Present Perfect

     Hi, I’m Bob, I’ll be your columnist today.
     That column’ll be served with nouns and verbs and drizzled with fresh adjectives. And there’ll be colloquial abbreviations such as “column’ll,” and it’ll be in future tense because that’s how we serve columns today.
     I don’t know when waiters began speaking in Mandatory Future Tense, but they all do it now.
     Back when I was a boy in – sigh – the late 1950s and 1960s, and our grandfather took us out to dinner (our family – I wasn’t an authorial we yet) my grandpa always asked the waitress for her name.
     “Pardon me, young lady” Opa would say apologetically, “could you tell me your name? I don’t like to say, ‘Hey.’ I’d prefer to call you by your name.”
     And the waitress would tell him her name. Except one time. One waitress refused. Who knows why? She must have thought it was forward of him to ask for her name in front of his wife and adult child and daughter-in-law and four grandchildren.
     Now all the waiters and waitresses tell you their name. “I’m Heather and I’ll be your waitress tonight,” she’ll say. And off she goes, into the Mandatory Future Tense.
     I like the waiters and waitresses who shoot the shit with you, as though we’re all neighbors shocked at what the Town Council did last night. A lot of the waitresses around here are students at Keene State. One of them pulled out a chair and sat down with us the other night, and we talked about this, that and the other. She got a good tip.
     Once you spend a certain amount of money, though, the waitresses aren’t supposed do that. Another restaurant here, probably the best in town, dressed its waitresses in black leotards. They acted cold and snotty, as though we were in New York. Great food, but I couldn’t stand the place. It closed down a year ago.
     I like gay waiters, so long as they’re in a good mood. They’re often bright and funny and efficient, and if you ask them if something on the menu is any good, and it isn’t, they’ll tell you. Keep me away from a gay waiter in a bad mood, though. Heaven help us.
     I don’t like chain restaurants. Not because there aren’t any good ones – though I don’t know of any. It’s because I want to know where my money goes – to the waiter, or to a good chef, or a hard-working owner.
     My favorite restaurant lately is Mama & Papa Zs, a dilapidated old diner on Route 5, an old two-lane road that runs all the way from Massachusetts to the Canadian border.
     Fr. Nicholas Zervakis is the cook, owner and cheerful, presiding, bearded eminence at Papa Zs. He makes the best calzones in the solar system. He’s also a Greek Orthodox priest.
     Papa Z was born poor in Crete and after traipsing a long tangled path he opened Mama & Papa Z’s 16 years ago, with the dream of making enough money to open a church. There was no Greek Orthodox church in Southern Vermont, and Papa Z believes “every village needs a church.”
     It took him 10 years to build it, much of it with his own hands. He’s held services now for 6 years, though the building is still under construction. He took us inside the little church one night. It’s ornate and overdecorated with carved wooden icons in the best Greek style – he painted the pictures on the walls and ceiling himself. He rescued the old wooden pews from a church in upstate New York. I have no religion myself, and I told him so when he asked, but I still love Papa Z’s church. It’s a thing of beauty – 16 years of love and work you can see and feel in the walls, in the smooth wooden benches.
     But heating costs are so high this year – even after oil prices tanked – that Papa Z had to close the church for the winter. “And it breaks my heart,” he says.
     He doesn’t look like a man with a broken heart. He seems to know everyone who enters his restaurant. He tells one couple sadly that he had to eat their calzones, but they can still pay for them.
     Business has been tailing off for years, Papa Z says, and it’s worse now that people are hurting for money. Just about every time we’ve been there the place has been practically empty, except for a few people who sit at the main table with Papa Z. On the rare busy nights – holiday weekends when skiers or leaf-peepers drive through – a mechanic from the Sunoco station comes by and waits tables to help out.
     Mama Z makes little displays for the holidays and arranges them on the long, old-time counter – little pilgrims and turkeys for Thanksgiving, cotton snow, pine trees and reindeer for Christmas. I like the corny old displays.
     It’s winter already in Vermont. It was 1 degree yesterday and the streets are full of slush. Cars are dirty with ice, mud and salt and when the wind blows I want to be somewhere else. But I like to sit in the warm old diner in the evening and watch traffic go by in the dark, and wait for an enormous calzone to come out of that 600-degree oven.
     There are so many ways to make a living in the world. Some make no sense at all; some make the opposite of sense. Papa Z’s makes sense.
     Time’s ain’t so hot for me either these days, but I try to eat at Mama and Papa Z’s whenever I can – not just for the calzones – so they can pay the bills for their church, so they can keep their restaurant open. Well, maybe for the calzones.

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