Servers with cars were gracious enough to offer me a ride home after work, especially during wintertime. While I’d sometimes take them up on their offer, I preferred to walk back to my place. I not only lived close by, but I also enjoyed decompressing with a meandering stroll down Fort Hamilton Parkway for some fresh air. Sometimes I’d even stop by the swings at Leif Ericsson Park, set my bag down, and dangle my legs and laugh as I went up as far as I could before getting scared.
And why would any grown woman get scared on a swing set, you might ask? Because when I was little, the swings my dad made out of rope and 2x4s on the elm tree out back snapped in half at the apex of one particular session that has stayed with me since. And let me tell you, it would for you, too.
One night in January, I was feeling lonely and didn’t particularly feel like going home after the shift had ended. That would mean that the day was done, and opportunities for something interesting or spontaneous to happen would be closed off. So on this particular evening, I was both wary enough of the cold and straight-up sad enough to take one server up on his offer for a ride.
His name was Emmanuel. Born and raised in Egypt, he came to New York decades ago and raised two kids, along with his wife, down in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. He was intelligent, well-informed, and good-natured. In a stroke of coincidence, Emmanuel’s youngest son was finishing up an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Cornell. He’d apparently started there just as I was finishing up my PhD. So in addition to talking about the restaurant, Emmanuel and I could also speak about Cornell, Ithaca, and other related topics that we alone shared. Emmanuel was a superstar waiter: truly a master of the craft, not least because of his dazzling conversational abilities. He could find something in common with just about anybody, and possessed the rare ability to make people feel truly welcome and comfortable. I was astounded that, as a practicing Muslim, Emmanuel could put our clientele — largely comprised of white, Trump-supporting, retired NYPD-types wearing “9/11, NEVER FORGET” T-Shirts— feel totally at ease. His signature move was to wait by door while his tables left, with one hand over his abdomen and the other waving goodbye, while saying “God bless!” with a smile.
The composure required of that feat — which wasn’t his responsibility in the first place, might I add — is nearly unfathomable.
I asked him if anyone ever game him shit for being a Muslim, Egyptian man working in such a conservative, white establishment. “Listen, babe,” he’d say with a warm smile, “this is Bay Ridge. There are more people Middle Eastern people here on 4th and 5th avenue than there are Italian Americans at this point, and if they have a problem with me, then it’s theirs— not mine.”
“But has anyone ever been racist to you here?”
“Jillian, dear, we’re servers: we can’t lose our cool in front of the customers. But honestly, I’ll curse them out in my head and talk shit about the racist idiots here in the kitchen! Haha!”
As evidenced by his heroic level of empathy for the clientele, Emmanuel really did seem to care about the people who came into the restaurant. He remembered details shared by customers, and asked about kids he’d seen grow from toddlers to adults during his tenure at New Corner that still came in to say hello. He had a host of regulars who requested him as their waiter, perhaps, too, due to how great Emmanuel was with the food prep duties. His cappuccinos had three distinct colors, he didn’t use too much whipped cream and sprinkles to decorate our already-sweet desserts, and he was able to make the iceberg lettuce and beefsteak tomatoes we used in the house salad look fancy.
Like any good server, Emmanuel also had the ability to read anybody in about .025 seconds. Absolutely nothing got past him, yet he never let down his own guard — which, equally important in the art of waiting tables, he designed to be decidedly un-guard like in the first place. He always maintained his warmth and professionalism, and no matter how busy we got he never made his customers feel rushed. There was an easy-going air about Emmanuel, to the degree that some of the busboys would complain that he never helped clear away dishes. “That’s not my job,” he’d retort with trademark casualness. “Waiters have to concentrate on customer service. How can we possibly do that running around collecting dishes?” He’d point out that the busboys got a 10% cut of the servers’ pooled tips, and that they should earn that special privilege through these more menial labors in restaurant work.
So yeah, Emmanuel had depth— and he knew exactly what he was doing. Absolutely nobody fucked with him as a result. After all, to be a good server, you have to be at least somewhat two-faced and manipulative.
