November 13, 2005

Fitting In... Or Not

There's this hole-in-the-wall restaurant near us that serves Salvadorian food. Truth be told, there are many hole-in-the-wall restaurants near us that serve Salvadorian and other Central and South American cuisines. But this particular place is one Wendy and I frequent. We adore the food. Papusas! Fajitas! Tamales! Authentic recipes created from scratch adorned generously with sour cream and guacamole as appropriate, the food they serve is an excellent means of sating our periodic cravings for such fare. Quite tasty, portions plentiful, and the salsa always divine. Plus it's cheap. Great cheap food is sacred in my book.

The physical plant of the restaurant could be called shabby. No, strike that. It is shabby. It's located in a fast food restaurant building that is older than I am. A mish-mash of colorful paintings on the windows announce their fare. The tables are covered with vinyl table clothes sporting white and green checks, the booth benches sink. There are always at least two tables in the dining area littered with used dishes, empty cups, and balled up napkins. I would have never gone in there at all if a co-worker hadn't taken me there once about fifteen years ago. That first trip hooked me. Oink tacos rule.

It's sort of a combination of fast food and sit-down eating: place an order at the counter and they serve the food at the table. A man we think is the owner is usually at the register taking orders. Wendy and I have been going there together for years. He doesn't smile at us in recognition, but nods politely, with reserve, when we greet him. I've never really seen him smile at anyone. A young lady who also works there regularly and the ladies in the kitchen will smile if smiled at first. Still, even though he doesn't smile, I'm certain he recognizes the two female gringos who come in together at least once a month.

The clientele is racially mixed, but mostly hispanic lightly sprinkled with caucasian. There is more Spanish spoken than English, but not by me. I can't speak much Spanish although I keeping thinking one day I'd like to learn. My vocabulary is limited to words like "hola" and "gracias" and "pollo."

Anyway. Wednesday evening we had dinner there. The place was really hopping, which was rather unusual. Usually there is a slow but steady stream of customers in and out, but not a crowd hanging out in the lobby like there was that night. Waiting for carry-out orders, perhaps.

Some long, lean hispanic dude rode up on a bicycle about the same time we got out of the car. He wore jeans and a sweatshirt and had a red bandana tied around his forehead. I'm going to call him Creepy Guy from here on out. He was loudly talking to another fellow in Spanish as they followed us into the restaurant.

That's when it got weird.

As we gave our order to the nice old man behind the counter, Creepy Guy first stood very close to Wendy staring at her, speaking a stream of Spanish of which I, ignorant American that I am, could not understand a word. Then he scurried over and stood over my left shoulder and stared at me, his continuous stream of Spanish indisputably directed at the two of us. From his tone and the way he was looking at us, it was anything but polite. I doubt he would have been saying it if he thought we could comprehend whatever it was he was saying. I silently cursed my inability to understand the language.

The old man taking our order glanced briefly over at the man, didn't say a word, and looked quickly down to the register. His eyes didn't move from the keys as he took our order and gave us change. Meanwhile, Creepy Guy was still standing at my shoulder, his eyes boring a hole in my head as he spoke a language I did not understand. I finally turned slightly, raised my eyebrow and made eye contact with Creepy Guy. My look was neutral but far from friendly, more like "wtf, dude?" He raised his hands and said in English, "Oh sorry, miss, sorry," as he backed away a step or two. He looked anything but sorry, more pleased that he had gotten a reaction.

It was disconcerting. Quite. I had never felt uncomfortable, almost threatened, like that before, certainly not in a place so familiar. I didn't like it. But it also bothered me knowing the old man behind the counter certainly knew what Creepy Guy was saying. He speaks his language. But he didn't stop him. I wondered later if he was afraid of him. Maybe he was. I know I was. At least a little. Which pisses me off even more.

The pupusas, as always, were divine that evening.

We ate them surrounded by an hispanic couple with two toddlers, a four pack of older hispanic women, a group of hispanic men, and two hispanic fellows eating solo. Of the Creepy Guy, we saw no more. Still, I'm ashamed to admit I didn't really relax until a white man sat down in the dining area.

I'm not sure what that means. Or maybe I am sure, and I just don't like what it says about me. I'm sure I don't like feeling it about a place we adore eating.



Anonymous said...

I dont know what to say without writing a lot, but it's supposed to be a comment so Ill refrain and go for trying to make you smile. Remember the Seinfeld where Elaine brought someone who spoke the language with her because she was sure her manicurist was talking about her (in another language). We all get suspicious and paranoid when we cant speak the language.

Eyes for Lies said...

That's creepy. And it sucks. You never know if you are dealing with a drug-whacko or not these days.

Perhaps the guy was wigged out on meth?

I hope you don't see him again!

I would have had to ask the guy behind the counter what he was saying -- once he was out of sight.

Suzanne said...

that girl, I actually thought of that episode later. It was a hoot, wasn't it? Damn I need to learn Spanish!

Eyes, I wish I had asked the man at the counter what the fellow had said. Creepy Guy could have been on drugs I guess, but another thing that popped into my head was the increasing prevalence of gang activity in our area which may explain the owner's reluctance to intervene.

Eh. Maybe I'm just paranoid.


shrlckhlms said...

I'm afraid my first reaction to your story matches Elizabeth's --- that the creep was saying something about you being gay and the owner didn't want to defend you...or was afraid to.

But I can relate about not feeling too comfortable until another white person came in and sat down. AND I can relate about not being comfortable with that feeling.

Anonymous said...

I can also relate. My dad is Puerto Rican, but I am not fluent in Spanish. I speak very little of it. When people realize I don't speak the language, they look at me like I have two heads!! I usually tell them I don't speak it for 2 reasons. One, this is America. We speak English here, and two, my mother is Philippine, Italian, and Irish. So, there was no spanish speaking in my home.

However, my two sisters speak it, but my two brothers and I don't speak the language.
And no, I don't think you're a racist.