by Zhandarka Kurti
I get out of the cab and find myself in front of a large stone building resembling a foreign embassy, not unlike the ones you find in the upper east side of Manhattan. The words “Casa de Galicia” are etched on the top. I am confused. Is this the Spanish restaurant where I am supposed to meet my date? I texted him through WhatsApp and he promptly came outside to get me.
I agreed to a date with a guy from Madrid that I met on the subway platform. We were both spewing hateful words at the MTA under our breaths. It was a hot and humid weekday morning, a bit odd for early October and I was running late to work. Our eyes met and we struck up a conversation in Spanish, which often happens to me in the Bronx because people assume I am Latina. He was from Madrid and he lived on my block in the South Bronx where he moved 2 years ago after he got priced out of Queens. He worked as a waiter and was on his way to open up the restaurant. We boarded the crowded local 6 train heading towards Manhattan. We made small talk, mostly at first about how crappy the MTA services are. He told me he loved to dance, salsa especially. His eyes lit up as he described to me the differences between Cuban and Nuyorican salsa. His family all lived back home, and he tried to visit once a year. “The tickets are not cheap,” he said as he rubbed his fingers together to motion.
“New York is expensive, am I right? You have to work so hard all the time. Well you must know,” he said. He was surprised I was Albanian and complemented me on my Spanish. I told him about the month I spent in Spain and he quickly took the opportunity to ask me out to dinner, to eat the best paella the city has to offer. He had broad shoulders and his black rimmed glasses and disheveled hair made him look interesting so I agreed to a date.
I entered Casa de Galicia. He motioned towards the bar, where he was seated, an Estrella beer was sweating unto a white paper napkin. Another man, wearing a light blue polo shirt with a small alligator patch, the brand of Lacoste, was watching a soccer match on the flat screen television. My date introduced me to this man as his boss. I was a bit surprised. I was not sure why his boss was tagging along on our date. Confused, I sat between them and ordered a glass of red wine. My date was going through the menu and looking for things to order. They didn’t have paella, he told me. I was disappointed. He must have read the expression on my face, and got a bit flustered. Staring at the menu he said, “don’t worry, I will order some really good stuff, do you like pulpo?” “Well that’s no paella, but sure let’s try it,” I said. He called to the Mexican waiter who was drying some wine glasses. He joked with him in Spanish as he put in the order. “It’s a nice atmosphere here,” he told me as he moved his bar stool closer to me.
The boss turns to me and says, “So I hear you are Albanian.” “Yes,” I nodded. “Well, I know a lot of Albanians, mostly mafiosos.” I smiled. He continued, “I don’t have problems with them, they come to my restaurant and eat and sometimes they buy me a drink.” I nodded.
“They are more dangerous than the Russian mafia,” I said. “You should watch out.”
“Oh, I am aware, but they don’t mess with me, I mind my own business.” He continued to go on about the Albanian mafia and the power play between bosses in the Bronx and Queens. I smiled. “You know a lot about the Albanian mafia, no?”
“I used to deal with guys like that in law enforcement.”
I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly, so I asked again. “You were in law enforcement, doing what?” He shared with me that he was a former DEA detective who worked for the 44th precinct in the South Bronx. I was dumbfounded. Where the hell was I?
“Yea, but like I said they don’t bother me,” he picked up the conversation again to offset the radio silence awkwardness of my date. I was beginning to think my date brought this guy here to keep me entertained.
“I have seen a lot of stuff but these new cops are nerds. Look,” he said, “I went to school in the streets of Queens and I graduated John Jay. But these new cops, they are like this tall,” and he motioned with his hand to demonstrate their height, which would have made them dwarf size. “What criminals are they going to catch. They are in their books. Cops now have to get degrees. Back in my day, it was different.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, cops were street guys. They were cops because they knew how the streets worked. They came from the streets. Nowadays, these cops are too scared to do their job.”
“What made you want to be a chef?” I asked.
“It was a good investment.” He ordered a gin and tonic from the Mexican waiter. He was retired and now boasted a few restaurants in Queens and one in upstate New York, where my date worked at.
“You are not a DACA kid are you?” he asked.
“No,” I answered.
