A Fine Place for Dining

 

Olde Towne Alexandria, spelled with extra “e’s,” is history itself. 

It’s a nice town located on the west bank of the Potomac River, a few miles south of the Pentagon.  It was first incorporated in 1749 and was so named after John Alexander, a Scotsman who had purchased said land from an Englishman in 1669.  Many historical figures, figures keenly critical to our country’s history, have lived there over the decades and centuries.  Figures like George Washington, first President of the United States of America.   Robert Edward Lee, Commanding General of the Army of the Confederate States of America, son of Light Horse Harry Lee, of Revolutionary War fame, was born there, lived there, freed his wife’s slaves there, and died there and his home remains there occasionally in good maintenance thanks to the auspices of local advocates of American History. 

Historical note:  There are more streets, highways, buildings and monuments in the area named for people named Lee, than for people named Washington.

The street names date back to colonial times.  King Street, Queen Street, Duke Street, Prince Street, and Princess Street are pretty good examples.  King Street is a picturesque street of buildings that are purposely built to look like a vision of something a modern tourist might think might have existed in Virginia during Colonial Times.  And this is not by accident.  During the social turmoil of the 1960’s,  our nation went through a heated push for urban renewal and part of this involved grants to local communities to redevelop impoverished crime ridden areas and improve the  living conditions of the lower income families that lived there.  The City of Alexandria used their urban renewal grants to tear down some really old stone or brick buildings, including a few that dated back to 1600’s, and build new, less permanent buildings, with faux fronts, that looked remarkably like a modern architect’s version of the buildings that they replaced.  Tourists like it enough to pay $7 to $10 for a beer, and many permanent local residents seem to like it enough to pay a quarter million dollars, or more, to live in a space that the rest of the U.S.A. would consider small for a one car garage—without the amenities, too. 

During the spring, summer and early fall, night or day, King Street is a beehive of pedestrian activity.  Even in the winter, during the day and on the weekends, it’s a busy place and, year round, night or day, rain, shine or sleet, the vehicle traffic is bumper to bumper.  Lots and lots of high end SUVs-- Mercedes, BMWs, Cadillacs, Range Rovers--nothing as ostentatious as a Rolls Royce, but Rolls probably doesn’t have an SUV anyway.   You see an occasional “Hummer” but most of the natives have social consciences that don’t permit anything that un-green.  While you never know when a soccer mom might have to go cross country, up over the curb and across the sidewalk to deliver her lawn chair to the grassy spot next to her child’s soccer field, there is an environmentally driven limit to readiness.

In the winter months, after dark, the street looks more like somewhere tourists would go to get mugged than to eat.  Small decorative firefly size lights are strewn through the trees that line the street.  Unlike the fireflies in a Disney feature length cartoon, they don’t shine much light on anything.  Most of the shops and cafes don't use their outdoor lighting in the winter because there isn't enough business to pay for the electricity.  Sometime in December, just in time for Christmas, the economically marginal businesses, many no more than a summer old, go out of business and the lights in those buildings don’t come back on until the next spring when new lambs open up businesses that will most likely profit only the landlords. 

 Staff is cut back in the winter months, so there are fewer labor hours to perform many of the standard “as usual” recurring labor intensive tasks.  This is apparent after fresh snow falls when most shop owners carve a narrow path on the sidewalk crossing their frontage, the minimum required by law and insurance policies, but few do more.

In addition to faux fronts, a few of these historically located restaurants serve faux French food.  Other faux favorites are Thai Food, fresh from the freezer Spanish Food and Italian food, minimum $9 burrito joints that reek of cumin, Cajun food made from recipes that never saw the light of day in Louisiana, and gourmet soup and sandwiche with an “e” places.  Sandwich in this case must be spelled with an “e” on the end because these are trendy, high end, upscale restaurants that specialize in the trendier low salt or low fat or health conscience sandwich ingredients that are also eco friendly.  It may be a toss up as to whether there are more Italian restaurants than Spanish restaurants or "Irish Pubs," but there is only one Popeye's Chicken.  A traditional Popeye’s Chicken restaurant where regardless of what you order, you get what they serve you, and not a chicken wing less.

