… Que Mala Eres Juliana

(May 2021)

Anthony Bourdain said that anyone interested in working in a kitchen, or managing a restaurant, should learn Spanish. He points out that, regardless of the kind of food — with the exception of maybe some Asian cuisines— restaurant cooks, at least in major cities, tend to be Latino (and yes: through his discussion of the rampantly toxic masculinity in kitchen culture, Bourdain also points out that the cooks tend to be men). Both of these conjectures were certainly true at New Corner, where four of our kitchen guys were from the Dominican, the head chef was from Mexico, the app guy was from Ecuador, with only the sous chef hailing from Italy.

Of course, none of this is significant except to point out that, perhaps given their common native tongue, for the first nine of my fifteen month tenure at New Corner, the cooks thought my name was Julia, or sometimes Juliana. Even the Irish Manager noticed:

“Sometimes I even hear you called ‘Juliette.’ Quite the shapeshifter, Jillian.”

But I never corrected them. I didn’t particularly mind— in fact, I sort of liked it. 

“Julia! You ready for your spedeini alla romana?”

Unfortunately, this little inside joke with myself was destined to come to a close at some  point. Perhaps because they’d heard most of the waitstaff refer to me as ‘Jill’ or ‘Jillian,’ the cooks started to get hip to the fact that my legal name was something other than what they’d grown accustomed to calling me. One of the appetizer guys, who was Dominican but born and raised in Brooklyn, cornered me one night to clarify. “Hey Julia— or whatever. What’s your actual name? Are you Julia or Jillian or Juliana or what?” And from then on, the jig was mostly up— although sometimes one of the cooks would slip, which always made me smile.

There was one fellow Server who never stopped calling me Julia/Juliana; he was also the only server to call me this name at all. He himself was known by several nicknames around New Corner, and amongst the staff he was most often referred to as Linga. “In the Dominican, Juliana is a very common name, a very good name. That’s the Dominican version of your name,” he told me. “And in the Dominican there is a very, very famous song with this name. Everybody knows this song. It’s a bachata song. A VERY good song, this one.” On any number of occasions, he explained (and re-explained) that the song is about a Dominican girl named Juliana who falls in love with an American. But as soon as she gets the visa, she ghosts the American chump to find someone else. “Juliana, you see, she’s a very bad girl. VERY bad. ‘Juliana que mala eres, que mala eres Juliana,” he’d sing. “Everyone knows this song. It’s very famous. Juliana is a VERY bad girl. You have to watch out for a girl like Juliana. And that’s your name: Juliana.” Then he’d laugh, slap my shoulders, and walk away.

Linga was in his forties or fifties, divorced, and had three kids that had grown up and who didn’t really keep in touch with him. He had worked for years as a server, as well as something of a custodian and general handyman for New Corner. He lived in a basement apartment right next to the restaurant and paid rent to the the Boss who happened to own that entire block. Linga’s whole life was tied up with New Corner. 

Linga didn’t seem too happy about any of this. He always showed up to work on-time and fulfilled whatever tasks were assigned to him, and I never heard him complain. But Linga was possessed by a defeatist attitude that dissuaded him from improving his circumstances. He’d skulk around the restaurant, sighing loudly and often, and if it was slow he’d go up to the front of the restaurant and stare out of the windows, like a prisoner looking through the bars, making a secret wish he dare not tell a soul. 

On several occasions, I asked him why he worked at New Corner if he didn’t really like it. He’d worked there for so long and knew what was expected of him; the job was easy, he explained, and as the jack-of-all-trades around the joint he also had some variety in his work. And while the money wasn’t as good as it used to be, it was enough. “We have to be thankful for what we have, Juliana,” he’d sigh, looking outside at the cars driving by on the Gowanus Expressway. 