Emmanuel worked at New Corner for so long that it was only natural to defer to his judgement on customer service, when to drop the check, how to time the entrees, whether to put lemons on the rim of a soda glass, and so forth. He had mastered both the art and science of waiting tables through nearly twenty years of experience in the joint. I’d relish whenever Emmanuel would tell me stories about New Corner in its heyday, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s when every night was a full house and customers would be lined up out the door to the end of the block. “In those days, you could make a nice living here,” he explained, waxing wistful and nostalgic as he remembered the Golden Years. “We were making money hand over first— at least two, three, sometimes even four hundred dollars a night on the weekends. Those were definitely the days, babe…”
He also talked about the food. As something of an amateur chef at home, Emmanuel loved food and had high standards for ingredients and flavor combinations. If he ate a shift meal at New Corner, he’d prepare something simple for himself — most often a baked chicken cutlet with a salad — with vegetables and spices he’d supplement from home. He’d also regale me with stories of how the food at New Corner used to be, and make many a passing remark of disappointment while picking up entrees from the kitchen:
“Look at this. Tsk! Disgusting. You guys can’t even clean the plates up, and we’re the ones that lose the good tips as a result. Lazy! No wonder business isn’t what it used to be.”
I liked Emmanuel. We could have honest conversations with one another, and I enjoyed hearing about his upbringing in Cairo, travels in Europe, and what his experience making it work in New York over the years was like. Like me, Emmanual also loved music and made up little melodies about the restaurant. Often, we’d sing each other’s songs in the kitchen— sometimes inciting ire amongst the cooks, to which he’d laugh respond: “Ah, go fuck yourself, we’re just making some fun around this dump.”
So when asked if I wanted a ride home that one night in January, I gladly obliged. Why not?
First, he dropped off Patra — another OG New Corner server who had her fair share of regular customers — deep down in Bay Ridge. When she got out of the car and made it into her building, Emmanuel turned in his seat to ask if I wanted to maybe get a drink somewhere. While I thought about what his suggestion might have implied, I was feeling lonely and suggested the only bar I knew in the area: the Lone Star Texas Bar on 87th and 5th. It was the kind of joint with a juke box that people would load up with 20 dollar bills and choose the music for an hour straight— and, as I learned from my only other time there, the kind of place that doesn’t seem to appreciate the smooth and jazzy hip-hop stylings of Erykah Badu.
As a Muslim, Emmanuel doesn’t drink alcohol and ordered an O’Douls. I ordered a whisky sour, which he treated (with a handsome tip, naturally). Then I loaded the juke box up with The Bee Gees. I’ve always loved disco, but I got even more into this particular group since moving to South Brooklyn. As one drink turned into three — all of which Emmanuel insisted upon treating — I got up and danced to Night Fever and You Must Be Dancing as he looked on, laughing in good fun, doing a little chair dance while holding his O’Douls. We must have made quite a pair: the kind you could really only see in New York. An hour or two later, he drove me back to my place on 8th Avenue. He didn’t hug me or kiss my cheek, as was custom around New Corner; there was no awkwardness, no overt sexual undertones. I hopped out of the car, waved goodbye from my stoop, and went inside the brownstone.
Emmanuel and I never talked about what happened— not that we did anything wrong. Perhaps we both knew that if we told anyone about going to the Texas Bar, it’d be taken the wrong way. By then, my personal life was already hot gossip fodder around the restaurant anyway. Undoubtedly, Emmanuel himself had probably heard the rumors.
So yes, I have wondered if he thought I was vulnerable. Maybe he was hoping to take advantage of me. Maybe he thought I was easy— that I’d be desperate or foolish enough to sleep with him. Because even though Emmanuel was nearly as old as my parents, he used to tell me to think of him like a pal. Meanwhile, his best friend in the restaurant — another Egyptian guy called Ruby, who was the same age as Emmanuel— taught me the the word for “uncle” in Arabic, and explained that in Egyptian culture, someone my age would call someone his age by that honorific.
Come to think of it, sex and youth seemed to be something of a preoccupation with Emmanuel. He would clap the bus boys on the shoulders in the kitchen and loudly ask, “How’s your sex life, bro?” Some of his songs were kind of weird, too, like the one about wanting to run away with a young virgin, or the one that went: “You gotta lick it / Before you kick it!” These pissed off everyone in the kitchen— yes, even me — because who the hell wants to hear that shit?
Although, let’s be real here, asking someone “How’s your sex life, bro?” out in the open is pretty fucking funny.
In a different dimension altogether, perhaps things might have gone one way with Emmanuel, but instead they went another. Truly, the thought of him in any sexual way literally makes me nauseous. In the end, our night out was really was just two coworkers going to some shitty dive in Bay Ridge to blow off steam, neither one of us playing their full hand, but giving the appearance of laying all our cards out on the table. We were two poker players in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em: a veteran versus a relative novice whom he might have underestimated, because she had been studying his strategy more closely than even he realized.