During my stay, I had eaten at a few of the King Street places.  While I skipped the world famous traditional Irish tequila shot with Mexican beer chaser with hot wings and spiced French fries offered by all of the Irish Pubs, I did try a bowl of "world famous" chili that tasted like sugared goat kabob in a thin gruel of cumin flavored water.  For that honor, I paid a little almost $10 for the chili plus an extra 50 cents for a thimble of desiccated onions, another 50 cents for a thimble of desiccated processed cheese and $7.50 for a beer.  Another place served prime rib that they had reheated in a microwave oven and doused  with an “au jus” that seemed to be an exquisite mixture of Shilling instant “au jus”—the stuff next to the check out counter at grocery stores everywhere—and warmed over dish water.  One of the Spanish restaurants served Paella Valenciana (a seafood rice dish) for over $30 a plate and the rice was Uncle Ben’s instant cooked to a mush like consistency with seafood that appeared to have been just then fished from a can.  That Spanish restaurant also served a particularly exquisite cup of chilled Campbell’s Tomato soup that they called “gazpacho.”

Nope.  I didn’t come here for the tourist attractions. 

I’m a C.P.A.  An independent contractor hired by the United States Department of Defense, the most powerful Department of Defense in the whole world, to bring the holy word of Luca Paccioli, Father of Accounting, handed down through thousands of years of erudite interpretation and reinterpretation and application by men and women with years of formal training and decades of experience and well practiced use of the involved principles and concepts to good hearted folks who had largely gotten their accounting degrees from mail order diploma mills because the government paid for them and because they were going to be unemployed if they didn’t.

As other more prudent independent contractors have observed, this was not a task predisposed to success, but I occasionally have a drinking problem and during those times I frequently am slow to recognize realities that are obvious to others.

I had been in Alexandria, Virginia for about a month and I was staying at a pleasant inn that was almost within per diem and was located within walking distance of the Olde Towne area.  The inn was pleasant, warm and dry with a superb staff, but it had no dining facility and the nearest restaurants were very expensive and served only poor imitation Italian food and wilted salads.  

Eating on King Street was not a habit.  The main reason was a short stretch of side street known as 23rd Street.  This was a short walk from my office and the Metro, or a short $8 taxi fare to and from my hotel.  It was and is a short street but you can find a world of food there.  Genuine Indian (Subcontinent) food, Afghani, Pakistani, and Lebanese Kebob places, a Thai restaurant, a Viet-Namese restaurant and an Ethiopian as well as an Eritrean restaurant.  The Indian restaurant is owned and operated by Indians, the Afgani restaurant is owned by Afghans and so on.  On the weekends and in the evening, because most of the government workers are gone, you’ll find yourself eating with a bunch  non-English speaking Immigrant Americans whose brown skin comes naturally without coaxing in an expensive tanning salon with expensive oils.  The Viet-Namese white noodles are real rice noodles and not lasagna; and the Chinese noodle dishes are made with real Chinese noodles and not spaghetti.  There is also a plain jane “American” restaurant where you can get made fresh from scratch that morning sausage gravy and biscuits, or hamburgers with hamburger paddies made fresh by hand with real beef.  Great steaks, too.  There’s an Italian Restaurant that not only has an Italian name but is owned and operated by an Italian-American family; and an Irish Pub that serves a savory shepard’s stew made with real lamb, breakfasts with Irish sausage and English ham, and “Bangers and Mushy Peas.”  They also offer a full line of Irish beers, ales, ports, and whiskies as well as “Black and Tans” poured right before your eyes.  And if you are so inclined, you can buy tequila and Mexican beer there, too.  But, the prices are only half as much as King Street so nobody gets status points by eating dinner on 23rd Street in Arlington.

