The yellows and oranges of fall were just starting to color the October Atlanta foliage. This was usually a time for high schoolers to sneak Schnapps into football stadiums, but for me it was time to work. I had to pay my dad back for the Alfa Romeo, and put a few bucks aside in case my mom actually gave in to me seeing The Who.
I’d landed a job parking cars at a local restaurant. It was as upscale as its poetically pretentious name: The Lark and the Dove. It sat cradled in a hill above the freeway, so when you walked in you had to go down a set of stairs into the dining room. It almost gave the effect of being announced at a royal event: Doo, da, da, loo! The Jones’ of Sandy Springs. Only there was no horn, just some light and easy jazz, and there was no official announcer, just one of the revolving door of beautiful hostesses leading the Jones’ to their table.
Not that I spent any time in the dining room. I was lucky to get a cup of the soup du jour, but on this crisp evening one of the sous chefs brought out just that.
“For you amigo.” he said as he handed me a thick and creamy broccoli concoction with steam still coming off the top. I stupidly tried some without letting it cool and immediately spit it back into the bowl so it wouldn’t burn my throat like it just did my tongue.
“No good?” he asked.
“Pinche gente! I tell them turn down fire, but they don’ listen to sous chef. In Mexico, I chef, they listen.”
Miguel arrived in the spring from Mexico and got a job at The Lark through his cousin, who did cleanup for the restaurant. His brothers had already moved out to Atlanta when they heard about all the construction work in the booming metropolis. But Miguel wasn’t like his brothers who could carry fifty-pound bags of cement, or bang nails, or work on their knees laying floors all day. No, Miquel was more of an artist, and his medium was food. Unfortunately, he had to pay his dues by making piping hot broccoli soup instead of spicy hot tortilla soup.
“What does pinche gente mean anyway?”
“Like people fucking?”
“No, like when you…” He held up a fist like he was pissed off at someone.
“Oh, I get it. Like when a guy driving a nice new car hands me some spare change for a tip. Pinche gente!”
“Si!” exclaimed Miguel even if he didn’t understand every word of what I had just said. He headed for the back entrance where all the kitchen crew came in and out. “Adios muchacho.”
I ate some more soup now that it had cooled, and got my tickets and key board in order for the night. The job was easy as long as you were organized. Knowing your cars was helpful too.
I heard the deep rev of the engine before I saw it: a newer model Mustang, cleaned all the way down to its shiny tires. Good for a two-spot at the very least, I thought to myself as I eyed the young-looking driver.
I worked for tips. No hourly wage. I’d usually get a dollar per car, sometimes a five or even twenty on the rare occasion. I’d gotten pretty good at figuring out how much of a tip I’d get on instinct as soon as the car pulled in: Buick with the seat pulled up so the old lady driving could kiss the steering wheel?… Change from a coin-purse if you were lucky; Big Cadillac with white leather seats?… Peacock who might give you a five or a ten; Red Ferrari?… Not what you’d think. Two or three bucks tops. These guys didn’t get their Ferraris by throwing around cash.
Parking cars gets you right into people’s personal space. Especially their smells. You could tell if someone was trying to get laid, or why they weren’t getting laid the minute you jumped into their car. A lingering smell of perfume and a sexy Sade CD queued up and you knew someone was trying to get laid. Fast-food wrappers and stale cigarette smoke and you could just feel the frustration. Some people never cleaned out their ashtrays. Others never cleaned period. Some tried to cover up smells with worse smells. Then there were the brand new cars that smelled of leather and whatever magical concoction created what can only be described as new car smell.
I opened the Mustang’s passenger door to a waft of a tropical island and the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She smiled demurely at me as she got out and pushed back her slightly damp hair, revealing ocean-green eyes. I stood there dumbfounded with her door still open.
“Shut the door!” the driver growled from his seat. And as soon as I did, he took off.
Pinche gente, I thought, as I hurriedly went to grab the front door of the restaurant for the beauty with the beast. She kind of giggled as I made a grand gesture and said, “welcome to the Lark and the Dove.” Only later did I find out that she was one of the new hostesses and her name was Mia.
I was mid-shift running for cars, when Dave pulled up in his orange Camaro blowing smoke out of the tailpipe. He looked like he had just gotten done working; he was sweating even in this cold weather.
“Yo, dude, I’m not feeling too good. Where’s the bathroom in there?”
“Entry level, all the way to the back.”
He threw me his keys and ran inside. I got into his Camaro and took in what could only be described as gym locker mixed with sick hospital bed smell.
About ten minutes later, Dave came out looking slightly less sweaty than when he went in.
“Don’t go near the bathroom dude.”
“I went past the hot hostess and paused for a minute to chat her up. By the time I made it to the bathroom, it was coming out of both ends. I had to leave my underwear in there.”
I handed him back his keys and said “If anyone asks, we don’t know each other.”
“Too late, I told the hot hostess I was your best friend.”
Later that evening I was waiting for my last car to leave. I was hoping to get out of there before Dave’s bathroom incident came back to bite me, so I walked into the restaurant to check on the stragglers. They were at a table with a bottle of wine between them, still half full. The waitress for that station was so frustrated, she was about to yell fire to get them the hell out of there. I had the option to give them their keys and tell them I was closing up and hope for a tip, but I eyed Mia and decided I might stay for a minute.
She was reading a book, unfazed by the frustration all around her. I noticed the title of the book had “motorcycle maintenance” in it. Who was this girl?I thought as I approached her hostess stand.
“You fix motorcycles?” I asked stupidly.
She laughed a laugh that was deep and almost musical. She thought I was being funny. She put the book down and I saw the whole title: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
“Just trying to fix myself I guess.”
Like there could be anything wrong with you,I thought, but just said “oh?”
She took that as an opening. “And I think I might need to work on my boyfriend as well. He was supposed to be here an hour ago to pick me up…”
“I’m leaving now if you need a ride?” I said as I almost threw the stragglers their keys.
“That would be nice.”
“I’ll grab my car and meet you up front.”
I pulled up in my Alfa and saw her standing there adjusting her scarf blowing in the wind like a scene from a Doisneau portrait. She got in, and that’s when I saw the headlights behind me. I recognized the roar of the engine, only this time it sounded like it was roaring at me: The boyfriend had arrived.
He got out and approached my car door before I could blink. His tenor matched the roar of his engine. He was a big guy, but only looked bigger from the low seat of my Alfa Romeo. I held up a finger and said “let me get out and we can talk about this” but as I opened the door and started to stand, he punched down on me. I slunk back down in my seat.
A song drifted through the darkness of my concussed mind: “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.” I wasn’t sure how long I was out, but when I came to, Mia was still in the passenger seat next to me holding a towel to my bloody lip. No boyfriend in sight.
“I am so sorry,” she said, “he has some anger issues.”
“Maybe you should give him that maintenance book.”
She smiled at my joke, which was just what I needed at that moment. “There’s just one thing we have to do before you take me home,” she cooed.
“Well, this is a convertible right?”
“Then why is the top not down?!”
“Well, it’s kinda’ cold out.”
“Doesn’t this thing have heat?”
“So, crank it!.”
And that’s just what we did.
After dropping Mia off at her mom’s place, I cut through the curvy roads back to mine and smiled thinking about her smile. I put my hand out in the crisp night air and let it float with the stream, the closest to flying I could get.