When I was waiting tables, people seemed to offer me drinks on an almost nightly basis. If a couple brought in a particularly nice wine, they’d want to pour me a glass. If someone purchased an esoteric bottle from our reserve list, I’d be offered a taste if I hadn’t tried it before. Sometimes, people would try to buy me a shift drink or a shot of ouzo because they just liked me so damned much. These things happen all the time to charming, middle-aged servers in Greek restaurants in San Francisco. It’s part of the culture. Sadly and, I suppose, wisely, they were gifts I was compelled to refuse.
“Thanks, but I can’t,” I’d say with a detectable half-tone of disappointment. If there’s anything a waiter needs after surviving two crazed seatings in the dining room, it’s a shot of something alcoholic. “We used to be able to do that years ago, but not anymore,” I’d add as a slight, wistful foam began to bubble at the corners of my mouth.
It’s true. When I started at the restaurant, we’d taste wine multiple times a night. Slide management-sanctioned shots of Plomari down our gullets with the last guests. Sit down at the bar for a decompression cocktail when all the customers had left. That is, until one particularly unfortunate evening.
If my guests were persistent enough in their offer, saying things like, “Oh, what harm could it do?” I’d nearly always respond with, “Well, if you really want to know, I’ll tell you why we can’t drink at work. But only after you’ve finished your dinner because the story’s a bit…bloody.” I’d drop that on them like a sizzling plate of saganaki and let them make the choice whether to pursue this post-prandial line of conversation or not. But that last word usually got them hooked.
After their tables had been crumbed and tidied and the dessert menus slid into place in front of my guests, the question would come up again. “So?” I remember one woman who wanted to buy me a drink asking, “Give us all the gory details.” She sounded like a friend asking about an especially terrible date or a hemorrhoid operation.
“Well,” I said, “It used to be all fun and games around here until someone literally lost an eye.” I noticed out of the corner of one of my own, fully functioning sight organs that I was needed at another table– a man had dropped his dinner fork. I excused myself for a moment, relishing the fact that the interruption would serve to make story time that much more enjoyable.
“What do you mean ‘lost an eye‘?” the woman demanded before I’d fully reached the table.
“I mean precisely that,” was my rather serious reply. And then I began to tell her and her dining companion the story, which goes something like this…
Years ago, I worked with a man we called “Papou”. It wasn’t his real name, of course, but he was Greek and in his sixties and just seemed like the type of grandfather who would drink a little too much raki at Holiday parties and start flirting with your young female friends. The name just fit and he never discouraged its use. He was an amusing man who seemed to enjoy the novelty of working in a fancy restaurant for once in his life, but he had a rather sharp tongue that he whittled to a fine point when he’d been drinking, which was often.
He was charming enough to peel the knickers right off a nun but, sadly, his breath could strip pine, which meant he’d have to work his magic from a distance of at least five feet for the seduction to be effective. He smoked. A lot. He was the one person for whom I considered stale cigarette smoke a breath freshener.
At the end of one fateful evening when all of the guests had cleared the restaurant, a few of the staff bellied up to the bar for an after-shift drink. I wasn’t working that night, so the rest of the story I’ve reconstructed over the years based on the accounts of those who were. Papou, who’d more than likely had considerably more than just one cocktail by then, decided to go outside for a smoke, taking his martini glass with him. No one’s certain exactly how it happened because there were no witnesses– his coworkers most likely busy swapping customer horror stories and not-so-casually finding out who had the best night, tip-wise. It’s possible that he was trying to light a cigarette while holding his drink, propping open the heavy oak door at the front of the building. Maybe set the drink down on the pavement in order to pay more attention to his Marlboro Red. Whatever the method, the cocktail class managed to break and the jagged stem somehow found its way into his eyeball.
When our manager came upstairs to close up and kick everyone out, he counted heads and then inquired as to the whereabouts of Papou. No one had noticed him leave. Assuming correctly that the old fellow had gone outside for a smoke, he poked his head outside. No one was out on the sidewalk, but there was a trail of blood that led right up to the door of Papou’s white land yacht, where he was found trying to “sleep it off”. If the manager hadn’t found him, he would most likely have bled to death by morning. Instead, he was trundled off to the hospital to see what could be done, which was very little. The eyeball was a goner.
He never came back to the restaurant. Whether he was fired or simply decided to retire or both, I don’t know. All I do know is that a friend spotted him at SFO, one-eyed like a defeated Polyphemus waiting to return home to Greece and crawl back into his cave with his sheep and his wine, knowing that no man was responsible for his misfortune but himself.
After reading that last paragraph, you may be saying to yourself, “Hey, wait a minute. A blinded Cyclops is no longer one-eyed, but no-eyed,” and you’d be absolutely correct. I just can’t think of a more accurate correlation to Greek mythology. But that’s pretty much what this story is–a tragic tale about a Greek man that has taken on the distinct gauzy haze of myth over the years.
I remember very distinctly that the woman who asked me to tell the story had a cocktail glass with only a sip or two left of pink liquid in it, turned warm from lack of attention. When the narrative was over, I looked at the glass and then at her, asking if she’d finished with it. She nodded, speechless.
“And that is why we’re not allowed to drink at work anymore. Are you sorry you asked?” I queried, removing the potential hazard from the table.
“No!” she ejaculated. “That was amazing! I just feel so bad for the old man.”
“Me, too,” I said. And I do feel bad for him. But I’m also grateful to him for giving me such an excellent cautionary tale with which to horrify my guests. It happened in a Greek restaurant, after all. Drama is to be expected.
When the woman paid her bill, she slipped me an extra $20 on top of the gratuity. “I still want to buy you a drink,” she insisted, “Just have it….anyplace else but here.”