“Well, that’s good because look at what Trump wants to do with DACA. But don’t worry, it won’t pass, just like the healthcare, or anything he has tried to do. The courts won’t allow it. He is the worst president we have ever had. This country was founded by immigrants.”
“Did you guys see his response to Puerto Rico?” I egged on.
My date shook his head in disapproval.
“Yes, I can’t believe he went down there and threw paper towels at people. He had to make it a point to say that it was their fault they were broke. He is ridiculous…” the ex-cop’s voice trailed off.
This just got very interesting. A former cop from Queens who hates Trump.
“A lot of my buddies in law enforcement agree with me. He is making things worse.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well he has brought us back. Black women, are in positions of power. God bless them. And I love seeing women in power. And Trump, well look at how he thinks about women. He went on Howard Stern and said that if Ivanka wasn’t his daughter, he would do her. What the fuck is wrong with you. How can you say this about your daughter? He said so many things about women. Its unacceptable.”
“Did you know his father was in the KKK?”
“That’s crazy,” my date managed to say, wiping his mouth with the napkin.
“He hasn’t done one single thing in one year. This is why I say if Hillary was president, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Sure, she lied about those emails. Who doesn’t lie as part of their job. But do you think she programs her own phone? No. I know I do a lot of private security for state department people and celebrities and let me tell you, she didn’t mess up Benghazi. It was already done. They were already packing up. Trump is an idiot. He doesn’t know how American government runs. He thinks he can do or say anything. I liked Obama, I voted for him. Unlike my buddies in law enforcement I don’t vote for Republicans. I mean there were like 15 republicans running against 4 democrats. What were they thinking?”
In the middle of this conversation, he turns to his iphone and starts texting.
I turned to the flat screen in front of me and started watching the game. I asked my date who was playing. He didn’t seem to know the teams and the ex-cop blurted out “Colombia and Paraguay.” My date smiled. He said his boss was really “cool.” His boss was originally from Galicia and they bonded about growing up in Spain. In the two years he worked for him they had become friends, extended family even. At that moment sitting between my date and his boss I remembered my own waitressing experience.
I worked at an Italian restaurant in the Arthur Avenue neighborhood of the Bronx owned by a guy from Salerno. The waiters were Albanian and the cooks were Mexican. I didn’t particularly like my job but the tips were good and the boss, who was also the chef tried to create a friendly “family” atmosphere, as he was always fond of saying. The atmosphere wasn’t so friendly. As the only female in the entire staff, I was constantly battling the sexual advances of the waiters and cooks. I once threw a knife at one of them after he tried to grab my butt. It was a dull steak knife, but they got the point and the harassment stopped for a while. The waiters and the boss did bond however; they would often go out to strip clubs and to bars together. I wasn’t included unless one of the waiters was trying to either hit on me or set me up with their friends or cousins—an old Albanian cultural tradition.
I ordered another glass of wine. This is going to be a long night, I thought to myself. But the ex-cop was definitely more interesting than my date, who just smiled at me nervously and kept asking me if he should order more food. I was feeling a little bored so I started to look around. “So what is this place,” I asked. My date proceeded to tell me that it was a sort of social club, which had a restaurant and a bar. It served as a social center for the Galician American community in New York– members could come and enroll their children in language classes or come to enjoy traditional cuisine and a drink after work. “What does Galician sound like,” I asked him.
“It sounds a bit like Portuguese,” the ex-cop responded.
I turned to him. “Ah, Like Catalan then a bit?”
“Oh, no, no, he said, its completely different. I can’t understand anything in Catalan.” He then described to me the four major languages of Spain: Castilian, Catalan, Basque, and Galician. “It’s the only country I believe that allows these four languages,” he bragged and his chest puffed up a bit. I noticed how tight the polo shirt was on him. I took this opportunity to ask about the recent protests in Catalonia, which made national news. “They have no right,” he shouted. I turned to my date, who nodded in approval.
“Don’t you also want independence for Galicia,” I inquired.
“No,” the former cop said. “We are part of Spain. We will always be. I am not sure why the Catalans want to leave, they are part of Spain. The referendum was illegal. Anyways, it’s only a small number of them that want independence. What did they think was going to happen? How will they break from Spain? How will they survive? We won’t allow it.” His face reddened and he took more sips of his drink.
