Two of the most gloriously technicolor years of my life were spent behind this sign, which read, in its glory days, Middle East.
It was a restaurant, a bar, a gathering place, a dysfunctional man supermarket, and for a while, the place where I felt most at home and alive.
Strangely enough, it had also been a part of my life when I was a kid. The Middle East was my mom's favorite place to go out for dinner. She judged her dates by how they responded to the belly dancers, working for tips, and when she had enough drinks, she got up and joined them. She said she knew she'd had one too many when the Arabic waiters started to turn blond.
I drank there, a lot, but that never happened to me.
Years later, in my late twenties, a friend started taking belly dance lessons. The guy she was dating thought it was cool until she got good at it and wanted to try performing. Then he wanted her to quit, so she quit him. We started hanging out at the Middle East so she could convince them to let her dance there.
It became the slightly out of the way place we would go for a drink after work, and usually end up staying until bedtime. It became the place where I got so comfortable that when the bar phone rang, I answered it if no one was available. It became the place where if I saw a table that needed clearing, I would grab a bus tub and do it. Finally, it became the place where the owner looked at me one night and said, "Why am I still surprised to find you in my kitchen?"
After that, I went on the payroll. I worked the door for their upstairs music nights, I hostessed at the comedy club and at the restaurant, and eventually, when my law firm job got to be too much, I started working days in the basement office, helping to organize a business that looked like it ran well but was total chaos behind the scenes.
I slept a little, drank a lot, ate mostly Middle Eastern food, and was absorbed into a family both real and found. While I mostly worked the upstairs concert venues, it was the Middle Eastern music that had gotten its hooks into me young, and while I never wanted to dance, I can, if pushed, make a mean belly dance costume.
Also, I still love Middle Eastern food. I've been making mejedra all through the pandemic. It's a one-pot meal that I can make on a Monday and that will last us for lunch all through the week.