When I was working my first job as a waitress in a family owned pizza joint, I had an 80-year-old, half Lebanese, half French boss named Tiger. (Yes, really,”Tiger.”) Every day Tiger would eat his hummus and lamb. He made his hummus from scratch and was kind enough to let me know that the key to hummus is lemon juice. And this was about the only thing he was kind about. Most of the time he just called me a gypsy and let me know that I “wasn’t the prettiest girl in the world,” warning me not to believe my boyfriend if he tried to convince me otherwise.
“He will say you are the prettiest girl, but you are not the prettiest girl.” I’m not sure if this was just his way of calling me ugly ‘just because’ or (not much better) a strange way of trying to share what he believed to be an important fact with me: that there exists a person who possesses the quality of being the prettiest girl in the world, and I am not her. Maybe he noticed hints of limerence in my step and he didn’t want it to go to my head. Maybe it was his protective grandfatherly way of warning me to not trust what men say. Whatever the reason, at 17, it left its mark and formed the basis for which I had no moral qualms about silently walking out of the restaurants backdoor two months later, leaving Tiger alone with a handful of disgruntled customers during lunch hour to eventually wonder where I was. He would have had to waddle around taking orders and carrying plates or maybe it just ended up being a really bad day for the kitchen staff. That’s just the kind of person I am.
A month earlier, I was told not to take his verbal assaults personally. The man was 400 lbs and had diabetes, he was in pain. Working in the restaurant gave his life purpose and meaning. He had started the restaurant over 30 years ago, left it to his more civilized sons, and hung about bossing people around because it gave him something to do. Let’s not put too much weight on the words of a senile elder from the old country, his son had tried to explain. But that’s exactly what I’m about to do because Tiger said the three wisest words anyone has ever said to me: “Turn around inside.” And I dedicate this blog to him.
My own grandfather is a man of facts and figures. A semi-retired CEO, and a workaholic in the healthiest way. He still wakes up at 5:30 in the morning to jog and believes that the army is the greatest antidote to Princeton he’s ever known. He’s always had a hard time expressing affection in a direct way, preferring to show love for his grandchildren by taking them on hikes or swims across the lake, and later, mailing me articles from the New York Times out of the blue with phrases like “self-discipline brings about freedom,” highlighted just for me. When I was a child, he would sit me on his lap and read Uncle Remus stories to me, channeling his Chattanooga accent to give the words that extra layer of flavor they are meant to be read from.
After one of these readings, he began to talk about the American revolutionary war (naturally, this would be of interest to a six-year-old girl.) Somewhere in between talking about combat positions and this or that battle, he said “and that’s why I know that God exists, because without God, that never would have happened.”
I think this is the only time I’ve ever heard my grandfather talk about God. Later as an adult when I tried to ask him about why a person should believe in God, he wouldn’t answer saying only: “You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.”
Faith has its own kind of evidence and that evidence is profoundly personal, arising from the deepest abyss within our subjectivity. My grandfather and I are two completely different people; I would have never found God in between the lines of an American history book, he would have never found God nestled within Clark Gable’s performance in Gone with the Wind or in Dostoyevsky’s’ The Brothers Karamazov. Everyone has faith, it’s just about how detailed this faith ends up being for each person. That faith is demonstrated in the simple fact that we get up in the morning and shlug ourselves out of bed knowing our feet will land on the floor. We can unify religious differences by knowing that we all have faith in the floor. If you don’t have faith in the floor, let’s talk. As one of my philosophy professors often joked: “If you’re a solipsist, you better not tell anyone about it.”
If we try to justify our religious faith to others by piecing together the glimpses of God manifested within our own lives, the big picture, the gestalt produced from too many minute experiences, is lost on our associates and we end up sounding like an arrogant walrus who’s sustained a head injury.
Speaking of head injuries..
So, 17-year-old Sarah is busy looking for to-go boxes, when she sees Tiger eying her from one of the counter stools as he whacks her on the shin with his cane in between mouthfuls of hummus and lamb: “Saaah-Rah,” he commands, “Turn around inside.!” My face scrunched up: “Eeeh?,” my expression reads, as I cock my head. “Turn around inside!!” he says, this time even louder. I’m still standing there paralyzed as he grows even more frustrated. “Turn. Around. Inside!!” he says again.
What the what? (I had to get back to my tables; I didn’t have time for this.)
“Turn around inside!!!” And that’s when I found myself spinning in circles like an idiot in the middle of the restaurant floor. He banged his cane on the counter and that’s when it hit me (the thought not the cane,) that he’d meant, simply, ‘Go behind the counter.” I went behind the damn counter. “Make me a lemonade” he said. I made him the lemonade.