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Life Arts    H4'ed 3/8/16

Obscured American: Tony the Cook

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Friendly Lounge, 2014

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.

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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