I was working the pub the night Jackson Browne came in to drink. The waiters upstairs in the restaurant saw the big limo pull up and double-park; those of us in the grotto below heard the twitters of the customers as Mr. Sensitive Folk-Rock himself came down the stairs, stopped, and cast his come-and-get-me-girls aura over the room. This wasnt unusual. We were the classiest college bar at the U of M - a small honor, no great distinction, but you could get a pitcher and a pizza, and for some reason the Rock Greats of America found their way to the Valli after a show. Or before: that summer I had given David Byrne two aspirin as he sat at the bar drinking coffee and watching a TV show about pygmies, trying to cast off a headache before the evening's performance. A holy moment in ones youthful life.
Jackson Browne, though: eh. When I saw a JB album in a new girlfriends record collection, it was always bad news. At that point in your dating life, musical incompatibility could sink the relationship. The moment you snapped do we have to make out to Chuck Mangione, it was over.
I didnt wait on Brownes table. Not my section. He sat in Debbies section, and she took his entourages order with a quivering hand. Beer and pizza! Big surprise.
You had to run up the back stairs to get the food, which came out of the main floor kitchen. The stairs were forbidden to customers. Now and then a patron would be too blotto to read the EMPLOYEES ONLY sign, and now and then a patron would get knocked down by someone bringing down six pizzas at Mach 2. It happened. Sorry, but it happened. Jackson Browne should be thankful it didnt happen to him. Why he took the stairs I dont know - looking for the can, probably. He got halfway up when a waiter standing at the top of the stairs said You cant come up there.
I was standing by the kitchen, waiting for the cook to dump the fries on the plate. I turned around to see Mehdi Mashad, the Sheik, the Panther of Persia, leaning against the wait station, staring down the stairs.
Do you know who I am? said Jackson Browne.
I don give a f**k who you are, Mehdi said, annoyed. You can come up the stairs."
You dont tug on Supermans cape; you dont spit into the wind; you dont pull rock-star rank on a bar-rush waiter.
No one came up the stairs. Mehdi grinned. Of course he knew who that guy was. That was the point.
The Iranians werent the most popular guys at the Valli. It was 1980, and not the best time to be Iranian in America; every night the TV at the end of the bar played the Nightline theme, and the words AMERICA HELD HOSTAGE drifted through the smoke and chatter, and we were all reminded, again. But most of the Iranians werent from Iran. They were Saudis, mostly. One crazy Libyan, a couple of Kuwaitis, scattered Yemenites, and a few fellows from the Shahs day. They all got lumped in the Iranian category, partly because the Valli clienteles understanding of the Middle East was rather remedial. The Iranians were from that part of the world that regarded us as the Great Satan, and most of them certainly acted like it here, so Iranians they were.
The exchange students who studied hard we never saw. The dozens of guys who spent their nights in the dorms or the library, we never knew. We got the buck-flush slackers. They had flashy cars; they had gold chains; they came into the bar swimming in Drakkar Noir, and they always took the last pool table in the back, smoking Marlboro 100s and acting like they owned the joint, or should, or would soon. The worst of the batch courted our contempt, and nearly every weekend night I expected Vern to crack a pool cue across someones head. Vern had the Elvis gene. Vern walked with one shoulder a little lower than the other; he had a spitcurl and a slight sneer to his smile. You wanted to stay on Verns good side. Once or twice words got hot, and thats where Mo would step in; he was a tiny Kuwaiti with an ageless face, a nasal voice, and comically oversized glasses. He took money off everyone in the pool hall - Vern and Mo must have passed the same 20 dollar bill back and forth a dozen times a week.
We always wondered just what Mo said to the Iranians, but it worked. No fights. No brawls. Hard looks and bad feelings, but never anything worse.
Mo knew a guy: Mehdi. Hed hang around in the back, but he never seemed interested confining himself to the last table. He played pinball, which brought him into a different circle. Thats where I got to know Mehdi - waiting our turn on a four-man game at Mata Hari or some other Bally table in the basement of the bar. He said he was from Iran. He pronounced it differently than Ted Koppel.