But, this was a new Monday night and it had snowed that weekend and during and after the snow had first fallen everything was pretty and white and the snow was clean and fun for children to play in.  Late Sunday, it stopped snowing and the City dispatched the cleanup crews.  The snow plows pushed up and down the streets piling up dirty snow in the gutters and on some sidewalks and spreading salt and sand to melt the remaining snow and ice and give traction to passing vehicles.  As the snow and ice melted, the sidewalks and gutters turned black.

That night, after the sun had set, the temperature dropped below freezing and the sidewalks and the black gunk that covered the streets and sidewalks froze over and became slick dirty ice. 

I walked the two miles from the inn to restaurant row.

On this night, with the exception of the "Irish Pub" on the corner, the one that is owned by the Korean immigrant and specializes in Korean style barbeque pork ribs; and the "Irish Pub" down the street, the one that specializes in hot wings, tequila shots with Mexican beer chasers and ruins the evening with heavy metal music, most of the shops were empty.  The Irish pub on the corner is popular with the suavely dressed for success young men and suavely dressed by success middle aged men all decked out with the finest of modern male jewelry--a telephone stapled to their ear and an American flag in their lapeo--speaking too loudly to the air in front of them, as if they were trying to be heard over the din of clanking beer bottles and dishes, giving the latest buy/sell inside information, or simply dispensing their wisdom of the topic of the moment to whomever, if anyone, is on the other end of the telephone conversation. 

It is also popular with the untold numbers of defense contractors who know who to be seen with and where to be seen.  These young folk, male and female, stand around looking as “GQ” as one can with a chunk of flashing blue plastic adorning their ear, while talking to the air in front of them about the fantastic new contract that their company is getting for this simply incredible weapon of the future that will make soldiers obsolete. 

“This is a tremendous opportunity.  A tremendous opportunity.  We are going to make a lot of money.  A lot of money.  This is the future. The future.  The future fortunes are to be made in contracting and consulting.  No! no! no!  Contracting and consulting!  Weapons systems require to much technical knowledge.  There’s money there, too.  But, the Big Boys pretty much dominate that area.  For guys like you and me, I’m telling you, consulting and contracting.  Civil service employees are history.  They just get in the way.  Too many rules.”

All this emphasis on new, modern, trendy and young and those who wish they were young is not to suggest that these “cocktail” lounges don’t accommodate the traditional female professional.  They do.  These worn out, been around the block too many times to care women who may or may not appear to be accompanied, dress for success, too.  Most are decked out with expensive jewelry and clothes, however tastefully understated, just like the real up and coming going-to-break-the-glass-ceiling young professional female consultants.  They too sit around drinking $12.50 a glass wine, looking more bored than Hollywood whores at a sex fest for octogenarians. 

I decided I’d try the food here, stepped around the cigarette smokers littering the sidewalk and went inside.

When I asked for an Irish Whiskey “neat” they asked if I wanted it with soda or seven-up.  Turns out, they don’t carry Irish Whiskey.  Or Irish beer, or any Irish or English dishes.   I ordered a Corona with no lime and a menu and they brought me a Corona with a slice of lemon.  The menu was a single sheet of paper.  The clanking of dishes and glasses in the kitchen was pretty loud and the busboy was just as loud when he cleaned off tables. There was a strong smell of stale cigarette smoke in the air.  I looked at the menu and decided to bypass the chili cheese fries and eat somewhere else.

While I was waiting for my bill, the local telephone conversation shifted to American history.  “Who?  Eisenhower?  Who was he?  President?  Never heard of him.  Must have been a Democrat cause the Republicans don’t talk about him…  Wait a sec.  Wait a sec…”

Turning to the animated young woman next to him, he asks, “Eisenhower?  Who was Eisenhower?”

She in turn to the air in front of her, “Who was Eisenhower?”

Turning back to him, “He was Secretary General of the United Nations during the Clinton Administration.”

