By Fr. Nicolaos Kotsis - Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I learned a lot of things working in the cafeteria. Some things had to do with the running of a kitchen. Some things had to do with dealing with co-workers (as in all the jobs I ever worked). Some things had to do with dealing with customers (disgruntled seminarians). Some things had to do with understanding people.
The main cook at the cafeteria for my first two years was a man named Kosta. He was a nice man. He stood about 5’5” tall. He had white, receding hair, slender build, light stubble (white) on his face, and pale blue eyes. He only spoke in Greek, but I’m sure he understood English. I don’t remember him wearing gloves (truthfully, at the time I wouldn’t have cared anyway) and he often ate while he was working. He also smoked a lot.
Kosta would come to work in the morning to get ready for lunch and then dinner (a couple of other guys came really early to prep for breakfast). The kitchen was on two levels and a dumbwaiter helped get things from the bottom level to the main level. Ninety-nine percent of my working time in the cafeteria was I the upper level – I only went to the lower level to punch in and for few things here and there.
One day, I was down in the lower level for some reason. Kosta was there stirring this huge cauldron of soup (at least I think it was soup and it was served as soup). He was talking in Greek to one of the Hispanic guys who worked there, Carlos. Carlos spoke with a mixture of Spanish and English that no one could understand well – yet these two seemed to be having a pleasant conversation…
The thing that struck me as Kosta was stirring that day was that he was smoking a cigarette. And it’s not that smoking that struck me so much as the length of the ash that was dangling from the end! I watched him for five minutes, with both of his hands stirring the pot, his mouth talking with the cigarette bouncing up and down, and I was entranced. I couldn’t wait for the ash to fall into the soup – I mean, it just had to being nearly the length of the cigarette! I even went over to Carlos and bet him that the ash would fall in the soup. I think he agreed, but I wasn’t certain; he just laughed, nodded, and pointed over towards Kosta.
To my disappointment, he didn’t lose the ash in the soup. He stopped stirring and threw the butt outside the door. I thought, “Man, that really takes some talent, and he kept the soup pristine!” When Carlos saw him throw the butt outside, he waved to me and laughed. I coughed up the dollar…
That evening, it was a bit slower in the cafeteria and I came out to sit down with a couple of my friends. I was in my apron and hat and sat down just as one of them was complaining about the food. Well, I couldn’t help it; I told them the story of Kosta smoking over the soup with a long ash that never fell in the soup. Three of the four friends laughed. One of my friends, a very fastidious fellow, didn’t like that story at all. He was irate that protocols were not being followed or that we would die from disease or, or, or…
I have been known to pull a prank from time to time.
My upset friend had a routine. After dinner, he would get up, get a cup of coffee or a tea, and come back to the table to eat dessert. He was like clockwork. When he arose to get his coffee, I noticed an olive pit on his plate. I quickly took it, grabbed his piece of cake, turned it upside down, and shoved the pit in there. And then, we all waited.
It's hard to keep a straight face when everyone is waiting for a known punchline.
My friend took his grand-old time with the cake. He had a small piece, sipped the coffee, joined the conversation, and then repeated this numerous times. That man took every piece around the pit, but not the pit itself. He turned the plate around as he ate, which left the center uneaten, and that’s where I had shoved the pit. Part of it was even sticking out on one side!
He seemed to take an extra-long time to eat that last piece, as if contemplating that last small portion of cake might put him over his caloric limit, when he finally reached for it and put it in his mouth.
In no time, he discovered the joke.
“Oh, man,” he said in a way Demosthenes would have appreciated, “what’s this!” And he pulled out the pit. “What is this!” he exclaimed even louder.
“Man, that looks like an olive pit!” I goaded.
“No way, it can’t be! I was just talking about cafeteria cleanliness!” he replied.
“Dude, that’s nasty,” said disgustingly by another friend in on the joke.”
My pitted friend looked at me and asked, “Does Kosta eat olives, too, when he cooks.”
“Well, I have seen him eat olives down there before,” I said in an sheepish way, as if I didn’t want to get Kosta in trouble, yet were required to tell the truth (it was true, however, as I mentioned early, Kosta did eat while working).
Like in a cartoon, I saw the red move from my friend’s neck all way to his forehead – I was just waiting for the whistle to blow out of his ears.
He got up from his seat and marched towards the counter area where Kosta was, with the determination of Captain Ahab. He immediately started shaking his arm at Kosta and yelled at him, blaming him for the olive pit in his cake. My poor friend was so angry, I don’t think Kosta understood a word, even if he knew English.
Kosta was not one to take things lightly. He started screaming back at my friend in Greek. Now both were yelling at each other in different languages, not even knowing what the other was saying. Both were throwing up their arms and yelling. Everyone in the cafeteria saw it and were shocked. My table had our arms on the table, hiding our bobbing heads, laughing inexorably.
When our friend turned around, he saw us peeking up from our arms, in hysterics. His countenance shifted at once as he started a smile and bent his head down in dejection. Not having come back to the table to find out what happened, he immediately apologized to Kosta. Kosta accepted it eagerly, and they parted on good terms, each in their own language.
He came back to the table and asked us, “Just tell me, did you at least take the pit from my plate?”
“Yeah, man, it was yours.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” he said as he sat down - and we all had another round of good laughs.
One of the things that was truly wonderful at the seminary, and there were quite a few despite the difficult times I mentioned the other day, were the friendships that began there. Hellenic College/Holy Cross is very small, and the students all know one another. Being immersed in a particular field of study, with a particular Orthodox ethos, lent itself to the creation of many beautiful friendships.
Many people leave the seminary as koumbaroi and best friends; it happened to me. But the reason that happens is because the life at the seminary is centered around Christ. Of course, no relationship is perfect, and all relationships need attention. But if we stay focused on Christ during our trials and tribulations, praise Him for our triumphs and success, and always give Him glory and thanksgiving, our lives will be eternally rich.
“You are My friends if you do whatever I command you... these things I command you, that you love one another.” (John 15:14,17) May these lines be the guiding principles in all our actions in our beloved communities (Ann Arbor and Nashville). Amen.