hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

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July 11, 2013

The language of our time

I recall as a youth working the counter of my dad’s luncheonette and greeting customers as they arrived.

Whether it was a simple cup of coffee or eggs over hash, I filled the orders diligently and with a smile.

Dad had one piece of advice. “The customer is always right.”

“Even when they’re wrong?” I’d question.

“You don’t argue,” he replied. “If he doesn’t come back, who loses?”

Dad had a point. We needed his service more than he needed ours. The place drew its regulars as well as its transients.

One day, a total stranger sat on the stool looking like a derelict. I gave him the once-over twice and took his order. He requested the works, easily a $3 fare. Back then, of course, a cup of coffee went for a dime and it was 5 cents for a doughnut.

Our family had a secret code. We communicated in Armenian whenever we wanted to hide something from our clientele. Armenian was our chosen language at home and we carried it into the business.

My father minced no words when it came to getting his message across. “Watch this man,” he said in Armenian. “He may be looking to fool you. Make sure you get paid.”

“Before serving him the meal? That’s a little embarrassing, don’t you think, Pa?”

“Not when he escapes without paying for his dinner. If that happens, I’ll take it out of your earnings since you waited on him.”

Just then, the unthinkable occurred. The diner slapped his hand on the counter in anger and introduced himself as an Armenian.

He understood every word and took us to task for what was said. He put $5 on the counter, wanted his change back, gave me no tip and left saying, “Don’t expect me back. You’ve ridiculed me in our language.”

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