And he, “Did you hear that?   Okay, okay, okay.  Well look, regardless of who he was or what he did, this new emphasis on contracting out is a gold mine.  A gold mine.  And it’s not stopping with Dee-oh-dee.  The Department of Education is already contracting out K-12 education programs.  I’m telling you, this administration is serious about getting rid of the civil service overhead.” 

My bill came.  I left my beer untouched and walked to the cashier, the owner, and handed over the bill and my credit card.

He looked at the card, the bill and me.  “Ten dollah minmum.  Credid cah ten dollah minimum.  You beel seben half dollah.”

“I don’t have any cash.”

“Ten dollah minmum.”

I looked at him.  He looked at me.  Deep down inside I wished I could be as impassive and inscrutable as some of these Asian imports.  But, some things aren’t meant to be.

There was a display of trendy mints behind him and I asked how much they cost.

“Tree dollah.”

“Tree dollah?”

He leaned forward, held up three fingers and spoke louder so I’d understand, “Tree dollah!”

“Give me one.”  I held up one finger.

I paid the bill, left the package of mints on the counter and stepped outside into a strong aroma of roast meat and cigarette smoke.  As the door closed behind me I could hear the owner, “Hey!  Hey!  Hey!  Yu fahget yu mint!”  I didn’t leave a tip, either.

To the right and down the street was a restaurant that had no visible name.  It was well lighted and all of the snow and ice had been cleared from its part of the sidewalk and I could see people moving about inside.  I'd walked past it on previous visits, and noticed that the building was old and constructed of red brick and the walls looked to be about 2 feet thick.  There was no facade of quarried sandstone across the front, as was common with other nearby buildings.   The aroma of roast meat grew in strength as I approached.

Inside, the wait staff was lined up next to the entrance.  An old waitress seated me at a table for two in front of a window over looking the street.  A lot of the trendier places don’t like to seat single dinners and, indeed, most of the tables appeared to be for two people.  She had a slight Spanish accent and wore a black skirt and a starched white long sleeve shirt.  During the evening I noticed that, though she carried dishes of food to tables by balancing them on her arms, and then returned the dirty dishes to the kitchen in the same manner, her starched white shirt remained spotless.

"Would you like a cocktail while you’re choosing your dinner?"

 “Yes, thank you,” I spoke in Spanish.  “A whiskey, please, neat.” 

 “Si, como no,” she responded, bowing slightly and nodding her head.  Yes, of course. “Irish or Scotch?”

“Irish.”

The only other customers were a couple. He looked to be of European ancestry and she looked to be of Latin ancestry.  They were arguing.  At one point, her voice raised, “I am American.”  She poked the table with her index finger.   “I was born here, I grew up here and I grew up speaking Spanish here.  And I will speak Spanish anywhere I wish and my children—our children—are going to speak it, too.”  She was intense.

The man looked quickly around the almost room and motioned with his hands for her voice down.  “English is the language of America.”  He poked the table top with his finger to emphasize the point.

She sat back, spread and braced her feet on the floor and her hands on the table.  Then she lowered her head like a bull preparing to charge.  “English may be the language of America, but you better learn Spanish if you want to be able to talk to our kids in our house.”  If she had been a true bull, she would have scrapped the ground with each hoof and snorted.

At that point, the waitress interrupted them.  She spoke to the man in English and the woman in Spanish.  He ordered paella; she ordered roast rack of lamb—medium rare. 

During this time, two additional couples had entered.  The first couple was two athletic looking young women, each had coal black hair pulled tightly back and wrapped in a severe bun, each had black eyes, and pale skin and wore red lipstick.  Each wore a warm looking over coat but under the over coat one wore a loose flamenco type skirt with a floral print and a starched white shirt and the other wore black slacks and a stiffly starched white shirt.  They were striking in appearance, and while their conversation was inaudible, it was animated. 

The second couple was an elderly man and woman, they sat near me.  She was facing me and I could hear her part of their conversation.  “Do you remember in 1964, we were stationed in Rota, and we took leave and spent a week in Valencia?  That was before your first tour in Viet Nam.”

