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You never forget the first time you get stabbed. I was in my early twenties. The events leading up to it are unclear at this point, although it is likely that I was the antagonist. It is also likely, however, that said exploits were not outside the realm of everyday occurrences restaurant kitchens.
Franco was on top of the food chain. You could call him the nuts and bolts of the place. He worked 70 hours a week. Prepping, designing lunch specials, keeping the kitchen staffed. We joked that the front of the house was the United States and the back was Mexico. When you passed through that door it was always Mariachi music on the radio, Spanish conversation, and that red white and green flag hanging above his prep station.
He was also shrouded in mystique. Some swore that he was a Mafioso, that he had killed. He seemed to enjoy the rumor mill and didn’t do much quell these stories. The fact that whenever he got impatient he would look you in the eye while tapping the end of his chef knife on a chopping block didn’t help. He also had a way of sliding it on the edge of a table that made it sound like a samurai unsheathing a sword. Short, curly black hair, mustache. He looked a bit like Mario. I didn’t buy any of the hype. Although I considered him a friend I would occasionally test the waters as that is what I did then.
I can only speculate on the details of the discourtesy I paid him while walking through the prep area that day, but I recall with absolute clarity the sound of two knife taps on the table and then that scrape across the butcher block edge.
“Maybe I cut you man,” He said in a heavy Mexican accent.
“Bring it on hombre,” I snarled and grinned.
His shoulders broadened as he made a small lunge toward me and his forearm extended from his elbow. I felt a cold prick in my stomach. Our eyes met and I could tell that he was just as surprised and scared as I was.
“Oh shit, I’m sorry man. This is accident.”
It didn’t go in very far, maybe a quarter of an inch. I barely bled.
“Ehhh, don’t worry about it,” I said unconvincingly, “It was bound to happen eventually. Better a little accident than the real thing”
As I said this, Curt walked through to see Franco with the knife and both of us looking shocked.
“Make sure that thing gets run through the dishwasher a few times.”
To show that there were no hard feelings he dressed my wound with a bit of salsa and the skin of an onion. After our shifts we were at the bar doing shots of tequila and joking about the time he stabbed me as if it had happened twenty years before.
There was a legend that Franco owned a taco restaurant in Mexico City with the same logo as the Union. I made it my primary goal whilst in town to verify this. As our bus rolled through the hills on the abuttals of the city, I watched as the human impact became more and more dense. Homes were built into the mountains almost vertically until the cliffs simply would not allow it. The traffic, the smog, massive sculptures. I sent Franco a message to let him know I was near his home, although he was in Michigan. He responded instantly with an address and told me to meet his son. After checking into our room we walked for two hours.
Coming from Detroit, the fact that you can walk for two hours in a city of twenty million people without once taking stock of the nearest blunt object is remarkable. More remarkable is what twenty million people on their way to where they’re going looks like. One of the first things I noticed as we walked was that the commercial design concept was different than American cities. We tend to try to build a little bit of everything into an area so everyone has a movie theater or a hardware store. In Mexico you find a block or two that is filled with mechanic shops or construction materials. There were a number of stores that sold complete auto body replacement kits, a sign to me that taking a bus into the city was a wise move.
As we approached the little storefront with a stainless steel grill in front, I could tell from one hundred feet away that it was Francisco at the helm. On the awning above him was that little skeletal globe with an arrow shot through it and the words “Union Coapa.” I walked up and smiled. He looked at me strangely. I told him my name; that I was from Michigan, and a friend of his father’s. He seemed confused. I had thought that Franco had told him I was coming, but this was not the case.
He filled orders for three young women. As he chopped the carne asada on a reclaimed tree trunk his hands appeared to shake with nervousness. After a bit of explaining things normalized. I watched him operate. He was a spitting image of Franco. Even his voice was the same. The similarities ended at their approach to and mechanics of work however. Franco was a machine man. The precision of his knife skills and the consistency with which he worked was astounding.
“Twenty three cuts to chop a bunch of cilantro. You watch me.” And he did it somehow robotically but with the gracefulness of an artist. In his head must have been flow charts and schematics of every task he had ever come across. All carefully refined. He could talk while doing it all as if he were sitting in a chair next to you.
Francisco had not yet developed that automatronic and graceful maneuverability. His knife skills, although impressive, were still a decade behind his father’s. When asked a question he would put the blade down to give you his full attention. Franco never put the knife down.
It was Valentine’s day and the world was out to dinner at all of the fancy places around town. The taco shops were slow so we got to sit around eating and chatting. His English was better than I remembered. We joked a bit about the exploits of his father. I was surprised to hear that they hadn’t seen each other in ten years, although he was hoping to go to the States in a year. He’d had three kids and was hoping that one day he could send them to school in Michigan.
His mother came by to help him close. I remembered her from Franco’s birthday parties. She seemed young to have a 33 year old son. Despite having been fed by Francisco, she insisted on getting Gorditas for us and came back with six. Francisco went to buy some beers. We tried to buy them.
“Proximo.” (next time)
That is what everyone always says, “next time.” It is almost impossible to buy your own drink here. You feel guilty on some days because you know that five bucks means a lot less to you and yet nobody is going to let a guest buy dinner. Most of these people you’ll never see again and have no way of paying back.
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