Until a week ago Christopher thought it was all coming together. After the incident with Melina and his boss’ reaction to it, he knew it was all coming apart. What to do? His brother-in-law, an addict forever in search of a quick cure, presently touted the “The Stages of Change” system, as a guide to better health. Christopher couldn’t remember the fancy names they used but put simply they were phases describing your state as you advanced from an unhealthy (or in his case unprincipled) behavior to a healthier one.
The stages were: 1. Denying any problem (he’d done that for years in relation to Sullivan, the manager of Ulysses restaurant, and to his work situation). 2. Acknowledging there was a behavior you had to change (he had to stop being a wimp, and take action to stop Sullivan). 3. Getting ready to change (on the work front that meant figuring out what would happen if he challenged Sullivan. On the home front, how would he pay the bills if his head rolled?). 4. Taking Action (challenging Sullivan).
Number 4 was the stumbling block: that would take willpower, which was not one of his strong points. He had staying power (ten years and counting) and coping power (he hadn’t punched out Sullivan no matter what the creep did) but not will power.
His wife, Sophia, whose only contact with someone like Sullivan was on TV dramas, had always insisted that the manager’s harassment of female employees and firing of staff he disliked was illegal. She pointed out that if someone (that would be Christopher) had the guts to take action, Sullivan would be penalized. Christopher doubted that. In any case, what glory came from raking up bad publicity for the restaurant or Sullivan, and ending on the breadline? In similar scenarios, more powerful people than he had ended up out of work with few prospects. You read about them in the newspaper, those principled souls who stood up and got shot in the head. But he couldn’t hide any longer. The threat to Melina’s family had bought things to a head.
Consequences, those were what he had to deal with. That and coming up with a plan to put on a superman cape instead of the coward’s suit he presently wore. The villain—as he saw it—was Sullivan, fourth generation Torontonian, with more friends in high places than Christopher had acquaintances in his bowling league. Sullivan’s lawyers could spin a web around a blister and if the manager sued Christopher for slander he’d find himself scrounging for legal aid.
Although, he had neither the wit nor strength to take Sullivan on, he had promised Melina to take action. His conscience demanded it but could his pocket book afford it? The staff had already given him up as a scab and from what Melina said (and as a fellow Greek she was to be trusted) Sullivan was bringing in the thugs. Maybe an anonymous tip would be his safest bet.
Fifteen years ago, when he’d been hired at Ulysses, Christopher had been young and eager. The owner, Mr. Kosmadakis, had spotted him as someone from his own region with the energy and the drive to put in long hours and learn on the run. Christopher had worked his way up and built a strong relationship with staff—some from different areas of Greece, who argued about regional partialities or who deserved the good tippers.
Ulysses had done well, bouncing along in the list of restaurants, mid-level—not just a chain but not vying for best dining experience. Then the owner got nervous about the future, decided he wanted to raise the ante. They needed someone who had contacts, knew the business and who could move them from ethnic to elite. Sullivan, who had been the head of the Canadian Restaurant Association, was available. The reason, as it turned out, had been well known in the inner circles. Not being in those circles, Mr. Kosmadakis hadn’t been aware of Sullivan’s problems: drinking and groping. Habits he still enjoyed. Earlier that year a young girl, an excellent employee, had suddenly quit: Not given notice, just e-mailed from her hometown saying that for personal reasons she’d had to leave. Christopher suspected those reasons were Sullivan.
Everything had come to a head with the staff’s attempt to form a union. Christopher had been surprised, and somewhat proud, that they dared to do so. Sullivan’s determined effort to get rid of employees had probably been the last straw. But the attempt to unionize was causing hard feelings and splits between staff members. And the owner, who had a fatherly feeling for the staff, had been hurt. It had been assumed the effort wouldn’t come to anything: most of the staff were illiterate, certainly in English: and had no idea what they were getting into. Sullivan’s lawyer friends and contacts in other local restaurants didn’t want to see a precedence set, and had been supportive of the anti-union strategies. At the weekly management meeting, the organizing efforts had been the main topic.
“Is there any more news about the union?” the boss had asked.
“Don’t worry,” the manager smirked, “I’m looking after things. The only problem is, with due respect…”
The older man sucked in his mouth, waiting.
“I appreciate your feelings for your people but…”
Mr. Kosmadakis glanced to the side. He had hired the Englishman—who wore his fourth-generation Toronto lineage like an epaulet—because he thought the man’s connections would benefit the restaurant. He hadn’t anticipated the cost.
The vote was to be in three days. Even so, Sullivan still talked of firing staff.
“These older waitresses have to go. The finest decor, the best food, is wasted if some loud-mouthed peasant shouts when they don’t get a big tipper.”
The owner closed his eyes and grunted. These are his people, some from his district.
When the soup arrived, Sullivan grimaced, and shoved the plate away.
“It’s too salty. Canadians don’t like soup that’s so spicy. Tell the chef.”
“The chef is Canadian,” Christopher had protested.
“Probably from the Maritimes,” the manager replied acidly. The soup had upset his stomach. “Get me a scotch,” he barked. “Double, on the rocks.”
The boss shook his head sadly. “I want this place to do well. My boy, when he finishes school, I want he can come here. Three died,” he sighed, staring at the rug as if their deaths were threaded into the floral design.
“I’ll handle the union thing,” the manager concluded on leaving the restaurant.
“The meeting’s the day after tomorrow,” Christopher said.
“I have a calendar,” the manager snorted.
