It was a tiny falafel shop on a block of equally tiny storefronts selling kosher meats, breads and pastries, second-rate produce, religious knickknacks, and the like. There was also one lonely-looking bar that the neighborhood’s black-clad Hasids would walk past quickly, with stern frowns ruffling their beards. The falafel shop had a sign in the window indicating that it was safely kosher, but the proprietor himself was not particularly religious, at least not as far as I could tell: no beard, no kippa, no prayer shawl under his shirt, just a Star of David dangling in a tuft of chest hair. He was pudgy, friendly, always tired-looking, and spoke with a heavy Israeli accent. I stopped there whenever I was in the neighborhood, because the falafel was the best I’d ever had. It was also the first I’d ever had, but I’ve eaten plenty since, and Café Haifa’s remains the best. Unfortunately Shmuel, the proprietor, returned to Israel years ago, taking his kitchen skills with him. The neighborhood’s changed; Café Haifa is now a shoe store catering to skateboarders.
Such is life in Los Angeles. I neither like it nor dislike it: I buy shoes too, though not at the skater’s shop. I do miss Shmuel, though, and especially his falafels. Café Haifa was a good place to sit, eat, and relax, and maybe talk about the ways of the world. At least as long as the Hasids weren’t in there, looking at me suspiciously because I should have been one of them but obviously wasn’t. I even had a beard, but the wrong kind, because I trimmed it. A “round beard,” as I’ve heard they call it. Well, it was my beard and my life, not theirs. Shmuel didn’t even have a beard, but that seemed not to bother them. In any case, the flow of my life was such that I was usually there in the blank time between lunch and dinner, and had the place to myself. Of course Shmuel sold other things beside falafel, but falafel was what I went there for. I never even tried his chicken platter, which was what he said he was really famous for. Not that he was really famous, but you know what I mean.
It requires an extravagance of singularity to qualify as “peculiar” in Los Angeles, but one day, when I had dropped in a bit later than usual, a decidedly peculiar gentleman came in the door. I was sitting at the back of the brightly-lighted shop, near the counter, where Shmuel leaned on his elbows chatting while I ate, telling me stories of his childhood in Haifa, the sea, the dry hills, the wars, when I saw what seemed to be a struggle in the entryway. Shmuel noticed me looking and said, “Don’t worry; it’s just Sol.” Sol finally managed to pull the glass door open and came in, slowly. He was short, and he was nearly spherical, probably the fattest man for his height that I’d ever seen. His legs weren’t up to the task; he used two metal crutches, the sort that cup the forearm just below the elbow, and he leaned on them heavily. I remember he wore a sort of brown bomber jacket open over a polyester shirt, and that his face was badly shaven that day. He was mostly bald, with a fringe of fine brown hair waving around his crown as he swung his head from side to side, scanning the room through impossibly thick eyeglasses. The struggle with the door had left him breathing heavily. Shmuel bellowed from behind me, startling me with his thick, gargled syllables: “Sol, welcome, sit anywhere, my friend. The usual?”
Sol nodded and laboriously worked himself into a booth, leaning the crutches against the wall first. The procedure occupied him for a couple of minutes. Shmuel excused himself and took the fat man a glass of water, and then hurried back into the kitchen. I returned my attention to the falafel in my hand, dripping extra tahini sauce into it from the squeeze bottle Shmuel knew I would always ask for. Sol sat in his booth by the window, breathing heavily. No one else came in.
Shmuel didn’t play music in the café, for which I was glad; bad music is annoying, and good music distracts me from the food. Of course, by “good” or “bad” I mean whether it accords with my own personal taste or not. I munched my falafel in silence, as slowly as I could, to enjoy it better, and to anticipate the baklava I would indulge in for dessert. Meanwhile, I kept glancing at this peculiar fellow Sol, still breathing heavily in his booth by the door. He seemed to be staring at nothing, but of course I couldn’t really see his eyes behind the heavy lenses. Clanking and low gargling voices in the kitchen marked the time.
I was nearly done with my falafel when Shmuel came out of the kitchen, pushing a small cart. It held two complete chicken platters on top, and an entire tray of baklava on the second shelf. Shmuel rolled it noisily down the aisle to the front door — it had a bad wheel — and arranged the entire contents onto Sol’s table. Then he hurried back, hunched over the empty cart, and filled a glass with watermelon juice, which he delivered to Sol. I was wondering how the hell Sol, with his crutches, was going to carry all that back home, when I saw him pick up the knife and fork and begin on the first chicken. He ate calmly and methodically, and it slowly dawned on me that he was going to eat both chicken platters, and maybe all the baklava. I made eye contact with Shmuel, who trotted over to my table. He gargled out the usual, “Anything else I can bring you?”
“Watermelon juice, please. And a baklava. Just one.” I saw a flicker of a smile cross his face, and then he sat down at my table, across from me.
“You’re curious about him.” I nodded in response. “Sad story. Very sad story. He was a, what do you call it? A screenwriter. You know, writes for TV, maybe a movie sometimes. Funny stuff, you’ve probably seen it. Not rich, but made good money, nice house, good car, all that. Then — big car crash. Boom! Crushed his hips. Used to be tennis player, all that. Same synagogue as me, so I knew him. One year in hospital. Movie people, they have good insurance, and he still makes money from, what do you call it? Residuals. Not so much, though. He comes out, can barely walk. Like you see him now, but not so big. He decides, not so much TV now, wants to write book, novel. Less money, and he’s hard to take care of. The wife, she goes away. To a different city, I forget which. He starts to eat.” Shmuel shook his head. “I know it’s wrong, but he’s got nothing else. Pays for lady to help him at home. No one wants that book yet. So he comes here, for an hour or two he’s happy. That’s all. Nice guy, still. After all that. Never angry.” Shmuel got up and brought me my watermelon juice and the baklava. He smiled down at me and went to sit with the fat man. With Sol.
They talked together for a while, or at least Shmuel did; I could hear his gargling consonants, but not the words. Sol continued to eat, slowly and methodically as he had begun. Once in a while I saw the bright ceiling lamps flash in his thick spectacles as he looked up from the plate to say something. Then another customer walked in, and Shmuel got up to help him. The fat man kept eating, working his way through his laden table. Of course I finished eating long before he did. When I passed by him on my way out, he was halfway through the tray of baklava. I couldn’t imagine he would live too long eating like that, but you never know. Maybe he had good genes. Maybe he felt he had lived too long already. I hoped someone would take his book. I’d read it if I could. It wouldn’t bring back his old life, but it would be something more than two chicken platters. He never looked up as I passed by on my way out the door.
Richard Risemberg was born to a mixed and mixed-up family in Argentina, and dragged to LA as a child to escape the fascist regime. He’s spent the next few decades exploring the darker corners of the America Dream and blithering on about it with keyboard or his own big mouth.
He has published widely in the last few years, mostly short fiction in literary journals; you want to see proof? Go to http://crowtreebooks.com/richard-risemberg-publications/ and click a few links. Some of the stories may disturb your sleep; some will give you sweet dreams.