Ferdinand

4/14/14

Ferdinand disliked the cold, made him think of the old country he said.

Austria, where it was always winter and people looked askance at children in shabby outerwear.

He believed himself treated poorly there, a rough and chilly upbringing at best.

So, South Africa beckoned to him from the travel agent window as a tropical isle might to the rest of us and he scraped together passage to his dream.

He was young then, 25, 30 years ago.

But, the South African legal system was unkind, a promised cook’s job in a fine hotel unlikely and the women all looked right through him.

Broke, lonely and one step ahead of the law he accepted the indentured servitude position from  Horst at the Mager Restaurant in Portland.

He was wearing beaten up Converse tennis shoes with checked pants and was working like the proverbial dog when I was made Chef of the Rheinlander restaurant.

His black eyes, sharp and flinty over a stark, droopy mustache, white utility shirt clinging to a thin, muscular frame that seemed to be always in motion. Starting one project, then moving on to start yet another and another until at every point in the great kitchen he had a way station of bubbling cauldrons, simmering meats or chopping vegetables.

Looking back to me as he shuffled away, “Yes Chef, Yes Chef”, over every fool notion I’d decide upon as policy, even though he’d been in that kitchen, like his home, for years and years.

Working from before I got there to way past when I’d gone.

There was always another bag of onions, potatoes or carrots to peel.

I loved that man.

Now, Ferdinand was no fool.

He was just a bit self conscious, with a nervous way of glancing about in quick, birdlike motions that made a person think that the law was about to swoop down upon his poor, skinny, frame to haul him, shaking and helpless, back to the Old Country for a full accounting of his past

It gave him this kind of shifty appeal, which worked allright in our kitchen bubble environment populated by disgruntled line cooks, Vietnamese immigrants, featherbrained dishwashers and me.

But it didn’t get him a lot of dates. And he was lonely.

That is until Horst hired Wanda to wash the pots and pans.

Wanda was a big Native American girl. Not big in the fleshy kind of sense, although she was all of that, but big, as in powerful, brooding and wild.

She drew Ferdinand to her like kindling for a fire.

He was the rag doll she drug though the Indian bars in lower Portland, the Caribou Club, the Tacoma, The Valhalla, returning him to the sanctuary of our kitchen, battered and lame, to rehabilitate while he built up yet another paycheck.

She blacked his eye and they got married.

Would have stayed that way too, if Wanda, in need of quick cash, hadn’t peddled Ferdinand’s car to the nearest used car lot on Sandy boulevard.

She didn’t even care that Ferdie’s morning bus ride to work took him right past that same Used Car dealer day after day.

There were tears in his eyes as he pressed his face against the bus window.

It goes like that for us all, sometimes.

We took him back in, the kitchen was his home and we his family.

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