Since my new freelance work often has me feeling like a graduate student again, I’ve been thinking frequently about my years at American University in D.C. It was a blustery time in my life, one filled with the stress that comes from constant studying, uphill learning and a professor who, for a time, wouldn’t let me use any adjectives in my papers.
This life was complicated by the fact that I had an extremely bad boyfriend, the kind of boy who didn’t quite like it that I was in graduate school when he didn’t have a college degree; the kind who randomly gives you a magnolia blossom and becomes despondent if you don’t swoon appropriately; the kind who calls you after your break up and plays cryptic Pink Floyd songs.
That terrible boyfriend and the pains of my education have long made me avoid thinking of those years. But as I’ve taken on new challenges, memories have been surfacing — not all of them bad.
One bright light was a tiny restaurant called Little Giant.
I lived in a neighborhood called Mount Pleasant that, on any given day, had Mexican music wafting down its alleyways and cats yowling from the trashcans. Little Giant was the breakfast haunt of choice for all of the yuppies that lived in the gentrified houses a few blocks away.
By 10 each Saturday morning, the space would be packed and sing with the clang of the open grill, crying babies, men talking the Clinton impeachment and 20-somethings moaning about last night’s excesses in Adams Morgan. As everyone chatted about work and family and life, plates would come out of the kitchen, almost all of them shining with eggs blanketed by the illegitimate ooze of Velveeta cheese.
While I would go to Little Giant on the weekends, I became intimately acquainted with it during the weekdays. My budget for fun incidentals was $20 a week, about $16 of which went directly into the hands of Little Giant’s owners, two Armenian brothers, one fat, one not.
Nearly every afternoon I didn’t have class, I’d walk down the stairs of my apartment building, round the corner from Lamont to Mount Pleasant and step into the little eatery. Usually, I was one of a smattering of customers and often the only one sitting at the counter. Though alone and exposed there, there was no way I was going miss the show that awaited me when the thin brother made a meal. Anyone can tell you I am in love with the artistry of a good short order cook, and he was one of the best I’ve ever seen.
With me, I’d have whatever text I was reading at the time, Ovid, Chaucer, Faulkner, Hemingway, and I would distractedly start to skim, paying more attention to the growling in my stomach than to any of the literature in front of me. Soon, the fat brother would greet me cheerfully and ask me what I was reading that day.
Over time, I’d become one of the darlings of the Armenian brothers, in no small part because I think they knew I spent all of my meager money with them. The fat one would ask me a little bit about school, his accent thick and fatherly, and then he’d ask me what I was in the mood for. This question, we both knew, was unnecessary as I always ordered the exact same thing: a lamb gyro with extra spicy sauce.
He’d turn to his brother, who would carefully peel off the thin strips of meat from a bed of wax paper and, in perfect alignment, lie them down on the smoking surface. Then he’d push onions and green peppers that had been caramelizing all morning on the cooler part of the grill to the center. He’d pat down the pancake-thick pita with the edge of his spatula and flip it only when it had been gilded underneath. He’d swoop up the lamb and veggies, place them on the pita and then cool everything down with a dollop of yogurt and minced garlic. Then, he’d shove a tiny spoon in a little cut-glass jar. From its depths, he’d pull out a teaspoon of The Sauce, a sexy, carmine paste flecked with red pepper seeds, which he would drop, in a final artistic flourish, along the length of the gyro.
I needn’t even tell you how crispy, how juicy, how hot and cold, how rich, how sweet, how spicy, how perfect that little bundle was. I would force myself to eat slowly, relish every bite. Then I’d pay my $4, 40 cents of which was a tip, and head on my way.
The only time I ever remember our routine changing was the day I went into Little Giant with a terrible flu, a gift I’d been promptly given by the bad boyfriend. That day, as I sat coughing and pale, the fat brother turned to the thin brother and then resumed his conversation with another customer. Five minutes later, the thin brother presented me with a bowl of soup and a plate of cinnamon pancakes.
“You eat this, you feel better,” he said. “And you don’t pay.”
It was a little, giant kindness I won’t forget.
Guest columnist Tara Kaprowy can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com