He responded quietly and she continued, “Do you remember the restaurant that we ate at the first night?  Does this place remind you of that?”  Her face was glowing and she was leaning forward looking at him with eager anticipation of his answer.  He answered “Yep” and her face split in a beaming smile.

Other customers came, mostly couples in their 40’s or 50’s and they sat in quiet conversation at tables for two. 

The waitress came for my order and I ask her whether she would recommend the Paella Valenciana” or the “Cordero Asado.”  The roast rack of lamb.

She paused reflectively and said that she liked both.  Then she said, matter of factly, “Tonight, I recommend the paella.  You can get the cordero asado almost anytime, and ours is always good.  But, tonight, we have fresh seafood.  And, tonight, our cook is from Valencia.  For me, it is almost like being at home, in Valencia.  I recommend the paella.  We’ll let you have it for the price of the cordero asado. 

About half price.  Not bad.  Fresh seafood and an excellent chef.  The drawback, if there is one, is that it takes at least 30 minutes to prepare a dish of paella.

I ordered the paella and another whiskey.

More couples entered, mostly middle aged and graying, well groomed but not flashy.  They may have driven a Mercedes to get there, but I doubt that they were driving Mercedes SUV’s.  They sat together at tables for two, the predominant seating arrangement, talking quietly, sometimes laughing, sometimes not, sometimes holding hands, sometimes not.  Each seemingly focused on the other. 

A man with a guitar entered the room.  He had highly polished black shoes and wore sharply creased black slacks, a crisply starched white shirt with a red string tie.  His black hair was combed straight back and lay close to his scalp.   In the adjacent room, the bar, I could see another man and a woman in traditional Spanish Flamenco dancing garb.  The man with the guitar sat on a high stool and began testing his guitar.  It was a regular guitar with no electrical accoutrements.  As he tested and tuned, the man and woman in the bar tested and tuned individual dance steps. 

During this time, another couple entered.  They were guided to a table across from mine.  Her hair style was full and it framed her face.  Her skin golden, her lips full, and her bulky winter clothing didn’t do much to hide the bountiful rounded richness of her breasts and hips. 

He was trim, muscular and athletic looking.  An even featured man with his hair cut short with jagged scars on his face and arms and he walked with a slight limp.  His good looks could not hide the seriousness of his life’s experiences, nor his relaxed expression the sobriety of his perspective.

She sat side ways to the table, her side to him, facing out the window next to me.  He sat sideways also, but twisted, his elbows on the table, his palms pressed together as if in prayer, looking at her. 

She was so pretty.  He was so handsome.  Each looked sad, as though he or she had just lost their best friend. 

The guitar player slipped off the stool and pushed it to the wall.  He stood with his feet apart and his guitar cocked like a rifle.  And, then he played.  The man and woman from the other room entered.  They clacked their heels, they snapped their fingers, the woman twirled.  Her skirt rose high showing muscular legs, her smoldering eyes met his, and they danced.

The old waitress was scurrying around the room with a young waiter in tow.  She was pushing a cart carrying several bottles of wine, he was carrying a tray with several wine goblets.

Smiling broadly and wildly she shouted in English over the guitar and the heel stomping, “Sangre del Toro.  A fine ‘Espanish’ wine for fine ‘Espanish’ music and dancing! ‘Cortesee of the house.”

I nodded “yes” and she filled my glass.  “And, later tonight, we will have music from a string quarter.”  She lowered her voice, looked at me through narrowed eyes, winked and said, “My great grandchildren.”

After the second song, there was a pause and the woman dancer spoke to the crowd.  “I would like to introduce my sisters.”  The two young ladies rose and bowed.  The restaurant audience applauded politely. “My family is from Espana, and my sisters are dancers, too.  With your permission, they will now dance for you.”  The applause was a little hardier.

The two fit looking young ladies stood up and walked to the dance floor, next to their sister.  They turned in a circle, bowing to the audience.

The guitar player played a short burst of flamenco, loudly.

