Little Tel Aviv was a famous restaurant in the North of the city of Tel aviv . It was known as the bohemian hub where actors, models, soccer players alongside politicians, judges, lawyers, society climbers and the paparazzi all rubbed shoulders every evening to make the tomorrow’s society pages. I was only 18 when I got a waitress job there. Newly divorced after only a year of marriage. Fragile, spirit-beaten, naive, vulnerable, unequipped to encounter the vulturous men flooding into the establishment night after night. Neal was my only friend there, a lost English boy who found himself washing dishes in the restaurant with cheap labor at. He spoke with a cockney accent that only I could understand, sang Irish love songs and drank beer for breakfast. A few years later I heard he drank himself to death in an alley behind the washroom. I was different from the rest of the staff, somewhat sad and kept to myself.
As the months went by, I became acquainted with many of the guests. The frequent customers sent me smiles on their way in and silent messages asking me to serve their tables. I remembered their usual drinks and was fast to serve as they were seated. My best asset at the time , and one I kept to myself, was my mathematical memory. It was far before the digital era and most orders and accounting was done manually. I was able to memorize orders and totals and could predict the profits of the place before the manager gave the daily- till report to the owners. By day time I was a sweet girl ballerina and by sundown I would shapeshift into a night fairy dressed for the part.
One evening walked in a group of older men. The thick odors overtook the air and entered before they stepped in the room, announcing their grand entrance. Their fragrance, a product of cheap perfumes blended with sweat, took over the aroma of cooked food. Middle aged, overweight, mostly bald men, were decorated in gold accessories and seemed to hover over someone. I could not tell at first who they were following. And then I saw him: Meizale! A short statured, round, Hungarian man with big mustache and sharp little eyes. They kept on talking loudly while they approached their table, and I followed them. Meizale sat at the head of the table holding a pack of cards in his chubby little hands. He shuffled and spoke the in synchronicity, mastering the skills. The group was all staring at him, thirsty for his words as if it was Sunday's sermon. His digital brain produced formulas and equations, repeated numbers , chanted mantras of laws and rules of his domain. All a while focusing his gaze on the one who was eager most. And there, seated on his throne, in his beige slacks and yellow striped shirt, Meizale the Casino king. As me and a couple of more girls waited on this long table, catering for their needs, forcing a smile while getting derogatory touches by hairy hands, I could not avoid the conversations. I weaved through with a jug of water as an excuse to ear drop on what was said. Only this was a group of gamblers. Not the petty kind but full blown gambling addicts feeding off each other's pockets. The cooked animal flesh served on the plates burnt through my nostrils, as I was smirking to myself imagining those men on healthy diets. Meizale announced he would show a trick and if any one managed to solve it, he would pay for the meal of everyone. He gave a hint, the one who could count the cards would know the solution at once. My curiosity was challenged and put my memory to the test. And then, I saw it! I knew the answer! My voice was shaking and I scooped it from deep within my belly to create a sound. When it came out at last, it asked for permission to solve the riddle, and it was granted. His permission silenced all and I whispered to his ear. He turned his face, looked at me and asked for my name then he said firmly that I would meet him the next day in his apartment to discuss business. I was ordered to go to his place with no way to refuse. I was fearful of men and their hungry looks, but this one didn’t see me at all. When I looked in his eyes, I quickly realized he was only interested in my brain and it empowered me. I felt safe with this pale grandpa.
The next day, I climbed to the second floor on Ben Gurion Avenue and his class began. He first tested my memory, then taught me how to count cards. How to shuffle, split, shuffle again, split to share, and memorize every card that comes out and do the silent math. A touch of the left ear was queens, a touch of the right was kings, and a slight cough was aces. Within a month he said I was ready for the game. My position was the croupier and to win for the House. I was to escort him as his protege and this made me feel valuable and proud.
The first game was in East Jerusalem in a huge villa owned by an Arab sheikh. He maneuvered swiftly between the guests waving his long white kaftan like he was Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. Most guests were directly seated around the tables dressed with serious expressions. It was smokey and loud and secretive. Entering this circle one signs a silent agreement. What goes in the room stays in the room. There were no more judges, army elite, politicians, stage celebrities, mobsters of both sides, Sheiks and famous Egyptian singers. Russian beauties were working the crowd like porcelain dolls in a rough bull stadium. I was seated at a black jack table and the game began. The following week, I was brought to another villa this time in Jerusalem. It was just the same picture as it was a scene on set that was lifted from before, carefully laid on the currant with the familiar heavy smoke and smell of perfumes for decor.
The one important part of these ‘events’ that was greatly missed was food! And as a foodie in my heart and soul, I scouted the room and counted the heads I could feed and the money I could make. With their spending on meals and the least leaving on a full stomach as it would be with an empty wallet. Those villas where the games took place had the most beautiful home kitchens equipped with all while my traveling Casino kitchen was newly opened. My hands were fast moving and the kitchen was my stage. With the infusion of Jerusalem herbs wildly growing on both sides of the mountain, ignoring human separation and political madness. I crushed the leaves in a stone bowl and pastel, applying a forceful arm as I carved the words: Peace and Love into their cellular DNA. Then added to my pots accentuating those holy words in every stir. The red Shakshuka scent of freshly cooked tomatoes with an abundance of coriander, garlic and cumin, over took the stench of alcohol mixed perfumes and cigarettes. I fed their bellies but more importantly their wounded souls. My food made them feel safe, secure and content, till sunrise when they started to slowly crawl their way out and away from the cruel table, mostly defeated. At times they were unable to pay for their food tub and promised to pay next time, then I would then send them away with fresh bread baked with compassion.
Very soon my name became attached to Meizale. We were Meisale and the Kid. I was his right hand, assistant and cook. We would meet other gamblers in five star hotel suites, cross the borders in Egypt casinos and Europe. For the next four years I've lived in both worlds with a vision of opening my first restaurant. Many years later I looked for this old man who showed me this underworld and empowered me to use my skills. The Little Telaviv building was no longer there and in the corner coffee shop under his old apartment building I found a fading photo on the wall. I asked for details on this man in the photo and the story tells that the king had a heart attack while placing bets in a casino in London. Look back at those times I can feel my heart content for bringing some healthy food to the bellies of those tormented souls I met on this journey.