Cream Cheese and Other Mysteries

My neighbor on the Aeroflot flight to Washington, D.C. warned me, between sips of Stolichnaya, that I would never find a teaching job in the U.S.  He was a former professor of Russian literature, bitter and disillusioned, and he dismissed my American future with a single wave of his hand.  I should have told him that no one ever sips vodka, but I was a docile ex-Young-Pioneer who only three hours earlier had escaped the Soviet Union, a ravaged suitcase on the KGB inspector’s table with twenty kilograms of what used to be my life.

I was supposed to fly from Moscow to JFK, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 prohibited Aeroflot from landing in New York.  My new American husband was now forced to find me in the sterile maze of Dulles airport and we drove to Lawrenceville, New Jersey, on a five-lane highway, wider than any canal branching off the Neva, where in the 1960s I would watch the water rise before an autumn flood and hope that my school would cancel classes.   It was strangely cool and quiet inside the car, and I looked with dismay at my only pair of shoes – thick rubber soles and scuffed leather – perfect for April in Leningrad but useless for August in New Jersey.  How did I end up in this noiseless car speeding along an interminable foreign road?  All inside me was still numb, but the feeling of unreality mercifully lifted a bit, enough to yield a little room for the returning senses.

When we stopped at a rest area by a green sign that read “Cherry Hill,” I realized what was wrong with the air: there were no smells.  Russia assaults you in your nostrils: milk always on the verge of turning sour, the wet wool of winter coats we wear every day for five months, rubber phone booth tiles buckled with urine, exhaust from trucks that run on leaded gasoline, mothballs, yesterday’s soup.  In New Jersey it was 34 degrees Centigrade – a temperature I knew only from books on the Soviet Republics of Central Asia – and yet it smelled of nothing.   Passer-bys didn’t trail a wake of unwashed clothes; the cafeteria didn’t reek of old potato salad and burned oil; even the public bathroom was antiseptic as a shrine.  I thought of the rusty toilets at Leningrad Pulkovo International Airport, of their corroded pipes and sad hanging pull chains that never released enough water to wash away the lowly feeling of barely being human.  Here the floor gleamed; the hand dryers whirred; the faucets sparkled.  A word I’d just learned, “restroom,” was a perfect fit for this vast oasis of luxury that seemed to emerge straight from the spotless future of science fiction.

The next sense to capitulate – taste – was ambushed by ubiquitous foods, not only plentiful but puzzling.  My first trip to the supermarket dwarfed the opulence of the NJ Turnpike restroom.  How was I supposed to choose one kind of chocolate, or frozen pizza, or cream cheese out of the dozen different brands parading in neat rows on endless shelves that climbed all the way to the ceiling?  And what was cream cheese, anyway?

I found a package of cream cheese in my new mother-in-law’s refrigerator and scooped out a sample.  It was smooth, tasteless and definitely in need of spicing up.  A bottle of ketchup stared at me from the kitchen counter, standing casually among other alien bottles, unaware of its rarity in all the Russian kitchens.  I poured ketchup over the bar of cream cheese and ate it with a spoon.

A month later I had trouble zipping up my skirt.  There were simply too many new foods to try.  In October, when the Bacchanalia of eating had reached its peak, my husband and I drove past a sign that read “Coming soon: Beefsteak Charlie’s.”  By now it had become clear that if I wanted to buy next size clothes, I had to find a job.

Beefsteak Charlie’s hired me only because they needed an entire staff for their new operation.  I should have felt happy getting the job, but I didn’t: for a college graduate raised in the “classless” Soviet society, the prospect of waitressing sounded humiliating.  Back in Russia there was order: waiters waited and teachers taught.  No one would think of crossing the social class border to make extra money waiting on tables.  Besides, we didn’t have many restaurants in the Soviet Union and their patrons, in true communist fashion, never left tips.

The first ten days of training were fun: some of us pretended to be waiters as the rest sat at the checkered-cloth tables and ordered from the menu.  I did well with the ordering and eating part, thanks to compassionate Melissa who explained the bewildering words “patron,” “pasta,” and “gratuity,” so that later I could attempt to play the waitress role with minimal disgrace.  We all wore red aprons with a large white button; mine said “My name is Elena.  I’m gonna spoil you.”  Every time I pretended to take an order the manager’s face would stiffen, so I was sure they would fire me before the restaurant opened.  The manager, Karen, was fast-paced and efficient, and her sharp gaze could silence even my most exuberant colleagues with years of waiting experience.