The two women abruptly poised, like toreadors sizing up their bull.  The guitar player played and they came together, they held each other, they released, they parted, they spun, they twirled, they stomped their heels and clicked their toes, and the one dancing the female role clacked her castanets.

With each new song, the old waitress made her rounds and refilled less than full wine goblets with “Sangre del Toro.”  With each refill, the level of sobriety decreased and the applause and shouts of “Toro!  Toro!” grew louder.  The dancers danced more aggressively, their smiles flashed more brightly, sweat soaked their hair and ran in rivulets down their face and flew from the tip of their noses and fingers.

The guitar player stopped and flicked the sweat from his finger tips.  The dancers stopped and hugged each other.  All turned, said “Muchisimas gracias,” and bowed several times to the diners. 

 “Bravo!  Toro!”  The old waitress shouted at the top of her voice.  The diners came to their feet, shouting and applauding. 

The old waitress brought my order and that of the unhappy couple.

The Paella Valenciana came in the same broad pan that it had been cooked in.  The rice was fluffy and moist, not soggy and crusted as though it had been poured from a can and reheated in a microwave.  The mixed aromas of the spices, shrimp, fish, clams and other seafood ingredients mixed with the spices to produce an arresting aroma.  It tasted as good as it smelled. 

The unhappy couple toyed with their food.  They had spoken little since arriving and did not look to be particularly hungry.

The old waitress perched nearby, watching them intently, silently and motionless, her narrowly spaced eyes focused on them like a bird of prey focusing on field mice.

He spoke first.  “So, this is it.”  He was matter of fact, lacking in energy.

Her head rose slightly and cocked a little to the left, she looked like she was going to respond, but didn’t.  She dropped her head and shook it mildly from side to side.

He sat back, turned in his chair, leaned back against the low wall and looked past me out the window. His posture was that of a badly bruised and beat-up boxer who feels deep inside that the while the match isn’t over the, and he can’t give up, the fight is lost.  He looked down at the brightly polished toes of his shoes.

“Shit.”  It came out softly, without emphasis, a simple statement.

 “It’s your choice.  If your ‘duty’,” she spat out “duty,” “is more important than our marriage and raising a family, together…….”  She paused, “So be it.”  The words were angry, her voice and face were sad and filled with pain.  She looked and sounded on the verge of tears.

He seemed encouraged by her response.  He sat up and turned to face her, leaning over his plate, his elbows on the table, palms pressed together prayer like before him.

 “My contract will be up at the end of this tour.  I’ll get out, resign my commission so they can’t recall me later, we’ll live where ever you want, we’ll raise our family.”  He spread his hands as if to say, “So there it is, you win.”  His face solemn, his voice sincere.

 “No.”  Her voice was flat, without emotion or anger.  She stopped toying with her food and put her fork down.

She turned square to him, her voice pleading.  “I have loved you since we were children.  I have wanted to have children with you since we were children and to have a home and a yard and go on family trips to the beach and mountains.  When we were in college, I would drive around the neighborhoods in town getting ideas for our home.”  She shook her head up and down for emphasis.  Her voice was cracking, “Our home.  Our children.”

 “We can still do that.”  His hands were praying again.

 “No we can’t!”  She was angrier now and more hurt.  Tears were streaming down her face and dripping from her jaw.

 “Yes, we can.” He pleaded.

 “No.” She sat back and covered her face. But, she had more to say and she leaned forward again, arms still crossed, tears still streaming, looking more hurt than angry.  “You didn’t have to go.  You had a choice.  You could have chosen the other assignment. And, you have a choice this time.”

 “My platoon, my people were going.  People were going to die.  People had trusted me to be there to do my part of the job that we had trained for.  I couldn’t run away and let them go without me.  I couldn’t live with myself if I had done that.  Nothing changed now that I’m company commander.”

“It’s even tougher to live with yourself if you’re dead.”  The tears were dry, now, and she was firm.  “No.”  She shook her head emphatically.

 “I never said I wouldn’t go.”

 “You never said you would.”

