Most of the kitchen staff and busboys at Mary Ann’s Mexican restaurant on Fifth Street and Second Avenue in the East Village are from the Dominican Republic, like Luis, a cook in his early twenties. Despite being just a few inches over five feet with a slim build and delicate face, Luis’ demeanor is mucho macho. On my first day waitressing here in 1991, I find out Luis’ favorite thing to do during the dinner rush is to dance the Bachata. He abandons his spatula on the grill full of fajitas, spurred on by the pounding beat of Dominican dance music blasting from the kitchen boom box with a coat hanger antenna. He grabs me around my waist, forcing me to hold four plates of piping hot Mexican food over my head. As I leave the kitchen Luis clings to me, his head nuzzled at my chest.
After a few feet I stop and snap, “Luis, let go of me!” He hugs me tighter. The only thing I can do now is drag him along with me through the dining room, looking like Siamese Twins joined together at the groin. One twin is forced to wait tables while the other one salsa dances.
All the Dominican cooks and busboys are filled with amor. The minute they hear their Bachata music blasting from the food-splattered kitchen boom box they go into a frenzy as if they’re suddenly possessed by dancing demons. They try in vain to get all us white waitresses to move our hips like hot-blooded Latinas. I’m the whitest one of all, so I seem to be their biggest challenge. They usually give up on us and end up dancing with each other, looking like party guests at a men’s prison cotillion. As a woman born and raised in New England, I’m just not used to a man’s hips suction-cupped to mine, especially while I’m trying to work.
One night, after a few months working at Mary Ann’s, I have to return food to the kitchen following a customer complaint. Roberto, our head cook, motions for me to lean in close to him, then says “I make new plate, no problem. But see Luis over there?”
Luis is twirling around near the grill and singing, ‘Ay Mami, Ay Mami, Ay Mami, Mami, Mami’, using his spatula as a microphone.
“Coño,” Roberto whispers. “Never tell Luis someone no like his food, even if he make it wrong.”
“Why?” I whisper.
He snags Eduardo, our busboy as he walks by, then he leans in further and Roberto says to both of us, “Luis gotta gun.”
Eduardo eyes me and nods his head, “Es true, he does.”
“I don’t believe you guys. Him?” I say as Luis scrapes onions and peppers on the grill to the beat of the music on the boom box. “Besides, what am I supposed to say to a customer, sorry you don’t like your fajitas, but I wouldn’t send them back if I were you cuz the cook has a gun?”
“We no kidding.” Roberto tells me. “You know, some nights Luis no come to work? We say, ‘Oh he in D.R., Dominican Republic? Lotsa time he in R.I., Riker’s Island.”
“How can he keep his job, if he doesn’t show up?” I ask.
Eduardo whispers, “The owner of Mary Ann’s, he scared of him, that why he hardly ever come here. I scared too.”
I cross my arms and shake my head. “No way. He’s always nice to me. Come on.”
Eduardo and Roberto look at Luis who’s now singing, “Papi Chulo, Papi, Papi Chulo.” Then they say to me, “Coree, no, he very dangerous guy.”
Luis does disappear from work a lot. After a few days, or sometimes a week he’ll return, merengue dancing all the way back into the kitchen like nothing ever happened.
He tells everyone, “I wanna stay longer in D.R., but coño, I gotta make my Cadillac payment.”
Every night after work, the cooks and busboys go into the basement to transform from guacamole-covered restaurant workers to Latin lovers straight out of a Spanish telenovela. They put on silky shirts unbuttoned to their bellies, many gigantic gold religious medallions with matching chunky gold bracelets and diamond stud earrings in both ears. My favorite part of their outfits are the bejeweled slippers that look like something Aladdin would wear while visiting a harem in Baghdad.
Two of them stand out from the rest. First there is Luis–along with his ‘Rico Suave’ clothes he coats his black curls with so much dollar-store hair gel he’s a fire hazard. He also splashes on the most Axe cologne. They all wear it and it’s the only smell in the whole restaurant that’s stronger than the stink of the toxic Fabuloso cleanser used to scrub our two restrooms.
The other Dominican guy who stands out is Nelson, our middle-aged delivery guy. He doesn’t wear cologne and he just puts a jacket on over his work clothes. He spends his time upstairs at the employee table in the dining room waiting for the others to change their clothes and reading miniature religious comic books that are handed out to all New Yorkers who ride the subway. While most of us are amused by these mini comic books with such titles as “The Death Cookie” or “Sin City–Jesus CAN free anyone from the sin of Sodom!”, Nelson keeps them tucked away in his jacket pockets. He asks me, or the other waitress Ann, to help him with some of the harder English words like “prophecy” and “damnation.” He’s learning to speak English with these comic books while at the same time learning a valuable lesson such as: We were all born in sin, and one day we’ll take a long trip, either to heaven or hell!
