by The Senator
One of the great things about living – and working – in Greenwich Village, NY is that you are only 10-feet or so from a completely different scene.
While it’s true that there are some constants – dirt, rats, the incessant bleating of car horns – you can seamlessly move from the south of Spain to Mexico, to Italy or Ireland, a Yankee bar or Mets stronghold all in the same block. On this night, Chef Sebastian and I are in Albania.
It’s been a tough night for me and Sebastian, as usual. The restaurant he owned and I managed had the ignominy of being located right next to the most popular pizza restaurant in the entire city. Most restaurateurs would probably think this was a good thing. They would plan to take advantage of the runoff, but at our restaurant -- a place that could best be described as a chef driven seafood fusion place -- wasn’t going to lure the guy who drove all the way from the Poconos to eat at that cardboard pizza joint.
Adding insult to our injury, the line to get into the pizza place also ran past our front door, so it was as if you had to run a gauntlet just to get into our place. And if you thought a few folks would at least succumb to the idea of getting a quick cocktail at our restaurant, think again: due to the arcane New York City liquor and “cabaret” laws, we were not allowed to serve hard liquor because we were within so many feet of a church. On top of that, it wasn’t even what New Yorkers would consider a “real” church…it was some sort of bible study place – housed in a two-story brownstone -- more condominium than cathedral. Because of that, we couldn’t serve a Martini? You have to love the idiocy of blue laws…place a crucifix within a football field of your bar and your patrons are only permitted to get blasted off of beer or wine, but not gin or whiskey, because that would, like, lead to Satan or something.
That said, every night began with the same ritual for me and Sebastian – a glass of Pastis over ice (bootlegged, of course). The way the night ended would vary according to our mood but halftime would come at around 11 pm when we would go across the street to an Italian restaurant run by a bunch of Albanians because there we could get an honest drink (they were something like two-feet further west of the pseudo-church and had a full liquor license).
Over drinks, we would complain about the night or he would lecture me about a problem he thought he saw with the staff. We could keep an eye on the restaurant from across the street – a real professional setup, the manager and chef of the restaurant on the clock, not there. Truth be told, were getting flat out blasted and at the time, it seemed right..
The Albanians, for the most part, didn’t like us. We brought nothing to the place insofar as glamour. Sebastian wore a white chef’s coat that looked like he had thrown up all over it and I wore the typical sports jacket that restaurant managers wear, you know…the one hadn’t been dry cleaned in, oh, about four years? And because we had been working the floor that night, our tongues were always razor sharp, and we were pretty sarcastic to begin with. The Albanians were a bit shaky with their English, so when we’d make fun of them – which was a near constant – they would get flustered and their only comeback was, “You are stupid!” (but because of the accent it sounded more like “you are shtoopid!” which made us laugh all the more).
We delighted in watching their mistakes. If the server took over a dish from the kitchen to show Sebastian, Sebastian would always nitpick something. “Is that cheese on fish? Go back to Albania with that dish.” (The reply: “You are shtoopid!”) I would put the bartender through outrageous hoops, ordering “Singapore Slings” or just making up drinks that never existed, like an “artichoke kefir.” And when they really started to falter, really started to show us fear, that’s when we’d break into song.
There’s an episode of Cheers where Coach tries to pass a test and one of the questions involves Albania and he can never remember where it is, so the bar suggests a pneumonic device. “Put it into a song,” says Norm. So they do, and the result is a song sung to the tune of “The Saints Go Marching In.”
“Albania! Albania! You border on the Adriatic! Your terrain is mostly mountainous and your chief export is chrome!”
This, as you can imagine, would drive the Albanians insane and fluster them all the more. At first, the patrons of the restaurant thought it was annoying, but after a few lively choruses, even they got the joke. Even the piano player – an Albanian himself -- got into the spirit after a few rounds, gamely pounding out the notes of the tune on the baby grand. Soon the whole restaurant would get the idea and sing along.
But the Albanian’s didn’t understand the cue.
“You are shtoopid!”
Silence. Sebastian blinks. Then the hands start pounding the bar and tabletops in unison yet again.
Everyone wants an excuse for a fun time, no matter how shtoopid it may seem. Our sing along got to the point where some people were doing close approximations of alpine dances, skipping through the aisles. Others threw their napkins in the air. People clapped along joyously. People out in the street craned their necks to see just what the hell was going on inside this little Italian place. And behind the bar, the cute bartender that I had just ordered a “Flaming Albanian” from was tossing her head back and laughing. The server was furious.
“Why are you laughing at ‘zem? They are shtoopid!”
“No zey’re not,” she said, her face red with laughter as the bar do-si-do’d together. “They are so funny! They are just like ze Muppets!”
And that is how nicknames are born. That is how, when a neighbor introduces his kid to the chef by saying, “this is the chef!” his reply is to pull out a cigarette, light it, inhale, exhale and say, “No, I’m not the chef. I’m a Muppet.”
Hey, there are worse things to be…and their chief export is chrome.