Because he shared a disposition with Eeyore himself, Linga was easily pushed around; he was like the proverbial red headed stepchild of New Corner. The Servers, like a group of school children subconsciously picking up on this weakness, and took advantage him as a result. If someone wanted to switch a shift around, they’d ask Linga because they’d know he’d give it up — even weekends, which were our most lucrative days. One time, a mix-up I had switching start times around on a Sunday caused him to lose his shift altogether. I texted him to apologize after he was sent home by the frustrated Boss, who had warned us not to switch our start times around in the first place, and he replied:

“Sure. Sunday. Is. The. Day. I. Hate. At. New. Corner. The. Most.” 

And yes, he wrote every word with a period between it— one of many funny ticks he had with his writing, digital or manual. 

Linga was also openly reviled because he consistently pulled in by far the least amount of tips for the pool. His section — tucked in the back corner of the booth room, comprising numbers 6, 7, and 8 — was the least busy section in the whole restaurant. No one ever wanted to sit back there, and only when there were no other tables available did Linga get customers in his section. As a result, he spent the majority of his time busying himself with other duties on the floor, such as gathering dirty dishes and bringing them into the kitchen, or changing the table cloths between customers. 

This pissed off the Polish Lady in particular, who was fixated on our nightly tips perhaps more than any other server— although she was sure to brag to everyone within earshot that she only worked at New Corner for gambling money. “My Frrrrankie,” she’d roll in her thick Eastern European accent, “he buys everrrrrything for me. I don’t need no money except to play the Quik Draw.” Nevertheless, the Polish Lady was especially eager for a good night’s tips, so to get back at Linga for not making a lot of money, she attacked him personally: from his serving skills to his personal hygiene. Poor Linga would slink by, like a dog with his tail between his legs, and the Polish Lady’s face would crinkle up into a nasty sneer. “Fucking Linga,” she’d spit through clenched teeth. “He acts like a baas-boy! Why does Vito make him Server? All he want to do is pick up dishes. And he stinks! He don’t shower, he don’t wear no deodorant— and nobody wants to tip a waiter who stinks!” 

The Polish Lady was ruthless. If she found herself at the calculator station with Linga, she’d mock-gag, asking anyone around her in a loud voice if something stank or if it was just her. The irony, of course, was compounded by her own heavy perfume, which actually made me gag. I asked Linga once why he didn’t say anything about it.

“Listen, Juliana. Me and her, we work together a long time… LONG time. We’re working together now almost twenty years She’s always doing this stuff. Why get upset when someone says something stupid? I just mind my business. I don’t listen to nothing she says.”

While there’s no way to reasonably justify the Polish Lady’s rabid attacks on Linga’s general humanity, she wasn’t wrong to point out that his tips were generally abysmal. We kept track of our tips with an old-fashioned, superstitious system implemented by the Boss: we’d put our money into a box with slots into individual cubbies marked with our names, and write down the table and the tip amount on a sheet of paper, also with our names, on a clipboard kept on top of the money box. Naturally, we servers eyed this sheet throughout the night to estimate how we were doing. On a typical Saturday, the upper echelon of the pool would be pulling in between $180 and $200 a piece, with the middle range falling somewhere between $120 and $150. Meanwhile, Linga would consistently pull in less than a hundred. 

On one of our nightly trips to mentally calculate our tips, the Polish Lady and I found ourselves at the money box and were both surprised to see that Linga pulled in an impressive $71 dollars on his first table.

“You know,” she said, with the rare and charming softness in her voice that somehow erased any memory of her more caustic qualities, “Linga’s doing OK for once. You see? $71 dollarrrrs! Maybe tonight we do good!”

After divvying up the money at the end of the night, though, counting all the bills on an empty table and double-checking that their total matched that on the sheet, we were $64 dollars short. It turns out that Linga’s first tip that night was only seven dollars — 7 — scribbled down with an extra vertical line in that funny way of writing he had.

