After washing dirty pots at a small Italian restaurant in downtown San Jose for ten years, Johnny had a magical talent for knowing when someone was going to mess around with him: the quiet footsteps that came to a halt behind him, the gentle clearing of the throat, the sharp intake of air for a kitchen-wide announcement. Dirty pots and trouble were never slow in coming—especially on a slow Monday night.

“Hey, amigos!” the Mexican-accented voice shouted from behind him. “Look at me!”

Alejandro the waiter.

Johnny stopped scrubbing the large pot with the burnt tomato sauce on the bottom, turned off the water and turned around to see what was going to happen. The waiter stood to his left, the two dishwashers stood waiting for dirty dishes at their empty station behind the waiter, and the cooks gathered to his right along the line. Even a few waiters who had nothing better to do than lurk from the other side of the serving window were watching.

Like many kitchen staffs these days in California, just about everyone here was from Mexico. Speaking fluent Spanish was required to be accepted as part of the family in the kitchen. If someone didn’t speak Spanish, a smattering of restaurant Spanish to identify the various ingredients and dishes was enough to be accepted as a servant. But Johnny was neither family nor servant. A gangly white man who could barely speak his own native English much less any restaurant Spanish because of a mild retardation that he suffered, he worked six nights a week as a pot washer. This job—perhaps the only job he will ever have in his life—was what he did best. He bore the brunt of the teasing and jokes from his co-workers over the years with a good-natured smile. No reason for him to get mad at anyone since that was part of the job. As long as the kitchen ran smoothly during the evening rush when the entire restaurant was busy, management left the kitchen alone to focus on the paying customers at the front of the house.

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