I fell the first time I saw him.
Literally, I fell.
I had just started my morning shift at the Blotz Bakery, the kind of place where you left three pounds heavier and with the distinct smell of reused, three day old grease in your hair after visiting. It was a hot, muggy sort of day, where the menus stuck to your hands and the glasses left thick, sticky rings of residue on the table, where no matter how hard you scrubbed, your next customer was sure to know they weren’t your first by the sludge that stuck to their arm hairs. I grumbled. Days like this made it hard to please the uptight owner. Behind her back the employees liked to joke that she was like a pop goes the weasel toy. We could see her winding and winding tighter, the anticipation growing, until one day, we presumed, she finally would explode from her cage and pop up and scare us all half to death with her crazy facial expressions and sudden, startling appearance. I had to admit I enjoyed picturing the image.
The second booth on the right was filled with teenage boys, about my age, maybe 14 or 15. I could see some of their eyes looking my direction, scanning my frame from twenty feet away, nudging each other and pointing. It gave me the willies. I searched around the diner, desperately looking for a spilled plate of eggs and ham, or an empty coffee cup that just had to be refilled, or for a pair of eyes who could see my predicament and would rescue me from what was sure to be the most degrading moment of my life. Or so I thought. How little I truly did know.
I retrieved the pencil I had hastily stuck behind my left ear in between orders, and approached the booth. “What can I get you boys?” I inquired, special emphasis on the boys, as to imply I was somehow above them, though we were around the same age, since it was clear already that my emotional capacity far exceeded theirs in terms of maturity. There were four males sitting in the booth, two on each side, split into teams of hair color it appeared. Blondes were on the left, brunettes on the right. Though one boy’s hair was more a jet black, if I was being fair. I only noticed because he was the best looking one of them all.
The bulky, uncomfortably overweight one spoke first, a blonde, his stomach rolls gutted by the apparently too small booth. “I’ll take two of today’s specials,” he said, creepily winking at me. “The double bacon with the ham on the side?” I confirmed, writing it into my half-used, grease spotted notepad. “Actually,” he snickered, an eight-year-old waiting on an unsuspecting victim to sit on his carefully planted whoopee cushion; “I’d like you on the side instead.”
My eyes slowly traced up the length of where my fingers were writing, and finally, carefully, met his. They were hungrily round, obstinately big, lustful in an inexperienced, childlike way. A little boy wanting a toy he wasn’t old enough to play with. The other blonde, a tall, gangly thing with more teeth missing than a child awaiting the tooth fairy, chimed in awkwardly, mouth gaping, elbows ribbing his friend, “Don’t you know what she is?” What I am? He pointed to my face, openly, defiantly, for the entire diner and the entire world as far as I could tell, to see. “Look at her face. Look at her nose! She’s a dirty Jew, can’t you tell? You don’t want her.” That was the first time I felt the jab of racism, that solemn, foreboding moment inside a small, greasy diner where I was on the third week of my first job.
I felt my mouth gape open, felt the air coming through my lungs and up my throat, before finally getting caught in my teeth, to die only moments before escaping. I stood there gawking, my pencil still perched mid-sentence, an animal caught in the glare of headlights. The rotund, blonde boy realized his gangly friend was right. He spit at me. Actually spit. It hit on the left corner of my hand, the perched one still mid-order, and began to drip onto my notepad, now mixing with the grease, the less disgusting of the two sticky substances.
“Get out of here,” he said, the hate from his heart creeping out of his mouth, almost making him shake with defiance. I stood still, eyes locked with his, sure that the sticky floor was what now held me in place, and not my own fear. He leaned across the booth, his girth falling freely on its surface, and came closer to my face. “I won’t be served by a worthless JEW!” he exhorted, now loudly enough for the entire diner to turn. My eyes finally snapped from the angry boy’s to those around me. Faces of confusion. Faces of arrogance. Faces of indifference. Only one face in the entire diner had the traces of compassion on it, from bright colored blue eyes peaking out from under stick straight, jet-black hair, smoothed down with a comb he kept in his back right pocket so he could touch it up every ten minutes.