But for all his shortcomings as a server, Linga was kind. When I first started working there, he would help me out when others were too busy (or too impatient) to teach the New Girl how to prepare things in the kitchen that fell under our responsibility. As I fidgeted with the espresso machine one night, hoping I wouldn’t burn myself, it was Linga who gently approached me and offered to demonstrate how to make a cappuccino, New Corner style: espresso first, then milk, then the whipped cream with a sprinkle of cinnamon, topped off with a long red straw. I was grateful for his help over those first few shaky weeks, but I began to wonder why my cappuccinos never looked as beautiful as the three-colored ones made by either of the Egyptian Twins. When I realized that my customers only ever seemed to drink half of them — or even just a few sips —  I began to observe how the Egyptian Twins made their cappuccinos…

… and saw that the milk goes in first, then the espresso, which should be gently poured in the side of the glass, and then foam: which Linga didn’t make altogether. With some more observation, I quickly realized that Linga made the worst cappuccino in the restaurant. 

Most of the seasoned Servers who’d worked there for as long as Linga had a robust rotation of Regulars. Linga only had one. And while most people’s Regulars tended to tip well, Linga’s Regular always came by himself — yes, the same customer who left Linga that infamous $7 tip — and ordered a modest meal that totaled to about thirty dollars. I had this regular a few times on days when Linga was out, and when I asked what he liked most about him, he explained that he liked how Linga prepared the house salad. 

He put two concentric rings of cucumbers and beefsteak tomato wedges around a bed of iceberg lettuce.

While I’ll admit that I grew annoyed with his low tips from time to time, I appreciated that Linga worked hard in other ways. It’s true: he did seem to spend more time bussing tables than actually waiting on them, but it isn’t his fault if the manager gave him the worst section in the joint. Plus, I found it admirable that he didn’t think himself above the busboys, who have one of the hardest jobs in the restaurant world. As the resident handyman, Linga took care of problems that arose during service, like cleaning the carpet if a kid puked up dinner. 

Linga was also the only one equipped to fix innumerable problems in the woman’s bathroom: a disgusting vortex of diarrhea induced by New Corner’s own food (yes, it’s true), old pipes, clogged toilets, cheap perfume and even cheaper air freshener. The women’s bathroom was so gross that I once refused to enter despite really needing to— and it was Linga who understood my predicament, and offered to stand guard outside the men’s room on my behalf when I ducked in to pee.

Although we never had any issues with one another, Linga and I didn’t have a particularly deep connection. If we were working in the same room, which was often enough, we helped each other out on the floor. At the calculators, I’d strike up casual conversation with him by listing off a few of the Spanish words I’d learned in the kitchen. More than anything else, though, our interactions were primarily comprised of him singing the chorus of that one Bachata song. As we’d pass by one another in the kitchen as he assembled his sad little cappuccinos, or out on the floor as he picked up leftover dishes or straighten the silverware, he’d sing— sometimes, it seemed, out of compulsion, and not even to me in particular:

“Juliana que mala eres… que mala eres Juliana…”

For the most part, hearing this silly song would make smile. But sometimes it made me feel embarrassed, like when he’d sing it in the kitchen and the cooks would join in, laughing a little too hard about how “bad” “Juliana” is. And during those times when I emotionally struggled at the thought of being a full-time waitress at New Corner, I’d feel profoundly sad. Looking at myself from the outside in, wanting desperately to change my profession and get on with my dreams, hearing this song made me wonder:

Am I going to be hearing this song for the rest of my life?

But when I knew that I was leaving, the song quite literally took on a different tune. Like the smell of a wood stove off in the distance, that I knew this melody — and the sheepish way only Linga could sing it — would become nostalgia in later years. Since New Corner closed down permanently in 2020, I’ve sometimes found myself singing this song, thinking of Linga. Yes, his whole life was wrapped up in that place, but never again will he stand by the windows, looking outside at nothing in particular and wondering else there is in this life. 

In many ways, I’ll bet you he got his wish. 

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