Ahmed waxed the hall tiles below while I changed the ballast in a fluorescent fixture on the ninth floor of a building in San Francisco where I held a winter job as “superintendent of maintenance.” A fancy title meaning I was a janitor.
Ahmed and Raffi were janitors too, recent green card immigrants from North Yemen before the country was unified. Between them they held four jobs. While Ahmed buffed floors in our building, Raffi collected tolls at the Universal Parking Garage a block away. At six p.m., they traded places. Their beds were in the boiler room in the basement of our building. They scrambled halfway around the planet to work hard for a dream, to earn enough to open their very own Arabic restaurant in San Francisco.
Ahmed hit the kill button on the floor buffer and watched my every twist of the wire nuts. When the ballast was installed and the bulbs were snapped back into place, I nodded, and he threw the switch. A slight flicker, then full wattage from the tubes bounced off his shiny floor. His teeth flashed against his black mustache. “You are an engineer, no G. D.?”
The three of us became weekend pals. I learned how to say “Allah has given us a great day” in Yemenese, and taught them how to interpret the comic strips in the Sunday Chronicle. We wandered Marin County in my truck, drinking Pepsi while they chose the mansions where they would live when their American dream came true.
After spring hit the great divide that year I went home to Idaho and tended hamburger on the hoof in the high country until the summer grass was gone and the trucks came to carry the cattle down onto the winter range.
That fall I found a job working with horses on a tax write-off ranch 40 miles north of San Francisco. On my first Saturday off, I rode a bus into the city and went to our building, where I found Raffi working the day shift. He was every excited to see me. “Ahmed has done the restaurant, G. D., Ahmed has done the restaurant. Go now to see him. Go to the Hofbrau.” He pointed down the street.
Ahmed and Raffi had leased a German restaurant, Rolf’s Hofbrau, complete with huge lighted signs of chesty women in dirndls carrying steins of lager to chubby men in lederhosen who puffed on long-stemmed pipes. Inside the restaurant were thin, dark-eyed, men in short-sleeve white shirts, holding cigarettes between ring and middle finger and drinking thick coffee from tiny cups.
When Ahmed spotted me, he came running from the kitchen, clapping his hands above his head. “G. D. is here! G. D. is here!” All of his customers stood. Ahmed introduced me to them one-by-one, and we shook hands. Each of them offered to buy for me a meal or a coffee or a cigarette.
But I was Ahmed’s pal, in Ahmed’s restaurant, and it was his privilege to place a feast before me, to sit with me and hold my hand and smile as I savored the saffron and pinon nuts and kebobs. The food was wonderful.
I asked him when he planned to let the rest of San Francisco know that he operated a very fine Arabic restaurant. When was he going to change the German decor on the outside of the building?
“Oh, no, G. D. If they know that this is an Arabic restaurant, someone who does not like us will bomb us. I have many Arabic friends, see? They all know that the restaurant is here. It is much safer to allow others to think that the Germans still own this place.”
On the eve of the third winter I had a job editing a quarterly magazine across the bay in Sausalito. I rode the Golden Gate ferry to San Francisco, walked from the piers up Market Street and found the restaurant cold and abandoned. In gold script on the transom above the entry door was a small string of Arabic characters.
I walked to the original building, where I found Raffi sitting in the boiler room, lonely, sad, and waiting for a ride to the airport. Five weeks before, on a Saturday night, Ahmed was caught in a sting.
The San Francisco chapter of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals lodged a complaint against the restaurant with the Department of Health, then accompanied Immigration and Naturalization on a raid of Ahmed’s restaurant where they found Ahmed and three of his friends in the basement, butchering a recently killed lamb for the feast marking the end of Ramadan. Somewhere up the power chain, the INS overlapped with the SPCA. In an unusually short time, the government revoked Ahmed’s green card and deported him.
Raffi had no recourse. He was flying back to North Yemen, because he could not work all four jobs alone. As we hugged goodbye, Raffi said “You know, G. D., this America is a very bloody country. You come someday to live with us, O.K.?”
I asked him about the writing above the door at the restaurant. “Oh, yes, G. D. I have taken a picture of it to take home with me. It says Ahmed and Raffi’s Hofbrau.”
J.D. Smith is an accomplished writer and jack-of-all-trades. He lives in Athena.