Ann and I are wiping down the salt and pepper shakers when the Dominican guys come back upstairs in their slick get-ups to drink one more Corona. We’re the last two women in the restaurant so they peacock for us. When we finally look up, they raise their eyebrows, pull their beer bottles out of their mouths and make kissy faces at us. Ann and I roll our eyes. I ask them if they’re going out to a nightclub, but as always they’re just getting on the A train back to Washington Heights.
Luis is the only one who has a car. It looks like something that would be used to chauffeur Liberace around the Las Vegas Strip. It’s got gold hubcaps, blinking lights around the front windshield and “Papi Chulo” airbrushed on the back windshield. He can also make his baby-blue Cadillac rock up and down like LL Cool J in his hip-hop videos. At 5’3″, Luis can barely see over the steering wheel covered in white faux fur.
I know I’ve been warned about Luis, but I’ve never seen his gun. I thought I felt it though. During one dinner rush, I pick up food at the counter in the kitchen when Luis wiggles up, grabs me around the waist and grinds his crotch up the side of my thigh. I try to push him away, but my hands are full with plates. And then I feel it…for a moment. Something might be in the front pocket of his checked chef pants. I gasp, and shake my leg to free myself. He pulls away and smirks. Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a jumbo magic marker.
To me Luis seems perfectly harmless, despite his overly friendly dancing. Ann thinks he’s harmless and Eamon, our bartender, shakes his head when he’s told about Luis’ gun. None of us white folks believe it, so maybe the Dominican guys are just full of it.
One slow Tuesday night Ann and I lean on the waiter’s drink pick-up area, staring out at all our empty tables and the three happy-hour customers slumped at the bar drinking their two-dollar margaritas. We hear the kitchen boom box get turned up and a moment later Luis makes his way out to the dining room, one hand on his hip, the other on his head. His hips are gyrating to the scratchy Latin music which now is so loud it drowns out the dining-room tape deck playing Eighties new wave music.
I turn to Ann and say, “Let’s dress Luis up!” We motion for him to come over, and he does the merengue all the way. He grabs at us, probably thinking that finally, finally, we want to dance with him.
We hold him back and I say, “We’re gonna make you look guapo!”
“Wepa!” Luis yells. It’s all we can do to keep his hands off us while we wrap two white aprons around his waist to create a skirt. Then we put two oranges in his white chef shirt to give him a bosom, and tie the shirt at his belly button. I’m wondering if he’ll be mad when he realizes we’re dressing him up like a woman. But he looks down, pushes up his orange breasts, and bats his long, curly black lashes like he’s a showgirl working the room at the Copacabana. We wrap his head in a white bar towel and stick platanos on top of his turban. He’s shaking his hips and pursing his lips so I take my Revlon Toast of New York red lipstick out of my apron pocket, and while Ann holds his face, I apply it to Luis’ mouth. He grabs Ann’s compact mirror to see what he looks like and kisses himself and then he tries to kiss us saying, “Come on Mamis, da me un beso!” We understand a little Spanish so we push him away. He holds onto his turban as he chases us pleading, “Baila con migo!” He only stops when our bartender Eamon turns off the tape deck in the dining room and our busboy Eduardo brings the boom box out of the kitchen blasting Bachata music.
Luis dances to the music like he’s Carmen Miranda, hips gyrating, his hand poised on the back of his head. He makes a beautiful woman even with his light mustache and goatee. The rest of the cooks, the dishwasher, and our busboy come into the dining room and beat on plastic food buckets or scrape their knives on cheese graters to accompany the already loud music. The three bar customers turn around to take in this spontaneous Dominican floor show. Ann and I grab two dusty sombreros off the wall, put them on and join Luis as his back-up dancers while everyone claps along. At times like this I find it even harder to believe Luis could be the menace to society the other cooks and busboys insist he is.
One night I let Luis drive me home in his tricked-out Cadillac, even though I live only six blocks away. He rolls down all four windows, Bachata music on full-blast as he takes the long way to my apartment.
Luis then asks me the question that seems to perplex all the Dominican guys at work, “Mami, why you no have babies?”
“Cuz,” I sigh heavily, “I’m not married and I’m too busy trying to be an actor.”
He smiles, “I give you baby. Okay Mami? For Christmas, si?”
I can’t even look at him because I’m trying not to laugh. “Thanks anyway, but I’d rather have a store-bought gift.”
At red lights he turns up the music until the Cadillac vibrates. He looks over at me, singing along to the Spanish lyrics with a hyper-dramatic expression while his hand clutches his chest as if he’s suffering from acute indigestion.
“Are you having a heart attack?” I ask him.