Watching the man glide out the door, Christopher wondered how he intended to “handle” the situation. At this stage of union negotiations Sullivan couldn’t fire staff, and they’d scorn any attempt at reconciliation. A gloomy premonition settled over him, haunting his evening and ghosting him at work the following day. Late in the afternoon, tucked at a back table during the slow afternoon period and relaxing over a cup of coffee, the sight of a young couple, obviously in love, at a corner table whispering revived his spirits.
The pleasure was interrupted when Melina, once his prize waitress, now a thorny agitator approached him. “Excuse me, I must talk.”
Christopher indicated the seat opposite; the stocky woman sunk into the chair. Her hands fluttered to straighten her apron, and then moved uncertainly into her lap.
Until six months ago, Christopher considered Melina his best worker. Now he dreaded the sight of her. She had brought the same dogged enthusiasm to organizing her fellow workers as she did to keeping her customers content.
“I like the boss,” she said. “The union has nothing to do with Mr. Kosmadakis.
“Melina, it’s too late for talk.” Christopher shifted restlessly noticing Gus lolling against the side table. Why couldn’t the man smarten up? This wasn’t a hot dog stand.
“Last night on the subway a man came up to me. He pushed into me and hissed, ‘Mrs. Anastasiou, you have a kid at Scarborough High,’ He knew the school. ‘She takes the subway home.’ He knew that too. Then he said, ‘she could get hurt.’”
Christopher gasped. “What happened?”
“He said that if I went to the union meeting I’d be sorry, then he shoved me onto the car and ran.”
“Is Becky okay?”
“Yes, I jumped off at the next stop and phoned home. She was safe.”
“Melina, it’s not Mr. Kosmadakis.”
“Does he know?”
Christopher grabbed her hand, “Of course not, what do you think we are?”
“I’m still going to the meeting.”
Christopher’s head spun. How could she do it? He didn’t have the courage to go up against a man like Sullivan.
“Will you tell Mr. Kosmadakis?” she said.
“Of course, I’ll settle this.”
Downstairs in his office Christopher slumped against the wall, struggling to swallow the bile burning his throat. When he phoned Mr. Kosmadakis, his wife said the old man was at yet another doctor’s appointment but promised to relay Christopher’s urgent call.
In his kitchen that night, talking to his wife, his coffee cooling, his hands nervous for a cigarette, Christopher wondered if it were just a bad dream.
“You’re sure Melina got it right?” his wife said.
He was and Melina wouldn’t have been the only one threatened but the others considered him in league with Sullivan and no longer trusted him.
The next evening, Christopher arrived promptly for his meeting at Kosmadakis’ house. The old man’s health had deteriorated noticeably—his large, heavy face was pale and soft, his lips grey, dark swollen folds under his eyes.
“Are you up to talking tonight, sir?”
The old man nodded and moved as slowly as a giant tortoise towards the sofa. Christopher leapt up and adjusted the floral pillow behind his back; the sick man sunk into the sofa.
After Christopher blurted out his suspicions, adding in to his tangled narrative the rumours about the youthful hostess and the suspected bribery, the old man remained motionless. The sound of children playing in the still-light summer evening drifted in from the street. The antique mantle clock ticked in the otherwise silent room. Finally, Kosmadakis opened his dark eyelids.
“Christopher. You’re like a son but you’re no business man”
The assistant nodded impatiently: a hard worker but not shrewd.
“My boy is young; the girls have no interest and my wife’s no longer involved. I haven’t long.”
“Maybe if you rested…?”
“Too late for rest,” he said. “I worry about my family, here and in Greece.”
The huge body rocked slowly; then the eyes reopened.
“People can’t be threatened, I’ll tell him. But I must leave him in charge.”
Back in his car, too agitated to go home, Christopher drove towards the restaurant. He parked behind the building, and headed for the entrance. At the corner, he spotted Sullivan getting out of a taxi. The thin man, swayed, leaned into the cab and offered his delicate hand to his companion Alfred Duncan, the popular restaurant critic, who Sullivan occasionally enticed to Ulysses restaurant. The two men laughed as they disappeared inside.
Christopher turned away. He should go to the police. His father, who stood up for his principles and died for the cause, would be ashamed of him. He was out of his depth. The days of heroes are past.
He headed down Yonge Street. The lights from the shop windows poured across the sidewalk, turning the faces garish shades of grey. The neon signs advertised movies, tapes, magazines, photographs, souvenirs, and sex. Everything was for sale.
Moving with the flow, he suddenly found himself wandering along a dark unfamiliar street. He shivered at the cool lake breeze and ducked into a dingy cafe for warmth. Inside a pale young waitress lolled against the counter. The only other customer was a dozy old man propped behind a newspaper at a corner booth.
“What’ll it be?” the girl yawned, shifting her weight to the other hip.
“Coffee,” Christopher patted his pocket, “And a packet of Players.”
He studied the display of cheap figurines cluttering the shelf. On the counter, a wizened plant poked out from behind a pile of flyers. Slices of pie and cake decayed under dull plastic lids. The Formica counter was cracked; the stool cushion torn.
He started in a place not much better than this. The mugs chipped, the acid coffee left over from the supper ‘crowd.’
The waitress rang up his coffee and cigarettes, sauntered over and tossed him his change. Her face contorted as she struggled to retrieve a wad of gum from behind her back teeth. She winked then turned to watch the television blaring from behind the fridge in the corner.
Christopher shuddered. It took him years to get a job in a decent restaurant, and long, hard hours to make it to assistant manager. There’s a limit to moving up though. What was it called? “The Peter Principle.” Whatever it is, he’d had enough.
He swirled his coffee, and glanced longingly at the still unopened cigarette package, determined to resist temptation. They’d have to cancel their plans to have the basement renovated. Not get too far in debt. At his age, finding another job might not be possible.
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