Over the course of three weeks, I had the opportunity to spend time with server Chris Moretta at his family-owned restaurant, Millennium Restaurant and Grille. I spent four hours in the restaurant all together. Upon observing Egleston Square and the restaurant, I was able to learn so much about Chris. One of the biggest things I learned about him was how devoted he is. Chris is devoted not only to his family, but also to his restaurant, the customers he serves and the people around him. However, it’s clear that his devotion took different forms depending on who or what he was interacting with.
“I thought you weren’t hungry”
The early afternoon breeze outside is hot and thick, and the store filled with smoke from cooking doesn’t help. My t-shirt is clinging to my body, and while the Millennium Restaurant and Grille leaves their door open to try to cool the store down, it’s still incredibly hot. The walls are yellow. The yellow that must have been bright when it was first painted, but the grime of everyday life clings to the walls now. The chairs are a brighter shade of yellow, which almost perfectly matched a lighter shade of yellow tables. The floor has a rust colored tiling and it is spotless. There are photographs of the neighborhood covering one wall, and the opposite wall is bare. There are swinging doors to a bathroom with a handwritten sign, “Customers Only” next to it.
Chris Moretta stands behind a counter covered in steaming silver pans of rice, meats, and plantains. He doesn’t seemed to be pleased or displeased with his work as he quickly works through a line of customers, scooping their styrofoam boxes with Dominican food. A woman in a sweatshirt with her hair tied up speaks with him in both English and Spanish. He switches effortlessly back and forth between the two languages. Another customer comes in. They start talking in Spanish, much too quickly for me to understand. He says something that must’ve been funny, and she laughs heartily. He bags her food; she gives him the money. It seems to be the same routine that happens every day. I ask him if he sees that woman often, and he says “No, but gotta be good with my people you know? Doesn’t hurt to joke around a little.”
The store finally dies down after around twenty minutes. He asks me if I’m hungry and want food, but I’m too nervous to accept, so I tell him no. He tosses a few sweet plantains in a to-go container and places it on the counter before gesturing for me to take them. I don’t touch it at first, but it smells good, and I am hungry. I stand up and take them from the counter and eat one there. “I thought you weren’t hungry,” he says and smiles. “I wasn’t, but these look really good,” I respond. They taste as good as they look.
“Yea. I love her,”
He finally gets a chance to sit down with me after putting food together for a delivery. He sits down across from me and pulls his phone out. “So whatchu gotta do? What you wanna ask?” he asks, eyes on his screen. I ask him just to tell me about his life now, what’s it like working at the restaurant, anything. He laughs and asks me to be more specific. I’m silent for a minute and consider what I want to know.
“You’ve lived here your whole life?” I ask.
“What was it like when you were 18?”
He laughs again. He tells me he was doing what everyone else was doing: drinking, smoking, and trying to get laid. Sometimes, he fought, but he stopped doing that when he met his girlfriend. I ask about her, and he tells me they’ve been together for a while and shows me a picture of her.
“She’s Dominican. Cute right?” he smiles back at his phone. You can see her smiling into the camera. Her hair is blowing, so that strings of it whip across her forehead.
“She’s really pretty. You’ve known her for a while?” I ask.
“Yea. I love her,” he responds with a grin.
His phone begins to ring, and he walks away to answer it. He talks in a quick and hushed voice, with his back to me. When he comes back, he doesn’t sit. “That was my boy; he’s down the street. You wanna come?” I assume they’re going to smoke weed, which I don’t feel comfortable taking part in, so I decline, and we walk out of the store together.
“Don’t half-ass it. If you gonna do it, do it right”
The next day had warm weather even hotter store. There’s no one at the counter when I arrive, but I can hear someone talking in Spanish in the back. I take a seat and wait. Chris comes to the restaurant a few minutes late and greets me. He goes to put his jacket and backpack behind the counter. He talks to the guys in the back for a few minutes before he comes back with a spray bottle and rag. He starts cleaning the tables and makes small talk about his morning so far. He tells me he overslept and was too tired to try and rush here, so he did his regular morning routine at his normal speed. I ask him what he usually does in the morning. He gives me a weird look before chuckling to himself. He tells me he does what everyone does. He goes back to cleaning the tables. He keeps scrubbing the tables, and I watch him in silence for a minute. He’s not just quickly wiping them the way I do when my boss, at the baby store I work at, Magic Beans, is forcing me to “clean.” He’s scrubbing them clean. Working to get whatever dirt there is off of them. I run my finger over it the table to see if I can at least pick up some grease from previous customers spilling their meals off their plates. I find nothing on my finger. I ask him if I can help, and immediately regret it. I worry I’ve made it weird.
“You wanna help?” he asks.
“Can I?” I respond. It’ll be awkward if I say no now. He laughs so loud I can see it raking through his chest. He laughs so hard, I begin to smile. He chuckles as he goes into the back. He comes back with another rag and hands it to me.
“Don’t half-ass it. If you gonna do it, do it right.” I nod at him and start scrubbing harder than I clean anything in my room. I manage to do two tables; he does the rest. He comes to inspect my work. He looks at them for what felt to be a long time and tells me I did a fine job.
safety: “how do they know we ain't gonna hurt y’all?”