 “It’s who I was.  It’s who I am.  If I walk away from them, how will you know I won’t walk away from you and our children?  I swore an oath.  I gave my word.  My people are going where some will die.  I might die too, but I can’t run away from that duty.”

And now, she was truly upset.  But the anger seemed subdued.

 “I didn’t know what being married to a soldier meant.  I thought it meant a good looking man in a sharp looking uniform with shiny badges and watching you float out of the sky under a parachute at Fort Benning, the way my father did.”  The anger returned.  “ I didn’t know it would mean sitting next to you in that hospital for days on end, while you, unconscious,” separate emphasis on “you” and “unconscious”,  “yelling orders at  Top and Sanchez and Prescott.  And then, because they were not only not there in the hospital, they’re dead, you would call for a head count.  Day after day, after day.  You would flinch, and twitch, and try to get up and you had no idea at all as to what was going on around you.  You were all orange and green and purple and blue and black.  All swollen up like a bloated frog.” her anger came through when she said “frog” and she sounded truly disgusted, “You couldn’t even open your eyes.”  The anger broke raged on and tears flooded from her eyes, “I didn’t know.  And then, that man, that fool,” her face is savage and she is tearing the words off,  “gives speeches about patriotism, and God and country and those people, those people whose sons and daughters and wives and husbands and mothers and fathers have died over there stand behind him wrapped in those flags like so many stage props…  And, he lies, with a straight face and that fucking smirk, he lies, and they stand there in front of the flag and let him reduce them to stage props!”

The old waitress stood nearby, like a vulture perched on a leafless branch waiting for a final death rattle.  She looks at her watch and disappears into the kitchen.  A short time later, 4 young people, 3 violins and cello, scurried in through the front door and the guitar player reappeared.  A young girl, 17 or 18 and dressed in black followed behind him. 

The old waitress spoke, her accent was becoming more pronounced.  “It is time for our music hour.”  There was a wood parquet dance floor in the middle of the carpeted dining room and she gestured toward it.  “Please, if the mood strikes you, please, dance.”

The violin’s played low, middle and high ranges and the cello gave force to the movement of their music.  The flamenco guitar provided percussion and rhythm.  The young lady in black sang.  Her voice was strong and confident and crystal like in its clarity.  She stood relaxed, one foot in front of the other, her weight on her hind foot, tapping the beat with her fore foot, moving her head side to side with the beat.

She closed her eyes, tilted her head back and opened her throat, “I will always love you….”

The old couple stood and embraced each other in a slow dance.  After decades of dancing with each other, they dance well.

The old waitress moved to the couple who had been arguing over Spanish, took their hands and dragged them to the floor.  Then she steps to the unhappy couple.  Laughing, teasing, cajoling, she took their hands and lifted them up and onto the dance floor.

She placed her hands in the small of their backs and squeezes them together, closes her eyes and lowers her head as in prayer, and begins swaying side to side with them.  A moment later they’re embracing, swaying side to side.  She hugs them briefly, released them and walks backwards away from them.

Their embrace grew in intensity and tears flowed down their cheeks from their closed eyes.

He steps back, stiffly and painfully, takes her two hands in his and kneels. 

“I’m not the President, the Vice President or the Secretary of Defense.  I’m a soldier, I’m a man, nothing more.  I don’t control the events that are interfering with our life, but I’m the man who loves you more than life itself.  If you will wait and marry me when I come home, I will love you and our children until death do us part.  And someday, when I do die, your name will be the last word on my lips, your face the last image in my mind, my love for you the last beat of my heart.”   

The young woman steps to him and pulls his face to her womb.  She stands there clutching him to her, his arms around her, looking beseechingly upward sobbing, “Jesus I don’t know what to do.”

The old woman and the old waitress seem to not be experiencing any confusion because they immediately stepped to the couple, embracing them both, lifting him upward and simultaneously saying, “Say ‘yes.’”