“Look, I love Barcelona football. But they don’t have a right to not wave the Spanish flag. They never use the Spanish flag, only the Catalan one.”
I told them that I saw some images of the police beating up protestors. Before I could even ask him what he thought of it, he blurted, “Well, I have to see what happened before. I like to assemble all the facts before I can say what happened. This is the problem is that the television only shows you that moment, they don’t show you what happened before. What were the protestors doing before? Did they break the barricades? This is the problem with black lives matters too. They don’t show you what the protestors do. Yes, there are bad apples but most cops are just doing their job.” My confused look gave him permission to elaborate.
“It’s like what if someone pushed the cop, or did something to make him use his baton. You know, you can’t for instance spit in a cop’s face. That is a felony. Do you know that? I can get AIDS if someone spits in my eye.” He peered into my eyes looking for a response but I was too busy distracted by his eyebrows, perfectly clean and waxed, moving together across his well moisturized forehead.
“Well, the television showed that the police were really beating people up. They even tried to prevent them from voting,” I plainly stated.
“Well of course, they are the law. The referendum is illegal. The police are the law and they have to do what’s right.”
“What do you mean the police are the law?”
“Well,” he answered in a matter of fact tone. “We are the law. Our bodies are the law. When we show up to a protest, we are there to keep the law. If you don’t respect my body, then I have to go through protocol.”
“What is protocol?”
“Well first is my presence. If that doesn’t stop you then I have to follow through the steps, starting with maybe pushing you out of the way. If you don’t pay attention, then I continue on to maybe pepper spray or even a baton or I may have to use my fire arm.”
It was so hard to maintain my composure. While I was turned to face the cop, I could hear my date mumbling, “yes, that is correct.” I couldn’t tell who I should be more annoyed at, the ex-cop or my date.
“It’s just my opinion,” he softened. “But they have no right.”
I sipped on my red wine and tried to make small talk with my date. We were distracted again by the ex-cop’s shouting.
“He is the worst president we had, he shouted. Even Ronald Reagan, he was an actor that became a president and look how great he was. He wants to fire all the NFL players for example. But most of them are Black. How will the NFL function without them?” He continued, taking sips of his mixed well drink, “The people that are kneeling, they are not anti-American. If anything, when they kneel, they are putting their hand on their hearts. They are not against America or what it stands for. They are anti-Trump.”
“You are supposed to respect your president they say… this is what I think of him,” he said and promptly flashed his well-manicured middle finger.
“He won’t stop messing with the Muslims, and watch, he will cause another terrorist attack. People forget 9/11, but not me. I lost 26 friends there. Clinton should have won. She was smart. I would have voted for Bernie too. He was more for you, young people” he said, and motioned his fingers to me and my date.
I retorted, “but isn’t he a socialist?
“Well, yes but more to the democratic side,” he explained.
The ex-cop checked his phone again. “My wife is on her way to pick me up. She is from Brazil. You will like her.”
I asked him for one of his menthol cigarettes. He handed one over and before I knew it both him and my date joined me outside for a smoke. My date didn’t smoke but he was there to keep me company. We chatted more, mostly about his hatred of Trump and love of cooking. “I am thinking to add churros to the menu,” he told my date.
His wife pulled up in a black jeep. She hit the curb and both men joked about how she can’t drive to save her life. She got out of the car, gave me a hug and introduced herself. We all went inside. The ex-cop paid for his drinks and gave me a good bye hug.
“He’s a nice guy,” he said about my date. “Just tell him to fix that rooster thing on top of his head.” My date smiled shyly.
I was kind of sad that the ex-cop left. Now I had to face my boring date. I ordered another drink.
“My boss is intense but he is really nice, he’s like my family out here.”
I nodded and took sips of my red wine. “So, should we go dancing?” he finally said breaking the awkward silence between us.
“Yes, that should be fun.” I was relieved that we wouldn’t have to converse for much longer. I waited for him to pay the bill. We left Casa de Galicia to look for a place to dance salsa. At least, I got some free dinner and drinks out of this mess, I thought to myself.