and the very young, and they have that smile, I like that.

Another reason I like it is, if you look at the expression, “food and drink,” food is always first. “Food and entertainment,” “food and shelter,” food is always first. You can get by without shelter, but you can’t get by without food. Food is number one.

I’m around seafood all the time, but I can’t really afford to eat from there, but the other night, I splurged on myself and bought three pounds of shrimp. I just sat in front the TV and kept eating . . . over two or three hours. Instead of popcorn, I was eating shrimp. It was good.

I live with my sister. It’s $600 a month, and I pay half, but sometimes I must give her more, because she doing so bad.

I come to the Friendly a lot because it’s like my living room. I don’t have that much space.

My sister is never in the bar, because she’s bipolar. She drinks at home, and smokes a lot of weed. It calms her down. She has to have that. I smoke weed too, but not every day.

I’ve been living with her for six years. She needed help to pay the rent. Her boyfriend left. It’s expensive here.

She works in a restaurant too. She’s a server. We don’t say waitress anymore. Server.

Her job is really getting to her. She fights with her boss all the time. She’s been there so long, she feels she can fight with him, but she doesn’t realize that . . . you lose. I mean, you’re not gonna win. Because she has a bad attitude, and shows up late, every day, they give her a bad section that nobody wants to sit in, so now she makes even less money and hates her job even more. She’s only fifty, so retirement is more than ten years away. This is the time to work as hard as you can, because you know what you’re doing, and you still have your health, but she doesn’t get it. She feels like she should be able to retire right now.

She spends all her money on weed, and she smokes the good weed, not the cheap weed. She smokes about a hundred dollars’ worth of it a week. That’s like a car payment, with insurance, then there’s the wine, lots of wine.

She doesn’t have children. She wouldn’t be good with children. She wants kids, but it’s easy to want them if you don’t have them.

I’ve been married twice, for 11 years altogether. I’m not good at that. I tried.

I have no problem saying no, you can’t control me, there’s a limit. I love you, but you can’t have my freedom, and I don’t mean the freedom to have sex with other women, but I don’t need a list of things that I must do, with all my free time, after work. For me to do this, do that, I must get paid. Otherwise, you’re like a slave owner. I’m only willing to do so much for pussy, and I’m independent enough that I don’t need company.

My second wife tackled my mother, slammed her against the wall, and the old lady was 65 at the time. I had to grab her hair. I was ready to hit her when my dad said, “No, you don’t do that.” Another time, she stabbed me with a butterfly knife. Look at these scars.

One time, I threw out my knee doing construction work, but I managed to drive, using my right foot for both the gas and the brake. When I got home, I couldn’t stand, it was that bad. I was literally crawling on my belly up the stairs when my wife came out. She wouldn’t help me. She said, “So it looks like you’re going to miss a week of work, huh?” Then she went back inside.

I’m not looking to get married. I’d get married, but I’m not one of those guys who have to be with somebody. I do think that’s the way life should be, with a man, a woman and children. I think that’s optimized. That’s the way it’s made, the way it should be. Children need a mother and a father to be brought up right.

I do have a daughter. She’s thirty-four. Full-grown. We had a bad falling out. I was in the military. I understand. I was never there. I was always up in the desert, training. I haven’t seen her in, ah, twenty years. I basically try not to think about that. It’s very painful, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Her mother turned her against me. I was an asshole.

I tried to call her. Years ago. If she decides one day to contact me, I’ll answer and I’ll meet her.

I’ve been with a lot of women. I love women. I’ve been with 138, and I’m working on 139. Any day now. I ain’t dead yet.

I love women, but let’s say you have sex with a woman, and she decides to stay over, and you realize she’s not leaving. OK, so you have to either pay rent, or you’ve got to be cooking and cleaning. It’s one or the other.

You give her an orgasm, and she may not leave.

I don’t care if you fall asleep next to me, but in the morning, I’ve got to go to work, and you can’t stay here while I’m gone.

Unless . . . I get up and you make me some coffee and say you’re going to do my laundry, or you’re going to clean something or fix something, but you can’t just be hanging around to eat all my food, drink all my booze, use all the towels up and leave them lying around so there’s nothing for me to use after work. No!

Here’s a joke for you. You know why I like to sleep with homeless women? Afterwards, you can drop them off anywhere!

I had a girlfriend once. I was a bartender, and one night she came in all beat up and bloody. Pretty Scottish girl. She wanted a drink, so I said, “It looks like you’ve lost a lot of blood, and you’re half drunk already. I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you if you really want a drink. Go back in my apartment, take a shower, go into my closet and grab a clean shirt, then come back and we’ll see.” Well, she appreciated that very much and fell in love with me. We didn’t have sex or anything. Years went by before we hooked up.

I can amuse myself. I can read. I can paint. I love music.

I’m off today. It’s my first day off in six weeks. Last night felt so great because I knew tomorrow, I wouldn’t have to worry about it for 24 hours. I could actually let myself go into solid, deep sleep. It’s like a mini vacation.

Normally, I drink a Jagermeister before bed. You come home and you’re all wired up, but you know you must go to sleep like right away, because you’ll have to get up again, so you need something to calm you down. It’s not good.

Later, I’m going home and paint. I’ve been doing seascapes, underwater seascapes. I’ve never been deep sea, no, but from watching TV programs and looking at photographs, I’ve done a bit of research. Sometimes I bend it a little bit, make it more abstract.

I use oil, acrylic, pastel, anything. I know the smell of turpentine is bad for you, but I like it.

I’m fascinated by the sea, always have been, but I can’t live next to the ocean, because it costs money.

The cooking, the painting, all the good stuff . . . to me, that’s life! I can’t be going, “Oh, poor me, I’ve got to go to work, it hurts so much,” and believe me, when you get older like me, your body hurts, but you go anyway, and once you get there, you realize, that’s funny, I’m glad I got up.

An hour into work, the pain is gone and you’re running, you’re moving and it’s sunny outside, so you think, OK, at least I’m doing something right.

The last guy I voted for was Reagan. I don’t know if I’m gonna vote this time. I don’t really like any of them. I believe the president should be a veteran. Before you send kids into war, you should know what it’s like.

The ultimate sign of love for this country is to put your ass on the line for it. Not to be confused with being drafted, which is forced enlistment.

I think our biggest problem is the economy, and the family unit has gone to shit. You used to be able to beat your kids. If I wasn’t afraid of my father growing up, I wouldn’t have listened to my mother. I was just a bad kid. My father would hit me in the face, but not with a closed hand. You know what, I learnt. Respect your mother.

For your dad to hit you, and for it to be effective, he has to be respectable. He has to be able to say, “This is why you’re getting it. You have to do what I do. That way, I won’t have to do this anymore. Follow what I do. I get up every morning, I go to work, I stop at the bar after work, I come home and there’s dinner on the table. This is the good life, kid.”

They don’t want that. Kids don’t want that anymore.

I’m getting a new place. I’ll have this basement to myself, and it’s only $300, with everything included, all the bills. It’s unheard of.

I might take a vacation, which I haven’t done in ten years. I like to fish. I’ll go fishing, but at this point, I don’t care if I catch any fish. I’ll cast a bare hook out there, sit there, watch the birds and just relax.

I can’t think too far ahead. I’m the kind of guy who will work until the day I die.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.

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