He offers me food again. I accept his offer, and we have an early lunch together. We don’t say much. He eats quickly and quietly. He never actually looks up from his plate. He finishes all of the food before I’ve even made a dent in my meal. We laugh about how slow of an eater I am. I joke and say he ate it as if I was going to try and steal it from him. “So what’s this project for again?” he asks me. I explain it to him again.
“How do they know we ain't gonna hurt y’all?” he laughs.
“I don’t know,” I respond. A customer comes in. He’s tall, slim and white. He’s the first white man I see at the restaurant. Chris greets him with a gleam in his face I didn’t see when I first approached him. Chris doesn’t come back from around the counter. I realize everyone who’s come in these last two days are of color except for this one. I go up to the counter to continue our conversation.
“Y’all get a lot of white people?” I ask him, probably a lot more casually than I should’ve. I worry race might be an uncomfortable subject for him, the way it is for a lot of people. I feel as though my question was incredibly inappropriate, but I really haven’t seen any white people and I’m interested so I ask .
“Nah, they don’t really come around here all like that,” he laughs. Another customer comes in, and as he’s fixing their food another comes in, after that another one. He’s got a little bit of a crowd at this point, so I decide I should go.
“I know you’re too young for me”
The next day, it’s my turn to oversleep. My tires are flat on my bike, but that’s the fastest way, so I get dressed faster than I do for school. I bike to the gas station on flat tires, pump them, and then turn around towards the restaurant. There’s a small loop to lock my bike in front of the restaurant, but there are a lot of men there, and the thought of leaving my bike right there worries me. A classmate’s bike got stolen around here just last summer. My bike is pretty new, and my mom bought it for me as a gift. I do not want my bike to be stolen. I am scared. I remember my school is only three or four minutes away on my bike. I bike the short way to school and I lock my bike to the rack at school. The walk back to the restaurant is only a few minutes, so I walk the rest. When I get to the restaurant, Chris is sitting behind the counter on his phone. He asks why I have a helmet. I tell him I biked. He asks if I really biked all the way there and where my bike is. I say I live right up Washington and that it wasn’t bad. I avoid answering his question about where I parked my bike. I feel bad. I have no reason to be afraid of those men. I judged their character based on what they looked like. They don’t even seem to be like the men who stumble around outside the door, drunk. They were just black men hanging around.
I try to forget about it and lean on the counter. I ask him how often he works at the store. He tells me whenever he’s needed, so around five days a week. He asks about my job. I explain to him that I work in the Prudential, at a baby store. He asks if there are a lot of white people in the mall. I tell him it’s mostly white people. We talk about the products I sell and how much they cost.
“Why they buying them if you can get the same shit for cheaper?” he asks.
“We ain’t all thinking like that” is all I can say.
“That’s crazy,” he mumbles under his breath. I ask him if he’s doing anything for Easter. He tells me he’s probably going to church with his mom before Easter dinner. I ask him if he believes in God. He pulls a cross necklace from under his shirt out. “Of course I do,” he says.
The next time I go to the restaurant, I’m early. I stand outside the dark restaurant and wait for it to open up. It’s a chilly morning. The sky is gray, casting a darkness over the city. I’m dressed in black from head to toe. I clutch my leather jacket to my body to try and warm up. I wait outside for around 15 minutes. In that time four women stop and tell me I look beautiful. One man stops in front of me and gives me a once over. He’s wearing a blue t-shirt at least three sizes too big for him. His navy baseball cap is turned sideways on his bald head. I can see the once black hairs on his chin turning silver with age. He stumbles closer to me, and I can smell the alcohol on him.
“I know you’re too young for me,” he says. I smile, but I could feel the fear growing in me. I remind myself over and over again that nothing is going to happen to me. He won’t hurt me in public. He looks me over again before walking away. I consider leaving right then and there, but I did want to get the chance to talk to Chris again. I liked him and enjoyed talking to him. I decide to wait for at least another 5 minutes before leaving. I call a friend anyway, just in case anything does happen.
“I’m sharing my location with you right now. Track me?” I ask her.
“Don’t hang up,” I say. I talk to my friend and continue to wait for the restaurant to open up. Another man approaches me. He’s shorter than the first man. He’s wearing a dirty white t-shirt that nearly touches his knees. His jeans are baggy and are falling off his waist. He has a hat on backward, letting his small black dreads peek out of the sides.
“You ain’t supposed to be standing around here by yourself. I walked past two times to see if you still here. I got a little girl and I ain’t letting her stay around here by herself. Go on to where you supposed to be.” I nod, smile, and walk away.
When I see Chris the next day I tell him that I’d waited outside for him. He’s silent for a moment before mentioning that doing so was dangerous. I didn’t think of it being particularly dangerous, but he seems genuinely concerned. He apologizes for not telling me the store would be closed.
“You good?” he asks me.
“I’m fine, really. It’s okay,” I respond.
“Dudes around here really don’t care,” he says back. “Just a bunch of drunks,” he finishes as he goes to look at his phone. This meeting is shorter than the others. We don’t get the chance to get into deep conversation before I realize I have to be back at school in a few minutes. He offers me one last meal from the restaurant to go. I tell him it’s okay because it’s not my last meal from him.
Over my time with Chris Moretta, I was able to see strong dedication in everything he’s a part of. It was clear to me that he genuinely cares about the restaurant, his guests, his girlfriend, as well as the people around him. He consistently does everything in his power to ensure that the restaurant is at its best, and the people around him are happy and safe.