“What are you doing here with a Master’s degree?” she asked as we finished the training, making me suspect the ubiquity of social class walls.  I wanted to tell her that the professor on the plane was right; that I’d made a colossal mistake to leave behind everything I knew; that the dawn of my American life seemed as dim and compromised as the bright future of my former Motherland.  Instead I said, “I need the money to buy a bigger skirt.”

By opening day, I had memorized the menu and learned the gradations of steak readiness, from blue rare to burnt.  I could preach the superiority of Jersey tomatoes and the sweetness of Jersey corn.  I was as prepared to be a waitress as I would be to teach a class in English grammar.

In real life, however, in addition to the food I knew so well, customers ordered drinks I didn’t know at all.  What was I to make of orders for screwdrivers and slow gin fizz?  Of blue whales or white Russians?  And what was a black Russian, for heaven’s sake?  I darted to the bar with incomprehensible orders spinning in my head and the bartender, Samantha – harried and raspy-voiced – listened patiently as she tried to decipher the drink from my mangled pronunciation.  “Man, hat, and,” I would spit out, the three words I kept twirling in my mind as I raced from table to bar.  “Manhattan,” Sam would say, with a drop of motherly guidance, as if she tried to teach me a parental lesson.

In real waitressing, where timing and speed trumped the knowledge of linguistics, I was getting consistent F’s.  My orders of baby back ribs sat cold on the kitchen counter; my customers got their chicken and baked potatoes before they could even peel the shrimp from the salad bar.  Other waiters routinely picked up after me, as if I were a slow child who’d wandered into a grown-up function.  Black-eyed Melissa, a student of photography at Trenton State College who could have been a model, would rush the abandoned order of ribs to my table and set it down with elegance and a disarming smile, making it appear that it had all been planned in advance.  Forgotten side orders of stuffed clams and minestrone soup inexplicably found their way to my tables.  To further my humiliation, the tips were pooled, so every night I left, unjustly, with as much as everyone else.

One evening, when Melissa had a test and I was on my own, a balding man with a heavy face and a thick gold bracelet, presiding over what looked like a family celebration, ordered salad and asked for dressing on the side.  On whose side, I wondered frantically.  Sweating under the gaze of the noisy, festive table, not knowing the expression, I imagined a splash of oil and vinegar dripping down the side of the man’s expensive suit.  I imagined being stripped of my apron and my button and deported for waitress failure.  Then, almost magically, Karen materialized at my table, her presence never more timely and welcome.  “Elena has just arrived from Russia,” she said, and the man laughed a humid laugh of a smoker and raised his glass in a “na zdorovye” toast.

In the next few weeks it became clear I wasn’t going to spoil anyone.  Balancing a tray on my hand – as I waited for Karen to announce that they were no longer willing to put up with my ineptitude – I thought of the time when I was eleven and kicked out of the district pool for my lack of swimming ability.  I thought of the nauseating feeling of shame when my ninth grade literature teacher tore apart my essay in front of the whole class because I made a non-critical reference to life in the U.S.  Filled with self-loathing and doubt, I stared at the “All-you-can-eat-shrimp” sign as if it could reveal my future, as if it could instantly change me into Melissa and grant me confidence and comfort.

Karen never fired me, as she should have.  I left Beefsteak Charlie’s on my own, two months later, to join my graduate-student husband in Texas. I wish she’d asked me the same question then, the question of what I was doing waitressing when I had a perfectly good teaching degree.  If she had, I wouldn’t have conjured up the bitter professor on an Aeroflot plane.  I wouldn’t have allowed him to defeat me.  Now, from the vantage point of almost thirty years teaching in New Jersey, I see my first job here as a higher learning field trip complete with lessons in graciousness, humility, and the human heart.  I see my first American friends – Melissa, Karen, Sam – watching over me, like the eyes of my Leningrad courtyard when I was growing up and stumbling through the turmoil of adolescence and youth, which is the same on both sides of the Atlantic.  To all of you, my Beefsteak Charlie’s customers and comrades, I raise a Stoli toast and drink it to the bottom, no sipping.