USF: University Good Eats Cafe

The University Cafe
had a sign over the door
with “Good Eats” in the middle
so everyone called it the University Good Eats Cafe.

Very few university people ate there
even though it was only a block from the campus.

Lee and I had lunch a few times,
but the grey lady who ran it was so motherly
and her tables and chairs were arranged so neatly
and everything in her place was so spotlessly clean
and the food was so boringly bland
we could only stand it
as a focus for ridicule
of America
in the ‘50s.

It was so ordinary that I remember thinking how absurd it was
to see a stereotypical poet like Irving Lowe —
who quit a job at Random House to make blankets with the Navaho
and couldn’t make enough to get out for twenty years
but finally got to Stanford and thence to us in Puritan Literature —
drinking tea there alone, looking beaten.
He deserved better, but never got it.

George and Ksenya Aleksiev bought the place.
They were Russian and got to San Francisco by way of Brazil
and could barely speak English
and didn’t change a thing at first at the University Good Eats
except by being there, which changed everything.
She cooked and cleaned in the back,
short, smiling through steam under a white babushka.
He waited on tables and registered the cash,
plodding, baggy pants, always the same greasy hand-painted tie.

Lee laughed at the tie, and we both laughed at George’s English at first.
No matter what you ordered, even pointed to on the menu,
George would bring you something else.

Later he learned the menu items
so our laughter shifted to imitating his accent (“Hahm-boo-goo”)
or commenting on his attire in words he didn’t know.
Lee would ask him how many spoons long his dick was:
Come on George, put it out there!  Match that!  (two spoons end-to-end)
I hope George didn’t understand.

Two years later I was starving.  Literally.
I showed up at George-and-Ksenya’s University-Good-Eats-Cafe
just before fainting, just before closing time
and asked if I could eat on credit.
“Poor boy,” whispered George, patting my head.
“You wait.”

When the customers were gone
George came out of the kitchen beaming
(the only time I ever saw him so lively)
with a platter of baked potatoes,
an enormous bowl of Stroganoff
(they had worked a few Russian dishes into the menu),
an eight-ounce water glass of vodka.
“Good boy,” he patted and beamed.
And I ate (as much as I could get down)
and he drank with me.
Ksenya cleaned up in the kitchen
“Sit, boy!” smiling-frowning-waving away my offer of help.

That went on for over a year:
showing up at five minutes to eight,
ordering the cheapest thing on the menu (the fried egg sandwich),
and eating stroganoff, baked potatoes, Russian ravioli, chicken Kiev,
rum cake.

They gave me their first slice of Easter cake,
the tube-cake made in a coffee can
with “XB” frosted on the side.
I hated religion and cried.

Someone told me years later
after George and Ksenya
had sold the shop
and retired
that they had lost a son my age in Brazil.