One day he appeared upstairs in the restaurant, wearing the Valli uniform. It was always a shock to see someone jump from bar patron to a member of the waitstaff; few made the transition successfully. Theyd find out that waiting tables was hard work, and theyd quit. Theyd slip some free food to friends, and theyd be fired. Natural waiters are rare, and finding one in the ragtag mob of patrons in a college-town beer pub is almost impossible, really. But Mehdi was a natural waiter.
Because Mehdi had cool. Nonchalance was in his bones - crack them open and hed have freon for marrow. He had a horrible temper at times, and moments of bleak despair, but mostly Mehdis mode could be summed up in a hungover shrug. Women loved him. He was a good-looking guy; neatly-trimmed beard, olive-skin, Pepsodent grin, eyes that made Pacino look like Wally Cox. His long-time girlfriend Terri was almost a parody of the Middle-Eastern exchange-students fantasy strumpet: blonde, brassy, blue-eyed, and built. Every restaurant has its glamour couple, and for a while they were ours.
So picture this guy in '82, leaning back in the brown banquette of a college restaurant, smoking a Marlboro 100, speech a little loose from the evenings grog, telling us all that he is going home to Iran to be part of the new society Khomeini is building. He is a great man, he said. A great man.
We were stunned. Mehdi was a secular man, utterly at home in the West; hed never seemed to think America was the Great Satan. If anything it was the Fabulous Satan, the Incredibly Great Satan, a place that gave him credit cards and a job, a place to go to school, friends of all creed and hue, and pinball to boot. Now he was going back there, back to the place of shaking fists and surging mobs and banners demanding Death to America. Death, in other words, to us.
No one argued; his country, his culture, his choice. We didnt take it personally, I guess. We all liked Mehdi.
He left without the usual send-off. People from the Valli often made dramatic departures for other parts of the world - aka Wisconsin - and we always gathered in the pub, bought them drinks, gave them gifts, told the usual lies about keeping in touch. Most of the people who left drifted back after a year or two, but one day we realized hed gone - evaporated, really. It was the sort of departure that let you know he wouldnt be back.
Terri worked at the Valli for a while after that, then she left as well. I saw her a few years later when she returned, on leave, in an Army Officers uniform.
She hadnt heard a word.
I hope he made it. I hope hes still alive. Hed be out on the end of the dock of his forties by now, probably pot-bellied with a slash of gray hair. Perhaps he took over his fathers business, which hed cryptically described as an import-export operation. Im sure there were days when he was sitting in the office during the war, wondering when the next missile would hit, wishing he was back at the Valli with a cold Pabst in one hand and a pool cue in the other, asking himself again what the hell he had been thinking. And there were no doubt spring days when he remembered Minnesota winters, and blessed himself for heading home. Most of all I wonder if he remembers all of us, and wonders if we remember him. We surely do. Once a year when Im with my old friends the talk turns to the Valli, and we do roll call. Mehdis name is one of the first.
I hope he has kids. And I wonder if one of the bloggers from Iran whose page I read might be his daughter or son, or a friend of someone who knows them. I wonder if one of Mehdis children has joined the crowds on the street, asking only for the simple liberties their father enjoyed when he was a young man in America.
I go back to the site of the Valli once a year. It would be too much to ask to run into Mehdi and family some year, wouldnt it? To see him saying right here, I told Mick Jagger to sit down and shut up, and his kids rolling their eyes, and his wife looking around with a critical eye: this is that place you talk about? This? But it would be sweet. Shake their hands, say hello, ask how life in Iran feels, now that the long night of the mullahs is over.
Hed probably shrug. Ask them, hed say, and nod towards his kids: sitting in the booth where hed announced his departure a quarter century before. Theyd be firing up their laptops to blog their dads visit to America.
Why not? Everyone was doing it.
For more information on Iranian bloggers, and the fight for freedom in Persia, youll never go wrong by following Jeff Jarvis links. I assume Instapundit will have more on the July 9 Iran / Blog project, as well as the Corner.
Crossed fingers; high hopes.