The young man and the young woman stood there embracing each other tightly while the two old women embraced the two of them, holding them tightly as if imparting comfort or absorbing pain.  The other couples on the dance floor crowd around them.  The old man takes the young man’s hand and says “Thank you.  It’s not easy.  I don’t know that it will ever get any better, but thank you.”  The young man shakes his head up and down.  The old man then takes the young woman’s hand in both of his.  “Thank you for being there for him.  And, no matter what happens, don’t let those sons of bitches ever use you or your children for stage props.”

The violin and cellos played, the guitar player strummed, and the singer sang.  The other couples returned to their embraces and danced, and the two old women left the young couple to themselves.

I left the signed credit card slip on the table, walked past the young lady at the cash register and out the door.  As I walked past her, she looked up from what ever she was doing and said:  “Thank you for coming.  How was it?”

“Great.”

“Oh good.  I’ll tell Grandma.  Please come again.”

The traffic had picked up on King Street and the sidewalk on my side of the street was impassable between my position and Washington Street, so I walked to the corner in front of the Irish Pub and waited for the light.  Some of their customers were standing outside smoking cigarettes and throwing their stubs on the sidewalk or into the street.  The owner, his face expressionless, his eyes unblinking, sat in the front window and watched me as I walked past to the corner.

“I tell ya.  I tell ya.  There is a ton of cash that can be made in Iraq.  A ton.  Especially if you’re in personal security.  Oh yeah.  Oh yeah.”

I turned and looked at the kid doing the talking.  He was talking to the air in front of him, standing in the cold wind, smoking a cigarette.  The pub owner was still sitting at the front window, still watching me, still expressionless.

“Oh yeah. Oh yeah.  We’re getting into that too.  The big guy made that decision today.  Today. Yeah. Oh yeah.  Oh yeah.”

The light turned green and I began trying to navigate my way off the curb and into the crosswalk.

“Oh yeah.  We’re into food preparation, sanitation, ditch digging.  You name it, we probably do it.  No, no, no, no, no.  We’re not as big as KBR.  But, we’re working on it.  Oh yeah.  Oh yeah”

“I stepped over the oily black water and started across.

“We hire third world nationals.  Yeah.  Yeah.  Well, Pakistanis, Kenyans, Sri Lankans, you know.  And, we maintain a separate compound.  Those people don’t eat shit.  Rice and curried goat.  Yeah, yeah.  We buy the goat in South Africa.  Yeah. Yeah.  Dirt cheap.”  He was motioning dismissively the air in front of him.  “Hey, hey.  Check this out.  We get five hundred bucks a day per laborer but our average daily cost per laborer is less than twenty-five.  Oh yeah.  Oh yeah.”  He laughs a deep belly laugh.  “Of course we have a sole source contract.  I tell ya man,  Iraq is a fucking gold mine.”

On the other side, I walked east to the Washington Parkway.  It began raining pretty hard. 

I stepped out from behind the building onto the Washington Parkway sidewalk and the wind hit me.  It blew from the north and had a hard bite and an unclean odor.

Is the wind that blows from a place of evil, ignorance and arrogance more bitter than that blows from somewhere simply cold? 

I know not. 

I looked back at the café, then turned and looked northward up Washington toward the Capitol.

The wind whipped the rain into my eyes and inside the hood that was pulled tight round my face.  It ran down my back and across my chest.  The wet cold felt good.  I closed my eyes and stood there motionless, facing the north. 

In 30 minutes, I’d be back in my room at the inn, drinking a cup of hot tea, with my feet propped up.  In two different combat zones, 12,000 miles away, young men and women, my countrymen, in scorching heat or freezing snow or rain, were driving down long highways wondering which moment would be their last with the living or whole of body.  Others were maneuvering against an enemy that they would kill or be killed by; or lying in freezing mud or on blistering sand waiting for the approaching enemy that they would either kill or in the alternative be killed by. 

I turned again a looked at the warm glow of the café in the grimy dark of the King Street night; I thought of the people within and knew that I had indeed found a fine place for dining.

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