He leans toward me, grabs my chin and sings, “Mi amor, te quiero.” The light turns green. Cars behind us honk their horns but Luis keeps singing, “Estas mi vida, te quiero mucho…” until I laugh hysterically and wrench my chin away. I look down and see his jewel-slippered feet barely touch the gas pedal.
The next day Luis doesn’t show up to work, which isn’t unusual. A week later we all wonder if he’s really gone to D.R., or shhh, if he’s in Riker’s Island. I kinda miss dressing him up like Carmen Miranda on slow Tuesday nights, but the cooks don’t seem to mind that he’s not here, in the middle of the small kitchen, Bachata dancing by himself during the dinner the rush, instead of grilling fajitas.
Weeks go by and still no Luis. I assume he’s gone to D.R. for a month, like all the cooks and busboys do–they never go for a week, or ten days, it’s always a month or two. But the kitchen staff grumbles in rapid Dominican Spanish that they think he’s upstate in Sing-Sing.
Our restaurant is across the street from the Ninth Precinct, so it’s not a surprise to see two plainclothes detectives stroll in one night during happy hour. Our hostess hands them menus, but they wave them away, go up to the waiter pick-up area at the end of the bar and motion for Eamon to come speak to them. Then the detectives call us all over, including the cooks. They have a photo of Luis with his arms around two of our busboys wearing their Mary Ann’s t-shirts.
“You know this person?” a detective asks.
“Yeah,” we all say. “That’s Luis. Why?”
“Okay.” The detective sighs. “We’re homicide. We’re gonna need one a you to ID his body.”
“He’s got no next a kin in New York, and we found this photo in his apartment. Sorry, but we need one a you to help us by ID’ing his body.”
Eamon shakes his head, so does Ann.
“I haven’t worked here very long,” I say. The cooks and our busboy Eduardo start arguing in Spanish as they point at each other. A few just turn and stomp back into the kitchen, cursing in Spanish.
“What happened to Luis? He didn’t seem like a bad guy,” I say, making sure not to mention the rumor about the gun. Even if he’s dead, I don’t want to get him into further trouble.
“Well, Luis was no angel,” the detective says. “He was in the Latin Kings and he musta pissed off the wrong people. Found his body, bound, gagged and shot. Then the bastards put him in a garbage bag and threw him out with the trash up in Washington Heights.”
“Oh my God!” I clap my hand over my mouth. My eyes water as I put several two-dollar happy-hour margaritas on my tray with my other hand. I look out at my tables to see my customers craning their necks to see where I am, probably wondering why I’m taking so long getting their drinks. “I’m sorry, I can’t do it,” I say as I grab my tray of drinks and go.
When I get back to the bar, Nelson, our middle-aged delivery guy, is back from a run and getting change for a twenty. The detectives take his arm and start to tell him about Luis. Nelson’s English isn’t so good. He’s nodding and smiling, that’s how I know he doesn’t understand.
When he finally gets it, he backs up shaking his finger. “Oh, No, No, No!” His face clouds over as he grabs more delivery food bags to ride off on his bicycle with the clunky, half-flat tires.
Eamon asks the detectives to give him a minute. They lean on the menu holder near the front door while Eamon calls me, Ann, Eduardo, and Nelson over. “Come on Nelson,” Eamon says, “We think you should do this.” Eduardo translates into Spanish, then Eamon continues, “You knew him best, right?”
Nelson over-exaggerates his frown, still shaking his finger to emphasize, NO!
“Please, ya gotta do it,” Eamon pleads. “The detectives need one of us to do this. Didn’t you live near him?”
Nelson waves both arms in front of himself as if he’s trying to stop a speeding train.
Finally, Eduardo says, “Come on Nelson, you get your reward in heaven, si?” Nelson cocks his head, so Eduardo says it again in Spanish.
Nelson stands there, grasping his over-sized chunky golden crucifix with a very tired-looking Jesus on it and kisses it, “Ay, Jesucristo. Okay, I go.” He leaves with the detectives while our dishwasher Francisco delivers food the rest of the night.
Sensitive, bespectacled Nelson doesn’t forgive us for a while. He’s more quiet than usual for weeks. Then one day he comes in with his regular large grin and earnest but badly spoken English. We’re relieved identifying Luis’ body hasn’t scarred him for life. Nelson might not have won points in heaven, but not too long after he is rewarded for all his anguish when he’s named “Delivery Man of the Year” by the Village Voice. A quote under his smiling picture claims, “Nelson never overstays his welcome.”
A few days after we heard Luis was murdered, he’s replaced by another Dominican immigrant, the brother of our head cook, Roberto. We don’t talk about Luis very often, but every once in a while on a slow Tuesday night, I reach into my black apron pocket, pull out my Toast of New York lipstick, and I think about him. I miss him.